Shaft, Marvin Gaye, Carole King, And Grover: Here's What We Loved From 1971 : Pop Culture Happy Hour Back in 1971, Richard Nixon was president, the Beatles were newly broken up. But also, a new network called National Public Radio broadcast for the first time. In honor of the anniversary of NPR's first broadcast, this special edition of What's Making Us Happy This Week offers recommendations from 50 years ago.

The 50-Year-Old Classics You Should Listen To And Read Today

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1023518001/1023521411" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Back in 1971, Richard Nixon was president, The Beatles were newly broken up and "Fiddler On The Roof" was one of the biggest movies at the box office. But also, a new network called National Public Radio broadcast for the first time.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

In honor of the anniversary of NPR's first broadcast, we are stepping back to give you a special edition of What's Making Us Happy This Week as we might have offered it up 50 years ago.

I'm Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today on NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're bringing you a 1971 edition of What's Making Us Happy. So don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: Welcome back. Also with us is Glen Weldon of the NPR Culture Desk. Hi, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

Feeling groovy, Linda.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: And coming to us from her home out on the West Coast is our own Aisha Harris. Hi, Aisha.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Hi. I'm feeling solid myself.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Now, we should mention, when I say as we would have done it in 1971, I do not mean that we are going to adopt the lingo nor the false sense of when it is, as that.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I will actually be speaking to you as I would have in 1971, which is as a tiny, inaudible gurgle in the womb.

HOLMES: Oh, nice. Awesome.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: We are not doing that. We are simply going to talk about some things that come from 1971. And we're going to start with Stephen because it's awesome. Stephen, what did you pick? What's making you happy in 1971?

THOMPSON: Well, when you look at what came out in 1971, you look at the movies. You look at the TV shows. You look at the music. One of the first things that will jump out at you is that an absolute onslaught of incredible albums came out in 1971. It was an unbelievably great year for music. But I wanted to pick something whose tendrils extended a little bit beyond music, and I picked the soundtrack-slash-score to the 1971 movie "Shaft."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEME FROM SHAFT")

ISAAC HAYES: (Singing) Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about? Shaft. Right on. They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother- - shut your mouth.

HOLMES: Just want to know - we're all chair dancing, except Glen, which is the most chair dancing you're ever going to get.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

THOMPSON: One thing that has really jumped out at me, revisiting both the movie and the soundtrack album - the kind of double-length, sprawling soundtrack album - is just what a fantastic piece of music it is. And, you know, Isaac Hayes, he had that often-imitated voice. You know, you think of him in more recent years as the voice of Chef from "South Park," and you think of him as a vocal talent, but, my God - when you spend some time with the instrumental pieces on this record, just listening to the instrumental score of the song, "Theme From Shaft," it is a fantastic melange of these, like, punchy horns and strings and that perfect guitar line. There's so much going on throughout. And yet you can put on that album, and there are occasional pieces with vocals in them, but a lot of it is just instrumental. And it is a fantastic piece of instrumental music.

Not only did the "Theme From Shaft" hit No. 1 and was kind of an instantly iconic song, but that whole album hit No. 1. People spent a ton of time just reveling in that music. It is so fantastic. And I just think Isaac Hayes doesn't always get enough due as a composer because he was not only a great singer but a great, great composer.

WELDON: Stephen, can you help me put something in context here? That spoken dialogue - the shut your mouth; I'm just talking about Shaft - that choice, even though it's become, you know, kind of background - that choice still seems weird to me.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: It happens in pop songs now. You know, Gaga does it a lot. But at the time, were a lot of artists doing it? Because to me, that has the sound of, like, when you hear dialogue over a track, I think novelty song; I think comedy song. Were a lot of other artists doing it?

THOMPSON: I think there were girl groups that were incorporating that in.

WELDON: Sure, sure.

THOMPSON: And I think that's a lot of...

HOLMES: There's plenty in "Leader Of The Pack."

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: Yeah, that's worse.

THOMPSON: Yeah, that's what a lot of that, I think, is drawing on.

HOLMES: (Singing) Look out, look out, look out, look out.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: But it also, you know - and that - and watching - I just rewatched "Shaft" very recently, and, you know, that song kind of rolls over the opening. It's establishing who he is. But it's also - like, it's establishing so much personality. There's so much of, like, him that's coming through in it but also just this note of playfulness that is so welcome. Oh, I love it.

WELDON: He's a complicated man.

