50 Years Ago Change Was in the Air: Looking Back at What Made 1974 Rock
Standing at the start of a new year, 2024, and casting a glance back to 1974 — a 50-year stretch that feels like both a lifetime and the blink of an eye — is a fascinating exercise. It means sifting through five decades of innovation and exploration, unrest and hope, and a period that seemingly takes in an entire digital revolution. How best to sum up 1974 in America? With the gifts of clarity and time, one can do so by recalling two life-altering quotes from that incredible year.
“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
— Gerald R. Ford, in remarks after being sworn in as president following the resignation of Richard M. Nixon.
“Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us, all we ask is that you let us serve it your way. Have it your way!”
— New marketing campaign language for Burger King’s Whopper.
That’s it in a nutshell. We had witnessed Watergate, a trial of epic proportions, one that made the country question the foundations of democracy … and we just wanted to relax and have a choice in the matter. We wanted life “our way,” to sit back and listen to Carl Douglas singing “Kung Fu Fighting,” ABBA singing “Waterloo” and Steve Miller going on about the pompatus of love in “The Joker.” The oil crisis continued, and we were paying an astronomical 53 cents a gallon; plus, we were suddenly only allowed to go 55 mph on the highway — a move meant to curb gas usage. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some great escapes from harsh daily realities?
The year would provide those as well, along with laying the foundation for more to come. Disasters felt a bit more fun when they were onscreen, and Earthquake rocked us in “Sensurround” in movie theaters. Some 27-year-old kid named Stephen King finally got his first novel published and it was a gusher named Carrie that reminded readers why bullying could be dangerous. Television was a Shangri-la of creativity, with laughs galore courtesy of everything from M*A*S*H to The Mary Tyler Moore Show to All in the Family. And if left shaky, there was a bionic promise of incredible things to come, courtesy of the rebuilt Steve Austin on The Six Million Dollar Man. We could check out that new hit film The Great Gatsby in the first issue of a brand-new magazine called People. And we also watched Muhammad Ali looking like he was being pummeled by George Foreman, while really deflecting and absorbing all those blows as he rope-a-doped his way back to the heavyweight boxing title in Zaire.
It was also about the little things. We were finally done cutting our fingers on soda pull tabs, thanks to push-through pop tops. An experiment in adhesives gave birth to the Post-it Note. The advent of an incredibly affordable pocket calculator meant we could use the Bowmar Brain instead of our own to do math. We were one year past the first ever cellphone call, and we’d just begun typing on something called a word processor. Hungarian inventor Ernő Rubik created a multi-colored, multi-sided piece of art that, to his way of thinking, summarized the complex nature of the human condition. Five years later, he’d start cashing checks for sales of his famous cube. The brand new UPC code made all kinds of shopping easier. And best of all? Some new candy named Skittles came out that was crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
Now, in 2024, we can read Carrie, watch Earthquake, write stories, scan UPC codes, listen to “Waterloo,” and multiply and divide on our cellphones. But it’s good to recall, from a 50-year distance, a time when life and times were a little less convenient and even a little less certain. It shows how far we’ve come. Also, Skittles still rock.