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Good Times, Those Were Good Times. A Personal look at the music of 1979

AQ jazz writer eulogises his more modern 1979 year of pop culture as seminal to his tastes and creation of the habit of buying vinyl to the cost of his pocket.

Certain years stand out in pop’s history – 1956, 62, 67 and 77 for example, ones which loom large in the music pantheon, but I would like to offer 1979 as one deserving of such accolades. Of course, now that record companies have realised that in the age of reissues, remastering, alternative versions and unreleased tracks, every year and every release is deemed worthy of celebrating because it allows more product to be sold. But the very fact that they are bought does show that such anniversaries allow fans to remember, or even discover music for the first time. Now, it doesn’t take a professor of musicology to realise that it’s all purely subjective – my classic album may be your unlistenable racket. For example, whilst I am raising the bunting, cutting the cake and blowing up the balloons to celebrate 1979, many people will no doubt be fondly remembering  the string of hit singles from The Police. Personally, I didn’t like them then,and I don’t like them now. But then, such is personal taste, such is music, and such are anniversaries. 

That forty years ago, Sting and boys were charting, isnoticeable for the popularisation of pop reggae and was indicative of how elements of punk had lost its sharp edges and gone mainstream. Much of it had been rebranded as ‘New Wave’, which often meant a band dumping the flairs, getting a haircut and wearing a skinny tie, and including a Beatlesquehook in a song.  But we shall return to punk’s repercussions later.

Two mega stars released important albums that year, which would line them up huge commercial successes in the coming decade. David Bowie released Lodger, the last of his ‘Berlin’ trilogy and Michael Jackson Off the Wall. The latter would provide nominations to 1979 disco single of the year. Growing out of LGBT and black American clubs, disco combined soul with the developing technology of synthesisers.

Disco allowed people an escape from the hard reality of their lives, as Chic sang in Good Times, “Must put an end to this stress and strife”.

Synths launch into chartdom had been with 1977’s I Feel Love by Donna Summer, where producer Giorgio Moroder had used a Moog Modular 3P instead of the more traditional backing of an orchestra. Disco allowed people an escape from the hard reality of their lives, as Chic sang in Good Times, “Must put an end to this stress and strife”. 1979 unleashed a firestorm of classic disco singles, such as Good Times, but also McFadden & Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now, Sister Sledge’s We are Family and Earth, Wind and Fire’s Boogie Wonderland to name just a few. One could easily nominate the year for being the best ever for disco. One single, which reached number three in the UK charts, would set in train something much, much bigger. At the time, many might have regarded Rappers Delight by the Sugarhill Gang as just a novelty single, but the New York hip hop scene which spawned it, didn’t. Nor did Chic’s Niles Rodgers, or members of the Clash and Blondie who visited those clubs. But even then, did they ever imagine that hip hop would become the world’s dominant music form? The thought of the aristocracy of disco and punk at a hip hop joint is symptomatic of the cross fertilisation of sounds, which was an important element to creating the diversity of the music of that year.

The Clash, like The Jam and The Damned, had recovered from a second album slump and were enjoying success with three great albums (London’s Calling, Setting Sons and Machine Gun Etiquette respectively). Both the Clash and Jam would later incorporate elements of  soul and hip hop in their music. Indeed, London’s Calling is a remarkable album for combining so many different styles – reggae, punk, rockabilly and ska, and yet creates a marvellous cohesive statement. As for the premier leader of punk – the Sex Pistols, 1979 was a mixed year, to say the least. A year earlier they had split, and in February 79, Sid Vicious had died of an overdose. His mate, John Lydon, had a far more successful twelve monthswith Public Image Limited releasing Metal Box. Combining elements of funk, disco, dub, punk and avant-garde, it is a landmark release of quite stunning music. Its power and range makes it a truly remarkable album, which to be honest, sounds unlike anything else, before or since. It is now regarded  as a post-punk classic and if 1979 can be said to be the year of the disco greats and of the birth of hip hop, it can also claim to be the year that post-punk came into its own. It certainly would in my record collection. For what feast of music it was.

