Heavy Blog is Heavy is ten years old. When Jimmy Rowe first started this blog, I doubt he imagined that it would become what it is today; I doubt anybody around back then imagined it. It was special for music journalism; right at the cusp of the mass migration of the industry – media journalism, in general, that is – on to the Internet. “Blog” was uttered with the same confused reverence as “blockchain” is used today; it was cutting edge, it was the next big thing. During the decade that has passed, the term has waxed and waned in popularity, come to mean new things, to address new crowds, and to embrace new styles. To be honest, it’s now extremely out of fashion; even the biggest music blogs out there are getting put behind paywalls as the next form of the Internet (hopefully not its final form) coalesces over the horizon.
But that’s the beauty of blogs; they don’t necessarily need to be in fashion. Sure, running a blog of even this size (we’re in the medium tier as far as website sizes go, if you’ve ever wondered) is a lot of work. But it’s inherently sustainable; we’re run off of volunteer passion and, as long as that doesn’t run dry, we can keep the lights on with a minimal (though not non-existent) overhead. We might even do some bigger stuff, like shirts, a showcase show (hhhmmmm….), sponsorship, and stuff like that. But, essentially, it’s all about the music, and the day that music itself goes out of fashion is the day humanity dies. Even as things accelerate and the rate at which the world is changing seems to go ever faster (insert Sonic joke here), music (and art in general) seem to become more and more essential to sanity, at least for me.
One only needs to look at the list below, hailing all the way from 1979, to get what I’m saying here. This music was released in a world that was unbelievably different than ours: the Soviet Block had not yet fallen; computers were around but they took up rooms and their minification and proliferation was still science-fiction; the Internet was a bunch of ideas floating around, waiting for a connection; the Vietnam War was still fresh; Iraq was un-invaded; phones were hooked up to walls. The world was inherently different and yet, things were also the same. Music from that era still speaks to us, still speaks to our daily struggles, frustrations, and emotions. I do not believe in eternity or an essential human essence. But I do believe in the ability of art to articulate ideas, ways of thought, challenges, and facts of life that go beyond the momentary, beyond the contextual, and into the realm of the long-lasting, of the almost-infinitely complex and subtle.
Every quarter of this year (wow, just like a real business!) we’ll be doing a “Best Of” list focusing on a different “Year 9.” We’ll start here, at 1979, and move a decade forward each time (that means the next one is 1989, get it?), highlighting those releases we think were best in each year. We’ll end up syncing with our present time in the far, far future that is the end of 2019 and our Album of the Year list, drawing the line from the past to the present and, hopefully, into the future. See you there. Let’s get going.
The Clash – London Calling
1979 was a year of greats, huh? If you scroll down this list, you’ll find absolute classic albums. However, let me posit this to you: in capturing the zeitgeist of the period within its geographical area, no album on this list even comes close to London Calling except for, perhaps, Unknown Pleasures. The Clash were way more than just a band; they were proginators, radicals, iconoclasts. They inspired an entire movement, as London Calling released on the eve of Thatcherism (the effects of which we’re still reeling from, all over the world), on the eve of the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, on the decline of the Great Promise of the 60’s, on the brink of it all. They were the voice of an entire generation of disaffected, disillusioned, and pissed off youth, in the heart of the failing vision of Europe post-war, London.
They also made a damn fine album. It’s kind of surprising just how well London Calling stands up to the test of time, shrugging off the intimations of a million successors to channel it’s own special brand of pissed proto-punk. However, there are a few tracks on it which stand even taller, beyond the obvious choice of the self-titled opener, that deserve special attention. Chief among them, for this writer at least, is “Clampdown”, a track which was brought to my attention shortly after high-school by one of my best friends, originally. It’s a track which captures the energetic music of The Clash and their original appeal, with their straightforward political message, their ability to write lyrics and music which cut to the bone and, most of all, their irresistible groove, emanating from the drums and the bass and reaching all the way into the signature vocals.
Other highlights include the (literally) incendiary “Spanish Bombs”, the rousing “Guns of Brixton” and the anthemic “Revolution Rock”. We could spend our time on each of these, taking them apart and understanding their appeal but to be honest, that’s unnecessary. I think that what keeps The Clash fresh in general, and London Calling especially, is how direct and unmitigated their music is. You can sit down, spin the record up, and immediately be drawn into the dreary, furious, disenchanted, and uncompromising soundscape that they created for themselves. Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that we are still, in many ways, living “in the moment” of London Calling, as economic/ecological crisis deepens around us and our politicians seem unwilling to do much of anything.
