Written By: Steve Rushin

LIFE’s brand new special issue Celebrate the 70s, a lively romp in photos and words, is available for purchase here.

If you were a child in the 1970s, and Vietnam and Watergate were just background buzzwords on the AM radio as you sat—unbuckled—in your father’s wood-paneled station wagon, the decade could seem like one continuous, cloud-swept “sunny day,” to borrow the lyrical phrase that opened every episode of Sesame Street. 

It wasn’t, of course, and for stretches of the ’70s, that station wagon had to idle in a long line at a gas station as a newscaster droned on about oil embargoes and OPEC. Despite this, or possibly because of it, the yellow smiley-face icon—invented in the 1960s by a man named Harvey Ball, and later appropriated and marketed with the phrase “Have a Happy Day”—became ubiquitous in the 1970s. Long before emojis, that smiley face appeared on T-shirts and coffee mugs and bumper stickers that reminded children riding shotgun in the family land-yacht: “Have a Happy Day.”

Happy Days, the No. 1 program on American TV in the mid-1970s, became so popular that Henry Winkler, who played its breakout character Fonzie, was stopped on the street in Manhattan by an astonished fan from England. “The Fonz!” said a starstruck Paul McCartney in greeting the actor. In doing so, the coolest man of 1967 passed a metaphorical baton on a Lexington Avenue sidewalk to the coolest man of 1977.

That same summer in New York, there was a 23-hour blackout that kicked off city-wide riots, looting, and arson, and a serial killer named Son of Sam was on the loose. Yet in much of the country the prevailing mood of the ’70s somehow remained “C’mon Get Happy,” as expressed in the theme song for the hugely popular Partridge Family, whose TV rivals on The Brady Bunch performed a hit of their own called “Sunshine Day.” 

Much of this nominal happiness in the so-called Me Decade—a phrase coined in a seminal essay by author Tom Wolfe—was in the service of self-improvement and ecological awakening. “The pursuit of happiness is a planet whose resources are devoted to the physical and spiritual nourishment of its inhabitants,” said President Jimmy Carter. And indeed, Carter’s own rise to the presidency from a peanut farm in Plains, Georgia, represented a clean break from Richard Nixon and the endless scandal of Watergate. Carter, elected in 1976, was caricatured for his oversize smile and his bib-overalled brother, Billy, who flogged his own brand of beer and who earned, by dint of $5,000 personal-appearance fees, more than the President did. “Billy’s making so much money, he’s financing a pipeline to Milwaukee,” said Johnny Carson, conjuring a beer pipeline to rival the newly opened Alaskan oil pipeline. Carson’s nightly monologue on The Tonight Show gave buoyancy to the weighty news of the day, putting millions of Americans to sleep with a smile. 

And so, perhaps, did The Joy of Sex, which was published in 1972 and remained on the New York Times best-seller list until 1974. It sold 12 million copies worldwide in a decade that was slightly louche, gold-chained, hairy-chested, wide-lapeled. In many ways, the ’70s aren’t preserved in amber so much as entombed in a block of cheese. The decade didn’t take itself terribly seriously, and at times it couldn’t take itself seriously, given its much-loved signature kitsch: lime-green leisure suits, appliances in colors of avocado and harvest gold, the AMC Gremlin subcompact car, shag carpeting, Pet Rocks, the Bermuda Triangle, the disaster films of Irwin Allen, Jell-O molds and casseroles, white belts and white loafers and white suits like the one John Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever, or the white suits worn by the storm troopers in Star Wars. Think of the Houston Oilers’ Billy (White Shoes) Johnson as he danced in the Astrodome end zone on Monday Night Football; or the white outfits worn by the Hudson Brothers on their Saturday morning kids’ show, The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show; or the white spikes worn by the Oakland A’s, who won three World Series and came to be known as the Swingin’ A’s.

In the swingin’ ’70s, nothing swung harder than the Boeing 747, which made its maiden voyage in January of 1970, and had a spiral staircase leading to an upstairs lounge—often a piano bar, where transatlantic passengers could enjoy a Harvey Wallbanger from New York to London.

As those travelers raised a highball at high altitude, consider that the ’70s were worth celebrating in other ways, as well. This is, in part, a celebration of the ’70s and the biggest celebration of that celebrated decade was devoted to the Bicentennial, a party that peaked on the Fourth of July in 1976, with fireworks and tall ships in New York Harbor and parades—and Bicentennial mattress sales—on every Main Street. The celebration lasted all year. 

But the era was often tragic, too, and occasioned national reckoning, collective self-examination, and mourning, especially as America began its slow extrication from Vietnam. Emerging from the long shadows of war and Watergate, while enduring energy crises and environmental horrors, people naturally embraced diversion and a kind of dogged determination to be happy—or at least hopeful.

