By any standards 1979 was a tumultuous year, it started with the Winter of Discontent and the death of Sid Vicious and ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the appearance of rap in the charts with the Sugarhill Gang’s cheerful Rappers Delight, a far cry from Fuck The Police!
1979 was a watershed. At the time we didn’t really notice, we were too busy living it, making music, getting wasted and not taking on board that Britain was about to change. Thatcher was coming and Britain was going to lose its heavy industry and its working class, social mobility was going to fly out of the window and recorded rock music was about to become, in the main, anodyne, non-threatening and crap.
On the plus side, hair gel was about to make a huge statement.
Ostensibly British punk had started in 1976, according to Malcolm McLaren’s PR people, conveniently forgetting the inroads made by Dr Feelgood and Kilburn and The High Roads or that we could buy records on import by The Ramones, Patti Smith and Richard Hell. By 1979 the feeling was that it was pretty much washed up; unfortunately nobody had informed the youth of Britain, the majority of whom didn’t live in Chelsea, Ladbroke Grove or Shepherds Bush but in faceless suburban towns, lifeless market towns and ugly provincial cities where angry, badly dressed blockheads still beat up young kids with different clothes.
However in the real world, not the world of our golden memory, that musical echo where we all turn to each other and say knowledgeably “music is shit these days, when we were young it was amazing”, in real life Disco ruled. Everywhere. Yeah of course bands like the Buzzcocks, Sham 69, Generation X, The Skids, The Members and The Clash floated in and out of the charts with great singles, this was the last gasp of the seven inch single, and in fact this was, along with the Tamla/soul era, the great flowering of vinyl heaven. But Chic dominated the charts in many forms – no change there then but this was the high water mark for the punk wars.
By now the major labels had got their shit together, in truth the biggest at the time, CBS, had been straight out of the gate by signing The Clash; truly turning rebellion into money. Only the band, though huge in terms of credibility and good taste, weren’t really notching up the sales. What was really needed was a punchy, blonde New York woman with a fast wit and a classic beauty; Blondie. Even Blondie, born in CBGBs and close friends to all the New York scene, had to move into the dance arena, and they set the whole scene ablaze. Say what you like about Heart of Glass, as long as it’s “tune”! Meanwhile the PR folk had been busy in their workshops, spinning horse shit into gold and renaming Punk to make it more palatable to BBC executives and readers of the tabloids, and voilà, New Wave was born to the horror of every band and artist who’d been dragging themselves through the toilet circuit.
This wasn’t cool Nouvelle Vague New Wave, we didn’t all don shades and smoke Gitanes and stroke our chins pondering the existential appeal of being spat at by some fool in a shithole in Scarborough on a rainy Tuesday night in February. Anyone who heard the phrase shrunk back in horror, and if you heard a band describing themselves as such you knew where the enemy was, you knew who were the career dreaming scum buckets. The Knack were New Wave.
But then what was punk?
By 1979 many of the bands who had been around from early on, in one form or another, had developed and were finally reaching a public hungry for change. They were redefining what was pop and redefining public taste. Duncan Reid, bass player from The Boys (one of the original acts of 76) illustrates this point when he says: “Punk was a flash in the pan which has lasted decades. At first it was a small bunch of people who dared to be different in their appearance, taste in music and attitude; it fizzled out as quickly as it began. But look at the influence since: out of all proportion to its size. All over the world from Argentina to Germany to the West Coast to New Zealand you can see, hear and feel its legacy.”
Just as the early bands marked the change from the noodling solos and introspective, fantasy bollocks that had prevailed in the earlier year of the 70s by playing short, sharp sets so other bands were exploring a different route. ATV, in their brief career, had been one of the most innovative and novel acts around, as were Wire. These bands experimented with different rhythm structures, angular and unlike the traditional blues based rock structures. There was no rule, that was the main maxim that carried on after the initial stylings were fading. As Paul Gray, bass player with Eddie & The Hot Rods and The Damned, points out when asked what punk had meant to him, “it depends on what day you ask - today, it would be the freedom of self expression without worrying about what anybody else might think..."Do Anything You Wanna Do", really.”