AC/DC – Highway to Hell
Although most people would defer to the Bon Scott years as the classic AC/DC era, album-wise, the band will always be remembered for Back In Black (1980). And rightfully so. To come back only a year later following the death of such an iconic frontman with an album that not only constitutes a career high but might just be the greats album in all of hard rock history is no small feat. Yet, all of this is just icing on the proverbial cake, for what is perhaps most remarkable about Back In Black, and arguably the band’s true triumph as well, is that they managed to top an album as good as Highway to Hell.
The Bon Scott years are littered with classic hits, and with albums like T.N.T. (1975) and Let There Be Rock (1977), they far outshine the Brian Johnson years in terms of albums as well. However, not even those classic records rival the heights nor the consistency of Highway to Hell. There is, of course, its iconic opening track, which has been irreparably woven into to fabric of both rock n’ roll and popular culture. Yet, it’s when you realise that tracks like “Shot Down in Flames” and “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”—which derives its name from another “all-time great”, in the form of the band’s classic 1978 live album —weren’t even released as singles that you realise just how outstanding a record Highway to Hell truly is.
In fact, the album’s two other singles, “Girls Got Rhythm” and “Touch Too Much”, are two of its lesser offerings. Of its ten tracks, “Get it Hot” is the only one that I can’t immediately recall, while songs like the sleaze-ridden “Walk All Over You” or the frantic “Beating Around the Bush” rival similar songs such as “What Do You do For Money Honey” or “Have a Drink on Me” from Back in Black. There’s as much quality shown on this one record as there is on their previous five album’s combined, and even the weakest of those (probably 1976’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap) are often credited as genre classics. AC/DC really hit their stride with Highway to Hell, and the fact that the best was yet to come only makes it all the more impressive.
Although their output has hardly ever approached the same heights since, in the space of two years, AC/DC not only put out history’s best hard rock album but, arguably, its second best as well. Out of the following (almost) four-decades’ worth of output, only 1990’s The Razor’s Edge comes close to recapturing the quality of the band’s early years. Nevertheless, Highway to Hell and its successor cap off a run of albums which few—if any—rock n’ roll bands have equalled since, and whose heights represent the absolute peak of what the genre has to offer.
– Joshua Bulleid
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
During their brief but monumental career, Joy Division were a band of two eras that never truly belonged in either. This became clearer after vocalist Ian Curtis’s death, when the remaining members released the brighter, synth-heavy single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and went on to form eminent synthpop group New Order. Even the band’s swan song Closer (1981) had several forward-looking moments rooted in budding ’80s trends. Yet, what truly makes Joy Division such a singular voice in rock history is best observed on Unknown Pleasures. Both literally and figuratively, Joy Division were on the cusp of a new decade, and the way they incorporated that fact into their music made for arguably the greatest post-punk album of all time.
Of course, post-punk was alive and well by the time Joy Division came around. Wire had already released their two most enduring albums Pink Flag (1977) and Chairs Missing (1978), while Talking Heads were already churning out classics. Not to mention bands like The Fall, Television and the budding No Wave scene. But there’s a reason Unknown Pleasures frequently bests all these acts on all-time “Best Of” lists when it comes to post-punk, the 70s and music in general. Unknown Pleasures is essentially the perfect blueprint for what modern post-punk evolved into during the 80s and beyond, and its influence stretches into virtually every related subgenre that revolves around reverb, mood and atmosphere. Even in the metal community, moodier and more atmospheric acts often tip their cap towards the groundwork laid by Joy Division decades ago.
Minimal, cold and swallowed in atmosphere, Joy Division’s music is perhaps the most succinct encapsulation of depression. On Unknown Pleasures in particular, the band rooted that feeling in the trajectory of art punk and post-punk in the mid to late ’70s. Musically, the band latched onto the logical extension of punk’s simplicity: using repetition and minimalism to conjure a mood with hypnotic, alluring compositions. Joy Division’s rhythm section made this effect possible, what with Peter Hook’s melancholic, mesmerizing bass lines and the tight percussion of Stephen Morris. Threading the band’s formula were moody punk riffs and leads from guitarist Bernard Sumner, covered in a gratuitous but not gluttonous amount of reverb. And then, of course, the vocals of Ian Curtis truly make Joy Division who they are; a deadpan delivery always on the cusp of an emotional outburst.
