1978 in Music

My music reviews for the year of 1978.

1. Wire: Chairs Missing (10/10)

In Rip it Up and Start Again, the music journalist Simon Reynolds makes the case that post punk began in October of 1978 with the release of “Public Image” backed with “The Cowboy Song.” The argument is this: John Lydon has abandoned both his nom de punk “Johnny Rotten” and the punk music that made him famous, even while maintaining much of the attitude of punk musicians. In the music’s place is so much of what came to represent British post punk in the late ’70s and into the ’80s, including influences from dance music and world music, and ’70s art rock from the UK and Germany.

I have been listening to a lot of music from 1978 this year, 40 years on, and I have encountered two records that make Reynolds’ claim highly dubious, even though it was a claim I readily agreed with when I read his book.

The first is Magazine’s Real Life. It certainly fits part of the requirement as Howard Devoto renounced the Buzzcocks. But musically it’s closer to American New Wave than it is to any of the post punk that came after it.

The second is this record, Chairs Missing, Wire’s borderline complete abandonment of their punk debut – there are still some hints, especially on tracks on side 2, but on the whole this band is virtually unrecognizable. It has a better case than Magazine’s debut album or PiL’s first single as the first ever post punk record, the record that transformed punk from an angry revival of one very limited genre into the greatest outpouring of creativity in popular music since psychedelia 10 years earlier.

In addition to being trailblazing, Chairs Missing is, of course, very good; full of catchy but weird songs, none of which stay too long, with thought-provoking lyrics.

An absolute classic.

2. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (10/10)

Though they were perhaps a little late to the party – at least in terms of a major label release – this still seems to be to be a pretty foundational document of new wave.

And, moreover, it’s somehow way nerdier than the rest of new wave, which is not something I thought possible. Though there are traces here and there of traditional rock and roll, most of this is so herky jerky “new wave” it feels like a sampler of the origins of the genre. The “Satisfaction” cover is far more out there than even the Raincoats’ “Lola” cover (never thought I would be saying that) and the rest of music (and lyrics) fairly destroys rock cliches too. These guys haven’t met a cliche they didn’t want to turn on its head.

Everything you want from New Wave in one 35 minute package.

Great stuff.

3. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (10/10)

I came to the Heads through Remain in Light – an album I would put right near the top of my short list of the best pop rock of the eighties – and the albums of that era and, a little later, Stop Making Sense. And so the band I know as the Heads is the band they became not the band they were originally. (With the possible exception of their cover of “Take Me to the River,” which has been played often enough on classic rock radio that I probably heard it before I even knew there was a band called Talking Heads.)

This is about as late seventies American New Wave as it gets. It’s textbook. It’s not quite Devo herky jerky – it’s a little too traditional for that – but it’s definitely more so than, say, Television. Even before going all funk / world music / dance fusion on us, the Heads clearly knew what they were doing. Pretty much everything here is note-perfect in terms of balancing clearly identifiable rock music and quirkiness. And the lyrics obviously help, as Byrne avoids the typical rock topics better than most songwriters.

4. Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (10/10)

This is the Pere Ubu album I’ve heard most in my life so I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is my favourite and I tend to think it is their best.

To me, everything here works better than on the debut. The debut is great but this band is more assured and, perhaps more importantly, with the exception of the filler track much catchier and more fun. I can listen to this over and over and over again.

This is New Wave at its more extreme and bizarre but it’s also more fun than the more serious New Wave bands. The one filler track keeps me from ranking it quite as high as Devo and Talking Heads.

As an aside: why is this “post punk”? Punk barely existed when Pere Ubu formed. Sure, they evolved out of a punk band nobody heard, but how can their music be considered “post punk” if punk barely existed in the US when they first began recording?

5.  Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (9/10)

New Wave taken to its most extreme. Read the review of The Modern Dance.

6. The Clash: Give’em Enough Rope (9/10)

When I was younger, this record marked a clear improvement for me on their debut. I’m not sure exactly what it was but I definitely felt like this was the more solid record. I have changed my mind.

I think they have absolutely improved as songwriters and they’re more ambitious (relatively speaking, for a 1977-78 punk band) than they were on they’re debut. They’re also a little less “punk” it feels to me. And the thing is, they really just transformed themselves the next year. In context, both the previous album and the next album feel far more important than this one.