So there was Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat into the sky in downtown Minneapolis at the start of the show that bore her name, and whose theme song was “Love Is All Around.” Coca-Cola gathered young people from various nations on a hill in Italy to sing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” which became a pop hit for the Hillside Singers when retooled as “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).” Other soft rock acts of the ’70s, like Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Peter Frampton, sold zillions of albums in the heyday of the LP, but they and everything else in its path were eventually overtaken by disco, the strobe-light-illuminated, hip-gyrating music that pervaded the culture, from film to fashion, and catalyzed the sybaritic party that was Studio 54. An inevitable backlash ensued, and the world was eventually inoculated against disco fever, so that by the time the 1980s arrived, there was already a what-were-we-thinking hangover to the decade just passed. 

Still, the ’70s were vitally important, as every decade is, and shifted American culture, as every decade does. It is easy to get lost in the ’70s, like a marble dropped into shag carpeting. Suspended between the counter­cultural revolution of the ’60s, and the fall of communism in the ’80s, the ’70s were often portrayed as frivolous. “Don’t sneeze or you’ll blow the whole thing away,” as Tom Wolfe sniffed in Esquire’s last issue of the decade. The 1970s often survive only as a stage set that has been struck, loaded onto trucks, driven into posterity, and remembered by its props: Pet Rocks, pull tabs, rotary phones, bell bottoms, banana seats, and eight-track tapes. 

And yet, the decade contained all of life, for what is now history was once the present. “These are the good old days,” as Carly Simon sang in 1971, in a song—“Anticipation”—that would later be used to sell ketchup. “Thick, rich, Heinz ketchup,” declared American Top 40 host Casey Kasem, whose voice—thick and rich—provided the soundtrack for a decade that continues to fascinate, resonate, and deliver music to our ears.

Here is a selection of the photos from the LIFE special issue Celebrate the 70s:

Clockwise from top: Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson and Farrah Fawcett formed TV's crime-fighting trio, Charlie's Angels. Richard Nixon bid farewell, saying, "I am not a crook." The Village People scored with YMCA, and John Travolta went from Sweathog to superstar in Saturday Night Fever..

Clockwise from top: Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson and Farrah Fawcett formed TV’s crime-fighting trio, Charlie’s Angels. Richard Nixon bid farewell, saying, “I am not a crook.” The Village People scored with YMCA, and John Travolta went from Sweathog to superstar in Saturday Night Fever..

Photo credits (clockwise from top): Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images; Bettmann/Getty Images; CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Moviepix/Getty Images

Women marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City as a part of the Women’s Equality March on August 26, 1970. The march, organized by the National Organization for Women, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted American women full suffrage.

John Olson/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1973 released prisoner of war Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm was greeted by his family at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., as he returned home from the Vietnam War.

Sal Veder/AP/Shutterstock

The Watergate scandal toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon, leading to his resignation in August 1974; here he delivered a farewell address to his staff, flanked by his wife Pat, daughter Tricia and son-in-law Edward F. Cox.

Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images

The bicentennial in 1976 gave Americans, including this group of children in Washington, D.C., a chance to celebrate the stars and stripes.

AP/Shutterstock

One of the biggest TV hits of the 1970s was a nostalgic look back at the ’50s. The cast of Happy Days featured (standing, L-R) Henry Winkler, Tom Bosley, Anson Williams and Marion Ross; and (seated, L-R) Donny Most, Erin Moran and Ron Howard.

Walt Disney Television/ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

The Bee Gees (L-R Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb and Barry Gibb) laid down the disco grooves of the decade with their hit soundtrack to the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever; it is the most popular soundtrack ever, with more than 45 million sold.

Ed Caraeff/Getty Images

Celebrities at the Studio 54 New Year’s Eve party in 1978 included (L-R) Halston, Bianca Jagger, Jack Haley, Jr. and wife Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol.

Robin Platzer/Twin Images/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

In 1979 President Jimmy Carter helped broker a peace treaty between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat (left) and Israel’s Menachim Begin; the leaders clasped hands on the North Lawn of the White House after signing the agreement.

Bob Daugherty/AP/Shutterstock

Gas shortages meant long lines at the pump, New York State, 1979.

Bill Pierce/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Cooling towers took on a newly ominous bearing after the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Dauphin County, Pa.

Bill Pierce/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

More Like This

Scene during the 1960 Republican National Convention in Chicago. history

LIFE’s Best Convention Photos: The GOP

history

A Colorful, Historical Look at The Republican National Convention

history

A Colorful, Historical Look at The Democratic National Convention

history

The Road to VJ Day, 75 Years Later

history

Remembering Civil Rights Heroes John Lewis and C.T. Vivian

Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights leaders walk in Medgar Evers' funeral procession, Jackson, Miss.. history

Medgar Evers’ Funeral, June, 1963