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1978 “Don’t Look Back”

May 24, 2018

Forty years ago, I had one of the best years of my life. 1978 was a year of change and excitement. It didn’t start out that way with a brutally cold and snowy winter in New York City and still mourning the end of my two-year relationship with my college girlfriend. But as Spring and early Summer arrived, I began to prepare for my escape from New York and my future at Stanford Business School.

In late June, I bought my first car– a Toyota Corolla, two-door sedan (only a 1.1 liter engine, with no AC and manual transmission to save money, but naturally a tape deck and stereo!).Then in August, I drove cross-country with my friend Dave Dorsey with all my possessions crammed in the small back seat and trunk of my car. Our trip was mostly on Route 80 across the GW Bridge thru the Delaware Water Gap, to Cleveland/Shaker Heights (my future stepfather’s home) to Buffalo Grove,IL (Dave’s parents house) to Sioux City, Iowa (friend of my mom’s) to Buffalo, Wyoming (Vassar classmate of my mom) to the Wind River Mts. for 3-4 days of hiking, to Elko, Nevada (first gambling experience) to Yosemite (another 3-4 days of hiking) to my final destination in Palo Alto, Ca. Within a day of moving into/renting a room in a condo in Palo Alto, I was off to San Fransisco with my new roommates to see the punk rock group The Dead Kennedys.

Disco Still Rules

Rock music was also undergoing significant change as well and mostly for the better,but like my personal life, music in 1978 did not start out that way. Saturday Night Fever, the soundtrack from the movie of the same name was atop the album charts for the first six months of 1978. Meanwhile, disco singles from the album dominated the charts. These included “How Deep is Your Love”(#1 Jan.), “Stayin’ Alive” (#1 Feb.) and “Night Fever” (#1 Mar.- May) by the Bee Gees, as well as “If I Can’t Have You” (#1 May) by Yvonne Elliman and Disco Inferno (#11 Apr.) by the Trammps.

I’ll admit “good” disco songs were catchy, generally upbeat and occasionally fun (“Stayin’ Alive” and “Disco Inferno” definitely fell into this category), but I found myself quickly yearning for rock music particularly after repeated listenings of these hit singles. But “Saturday Night Fever” had swept up America at least thru the Spring of 1978.

Rock Renaissance

However, rock was to rebound by the second half of 1978 with many of the best albums out in the summer of ’78. It was fitting as I enjoyed these songs while approaching the Rockies for the first time driving 75-80 MPH in states where speed limits were high and/or seldom enforced. (I would have driven faster but it was all my Toyota could physically muster unless heading downhill after mountain passes.)

Four albums emerged as standouts for the year. All were released during June-August of 1978:

My favorite album of the year was The Cars (June 1978) by The Cars. The debut album by this Boston area group is without question their best and perhaps the best album of the entire “new wave” of the late 1970s. It was my first purchase upon arriving in California just prior to my first year at Stanford Business School. I played it incessantly.

Side 1 begins with three superb tracks “Good Times Roll” (#41 Apr. ’79) , “My Best Friend’s Girl” (#35 Dec.)  and “Just What I Needed” (#27 Sep.) which not surprisingly were all released as singles. “Good Times Roll” signals that this album was going to be VERY DIFFERENT with a rock song melded into interesting techno-rock instrumentation and a slow driving rhythm. The pace picks up with the utterly fun “My Best Friends Girl” (“and she used to be mine, she’s so fine“) which immediately segues to the interesting rhythmic intro to the lively “Just What I Needed” (“I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time“). Wow! “”I’m in Touch With Your World” is next and although the weakest track on the album at least it provides a welcome respite. “Don’t Cha Stop” the most uptempo song on the album is just a pure rocker, not as interesting as the other songs on the album, but good nonetheless.

Side 2 is even better because ALL four songs are superb, while flowing together musically and lyrically which adds to their overall appeal. “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” features a great new edgy techno-rock sound primarily using guitars and keyboards. Ironically, it ends lyrically with “I need you tonight” and then a six-note musical/lyrical reversal into the second track, “Bye Bye Love”, with bassist Benjamin Orr now singing lead “always with some other guy, it’s just a broken lullaby”, another great techno rocker. (I confess that for years I thought Orr was saying “always with some other guy, it’s just a fucking alibi”, which would have been a better line, but might NOT have been approved by the record company in the 1970s.) The crescendo of techno-rock ends with the same six-note sequence and moves more softly into “Moving in Stereo”, another great song that lyrically belies classification (“life’s the same I’m moving in stereo, except for my shoes”). The last song, another great tune, “All Mixed Up” fittingly provides at least some resolution of the tenuous, tempestuous relationship begun with “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” (“she’s always out the window, when it comes to making dreams. It’s all mixed up”) but then it finishes (“she says to leave it to me, everything’ll be all right”).