But this record is still a pretty excellent set of songs for the punk music of the era – catchy enough but raw enough and full of anger and biting commentary – and I think it’s safe to say nobody else in the UK punk scene could compete with them in terms of the strength of their songs (though that depends how big a net you want to cast with the term “punk”).

7. Grupo Irakere (9/10)

Possibly released in 1976. Read the review.

8. Judas Priest: Stained Class (9/10)

I say this in ignorance but possibly the invention of The New Wave of Heavy Metal. Read the review of Stained Class.

9. X-Ray Spex: Germ Free Adolescents (9/10)

Fantastic first wave punk complete with saxophone. Really solid; full of hooks and vitriol and that barely competent saxophone makes the whole thing sound much more musical than it should.


Update: Birth of Riot Grrrl, really. 10 years early.

10. Tom Robinson Band: Power in the Darkness (9/10)

Great political pub rock that is basically punk. Read the review of Power in the Darkness.

11. Brian Eno: Ambient #1: Music for Airports (9/10)

Whether or not this is the first ambient album (it’s very likely not), this is the record that gave the genre its name. As such, it’s incredibly iconic.

It’s also the first ambient record I ever heard and, for me, the gold standard in what ambient music should be.

I used to listen to this record when I studied for math tests and exams – I listened to only instrumental music for that – and so it has etched itself in my mind in a way no other ambient record has (not other record has been given the chance).

Ambient is such a hard genre to judge because it’s easy to reject the concept outright and, even if you don’t reject the concept outright, it’s super easy to get bored. But for me, this is the record I think about when someone says the word “ambient” and I can’t really imagine another record replacing it in my mind.

12. Kraftwerk: Die Mensh-Maschine (9/10)

The invention of synthpop. Read the review of The Man-Machine.

13. Various Artists: No New York (9/10)

This is a seminal compilation documenting a particularly avant garde music scene whose innovations (or devolutions) eventually found themselves into mainstream rock music, a few decades later. Read the review of No New York.

14. Magazine: Real Life (8/10)

Quite possibly the first ever “post punk” record. Read the review of Real Life.

15. Kate Bush: The Kick Inside (8/10)

A pretty stellar debut. Read the review of The Kick Inside.

16. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: This Year’s Model (8/10)

In 2011, I wrote the following:

Rawer than the debut, which is nice. Perhaps a little more cohesive as well. Though it is better sounding I’m not sure the songs are quite as strong: it’s a trade-off, something got better and something got not quite as good. I guess that’s where I’m leaving it.

I’m not sure when the last time I listened to his debut was. But I have a hard time imagining what I said to be correct, given how polished this record is in comparison to the punks. I also feel like the songs are stronger than I gave him credit for; after all, that’s his strength.

One day I should listen to all his records in a row and decide what I really think.

17. Big Star: Third / Sister Lovers (9/10)

I’m not a Big Star obsessive so I am the wrong person to opine about whether or not this record is actually a Big Star record, a Chilton solo album or a record by a new band different from Big Star. History says it’s a Big Star record whatever Chilton thinks.

I should also point out that the version I have of this record is not the version released in 1978. There are numerous versions of it and I’ve never actually bothered to look at the 1978 track sequence and tried to recreate it with the super deluxe whatever version I have, which contains most of the music recorded in 1974.

Big Star is a band I respect more than like; I am not a big power pop fan – I prefer my music to have a little more weirdness to it – but I get that what they did was important and they were very, very good at it.

So this record is much more my kind of thing; it’s a glorious mess with ragged and professional parts clashing and a general sense of falling apart that has rarely been captured better on record. (The quality of the session musicians arguably makes it much more accessible than it might of been.)

And I get that this particular record has been rather hugely influential on a certain type of songwriter, who wants to write catchy songs but doesn’t want them to be happy.

I do feel like the record, because it is a failed record, has come to exist a little too large in the critical world. It’s not quite as good as it’s made out to be and its reputation has a lot to do with the career of the band and Chilton, as much as it does to do with the actual record.

Still, if you are going to listen to a power pop record from the 1970s, this is the one you should listen to.

