As we near the end of 2019, the question has to be asked: was 1979 – all of 40 years ago – really one of the greatest years ever for being ‘Lost In Music’? Martin Gray takes a personal look back at arguably the most groundbreaking year of the 70s and marvels at the sheer diversity of music that was being released back then.
If there was to be a ‘Year Zero’ for the true ‘modern music’ that everybody talks about now, then perhaps we could look to one year in particular where a lot of this ‘new music’ suddenly burst forth in an unstoppable torrent, much of it gracing the TV and the airwaves.
1979 was that year in question. I was only 14 years old then, but this was quite possibly the single most amazing year for music of all genres. Better still, a lot of this exciting new music was there in front of us every week on Top Of The Pops and on the radio. There was actually very little that was ‘underground’ about much of it – it had gatecrashed the mainstream – albeit only after punk had kicked down the doors a year or two earlier.
Whilst many would argue that 1977/78 was when punk/post-punk truly changed everything, and to some extent this is true, it was actually 1979 which saw many of these post-punk acts (PiL and Wire to give just two examples) redefining, reinventing and breaking all boundaries with audacious experimentation and hybridisation (The Ruts, for example, were probably among the first punks who embraced dub reggae, but The Clash were obviously higher profile when they did likewise), such that what emerged was arguably even more significant.
Post-Punk vs Disco : who were the winners? Both, it would seem.
At the time, the single biggest selling music genre was still disco – thanks to the holy trinity of the Bee Gees, Chic and Donna Summer – but once punk lay its grubby maulers on the whole spectacle, everything shifted immeasurably towards a much more diverse and unpredictable landscape. It really was a breath of fresh air.
Post-punk effectively came of age in 1979 – with an astonishing number of hugely influential records which have never ceased to be spoken about with admiration and/or reverence to this day. Along with the so-called ‘new wave’ acts – ostensibly an updated form of power pop which took some of its spark and attitude from punk itself, and which in turn embraced a hugely diverse set of genres – many of these were successful and commercial enough to be regular fixtures in the charts and on Top Of The Pops.
Bands from both the UK and the US (and a few European ones too) made a huge indelible mark on the Nation’s consciousness, leading to episodes of Top Of The Pops filled with promising new acts in addition to the usual token left-overs from the M.O.R-dominated mid-1970s (Cliff Richard, Eagles, Leo Sayer, Art Garfunkel, Gilbert O’Sullivan, etc).
For instance, exactly half of the just 18 UK number 1 hits during the whole of 1979 were by acts classed as post-punk/new wave: Ian Dury & The Blockheads, The Boomtown Rats, The Buggles, with The Police, Gary Numan and Blondie scoring two number ones apiece. Tellingly, many of the others were disco acts: Bee Gees, Anita Ward, Village People and Gloria Gaynor.
But 1979 was also the year in which – in the US at least – an anti-disco backlash had started to take hold – this unwittingly had some effect on the UK’s love of disco (incredibly, the biggest selling disco act at the time, Chic, never had another big UK hit again after 1979) but it wasn’t enough to completely derail the voracious appetite for dance music as was all too clearly seen in the ensuing decades.
For example, exactly at the moment Chic stopped having UK hits in autumn 1979, another East Coast US act with a long-established funk/soul pedigree – Kool & The Gang – began their incredible run of UK hits, chalking up over twenty top 50 entries by the mid-80s.
The new wave acts like Blondie, Talking Heads, even Ian Dury & The Blockheads, subsequently had hit singles that were disco-influenced whilst even the likes of Electric Light Orchestra climbed on board this very same bandwagon (their huge selling 1979 album Discovery was even titled this for a reason)
Music in defiance of the times: a whole diversity of genres
So, post-punk, new wave, disco – what other genres graced the airwaves and the TOTP chart rundowns during 1979? Plenty more it seems: the emergence of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – oddly enough precipitated by already-established perennials Rainbow, Motorhead, AC/DC and Thin Lizzy – saw the likes of Saxon, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Girlschool, etc, on TOTP.
We also witnessed the rise of synthesizer acts (dubbed ‘Futurists’ by the music press) thanks to the likes of Gary Numan – the biggest selling electronic artist that year – and promising new acts like The Human League, Ultravox/John Foxx, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, New Musik, Cabaret Voltaire and Visage, not forgetting a re-styled and re-energised Bowie and Kraftwerk – the grand-daddies of them all – and many others all making their entry.
1979 was by no means a good year politically, economically or socially. It was a defiantly bleak and depressing time in so many other aspects. The election in May of Margaret Thatcher as the first ever female Tory Prime Minister was as much of an ice cold dagger into the very heart of the fabric of our country as it was a shallow victory for her party.
