1979- the birth of post-punk, the last dominance of disco, the rise of New Wave & Synth-pop and a great music year smack dab in the middle of what I consider to be the 2nd golden age of the rock era. Normally I take 12 albums a week over a 2-week period to work to listen to for each year I’m reviewing. 1979 is so filled with amazing albums I had to extend the period to 3 weeks and the albums to 13 a week and there were still a few great albums left over. ’79 was also the first year I remember being fully cognizant of the radio. Sure I listened to radio before then, in my parents car and probably even in my own bedroom, but in ’79 I remember the big singles of the year as they were being released, rather than hearing them as oldies.
Though punk rock garnered little airplay in the U.S. and certainly didn’t reach my then 7-year old ears until I was much older, it remains one of the most enduring and influential genres of the seventies. Punk’s antecedents began in the late 60’s and early 70’s with groups like the Velvet Underground, the MC5, the Stooges & the New York Dolls, mostly in cities like New York, Detroit and Cleveland. By 1976 it had become a full-fledged scene with the Ramones leading the charge and East Village club CBGB’s as its home base. By 1977 the music blew up in the U.K. and became bigger that it had ever been in the U.K. The Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks & the Damned were some of the biggest bands of punk’s first wave. Scenes move quickly, especially in the U.K. and by 1979 Punk was dying out as a scene and splintering into different factions. The Sex Pistols had broken up and punk icon Sid Vicious (their bassist) had died in February of ’79. Lead singer Johnny Rotten formed Public Image Limited the previous year, a much more dissonant and even less commercial group. P.I.L. took the attitude of punk, but with their slow, drone-y sounds had more in common with krautrock, art rock, Jamaican dub and funk. In ’79 they released their classic second album “Metal Box” (released in the U.S. the following year and titled “Second Edition”) and would be known as one of the first and seminal bands of post-punk. Fellow British band Joy Division formed in 1977 but was largely unsuccessful until released their debut full length “Unknown Pleasures”, one of the true post punk classics and best alt rock albums of all time. Though the group hard a darker, gloomier sound than most other first wave Brit-Punk, their sound wasn’t fully fleshed until “Pleasures”. Other Brit acts carrying the post-punk tag and highly active in ’79 include Wire, Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Pop Group, Bauhaus & the Fall. Unlike Brit Punk’s first wave, whose common identity included fast, driving guitar chords, short song lengths and plenty of anger, most of the post-punkers had little in common in sound. What tied them together was their arty, experimental nature and anti-commercial, anti-establishment aesthetic. Bauhaus- along with Joy Division & Siouxsie, inspired the post-punk offshoot ‘Goth’. Bauhaus’s 1979 single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is still known as Goth’s signature song- its “Stairway to Heaven”.
Some of the first wave punkers had some tricks up their sleeves as well. The Clash released their third album “London Calling” in December of 1979. It’s a double album tour de force, melding punk, ska, dub reggae, fifties rock n’ roll & pure pop. It’s both experimental and commercial and it somehow all works. I voted it my very favorite album of the seventies and it’s one of my favorites of all time- a perfect end to the 70’s and intro to the 80’s. The Damned, who had released the first British punk hit single with “New Rose” in 1976 had faltered with their second album and broken up. They somehow got back together in 1979 and released what is largely regarded as their best full-length album “Machine Gun Etiquette”. The great Buzzcocks released their “Singles Going Steady” compilation covering all of their singles from 1977-79. It’s as essential a comp to the 70’s as “Staring At the Sea: the Singles” by the Cure is to the 80’s. They also released their third and last album in the first wave of the band “A Different Kind Of Tension”. Like the Clash and Joy Division it moved away from simple three-chord punk of their earlier years and toward a more challenging, experimental sound. The Jam released their third album “Setting Sons”, a punk concept album, which is a British classic even if mostly unknown in America and contains the brilliant single “Eton Rifles”. Though they weren’t first wave Irish punk group the Undertones released their full-length debut. It was a throwback to pure power pop punk and contains “Teenage Kicks”, frankly one of the best singles of all-time- punk or not.