Another excellent album was Who Are You? (August 1978) by the Who. The title track “Who Are You” (#14 Oct.) was the best song recorded by the group since 1971’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and in many ways was a throwback to that song’s style and message. It was a lengthy song, containing angry lyrics about fighting (allegedly an incident with the Sex Pistols at CBGBs ) and a hard rock style with an irresistible chorus and guitar hooks. Six and a half minutes of music heaven! But the album boasted much more. The self-deprecating rocker, “New Song” (“I write the same old song with a few new lines and everybody wants to cheer it….We sing the same old song  just like a vintage car, you can look but you never can drive it“) perhaps fittingly became an instant classic for Who fans. “Had Enough” was another excellent angry Who rocker in the mode in “Who Are You” but written by bass player, John Entwistle. (Entwistle wrote two other solid tracks on the album “Trick of the Light” and “905” ). “Guitar and Pen” was my second favorite song on the album, an autobiographical look at Pete Townshend life as songwriter and guitarist, as well as being an excellent catchy rocker. “Sister Disco” (“Goodbye Sister Disco with your flashy bright pants“) was also catchy, seemingly an homage to disco or an indictment, but according to Townshend, it was his view that the Who would never be part of the Bee Gees wave of disco popularity but instead remain British “old farts”. I choose to believe it was Townshend’s prescient belief that disco with Saturday Night Fever has peaked and would never be the same again.

Another favorite and also from the summer of rock heaven in 1978 was Some Girls  (June 1978) by the Rolling Stones. This was the Stones best single album since 1971 Sticky Fingers. The centerpiece was the disco influenced “Miss You” (#1 Jul.)  an excellent rock-disco song but my favorite was “Beast of Burden” (#8 Nov.) a song that reminded me of the rock-bluesy “Wild Horses” with Keith Richard’s ever extraordinary guitar work most evident. But the album had much more ranging from an excellent rock cover “Imagination” of the Temptations soul ballad “Just My Imagination”, a Jagger rock-rap “Shattered” (#31 Jan. ’79), and three more traditional but excellent rockers “Respectable”, “Lies” and “When the Whip Comes Down”. In fact, there was not a weak track on the album.

After three years, Bruce Springsteen emerged from his contract war with former manager Rick Appel with a new album Darkness on the Edge of Town  (June 1978). Though the album was not as good as Born to Run  (my favorite and arguably the best of Springsteen’s entire career), it was still quite good. The album was highlighted by the lively “Badlands” (#42 Sep.) and the rocker love ballad “Prove it All Night” (#33 Jul.). But “Adam Raised a Cain”, “Something in Night”, “The Promised Land” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” were also very good songs. Springsteen with “Darkness…” continued to prove that you didn’t need to be a great (or even a very good vocalist) to produce excellent songs.

Boston‘s second album Don’t Look Back (August 1978) was not up to the standards of their superb first album. Nonetheless the album did boast several very good tracks: “Feelin’ Satisfied” (#46 Apr. ’79), “Party” and “A Man I’ll Never Be” (#31 Jan. ’79) all had nice tunes, strong vocals from Brad Delp and excellent, albeit very familiar, guitar licks from Tom Scholz. However, it was the more original and brilliant title track “Don’t Look Back”(#4 Oct.) that truly soared. Perhaps my favorite of all Boston songs, “Don’t Look Back” also had simple but very relevant lyrics to someone who was in the process of moving across country to where he knew absolutely no one. (“A new day is breaking. It’s been too long since I felt this way. I don’t mind where I get taken, the road is calling today’s the day”)

Foreigner‘s second album Double Vision (June 1978) was good as well, mostly due to the three excellent hit singles from the album. “Hot Blooded” (#3  Sep.) (“I’ve got a fever of 103“) , “Double Vision”(#2 Nov.) and “Blue Morning, Blue Day” (#15 Feb. “79)

By the fall, Billy Joel had a trio of excellent songs from his 52nd Street (October 1978) album including the catchy hit “My Life” (#3 Dec.), my favorite, the rocker “Big Shot” (#14 Mar. ’79) and the soft ballad “Honesty” (#24 Jun. ’79). 52nd Street went on to win the Grammy for album of the year in 1979.

