Like so many years that arrive just before the decade shifts, 1979 was an absolute mess, a time (or so it seems with the advantage of hindsight) of constant transition and catharsis. All the once-revolutionary hippies who’d turned into lumbering rock dinosaurs found themselves smashed by the meteor of punk. The teeming, uncoordinated masses were beginning to rise up and revolt against the danceteria dictatorship and polyester artificiality of disco, as in the “Disco Demolition Night” that nearly tore down Chicago’s Comiskey Park. And all around, there was an evolutionary battle raging to see which musical creatures—including recently discovered species like New Wave—would survive to see the next era.
Granted, I wouldn’t know anything about this, at least not firsthand. In 1979, I was barely a year old; the actual 1979 belongs wholly to my parents, who were just a couple of kids barely of drinking age at the time. But the reason I cite 1979 as my favorite music year is that the story of 1979, for me, is actually the story of my 1999—another year of major transition, even if (like ’79) it wasn’t completely obvious at the time. From my perspective, 1999 marked the end of the “golden-age” era of indie and the beginning of the post-punk/dance-punk/electroclash/what-have-you movements that would dominate underground music for most of the next decade, a shift evidenced in the way seemingly every local band stopped trying to sound like Pavement (who tellingly bowed out that year with Terror Twilight), bought an analog synthesizer, and started using the word “angular” in their musician want ads. The references only got more specific from there, with the most common list of “influences” narrowed almost exclusively to bands and albums that flourished in the two- or three-year period between the birth of punk and the beginning of MTV-championed New Wave. And if you were drawn to that sound yourself, as I was, the peak year for that music was probably 1979.
Of course, you won’t really see this mythical 1979 borne out on the charts. For one thing, the year of disco’s demise was also the year of some of its greatest triumphs, dominated by genre mainstays like Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff,” Chic’s “Le Freak,” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” And if, in big picture terms, there seemed to be a lot of “what’s next” intellectualizing, from a Billboard perspective, it was a pretty stupid year, summed up by the success of singles like M’s idiotic “Pop Muzik” (a tune that makes Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow” look like Noel freaking Coward) and Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” the simpleminded yacht-rock fantasy on which America sailed into the selfish ’80s.
And even though, in the end, the growing disco backlash cut the deepest for the Bee Gees, that group still absolutely owned 1979, setting the standard for everyone else to live up to if they wanted to sell a lot of records, and unwittingly foisting their influence on everything released that year from Electric Light Orchestra’s Discovery to Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” to even Kenny Rogers’ Kenny. Ditto Rod Stewart, who was busy swanning about with “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”—released in late ’78, and a No. 1 hit in February ’79—a tune that was both disco’s apex and nadir, as it seemed to represent all the ways in which it had ruined music forever.
It’s doubtful Stewart could hear the critics calling him a traitor to rock over all the ringing cash registers, but if Stewart had bothered to respond, he might have pointed out that the “Old Time Rock ’N’ Roll” was looking increasingly dead—so much so that Bob Seger seemed like he was already eulogizing it in his ’79 single of the same name. I mean, don’t get me wrong: There was still plenty of great classic rock released that year—including Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedoes, The Eagles’ Long Run, Thin Lizzy’s Black Rose: A Rock Legend—but at the time, the consensus seemed to be that the state of rock ’n’ roll was fairly dire, done in by too much bloat and bombast. (And in Bob Dylan’s case, too much Jesus—though even as an ardent agnostic, I personally love 1979’s Slow Train Coming.)
That year saw Led Zeppelin fade out to the wispy strains of “All Of My Love.” Their most obvious successors, Aerosmith, lost Joe Perry and blew the fat raspberry that was Night In The Ruts. Styx released its one-billionth concept album. Supertramp’s Breakfast In America offered a smarter play on those same prog-rock sounds, but the critics hated that too. And forget Bob Seger: If you want a harbinger of the death of old time rock ’n’ roll, consider that year’s final performance of Bill Haley And His Comets, who trotted out “Rock Around The Clock”—a song that used to incite ’50s teenagers to riots—at a command performance for the Queen Of England.