Her first tactics were to declare war on the unions and public sector workers – which culminated in the infamous ‘winter of discontent’ at the end of 1979 when our bins were left uncollected for weeks at a time all across the country as things ground to a halt.
The onset of Agit-pop and Ska revival: the inner cities fight back
Against this backdrop of abject despair, the music being heard/produced in our inner cities duly began to gain extra gravitas and urgency, giving rise to a new form of ‘urban protest’ music – with reggae, dub, and a new British ska revival being at the forefront of this novel musical revolution from the streets.
Reggae and ska (also bluebeat/rocksteady) had always been a popular form of music through the previous decades, but in this instance, and given the socio-political situation at that time, it was assimilated by groups and artists who, fuelled by the injustices of our ruling classes and the establishment, turned the music into a new form of protest art and completely reinvented these genres by pushing boundaries like never before.
One such example was Bristolian Mark Stewart’s combo The Pop Group – certainly one of the most uncompromising of all of the acts who released albums during this year, with a flailing barrage of discordant experimental free-form dub/punk/funk/noise which railed against social collapse and moral decline – a bleak treatise which truly reflected, and condemned, the state of the nation and humanity in general. Easy listening it certainly wasn’t but it was undoubtedly ahead of its time.
If Stewart had any contemporaries at this point, they would be The Gang of Four and The Slits. All possessed a similar clipped, metallic urgency in their dub-derived sound.
Politically-driven roots reggae acts like Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots and Aswad were also starting to make a big underground impact and then flirting with the mainstream; something which would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago in the early to mid-1970s when most reggae music – Bob Marley excepted – which sold in appreciable numbers was ostensibly either of the more easy-listening variety (Johnny Nash, Greyhound, John Holt, Ken Boothe, etc) or just plain novelty and pastiche (the appalling Jonathan King’s Piglets, Typically Tropical, Judge Dread, etc).
Perhaps the most notable of all these new-generation reggae-influenced movements was 2 Tone. This was the home-made record label set up by Coventry-based wide boy Jerry Dammers for initially releasing records by his band the Special AKA, subsequently signing equally vibrant ska-revival acts The Selecter, Madness, The Beat, and others, and having massive success and influencing a whole new devoted subculture of rude boys and ska-revivalists hooked on the power of fast hyper-active dance music with a punk attitude and fiercely astute socio-political lyrics.
There was one unforgettable edition of Top Of The Pops in November 1979 when three of the above bands (excepting The Beat) were all featured performing their hits one after the other. It was one of the biggest turning points in my life when, as a directionless 14-year-old secondary school kid, I desperately wanted to dress as cool as they looked on that TV screen. Once bitten by the 2 Tone bug, I never looked back.
It was an exciting time for so many new genres of music emerging for sure, despite – or indeed because of – all the adversity. And still more genres kept appearing: along with 2 Tone, a new mod revival scene took a brief chart foothold thanks to the film Quadrophenia – exactly 15 years after the first wave of Brit mods in 1964 – and sure enough, mod-influenced bands started to grace TOTP going into the start of the new decade with their brash, amphetamine-driven power pop – The Merton Parkas, Secret Affair, Purple Hearts, The Chords, The Jags, The Lambrettas.
Presiding over all this was The Jam, who had swiftly gone from noisy politico-punk poppers to the trailblazing faces of the new mod revival scene – clocking up several number 1 hits to their name and swiftly becoming one of the greatest ever UK singles bands of our generation (1979’s album Setting Sons becoming their first to break into the UK top 5).
The timely arrival of rap and hip hop
Whilst disco was still delighting and pissing folks off in equal measure throughout the whole of 1979 (make no mistake, there were truckloads of disco hits: half of them great, half of them dreadful), another new genre/sound from the east coast of the US, which had already begun taking shape in embryonic form a couple of years earlier, started to cross over to the UK in the same year.
Tellingly, this one took a bass riff from a classic disco hit earlier that year as its foundation to make a truly seismic impact. The riff was from Chic’s Good Times and the track in question was Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight; a formidable 15 minute rap marathon (in full 12″ form) which ushered in the first genuinely successful hip hop era. Coupled with tracks from contemporaries Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash, this new genre opened the doors to a whole new cultural revolution which has flourished ever since.
Highest ever number of vinyl singles sales in the UK
It’s no surprise then, to discover that there were more physical vinyl singles sales in 1979 than any other year before or since – whilst an exact official figure is never available, most educated estimates from music industry sources put it at between 80 and 82 million sales in total, possibly even more still.