18. Micheal Tippett: String Quartet No. 4 (8/10)

Much like the third quartet differs from the first two, does the fourth differ from the third: its first movement is almost Elliott Carter-esque. (Well, it’s not that insane, but it’s much more out there than normal Tippett.)

I really like this piece a lot, but it does also feel like Tippett is a little late to the party here. Others have explored this territory first. Though Tippett does it very well.

19. The Saints: Prehistoric Sounds (8/10)

Soul punk! Punk soul! Whatever it’s called it’s great. Read the review of Prehistoric Sounds.

20. Van Der Graaf: Vital (8/10)

21. Television: Adventure (8/10)

No, it’s not Marquee Moon. Read the review of Adventure.

22. Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (8/10)

Years ago – perhaps in my late teens or early 20s – I decided that I would like funk music. I didn’t really know what it sounded like – beyond a couple Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown oldies I knew – but for some reason I decided my musical education wouldn’t be complete without funk. This was particularly odd coming from me: I’ve never danced. I feel unbelievably self-conscious when soberly attempting to move to music. So it was an odd decision.

It didn’t go very well: the farthest I got was the Head Hunters, so not very far. A few years ago I finally heard a decent survey of James Brown’s catalogue. So I sort of have a better idea of what (a certain type of) funk sounds like now, but I never really got into it like I planned. So I guess this is me belatedly filling an ambition, no matter how silly.

On my first listen I was rather appalled. This record is regarded by some as The Greatest Funk Album of All Time. But here were some inane lyrics. Now, James Brown has some inane lyrics, but I don’t know if they’ve ever gotten this inane:

“Pledge a groovallegiance to the funk /
The United Funk of Funkadelica /
Dey funk, well dey funk, today funk /
Of da United Funk of Funkadelica”

(If I’m being honest with myself, Brown has even more inane lyrics than that…)

I know it’s dance music. I have to turn my brain off. But I have a hard time. And some of vocal “grunts” (for lack of a better word) are just so cliché they’re hard to take.

But Hampton just shreds on a couple of these tracks, and as a very big fan of guitar playing, I can’t help but be won over by his playing.

And I realize that the reason I think the vocals are so cliché is because they have become so ingrained in our culture since the ’70s. From funk-influenced R&B singers to sketch comedians, everyone references the vocal noises that were apparently a big part of funk music in the ’70s, and the fact that they have become parodic doesn’t mean the original stuff was. (That being said, I realize that some of this vocal stuff was being done by Brown in the late ’60s, so it could be perceived as dated by the release of this album.)

And so there is a big part of me that wants to hate this – why can’t this music have more of a brain? – but I can’t deny that this record is at least seminal, if not exactly what I was hoping for when I heard it was dubbed Greatest Funk Album of All Time.

I think I will have more look in the earlier Funkadelic records, which are perhaps a little more rock for my liking.

As an aside: What is it that someone like George Clinton does during recordings? I find it fascinating how band “leadership” is conceived of within some of the R and B / “urban” traditions. Clinton writes the lyrics (I assume), does he write the music? He barely sings (if my ears are telling me the truth). He produces, he presumably directs the band in some way. But if he doesn’t write music, how does he do that? Weird.

23. The Jam: All Mod Cons (8/10)

This is, by all accounts, The Jam’s masterpiece. It’s clear the songwriting has improved by leaps and bounds, especially from their second record. The music has also developed: most of the raggedness is gone and the musical ideas are more complicated, and this is quite clearly the missing link between The Kinks (and The Who) and Blur.

But this is still not my thing. I like Townshend and Davis (hey, a cover!) better than Weller as songwriters. I think Blur’s take on the tradition was far more original and further away from pure revivalism. To me this is revivalism. It’s good revivalism, but it’s still revivalism. And I’d much rather listen to The Clash or Elvis Costello than these guys.

24. Van Halen (8?/10)

This should be rated higher but I really don’t want to rate it higher. Read the review of Van Halen’s debut album.

25. Neil Young: Comes a Time (8/10)

As numerous people have noted, this record is Young’s most sedate, most pastoral since Harvest, but it’s even more so.

Like most of Neil’s records from this time, the material is actually assembled from a few different sessions, so there is a little bit of contrast in style, but not much, certainly not as much as there was on Harvest.