But of course, there were some signs of new rock life, such as the down-and-dirty sounds of Van Halen II and AC/DC’s Highway To Hell and the back-to-basics big beats and Beatles melodies of Cheap Trick and The Knack, stuff that those sick of saxophones and self-seriousness and “soft-sational” rock must have clung to like life preservers in a roiling sea of bullshit. And most importantly, there was the punk scene—although, just a couple years since the spirit of ’77, “punk” had already reached what seemed to be a dead end. While The Clash was poised to break worldwide in 1980 with London Calling (an album that owed just as much to reggae and rockabilly as “punk”), many of their fellow first-wave groups were flaming out, like X-Ray Spex or more obviously The Sex Pistols, who in 1979 sneered backward at their torched legacy with the soundtrack to The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, released just a couple of weeks after Sid Vicious killed himself. (On the upside, he didn’t have to hear December’s Sid Sings.) In their wake, “punk” was turning increasingly poppy and playful—even joyful—as heard on releases from that year like The Undertones’ self-titled debut or the Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady. Really, the most “punk” records released that year were Motörhead’s back-to-back Overkill and Bomber, which would mightily influence the next generation of hard-and-fast bands.
Yet “punk” was also getting darker and stranger, with bands resisting the conformity of borrowed nonconformity laid out by the genre’s surprisingly rigid rules and steadfast insistence on being dumbed-down and accessible. As Simon Reynolds puts it in his crucial tome Rip It Up And Start Again, the post-punk era that flourished in 1979 was all about “fulfilling punk’s uncompleted musical revolution,” which meant allowing more than just pilfered Chuck Berry riffs and easy anti-government sentiments, and taking musical inspiration from wherever you could find it. Some groups turned that stance into its own form of politicizing, like The Slits’ challenging of both punk’s patriarchy and its obsession with 4/4 rhythms on 1979’s Cut. Other groups, rather than fighting the prog and disco beasts around them, found new ways to join them, fusing shuffling dance beats and odd time signatures while applying lessons they’d absorbed from Krautrock or Afrobeat. In doing so, they also reconnected with past weirdoes like Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground, and Captain Beefheart, worshipped at the altar of David Bowie and Brian Eno’s recent Berlin trilogy, and synthesized it all to make something totally alien and new.
As I said, I feel as though there are a lot of parallels there to 1999, a year when seemingly everyone got bored at once with the accidental hegemony of Pavement-esque or Elephant Six-type bands and—as the original post-punks did when they rejected punk’s “Year Zero” theory—started looking to the past they’d previously been instructed to dismiss. That’s how it happened for me, anyway, beginning with a renewed appreciation for the 1980s aided by a then-girlfriend who was 9 years older than me. While she shared my love of that same golden-age indie that was rapidly eating its own tail, she’d been a teenager in that decade, meaning she also had a special place in her heart for a lot of the New Wave bands I also grew up loving before grunge and indie took their place, groups like Talking Heads, Echo And The Bunnymen, The Smiths, The Cure, and R.E.M. (She had, in fact, seen all of them live, a fact she often used to taunt me.) She was also able to introduce me to other bands of that era I’d skipped either due to impudent presumption—artists like The Specials and Madness, whose 1979 debut albums I’d avoided thanks to my hatred of ’90s third-wave ska, yet which now rank among my favorites—or overlooked out of complete ignorance, such as Joe Jackson and Stiff Little Fingers.
With her encouragement (or more likely, out of the friendly competition that colors relationships between two music lovers), 1999 was the year I began genuinely exploring the influences of more modern bands I liked, a practice bolstered by my recent discovery of Gang Of Four, a group I’d seen name-checked by everyone from Kurt Cobain to U2 over the years, and whose 1979 debut Entertainment! I finally got around to checking out. For about six months, it never left my turntable. A similar ringing endorsement from Spoon’s Britt Daniel (at the time just a local musician kind enough to let me run his band’s first shitty website) led me to Wire, whose 154 album from 1979 also quickly became a favorite. And then that summer, I happened upon a stack of cheaply priced cassettes by The Fall in Austin’s late, lamented Sound Exchange. Remembering that they’d been mentioned as an influence by Stephen Malkmus, I bought 45849: A-Sides. I drove off listening to the opening song, “Oh! Brother,” circled the block, parked again, and went back inside to buy everything else they had, including 1979’s spidery salvo Dragnet.
