When most people think of 1976: Well, honestly, they probably don't think about it much at all. Jimmy Fallon was two, Gerald Ford was in the second and last year of his forgettable presidency, and corporate America was gearing up to commemorate the country's 200th birthday with a train chugging across the country carrying relics like Judy Garland's slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The year didn't compare to 1975, which gave us the end of the Vietnam War and Jaws, nor to 1977, ground zero for Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever.
That said, it's time to start re-evaluating 1976, since it was essentially the year our modern world was hatched.
I was skeptical too, but in the course of researching my new book The Spirit of '76: From Politics to Technology, the Year America Went Rock & Roll (Amazon Kindle Singles), I found myself immersed in a world I only dimly recalled from my youth. My book focuses on the way in which the counterculture became the culture that year, by way of Saturday Night Live (then NBC's Saturday Night) conquering the Emmys, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak starting Apple, and other signifiers of "hip" '60s culture making their ways into the mainstream.
But I could have easily written a companion book about the way in which 1976 resonates in even larger ways. Basically, there was the world before 1976, and there was the world after it, and everywhere we look now, we see the imprint of those days and months some 38 years ago.
It was the year the freaks and geeks began to take over.
This may seem hard to imagine, but there was a time when being a math or science dweeb was worthy of scorn and ridicule, not respect. But when Jobs and Wozniak unveiled their first Apple computer that spring of '76, the rules and stereotypes began to be deleted. Here were a couple of Dylan freaks (and, in Jobs' case, a self-admitted acid user) suddenly leading the charge in the electronics revolution. That fall, a Polaroid researcher named Tom Scholz rolled out the first album by his band, Boston, which went on to be certified 11 times platinum. (The year also marked the birth of the blockbuster-selling album, starting with Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive!, but given what's become of the music business, no one remembers those anymore.) In other words, 1976 was the moment that the kids with the slide rules and audio-visual-club membership were becoming masters of the universe (and maybe getting laid, too).
It was the birth of the "hip" president.
Nowadays, it's de rigueur for presidential candidates, even heads of the country, to flaunt their rock and hip hop cred: Obama displays his iPod loaded up with Jay-Z and Dylan, and Jon Huntsman name-checked Captain Beefheart on the campaign trail two years ago. That trend began in 1976, when a Southern governor named Jimmy Carter decided he wanted to live in the White House instead. Carter was friendly with the Allman Brothers Band and had invited Bob Dylan and the Band over to his governor's mansion during their 1974 tour. As part of his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in the summer of '76, Carter quoted Dylan. Toward the end of his first and only term, he commissioned a panel to compile the White House Record Library, which wound up including LPs by the Clash and Elvis Costello. This may not raise many eyebrows now, but it's impossible to describe how wonderfully strange this all was at the time. When Richard Nixon invited performers to perform at the White House just a few years earlier, he naturally chose the much squarer Carpenters.
In America, it was the year modern rock was born.
Thanks to Patti Smith and Television, punk rock already existed on record, but the arrival of the first Ramones album that spring -- to minimal sales but maximum culture impact -- effectively became ground zero for modern music. These days you see and hear them almost everywhere, from Green Day to the homogenized "rock" boy band 5 Seconds of Summer, who've been seen sporting Ramones t-shirts onstage. Nineteen seventy-six was also the year of the births of Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and former Rilo Kiley lead chanteuse Jenny Lewis, both of whom set the tone for modern indie rock a decade or so back.
It was the year modern country was born.
One of 1976's surprise hit albums was Wanted! The Outlaws, a collection of Waylon and Willie (and Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser) tracks that crystallized the anti-Nashville sound brewing in country music. But this was also the year in which Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan were born -- hardy outlaws, but both embodying the sound and hunky physiques of pop-country in the new century.
It was the year of the gift that keeps on giving for Sylvester Stallone.
Rocky, a boxing movie with a no-name star and a low budget, was released with dim expectations at the end of 1976. But the movie didn't just capture the re-energized, come-from-behind spirit of the year; it launched a pop culture juggernaut that seems like it's never left our lives, from the eternal "Eye of the Tiger" (from Rocky III in 1982) to the current semi-hit Broadway production based on the original movie. Like the character at its core, Rocky seems down for the count yet keeps getting back up -- an apt metaphor, it turns out, for 1976 itself.