The Billboard Top 10 singles chart for 1978 showed three Bee Gees songs, two by their cousin Andy Gibb and one by Debby Boone in the top 8. Disco and light pop ruled the airwaves. Something needed to be done. And it was done. And it was good.
It seems a shame to let that plucky little year 2019 slip away without acknowledging at least one more milestone. And it’s a huge one in my eyes.
2019 is the 40th anniversary of the greatest year in pop music history.
We’re talking 1979. It might not be YOUR year, but it’s MY year.
And it’s not just that great records came out then. It was a whole new attitude. It was back to basics, usually just guitars, bass and drums. Music was just exploding out of the radio and pulsating out of your turntable leading to pounding on the walls from your neighbors.
Or as the English Beat put it: “I know I’m shouting, I like to shout.”
That attitude had two main labels attached to it, punk and new wave. Sometimes slicing the pie to figure out which was which was a challenge. Most of the time it was easy: the Sex Pistols were punk, and Blondie was new wave … mostly.
A lot of records fit into those silos BECAUSE they came out in 1979. Supertramp is not a new wave/punk band but “The Logical Song” is new wave. It had the right attitude. It asked the right questions. And they were different questions.
Yes, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads were around long before 1979 (the Sex Pistols were essentially done by then) but those cats were early adopters. The explosion came later. It always works that way. The “free love” decade was the 1970s, not the 1960s. A small cadre of folks tried things in the '60s and it blew up in the next decade as the mainstream joined in. So to speak.
One other note. Not everything discussed here took place exactly in 1979. Some records were recorded earlier. But how do you track the exposure or moment of impact for a record? A song could have been a B-side. Or released in a different format in the U.K. Or didn't connect with an audience until after its release date.
And the innovations of 1979 led to further ones in future years. More roots and branches. U2, REM, Nirvana, Pearl Jam. Alt-country. Hip-hop and rap. If you open the lens all kinds of cool stuff becomes part of the possible.
Or as Mark Hollis (RIP 2019), the lead vocalist of Talk Talk, put it: "Up until punk there's no way I could have imagined I could get a record deal because I didn't think I could play, but punk said, 'If you think you can play you can play.'"
The genesis moments
On Oct. 14, 1978, Devo appeared on "Saturday Night Live." It was monumental. Four new wave guys in colorful, weird outfits jumping up and down in a fiercely personal take on the Stones’ “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.”
It was one of those nights when the crew called you at work and said, “Day, you got to get over here and see this.” That’s how new and different it was.
The second moment was the release that same fall of "Parallel Lines" by Blondie. Skinny guys in skinny ties. A hot singer with platinum hair. "Parallel Lines" was their third album, and it contained nothing but monster songs, starting with the blistering opener “Hanging on the Telephone,” with the lyric, “I’m in the phone booth it’s the one across the hall, if you don’t answer I’ll just ring it off the wall.”
Short, well-crafted pop songs which said it all about the times. “Just Go Away,” “I Know but I Don’t Know,” and “11:59,” with the killer line “It’s 11:59 and I want to stay alive.”
The best pop music has a desperate quality to it. Things aren’t working out. You want answers now. And you’re not afraid to be loud about it.
The success of Blondie and lead singer Debbie Harry also inaugurated one of the key trends of 1979 and the new wave period: the involvement of women as lead vocalists, songwriters and band members, not just solo singers.
Harry with Blondie, Chrissie Hynde with the Pretenders, Exene Cervenka with X, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of the B-52s, Tina Weymouth with Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Ari Up of the Slits, Patty Donahue of the Waitresses, Annie Lennox of Eurythmics, Martha Davis of the Motels, Debora Iyall of Romeo Void, Terri Nunn of Berlin, Pearl E. Gates of Pearl Harbor and the Explosions (yes, in hindsight, that name was not a great idea … but she did belt out that great single “Shut Up and Dance”).
One individual seemed to be everywhere: Nick Lowe. He was a major figure in country rock with Brinsley Schwarz, whose tentacles spread via the work of Lowe. Most of the Brinsleys wound up superbly backing Graham Parker as “The Rumour.”
Lowe was good at everything: writing, singing, playing, producing. Perhaps most of all he was a taste-maker. He could see ahead. One of my favorite lines of his was about the Sex Pistols. I recall one of my crew reading it aloud out of Rolling Stone at my dilapidated dining room table which covered the hole in the apartment rug. I don’t have the exact quote, but the gist was that it didn’t matter if the band could play. It was the attitude that they brought that was critical.
Lowe played bass, guitar, keyboards. He produced records by Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and Dave Edmunds. He married into Johnny Cash’s family. Lowe and Edmunds formed a band called Rockpile, which also included guitarist Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams. Because of the dreaded “contractual obligations” many of the Edmunds records as well as Lowe’s were really Rockpile records.
Rockpile released one album as Rockpile, a new wave/pop/rockabilly gem called “Seconds of Pleasure.” It included a hysterical song about a girlfriend who was … overeating. The key line: ‘"You let the knife and fork dig your grave.”
It was funny. That was the point. As Lowe put it: “In those days I wasn’t interested in creating serious art. I was much more interested in the mischief.”
He created both with his first solo album, “Jesus of Cool,” muted to “Pure Pop For Now People” for the American release.