HARRIS: Yeah. I think that's part of what makes this song such a marvel, is the way it layers the cheese with the utter cool.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: It is just - like, it is so cheesy, and that was something that Isaac Hayes did in a lot of his other songs, although it wasn't always quite as cheesy. He would talk over a lot of his songs. I think of something like his version of "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," which has, like, a multiminute intro of him just telling a story and talking. But I just love the way in which it has this sort of campy feel to it while also being so utterly, like, sexy and cool.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: And I don't know. I think it works. In the same way, like, Barry White - that worked; I just love it. And I think the movie - I recently just rewatched it as well. Obviously, it's the 50th anniversary of the movie as well. And the movie actually holds up pretty good 50 years later.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HARRIS: Like, John Shaft - also, the fact that the name of the movie is "Shaft" and the name of this character is Shaft is also just super funny.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: But he's still cool. That leather jacket - I want one. I want that jacket (laughter).

THOMPSON: That jacket is fantastic.

HOLMES: Outstanding. So Stephen's pick is "Shaft," music and film. Aisha, we are going to go to you. I think you also chose music.

HARRIS: I did choose music. So I was, like, not even a speck in my parent's eye when this came out.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: But because my parents were young in their teens at this time, I grew up listening to so much of their music. And, you know, when you're - you reach a certain age, when you're around 12, 13, and you start to think, like, oh, I'm going to take on this air of - I love this music, and none of my other peers like this, but I'm cool. I understand. Music is so deep. It was so deep back then. And I wish I could have lived back then and that could have been my time. And for me, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" was that album. It was my introduction to being the sort of, like, annoying kid who you didn't want to talk to, who was always like, oh, I can't believe you don't understand how good this album is. It's so deep. It's talking about real issues. And you're just listening to Britney Spears. How dare you?

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: I was that kid, and I don't think I fully appreciated the album until I grew older and I grew into understanding why it's so good and it wasn't just me putting on these airs. But when I think about this album, to me, it is the quintessential social-issues, political pop album that doesn't feel like it's preaching to you, that doesn't feel like it is sappy and John Legend-y (ph), I should say.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: It doesn't hedge into that territory. Yes, I said John Legend.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: I have so many issues with that man, but much of it is just the way he just always seems so smug and - every time he's singing. Marvin does not have that. And, you know, there's obviously "What's Going On," the song, the title song. But what I love about the album as a whole is the way in which it layers all of these different moments from "What's Going On" into the other songs. It feels like one entire just opera or one entire piece. There's so much continuity, and yet each song is very distinct and is dealing with different issues. I want to play, actually, a little bit of "What's Happening Brother," which is the song that immediately follows "What's Going On" on the album. And if you listen to the first opening moments of it, you can hear "What's Going On" kind of just dripped into it. If you listen to it back-to-back, it just all moves in this one fluid motion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S HAPPENING BROTHER")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Hey, baby. What you know good? I'm just getting back, but you knew I would. War is hell. When will it end?

HARRIS: He also kind of switches from perspectives on each song. That song in particular was drawn from his conversations with his younger brother who went to Vietnam and the horrible stories he had from that experience. And I just think it's such a really great album, and I encourage people to listen to the entire thing again if they haven't in a while because there's so many different things going on besides the bigger hits. And younger me was super superficial about it, but now I can admire it as a masterpiece as an adult.

HOLMES: I mean, I think in some ways, like, it has - you know, funny enough, as we talked about with "Shaft" having the cheesiness and also the cool, I think this song has the - kind of the meaning and the purpose that he had in mind with the lyric, but also these songs have such fluidity, and they're so kind of melodic and pretty in a way. I think the word groovy was invented to get at the quality that these songs, this album, possess.

WELDON: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: Yeah, when I'm hearing connective tissue between "What's Going On" and the soundtrack from "Shaft," what you're hearing is just absolute Technicolor mastery in the production. Everybody involved in that production is working at the absolute top of their game. And so every second of the song, whether the singer is singing or not, everybody in that orchestra, everybody in the studio is just turning out something indelible. It is a masterpiece.

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, I'm going to tell you, I also chose music.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: We're just a bunch of music heads today. Carole King was still a teenager when she became a songwriter for the pop music factory at the Brill Building. With her husband, Gerry Goffin, she wrote a really genuinely ridiculous number of popular songs, you know, which really run the gamut. Like, she wrote - they wrote "One Fine Day." They wrote "Up On The Roof," "The Loco-Motion."

WELDON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: "Chains," which The Beatles later did. "Take Good Care Of My Baby." But her solo efforts didn't initially take off. And then in 1971, she puts out the album "Tapestry," which immediately becomes a massive - and by massive, I mean massive - commercial success. It wound up being - it's currently certified 13-times platinum. You know, it set a bunch of different charting records, depending on what charts you like to look at. It also won album of the year at the Grammy Awards. It won record - she won record of the year for "It's Too Late," which - she was the first female solo artist to win that. On "Tapestry," you hear a few different things, right? One thing you hear on "Tapestry" is a song that became the theme to the "Gilmore Girls" that she later rerecorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE YOU LEAD")

CAROLE KING: (Singing) Where you lead, I will follow anywhere that you tell me to. If you need...

