Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Psychobabble's Fifteen Greatest Albums of 1978

1977 was the year the punks inherited the earth. 1978 was the year their influence was felt throughout pop music as a whole. Classic rockers such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin attempted to give their careers a booster shot by speeding up their tempos and spewing their words (Zeppelin even considered releasing their punkish “Wearing and Tearing” as a 7” under a punky assumed name). A new wave of guitar groups tidied up punk’s rawness to spearhead what would be the most important pop movement of the early eighties. Because all the best records of 1978 reacted to it in one way or another, punk remained the only music that mattered for the time being, though the variety of its influence made ’78 an even more interesting year than ’77.

15. Who Are You by The Who

In sharp contrast to The Rolling Stones, The Who always rejected trends, and this was true even when they were responsible for setting them. In the turmoil of the late-seventies punk revolution, The Who were widely and justifiably accepted as progenitors of the movement, yet instead of catching that wave and cutting the kind of raw, noisy, terse invective “My Generation” inspired, they went in quite the opposite direction. Really, Who Are You—with its overwhelming synthesizers and strings, ultra-slick production values, and overall air of weariness—is the very kind of record against which the punks were revolting. Yet in its refusal to hop on an obvious bandwagon in the way artists from the Stones to Billy Joel (seriously…listen to Glass Houses to hear the popster’s interpretation of punk), Who Are You reveals more unfiltered honesty than a lot of supposedly telling-it-like-it-is punk records do. Pete Townshend takes a hard look at his place in 1978, and apparently doesn’t like what he sees: frustrated by his inability to reignite his former inspiration and irritated by his audience’s complacent acceptance of “the same old song.” As those familiar with his infamous encounter with Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook that inspired the title track of Who Are You know, Pete believed The Who’s responsibility was to step aside and make way for bands like the Pistols and The Clash. Townshend’s emotional whirlwind makes Who Are You a powerful statement even if the music is the least visceral The Who have made thus far (the roiling title track notwithstanding). This is largely because Keith Moon’s energy was so near the bottom of the incline, and he would die just three weeks after the album’s release. That doesn’t mean the music isn’t good, and tracks such as the percolating “Sister Disco,” the jazzy “Music Must Change,” the comic “Guitar and Pen,” and the sumptuous and wrenchingly sad “Love Is Coming Down” are all quite beautiful. John Entwistle once again plays his role as a funny foil to Pete Townshend’s soul searching with songs that almost parody Pete’s societal (“Had Enough”) and sexual (“Trick of the Light”) frustration. The sci-fi character piece “905” (an excerpt from a larger rock opera John had in mind) mirrors the beauty of Pete’s best Who Are You tracks.                    

14. Some Girls by The Rolling Stones

While punk godfather Pete Townshend was fretting over his place in a changing scene, decadent jet-setter Mick Jagger was wearing garbage-bag trousers and pretending he slept in the gutter of the Bowery. Only a dolt would buy his New Yawk punk pose of 1978, but the masses still agree that Some Girls was the most legitimately exciting record The Rolling Stones made since Exile on Main Street. After the mostly lame jams and ballads of Black and Blue, it’s good to hear the Stones revitalized with new guitarist Ronnie Wood, zipping through a good selection of proper songs. While Jagger may not be a street rat, his role-playing isn’t necessarily any more ridiculous than his previous embodiments of the Boston Strangler or the Devil, so the ferocious “When the Whip Comes Down” and the New Wavy “Shattered” can still be appreciated as character sketches told from the first person pov. And there is some of the Stones’ elusive authenticity to be heard amidst the poses as Jagger croons a soulful plea to new love Jerry Hall (“Miss You”) and Keith Richards apologizes to Mick for making the singer pull his drug-addled weight (“Beast of Burden”), after shrugging it all off with one of his signature rebel anthems (“Before They Make Me Run”). Still, Some Girls isn’t quite top tier Stones, muddled by the silly reverse-minstrel show “Far Away Eyes,” the tossed-off punk of “Lies,” and the by-numbers controversy stoking of the lazily misogynistic title track. Despite its reputation as a classic, Some Girls is just a really solid Stones album. It’s the last one they’d make.