Bands like The Ruts and The Members were experimenting with reggae structures, attempting to create a music that reflected their British roots and encompassed the rhythms of the clubs and sound clashes they would go to, the search for a new beat, a different path, ran through the whole movement from 76 to 79; nobody wanted to remain in the past, whether the past was ten years or two years ago.
In a time when many can’t remember the world before YouTube it is very hard for people to get their head around how bands came to popularity. Mainly it was through reading. People read stuff in 1979, sometimes for more than five minutes. There was Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Sounds and of course the New Musical Express and they were the only vehicle to discover the future, there was John Peel, of course, but for schoolkids with homework and early starts it was the inkies (as they were called) that carried real weight. Their combined sales were remarkable, the NME alone was selling over a quarter million every week and its influence was phenomenal. These days it may resemble a pop cheerleader glossy magazine for confused teenagers in 1979 it worked on so many levels: educational, in that it expanded the vocabulary of the readership, political and social. Even a bad review was worth having.
All of the music papers had been late to the party when Punk kicked off and they didn’t want that happening again. As a result they became like a shark, constantly moving forward for fear of dying and this was reflected in a churn of putative new scenes getting thrown up. Hugo Burnham, one time drummer with Gang of Four and now an Associate Professor at the New England Institute of Art, reflected on Punk’s ripples: “Punk was something exciting, dangerous, funny, noisy, smelly, and wonderful; I knew at the time that it would be argued about endlessly for years later...mostly by people who weren't there. Or even alive at the time. Or were wearing flares.”
NME trumpeted the post-punk movement, led by bands like The Cure, Magazine, Joy Division, who released their debut Unknown Pleasures in June, and Gang of Four (named after the Chinese political faction) whose debut arrived in September. Admittedly the US bands like Talking Heads and Devo had already being driving this road it was the British acts who took it to a darker and more political space.
Meanwhile Melody Maker was struggling with its identity, having always been an avid supporter of traditional rock forms. For a while, and thanks to star writer Vivien Goldman (now a Professor and New York University), they had been champions for the growing reggae and soul scenes but it wasn’t enough to arrest their slide in popularity. Well written and authoritative as it was, nonetheless, it lived increasingly in the shadow of the NME which had become almost the Little Red Book for the nation’s youth. The one major lead it had over the NME was in the small ads section. Melody Maker was the place to go for everything from a new drummer to old vinyl; favourite ads were the singer wanted must have own PA variety.
Rock Against Racism had formed in 1976 and was still going strong, even though anti-fascist protestors were still being injured and New Zealander Blair Peach was killed by the police, and for many of us they were great gigs to play and attend. There was never any huge amount of proselytising from the stage and the mixed audiences just seemed to know by instinct what was right without it having to be spelt out in black and white. These were edgy times; the Yorkshire Ripper seemed to be murdering without hindrance and the IRA, and other Republican groups, were having success in assassinating major profile targets. Ironically it took 30 years before the Metropolitan Police released the results of their enquiry into Peach’s murder, and like Stephen Lawrence and Ian Tomlinson there was cover up and obfuscation – no change there then.
Elsewhere the very shape of music was beginning to change at the source, in the recording studio. In 1977 a recording desk manufacturer called Solid State Logic introduced its first console that contained an integrated studio computer system. At first it was rare to find a studio which had one but as recording engineers used the desk their enthusiasm for it grew and other major recording studios, keen to attract business, invested in installing them. One of the major attractions, for engineers, was the ability to memorise the mixing process so if a break in the process happened the mix could be set up afresh with all settings recalled.
Along with this feature each channel on the mixing desk had its own compressor and noise gate, isolation and complete control became the dominant factor. Previously compressors or gates either had to jack-plugged in across the channel or across the whole mix, but now every instrument could be treated individually by the engineer at the desk. Before these developments engineers had to learn about microphone placement in the room, creating sound differential by trial and error. Now, increasingly, it could be all done from the desk after a junior had put a microphone in front of an amplifier. There were still many engineers who had been trained in the traditional ways so their skill and abilities coupled with the new technology led to a rise in the quality of sound.
