With the last year of the ‘10s now upon us, what bands, genres and sounds would you associate with the decade? The years ending in 9 give musicians the chance to not only come up with something that acts as a full stop for one decade, but also paves the way for what to expect in the next one.
For 1979, that transition is pretty obvious and it’s worth saying at this point that if punk and post-punk are not your bag, this probably isn’t the list for you. Nonetheless, there are some truly influential albums in here that might well find themselves in the collection of even those with only a passing interest in what we call ‘alternative’ music.
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
Best album of 1979? Best album of any year, maybe?
There’s not a lot to say about Unknown Pleasures or Joy Division that hasn’t been said many times already, but I can only talk about the line that hits me hardest, which is when Ian Curtis yearns “but I remember when we were young” in ‘Insight’. He still was young, and he didn’t get much older.
The Clash – London Calling
I first heard London Calling in my late teens, but I felt like I already knew are the songs on it. I didn’t of course, but the likes of ‘Spanish Bombs’ and ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ have that quality of being so distinctive and anthemic, they’re like those people who you can chat to for five minutes and feel like you’ve known all your life.
And as I’ve found in preparing to write this, you can go about a decade without hearing it and all the songs will still be fresh in your mind.
Public Image Ltd. – Metal Box
Possibly the go-to album if you’re trying to explain what ‘post-punk’ is. While the Sex Pistol’s statements were about as subtle as a razorblade, John Lydon’s spinoff PiL had a habit of giving their tracks very specific titles like ‘Socialist’, yet not directly addressing the theme in the song’s contents. It’s much more abstract and, as Lydon admits, improvised in parts. Messages conveyed more though long dissonant riffs and claustrophobic vocals than through shocking lyrics.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Rust Never Sleeps
An album that has all the authenticity and intimacy a live album should, but with none of the cheesiness and self-indulgence. As usual, Young’s lyrics could be classed as poetry in their own right, particularly on album highlight ‘Powderfinger’.
The Slits – Cut
Certainly something a little different in the punk scene, and not just because it’s three women in a male-dominated genre. Ari Up’s undulating vocals quiver around spiky and at times almost ska-like riffs as the trio tackle feminist themes as relevant today as ever, especially in ‘Typical Girls’ and ‘Love Und Romance’.
The Damned – Machine Gun Etiquette
One thing that amazes me looking back at this era is how much seemed to happen in so little time. By 1979, just three years after forming, The Damned were on their third album and second incarnation, having briefly decided to pack it in the year before.
The notoriously volatile Londoners displayed more of a garage rock-influenced sound on Machine Gun Etiquette than on their previous two albums, and singles ‘Smash It Up’ and “Love Song’ certainly played a part in a triumphant return.
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk
Yes, it’s pretty bloated and there are songs on it I don’t care for at all. In fact, my favourites are ones like ‘Sara’ and ‘Storms’ that wouldn’t have been out of place on Rumours. It’s the sound of a band perhaps trying a little too hard, but when that band is Fleetwood Mac, who cares?
The Fall – Dragnet
The Fall’s second out of god-knows-how-many albums, and my personal favourite. It’s so rough and ready, with Mark E. Smith’s vocals especially droned yet acerbic, and his lyrics dipping regularly into literature on tracks like ‘Dice Man’. Plus, I’m sure the Countdown music ripped off ‘Psykick Dancehall’.
Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material
Just making the list ahead of the self-titled debut from compatriots The Undertones, this is one of the ballsiest punk albums around. In the height of the Troubles, the braveness of writing a song like ‘White Noise’, that could have been (and was) mistaken as a racist anthem without careful listening, cannot be overstated. And how true the lyrics of ‘Alternative Ulster’ still are as Brexit nears and Northern Ireland finds itself at the crux of a situation it largely didn’t want.
Any glaring omissions? Any undeserved inclusions? Let us know. And yes, I know I’ve missed out The Wall – I’m just an awkward bugger like that.