13. Road to Ruin by The Ramones

As Mick Jagger was trying to cash in on the rawness of the punk movement, the band that kicked it all off were putting out their most polished record to date. On Road to Ruin, producer and former-drummer Tommy Erdelyi got a lot of assistance behind the desk from Ed Stasium. Replacing him at the kit was Marc Bell, now rechristened Marky Ramone, who kicked out the beat with a new-found metronomic precision. The band also branches out with their playing and songwriting, with Johnny ripping out some atypical lead guitar work on the pounding “I Just Want to Have Something to Do,” jangling like Roger McGuinn on a cover of “Needles and Pins,” and swirling out gorgeous George Harrison-esque slides on “Questioningly,” on which he commits further blasphemy with his acoustic guitar. The changes resulted in a sound that distinguishes Road to Ruin from the nearly interchangeable three albums that preceded it (even though those three albums are all completely awesome). A few songs fall flat for the first time (“I’m Against It,” “Go Mental,” “Bad Brain”), but the best ones are among The Ramones’ very best (“Questioningly,” “She’s the One,” “Don’t Come Close”) and “I Wanna Be Sedated” gave them a signature song every punk-ignorant punter knows. Road to Ruin is the fourth corner in a quartet of essential Ramones albums, and they’d never cut one this good again.

12. The Cars by The Cars

The Cars might as well have called their first album The Cars Greatest Hits. All but two of its tracks—the misguided experiments “I’m in Touch with Your World” and “All Mixed Up”—have worked their way deep into popular culture. You might know “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” from endless plays on classic rock radio or the freaky “Moving in Stereo” from a certain famous scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but overexposure (a-hem) should not undermine the freshness of any of these classics, and hearing them all gathered together on one LP really puts into focus what a great group The Cars were (that their second record, Candy-O, is just as consistent puts a big, black underline beneath that fact). At a time when critics really started forcing every group into neat compartments, The Cars were deemed pioneers of the New Wave, though the clean guitars and clean hooks that streak rainbows across their debut album leave it sounding like nothing other than perfectly uncomplicated and perfectly perfect pop to my ears. 

11. All Mod Cons by The Jam

In the year The Who made it clear that they had no intentions of getting in the way of the new guard they sired, no group was more eager to pick up the torch and sprint than The Jam. After making their bids for punk legitimacy on their first two albums, they fully moved on to the sixties-indebted power pop sound that would convince the punks The Jam were never really one of them. There is speed and thrust behind the title track of All Mod Cons, “Billy Hunt,” and their transitional cover of The Kinks’ “David Watts.” The other side of that transition dominates, with “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time)” hinting at the full-on Beatles heist they’d commit two records later on Sound Affects. “Mr. Clean” is a Kinky character sketch, and “The Place I Love” further pays tribute to that group with a melancholic tale of a fading era. The wistful acoustics of “Fly” and the utterly bare-boned “English Rose” break with punk tradition completely, announcing The Jam’s intentions to follow their own retro-course with a complete absence of remorse and an unapologetic acceptance of beauty. Then all of that beauty, social insight, and underlying agitation coalesces on The Jam’s masterpiece. “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” is a stark rejection of the conservative label many detractors slapped across the band, as Paul Weller plays the part of a Pakistani man on the receiving end of a National Front hate crime with heart-rending detail, wishing he could be home with his family, imagining his wife waiting with dinner. Can you believe a twenty year old wrote something so empathetic, so authentic, so emotionally devastating? Fuck.

10. Ghosts of Princes in Towers by The Rich Kids

Only a dope would dispute the importance of The Sex Pistols’ role in establishing punk as a major force. They were the genre’s poster boys, the one punk group your Grandpa has heard of. With his spiky hair, permanent grimace, shredded attire, Cockney yowl, and dentally-challenged grin, Johnny Rotten gave the genre a face. Steve Jones suggested punk’s danger when he told that “fucking rotter” Bill Grundy what he thought of him on live TV. Sid Vicious proved it when he knifed his girlfriend in the Chelsea Hotel before ODing. All historically significant incidents for sure. Their music, though? Eh. Yes, “Pretty Vacant”, “Anarchy in the UK”, and “God Save the Queen” are all great anthems, but taken together on The Pistols’ only album, they are less interesting. For a genre built on brief, lo-fi, speedily spat-out songs, punk is not best represented by The Sex Pistols’ long, overly polished, mid-temp recordings, and Never Mind the Bollocks doesn’t pack a level of excitement or memorability to match its looming reputation. Far more interesting— yet far less appreciated— is the band that Glen Matlock formed after he was allegedly kicked out of the Pistols for “liking The Beatles.” As spurious as that story is, The Rich Kids certainly have a greater grasp of melody and variety than The Sex Pistols ever did. I know, I know, punk is not supposed to be about melody or variety, but all the best punk groups—from The Clash to The Damned to Siouxsie and the Banshees to The Buzzcocks—were melodic and eclectic (let’s call The Ramones “the exception that proves the rule”). Ghosts of Princes in Towers fires blinding bullets like “Cheap Emotions” and “Put You in the Picture” that are much more electrifying—much more punk— than anything on Bollocks. But it also has moody dirges like “Strange One,” with its twinkling organ line and massive fuzz guitars, heavy rock like “Hung On You,” and exhilarating power pop like “Young Girl,” “Bullet Proof Lover,” and the magnificent title track, which puts Matlock’s love of The Beatles on proud display. Most of the reviews you’ll read of Ghosts of Princes in Towers dismiss it. Never mind those bollocks. This is the real classic to come out of the Pistols’ camp.