Some other important British bands emerged in the late 70’s who were tough to file under either the punk or post-punk tag. Only one of these groups would become hugely commercially successful and even then not until much later. This was the Cure who released their first album “Three Imaginary Boys” and a great slew of singles “Killing An Arab”, “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Jumpin’ Someone Else’s Train” all in late ’78 or ’79. The Cure’s original sound was much more lively and connected to punk than anything they released after it. Socialist leaning group Gang Of Four released their debut “Entertainment!” another true classic of the post-punk era. GOF’s lyrics are nearly exclusively political and the band played an extremely tightly wound punk funk hybrid. You can either thank them or lambast them for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone, but though their music is highly danceable they were hardly a party band. They also remain the single biggest influence on the dance punk revival of the last decade. Three important female dominated punk groups formed in 1979 as well- the Slits, the Raincoats and the Delta 5. Though none sold well, all three would become hugely influential on 80’s underground music and especially the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 90’s. The Delta 5’s first single “Mind Your Own Business” is a punk classic and The Raincoats self-titled debut along with the Slits “Cut” are both fantastic albums. By ’79 Punk was hardly just a boys club and began to incorporate an increasing number of women, gay people and people of color. It became known as music for people who had been societal outcasts with politically progressive attitudes and at its best invoked freedom in both its music and its values.
Another great offshoot of both punk & reggae music happened in ’79 as well. The 2- Tone Ska movement consisting most prominently of bands like the Specials, Madness, the Selecter and later the Beat (the English Beat in the U.S.). All of these groups were on the same indie label- 2-Tone. In ’79 the Specials released their brilliant self-titled debut album (produced by Elvis Costello!), another classic album of all-time ever. It would probably easily make my top 100 albums of all-time I gets better each time I hear it. Tracks like “A Message To You Rudy”, “Gangsters” and “Little Bitch” are 2nd wave Ska classics. Madness released their debut album as well “One Step Beyond”, including the classic title cut and “My Girl” and the Selecter had the great single “On My Radio”. Along with the Clash, the Slits, the Police (whose second album “Reggata De Blanc” was released in ’79) and the Raincoats, who all incorporated both ska and reggae into their sounds, it showed how big an influence Jamaican music and culture was on Great Britain in the late 70’s. Reggae itself was going through a transitional phase. Though its greatest practitioner Bob Marley released the very solid and very political “Survival” album in 1979 most of reggae’s other biggest acts lay formant in the very late 70’s. Reggae would move to a less organic, cheesier sound into the 80’s.
A handful of less experimental, more commercial new British artists were operating at a high octane pace in ’79 as well. Elvis Costello released his third amazing album in a row “Armed Forces”, which included successful singles “Accidents Will Happen”, “Oliver’s Army” and the definitive “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” (included on U.S. version of album only). The latter song was written by Nick Lowe, who released his own second album “Labour Of Lust”, which contains hit single (even in America!) “Cruel To Be Kind”. Joe Jackson released his debut album, the great “Look Sharp!” as well as his follow-up “I’m The Man”. “Is She Really Going Out With Him” was on his debut and is probably his signature track. Graham Parker & the Rumour released their third and best album “Squeezing Out Sparks”. These four gentlemen tend to get lumped together as young, angry, brilliant singer-songwriters indebted to both early 70’s British Pub Rock, classic rock n’ roll and punk if more in spirit than in actual sound. Along with fellow British groups like XTC (songwriters: Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding) and Squeeze (songwiters: Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook) they comprised most of the best songwriters of the New Wave era and a fresh start away from the leading lights of the 1st Rock era. One of the most important artists of the 70’s, who really bridged the gap between the 60’s and 70’s more than almost anyone else, David Bowie, released the last album “Lodger”, of his Berlin trilogy. If not one of his very best albums, it was certainly another outstanding Bowie effort. Bowie fit in just as well with the New Wavers and the Punks as he has in the previous British Glam-Rock era.
