1978- the year of disco and faceless arena rock. But also the year of punk & New Wave. Lots and lots of punk and New Wave. Though disco had been a big scene in big urban cities like San Francisco and New York since at least 1973, popular primarily among gays, blacks and Italian and Hispanic Americans, it didn’t truly hit America big until the release in late 1977 of the huge blockbuster Saturday Night Fever. Suddenly at least half the songs on the radio were disco, rock artists like Rod Stewart & the Rolling Stones were recording disco-oriented music, and even your grandparents were busy learning the dance steps. Anything that saturates the market as heavily as disco did in 1978 will create a heavy backlash and disco was no exception. It burned out as a fad less than two years later. I feel that disco is unfairly maligned. Not all of it is good of course, but there are plenty of great disco tracks. While the phenomenal Saturday Night Fever Bee Gees tracks (originally released in ’77) were burning up the charts in ’78 there were also great songs like “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey, “Last Dance” by Donna Summer, “Got to Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn, “Shame” by Evelyn “Champagne” King, “September” by Earth Wind & Fire (a Disco/Funk hybrid group) and “Le Freak” and “I Want Your Love” by Chic- the king of all disco bands led by future star producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Not to mention “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones off of one of their last great albums “Some Girls”- too close to disco for some of their more square fans comfort. And that was just one year. Plenty of other great tracks from ’73-’77 and ’79 and ’80. The genre should not be so easily dismissed. Though the almost total dominance of disco in the black community during the late 70’s but a big damper on the more experimental sound of funk, the reigning champions of funk, Parliament-Funkadelic managed two great albums in ’78 as well. Parliament with “Motor Booty Affair” and Funkadelic with “One Nation Under a Groove” perhaps the defining full length album document of the entire genre.
Also dominating white radio at the time were the faceless, arena rock bands like REO Speedwagon, Styx, Boston, Eddie Money, Kansas & Journey. Most of the bands were hardworking and the musicians could play, but the music was mostly very formulaic and decidedly unsexy and without any edginess. Thankfully the underground punk rock explosion or the last two years, mainly in London and New York City, which brought about an explosion of youthful bands with something to say and a willingness to challenge the status quo. The band Van Halen, another arena ready group for sure but with much more personality and a unique sound, released their first album “1”, which would lay the groundwork for the entire pop/metal, hairband genres of the 1980’s for better and for worse. Cheap Trick, an arena rock band from Chicago would have their first hit song with “Surrender” of of the album “Heaven Tonight” (their third release), launching a career that was influenced by punk and would influence much of punk, rock & metal music to come.
Both Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen would follow up their biggest hit albums, “The Stranger” and “Born to Run”, with more subtlety. Joel’s “52nd Street”, was still a very good album with hits like “Big Shot” and “My Life”, but it was not a tour de force like “The Stranger” which paraded classic after classic. Springsteen’s “Darkness On the Edge” of town was a bleaker, though almost equally brilliant, turning away from the star making “Born to Run”. The “Darkness” was far less successful than “Born to Run”, the years have been very kind to it and it’s one of the Boss’s best albums.
Though punk really started as a genre in NYC in the mid 70’s with the CBGB scene and moved to London with much more notoriety and the commercial success of bands like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Jam and the Damned, by 1978 punk was already splintering into many different factions. The Clash released their second album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”. Though it was way less worthy than their amazing debut and was high on filler, there were enough amazing songs on it to make it a necessary purchase. The Jam continued to clean up their sound and came out with their best album to date “All Mod Cons”. The Sex Pistols broke up and we wouldn’t hear much of worth from the Damned until the following year’s “Machine Gun Etiquette”. Other groups which released their first great singles in 1977 came out with their full length debuts in 1978. Pop/Punk band the Buzzcocks released their first two albums “Another Music In A Different Kitchen” and “Love Bites”- both excellent albums, along with a slew of amazing singles; only some of which were on either album. The Buzzcock’s “Singles Going Steady” compilation is one of the defining documents of the punk movement- a must have for anyone who even casually enjoys the genre. X-Ray Spex, led by teenage brace-face Poly Styrene came out with “Germfree Adolescents”, a furious and funny rant against consumerism. Siouxsie & the Banshees debut single “Hong Kong Garden” and debut album “The Scream” almost singlehandedly inspired the punk offshoot genre of “Goth”, though Joy Division released their first singles as well that year and should probably be given at least partial credit. Longtime punk institution The Fall released their debut EP “Bingo Masters”. Other UK Punk groups like 999, Magazine, the Only Ones, Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Gang Of Four, Sham 69, Stiff Little Fingers, Ireland’s the Undertones, Subway Sect, the Sex Pistols leader Johnny Rotten’s new band Public Image Limited & Vic Godard & the Subway Sect all released great albums and/or singles in 1978- some were the first shots fired in promising careers and others were just great one-offs.
