In his book “1971 – Never A Dull Moment”, the music journalist and writer David Hepworth makes the case for that year being “the most febrile and creative time in the entire history of popular music”, rock music’s Annus Mirabilis. And whilst he may very well have a point (any year that included the release of Tapestry, Led Zepplin IV, Sticky Fingers, Every Picture Tells A Story, Blue, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, and Hunky Dory has to have something going for it), I’m here to make the argument that – even as founder of Q magazine and Smash Hits, writer for the NME and Sounds, presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test, and anchor for Live Aid – he may very well have got this one wrong. For I’m here to make the incontrovertible claim that this accolade actually belongs to the other end of that turbulent decade. Yes, it is 1979, for sure, that must go down as the most satisfyingly disparate smorgasbord of rock and pop, the richest collision of sounds and influences, the time when anything was possible, when the rule book was well and truly trashed, when the foundations of whole future genres were being laid.
Now I’m going to lay all my cards on the table here upfront. In 1979 I was 14, and it is widely recognised that is an age where music has the biggest impact on your life. In fact, in a recent pseudo-scientific study carried out by the New York Times using Spotify listening habits, it concluded that the peak influence on listening habits is between the ages of 13 and 16, with men’s favourite song being released – on average – when they are 14 (for women it is 13). So clearly I’m less than objective on this one. But this is my party, and I’m not going to let any scientific evidence get in the way of a good story.
Admittedly in the outside world the claims for 1979 being a classic year feel somewhat wide of the mark. You’d think that a year that started with the country slowly grinding to an ignominious halt as the Winter of Discontent stretched on and on, rubbish stacking up on every street corner, bodies going unburied, with continued comparisons of the UK to third-world nations, could only get better. Yet the fall-out from those events saw one of the most divisive prime-ministers of all time enter Downing Street, somewhat ironically quoting the unifying words St Francis of Assisi, sending prices and unemployment spiralling, making changes to the country that it is still reeling from 40 years later. Alongside the continuing Irish “troubles”, the tension was palpable, the country was perched on a knife-edge. And yet maybe it was just this kind of background that provided the catalyst for what was to come in musical terms.
It’s probably true that the foundations were being laid throughout the years that preceded it. Disco had emerged from the underground gay clubs of New York in the early 1970s to become a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon by the end of the decade. The pub rock scene of the mid-1970s had collided with an art-school mind-set; been ignited by a huge sense of dissatisfaction with the escapist, irrelevant sounds of prog, soft rock and pop-pap; mixed in a healthy dose of boredom and disillusionment with a world of bleak inner cities, zero prospects, and the continued threat of nuclear annihilation; and in parallel with a nascent scene out of New York, had spawned the lightning bolt that was punk. Initial avant-garde experimentation with electronic sound creation had been channelled across Europe into more accessible forms by bands such as Kraftwerk, and was starting to bleed into the mainstream, thanks in no small parts to the attentions of that chameleon scene-setter, David Bowie. And the influx of migrants from Jamaica, the so-called Windrush generation, had brought with it the mutant rhythm and blues that had evolved into ska, reggae and rocksteady, sounds that were at once both exotic and familiar. Even that stalwart of unchangeability, hard rock, was being inspired by the energy and aggression of punk to evolve, including the tougher, leaner New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.
Out of this melting pot of influences emerged the shining beacon of popular music that was 1979. Admittedly it started somewhat inauspiciously. The number 1 single in the UK at the beginning of the year? Yes, that was YMCA by The Village People. Beloved of office parties and wedding discos ever since, it wasn’t exactly a beacon of quality, credibility and originality. The best-selling album during January? Well that will be Showaddywaddy’s Greatest Hits, re-hashed, watered down and popped-up rock and roll nostalgia. So does the case breakdown before it’s even had a chance to be heard? Certainly not.
Look behind the headlines, and you’ll see the signs were there. January saw the release of two albums of classic (what was to become) new wave singer-songwriters – Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces (which would spawn Oliver’s Army amongst others) and Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp! (likewise giving us Is She Really Going Out With Him?). Taking the energy, rawness and urgency of punk, but marrying it to more complex song structures, more literate and varied lyrical themes, and more diverse and original musical arrangements, these artists were there to move punk in new directions, to stretch it, grow it, evolve it and take it to new places. Clearly children of the punk ethos, they weren’t constrained by what had become for some a formulaic, rule-bound approach that was the antithesis of the spirit of punk.
Others were continuing a similar journey. Buzzcocks, The Undertones, The Jam and The Clash were all maturing their sounds – still driven by that original punk spirit, but marrying it to classic pop formats, sixties mod stylings, and classic rock themes. And from across the Atlantic one of the seminal punk-inspired pop/new wave bands, Blondie, horrified many by “going disco” with Heart of Glass. Yet it was this transforming spirit, this desire to meld disparate sounds and not to be constrained by the ghetto that many felt punk had become, that sparked new directions, new sounds and new careers.