While I was undertaking this long-overdue, autodidactic post-punk education, my then-girlfriend was also drawing me into her obsession with mod culture—the early-’80s variety that was reignited in part by Quadrophenia (a film that was released in, yep, 1979) and bands like The Jam, whose ’79 album Setting Sons she particularly loved. Soon I was wearing lots of skinny ties and suit jackets with band pins on the lapels; after we finally parted ways and I left our little relationship bubble, fully made over, I discovered that—in one of those weird zeitgeist moments—a lot of other former Austin indie-rocker types had apparently been undergoing the exact same transformation. I’d never been one to make friends easily, but suddenly I was part of a scene (the “mod squad,” the local alt-weekly mockingly christened it, before reviving the catchall term “scenesters”), and with my entry eased thanks to the secret handshake of my clothes and Gang Of Four and Fall badges, plus the social lubricant of some really great drugs, I was meeting people left and right who were all too eager to turn me onto other post-punk and early New Wave albums I simply had to hear, all of which seemed to come from the same one- to two-year period. It was like we didn’t just dress as though it was 1979; in many ways, we lived it—though I doubt any of us were self-aware (or sober) enough to really see that.
Our story obviously wasn’t unique: All across the country this exact same scene was playing out, evidenced by the many bands that would suddenly spring up in the early ’00s and then dominate the next decade—groups like Interpol, The Rapture, Radio 4, Erase Errata, Hot Hot Heat, and a million others who took pains to name-drop Joy Division, Public Image Ltd., and Gang Of Four in every interview as though they weren’t all trying to sound like Weezer or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones just a few years before. In a way, maybe you could say that we were borrowing the music of the past—the soundtrack to that transitional year of chaos that was 1979—to help articulate the similar vague anxiety a lot of us were feeling around the turn of the millennium. In another way, you could say that’s pretentious nonsense, and that the post-punk revival was just one of those inevitable moments of cultural scavenging that pops up with every new generation, and thus nothing all that special.
Whatever the reason, I was knee-deep in it, too, playing in several Austin groups during the decade that more or less epitomized that mentality, while also DJing a post-punk night at one of the local clubs. For a while there, my whole identity and career was steeped in that recent past. And believe me, I know: Ours was a secondhand culture, nostalgia for a time none of us had ever truly experienced. And ultimately, it ended up being just as shallow and artificial as the music the original post-punk movement was rebelling against. But for better or worse, this was the music that unequivocally shaped me; somehow 1979—even as a hollow replay—became my most formative year. Maybe that’s why I spent so much of the ’00s being such a mess?
Sean O’Neal’s Top Five Of 1979
1. Gang Of Four, Entertainment!
The Rosetta Stone of so many post-punk/dance-punk bands of the last 10 years, almost every one of which has tried like hell to sound like Entertainment!—including Gang Of Four itself, who capitalized on their sudden reverence by first re-recording it note-for-note as 2005’s Return The Gift, then attempting to recapture its essence on the recent Content. But like the song says, eventually everyone found that essence rare, and near impossible to replicate. Most copycatting comes down to imitations of Andy Gill’s strangled, pointillist guitar-playing: Gill often stabbed and pulled at the strings like he’d die of boredom if forced to make an honest chord—or better yet, as if he’d never learned how, which gave a lot of shitty guitar players a way in. But that seeming amateurism was deceptively complex, just like Jon King’s dispassionately declamatory, slogan-heavy statements masked a lot of heady, Situationist and postmodernist ideas about consumerism and the commodification of culture. Not that you need a deep understanding of what King is talking about to enjoy Entertainment!, as evidenced by those Microsoft Kinect commercials featuring “Natural’s Not In It.”
2. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
Another album that’s become so much a part of other bands’ DNA (including so much of the Factory Records roster that immediately followed), it’s easy to forget just how unique it was when it debuted. It was, in fact, a sound that not even Joy Division itself had heard before. Before being forced into a freezing studio with producer Martin Hannett, the group’s idiom was just as ominous but much more aggressive, a rolling thunderhead topped off by Ian Curtis’ haunted croon, yet not leagues apart from the other punk bands it shared a stage with. Hannett transformed that sturm und drang energy into a sustained eeriness—all negative space and dub-like echo, with the occasional lightning crack of processed snare drum—creating a record that’s instantly transfixing and impossible to ignore. Seriously, next time you want to trainwreck a party and make everyone shut up, pop this on.
3. The Fall, Live At The Witch Trials and Dragnet
Cerebral and caustic over a decade before it released Cerebral Caustic, The Fall’s earliest works almost seem like inside jokes, a prodding parody of every other band around—maybe even a parody of the idea of playing in a band itself. The music is deliberately atonal, amateurish, and repetitious, the lyrics are peppered with specific digs at the music industry—with Mark E. Smith even going so far as to actually bait critics by quoting verbatim reviews of his own band—and Smith enunciates like he’s delivering everything through a smirk, the sound of a polite Salford shipping clerk who spends the whole day indulging idiots until the whistle blows and he finally takes mic in hand to seek his revenge. It’d be off-putting if it weren’t so brilliant, the work of a mad, idiosyncratic genius who’s convinced that he’s making the only music worth listening to and that everything else is utter, pandering shit. After a while, you start to realize that he’s right.
