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: