1978: The year of remarkable songs
Forty years on, many still stand out as gems of rhythm and lyrics
In February 1978, a shy north Londoner appeared on the BBC’s Top of the Pops for the first time. Her name was Kate Bush and she sang her own composition: a majestic, vocally demanding song called Wuthering Heights.
Clutching a thin microphone and accompanied by the desultory rhythms of the BBC’s house band, she soared through the song with almost no help. She’d been prevented from bringing in musicians of her choice, and the BBC’s backing musicians were limp and dull. "It was like watching myself die," she said later.
Before the year was out, Bush sang the song on Top of the Pops four more times.
Sometimes she accompanied herself on piano. As Wuthering Heights bounced up the charts, she learnt her lesson: never appear before a band you can’t trust.
Suddenly the song was attracting plaudits. She established a group of fanatical followers. With her pre-Raphaelite locks and eyes enlarged by too much mascara, she reminded them of mystery and hooded intrigue. They were in love.
The mainstream press sneered. Bush was a flake, they said, a chanteuse in love with Gothic histrionics.
Their dismissal was empty-headed. The song became a classic, a true original in a year that has become famous for its flood of remarkable music.
A month after Bush’s first appearance on Top of the Pops, Patti Smith released Because the Night off her album Easter.
She had been recording in the studio adjacent to Bruce Springsteen, who’d passed on a cassette. He had a great chorus but lacked the words, he told her. Perhaps she could turn some lyrics for the tune?
As explained at the New Yorker Festival three years ago, Smith was having a long-distance relationship with her husband-to-be at the time. Fred was in Detroit while Smith was in New York. They had no money and, because phone calls were expensive, they scheduled one a week. The night of their once-weekly call arrived, and Fred’s call was late.
Smith stoically manned her post by the phone. She plugged in Springsteen’s cassette. Whiling away the hours (Fred’s call eventually came through at midnight) she wrote the lyrics to what was to become her most successful song.
The year wasn’t a bad one for Springsteen, either. In June, after a three-year hiatus, he released Darkness on the Edge of Town. The LP contained the hit single Prove it all Night, blue-collar anthems like the title track, and thumping, forgotten rockers like Adam Raised a Cain.
Like Smith, Springsteen grew up in Jersey, and the album was full of Springsteen’s serial concerns: urban desolation, how to confront loneliness, and love (and making it work).
In interviews, Smith has spoken about moving to New York "as a scrappy young girl" and realising that, unlike the norm in New Jersey, New Yorkers were paid not every week but twice a month. Broke and hungry when getting to the front of the line after doing one of her many menial jobs, on hearing the news she burst into tears.
The story could be a vignette from a Springsteen song. As he says in the album: "Some folks are born into the good life / Other folks get it anyway anyhow."
Across the Atlantic in 1978, interesting things were happening too. An Englishman of Irish ancestry, Declan MacManus, had just released his second album. This Year’s Model was sharp, jangly and ironic.
MacManus is better known as Elvis Costello. Watch the YouTube video of I Don’t want to go to Chelsea, one of the hit singles off the album, and note his pigeon-toed, mock-spastic dance. The entire performance has a snarky edge. Music of the time could be discomfiting — and frequently was.
Like Springsteen, Costello was an outsider. But while Springsteen’s status as poet of the mills had always been defined by class and geography, Costello established his distance from what he described by being witty and ironic. Language was the thing.
The words to I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea were clever, with just enough ambiguity to illicit a range of interpretations. Essentially it was a song about a woman’s fall into prostitution and her hospitalisation but, importantly, it was a very English response to the sordid urban world.
Deep in South London, close to the winding Thames (which features heavily in its debut album) a band called Dire Straits was hauling itself out of the pub rock scene. It was helped not only by the song-writing ability of band leader Mark Knopfler but by his much imitated technique on a Fender Stratocaster guitar.
Like Costello, he was English, and so looked to his facility with words to pen the band’s first hit single. Ostensibly Sultans of Swing is a song about a Dixieland band in Deptford. It is also a song about a song — or, more accurately, a song about music — and therefore a clever comment about what Dire Straits didn’t want to be.
Aside from being self-referential, Sultans of Swing is, in the immortal words of Wallace in Nick Park’s animated Wallace and Gromit series, "a cracking tune". It became really famous only upon its re-release in 1979 but, strictly speaking, it was a 1978 number, as strongly associated with the time (and memories of the time) as Wuthering Heights.
So what was it about 1978 that made the year such a rich one for music across such a wide spectrum of styles?
Politics and economics certainly played their part. In England, the fading year gave rise to the "Winter of Discontent", with wide-scale industrial action by the huge public sector unions. Pay raises were capped because the Labour government wanted to keep inflation, galloping along at 5%, in harness.
The resulting crisis, during which even gravediggers and refuse workers joined the picket line, paved the way for the return of the Tories. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister the following year.
Responses to the political crisis of the era took different forms. Back in New York, two musical whizz kids called Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers dealt with the economic troubles of late 1970s America (they were there too) by plunging headlong into a funky bass and rhythm guitar-led form called disco.
Sick and tired of being invisible as session musicians, they founded a band, naming it Chic. Rodgers had long been impressed with Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music’s louche sophistication, and wanted to meld the Ferry package with forget-yourself-for-a-night dance music.
One of the earliest results was Le Freak, one of 1978’s songs of the year. It camped at the top of Billboard’s disco chart for seven straight weeks. The political message of Edwards and Rodgers was less noticeable in Le Freak than it was in another of their hits, Good Times, which harks back to the Depression-era speakeasy music of Al Jolson. Rodgers admitted later that the opening line of the second verse of Good Times is a direct quotation from Jolson’s Happy Days are Here Again, one of the classic songs of 1930s America.
Casting one’s eye down the charts of both sides of the Atlantic, one is astounded by the range of styles and genres on display. The year gave rise to Bob Marley’s Is This Love, as well as 10cc’s softer Dreadlock Holiday.
There was a debut album by The Police (featuring Roxanne and Can’t Stand Losing You) and the release of the Grease soundtrack.
Suburban parties across SA could be found with their Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta imitators.
If the post-pubescent goings-on at Rydell High weren’t quite for you (who can forget the lines "I got chills, they’re multiplying"?) you could seek musical solace elsewhere.
Costello was leading the way with a savvy form of post-punk, later to be dubbed New Wave. There were many practitioners, none better than The Buzzcocks, who recorded one of the singles of the year.
Called Ever Fallen in Love it was fast and loud and had a killer hook. It also told of life being fatally messy, which it frequently is. Can you imagine a song about love and its discontents being a hit today?