The year saw a combination of many elements helping stage a festival of musical creativity. Punk had unleashed energy and the spirit to experiment. You didn’t need to practise for decades to perfect your Eric Clapton forty minute guitar solo, instead, just learn a few chords and do it. Independent labels such Factory, Stiff, Postcard and Fast were springing up and escaping the restrictions of the major’s orthodoxy. Many of the bands finding themselves on vinyl for the first time had been inspired by seeing the Pistols live. Considering they rarely played to audiences of more than 100 their influence is truly amazing. It sometimes seems that those who did not start up a band were the minority. One pair who were, were two Salford lads, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, who saw them in Manchester in 1976. Purchasing guitars straight away, they formed a band and in 1979, as Joy Division, released their first long player – Unknown Pleasures. Although selling out of its initial pressing it didn’t chart. However, it and their performance on BBC2’s Something Else, established the band and their label – Factory Records. Like so many of the post-punk records, it’s tenebrous sound was highly regarded the New Musical Express (NME), and so in turn by those (including me) who religiously read it. But they were pretty much unknown by the wider public. Forty years later that is far less so, and is now regarded as a classic.

Phil Brett with  Viv Albertine , guitarist with  The Slits  and solo artist, at the launch of her autobiography in 2014.

But it wasn’t just the Sex Pistols who were providing the impetus to form a band. By 79, musicians were looking around at a whole range of musical inspirations, including from more rhythm based styles. The Talking Heads, Fear of Music was heavily indebted to African rhythms. The Slits,who had been in punk from the start, produced  Cut, which somehow channelled reggae via Viv Albertine’s scratchy guitar (which would influence so many post-punk guitarists)and Ari Up’s distinctive vocals. In my humble opinion, it is one of the great albums of any era, let alone the seventies, and Typical Girls, a single from it stands as one of the great singles. And whilst we are at it, its b side, is one of those covers (of I Heard it Through the Grapevine) which reimagines and recreates a well-known song to make something, well, great. The originality of the music makes it still sound fresh.

Whilst they did sing of love, these weren’t conventional love songs, but ones questioning gender roles and stereotypes. As were The Au Pairs who released their first single (You/Kerb Crawler). Punk had at least in some part challenged the restricted notion of a woman’s place in music as merely being the pretty lead singer. Women were picking up instruments and making music in bands such as the Slits, Raincoats, Au Pairs, and Delta 5.

The Raincoats had both art school and squatting backgrounds, which many of the post-punk musicians did. Their self-titled debut is a perfect example of how songs can simultaneouslysound as if they are about fall apart at any moment, and yet sound totally wonderful. They, like The Fall (Live at the Witch Trials) and Swell Maps (A Trip to Marineville), were taking the DIY simplicity of punk forwards, away from those simply aping the Clash, and instead, using it to break down musical restrictions. Dismissed (incorrectly) by amongst others, Danny Baker, as being unable to play, The Raincoatsstill have managed to produce a series of fabulous albums. Their music is fresh and invigorating. And it also includes another object lesson on how to cover a classic, with their version of The Kinks’ Lola, where being female vocalists give the song a whole new dimension. Baker might not have been impressed, but the likes of John Lydon and Kurt Curbain were. As was I. As I am still.

Whereas today, many musicians leave a distance of a small country between themselves and politics, this wasn’t the case in 79. Two Tone Records, set up by Jerry Dammers, was devoted to releasing ska influenced music, with politics very much a part of it. In 1979 we were truly spoilt by classic debuts, two more released: both on the label – one by Dammers’ band – The Specials, and one by The Selector, both of which had an incendiary impact on British music. Former label mates Madness would release, yes, their debut album, in October on Stiff Records. These bands were producing exciting songs, which meant something. Two Tone was a reflection of the modern multi-cultural country which Britain was (and is): its positives such as the culture and music, and the negatives such as racism and unemployment, which they faced. 