HOLMES: So that to me sounds a little bit like the kind of light pop of the Brill Building, some of the other stuff that she was writing for other artists. You also get a couple of really different takes on songs that she had written that had already been hits for other people, one of which is a little song called "Natural Woman," which you might know as an (laughter) Aretha Franklin song. Obviously, that is by far the iconic version. But there is a Carole King version that is on "Tapestry." There is - she also has a version of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" (ph) that is very, very different from the original.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL YOU LOVE ME TOMORROW")

KING: (Singing) But will you love me tomorrow?

HOLMES: If you think about the way that the lyric of that song captures a real anxious sadness around whether somebody that you were sleeping with is still going to care about you the next day, it's interesting to hear a - kind of a slightly more downbeat take on that or a more kind of meditative take on that. But what I really love the most is some of the stuff that is on this record that was just her stuff that she wrote and that she sang, my favorite of which is a song called "Home Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME AGAIN")

KING: (Singing) Snow is cold. Rain is wet - chills my soul right to the marrow.

HOLMES: This is really core singer-songwriter of 1971. I saw a little smile from one of my co-panelists when she said, snow is cold, rain is wet because it does sound like a silly line. But then she glides into that, chills my soul right to the marrow. And to me when that kind of lands, it is such an enormously pretty line.

So I love this album because - both because I love the music on it and because I love the explorations of songs that people might know in other contexts and because I love her story as somebody who was writing a lot for other people, you know, who I think maybe thought that solo success was not in her future, who made this album that just was monumentally enormously successful. And she continues to have her influence felt in things like "Gilmore Girls" and the like - so Carole King, "Tapestry," man.

WELDON: Yeah. This is a remarkable album. It's all hits, no skips. And while it is timeless in one sense, in another sense, it is so redolent of its time, as you mentioned. I don't have synesthesia, but anytime one of these songs comes on, I'm like, oh, that is paisley the song, right?

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: That is - that note is avocado gold. And that note is a burnt ochre refrigerator. And that note's a macrame plant holder. Like, it's - it was unavoidable. And I didn't want to avoid it. But it was all over the '70s, man.

HARRIS: Yeah. I have a very soft spot for this type of music - this, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, like, all of that.

HOLMES: Joni Mitchell.

HARRIS: Joni Mitchell - I love it. I also love just - Carole King's voice has just the slightest bit of a husk to it. It's not overbearing, but you can kind of hear it in her - the timbre of her voice. And I just think it's really sweet. Yeah. I love Carole King. I give her all her flowers (laughter).

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I completely agree with everything you guys have said. I also just want to mention briefly - trying to pick an album to talk about from 1971, you guys mentioned Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell. Cat Stevens put out "Teaser And The Firecat" in 1971. Joni Mitchell put out "Blue" in 1971. We haven't gotten into "Led Zeppelin IV" or "There's A Riot Going On" from Sly and the Family Stone - I mean, hit after hit after hit but also really ageless classic after ageless classic. It's - it is a remarkable year for music.

HOLMES: Yeah. I think it's just - it's one of my favorite, very favorite albums and stories. All right. So that is my pick.

Glen, we are down to you. You - wait a minute. You broke the rules. You did not pick music.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Yes. I picked something different. And I get why you all chose music. I mean, it's very evocative of its time. You know, at its best, it reflects, or at least it speaks to, I guess, the national mood. But one of us must represent nobler pursuits, the world of literature...

HARRIS: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...The written word, the life...

HOLMES: It's true.

WELDON: ...Of the mind. For a while, the year 1971 was notable for those amusing little ditties you've cited. But we cannot ignore the fact that a great work of towering, enduring significance was first published that year. And attention must be paid. It's a work of post-structuralist metanarrative after the fashion of Foucault and Derrida.

It takes as its subject nothing less than the gnawing inchoate fear that some have wryly dubbed the human condition, our base festering eternal need toward othering that which we do not understand.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: It's a harrowing descent into desperation, terror, rage and despair. It's a chronicle of soul-sick woe, an extended...

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: ...Cris de coeur, one might say...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...Of raw anxiety that chills the blood. It is a work of Kierkegaardian existential dread, really...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...Dread and fuzziness. I, of course, can only be speaking, as you've likely already surmised, of "The Monster At The End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover" written by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollin. This book, you guys, powerful, seminal life-shaping - talk to me about it.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) The thing is...

HARRIS: Thank you, Oscar Wilde (laughter).

THOMPSON: ...You're not entirely wrong.

WELDON: I'm not, right?

HOLMES: Yeah, I love this book.

THOMPSON: The funny thing is that you're not entirely wrong. This book taught a lot of kids about fourth-wall breaking. And, I mean, it serves a number of purposes. Also speaking as a parent, it is a really fun book to read.