On the downside, by 1979, the musical producer, the Jerry Wexlers or Willie Mitchells, were giving way to the engineer producers. Initially some engineers still had music credentials; Snivelling Shits bass player, and legendary producer, Steve Lillywhite was one such producer. Lillywhite was very much a part of the Punk momentum producing Siouxsie and The Banshees, XTC, Johnny Thunders and U2 amongst many, his attitude to the just do it philosophy of the movement shone through in his early work. His breakthrough really happened in 1980 with Peter Gabriel’s third, eponymously titled, album which was recorded in 1979. Given Lillywhite’s drive and Gabriel’s desire to try new things, new technology and new musical forms the album made a giant step forward in technology, even producing the original “Phil Collins drum sound” moment, thanks to the huge gated drum sound that Lillywhite created while experimenting with the new SSL desk.
“It was the start of the idea that you didn’t need to be a musician to be musically creative,” says Lillywhite, on the phone from Los Angeles. “The Fairlight had just started being used and the creative and the technical were starting to become confused.”
The Fairlight he refers to was the first digital sampling synthesiser that arrived in 1979. Producers and musicians soon discovered that it had such a wide application; you could sample a breaking glass, for instance, and play it into a track. This was the start of the sampling revolution, the end of orchestras being widely used on modern rock records and the rise of machine music. Coupled with the rise of the SSL desk and the use of the click track the traditional ways of recording bands died. The engineer became more and more an integral part of the whole process. “At first there was a job delineation between the engineer, the producer and the band”, says Lillywhite. “Then gradually it became ‘playing the desk’.”
Where before a band would set up in the studio, screens and microphones would be put in place and the drummer would count it in and the band would crash into the number with all the power and feel of a live gig now sterility started to set in. While there were groups who still maintained that way of recording, Motorhead, The Stones, the majority of bands were new, signed to labels and under the dictates of A&R appointed producers who “could make hits”. Enter the click track, the rhythm section sent into the studio to play their parts to a sterile tempo machine allowing for super separation of all the integral parts. Welcome to the world of no feel. What did they lose? They lost the drummer’s breath, they lost the space between notes and the phase between instruments and the various microphone spills, that intangible essence that was feel. The music died.
In February, the same month Sid died his sad and lonely death, Stephen Stills was the first major artist to record digitally. The future had arrived and there was a direct line to be drawn from here to downloads. Once digital technology had arrived it was the death knell of the music industry as we then knew it, not that they realised in their pomp and excess. They were dead men walking. As the Sony Walkman arrived they were dead men walking with their own personal soundtrack!
Mid 79 saw the appearance of Gary Numan, initially as Tubeway Army, with Are Friends Electric. It was his first number one, no guitars on Top Of The Pops, and this strange alien looking outfit. Commercial electronic music had arrived, his next single, Cars, went number one on both sides of the Atlantic and Numan went stratospheric. Suddenly every major label wanted their own version of a weird kid with a machine and duly signed up a whole load of dubious acts, The Flying Lizards had a hit with a quirky rework of the Berry Gordy song Money and writer and producer called Robin Scott released a song called Pop Music under the name of M; it was huge. Possibly the biggest one-hit wonder ever.
Elvis Costello was working on his angry persona over in the USA and unfortunately a sarcastic aside about Ray Charles in the Holiday Inn bar in Columbus, Ohio, got taken the wrong way by the irony free zone that was Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett and Elvis got a kicking and some pretty terrible press for supposed racism. Though there wasn’t the kind of methods for disseminating shock-horror that exists today Elvis got a whole shit load of bad press that took him sometime to placate. For those people who knew Elvis, or his work, it was all bollocks but for a rabid fearful American audience, still patting themselves on the back for their racist and homophobic take down of Disco, it was grist to the mill.