From the above paragraphs its pretty clear that Brits dominated the rock landscape in 1979, but that’s not to say that there was nothing going on in America except for disco. America had its own big New Wave bands. The Cars, from Boston, released the follow-up to their note perfect debut, titled “Candy-O”. Even if not quite up to the caliber of its predecessor “Candy-O” is a very underrated album and has classics like the title cut, hot song “Let’s Go” and “Dangerous Type”. Atlanta’s B-52’s combined punk, New Wave, surf music and a drag queen aesthetic to create a wildly unique sound & look. Their debut “The B-52’s” is the best of their albums with classic tracks “Rob Lobster”, “Dance This Mess Around”, “Planet Claire” and “52 Girls”. CBGB’s originals Blondie and Talking Heads continued to rise in commercial prominence. Blondie’s “Eat To the Beat” has the great singles “Atomic” and “Dreaming” and the Talking Heads “Fear Of Music” began incorporating African polyrhythms and had a minor hit with “Life During Wartime”. One of the biggest American hits was one hit wonder “My Sharona” by New Wave Skinny tie band the Knack. It dominated the airwaves in 1979 more than any other rock song and the group even had a great follow up hit “Good Girls Don’t”, but would fall into increasing obscurity after being unable to follow up their earlier success. The other really popular American rock music at the time came from the arena rock/hard rock & heavy metal communities. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers bridged the gap very well between New Wave and arena rock and had a huge year with their “Damn the Torpedoes” album, which had four hit songs “Refugee”, “Here Comes My Girl”, “Even the Losers” and “Don’t Do Me Like That”. Major Label, heavily touring bands like Boston, Foreigner, Journey, Styx, & REO Speedwagon all had huge hits and successes in the late 70’s. And each of the bands had some great songs to go along with some sutter cheese. Most of their albums (the first Boston album excluded) were very top heavy with singles and lots of filler and the bands were tough to get behind. Many of those songs have lived on though and the bands still tour even if only on nostalgia. There were some landmark heavy rock releases in ’79 as well. Cheap Trick, who had already released three studio albums to little success in their native America, came out with “Live at Budokan”, as they were already a huge band in Japan, and finally achieved a major hit. The live version or “Want You To Want Me” became their staple cut and “Budokan” remains a definitive live album in the annals of hard rock. Australia’s AC/DC, who had been releasing albums since 1975, finally had success in America as well with 1979’s “Highway to Hell”. Unfortunately singer Bon Scott died of an alcohol overdose shortly thereafter. The band would unexpectedly go on to even bigger fame with replacement single Brian Johnson in the 80’s, but Bon Scott remains irreplaceable. Los Angeles band Van Halen, who could honestly receive both credit and shame for spawning the hair metal generation, released their second self-titled album Van Halen II. Like the Cars, it might not have been up to the quality of the debut, but it was a great album in its own right. English group Motorhead pretty much invented the Thrash Metal genre with their 1979 albums “Overkill” and “Bomber”. Their frontman, Lemmy Kilminster, remains one of the biggest icons icons in Heavy Metal today and is also beloved by Punks and seems like one of the coolest men alive.
Some other big rock records in 1979 were known for their excess. Progressive group Pink Floyd released their epic album “The Wall”, which was a sprawling & confusing album about the trials & tribulations of a boy growing up in post WWII England, who loses his father, is domineered and overprotected by his mother, becomes a rock star and loses himself in excess and his own childhood hang-ups. Though it was mostly maligned critically compared to Floyd’s other 70’s albums it is extremely beloved by the post-Boomer generation. I know that this kid spend many hours over-analyzing the movie and soundtrack and the VHS tape remains the only one that I broke due to excessive plays. After becoming the biggest rock band in the world in the mid 70’s Fleetwood Mac, also released the double album “Tusk”. Though it definitely contains its share of filler time has also treated it well- there are a handful of gems on the record like “Think About Me”, What Makes You Think You’re the One”, and “Sara”. California soft-rockers the Eagles released their last album “The Long Run”, which was also critically lambasted at the time, but it contains great songs like the title cut, “In the City” and the beautiful ballad “I Can’t Tell You Why”. Not a terrible way to go out. British progressive pop group Supertramp released “Breakfast in America”, their biggest hit song. Four tracks off of the album – the title cut, “Goodbye Stranger”, “The Logical Song” & “Take the Long Way Home” remain staples on classic rock radio to this day. The biggest rock band of the 70’s Led Zeppelin released their final studio album “In Through the Out Door”. It may not have been up to the quality of the group’s other definitive releases, but it was more than solid and would still better most bands best efforts. The band would call it quits after drummer John Bonham died of an alcohol overdose in the following year, capping off the most amazing career in the annals of hard rock. Classic rock artist Neil Young capped off the decade perfectly with his “Rust Never Sleeps” album with band Crazyhorse. He was one of the only first wave boomer artists who gave props to punk. In his track “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” he sang the lines “The King is gone but he’s not forgotten, this is the story of Johnny Rotten”, nodding to both early rock n’ roll and the punk movement, acknowledging that the old must give way to the new but should continue to be respected. The song also includes the oft quoted “It’s better to burn out than to fade way”.