This was no doubt helped by the fact that in 1978 and 1979 alone, the punk/post-punk and new wave explosions, as well as the huge popularity of disco, saw countless releases issued on coloured 7 and 12 inch – or specially shaped – vinyl (my first ever coloured vinyl 7″ single bought that year was Up The Junction by Squeeze – a number 2 hit in late spring 1979 – on lilac wax – and I still have it to this day), so it is without doubt that these marketing gimmicks helped propel the sales of singles to a previously unseen peak.
The rise of the independent record labels
1979 was also an epochal year of the true independent record label. Previously, with a few notable exceptions (Trojan, Island, Chrysalis, Virgin, A&M, etc) many such ‘indies’ were often subsidiaries of major labels or one-off ventures which did not have much shelf life. However, in 1978-1979, new ventures such as Rough Trade, Factory, and Mute for example, were beginning their embryonic journey – all inspired by the D.I.Y. punk ethos of ‘anyone can do it’ which would soon see them spawn a whole entire subculture in itself.
The first true ‘indies’ from the punk era, Stiff Records (London), New Hormones (Manchester), Fast Product (Edinburgh) and Eric’s (Liverpool) had started life two years earlier at the height of the first wave of punk. But perhaps the most notable of these ‘northern independents’ was Postcard, which began its life in Glasgow in 1979 and would go on to establish ‘the sound of young Scotland’ with releases from the following year onward by the feted likes of Orange Juice, Josef K and Aztec Camera.
The defiantly unconventional Factory Records, set up by Granada TV presenter and writer Anthony Wilson in partnership with Alan Erasmus, began life in a modest townhouse in South Manchester and would go on to be the most celebrated and controversial of all the independents – mostly thanks to an anarchic and bizarre catalogue system which took in not just physical record releases, but events, buildings, stationery, lawsuits, art installations, and even the cat that was resident mouser at the famed Manchester nightclub the Hacienda.
The only other notable UK independent label to rival (and even surpass) Factory in terms of its iconic house-style was 4AD, set up in London in 1980 by Ivo Watts-Russell and has seen hundreds of amazing pieces of art masquerading as its record releases in its ongoing and extensive catalogue. In terms of truly iconic independent record labels that have arisen from punk/post-punk, the achievements of the so-called ‘Big Four Indies’, Factory, Mute, Rough Trade and 4AD, remain unmatched.
4AD, Mute and Rough Trade continue to flourish to this day. Whilst Factory Records ceased operations in 1992 after filing for bankruptcy, its immense influence on the musical and cultural landscape – particularly in its elaborate packaging and artwork courtesy of innovative designers Peter Saville and Trevor Johnson – cannot go underestimated.
The Class of ’79 still making waves today
As for the present, consider how many of the acts who broke big or indeed set the template in 1979 are still gigging and recording to this day – either continuously or since reformed with original and/or new members.
There’s the ever reliable perennials Wire refusing to live in the past and forging on with new album after new album, a reformed Gang Of Four showing the young ‘uns who was doing the angular guitar posturings first, the ever-adventurous and eclectic veterans who make up the Mekons (despite some of the band long having relocated Stateside), the enduring pop/rock juggernauts that are Blondie and The Pretenders, the electro pop survivors The Human League, Gary Numan and OMD, the seemingly ageless and unstoppable force of nature that is Robert Smith and The Cure, etc – need we go on?
Only back in February this year, The Specials, of all bands, finally deservedly chalked up their first EVER number 1 UK album: Encore – arriving almost 40 years on from when their debut single Gangsters went top 10 in May 1979, which showed that even this late in the day, with the (now veteran) band having persevered through four original members having long departed, there is still a huge interest, coupled with affection and devotion, from their original – and ever youthful new – fanbase to ensure that this long-awaited new record, their first in over 35 years, was a massive success.
An honourable mention should also be made to their comrades The Selecter – who continue to entertain their devoted multi-generational following with their highly-charged and adrenalised shows and (still) excellent new albums, showing that they have lost none of their edge musically or politically.
Of course, everyone else who was a teenager or adult at that time will have their own particular favourite bands (or recollections of bands) that they will reminisce about, be it rushing out to buy their new single or album on the day of release, reading about them in the NME, Melody Maker, Sounds (for the grown ups) or Record Mirror and Smash Hits (for the young ‘uns), or indeed queueing outside the local theatre or poky town centre dive to witness them live for the first, second or third time. Despite – or indeed because of – all the adversity that was prevailing around Britain, 1979 really was a truly epochal time to be young, belligerent and clued up on the musical zeitgeist.
All words by Martin Gray.
You can find the links some of to his other articles here