Back in the UK everything was about to change, and in a major way. Society had been moving more towards equality for all the post-war years but was still hampered by a class bound consciousness that held people back. To a degree Punk had changed this, rapidly. As Segs, bass player with The Ruts says: “Punk was an attitude. At the time many of us were brought up with a very working class, know your place, "you'll never amount to much" outlook. Then along came "Here’s 3 chords - now form a band which really translated into the fact that anyone could potentially be anything.”
Then Thatcher was elected.
It didn’t really come as a surprise to be honest. The wheels had come off and everything was shit and Thatcher romped home with a huge parliamentary majority. Her barely disguised hard right views had the beneficial effect of wiping out the National Front’s electoral base, all the fascists voted for her. Amusingly so did Gary Numan. Paul Weller spoke at the time that he would vote for her, a quote he came to regret later as he moved to the Left, becoming a major anti-Tory movement called Red Wedge.
Meanwhile in a nightclub in Covent Garden called Blitz a group of androgynous Bowie fans started dressing up and posing, they were a direct response to the continuing downbeat dress sense of the Punk hangover but they were a visible representation of the Thatcher years even though they were never conservative. It was their love of ostentation and cocktails, their music that favoured the glacial electronica of Bowie’s Berlin period and Kraftwerk that fed into their bands, Visage, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club, these were the elements that appealed to the new breed with no style of their own. Like the City boys who ruined all the neighbourhoods from Ladbroke Grove to Hoxton the outsiders came in bought their personalities. As the New Romantic headliners embraced the new politics, the likes of Duran Duran describing being in a band “a career choice”, it was left to a bunch of people from the Midlands to carry the torch for the dispossessed.
Jerry Dammers launched 2 Tone onto the planet and effectively gave British youth an alternate vision to the one being expounded by the “costumed monkeys on the pavement” – thanks Joe Strummer. Multi-racial rude boys from Coventry reinventing ska music and style, embracing a strong working class culture that had been popularised in the late 60s by the first wave of skinheads prior to the movement’s embrace of extreme right wing views. The Specials, Madness and the Beat kept the fight alive for as long as they could. It was hard over the following years as the cult of yuppie became predominant and the City of London sprayed its golden shit over the country.
The working class was destroyed, millions were thrown out of work and upward mobility was no longer on the menu. Britain sold its soul for a handful of privatised utilities shares and an artificial prosperity was created on the flood of cheap debt. Rock and roll became monetised and establishment, cocaine became king and Top of The Pops became pointless and empty.
Some still believed, like young John Moore who would go on to play with The Jesus and Mary Chain and Black Box Recorder. For him 76 still resonated: “Punk was the summer of 76, seeing the hardest kid in the school return from suspension having obviously undergone some London adventures in his time off, now with hair spiked, blazer held together with safety-pins, and PUNK scrawled across his back being expelled on the spot, and not giving a fuck, then setting the field on fire as a parting gesture. The Times they were a changin'.”
By 1979 though the changes brought about by Punk in the general consciousness had bedded in. There was a renewal in design, led by the likes of Jamie Read, Barney Bubbles and Malcolm Garrett; part of the new generation who had taken the do-it-for-yourself message from the musicians and run with it. Young film makers, like John T Davis and Don Letts, appeared and this driving force of creativity fed into society and as society disappeared to be replaced by the rampant id of desperate consumption these remnants continued to feed the scenes that followed. The rise of machines and the future acid house movement came about because of the freedom of expression that had flowered in those last years before the grim 80s came upon us.
These were the last days of neutrality. As our country was forced down a road of long dole queues and provincial decay everything started to fracture. Though politics had been a major factor in the music gradually more and more wannabe popstars eschewed the political for the personal. Anarchy in the UK, White Riot and Right To Work all seemed prescient rather than a comment of 76, 1979 was the calm before the poverty riots and the upheaval. Lines were to be drawn, as well as chopped out; goodbye to all that.
In December The Clash released London Calling and rock had moved into new lands.
But like every revolution in the end the money takes over and everyone turns on the TV. When Rappers’ Delight charted at the end of 79 it announced the arrival of a new form that was to become even bigger and longer lasting than Punk. But rap would never have had the crossover without Punk.
Keep the faith.