Monday, March 17, 2014

1979: The Strangest Year in Pop?

Of all the formative years of my conscious youth, which I tend to approximate as being the ones between 1973 (the start of my childhood memories) and 1987 (the year I graduated from high school), two particular years in pop have always stood out as being my favorites: 1978 and 1984.

The former is significant because of all the years in my first full decade on earth, no other saw the release of more singles that I still remember and love. It was also the year covered in one of my favorite books of my formative youth -- Casey Kasem's American Top 40 Yearbook -- which gave it an edge beginning in 1984, when I bought the book. The latter year was the one in which I had a subscription to Billboard magazine (a Christmas of 1983 gift from my mother), so it's pretty safe to say that I didn't miss a single hit that grazed the Hot 100 from January to December.

If I had to pick a year as being my third-favorite formative year in pop (and limiting them only to pop, for if I were to include country, 1980 to 1982 -- the years in which I never skipped a weekly episode of Bob Kingsley's Top 40 country countdown -- would be hands-down my defining period), it would be 1979.

What was the big deal about '79? In some ways, it didn't sound so different from 1978, only I never had a Casey Kasem book to document it. In fact, without the assistance of Kasem, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you which songs belonged to which year. Walter Egan's "Magnet and Steel," ELO's "Shine a Little Love," Alicia Bridges' "I Love the Nightlife," Chic's "Good Times," Nick Gilder's "Hot Child in the City": 1978 or 1979? I didn't discover Billboard until 1980, so my guess would probably have been as good as yours. (By the way, Gilder's chart-topper debuted in 1978, but its hit run actually spanned both years.)

The significance of 1979, I must admit, is mostly in hindsight. I didn't realize what an incredible year it was musically until years later. Those were the last days of disco, but dance music as "disco" didn't mean anything to me at the time because I wasn't old enough to go clubbing. As meaningful "dance music" goes, the mid-'90s rocked the party, my body and, for all I know, probably even the kasbah.

For me, 1979 stands out now for an entirely different reason: It was the year that pop music got kind of weird: Kate Bush's "Wow," ABBA's "Does Your Mother Know" (the only ABBA hit not to feature Frida and Agnetha singing lead), M's "Pop Musik" (new wave's first trip to the top in the U.S.), and side four of Donna Summer's massive Bad Girls album. The year began with Queen's "Bicycle Race" ending its ride and Pretender's "Brass in Pocket" (the first UK No. 1 of the '80s) gaining luster. None qualified as conventional pop at the time. All the singles were Top 20 hits on either or both sides of the pond. Bad Girls was Summer's biggest album ever.

"Wow" Kate Bush

"Pop Musik" M

"Lucky" Donna Summer

The proof is also in three other big albums that year: Bee Gees' Spirits Having Flown, Supertramp's Breakfast in America and Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. Each came from a band of non-American origin (pre-Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac began its lifespan as a '60s British blues-rock outfit), each produced three Top 20 hits (all of which, in the case of Bees Gees, made it to No. 1), and each contained title tracks that would rank among the strangest ones to come from a major mainstream pop/rock album that year, or any year. "Tusk" was the only one that was a Top 10 single, and it came from the only one of the three that didn't top Billboard's Top 200 album chart. (It peaked at No. 4.)

All these years later -- 35 to be exact -- they're all still in heavy rotation on my iPod. The last few years, which have produced some of the most predictable mainstream pop of my lifetime, courtesy of the likes of Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and Pitbull, could learn a lot from 1979.

"Breakfast in America" Supertramp

"Tusk" Fleetwood Mac

"Spirits (Having Flown)" Bee Gees

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