We break down the top moments of the decade, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, and more

By EW Staff
May 28, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Like a plot straight out of Battlestar Galactica, ’70s rock existed in two parallel universes, both very real. In one, rock came down off its ’60s high and faced the music. With each year it became bigger business, as Americans spent more than a billion dollars annually and musicians willingly grabbed their share of the booty. Concerts were regularly held in stadiums; merchandising became as omnipresent as the bands. To fans who’d come of age in previous decades, the music splintered into bewildering and sometimes off-putting styles: party-time disco, monolithic metal, denim-clad country rock, suave Philly soul, spiky punk. Even worse, each camp loathed the others. When John Lennon sang ”the dream is over,” many felt he was commenting on more than just the Beatles’ demise.

In fact, the dream was very much alive in the ’70s. For all of rock’s newfound careerism, you still felt there was something underground and personal about the music. You sat in bedrooms listening to albums on 8-track tapes (don’t ask) or risked eyestrain poring over intricate LP art. You tuned to FM stations that played all sorts of outlandishly long anthems with seemingly profound lyrics. If you were depressed, you sought comfort in solipsistic singer-songwriters; if you wanted to dance to disco, you ventured to cocaine-fueled clubs. None of this was your parents’ music, nor had any of it become mass entertainment. Near decade’s end, urban kids even made music by scratching records. Everyone told you everything sucked, and the long gas lines and post-Woodstock malaise made it seem as if they were right. But you clung to the music to make sense of the whole mess, and more than enough times, it still did.

Neil Young writes ”Ohio”: 5/20/70
Shortly after National Guardsmen shot and killed four students during a protest at Ohio’s Kent State University, Neil Young and David Crosby were cloistered in a cabin in California’s Butano State Park. Crosby left to get supplies and came back with a copy of LIFE — and photos of kids screaming, crying, and bleeding. ”I handed it to Neil and watched it hit him,” Crosby says. ”He picked up his guitar and started fooling around.” Right there, Young spit out a scarred howl of outrage — a lament that tapped America’s fury toward Vietnam and became the most riveting political protest in rock history. Hours later, without altering a word or a chord, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded ”Ohio” and rushed it to radio. Afterwards, Crosby wept. ”It was a triumphant moment, man,” he says. ”All of us knew we were doing the right thing.” Rank 46

Elton John makes his American debut: 8/25/70
”Elton John Has Arrived,” proclaimed the banner on the red double-decker bus leaving L.A. International Airport and bound for Hollywood. It didn’t matter to Elton’s hype-crazed publicity machine that no one cared whether the Brit on board was coming or going. But they would, after Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn’s famous rave about E.J.’s American debut at the Troubadour made this unknown a proverbial overnight sensation. ”Rejoice,” rhapsodized Hilburn about the bearded, dark-spectacled wonder, who unexpectedly spiced up his songcraft with Jerry Lee Lewis’ performing flair. ”Rock music, which has been going through a rather uneventful period lately, has a new star.” Rank 64