New Groups and New Wave

In addition to the Cars, eight other new artists emerged or became popular in 1978 with the release of excellent albums and/or songs.

Outlandos D’Amour  (Nov. ’78) was the Police’s debut album and another headline of the new wave movement in 1978. All the songs on the album are interesting with “Truth Hits Everybody’ , “Next To You” and “Peanuts” particularly lively new wave rockers, with Police’s unique reggae-rock sound featured. However, three were standouts. “Roxanne” (#32 Apr. ’79) was the group’s first American hit and both “I Can’t Stand Losing You” and “So Lonely” should have been hit singles.  While “Roxanne” is perhaps the group’s most famous song from the first album, my favorite was “So Lonely”.

After two commercially unsuccessful albums, the New York city group, Blondie released Parallel Lines (Sep. ’78). The album spawned their first two hits in the US – the disco oriented “Heart of Glass” (#1 Apr. ’79) and my favorite, a pure rocker “One Way or Another” (#24 Jul. ’79) (“I’m gonna find you, I’m gonna getcha, getcha, getcha”). Blondie featured blond and beautiful, lead-singer Debra Harry whose soaring rock vocals continued a new trend started by Heart a couple of years earlier. Both a new wave and a pop-rock group, the group featured songs co-written by Harry and lead guitarist Chris Stein with several others from the album – “Picture This” “Sunday Girl”, “I’m Gonna Love You To” and “Hangin’ On the Telephone” – enjoying international success as singles.

While definitely NOT “new wave”, Dire Straits self-titled first album Dire Straits (Oct. ’78) first album demonstrated a unique rock style. The London-based group was described by Rolling Stone as “a groove band” with “low-key country blues rhythms”. I would describe Dire Straits as an all-guitar/ bass-rhythm section band with a very cool, mellow and unique rock sound.  It didn’t hurt that the group’s founder and lead Mark Knopfler was a great guitarist.  The album featured many good songs – no throwaway tracks on this album! I particularly liked “Down to Waterline” and “Southbound Again” and of course the best song on the album which put the group on the map  “Sultans of Swing”(#4 Apr. ’79).

A hard-rock party band from California, Van Halen burst onto the scene with their self-titled first album Van Halen (Feb. ’78)The album featured many of the groups most famous songs (though mostly in retrospect). These included most notably—“You Really Got Me” (#36 Mar.) a successful cover of the Kinks hit, “Runnin’ With the Devil” (#84 May), “Janie’s Cryin'” “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” as well as the Eddie Van Halen electric guitar solo “Eruption”. I’ll admit it took until 1984’s “Jump” for me to become a full-fledged fan of the group, but it was their first album that remains their best.

“Surrender” (#62 Aug.) (“Mommies alright, daddy’s alright, they just seem a little weird”) was Cheap Trick‘s  first charting single and one of their best songs. The Illinois based new wave/rock group was to remain popular for much of the next dozen years.

Though Genesis had been around for about a decade, “Follow You, Follow Me” (#23 Jun.) was their first top 40 song in the US and a nice rock ballad at that.

Likewise, Warren Zevon had been working as a singer/songwriter/pianist since the mid-sixties but finally had a popular hit with the thoroughly enjoyable and catchy “Werewolves of London” (#21 May). I was learn more than a year later that this was one of Anne’s (my future wife) favorite songs. (“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hands….Little old lady got mutilated late last night. werewolves of London again… Ah-hoo werewolves of London!” )

Scotsman Gerry Rafferty (former member of Stealers Wheel) released his second solo album City to City (Jan. 1978) which was his first popular album and rose to #1 on the US album charts. It also spawned a nice trio of mellow rock hits “Baker Street” (#2 Jul.)  , “Right on Down the Line” (#15 Oct.) and Home and Dry (#28 Feb. ’79).

Other Rock Hits

The Street Survivors (Oct. 1977) album was released Lynyrd Skynyrd in late 1977 just days before the plane crash on Oct. 20th that took the lives of 3 band members included leader and lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant. In addition to the group’s standards “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama”, three excellent songs from this album–“What’s Your Name” (#13 Mar.),  “That Smell”, and “You Got that Right” (#69 Apr.) – were receiving tons of air play on FM progressive stations during 1978.