It’s an almost perfect record. Wide range of styles. Simple instrumentation/arrangements (on many of the songs it’s just Lowe on bass and guitars and drummer Steve Goulding). A song making fun of the Bay City Rollers. A rollicking take on modern life called “So it Goes.” And, of course, “Marie Provost,” a ditty about a dog that ate a woman. You know the story. Silent film star’s accent means she can’t transition to talkies. So she drinks herself to death and the dog eats her. The story is … mostly … true, and the song contains the zinger of a chorus: “she was a winner that became her doggie’s dinner, she never meant that much to me, but now I see poor Marie.”
And Goulding nearly beats his drums senseless throughout. Glorious.
The great eight
Here, in alphabetical order, is one man’s list of the best bands of 1979 (Blondie and Rockpile make it 10).
The Clash: Maybe the best band of the period. Formed in 1976 they roared their way through punk, dub, funk, ska, reggae, rockabilly … you name it. "London Calling" (1979) and "Sandinista" (1980) are arguably the most ambitious back-to-back recordings in pop history. A label on the plastic covering of "London Calling" said “18 songs by the only band that matters.” Self-promotion? Yes, but also true. Joe Strummer RIP 2002
Elvis Costello: Was just hitting his stride in 1979 with "Armed Forces," his “tribute” to emotional fascism, with great songs such as “Goon Squad,” “Chemistry Class” and a cover of the great Lowe/Brinsleys anthem “(What’s so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
English Beat: The boys from Birmingham served up a rich brew of politically infused ska and irony and then moved on after three albums. Sadly, toaster and dancer Ranking Roger, who went on to form General Public with Beat songwriting ace Dave Wakeling, died earlier this year. The ska revolution also included Bad Manners, Madness, the Selecter and the Specials.
Joe Jackson: He went from minimalist punk in his 1979 debut "Look Sharp," with its sardonic masterpiece “Is She Really Going out With Him” to superbly crafted pop in "Night and Day," "Body and Soul" and "Big World" while also dabbling in classical compositions.
Madness: First heard the sound coming out of a record store on Polk Street in San Francisco while eating pork buns. Ridiculously cool choreography on the first album cover, "One Step Beyond" (1979). They were like a punk-fueled calliope, with songs about a guy who steal underwear, toothless Nile River boatmen, kids trying to buy condoms, interracial dating and a guy who wants the night off from his girlfriend.
Police: Peroxided hair, a crunchy world beat and riveting songs about guys with blow-up dolls, prostitutes, suicidal teens who are “too full to swallow my pride” in their November 1978 debut, “Outlandos d’Amour.” Their 1979 sophomore effort “Regatta de Blanc” included the new wave anthem “Message in a Bottle.” We were ALL lonely waiting for our ships to come in.
Ramones: They were transitioning a bit in 1979 from the raucous "Road to Ruin" to the Phil Spector-over-produced "End of the Century." Every great band has an experimental phase. Teens who have never heard of the band still wear ripped jeans. That's impact.
Talking Heads: "Fear of Music" was their 1979 release and it included the incandescent “Heaven,” ridiculed as a place where nothing really happens.
Obviously there were lots of other bands planting the new wave/punk flag and this has been a brutally tough edit. But two I must salute are the Records and the Brains, both below the radar but both memorable.
The Records’ first U.S. release in 1979 sported a memorable cover of an alluring young woman in leather in a moody-looking record store. The songs were perfect power pop, with titles such as “Girls That Don’t Exist,” “All Messed Up and Ready to Go” and “Affection Rejected.” The enigmatic “Starry Eyes,” an enigmatic critique of the band's manager, got some decent radio airplay in San Francisco on the venerable KSAN.
But the key to why this record was so good is the guys in the truck. Among the producers were Robert John "Mutt" Lange (space does not allow me to list his credits), Tim Friese-Greene (who played keyboards on and produced some great records with Talk Talk) and Bill Price (RIP, 2016), who engineered "London Calling" and "Sandinista!" for the Clash.
Will Birch, who co-wrote most of the songs with John Wicks (RIP, 2018), went on to become a journalist and author. He wrote a bio of Ian Dury and the Blockheads and, fittingly, the liner notes on a 2008 expanded reissue of Nick Lowe’s "Jesus of Cool."
The Brains were an Atlanta-based synth-pop band with a heavy bass/drums bottom to the sound. Led by keyboardist, vocalist and songwriter Tom Gray, their first album included Gray’s masterpiece, “Money Changes Everything,” which has been recorded … by other people. Their second album, “Electronic Eden” — what a great new wave title! — was equally fine, but they disappeared after a follow-up EP.
The 1980 Grammy Awards, which honored … music … released in 1979, gave out an award for best disco recording to Gloria Gaynor for “I Will Survive.” 1980 was the only year it was ever presented. That year the Grammys also added a "rock" category. I am not making this up. ... Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe still make interesting records, although Elvis and Joe Jackson roamed further afield than almost anyone in the new wave/punk field. Graham Parker, Madness and many of the other artists mentioned here are still active ... My kids were horrified when I quit my subscription to Rolling Stone. It was like giving up on my youth. The politics had turned nasty and I didn’t seem to know anything about the bands being reviewed. Had a major flirtation with the Strokes, but it, like the band, faded. That’s rock ‘n’ roll. Now, I listen to a lot of New Orleans music … the Neville Brothers (RIP Charles 2018 and Art 2019) and Doctor John (RIP 2019). And my classical heroes Mahler (RIP 1911) and Schubert (RIP 1828). If Mahler had lived in 1979 in, say, New York City … he definitely would have been into punk. No doubt.