Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Music Year: 1978

The Onion AV Club’s ongoing series My Music Year is a fairly straightforward concept ("In My Favorite Music Year, A.V. Club music writers choose the years that speak to them most deeply, however fresh in memory or far in the past."), but it's given me a lot to think about. While I’m intrigued by the idea of highlighting a particular year in music that has personal resonance, I'm having trouble committing to a specific year. It seems like every year has its riches and its dross, and I can't help feeling that to choose one year is to overlook another. As a means of bypassing this indecisiveness, I have decided to review my birth-year. I'm not sure how I hit on the idea, but I'm excited about exploring the year I was born for hints at my musical sensibilities. How much of the music released the year I was born would end up being a part of my life in one way or another? We shall see.

First, let’s address the music that most people were actually listening to in 1978. Things were pretty dire, if we’re to judge by this Billboard compilation. This was the era of Saturday Night Fever, and I'm afraid disco has had minimal impact on my musical experience. (Unless we're taking into account disco's formative influence on early rap music, but still.) The soundtrack to Grease was a monster hit. Critics were raving about Billy Joel’s "classic" The Stranger. Foreigner, Kansas, Barry Manilow... It's pretty easy for me write all of this off as pop dross symptomatic of its age. But beneath the surface of 1978, there were darker and far more interesting things to be heard.

The CBGB's crowd were making outstanding music: Television released Adventure, an intricate recording that only disappoints if compared to its majestic predecessor, Marquee Moon; The Ramones were going strong; The Patti Smith Group was back in action following Smith's recovery from a serious back injury; Talking Heads released More Songs About Buildings and Food; and Blondie released what is almost certainly their finest album, Parallel Lines. Overseas, the new music - read: punk - was becoming ever more jagged, abrasive, and...arty. At the vanguard were the band Wire, who followed up their epochal Pink Flag with Chairs Missing. Johnny Rotten, finding himself without a band, hooked up with Keith Levene and Jah Wobble to form Public Image Ltd., releasing a debut record very much in keeping with this dynamic shift. Joy Division released their debut EP, An Ideal for Living, which seems to perfectly exemplify the dissonance of punk energy and cold detachment. It might be tempting to view ‘78 as the year punk rock transitioned to Post-punk and New Wave, but that explanation is far too neat to be borne out by history. There’s no such dividing line. The Sex Pistols disbanded that year, but The Clash were only on the second of their string of canonical punk albums. (Give ‘Em Enough Rope in ‘78, and London Calling the following year.) And while punk may have been fragmenting in England, it was just taking root in the U.S. underground. The truest harbinger of things to come was an independently released EP by a newly formed Los Angeles band called Black Flag. The Nervous Breakdown EP featured a decidedly rudimentary approach at this early stage in the band's history, but the D.I.Y. revolution was certainly underway.

1978 was about more than abstruse punk bands, though. David Bowie was working his way through the Berlin Trilogy, comprised of the albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger. Bowie had some help from Brian Eno, who was all over the place in '78. In addition to co-writing and performing several songs on The Berlin Trilogy, Eno released two solo albums (Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Music for Films), helmed the No New York project, and produced albums for Harold Budd, Devo, and Talking Heads. The cleverly titled Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was the debut album by the Akron, Ohio devolutionists, and their robotic cover of  "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is a great starting point for anyone interested in New Wave. The Cars self-titled debut was a more radio-ready approach; while there's nothing experimental about it, there isn't a weak song on the album. It was also a banner year for George Clinton's brand of funk: Funkadelic released One Nation Under a Groove, Parliament released Motor Booty Affair, and Bootsy’s Rubber Band released Player of the Year? Bootsy. So-called "heartland rock" was well served in '78: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were still finding their footing on their sophomore album, but “Listen to Her Heart” hints at the outstanding music they’d release the following year on Damn the Torpedoes; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band released Stranger in Town. Cheap Trick put out an excellent record of the power-pop variety, Heaven Tonight. ("Surrender" has undoubtedly made its way into your musical vocabulary, but have you ever considered how hilariously subversive the lyrics are?) Rap music wouldn't make any waves until the following year, but it was in 1978 that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five crewed up in South Bronx, New York.

Other records released that year that would one way or another become a part of my life: Tom Waits' Blue Valentine, Big Star's Third/Sisters Lovers, Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear.

My Top 5 Albums of 1978

Some Girls - The Rolling Stones

"Laughter, joy, and loneliness and sex and sex and sex and sex..."