In the winter of 78/79 public sector workers struck against James Callaghan’s Labour Government’s pay restraint, getting the label, the Winter of Discontent

In very different ways, The Raincoats, The Specials and Stiff Little Fingers reflected the political turmoil of Britain. Northern Ireland continued to be a war zone. In the winter of 78/79 public sector workers struck against James Callaghan’s Labour Government’s pay restraint, getting the label, the Winter of Discontent. Attempting to take advantage of it, the Nazi National Front had been gaining ground. In response, the Anti-Nazi League had been set up and many of the punk and post-punk bands would give public support, in both marches and gigs across the country, resulting in the collapse of the NF. On the 4th May Margaret Thatcher would become Prime Minister quoting St Francis on bringing harmony to discord. Something which she singularly failed to do. 

The ‘Troubles’ might have been a news item to me but to the Belfast band Stiff Little Fingers, it was simply life. Whilst others were ditching the 1-2-3 buzz saw guitar approach, theyproved with their first LP, Inflammable Material, and two corking singles in Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster, that you could combine punk chords, with intelligence and political nous. 

From Leeds, The Gang of Four, had a more funky guitar sound, and lyrics which were far more abstract Marxist incontent but they had been created in the same Britain. If I wasto nominate album of the year, then there would be many contenders. Even just picking debut of the year would be hard enough, but in either list, it would be, by my reckoning, include their Entertainment. Jon King almost shouting thelyrics, mixing Lenin and humour; Andy Gill’s choppy guitar and Dave Allen’s funky bass; and then mixing Situationist art into the music and artwork, make the record almost the archetypical post-punk album. Something similar was happening in Bristol, where The Pop Group had formed in 77 and released their first album, Y two years later. It had more shrieks and free jazz than you’d hear in most of the records in the rock section of your local HMV, but it is a sublime set of songs, superbly produced by dub musician Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell (who did likewise for The Slits).  Tracks such Thief of Fire and Don’t Call Me Pain explode out the speakers. But then, like I said, my classic album may be your unlistenable racket. 

So maybe 1979 could be the year of the debut. In addition to the above, The Cure released Three Imaginary Boys, The Undertones their eponymous tilted album  and The Human League Reproduction. The latter used synths such as the Korg 700S and Roland Sytem-100, which had dropped in price and become more accessible for purchase.  They shared an approach of disco, using the instruments instead of the more traditional. Whilst not immediately sounding like the disco, it is noteworthy that few years later their records would be appearing in DJ sets for the emergence of the New Romantics. Despite critical praise (and a name check in the Undertones’ chart single, My Perfect Cousin) they were overshadowed by the success of the much more pop orientated Gary Numan who would have two number one albums in the year (Replicas and Pleasure Principle). In 1980 Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left to form Heaven 17, leaving Philip Oakley, the name of the group. Whatever the personal upset that may have caused them, it gave the public two great synth-pop bands for the price of one.

The sounds of 1979 would be heard by more than just my ears. Included would be some of the biggest names of the following decade. Madonna Louise Ciccone was dancing to disco and early hip hop, and seeing The Slits, and beginning to get ready for her launch into super-stardom. Also listening to hip hop and making their first steps of DJing and rapping were Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” MacDaniels. They would unite and in the early eighties become Run DMC. In Dublin, four young guys would at least be in part be inspired by punk to form U2 (personal disclaimer here – my view of them is akin to mine of The Police, but one cannot deny their importance). Other bands were either being formed or were making their first tentative steps in the year. The Associates, Cocteau Twins, The Fire Engines, The Revillos and Spandau Ballet were to enjoy either critical or commercial success within a short while. Some would enjoy both. 

So, for me, 1979 is an epic year for music. Which was probably why in my first ever job, my meagre wages were consumed by record buying. Every week there was a ‘must have’ release. What made it so exciting – and so expensive – was the huge range of music being produced. For a NMEista such as myself there was a veritable avalanche of releases, some being heard by not many more than two post-punks and a dog, and others troubling the lower reaches of the charts. The likes of The Jam and Elvis Costello were going from strength to strength. Then there was the American disco. In 1979 mainstream and indie were producing innovative and imaginative sounds. As Miles Davis once said – “Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is”. Too true. Cost me fortune, mind.