Nearly every tribute to the late Steve Jobs touches on one particular date: April 1st, 1976. On that day, he, fellow geek god Steve Wozniak and Atari employee Ronald Wayne officially formed a new company called Apple. A few months later, their first product, the Apple I – billed in its ads as “a truly complete microcomputer system on a PC board” – was available for purchase by the general public.
Given all the Apple innovations that followed, that’s an undeniably important day not only in the company’s history, but also in the story of technology. (The sleek, wireless Apple mouse I’m using to write this article is itself a marvel to me.) And it wasn’t even the only earth-shaking, new-world-order event that month. On April 23rd, 1976, Sire Records released the first Ramones album. Four days later, a largely unknown former Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, won the Pennsylvania Democratic primary over better-known contenders like Eagles-loving California governor Jerry Brown.
It may seem unlikely, but this first revenge of the nerds was very much of a piece. Given the bleak economic and political prospects with which we’re all faced now, it’s easy to forget that there were years or moments in this country that were genuinely hopeful and optimistic. Barack Obama’s election almost three years ago was one of them, as was John Kennedy’s for an earlier generation. (Maybe Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, but that’s still up for debate.)
In hindsight, 1976 was one of those times. It was a year in which America, still bogged down in its post-Nixon, post-Watergate funk, decided to shake off its own torpor. The country roused itself to craft its own new, improved future with bold, brazen ideas and inventions – even music – that didn’t take its cues from the past and tackled the future like a dozen football teams. As Apple itself would later declare in an ad campaign, America decided to “think different.”
Start with the Ramones. Sure, Patti Smith’s Horses had been released in the waning months of 1975, and the leather jackets the Ramones sported on the cover of Ramones were straight outta 1959. And of course, the Stooges, the MC5 and a few others had laid the groundwork for what they did. But seeing a copy of Ramones in a mall record store – or hearing the occasional playing of “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” by way of a New York radio station, as we Jersey boys did – was a primal announcement that a new form of music, both brutalizing and buoyant, had arrived. The mellow 1970s were officially history.
Like Joey Ramone, Carter was a bit of a geek, too – a former grad student in nuclear physics who’d run the family farm business in Plains, Georgia before entering politics. But he was unlike any politician at the time, down to his ability to quote Bob Dylan songs. He’d even invited Dylan and the Band over for breakfast at the governor’s mansion during their 1974 tour. Carter promised – and seemed to embody – integrity and honesty. Hunter Thompson and the Allman Brothers both openly supported him. Carter’s grass-roots, hope-for-change campaign, in which he eventually defeated incumbent president Gerald Ford, now looks very proto-Obama. Even Texas Governor Rick Perry – whose own lack of introspection and puffed chest makes him the anti-Carter – voted for Carter in that election.
Similarly there was something rock-nerd about Apple, starting with the highway-to-hell price of the Apple I: $666.66. (Jobs later denied the figure had anything to do with devil worship and was just chosen randomly.) Anyone who went to high school in the 1970s remembers what classroom computers used to resemble: walls of floor-to-ceiling boxes that looked like refrigerators spitting out pieces of paper. The Apple I was unlike anything like that: it looked like a mutant of cash register, typewriter and miniature wooden scroll desk. Add in the Bicentennial celebrations of that summer, Charlie’s Angels, Network and that rock & roll cathedral known as the first Boston album, and America suddenly felt energized. A brassy, shinier 1970s had arrived.
It couldn’t last, and didn’t. The Ramones still came up with an occasional gem (their gloriously goofy theme to Pet Sematary still kills), but their heyday ended shortly after 1980. Carter made history with the Camp David accords and pardoning Vietnam draft dodgers, but gas shortages and the Iranian hostage crisis conspired to puncture his presidency, and he too was out in 1980. And we all know what happened to Charlie’s Angels once Farrah left. (Shelley Hack? Please.)
The Apple I went off the market the following year, 1977. But we all know what came next – or, rather, what kept coming. Like the quasi-rock star he would become, Jobs had his hits and flops – like his dismissal in 1985 from his own company and his post-Apple gambit, NeXT. But he also had his equivalent to comeback tours: the iMac in 1998 and of course, the iPod three years later.
The iPod itself was a confounding machine, one that both made it easier to listen to music while denigrating the experience at the same time (poor-sounding MP3s, the dismantling of the album format). Yet as aggravating as some Apple products and launches could be, there was no denying how audacious and inspired they were; each one seemed to want to top the one before, to push several envelopes at once. Right up to his death, Jobs kept alive that promise of a better, enriched tomorrow. In Jobs’ mind, his ideas (and by definition his country) could compete with anyone and always would, no surrender. To Jobs, it was always 1976.
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