HARRIS: Yeah. And to read aloud especially.

THOMPSON: To read out loud, yeah.

HARRIS: I remember this book. We had lots of "Sesame Street" books. This was probably in my top two of "Sesame Street" books, including another book about Ernie, who is my favorite - one of my favorites. But Grover is just one of the best Muppets, and this is one of the best books by a Muppet about a Muppet. So kudos to you for bringing this up.

HOLMES: I agree with the part that - about how it's a metanarrative. I didn't follow about three-quarters of what Glen said...

WELDON: Of course.

HOLMES: ...But I do agree with that, that it's a metanarrative full of fourth-wall breaking, et cetera, as Stephen said. But I think it's also a book about being scared. It's a book about what it's like to feel dread. And I think with little kids, it can be really hard to hit the right balance where you're talking about how it's normal and OK to have fears and to worry about things. It's partly a book about a form of anxiety and nervousness and fear of what's coming, which I think is something that can be hard for kids to talk about. So I think it's a really good book about that in addition to being about a lovely fuzzy monster. Who doesn't - like, you know, who doesn't love him?

WELDON: Yeah. Let's - I mean, I guess we need to do the NPR explanatory comma about what the book's about, even though that feels like explaining what breathing is. But, like, in the book, Grover is addressing the reader directly. He's warning you that he's heard there's a monster waiting at the end of the book. And in this book that you're holding in your hands right now, he's begging you not to turn the page, which, of course, you do again and again. And he gets into a greater and greater panic. He is begging you. He's cajoling you. He's admonishing you not - to just stop.

THOMPSON: Hold up. I think this is where we need to add spoiler alert.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: So spoiler, when you get to the end of the book - right? - you and he both realize at the same time that the monster is Grover himself. But that's not the last words of the book. Do you guys remember what the last words of this book are?

HOLMES: It's something about how he feels better or something.

WELDON: No, it's, oh, I'm so embarrassed.

HOLMES: Oh, I see.

WELDON: So that is the arc of this book, from dread, fear, panic, relief but not relief alone with embarrassment. Yes, this is baby's first Foucault. It's an introduction to, like, self-awareness where the characters realize they're characters and the fourth wall gets pulverized, as you mentioned, Stephen. But you also get - as you mentioned, Linda, you get a very concrete sense of how stories are structured as you read it because the ending is coming, and with each page you turn, it's growing nearer. This is - and, again, the subject is so frightening. If they made a Little Golden Book out of "No Exit," you'd have something of kind of what this book is.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: But, you know - and what everybody talks about, parents, academics, booksellers, what people talk about is the power it confers upon the reader, right? You are defying, actively defying, someone's instructions. But that's not all it is, right? Because as the book goes on, you start to defy their pleas, their cries for mercy. And sure, it's empowering, but it's also a little sinister, right? Because it is kind of a kid's version of the Milgram experiment in reverse...

HOLMES: I was just going to say.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: ...Where you decide out of your own volition to keep torturing your prisoner because you want to. And, again, this is probably reaching - not that I haven't been, but this is probably reaching - but the whole idea of this book is that he's afraid not of Grover himself but of the concept of a monster. There is something in here about self-loathing, about reflexively buying into how others see you and how incredibly self-destructive that is.

HOLMES: Sure.

WELDON: That's - it's - there's something in there.

HOLMES: Yeah. But I think also another thing that's in there is the idea of beginning to separate kids from narratives in order to explain the difference between fiction and reality, right? Because in the book, he's saying don't turn the page, don't turn the page. And you're not just turning the page to torture Grover. You're turning the page because you understand that Grover is a fictional character and this is just a book. And so I think one of the things it starts to do is help kids separate you exist separate from a book. It's only a book. It's only a story, which, you know, is a step that I think everybody has to take. So I think it's partly that, too.

HARRIS: If we want to take this even further, we could say that this could be a metaphor for McCarthyism or for any...

WELDON: I'm there. I'm there.

HARRIS: ...Sort of witch hunt where we're like, watch out, don't do this, all the kids - don't dance to that rock 'n' roll music...

HOLMES: "Trouble In River City."

HARRIS: ...Moral panic. And then at the end, you realize, oh, it was me. It was me. I'm the monster. I'm the monster.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: It's me all along.

WELDON: Yeah, yeah.

HOLMES: "Planet Of The Apes."

HARRIS: Yep.

HOLMES: It's all in there. I think we have done a fantastic job finding in this book only what is in it and keeping to a very, very strict interpretation.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Well, we want to know what you think about your favorite movies, albums, books and TV shows from 1971. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter, @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you all for being here. I love it when we're all together.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

WELDON: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

HOLMES: And thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, subscribe to our newsletter. It's over at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all right back here tomorrow.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.