1979: The Year Punk Peaked, Part One

I have so much to be grateful for, but being a young, precocious, screwed-up latchkey kid living in a major metropolitan area when pop culture was peaking is pretty high on my list. It's only now that I realize how spoiled I was. How spoiled we all were. 

I bought all the comic books that later became billion-dollar film franchises when they first published, for pocket change. I saw all the great blockbusters - Jaws, Star Wars, ET, Aliens, Terminator, Road Warrior, Conan, Halloween etc etc etc in the theaters, or even better, at the drive-ins. And I was on the ground floor when the punk rock revolution began to invade the suburbs.

After dipping my toes in with New Wave - there used to be a DJ-less FM station in Boston that dubbed itself "New Wave Radio" - I took the punk plunge in early 1979 and the timing could not have been better. Whereas a lot of wags will cite 1977 as the year punk peaked, the truth is that they're off by two years. '79 punk was far more vital, competent, and varied than it ever was, or arguably, has been since. And that's not even counting the post-punk explosion.

Yet '79 actually marked the end of a coherent punk movement, with schisms forming and creating spin-offs and subgenres, New Wave and Hardcore being the most prominent. But there was a lot of variety under that punk umbrella, with bands pulling in elements from electronic music, reggae/ska, power pop, garage rock and heavy metal, among others.

The major problem in all of this excitement and creativity was the perception that punk rock was just another passing fad. The success of The Knack during the summer inspired hundreds of bands to pursue the skinny-tie retro rock, with an emphasis on the well-worn early Sixties sounds that the musicians cut their teeth on. A lot of clubs had stopped booking punk bands because of the inevitable violence that followed in their wake, and power pop, revival rock, and dork rock in the vein of Devo and The B-52s soon ruled the roost, and so a suffocating ennui inevitably set in.

Arty misanthropes and over-privileged no-talents took over major downtown scenes, bringing tired and corny "transgressive" concepts from modern art and free jazz, and created fake genres like No Wave and other forms of herky-jerky art-pop garbage, cementing the suspicion in young America's mind that new music was strictly for nerds, losers and weirdos.

But all of this was part of a cycle that dates back to the early days of rock 'n' roll. Movements and styles roughly followed the four-year cycle of high school and each new generation of high school freshmen found their own heroes. Ergo, 1979 marked a shift from the arena rock explosion of 1975 (Queen, Aerosmith, Journey, Styx, etc), with New Wave bands like The Cars, The Police, Blondie and Cheap Trick taking the lead, accompanied by the New Wave of British Metal.

Those bands in turn would be eclipsed in four years, when the MTV generation embraced younger and more telegenic artists of the New British Invasion and the early Hair Metal bands like Quiet Riot and Motley Crue. And the underground was ruled by hardcore and thrash, both of which can trace their roots to Class of 1979 punk.

So let's look at how some of the big first-wave bands were faring...

Malcolm McLaren was hellbent in 1979 on squeezing every pound he could out of the ashes of the Sex Pistols with the Great Rock and Roll Swindle film and soundtrack. A string of vocalists - Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, Eddie Tudor-Pole, etc - were called in to fill Johnny Rotten's shoes. If Sid wasn't such a mess he'd have been a good frontman, possessing a lot of Johnny's charisma but little of his cringe.

Alas, we all know what 1979 had in store for Sid.

The Ramones seized 1979 by starring in the cult-classic comedy Rock n' Roll High School. Of course, the Boys from Queens only got the gig because Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick and Van Halen had already turned it down. The Ramones were ensconced in the studio for much of mid-'79 with the brilliant but utterly psychopathic Phil Spector, recording their last great LP, End of the Century. 

The making of that album is a story all its own, believe it.

Bonus factoid: Cheap Trick and Van Halen got on the soundtrack to Over the Edge, which captures my experience of 1979 rather well. Or at least that's how it felt at the time. For all the hysteria about hardcore at the time, it gave kids something else to focus their energies on aside from vandalism, loitering, fighting and getting wasted.

The Clash's mission to be the punk rock band to conquer America was fatally hampered by US radio's total boycott/blacklist of their records. Crippled by bad contracts and a hellacious debt, they'd soon roll over, play dead and serve up a string of progressively-powerless ersatz Rolling Stones records. But first they said their farewell to punk in 1979 with the essential Cost of Living EP, and their killer cover of "I Fought the Law." 

Happily, they still sounded like the real Clash in concert 'til the bitter end. Give or take.

The Damned peaked in many people's eyes in 1979 with the Machine Gun Etiquette LP, and the classic singles "Love Song" and "Smash it Up." The album earned a silver certificate in the UK, but the USA couldn't be bothered with them, alas. I like some of their singles but found their albums a bit of a slog, truth be told.

Everyone's favorite Mancunians, Buzzcocks, also peaked in 1979 with their deliriously catchy single "Everybody's Happy Nowadays," the studio album A Different Kind of Tension, and the US-only comp Singles Going Steady. 

Sadly, it would be another 15 years until the Buzzcocks brand of pop punk conquered suburban America. Facing commercial indifference, the 'Cocks would split and lead singer Pete Shelley would rack up a few dance club hits in the early 80s New Wave gold rush. 

As with nearly everyone else, the 'Cocks would reform and split again a number of times, sadly without their ace rhythm section of drummer John Maher and bassist Steve Garvey.

The woefully-unappreciated Generation X rang in the Year to End All Years with the Ian Hunter-produced LP Valley of the Dolls, which earned them a top 20 UK hit with "King Rocker." They'd also demo "Dancing with Myself," which was recorded by a new lineup the following year (which included Clash drummer Terry Chimes) and became an FM radio staple when re-released a few years later as a Billy Idol record.

With The Sex Pistols in tatters and The Clash rushing back to their pub rock roots, the path was clear for a new class of street punk in the UK. The Ruts used the early Clash as a template, but were just a wee bit too efficient on their instruments to earn cred with the street punks. 

There were a host of twenty-something musos who tried insinuating themselves with the teenaged audience (see: Police, The) but The Ruts were by far the rawest of the batch. Until their lead singer Malcom Owen would fall to the heroin plague in the UK the following year, that is.

Belfast's Stiff Little Fingers weren't exactly slouches as players themselves, but were young and ragged enough to pick up the baton The Clash had dropped. The scorching rage of their 1979 debut Inflammable Material was enough to ingratiate themselves to bored street kids, and also had an enormous influence on the nascent hardcore scene as well. 

Simply put, few had heard such an uncompromisingly aggressive sound as what SLF were serving up in 1979. I loved the heck out of them.

Another prototype for the hardcore movement - East London's Sham 69 - were having a rough go of it in 1979, thanks in large part to the constant gang violence that followed in their wake. What I mean by that is that Sham were the band who made punk safe for the UK's large skinhead contingent, which means they were making punk un-safe for everyone else.

After a failed LP (The Game, which preceded the Queen blockbuster of the same name) and having repeatedly begged the fans to stop fighting at their gigs to no avail, Sham leader Jimmy Pursey split the band the following year. He attempted a supergroup with Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, set off on a weird and unsuccessful solo career, then formed a new Sham in 1987 and then various iterations of the original lineup now and then.


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