Altogether, what may sound like a plain iteration of ’70s post-punk became something a great deal more valuable to the genre’s survival. The reverb and effect-laden movements of the ’80s found roots all across Unknown Pleasures, and in particular, future post-punk staples took copious notes of how all the band’s elements came together. You have brighter outliers like “Disorder,” one of the most melodic tracks in the band’s discovery that’s retained its infectious nature still to this day. Following suite are some of the band’s core, pensive material, like the veiled, dismal atmosphere of “Candidate” and the deadpan, danceable bounce of ‘She’s Lost Control.” Then there’s the nod to the band’s punk roots on “Interzone,” maybe the feistiest the band have ever sounded outside of their earliest, Warsaw-era material.
Each of the album’s 10 tracks are post-punk highlights, and the record as a whole is perfectly paced, written and structured. Having listened to Unknown Pleasures before exploring the wider worlds of post-punk, shoegaze, dream pop and the like, it was genuinely illuminating to discover just how far-reaching Joy Division’s influence has been over the last 40 years. Unknown Pleasures has remained my favorite album for some time now, and revisiting it for this column only further cemented that title. There’s an almost indescribable feeling that the album causes, even after spinning it as many times as I have. The lore of Unknown Pleasures is well-founded, and it deserves at least a cursory listen from anyone interested in what one of modern music’s landmark releases has to offer.
Motorhead – Overkill
Double-bass, that distinctive razor wire bass guitar tone, staccato guitars, and an unmistakable growl. Truth be told, you probably only need to hear those drums in the opening seconds of Motorhead’s “Overkill” to instantly recognize it. For the uninitiated, this album and that track were arguably the defining moments for the band until “Ace of Spades” came roaring to life in 1980.
In 1979, Lemmy Kilmister, Philthy Animal Taylor, and Fast Eddie Clarke blasted out of the gates with this album that also contained the swashbuckling swagger of not only the lead track, but classics such as “Stay Clean”, “Damage Case”, “No Class”, and “Tear Ya Down”. Boasting such early canonical works, it’s clear to see why this is a landmark heavy metal album. But when you also take into account the historical context of the record, you get a portrait of rock getting a much needed raw jolt of energy and bravado in an era where ostentatiousness bogged down some of their contemporaries and saw a distancing from the archetypes of the outgoing era’s rock music.
Pink Floyd – The Wall
It would be very difficult indeed to have a discussion of the evolution of metal without talking about Pink Floyd. The influence of Pink Floyd opened the floodgates for a lot of ideas in rock and metal over the years. It made progressive ideas far more accessible to the average music consumer and helped us all embrace darker ideas in our tunes.
The Wall is the epitome of all things Pink Floyd. The idea of the theme album or rock opera wasn’t brand new at the time but it certainly wasn’t as deeply explored as it is these days. Roger Waters and the gang definitely dug deep into themselves emotionally by relating very personal stories about themselves and their haunted former singer, guitarist, and friend Syd Barrett. Ideas about childhood trauma, drug addiction, and the darker side of fame have now become fodder for all manner of media, but we were really just beginning to explore it in widely available pop culture media. In many ways, The Wall represents much of what we consider dark about the 1970s.
The Wall also showed off the band’s songwriting talents. Telling a story using music can be a very tricky thing by the most experienced musicians. If you don’t consider all parts of the song to build the story, it’s going to fall apart under the weight of its own ambition. Considering the year it took to record the album along with the number of venue changes and sheer number of musicians involved, the band was well aware of the undertaking it was committing to. Each song tells a very specific story within the overarching narrative with music reflective of the tale.
It also stamped Pink Floyd’s legacy in music history. The Wall produced 3 massive hits for the band in “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” “Comfortably Numb,” and “Run Like Hell”. Every beleaguered student has shouted, “HEY TEACHER, LEAVE THOSE KIDS ALONE” at some point in their school days. And every guitar student has taken their turn at the solo in “Comfortably Numb,” a great lesson any student should take in learning how to emote with your instrument. The album has become a gateway for music nerds into deeper classic rock territory and a monumental achievement in music. We’ve been talking about this record for a very long time, and it will be an even longer time before it is lost to time.
Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle
For my 1979 throwback, I’ve decided to revisit Gary Numan‘s The Pleasure Principle, or as many people may know it, that album with the song “Cars” on it. That synth-coated “here in my car” line and the ultra-catchy lead synth on the chorus are some of the most recognizable musical moments of the decade. But I wanted to see if this album was really just a one-hit wonder, as it is often viewed as, or if there is more to this album than just sitting in cars.
His inspiration for his debut solo album grew from wanting to write punk or rock music but using synthesizers in place of the guitar. To achieve his signature flanging, distorted synth tone, he fed his minimoog and polymoog synthesizers through his guitar effects pedals. While we see this a lot in modern rock, pop and synthwave, it was a novel concept for its time and part of the reason he is viewed as being a pioneer of modern electronic music. The album was not decade defining as the likes of Kraftwerk, but it helped sculpt the decade to come as it was surely influential to the blossoming ’80s synth pop and new wave scene with groups such as Eurythmics and Depeche Mode breaking into the mainstream.
The Pleasure Principle achieved immediate commercial success, charting to number 1 in the UK, and “Cars” topping the charts in the UK, Canada and reaching ninth in the US. Another single, “Complex” also actually reached number 6 on the UK charts making the album not technically a one-hit wonder … though obviously not to the worldwide acclaim that keeps “Cars” still on the radio, so the stigma remains.
The influential nature of this album is heightened by the fact that several songs have been notably sampled or covered. Most famously, the lead synth riff from “M.E” is instantly recognizable from the annoyingly catchy 2000s dance-rock tune featuring in video games, tv and cinema “Where’s Your Head At?” by Basement Jaxx, and “Metal” which would go on to be covered by Nine Inch Nails among others.
In broad strokes, this album is a collection of songs that songs that sound like “Cars” that are all strong on their own, but lack that nostalgic ear-worm inducing flavour, so it’s unfortunately easy to say they’re just not as good. This is an unfortunate reality because there are several stand-out and memorable moments across the album, and if you’re looking for more early synthpop/new wave, The Pleasure Principle is worth a listen from front to back.
The Specials – The Specials
By almost any measure, Britain was a bleak place in the late seventies. Mass unemployment, strikes, power cuts, police brutality, teenage pregnancy, gang violence, terrorism and the racial tensions which followed, among other things, the increase in immigration from the former British colonies in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, there were still a few rays of sunshine poking through here and there. For one thing, the Jamaicans brought with them the many variants on the reggae sound, and the energy of ska struck a chord with the socially conscious corners of the punk community, spawning a whole generation of British ska bands.
The Specials were unquestionably at the vanguard of this movement, with the band’s founding member Jerry Dammers also running the iconic 2 Tone record label. Right from the get-go, The Specials were a band with a mission. At the time, the simple fact that the band featured both black and white musicians was a political statement; multiculturalism was the message, and The Specials’ eponymous album is a near perfect snapshot of this nascent soundclash between the rhythms and languid basslines of reggae and the brashness, energy and attitude of punk. Elvis Costello‘s production of the album, gave it a very raw, live-in-the-studio feel, in turn giving us a little glimpse of just how much of a riot The Specials gigs must have been at the time.
Lyrically, The Specials tells small-scale tales of innercity life rather than attempting to tackle any grand themes – “Do The Dog”, “Concrete Jungle” and “(Dawning of A) New Era” talk of the running violence between the various different tribes and affiliations of the time, whilst “Nite Klub”, “Stupid Marriage” and “Too Much Too Young” are about various love-related woes and frustrations.
But, crucially, The Specials’ antidote to the anger and hopelessness of seventies Britain was simple: dancing. The Specials is an album of songs built for the dancefloor – interspersed with the original songs are a clutch of covers of Jamaican ska pioneers like Toots & The Maytals and The Skatalites, including their calling card “A Message To You Rudy”, all reworked into the band’s infectious signature sound. The net result is a real party album, stuffed with thick, heavy bass grooves and infused with the wry humour of people laughing in the face of adversity.
Internal conflict would soon engulf the band, which ultimately meant they would never quite scale the heights of their debut again (perhaps with exceptions given to “Ghost Town” and “Free Nelson Mandela”), which is a tragedy. But, nevertheless, The Specials is both a great record and an important one. It may be a little rough around the edges, especially for ears used to modern production, but it captures the spirit of a particular time and place as effectively as any documentary.