4. Wire, 154
My colleague Jason Heller already offered a worthy summation of Wire’s overall importance in his 1977 write-up, but there’s no overstating how crazy the band was about constantly reinventing itself. The group remains notorious for never looking backward, and its third album, 154, was the tail-end of a constant forward motion that propelled them through the buzzsaw Pink Flag to the ambient weirdness of Chairs Missing to the skewed art-pop of 154 so rapidly that they quit after it was released, saying they were already out of ideas. They weren’t, of course, but you can see how 154 would be hard to top, effortlessly bridging the gap between the experimental soundscapes of “A Touching Display” with the soft, even sunny pop melodies of “Map. Ref. 41°N 93°W” and “The 15th” in a way so many “art-rock” bands have tried and failed.
5. Tubeway Army, Replicas and Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle
Forget “Cars.” Though VH1 would have you convinced that Gary Numan is simply a quirky one-hit wonder, an android-version-of-David Bowie novelty act, his earliest albums are stark, nihilistic affairs that also happen to be galvanizing and quite moving—the furthest thing from quirk or novelty. Replicas, Numan’s last album under the Tubeway Army name, offered a bridge between punk and all of the New Wave, synth-pop, and industrial acts to follow, setting his dystopic, science-fiction-inspired paranoia to mammoth Minimoog lines, and wringing romance and pathos out of the cold in ballads like “Down In The Park.” His solo debut that same year, The Pleasure Principle, found him digging that sound into even deeper grooves—it’s no wonder that so many hip-hop artists have sampled from that album—and expanding it with spacier atmospheres. It also has “Cars.”
Brian Eno continued to build his reputation as rock’s most valuable producer with Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music and—the last of their shared “Berlin Trilogy”—David Bowie’s Lodger, two albums that pushed those artists’ respective boundaries to something weirder and worldlier. Although both were received as “experimental,” even challenging, they’re nothing compared to Public Image’s Metal Box, which found John Lydon daring listeners to turn away with drawn-out, maddeningly repetitive songs built on dub lines and dread, delivered in his cackling, gibbering sneer; it’s abstract, alien, and hypnotic—and indispensable. The same could be said for both the excoriating, angry funk of The Pop Group's landmark Y and The Raincoats’ self-titled debut, which is full of flat vocals and sloppy guitar playing, approaching pop music as an experiment in naïve art, and creating something utterly disarming.
The Cure’s debut Three Imaginary Boys (which would later sort-of see release as the much stronger Boys Don’t Cry) captures the band in its brittle beginnings, when it was all chiming guitar lines and Robert Smith’s slightly-less-pained yelp. Similarly, Siouxsie And The Banshees’ second album Join Hands is a dark, grimy, and difficult—though rewarding—listen that barely hints at the goth psychedelia they’d soon begin reliably turning out. In that sense it’s much like Simple Minds’ debut Life In A Day, an album that was, by the band’s own admission, too derivative of groups like Magazine (who were already growing tired of their own sound by that year’s Secondhand Daylight), but is nevertheless a fascinating glimpse at the uneasy transition most bands had to make between punk and whatever you want to call New Wave. (For a look at how that stress would lead some to just give up, consider Pere Ubu’s unappreciated New Picnic Time.)
As an indicator of how amorphous “New Wave” was, consider that it was also applied that year to the spiky Baroque pop of Elvis Costello And The Attractions’ Armed Forces, The Police’s slippery reggae-rock on Reggatta De Blanc, the synth-glam of The Cars’ Candy-O, The B-52s’ wild and weird self-titled debut, XTC’s nervy, playful Drums And Wires, and Devo’s screwy outer-space transmission Duty Now For The Future. All of these are good to great albums, so they have that in common, but seeing them crammed into the same “New Wave” genre really illustrates what a catchall, ill-defined term that was—basically the “indie rock” of its day.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, an album that escaped unscathed from the disco wars thanks chiefly to Jackson’s otherworldly voice, and the fact that anyone who doesn’t like “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” or “Rock With You” is probably a deeply unhappy person. For those people I would heartily recommend either of that year’s releases from industrial pioneers Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle—Mix-Up and 20 Jazz Funk Greats, respectively—or Leonard Cohen’s somber, elegant Recent Songs, which ditched the ill-fitting Phil Spector arrangements of Death Of A Ladies Man and returned him to stately, romantic acoustic numbers, making for a record as calm and timeless as the year it was released was chaotic and often disposable.
