July 1971: The Summer When Rock Grew Up
Music fans typically survey rock history linearly or chronologically: First, there was Elvis, then the Beatles, then the Summer of Love … and so on.
But that’s not really how life works. When artists are creating, they're usually looking at and reacting to what’s happening around them now, not necessarily what happened before them.
With that in mind, our below look at July 1971: The Summer When Rock Grew Up zeroes in on that particular time: Who was doing what? Where were they doing it? And why were they doing it?
As you'll see, it was a summer of excess and change, as well as a summer of groundbreaking music that still matters a half-century later.
Rock Excess in France
Any examination of classic rock during the summer of 1971 has to start with a look at what was going on with two of rock’s greatest legends, both of whom happened to be searching for their joie de vivre in France.
Jim Morrison, the Doors' enigmatic singer, finished recording L.A. Woman in March 1971 and announced to his band that he would be taking some time off and moving to Paris with his girlfriend for a brief sabbatical.
Morrison had taken the rock 'n' roll lifestyle to the extreme, supposedly drinking more than 30 beers a day during recording and gaining much weight. No longer feeling like the Lizard King, he planned to take some time off, get clean and lose some of those extra pounds. His bandmates agreed it was a good idea. The singer's time in Paris was happy, with lots of walks and quality time with Pamela Courson.
But on the night of July 2, things took a turn for the worst. Nobody besides Courson really knows what happened, but the generally accepted story is that Morrison overdosed on heroin and died in the bathtub of their rented apartment. And just like that one of rock's most famous frontmen joined the “27 Club,” dying at the same age Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had the previous year.
Keith Richards certainly would have read the news of Morrison’s death from his new home 400 miles due south of Paris, possibly from the porch of Villa Nellcote, which overlooked the Mediterranean Sea. The Rolling Stones were now residents of France, exiles who evacuated England earlier in the year to escape extreme tax laws. Sticky Fingers was at the top of the charts across the world, and it was time to start thinking about their next album. After evaluating the studio options in the south of France where they were living, the Stones ultimately decided that using their mobile recording truck to transform the massive home Richards was renting would best serve their purposes.
Recording of Exile on Main St. kicked off in July; the stories would soon become legendary. “People appeared, disappeared, no one had a last name, you didn't know who anybody was," remembered Rolling Stone's Robert Greenfield. "There were 16 people for lunch, and lunch went on for three and a half hours. It was an unparalleled cast of characters."
Listen to the Rolling Stones' 'Tumbling Dice' From 'Exile on Main St.'
Parties with John Lennon, Anita Pallenberg, Bianca Jagger, Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys and former Byrds member Gram Parsons would last late into the night, and only then would the band make its way down to the basement to begin recording. “Upstairs, it was fantastic – like Versailles,” Richards told GQ in 2010. “But down there … it was Dante’s Inferno.”
The sounds of Exile reflect the excess and disorientation of a band adrift: “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me,” sings Mick Jagger on the opening track, "Rocks Off." Richards dipped deep into heroin at the time and would often sleep through recording sessions. Despite raids by French authorities, the Stones would continue recording Exile at a snail's pace, until summer eventually ended and France began to lose its charm.
Listen to the Rolling Stones' 'Rocks Off' From 'Exile on Main Street'
Rock Grows Up
Meanwhile across the pond, July 1971 was shaping up to be the month where rock artists began to reach “dinosaur” status. In a symbolic changing of the guard, two legendary small rock venues shut their doors just one week before the largest arena sellout in history.
Bill Graham’s Fillmore West in San Francisco and Fillmore East in New York both opened in 1968 and hosted some of the most mythical concerts in rock history, including Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead. The Fillmores were the place to catch top bands in a relatively intimate setting – both clubs held less than 3,000 people, and staff members considered themselves family.
Still, Graham was an astute businessman and could see the writing on the wall: Concerts were getting bigger, and the industry was changing. The final concert at Fillmore East took place on June 27, 1971, with the all-star lineup concluding with one of Graham’s favorites, the Allman Brothers Band. A week later, the Fillmore West hosted its final night on July 4, with a lineup of San Francisco psychedelic mainstays: Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead.
Listen to the Jam Session That Closed the Fillmore West
Rock music had always had a rabid fan base, but by 1971 the business end of it was starting to notice its money-making potential. Bands like Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Pink Floyd and the Who were getting too big for clubs like the Fillmores, and they needed the largest venues possible. They needed stadiums and arenas.
On July 9, the same week the Fillmore West closed, Detroit rockers Grand Funk Railroad sold out Shea Stadium to an audience larger than the Beatles had in 1965. Tickets sold out in 72 hours, faster than any act before them. Grand Funk arrived by helicopter and strolled to the stage accompanied by "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (better knows as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Grand Funk Railroad hadn't scored any huge hits up to this point, which made their achievement even more triumphant. Insiders began imaging what size audiences a massive band like the Rolling Stones could draw if they ever finished whatever they were doing in France.
Watch Grand Funk Railroad Perform at Shea Stadium in 1971
The Beatles Turn a Page
At the same time, the “band that changed the world” was still making waves, even though it had disbanded the previous year. All four former Beatles had released solo albums and were charting distinct paths by the end of 1970.
But July 1971 marked a season of change that would have effects on the former bandmates' relationships for years to come - especially the one between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were finally airing their grievances.
Listen to Paul McCartney's 'Too Many People'
McCartney's second album, Ram, is now regarded as an eclectic, earthy pop masterpiece. But at the time of its release in late May 1971, it was viewed as irrelevant fluff, even as some listeners heard jabs at Lennon in the track "Too Many People."
In his song "How Do You Sleep?," Lennon countered, saying his former bandmate's new tunes were “Muzak to my ears.” “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead," he sings.
Pushing the knife in even deeper, Lennon recruited George Harrison to play slide guitar on the song, a highlight of his 1971 album Imagine.
Listen to John Lennon's 'How Do You Sleep?'
But Harrison’s concerns were more worldly than Lennon’s that summer. In July, following the Imagine sessions, Harrison flew to New York City to organize what would become the first major benefit show, the Concert for Bangladesh.
The guitarist's friend and mentor Ravi Shankar had told him about the despair and poverty surrounding the newly independent state of Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of Bengalis had lost their lives because of a cyclone and mass killings by the Pakistani army. Starvation and disease were now taking their toll on people who were pretty much ignored by the western world. Harrison and Shankar hoped an all-star concert could raise enough money to help bring attention to their plight.
Watch Bob Dylan Perform During the Concert for Bangladesh
Harrison managed to get commitments from Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, and Leon Russell throughout July. Lennon initially signed on, too, but when he was asked to perform “without [wife] Yoko [Ono],” he pulled out two days before the concert. McCartney also declined to take part, citing “bad feelings." In the end, the Concert for Bangladesh, which happened on Aug. 1, was a success, selling out Madison Square Garden and becoming a model for every future benefit concert after it.
Fifty years later, excess, sold-out arena tours and celebrity charity gigs are now standards in the music industry. But in July 1971, rock was just starting to hit its stride.