1979 was a truly unbelievable year in music. The Clash put out London Calling at the end of the flash in the pan that was “punk” music. In the rock realm, Pink Floyd released The Wall, AC/DC released Highway to Hell and Led Zeppelin In Through the Out Door. At the dance clubs, one likely heard Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” ABBA’s “Voulez-Vous” or, at the cooler clubs, David Bowie’s “D.J.”
New Wave and the age of synth were rapidly approaching; The Human League and The Cure dropped their first albums in 1979 and Gary Numan released two of the most underrated albums of the ’70s: Replicas (as Tubeway Army) and The Pleasure Principle. The easy listening radio stations had no shortage of Fleetwood Mac singles to add to their shuffle and The Knack’s “My Sharona” earned the group its one-hit-wonderdom despite the fact that Get the Knack is a great album.
There was something else going on in the music scene, slightly below the surface but equally important. A number of bands had emerged on both sides of the Atlantic in punk’s late ’70s wake. At the time they were somewhat unclassifiable, a subset of rock oddities. These artists have come to be known as “post-punk,” and they were peaking in 1979.
‘79 saw the release of some of the quintessential post-punk albums, a handful of which can be found below. To limit this list it seemed fitting to select nine opening tracks that both typify the genre and set the stage for the wonderful albums that followed.
1. Talking Heads – “I Zimbra” (Fear of Music)
Talking Heads’ Fear of Music was the band’s second collaboration with iconic producer and self-proclaimed non-musician Brian Eno. “I Zimbra” is a bit of nonsense penned by poet Hugo Ball. This song also marked the band’s first dabbling with world music, a motif which it perfected on its 1980 follow-up, Remain in Light.
2. Gang of Four – “Ether” (Entertainment!)
“Ether” begins an album that is brilliant from start to finish. Jon King speak-sings a skewed political rant in working class cockney over a staccato guitar, funky bass and sharp drums. The song also features a Gang of Four “anti-solo” where the beat is actually reinforced by stripping down the instrumentation.
3. The Slits – “Instant Hit” (Cut)
The Slits are the female post-punk band: three girls who can be simultaneously angry, silly, righteous and sexy (the album cover famously shows the three topless and covered in mud). Their sound was heavily influenced by dub and reggae as evidenced by Cut‘s introductory “Instant Hit.”
4. Swell Maps – “HS Art” (A Trip to Marineville)
Swell Maps’ debut, A Trip to Marineville, is likely the closest thing to punk music on this list, but frontmen (and brothers) Epic Soundtracks and Nikki Sudden forged a hard-hitting, post-punk sound through the incorporation of bizarre instrumentals and violent feedback. A Trip to Marineville hit No. 1 on the independent charts in Great Britain in 1979 and Swell Maps became one of the major influences for the American independent movement of the mid-late ’80s.
5. The Pop Group – “She Is Beyond Good And Evil” (Y)
In November of last year, St. Vincent opted to cover this song on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in lieu of one of her newer singles to exhibit her assumed eclectic taste in music. In ‘79, The Pop Group would hardly have been filed under “pop.” Y once again delves into world music and dub. In fact, the album cover depicts a masked tribe and band members co-mingled with the members of The Slits. The Pop Group’s sound is also accented by frontman Mark Stewart’s incendiary howling.
6. Joy Division – “Disorder” (Unknown Pleasures)
By far the most popular artist on this list, according to last.fm, Joy Division’s “Disorder” is an inarguable corker and happens to be the first track off of its first album. Ian Curtis’ desperate calling, “I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling” is utterly arresting. Any listener should be invigorated yet numb…or they could simply dance.
7. Throbbing Gristle – “20 Jazz Funk Greats” (20 Jazz Funk Greats)
20 Jazz Funk Greats would be the only studio album that Throbbing Gristle recorded and it is 1) only eleven tracks long, and 2) neither jazz nor funk, at least in the traditional sense. If the album as a whole captures a feverish nightmare at a dance club, the hushed vocals and wandering instrumentation of the title track are the foreboding before-party.
8. Public Image Ltd. – “Albatross” (Metal Box)
In 1979 John Lydon (Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols) was getting rid of the albatross that was his punk image. The ten-and-a-half-minute bass drone and cleaving guitars provide an eerie backdrop to Lydon’s disturbing and atypically low vocals about running away. His maniacal cry of “only the lonely!” at the track’s end is shrill enough to shatter punk’s mold and likely Roy Orbison’s sunglasses.
9. The B-52’s – “Planet Claire” (The B-52’s)
The B-52’s eponymous debut showcases the sillier side of post-punk: surf rock meets outer space combined with a flamboyantly effeminate delivery from singer Fred Schneider. An album that covers everything from the moon to volcanoes to rocking crustaceans, The B-52’s begins with the story of a fictional pink planet populated by headless beings.