That original first wave of British and New York punk may have begun to flame out, but the flag was being picked up worldwide—particularly on the West Coast, where a new generation of hardcore California kids was already rebuilding the genre to take it into the next decade. 1979 saw the first single from the Dead Kennedys and with it the launch of the Alternative Tentacles label, while other already-established bands in the area like Black Flag and Social Distortion were soon joined by groups like Agent Orange, the Adolescents, and Bad Religion. Meanwhile, a bunch of goofy, white Bad Brains fans in New York started a hardcore punk band called the Beastie Boys that only got better and better the less seriously they took themselves. That year, the influence of punk and early New Wave reverberated from the Minnesota heartland—where Hüsker Dü and The Replacements started getting their acts together—to the Netherlands and its experimental anarcho-punks The Ex, then down to Australia, where future ’80s titans INXS were staging their first gigs. And in September, a scrappy little group called U2 self-released a vinyl EP titled Three, which set Irish radio playlists ablaze and that was about it.
Also hardly indicative of how quickly ubiquitous they would become: Huey Lewis And The News released a single under their original name, Huey Lewis And The American Express (to the protest of a certain credit card company), a disco version of the theme from the film Exodus that was completely ignored, if you can believe that. Fellow ’80s mainstays Def Leppard had far more success with their self-released Def Leppard EP, the word-of-mouth hit pushing the band to the forefront of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement that was rising up around groups like Saxon, who also put out its self-titled debut that year. But without question, the biggest omens of things to come were two singles: The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which would introduce hip-hop to the world at large (and also, make rapping look so easy that any professional wrestler or reality TV star could do it, but we can’t blame them for that), and The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star,” which would go on to launch MTV and thus convince every former New Wave experimentalist that mainstream pop stardom was within their easy grasp.
I have an equally sentimental reason for choosing 1995: It was the year I graduated from high school, and looking back it seems like the following summer and my first cakewalk semester in college were the easiest days of my life, when all my free time was spent going to shows and listening to records. And maybe that carefree state had something to do with how crazy open-minded I was for a teenager, loving equally slack indie like Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine, and Superchunk’s Here’s Where The Strings Come In; ’90s punk revivalist stuff like Green Day’s Insomniac and Rancid’s …And Out Come The Wolves; the strange female chanteuse sounds of PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love and Björk’s Post; and big shiny guitar rock like Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness.
And of course, 1995 was also a peak year for the second British invasion, giving us Radiohead’s The Bends, the ongoing Britpop battle between Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and Blur’s The Great Escape (I think Oasis won that one; sorry Blur), plus Elastica’s flawless debut, Pulp’s Different Class, Sleeper’s Smart, Supergrass’ I Should Coco, The Verve’s A Northern Soul, and Morrissey’s Southpaw Grammar. Stateside, college radio introduced me to the debuts from Wilco, Sparklehorse, The Dandy Warhols, and Sleater-Kinney, the weird guy at my local record store pushed Scott Walker’s Tilt on me (though it took me years to fully appreciate it), and seeing them open for Hum led me to Mercury Rev’s See You On The Other Side, a CD I fell asleep to for about six months straight. I even gladly ponied up for obvious one-album wonders like Spacehog’s Resident Alien and Wax’s 13 Unlucky Numbers and played the hell out of them. Forget being open-minded for a teenager—I’m not sure I was ever this open-minded again.
One of my only regrets that year is that I somehow never found room for hip-hop: Although I was a casual fan of artists like Ice Cube and Cypress Hill, it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realized I’d completely missed out on classic 1995 releases like 2Pac’s Me Against The World, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, Big L’s Lifestylez Ov Da Poor And Dangerous, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return To The 36 Chambers, Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx, and GZA’s Liquid Swords, but loving them now only further convinces me that 1995 offered a bumper crop. And even without them, I remember feeling like every other day of 1995 sparked some new musical obsession, cementing the desire to absorb all I possibly could that set me on my current path. For me, at least, it was one of those few years everyone gets in their lifetime that seem to change everything.