9. The Scream by Siouxsie and the Banshees

The pioneers of the New York punk scene were a diverse lot, more defined by their CBGB origins than a particular sound. Before shattering dogma with genre-defying records like London Calling, Cast of Thousands, and The Black Album, the UK punks adhered closer to The Ramones’ concise speed rock. The debut albums by first wavers The Clash, The Adverts, The Damned, and the rest were unique in their own ways but very identifiable as products of the same scene. The one UK first wave debut to really hack out a completely individual sound was The Scream. Like the New Yorkers, Siouxsie and the Banshees were more punks by proximity than anything else, hanging out with the Pistols on Bill Grundy’s show with the rest of the Bromley Contingent. With the exception of “Carcass,” which borrows heavily from the Pistol’s “Problems,” Siouxsie and the Banshees shun the sped-up pop that essentially defined UK punk in 1978. Their sound was darker, scarier, more challenging, tougher to take on first listen, more intoxicating after multiple spins. There was nothing else like the horror movie atmospherics of “Pure,” the stomping psychedelia of “Mirage,” the Teutonic avant garde squeals of “Metal Postcard (Mitageisen),” or the epic mood shifts of “Switch” in 1978. “Helter Skelter” is an extremer Beatles blasphemy than even The Damneds’ amphetamine cover of “Help!” Though Siouxsie has always rejected the label, we do hear the birth of the Goth rock movement in her strident vocal, which is not emotionless as it has sometimes been criticized; it is chilly yet still pushed with rage. As dark as this music is, John McKay’s varied guitar work sprays enough color behind the monochrome foreground to keep the ear intrigued. Siouxsie and the Banshees would go on to make albums more accomplished than The Scream, and they’d certainly make more pleasing ones, but never one more challenging or one that so rewards taking on its challenges.

8. More Songs About Buildings and Food by Talking Heads

Talking Heads: 77 may have been the most completely original album to come out of the CBGB scene. David, Tina, Chris, and Jerry made an even better album in ’78. More Songs About Buildings and Food is in some ways more of the same, particularly considering how totally individual each of Talking Heads records would be starting with their next record, Fear of Music. The sophomore could have been called More Angular, Sweaty, Paranoid Pop Songs for Hip College Geeks. However, the performances are tighter, the songs better, the hooks clearer, the production cleaner. A punk might miss the rawness of 77, but of all the groups that have been caught up in the punk net, no group was less deserving of inclusion than Talking Heads. Brian Eno’s board mastery is most complimentary to the band and would lead to a fruitful collaboration only rivaled by his work with Bowie. The producer’s contribution shouldn’t be underestimated, but it’s David Byrne who really delivers with many of his greatest songs: the exhilarating gallop of “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel,” the almost bubblegummy “The Good Thing,” the snaky “Warning Sign,” the sparkling pop “The Girls Want to Be with the Girls,” the tight funk of “Found a Job” (on which we must also pause to marvel at Tina Weymouth’s brilliance), and the panoramic “The Big Country.” It’s actually kind of a shame that a cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” is the track that hooked the record, though one can’t argue that it didn’t do the trick. It zipped into the Billboard top-thirty as did the Gold-certified More Songs About Buildings and Food. That’s not too punk either.

7. Jesus of Cool by Nick Lowe

Any major movement will find artists outside it swept into the phenomenon by sheer gravitational pull. Former-Brinsley Schwarz/current-Rockpile bassist Nick Lowe was pushing thirty when he released his first solo album in 1978, and it somehow has been spoken of as a punk-related record when it’s even less punk than his buddy Elvis Costello’s records. Perhaps it was his stint with the indie label Stiff, or his role as the producer of The Damned’s debut album, but Lowe definitely drew more inspiration from Paul McCartney than The Who, and Jesus of Cool is a totally refreshing blast of pure pop for now people. He sounds like an overexcited music geek on his first long-player, sampling a little jerky proto-new wave (“Music for Money”), Phil Spector expansiveness (“Little Hitler”), old time Rock & Roll (“Shake and Pop”), reggae (“No Reason”), ominous brooding (“36 Inches”), and yes, punk fury (a live version of his great B-side “Heart of the City”). “So It Goes,” Lowe’s hit rewrite—and improvement—of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” and his brilliant McCartney-esque mini-suite “Nutted By Reality” reveal the craftsman at his cagiest, while the tastelessly uproarious “Marie Provost” reveal him to be one who delights in clunking pop’s conventions on its skull until it cracks. Actually, that’s a pretty punk thing to do.