By the late '70s, the Stones had been together for over fifteen years. They had transitioned from a white-boy R&B combo, to psychedelic hard rockers, to earnest devotees of American roots music, and gone through several other stages of maturation. On their album Some Girls, they were incorporating everything from disco ("Miss You") to Bakersfield-style country ("Far Away Eyes") to gritty New York punk ("Shattered") into their by-then legendary song-craft. The gloriously pleading "Beast of Burden" has got to be one of the greatest pop songs ever. If I'm being completely honest, Some Girls is the last unadulterated classic the Rolling Stones produced. There would be flashes of brilliance and over-hyped comebacks, but the band never reached these heights again.

Darkness at the Edge of Town - Bruce Springsteen

"I've done my best to live the right way, I get up in the morning and go to work each day, but your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold, sometimes I feel so weak I just wanna explode... "

Bruce Springsteen has had phenomenal success, but it seems he's only ever been comfortable as a blue-collar guy. While I have no interest in debating the "authenticity" of Springsteen or any other performer, I find it admirable that he has so resolutely pursued the American character in the lives of working people. I'm generally less taken with the songs that seem, in my view, to overly romanticize their protagonists - as on his 1975 album Born to Run. It's his interest in small time anti-heroes and the dissolution of American communities that I find most compelling. These lyrical preoccupations are at the forefront of Darkness at the Edge of Town, an album that is unmistakably the work of a serious artist and a consummate songwriter. I find the title track particularly moving; the idea that people carry their "secret" around with them "...till some day they just cut it loose, cut it loose or let it drag 'em down." (The aforementioned lyrical concerns would also form the basis for Springsteen's stripped-to-the-bone 1982 classic, Nebraska.)

Easter - The Patti Smith Group

" heart I'm an American artist, and I feel no guilt. I seek pleasure. I seek the nerves under your skin."

Patti Smith had released a stone-cold classic in '75 (Horses) and a worthy followup (Radio Ethiopia) in '76, radically altering the perception of what an artist could be within the context of rock music. While touring in support of Radio Ethiopia, Smith suffered a serious neck injury and was forced to put her music on hold until her recovery was complete. Her first post-injury album is often described as a more accessible Patti Smith record, and it is that, but it would be a mistake to assume she was making any kind of concessions. Easter includes a native-American ghost dance and a morose, albeit beautiful, song about poete maudit Arthur Rimbaud and his siblings. So, it's interesting to consider that this record actually became a hit. Much of the commercial success was on the strength of the Bruce Springsteen-penned “Because the Night". Originally intended for his album Darkness at the Edge of Town, Smith reworked the song and made it a cohesive part of her record. (If you're curious to hear what The Boss' original sounds like, it's included on the recently released The Promise.) As often as I've listened to this album, the way Smith transitions from spoken word poetry (track five) to brutal rock 'n' roll (track six) still gives me chills.

This Year’s Model - Elvis Costello

"You better shut up or get cut out, they don't wanna hear about it, it's only inches on the reel-to-reel..."

It was on this, his second album, that Elvis Costello teamed up with The Attractions, the crack musicians that would be his backing band throughout much of the '80s. This Year's Model is a more muscular affair than My Aim is True, and the promise on that debut album is fully realized here. This is a high-energy record, with piano and organ adding a near-carnival feel to many of the songs. It's shocking that this early in his career, Elvis Costello was writing such sharp, deceptively simple songs. While Johnny Rotten had been a master of disdain, he couldn't come close to Costello in wit or acerbic insight.

So Alone - Johnny Thunders

"It doesn't pay to try. All the smart boys know why."

As a founding member of The Heartbreakers and The New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders was a major figure in punk rock's inception. His debut solo outing, So Alone, features an impressive roster of supporting players, including Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and Steve Jones and Paul Cook of The Sex Pistols. Thunders & co. perform covers of songs by Otis Blackwell, The Shangri-Las, and The Chantays, but it's the originals that make this recording a classic. The album's greatest appeal, for me, rests upon the darkly beautiful "You Can't Put Your Arms Round a Memory". For better and for worse, Johnny Thunders was a laureate of the born to lose set. His eventual self-destruction seems a tragic affirmation of the worldview expressed in these songs.

Coming soon: I enjoyed poring over 1978, so you can expect me to highlight another musical year. I've yet to settle on a personal favorite, but it looks like '88, '93, and '95 are the strongest contenders.