I think it’s really easy to see this as a lesser record, since it’s so…pleasant. But the songs are so strong that I can’t help but enjoy it more than maybe I should.

PS: Sure is weird listening to “Already One” given what happened with Young and his wife.

26. Buzzcocks: Another Music in a Different Kitchen (8/10)

I don’t like this, but it’s important. Read the review of the Buzzcocks’ debut.

27. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (8/10)

Imagine being able to dance to Captain Beefheart. Read the review of Shiny Beast.

28. Can’t Stand the Rezillos (8/10)

I like this more than the Buzzcocks’ record, but it’s less important. Read the review of Can’t Stand the Rezillos.

29. Buzzcocks: Love Bites (8/10)

I like this more than the firs Buzzcocks record but it’s not as important. Read the review of Love Bites.

30. Dixie Dregs: What if? (8/10)

31. Little Feat: Waiting for Columbus (8/10)

32. The Police: Outlandos d’Amour (7/10)

The energy is great, the performances are great, the songs are not there yet. Read the review of Outlandos ‘Amour.

33. Blondie: Parallel Lines (7/10)

This is not really new wave. It’s pretty great power pop though. Read the review of Parallel Lines.

34. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (7/10)

Many years ago, having listened to the four records between Beggars Banquet and Exile way too much, I listened to this record. I heard the “disco” and I heard other things I thought were awful and I rated it 4/10 and never thought of it again.

Many years later, I’m older and ostensibly wiser. And I’ve heard the outtake record, Emotional Rescue, again and pilloried it on my podcast, as it’s not good. And I’ve found that, with time, I find my initial rating incomprehensible. (I didn’t write a review, as far as I know.)

Yes, the Stones are trend-hopping, but they do it rather well. And there are three, maybe even four songs here that rank among the best of their post-Exile records. Even “Miss You,” which I’m sure I hated when I was 25.

Yes, “Some Girls” has dated rather horribly and reminds me (in lyrical content) a little too much of Rod Stewart at his ickiest. But the other weaker tracks are pretty damn passable. And the whole thing sounds like a masterpiece in comparison to the record they put out next.

I have not heard Tattoo You in a very long time, but I’d be tempted to say this is the best album they put out after their prime.

35. Patti Smith Group: Easter (7/10)

I don’t love this because of some hang up I have about Smith, but it’s good. Read the review of Easter.

36. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (7/10)

What is happening? I think I (mostly) like this. Read the review of Darkness on the Edge of Town.

37. Judas Priest: Killing Machine [Hell Bent for Leather] (7/10)

This record was renamed in the US because of a school shooting (with a really low death toll compared to what we’re used to in the 21st century). The name change did not end school shootings in the United States. Read the review of Killing Machine.

38. The Saints: Eternally Yours (7/10)

The birth of “punk with horns.” Read the review of Eternally Yours.

39. Jethro Tull: Heavy Horses (7/10)

For years I told myself I believed the received opinion that Songs From the Wood was the return to form and this record isn’t quite up to that standard. I think I definitely actually felt that way when I first heard this record but years later, I do not feel that way.

Like virtually every set of Ian Anderson songs from the mid ’70s onward, this record suffers from Anderson’s fetishistic fondness for rural English life, which lacks Ray Davies’ insight and occasional winks. But there’s more muscle, more often than not, on this record than on the previous one, which makes it much easier to take. I still don’t love it if I listen to the lyrics too closely but I am able to ignore the lyrics more often than not, much more than I can on the previous record.

At least today, I think it’s the better record. But I’d still take early Tull over this any day.

40. Nick Lowe: Jesus of Cool (7/10)

In 2010 or so, I wrote the following:

Costello calls him England’s Greatest Songwriter. It’s hard to tell from this collection which mostly features slightly-too-polished parodies and vignettes. In the liner notes Lowe admits that he wasn’t serious yet. Maybe this isn’t the place to start looking for his greatness.

It’s just a little underwhelming. It doesn’t help that the music store guy told me it was his idea of a near-perfect album. I mean it’s all very competent. But I have definitely heard funnier songs and albums (way funnier). I can think of a number of better albums from this year alone, and a number of ’70s albums with better overall songcraft.

I guess the moral is don’t take Costello’s word for it unless you agree with him about other things. Oops.