6. Germfree Adolescents by X-Ray Spex

By 1978, The Ramones were already on their fourth album, and punk was already spawning a second wave of upstarts. X-Ray Spex actually were not among them, having been on the scene since 1976, but they did not get around to putting out their first LP until late ’78. The thrilling Germfree Adolescents was worth the wait. This album feels like punk’s next, great leap forward, expanding the sound with Rudi Thomson’s fat-assed sax and the perspective with one of the movement’s first great women, human air-raid siren Poly Styrene. By homing in on our mass-produced, overly-commercialized culture, she also gives Germfree Adolescents an unusual level of focus. The album hits hardest when the band does on exhilarating tracks such as “Art-I-Ficial,” “Obsessed with You,” “Identity,” and the classic single “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo.” X-Ray Spex also counters their high-velocity by exploring delicious mid-tempo pop (“Warrior in Woolworth’s”), the vintage girl-group sound (“I Can’t Do Anything”), and psychedelia (the floating title track). X-Ray Spex would not release another studio album until reforming and recording Conscious Consumer nearly two decades later, making Germfree Adolescents stand out that much more among the fast and fierce first-wave punk albums.

5. Give ‘Em Enough Rope by The Clash

None of punk’s defining bands moved away from the music’s defining characteristics faster than The Clash. On their debut album, they were already fiddling with reggae and power pop, and by their second, they’d essentially freed themselves from punk’s speed and leanness completely for a more anthemic sound and philosophy. It is telling that a song called “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” dismisses the clichéd ennui and ineptitude (“I knew how to sing…they knew how to pose”) to a jangly, swirly pop back beat. Musically, Give ‘Em Enough Rope owes more to The Who (check out the “I Can’t Explain” rip “Guns on the Roof”) and The Rolling Stones (“Last Gang in Town”) than The Ramones. In the jolly power popper “Julie’s in the Drug Squad,” Joe Strummer even quotes The Beatles, showing just how far hed come from the “No Beatles, Elvis, or The Rolling Stones” ethos of ’77. The full time addition of Topper Headon added extra un-punk professionalism, as did producer Sandy Pearlman, who’d been best known for his work with Blue Öyster Cult of all people. The politics remain pointed, taking on terrorism local and global, the racist pigs in the National Front, and Britain’s anti-drug crusade. While Give ‘Em Enough Rope lacks the raw vitality of the record that preceded and the thrilling eclecticism of the one that would follow it, it is a consistently great rock record with some of The Clash’s best tracks—“Safe European Home,” “Tommy Gun,” “Julie’s in the Drug Squad,” “Stay Free.” All the young punks with an eye on longevity and an ear for musical growth were likely listening.

4. Easter by Patti Smith Group

After two albums of exploratory epics, Patti Smith tightened up her songwriting to make her best one, no matter what pretentious blatherers like Lester Bangs said. The jams of Horses and Radio Ethiopia give way to compact, hard-nosed Rock & Roll with only a stray spray of the self-conscious poetics of those earlier records. These moments are brilliantly placed, intruding on the straightforward “Space Monkey” as unexpectedly as the song’s stormy, screechy finale, and functioning as an orgasmic build-up to the A-bomb “Rock N Roll Nigger.” That is Smith’s song that most makes good on her “Godmother of Punk” status in both sound and intent. It’s three-and-a-half minutes of exhilarating punk righteousness that makes me want to shove my head through a sheet-rock wall. Easter is not all fury and taboo busting though. As the title indicates, it is steeped in the weird Biblical imagery of Smith’s upbringing, which creates a Gothic, foreboding atmosphere. Her crossover collaboration with Bruce Springsteen on the shockingly traditional “Because the Night” and eerie, haunting tracks such as “Ghost Dance,” “We Three,” and the magnificent title track lend Easter the diversity that makes it so worthy of repeat spins.

