The Hits of 1979: Disco Still Rules
End of the decade is a mixed bag for music
The year 1979 was a milestone for women in the history of the world. The election of Margaret Thatcher as the new Prime Minister of England marked the beginning of a historic, conservative, and controversial tenure. IRA sponsored bombings took their toll in the UK, assassinating Lord Mountbatten and several other British officials. Iran stepped back into the past with the beginning of the reign of Khomeini, and at the end of the year 63 Americans became hostages in Tehran. In America, the Three Mile Island accident brought the specter of a nuclear meltdown uncomfortablt close. The Who played a show at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cleveland Ohio and 11 fans were killed, with many more injured, in a tragedy resulting from crowd behavior. The Atari 400 - the one with the membrane keyboard - was a success in the burgeoning home computer market, and the first Sony Walkman cassette player hit the shelves, costing $200 - but the price went down quickly, starting a trend that would continue right up to the present day. Suddenly listening to music became a personal space ritual, rather than a public one, and listening to music would never be the same.
What happened in 1979's music?
In yet another way, music changed forever in 1979 with the first album recorded completely digitally - Ry Cooder's Bop 'Til You Drop. Digital technology was right around the corner for everyone, and would soon lead to the compact disc. It was also a year of endings for the music business. Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose as punk and New Wave bands multiplied and flourished. Rock dinosaurs like Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac released their last records before breaking up, at least until the reunions started a decade or so later. Bob Dylan shocked his followers with Slow Train Coming, an overtly Christian album, and started preaching to the unbelievers at his concerts. Real rock was again rare in this last year of the discofied 1970s, with My Sharona by the Knack, Live at Budokan by Cheap trick, and Damn the Torpedos by Tom Petty some of the few nuggets of inspiration available for rockers. And the backlash against the tyranny of disco music was initiated at the Disco Demolition Night in Chicago in July - blowing up albums had never been so much fun, and for a good cause, too.
The Disco-fication of Almost Everyone
The top 5 hits worldwide in 1979 were all disco songs. The Bee Gees and other disco acts ruled the album charts as well. Not only that, but artists who saw a bandwagon going by jumped all over it - Rod Stewart's Do Ya Think I'm Sexy was a smash, as was Kiss' disco tune I Was Made For Lovin' You, and Blondie's Heart of Glass. ELO and even Kenny Rogers had disco songs on the charts. Countless others tried to compete and clogged the top 100 with more dance music. As mentioned, were it not for My Sharona and I Want You to Want Me, there would have been not a rock single to be heard. No wonder exploding records seemed like such a great idea.
The Crest of a New Wave
This was the year that the new music really came of age - many classic albums were released in the New Wave/Punk categories. Topping the list was the massive masterpiece London Calling, the double album from the Clash. Combining ska, reggae, pop and punk into one glorious hybrid, they reached their zenith with this one, but they were challenged by the Police (Regatta De Blanc), the Specials, Gary Numan, Joy Division, Joe Jackson (a 2 album year for him), the Gang of Four, the B-52s, Elvis Costello (Armed Forces - a classic), and Graham Parker's masterful Squeezing Out Sparks. The new wave was becoming the new face of rock music.
Dinosaurs on the Downside
As the decade wound down, it was apparent that the classic rock albums of the era had already been recorded. Pitifully, those responsible kept putting out really pale reflections of their former glorious selves. Here's just a few of the widely-trashed (at least by critics and connoisseurs) and most-ignored rock records of 1979:
At Budokan - Bob Dylan (2 records of slickly arranged Dylan which can only be listened to once, unless you're a real fanatic)
The Long Run - The Eagles (OK, there were a couple of good songs, but it was mostly 2nd and 3rd rate material from what started out as a great band)
In Through the Out Door - Led Zeppelin (Bonham was still alive, but they had lost their muse and spirit - a couple of good ones, otherwise ignorable)
Tusk - Fleetwood Mac (2 records of leftovers and marching band backups)
Flag - James Taylor (Not real bad, but not real good either)
Mingus - Joni Mitchell (2 records of jazzy noodling, fear of success anyone?)
Stormwatch - Jethro Tull (close to the bottom of a list of the best JT albums)
Victim of Love - Elton John (anybody listened to this lately?)
The year wasn't a complete disaster - we got the Wall from Pink Floyd, Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust from Neil Young (always the savior of rock and roll), a classic from Tom Petty, AC/DC, and a few others to keep us from falling asleep on the dance floor. But the 70s were finally over, and there were sighs of relief all around.