I think it’s fascinating that Elvis Costello, the protege, was releasing his second album when Lowe, the mentor, was releasing his debut solo record. Though you could complain that Costello isn’t punk enough to have been labeled punk by some critics, his music make Lowe’s sound like it’s from another time.

I don’t know that I’ll ever forget that Costello told me Nick Lowe was England’s Greatest Songwriter, and until I forget I’m not sure I will ever be able to approach his music fairly. Also, not being a fan of power pop, I don’t find acerbic power pop to be much better.

41. Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts (7/10)

Very catchy but I don’t know that it’s distinct enough to deserve its acclaim. Read the review of The Adverts’ debut album.

42. The Pat Metheny Group (7/10)

43. Peter Gabriel [Scratch] (7/10)

Better than the debut, but still a long way to go. Read the review of Scratch.

44. Tom Waits: Blue Valentine (7/10)

I can’t wait for the 1980s. Read the review of Blue Valentine.

45. Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (7/10)

Zevon doesn’t really move the needle for me. Read the review of Excitable Boy.

46. C’est Chic (7/10)

Not my thing. Read the review of C’est Chic.

47. Rush: Hemispheres (7/10)

I find the title track, “Book II” of “Cygnus X-1” to be significantly weaker than the first part. It’s more pomo but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It feels even more like a bunch of assembled unrelated parts than the first piece and, beyond the quotes, I’m not sure how it’s related. It’s one of their weaker big tracks.

The album is ballad-free, though, which is a positive, in my book.
“Circumstances” is one of those shorter tracks that Rush seemed to just knock out in the ’70s. If I don’t think about it too much I really like it.

Peart can claim now that he honoured Ayn Rand on 2112 just to avoid getting sued all he wants but that seems like revisionist history, especially when you listen to the lyrics of “The Trees,”which seem to confirm Peart’s (and the band’s) super naive, simplistic politics. Humans are trees, Neil, sure. When you tax someone richer than someone else it’s like you cut off their limbs. That’s a fair analogy. Completely fair. Fuck this song.

The highlight for me is “La Villa Strangiato,” one of their best instrumentals and a great example of why Rush were sometimes great. I can’t really think of another band in 1978 who could play something like this. The highlight of the record and one of the highlight’s of their music in the 1970s.

48. Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Bootsy? Player of the Year (6/10)

Basically imitation Parliament. Read the review of Bootsy? Player of the Year.

49. Johnny Thunders: So Alone (6/10)

Many years ago, I heard “So Fine” and saw that it was dedicated to Johnny Thunders. Over the years I became a big fan of the song and without listening to any of McKagan’s solo records, I regard it as the best thing he’s ever written. Has Johnny Thunders written a song as good? I have no idea, but I’m pretty sure none of the songs on this record are up to that standard.

That’s completely unfair of me, but it’s the lens through which I have always viewed this album – I like the tribute to the man much, much more than the man himself. But with years of listening to music in the interim – well over a decade, I would guess – I also feel like I can now muster an actual argument as to why this record is overrated and why it’s probably far more important to those who heard it as teens or young adults than anyone else.

That argument is that this is sub New York Dolls five years later; it’s not as entertaining as the Dolls, and the world has moved on. Thunders is not the performer that Johansen is, though some of his guests are pretty good. The campy stuff is not as compelling – and sounds to much like Grease, I might add, which may have been on purpose – and the serious stuff just isn’t punk enough for me. And there are so many covers. So many covers.

Still, at least this guy is authentic and I’d much rather listen to this than the people who jumped on the punk and new wave bandwagons around this time. But it’s really hard to understand why this is considered a classic.

50. David Gilmour (6/10)

51. Ramones: Road to Ruin (6/10)

Road to Ruin is right.

52. The Cars (5/10)

New Wave is dead. Long live New Wave. Read the review of The Cars’ debut album.

53. Billy Joel: 52nd Street (5/10)

This would make no impression on me except it’s better than his previous record. Read the review of 52nd Street.

54. Various Artists: Grease Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (5/10)

Nostalgia. Read the review of Grease.

55. Eric Johnson: Seven Worlds (4/10)

Don’t sing Eric. Please.

56. Gerry Rafferty: City to City (4/10)

Soft rock dreck. Read the review of City to City.