Bands were also emerging under the banner of what would – only retrospectively – come to be described as post-punk; bands who stretched things even further. Definitely inspired by the spirit of punk, if not so obviously by its sounds, the likes of XTC and The Cure in the UK, and Talking Heads in the US, were pushing the boundaries. Angular, spiky, abrasive music that was born of a singular vision, this explosion of imagination was to take music in myriad directions – Talking Heads marrying their art-rock abstractness to African-inspired polyrhythmic sounds, The Cure almost inventing a new genre (Goth) alongside the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus (who’s awesome debut single, Bela Lugosi’s Dead, was like nothing anybody had ever heard in 1979). And then there was Joy Division. Inspired by a Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, the band’s classic debut, Unknown Pleasures, was the archetypal post-punk record, inspiring generations to come, and the source of continuing t-shirt sales with *that* cover!
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, as some are want to characterise those bands. Disco was in its heyday, and was everywhere. In fact it’s sheer ever-present-ness, and maybe also it’s ever-so-blatantly in-your-face non-macho-ness, led rise to the “Disco Sucks” movement in the US, a backlash that saw disco records being ceremoniously blown-up at a baseball game. Yet 1979 saw more classic disco songs that have outlived all their critics and continue to flourish on dance-floors across the world. Lost In Music, Good Times, Boogie Wonderland, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, I Will Survive, Ain’t No Stopping Us Now. Disco may not get the critical plaudits that white rock bands get, yet it changed the musical landscape forever, and most importantly has brought – and continues to bring – untold joy to millions.
In a very different way, the desire to dance was at the heart of another musical break-out during 1979. Marrying the energy and spirit of punk with infectious rhythms inspired by Jamaican ska music, the Two-Tone movement combined this with a sharp look and an up-front, in-yer-face multiculturalism and political awareness that was born of the inner-city. The Specials, Madness, The Beat, Selecter and others emerged in the year as flag-bearers for this new sound which was embraced in particular by the young across the country.
1979 was also the year that electronic music went over-ground. Inspired by the mid-70s albums of German band Kraftwerk, and the relative affordability of the basic instruments, a number of bands were experimenting with all-electronic formats. The early Human League were the critics darlings in this respect, and so when Gary Numan beat them to it and scored two number ones, firstly with his band Tubeway Army, and then solo, he was seen as something of a pretender, an upstart who wasn’t deserving of the privilege. Yet history and career longevity has shown Numan as a genuine innovator and talent. But those electronic sounds were bursting out all over during 1979, from OMD’s debut, Electricity, to the revitalised US mavericks Sparks, whose collaboration with legendary Italian producer Giorgio Moroder gave them with multiple hits. Even the Trevor Horn-led geek-band The Buggles were able to have a huge hit with the iconic Video Killed The Radio Star.
It wasn’t all just about the new kids on the block, though. Many established bands were at a commercial peak during 1979. A re-launched Roxy Music returned with Manifesto, a somewhat smoother version of their original sound, but one which was a clear continuation of their journey. Fleetwood Mac followed the enormous Rumours with Tusk – a less consistent record that still had some gorgeous peaks. Electric Light Orchestra followed the massive Out Of The Blue with the equally massive, hit spawning Discovery. Abba dominated the singles charts with multiple cuts from Voulez-Vous. And Pink Floyd finally gave in and released a single … and it was huge! Another Brick In The Wall, along with the haunting Gerald Scarfe video, was a somewhat unlikely and chilling Christmas number one. Prog-meets-confessional-singer-songwriter Kate Bush hit again with the stunning Wow (alongside the only full-scale tour of her career). Even heavy rock was propping up the top of the charts with the likes of Rainbow’s riff-tastic Since You’ve Been Gone.
So was this the best year ever? Clearly there is no objective way to answer that question. And that’s the great thing about those kind of questions – the fun is in the arguments, not in the answer. On a purely personal level the songs in this book represent a wonderfully diverse selection of totally classic songs that have – without exception – stood the test of time and, for the most part (certainly in my mind, at least) established themselves as bona fide classics. Whether you agree or not is not really the point. But I hope that you’ll concede that there was definitely something in the musical waters at the end of the “decade that taste forgot”.
Here is the songbook with all the songs in one place <songbook>
And here is the song list, with links to each of the individual song sheets:
- Another Brick In The Wall – Pink Floyd
- Are ″Friends″ Electric? – Tubeway Army
- Boys Don’t Cry – The Cure
- Bright Side Of The Road – Van Morrison
- Crazy Little Thing Called Love – Queen
- Cruel To Be Kind – Nick Lowe
- Dance Away – Roxy Music
- Don’t Bring Me Down – Electric Light Orchestra
- Duchess – The Stranglers
- The Eton Rifles – The Jam
- Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! – ABBA
- Heart Of Glass – Blondie
- Heaven – Talking Heads
- Hot Stuff – Donna Summer
- I Don’t Like Mondays – Boomtown Rats
- Is She Really Going Out With Him? – Joe Jackson
- Jimmy Jimmy – The Undertones
- London Calling – The Clash
- Making Plans For Nigel – XTC
- Message In A Bottle – The Police
- My Girl – Madness
- The Number One Song In Heaven – Sparks
- Sara – Fleetwood Mac
- Since You’ve Been Gone – Rainbow
- The Sound Of The Suburbs – The Members
- Spacer – Sheila B. Devotion
- Stop Your Sobbing – Pretenders
- Tears Of A Clown – The Beat
- They Don’t Know – Kirsty MacColl
- Transmission – Joy Division
- Up The Junction – Squeeze
- Video Killed The Radio Star – The Buggles
- We Are Family – Sister Sledge
- Wow – Kate Bush
- You Say You Don’t Love Me – Buzzcocks