In so many ways 1979 was both the precipice of the Eighties and the bookend of the Seventies. Pink Floyd, the Eagles and Led Zeppelin appeared to be bowing at the time, while new wave, post-punk, hip hop and a new guy from Minneapolis named Prince all began producing some pretty exciting and long-lasting sounds. All in all, we were experiencing an exciting clash and crash of competing sounds that all stemmed from the basics of the rock & roll attitude while continuing to push the genre forward.
Unfortunately, this era began a conservative view of rock music, causing a few powerful and highly influential radio consultants to develop programming methods that reduced the type of music then played on “rock” radio. Looking back on the era, it is easy to see how this change fit in perfectly with the political climate sweeping the nation. Also, with the help of 40+ years of perspective, we can see that this narrowing definition of “rock” music has led to some of the institutional racism that most whites really don’t recognize because of its subtle nature.
Back when The Beatles were recording their first few albums, the Fab Four actually did not have a large library of written songs, nor did they, as an unknown English band, have access to new material being churned out in the Brill Building in NYC, any of the experienced writers in Nashville or the songsmiths on the west coast. So, the young lads from Liverpool, England, instead turned their attention to some of their favorite songs in which they played during their shows in the clubs, most famously The Cavern. Of the several cover songs they recorded for their first couple of albums, they did score a hit with The Isley Brothers’, an up-and-coming R&B group from the USA, “Twist and Shout.”
And The Beatles were not the only English band that revamped the music of black artists for hits. Artists like The Rolling Stones, all phases of Eric Clapton’s career, The Animals, just to quickly name a first from the original British Invasion. Not only were these artists, as well as a whole generation of British empire rock aficionados, were not only cutting their teeth on the sounds of American R&B, blues and gospel artists of the day, they were also diving head first into other American musical sounds like country (or as they used to call it, “hillbilly” music), jazz, big band and the rock & roll pioneers of the Fifties. And those original British Invasion artists took all of those disparate influences, putting a new spin on them and selling all of the originally American music back to the teens of America. And, since radio was attempting to reflect this music known as rock & roll would play all things. Those AM radio stations of the day, playing what we would consider to be the Contemporary Hits of the Day, had playlists with artists like Patsy Cline, The Shirelles, the Motown artists, The Beatles and Stones all co-existing on the radio. And this continued until the mid- to late-Seventies.
Today, this change in radio programming has led to the belief that all music is segregated, even though the concept of rock & roll was way more inclusive and all about breaking down racial barriers in the beginning, today has been white-washed into genres such as rock, hard rock, heavy metal, rap, R&B, pop, alternative rock, hip hop, etc., and thou shall not mix any of them together. Never mind that Linkin Park, Korn and Kid Rock all have made careers out of incorporating the sounds and rapping of hip hop into their metal-based rock sounds, they are rock while the much more aggressively sounding and rapping of Public Enemy is not. What’s the difference? All I know is that the first three are considered rock (is it because they have lighter skin?) and PE is rap, and the tween shall not mix. Hell, PE and Anthrax collaborated together on each band’s songs showing there is little difference between the two bands. And that was back in the Nineties. Then, in the Aughts, Linkin Park and Jay-Z mashed their songs together on a collaborative album, thus seemingly trying to ending this separation. Yet, it continues. Unfortunately, that may be the most subtle legacy of 1979: the segregation of music.
I say it is a legacy of 1979 since the largest display in favor of the segregation of music occurred in the summer that year in a baseball stadium in Chicago. That summer, at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox. A rising DJ of the day, Steve Dahl, upset that he was fired by a radio station that had changed from a rock format to a disco format. After Dahl was hired by a more prominent rock radio station in Chicago, he became one of the biggest voices in the anti-disco movement. That summer, somehow, he convinced the management of the White Sox to hold a “Disco Demolition Night” in which the Sox would give attendees a discount ticket if the fan brought a disco album that would be blown up between games of the doubleheader.
Unfortunately, according to people who worked the gate that day, attendees were not only bringing disco albums, but any album with a black artist on it regardless of the genre. So, it appeared to the black employees of the Sox that this promotion was turning into a white power moment.
Eventually, the first game ended, during which the fans were becoming unruly after spending the first game getting drunk and high. When Dahl and his people got onto the field for “festivities,” the crowd was ready for a rumble. Then after a short bit, Dahl flipped the switch and the records started flying. On cue, the crowd charged the field, damaging the field and causing the Sox to forfeit the second game of the doubleheader to the Detroit Tigers. Afterwards, “Disco Destroyer” t-shirts became big sellers with mainly teenaged white kids across the nation. Unfortunately, I was one of those stupid 16-year-olds who purchased one mainly because I did not want anymore disco songs released by The Beach Boys or Ethel Merman or albums that entitled Disney Disco, although I was purchasing the latest albums by the likes of Chic, Donna Summer and the Village People. That one t-shirt continues to be a thing I try to remember as an example of my shortcomings in regards to race relations. Fortunately, I have grown past that innocent nonchalance toward the racial meaning of that viewpoint.
Yet, through that black eye, there sure was some long-lasting music released that year. Unfortunately, I have come to associate a racist action leading to this whole Rock & Roll Hall of Fame controversy surrounding Dolly Parton’s nomination this year. It’s simply so unfortunate that many people believe that rock & roll consists of those artists found on classic rock radio stations because if you listen to everything you get a better view of the history of rock & roll.
So, this take a look at my 50 favorite albums from 1979.
50. The Whispers – The Whispers
49. ZZ Top – Degüello
48. Stevie Wonder – Journey Through the Secret Lives of Plants
47. Smokey Robinson – Where’s There Smoke
46. Kiss – Dynasty
45. Diana Ross – The Boss
44. Electric Light Orchestra – Out of the Blue
43. Kool & the Gang – Ladies Night
42. The Slits – Cut
41. Foreigner – Head Games
40. Madness – One Step Beyond
39. Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle
38. The Specials – The Specials
37. Commodores – Midnight Magic
36. The Records – The Records
35. Funkadelic – Uncle Jam Wants You
34. Van Halen – Van Halen II
33. Frank Zappa – Sheik Yerbouti
32. Sister Sledge – We Are Family
31. Fleetwood Mac – Tusk
30. Graham Parker & the Rumour – Squeezing Out Sparks
29. The Jam – Setting Songs
28. Gang of Four – Entertainment
27. Pretenders – Pretenders
26. The Police – Regatta de Blanc
25. Blondie – Eat to the Beat
24. Bee Gees – Spirits Having Flown
23. The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys
22. Pat Benatar – In the Heat of the Night
21. Joe Jackson – Look Sharp!
20. The Cars – Candy-o
19. The Kinks – Low Budget
18. Led Zeppelin – In Through the Out Door
17. Earth, Wind & Fire – I Am
16. Donna Summer – Bad Girls
15. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Rust Never Sleeps
14. Prince – Prince
13. Cheap Trick – Dream Police
12. AC/DC – Highway to Hell
11. Chic – Risqué
10. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
9. Michael Jackson – Off the Wall
8. Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Armed Forces
7. The B-52’s – The B-52’s
6. Talking Heads – Fear of Music
5. The Knack – Get the Knack
4. Supertramp – Breakfast in America
3. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes
2. Pink Floyd – The Wall
1. The Clash – London Calling