Though disco music was at its greatest heights in 1978 in the wake of the “Saturday Night Fever” phenomenon, it was still producing fantastic stuff in ’79. But little did its supporters and the record companies know, backlash was just around the corner. The infamous “Disco Sucks” rally was held at the Chicago White Sox baseball stadium on July 12 of ’79 and though there were still plenty of disco hits afterward that rally signified the beginning of the end of the genre- at least in its most popular form. But disco was still all over the airwaves in 1979. The Bee Gees followed up their “SNF” success with the “Spirits Have Flown” album. It wasn’t as big a hit but does contain disco classics like “Tragedy” and excellent ballads like “Too Much Heaven” and “Love You Inside Out”. Swedish band ABBA, much bigger internationally than in the U.S., released their “Voules-Vous” album to big success. There were also several huge one hit wonders in 1979 disco like Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”, Amii Stewart’s cover of “Knock On Wood” and Philly soul producers McFadden & Whitehead’s iconic “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”, which along with Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family”, became the soundtracks to the Pittsburgh Pirates world series winning team (sadly over my Baltimore Orioles). Speaking of Sister Sledge disco in 1979 was really dominated by three sounds. Chic, consisting of songwriter/producers Nile Rodgers (also the guitarist) and Bernard Edwards (the bassist) produced Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” album, which also held hit singles “Lost In Music” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer”. Chic also released their third and best album “Risque”, which had single “Good Times”, was one of the best disco songs period. It has been copped and sampled in hip hop too many times to count and the sophisticated funk of Chic remains hugely influential on today’s dance oriented musicians. German producer Giorgio Moroder, who had found his muse in Boston singer Donna Summer, produced her biggest album, 1979’s “Bad Girls”. The title track, “Hot Stuff” and “Dim All the Lights” were all disco smashes. Donna also released non-album singles “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Barbara Streisand and “Heaven Knows”. It was her biggest year and ensured her with the legendary status she enjoys today. The third sound was Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. Quincy produced Michael’s 1979’s come-back album “Off the Wall”, which was the first album in the second act of his career and what really pushed him to superstardom. The title track, “Rock With You” and “Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough” are all R&B/Disco classics and to my ears “Off the Wall” is an even better album than 1982’a “Thriller”.
Another huge star in the making in 1979 was Prince, who released his second self-titled album. Though he would only have a few comparatively minor R&B hits with “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” & “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, industry insiders already understood his talent and knew he was on his way. The Parliament-Funkadelic machine, which so dominated funk music in the 70’s, particularly after James Brown descended, released the “Gloryhallostoopid” and “Uncle Jam Wants You” albums in 1979. Neither was either groups best effort but tracks like “Not Just Knee Deep” and “Theme from the Black Hole” are P-funk classics. The band would peter out in the early 80’s. Other funk disco or funk R&B hybrids like Earth, Wind & Fire, Brass Construction, Mass Production & the Gap Band had major hits in ’79 as well, but the biggest story in black music in 1979 was rap. Though it was thought of as a novelty and only achieved one chart success in 1979, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” it was the beginning of what would eventually become the biggest commercially dominant form of music for over a decade. A few other early rap classics were released in ’79- “Spoonin’ Rap” by Spoonie Gee, “Christmas Rappin’” by Kurtis Blow and “Rappin’ and Rockin’ the House” by the Funky Four + 1. The music would explode in ensuing years even if it remained a fairly insular scene for the next half decade. But check out those early rap tracks- they are all surprisingly great and lines from each track are often referenced in later rap classics.
JOE JACKSON- LOOK SHARP!