BOOK REVIEW: Vinyl Dreams: How the 1970s Changed Music

By Tony Wellington

Monash University Publishing, $36.99

The fabled 1960s conjure some combination of idealism, collectivism, a popular music explosion, Civil Rights, the pill, Vietnam, adventurousness in other arts and mind-altering drugs. The 1970 demise of The Beatles came just as the idealism began to wane, and selfishness and narcissism slithered back out from beneath drug culture, pop music, business and politics, to take centre stage once more.

Tony Wellington’s engrossing 2021 book, Freak Out, subtitled How a Musical Revolution Rocked the World in the Sixties, contained endless insights into the ways music, politics and sociology cross-pollinated each another, and was replete with insightful anecdotes about the making of certain records and pearls of critical wisdom.

It was a hard act – a hard decade! – to follow. Vinyl Dreams is subtitled How the 1970s Changed Music, and that difference in subtitles, from music being an active agent of transformation to being passive, is telling. Despite this, Wellington mounts the case that this decade actually saw popular music reach “its apogee of creativity” – which is certainly true in terms of the sheer diversity. Psychedelic, progressive, blues, soul, jazz, funk, heavy metal, country and folk versions of rock all carried over from 1969, before glam, retro, reggae, punk, new wave, disco, electronic, Afro, rap and whatever the hell you call ABBA made their appearance. As Wellington says, by the end of the decade, the seeds of every subsequent sub-genre were sown.

In Freak Out, he closely intertwined music with everything from the protest movement to economics and the relaxing of sexual mores. He does that less so in Vinyl Dreams because they were less intertwined in reality, but also because there is simply much more music to cover, given the recording industry doubled in size every five years during this decade.

With so many more artists and records to locate in the scheme of things, an inevitable upshot is that Wellington spends less time on individual albums and events. A particular delight of Freak Out was the forensic dissection of what the author deemed especially important, including The Beatles’ 1964 Australian tour and Sergeant Pepper’s album and the film The Graduate. In Vinyl Dreams he offers briefer in-depth assessments of works by artists including Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Robert Wyatt, Frank Zappa, The Who and Kate Bush.

Despite their relative brevity, these deeper appraisals are still the book’s highlights, and perhaps should have been prioritised in terms of space over attempting to be so encyclopaedic. Certainly, his referencing chart positions and sales figures often seems excessive compared with the discussion of artistic merit – although his point is partly the very dichotomy between popularity and merit, with Wellington rightly scathing about the worst examples of progressive rock, punk and disco.

Led Zeppelin. Photo: courtesy of Atlantic Records,

The author’s taste inevitably colours his judgement, and that taste will rile some readers and amuse others. It can seem a nudge hidebound, as when he finds so little of worth from The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Roxy Music, for instance, with Bruce Springsteen not faring much better. With the Stones and Zeppelin, their most obnoxious behaviour and sexist lyrics draw Wellington’s scorn as much as their music. But to condemn bygone songwriters for what are now clearly seen as sexist lyrics would be to castigate much of the 120-year blues movement – and much popular music, period.

As the title suggests, Wellington’s assessments are almost entirely based on records rather than live performances, which colours his perceptions, too, given so many bands were better in the flesh. The Australian scene, for instance, is covered with an overemphasis on those like Little River Band and Air Supply that cracked the US market, while he skates across the thrilling phase when such pub-rock bands as Cold Chisel, The Angels and Midnight Oil burst out into our biggest venues.

But Wellington’s genial tone is never holier-than-thou, and by nature Vinyl Dreams’ will arouse discussion and dissent. His research is commendable, his illuminations manifold and his love for music palpable. Read it, and have your own private argument with him.