Back in NYC punk originators the Ramones released their fourth and possibly last great album, “Road to Ruin”. Angular guitar gods Television released “Adventure” and the experimental Talking Heads came out with the 2nd as well “More Songs About Buildings and Food”, produced by Brian Eno who also handled Ohio group Devo’s debut “Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo!” Blondie, who had several minor pop hits already under their belt, delivered their near note perfect third album, “Parallel Lines” which became a blockbuster album, containing 4 pop hits including the #1 Disco/Punk smash “Heart Of Glass”. The crossover appeal of Blondie caught the record industries’ attention and they began to sign and work “punk” groups that had more mass appeal and could get songs on the radio. They even coined the kindler and gentler phrase “New Wave” in order to reach a tent as broad as possible. Groups like Boston’s The Cars and U.K. groups the Police and Squeeze fit under the New Wave umbrella perfect. The record company gamble worked and New Wave music would become a force in music through the beginning of the 80’s, only dying out around 1984. The Cars first album, released in 1978 was filled with hits, ala Parallel Lines, and sounds like a greatest hits album when heard today. The Police’s debut “Outlandos D’Amour” only contained two hits- the biggest though being “Roxanne” was one of the group’s defining songs. They would, of course, go on to reach much greater commercial heights, but their first album stands, along with various songs by the Clash including their 1978 jaw dropping single “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”, as a successful fusion of punk music and reggae. U.K.’s Elvis Costello, released his second album, “This Year’s Model”, where he ditched his old band (soon to become ‘the News’ as in ‘Huey Lewis &’) in favor of the Attractions, who were one of the best flat out bands of the next decade. “This Year’s Model” is my favorite Costello album and my favorite album of all of 1978. It’s a must have!
Though ’78 showed many punk bands becoming more accessible and successful, ’78 was an amazing year for more experimental music as well. Cleveland’s Pere Ubu, one of punk’s original bands in the fish-out-of-water Midwest, came out with their first two full lengths- the great “Dub Housing”, perhaps their best album, and it’s almost as good predecessor “The Modern Dance”. Ubu owed a lot to the eccentric and enigmatic Captain Beefheart, who had been kicking around since the mid 60’s. After a few disappointing mid 70’s released, Beefheart made a comeback with “Shiny Beast/Bat Chain Puller”, one of his very best albums. U.K. minimalistic punk group Wire followed up their amazing debut “Pink Flag” with “Chairs Missing”- still stripped down punk but now indebted to Krautrock. German robot-synth group Kraftwerk was still at it, releasing probably their most accessible album “The Man Machine” which would hugely influence the early 80’s electro scene. Critics’ darling Patti Smith released her third album “Easter”. While not quite reaching the quality of her debut “Horses”, it’s an underrated album containing her first hit single, the Bruce Springsteen penned “Because the Night” and other classics like the sad & beautiful title track and “Privilege (Set Me Free)”. Talented & precocious U.K. teen Kate Bush released her debut album “The Kick Inside”, along with hit single “Wuthering Heights”- both touchstones for creative, female 90’s ingenues like Tori Amos and Sarah MacLaughlan.
’78 may not be a music buzz year like 1967, ’77 or ’91 but it probably contains as much great music as any of them- coming in the middle of the very fertile musical period between ’77-’82 and paving the way for genres like New Wave, post-punk & goth music.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND- DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
THE CARS- THE CARS
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THE TALKING HEADS- MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD
X-RAY SPEX- GERMFREE ADOLESCENTS
*Album not available via iTunes or Amazon
BLONDIE- PARALLEL LINES
PATTI SMITH GROUP- EASTER
PERE UBU- DUB HOUSING
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WIRE- CHAIRS MISSING
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KATE BUSH- THE KICK INSIDE
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THE ROLLING STONES- SOME GIRLS
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DEVO- Q: ARE WE NOT MEN? A: WE ARE DEVO!
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND- SHINY BEAST (BAT CHAIN PULLER)
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KRAFTWERK- THE MAN MACHINE
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FUNKADELIC- ONE NATION UNDER A GROOVE
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BIG STAR- THIRD/SISTER LOVERS
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VAN HALEN- I
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THE JAM- ALL MOD CONS
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THE POLICE- OUTLANDOS D’AMOUR
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ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS- THIS YEAR’S MODEL
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THE CLASH- GIVE ‘EM ENOUGH ROPE
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