The sociologists say that the events of one decade are a prelude to the next. In the 60s, 76 million boomers pounded at the doors of the status quo; small cracks appeared. In the 70s the doors and the walls came tumbling down... and all hell broke lose. On this page, we're going to describe how the 60s gave way to the wretched excesses of the 70s. Hang on, folks; we're in for a bumpy ride!
In the 60s we watched and learned from "Leave it to Beaver," and "Father Knows Best." The westerns were amazingly tame. The Lone Ranger never killed anybody. Usually he shot the gun out of the bad guy's hand. You never saw any blood.
But in the 70s, the networks tossed us "The Brady Bunch," a blended family, and "The Partridge Family." I'm not sure what they were, but they weren't partridges, and they certainly were not the nuclear family that prevailed for the first 60 years of the decade. Archie Bunker exposed all of his prejudices... right on the screen for us. And "The Jefferson's" introduced an interracial couple to television. And in "Three's Company," nobody was married (except for the fuddy-duddy Ropers). We were led to believe the young adults were just roommates. But sexual innuendo that you would not have ever seen in the 60s, permeated every episode of "Three's Company." It was a complete reversal of the 60s.
In the 60s, comedian George Carlin performed a 10-minute comedy sketch about the seven dirty words you could not say on television or radio. The boomer society whittled that down to about two or three in the 70s.
In the mid-to-late 60s, many kids began wearing bellbottom pants. They let their hair grow long; they wore flowers in their hair. Kid's stuff compared to the 70s.
In the 70s, many kids wore platform shoes and paisley shirts. Blacks, including Jesse Jackson, grew beards mustaches and wore afros. The bizarre even went mainstream: leisure suits became standard attire for some adults; we wore those horrible, wide ties, and even ABC News dude Sam Donaldson grew long, thick sideburns; and his superiors let him get away with it. What in the world were they thinking of?
The sexual revolution may have been born in the 60s, but it came of age in the 70s. In the 60s, good girls did not do it; and if they did, they did not talk about it. And if a girl "got in trouble," she either went away for several months, or she forced the father into what our parents called a "shotgun wedding." That is how it was done. Very few adults lived under the same roof unless they were members of the same family. The term "family" had a distinct and clear definition. The birth control pill was not readily available, and abortion was still illegal. You were likely to be suspended if you were caught with a condom in school. But the Supreme Court sanctified the sexual revolution by declaring abortion to be legal in the early 70s. And the birth control pill opened the floodgates to sex without consequence - or guilt. By the mid 70s, adults and teens were living together... because they could, and nobody frowned on them for doing so. There was no such thing as "living in sin," because there was no sin. The phrase of the 70s was "Do your own thing."
When I was a freshman at college in the late 60s, the girls had a curfew. If they were going away for the weekend, they had to sign out with their dorm supervisor. Really! And no guys were allowed past the lobby of the girls' dorms. But by the time I was a senior (at another university) in the early 70s, the philosophy was something just slightly to the left of "whoopee." Guys were supposed to sign in and out as they visited the girls' dorms, and were supposed to have an escort. That's what the university told the parents. But in fact, we learned to scoff at authority as we came and went at our pleasure. (And believe me, there was a lot of pleasure - so I was told.) The rules were for suckers. And there were few suckers where I went to school. (I, of course, was one of them.)
In 1976, President Jimmy Carter admitted that he had lusted in his heart, but he asked his staff members to grow up and get married.
I guess astrology has been with us for centuries. But it reached a new high in the 70s. The standard pickup line was, "What's your sign?" And we bought all that stuff. Uri Geller made a fortune convincing people that he could bend spoons with his mind. The 70s proved that P.T. Barnum was right.
Suspicion and intrigue replaced facts in the 70s. Conspiracy theorists began to convince us that Lee Harvey Oswald did not shoot President Kennedy, that James Earl Ray did not shoot Dr. Martin Luther King, and that Sirhan Sirhan did not shoot Robert Kennedy, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The U.S. Congress helped in this effort, too. In the late 70s, they conducted hearings and found portions of a tape recording from a police radio in Dealy Plaza on November 22, 1963 that suggested the presence of a second gunman. This was actually an ego trip for several congressmen running for re-election. And never mind that later evidence proved that the radio signals showed nothing at all. Apparently we wanted to believe the ridiculous. Many Americans honestly believed that the moon landings were events staged by NASA in an abandoned airplane hanger in Arizona. The truth was too often white shirts and straight pants. The conspiracies were paisley shirts and bellbottoms. We preferred the later in the 70s.
But we were into public confession in the 70s, too. First lady Betty Ford admitted that she had been addicted to pain killers, and had been a little tipsy on more than one occasion. Later, she got a face lift, and proudly showed it to everyone. And then she told the story of her breast cancer. But this candor spawned a huge excess of confession that made careers for Oprah, Geraldo, and Jerry Springer in the 80s and 90s. As Jimmy Durante said, "Everybody wants in on de act." Berry Ford did it with class. Very few others did.
