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What’s there to love about the ’70s?

The ’70s suffer from an image problem. But what do you expect when you offer up a variety show hosted by mimes? By Joel Stitzel.
/ Source: Special to

Consider the standard image of the ’70s Dude. It’s usually some goofus in an Afro-style fright wig, clad in an eye-searing flyaway-collar shirt, gigantic kick-flare bell-bottoms, and five-inch platform shoes, flashing a peace sign while busting some kind of exaggerated disco move in front of a hot pink background with smiley faces all over it. C’mon, that’s just silly. Smiley faces at the disco?

While each of those elements was undoubtedly on display on various folks and in various locales during different parts of the ’70s, you’d be hard-pressed to find them all together at once. (OK, maybe on “Soul Train,” but even that’s kinda pushing it.)

The ’70s suffer from an image problem, victim of the cynical marketing shorthand that condenses an entire decade’s cultural production into a couple of hundred songs played into the ground on oldies radio, or a dozen TV series that are rerun ad nauseam because that’s what audiences are supposed to want.

VH1’s new cultural-history series, “I Love The ’70s,” (premiering tonight, 9 p.m. ET) will do much to flesh out people’s memories of the Me Decade.

You may think the ’70s were all Afros, ABBA, and “All In the Family.” But things start to get kinda freaky when you dig deeper into the alphabet.

The look
Sure, some people wore bell-bottoms and grew their hair long, but what could be more ’70s than a leisure suit? Developed as a bridge between a dressed-down, modern office and a dressed-up, swinging home, the leisure suit was a garish, ill-fitting, pocket-laden getup, usually constructed out of the new petroleum-based miracle fabric, polyester. Leisure suits never caught on at the office, but they were eagerly adopted by professional athletes, the elderly, and high school kids attending awards ceremonies.

The women’s leisure suit equivalent, the pantsuit, was a bit more evolutionarily successful. Pantsuits have stuck around to this day, but let’s be truthful — they’re just as ridiculous now as they were 30 years ago. If you’re wearing a pantsuit, you might as well be displaying one of those crazy peace signs.

Heck, the peace sign was an anachronism even by the mid-’70s, a cynical throwback to the groovy ’60s, as well as a bitter reminder of war. Peace and love had been rendered obsolete by the first sweeping American cultural invention of the ’70s: nostalgia.

Reliving the past had formerly been the province of crusty old geezers who hung out at the firehouse, muttering “23 skidoo” and cursing the horseless carriage, but at the start of the ’70s, the whole nation caught ’50s fever, and thanks to “Happy Days” and “American Graffiti,” people young and old started shouting “Aaaaaay!” and “Sit on it!”

Fifties nostalgia had something for everybody: kids thought the Fonz was cool, young adults liked remembering the days when they didn’t have to pay the bills, and their parents liked remembering the days of short haircuts and respect for authority.

Anything was better than things as they were. Shoot, Lawrence Welk and “The Grand Old Opry” were still on the tube, and Elvis and Paul Anka were still on the charts, so it was easy to slip back into the ’50s. Because, at least on the radio and on the TV, some parts of the ’50s had never really gone away.

The tube
Still, when talking ’70s TV, we can’t forget the variety show, a form of entertainment that sprouted in the late ’60s but really came into its own (some might say mutated) in the ’70s.

Nowadays, hipsters laugh at Super Bowl halftime shows and Academy Awards production numbers, but in the Johnson and Nixon eras, nothing spelled Wholesome Family Entertainment like a bunch of struggling actor/dancers in coordinating costumes frolicking about behind a B-list celebrity massacring a contemporary pop song to studio orchestra accompaniment.

Everybody who wanted to have all-age appeal had to dress up in garish costumes, stumble through unfunny comedy routines, and sing and dance like Broadway hoofers. Sonny and Cher, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Carol Burnett ruled the roost, but shows hosted by the Captain and Tennille, Flip Wilson, Tom Jones, even the Starland Vocal Band, were also popular. (Well, maybe not the Starland Vocal Band.) Don’t forget Shields and Yarnell, who gave us a variety show hosted by mimes.

The tunes
Above all else, there’s the music. Too darn many people believe ’70s music equals disco. To paint the entire decade with the disco brush is to ignore the ’70s many other contributions to the musical spectrum: glam, heavy metal, and soft rock, to name a few.

Sure, major proponents of each genre eventually tried to jump on the disco bandwagon (Bowie’s “Golden Years,” KISS’ “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, and Seals & Crofts’ “You’re The Love”), but many of those efforts were just desperation-fueled attempts to stay relevant at the end of the decade.

Classic rock radio is 75 percent ’70s music, and the closest you’re going to get to disco on one of those stations is Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” (which was, strangely enough, actually a dance hit; go figure).

Sadly, radio’s canon of ’70s music has already been established, and only archivists are going to be equipped to enjoy more than a few hundred of the decade’s songs from here on in. As went the ’50s and ’60s, so go the ’70s. Right on, everybody; time to boogie down.

When Americans look back on the decades that made up the 20th century, some periods certainly fare better than others in popular opinion. We may celebrate the Roaring Twenties and the Swinging ’60s as cultural high-water marks, but these days even the war-torn and influenza-wracked Teens have a better reputation than the clownish, benighted ’70s.

And that’s a shame, because ’70s pop culture — including clothing, music, and television — was a lot more interesting and varied than you may have been led to believe. In the ’70s, it became cool to live in the past, so why not dig a little deeper, and give it a try?

Joel Stitzel lives in Minneapolis, where he hosts ‘Cosmic Slop’, a radio show dedicated to ’60s and ’70s pop music obscurities.