3. Parallel Lines by Blondie

Debbie Harry and Blondie were unlikelier punk candidates than Patti Smith, which was never clearer than when they had their first international number one hit with the discofied “Heart of Glass.” Old pals like The Ramones accused them of selling out their integrity, missing the obvious fact that Blondie had always been a pop group first and foremost and that their breakthrough hit may have been the most delectable pop song of 1978, fusing disco’s robotic rhythm to a perfectly crafted melody and a funny and imaginative lyric. The single was featured on Blondie’s best album, where disco was just one flavor in a Baskin and Robbins assortment of sweet pop styles: the steam-train pop punk of “Hanging on the Telephone” and “One Way or Another,” the jangly sunshine pop of “Picture This” and “Sunday Girl,” the hopped-up retro Rock & Roll of “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” the angular New Wave of “I Know But I Don’t Know,” the psychedelia of “Fade Away and Radiate,” the girl-group homage “Pretty Baby,” and the arena-thumper “Will Anything Happen?” Parallel Lines is one of those albums that doesn’t have a single bum track. That’s actually the definition of integrity.

2. Outlandos d’Amour by The Police

The Police were yet another group management and media tried to force into the punk box. This was particularly phony considering the guys’ backgrounds in prog (Stewart Copeland was the drummer in Curved Air), jazz (Sting had been playing bass in fusion groups around London), and genuine 1960s psychedelia (already in his mid-30s, Andy Summers played guitar in Dantalian’s Chariot, and briefly, Soft Machine and Eric Burdon’s Animals). The Police were no trio of punks: it was all a hoodwink of the first order, a crass example of bandwagon jumping as absurd as Mick Jagger (who is half-a-year younger than Summers!) refashioning himself punk-style on Some Girls. So big fucking deal? Should that make Outlandos d’Amour any less of a blinding record? Well, it doesn’t, and “Next to You,” “Peanuts,” and the psychotically paranoid “Truth Hits Everybody” may be the greatest punk songs ever hammered out by a bunch of posers. Yet even as The Police were trying to put one over on the punk populace, the main sound of Outlandos d’Amour is white-pop-reggae, and no group ever did that better than they do on classics such as “So Lonely,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Hole in My Life,” and the unavoidable “Roxanne.” And may I be the first to say what no other rock writer has said: “Be My Girl—Sally” is not filler; Andy’s spoken-word bullshit about his favorite blow-up doll is hilarious and the high-speed rock mantra that frames it makes my skull feel like it’s going to explode. In a good way.

1. This Year’s Model by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

As we reach number one, I think we can acknowledge a running theme throughout 1978. Mick Jagger, Nick Lowe, Debbie Harry, Sting (plus Tom Robinson, whom you’ll see makes the extended list below): all musicians who either willingly or unwillingly found themselves squirming uncomfortably in the punk compartment in 1978. They were joined by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, a group that may have spent every waking moment gobbling amphetamines, but were led by a songwriter with much more in common with Paul McCartney and Cole Porter than Johnny Rotten and grounded by a rhythm section of virtuosic skill. Bruce Thomas’s bass playing on “Lipstick Vogue” alone should be enough to disqualify The Attractions as a punk band, yet they were still smacked with the label in 1978 (it would peel off pretty quickly though). Maybe the band’s first album should be viewed through the punk lens though. Perhaps all of these should, because if inarguably legit punks like The Clash and The Damned could make albums as sprawling and diverse as London Calling, Sandinista!, The Black Album, and Strawberries, then maybe a group as traditionally accomplished as Elvis Costello and the Attractions could make a legit punk album. Elvis and the punks were both coming from a lot of the same influences, and the effects of Question Mark and the Mysterians, My Generation-era Who, and especially Aftermath-era Stones are all over This Year’s Model. Certainly, few punks recorded anything as pulse shredding as “No Action,” “Pump It Up,” or “Lipstick Vogue,” or railed against the current culture as venomously or pointedly as Elvis does on the anti-fascist “Night Rally.” However, the focus of This Year’s Model is largely inward, with the sexual frustrations and irritations of “No Action,” “Pump It Up,” “This Year’s Girl,” and “You Belong to Me,” and “Hand in Hand.” Personal yet completely relatable, virtuosic yet totally fucking punk, This Year’s Model is the record that best conveys the brilliance of both Elvis Costello and his new band, and in 1978, nothing could beat it.

Five More Great Albums from 1978

Crossing the Red Sea by The Adverts 
Another Music in a Different Kitchen by The Buzzcocks
Heaven Tonight by Cheap Trick
Inflammable Material by Stiff Little Fingers
Power in the Darkness by Tom Robinson Band

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