In the 60s, the songs and the lyrics were generally gentle... or sometimes just goofy. The artists sang of love, but only implied physical contact. And when they dealt with love, it was in the context of a true, complete, and permanent relationship. The Beach Boys still wore suits and ties, or matching outfits, when they performed. In contrast, at Woodstock (in 1969), some performers wore little or nothing at all. This set the tone for the music performers of the 70s.
Acid rock and hard rock music took hold in the 70s. Hard rocker Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose in 1970. But where she left off, there were dozens more to take her place. MTV was born in the 70s. In the 60s, rock musicians composed music to be heard, to be sung. But in the 70s, they composed it to be seen. Elton John is indeed a talented songwriter. But in the 70s he gained his fame by his outrageous clothing and jewelry as much as his music. The words mattered less, sometimes not at all.
Beer was the popular stimulant in the early 60s. A few kids were puffing marijuana by the end of the decade, but far fewer than you might have been led to believe.
But by the 70s, there was a shopping cart of illegal drugs available to boomers. And the fact that they were illegal made them more appealing, but no less available. Twenty years later, mainstream politicians admit that they used illegal drugs in the 70s - not in the 60s. It is not true that "everybody did it"; but a heck of a lot of boomers did. Over half of us? Perhaps. But that still leaves 35 million who did not.
America decided it had had enough of Vietnam in the 70s. Richard Nixon's "Vietnamization" strategy was a military failure, but it did give him a diplomatic way to withdraw American troops from southeast Asia. So after the death of 50,000 Americans, the war ended, the prisoners came home, and South Vietnam fell to the communists. But the wounds of that war have yet to heal, a quarter of a century later. There are 76 million boomers who will remember the Vietnam War disaster till the day they die.
Popular movies in the 60s were "The Sound of Music," "Mary Poppins," and "West Side Story." There was nary a single 4-letter word in "West Side Story," a modern version of Romeo and Juliet. (By comparison, a 90s movie "Romeo and Juliet" has guns blaring and blood squirting from beginning to end. Death is right out there for everyone to see... and admire. Kip Kinkel, who killed his parents and shot 20 of his classmates, was mesmerized by the 90s version of "Romeo and Juliet." But I'm getting ahead of myself.)
The 70s gave us "The Godfather," "Dirty Harry," "Death Wish"... and "Deep Throat." Death, blood and guts, and sex... was right out there, for all to see. Nothing was left to the imagination. Discretion was not the better part of valor; there was no discretion... and precious little valor.
President Nixon imposed wage and price controls in the early 70s when the inflation rate soared to an outrageous annual rate of three percent. The federal budget was balanced in 1971, though. That would not happen again for another 25 years. By the end of the 70s, double-digit inflation had clobbered Jerry Ford's WIN (Wip Inflation Now) program, and sealed the fate of President Jimmy Carter, lust and all. President Carter was defeated, in part, because the federal deficit had gotten out of control.
Despite the turmoil over the Clinton presidency, the election of 2000, and the acquittal of O. J. Simpson, we live in very tranquil times, compared to the 70s. The United States took a tough beating on the stage of world opinion in the 1970s - perhaps for good reason. Shortly after the American pullout of Vietnam, Canadian broadcaster Gordon Sinclair got fed up with the abuse being poured at the United States, and jotted down a short defense of his neighbor to the south for his daily commentary on CFRB in Toronto. The essay struck a chord all across North America, and within a few months, hundreds of thousands of copies of "The Americans" had been sold; profits went to the American Red Cross. It was a wonderful boost to our morale, just when we needed it. You can read the text of "The Americans" here.
In the mid 1950s, the earliest boomers witnessed the birth of rock n' roll. One of our first idols was the star who became the king, Elvis Presley. In 1977, the king died as a result years of overindulgence and self-abuse. It was, perhaps, a fitting way, if certainly not a glorious way, for us to mark the end of rock n' roll as we had known it.
This, then, defines the 70s.
As I look back on it, it appears to me that 76 million teenagers coming of age was too strong a force to resist. We represented 40% of the population, and we were used to getting what we wanted. So our parents saw that they could not keep things as they were. There were just too many of us. And television spread the word too quickly. Life and society would not stay as it had been. We had too much leisure time, too much money, and there were simply too many of us. So we did what we wanted. The result... was the 70s.
But, as Paul Harvey likes to say, excesses are usually their own undoing. Thirty years later, we are still undoing.
BBHQ Boomer-in-Charge Hershel Chicowitz always has something to say, offering a boomer perspective on current events:
In This Week with the Chicowitz,
This week, a mystery guest writer explaines why he wants to be 6 again:
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