Monday, March 1, 2021

Review: 'Rock Me on the Water: 1974—the Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics '

I’ve always considered 1974 to be a low-water mark for pop culture. The year’s central sound was the bland MOR rock wafting out of Los Angeles. So I was curious to read Ronald Brownstein’s new book Rock Me on the Water: 1974—the Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics not because I’m interested in the pop culture of ’74 but because I wanted to know why anyone would select that year for examination.

There’s no question that the year Watergate blew up and Nixon resigned was politically crucial, but Brownstein mostly steers away from politics aside from occasionally checking in with California’s aspiring governor Jerry Brown. The author’s decision to limit his scope to LA is an issue with a book that is already limited by the creative fatigue of the year it examines. British artists such as John Cale, King Crimson, Genesis, and Roxy Music, who all did great work in 1974, get left out. That leaves chapters on the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt: an uninteresting cast of characters making dull music. Because of that LA-focus, Matos’s look at film doesn’t do much Peter Biskind hadn’t already did with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

By far the most engrossing chapters in Rock Me on the Water deal with the year in television, though 1974 is more significant as a breaking point than a creative peak since the shows Brownstein examines—All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show— had all been on the air for several years by ’74. The year is only significant because it ended with federal regulations designed to scale back what was permissible on TV, hampering the development of more adult shows and paving the way for piffle like Happy Days and Three’s Company. The discussion is still fascinating, particularly when Brownstein gets into the strides women made behind television cameras during this period, and his writing is engaging enough that even the less vital chapters on music and film are highly readable. I’m still not sure why he specifically chose 1974 though.

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