Joe Walsh had his best solo effort (and most popular) with the utterly fun and at least partly autobiographical rocker “Life’s Been Good” (#15 Aug.) (“My maserati goes 185, I lost my license now I don’t drive” ).

Heart had another hit single with the rousing “Straight On” (#15 Nov.). Unfortunately the album Dog and Butterfly (October ’78) had little else to offer.

The comeback hit “A Rock n Roll Fantasy” (#30 Sep.) by the Kinks was the group’s first top 40 hit since 1970’s “Lola”. The lyrically interesting song (“He just spends life living on the edge of reality. He just spends his life living in a rock n’ roll fantasy“) contains nice vocals and a good rock tune.

New wave’s Talking Heads released their second album More Songs About Buildings and Food (July ’78) which contained a superb cover of Al Green’s song “Take Me to the River” (#26 Feb. ’79).

Styx  had two more catchy rock singles in 1978 –“Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” (#29 Apr.) and “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” (#21 Nov.).

Unlike many, I did not enjoy Bob Seger’s slow ballads  “Still the Same” (#4 Jul.) and  “We’ve Got Tonite” (#13 Jan. ’79) but I did like his hard rockin’ “Hollywood Nights” (#12 Oct.).

Soft Rock and Pop

While harder rock and new wave definitely were my favorite genres in 1978, several softer rock and pop songs were good as well:

  • “Time Passages” (#7 Dec.) by Al Stewart was not as good as Stewart’s previous extraordinary hit “Year of the Cat” but a nice ballad nonetheless.
  • “Feels So Good” (#4 Jun.) by trumpet player and band leader Chuck Mangione was definitely the instrumental of the year and spawned a popular career for Mangione which included some memorable “Is it live or is it Memorex (tape) ?” ads.
  • “Whenever I Call You Friend” (#5 Oct.) by Kenny Loggins  was Loggins first solo top 40 hit and a very good tune at that, with a nice assist from Stevie Nicks singing harmony.
  • “Ebony Eyes” (#14 Apr.) by Bob Welch – Though not as good as his earlier 1977 hit “Sentimental Lady”, Welch’s second hit song was still a nice pop tune.
  • “Thunder Island” (#9 Mar.) – Jay Ferguson. Ferguson was the former leader of the band Spirit and his first solo hit was his best
  • “Back in the USA” (#16 Oct.) was the highlight of Linda Ronstadt‘s new album Living in the USA. A nice up tempo version of Chuck Berry’s song which featured Ronstadt’s great voice.
  • Kansas Point of Know Return (Oct. ‘77) album spawned the slow rock ballad  “Dust in the Wind” (#6 Apr.). A good song, but hopelessly overplayed on the radio and very difficult to hear when getting up in the morning (“All we are is dust in the wind”)
  • John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John had a huge hit from the movie Grease “You’re the One that I Want” (#1 Jun.) which was definitely the movie’s musical highlight, though Frankie Valli‘s “Grease” (#1 Aug.) wasn’t bad either.

Rock and Pop “Misses”

Though most of rock and new wave music was excellent  in ’78, there were also several major disappointments. One of my favorite groups, the Moody Blues FINALLY put out their next album Octave (June ’78) after a more than 5 year hiatus. I couldn’t bring myself to buy it since it had nothing of consequence other than the modestly interesting “Steppin’ in a Slide Zone” (#39 Aug.) and paled in comparison to the Moodies previous 7 studio albums. Another favorite group of mine, Yes released Tormato (Sep. 1978). Though it contained two pretty good songs “Don’t Kill the Whale” and “Release, Release”, the album was a last gasp for the group and not as good as their previous effort Going for the One the year earlier. This was to be the last studio album for founder and lead singer Jon Anderson and organist Rick Wakeman until their comeback album 90125 five years later.

Meanwhile, Rod Stewart continued to veer far away from rock with the disco song “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” (#1 Feb ’79) which was on the charts for 21 excruciating weeks. Elton John had fallen even further off the tracks releasing A Single Man (October 1978) (minus Bernie Taupin as lyricist)  which though commercially successful was a critical bomb. I honestly don’t remember listening to a single song from the album at the time.

Paul McCartney and Wings London Town received decent critical reviews but unlike ALL of McCartney or Wings previous albums, I didn’t buy it (or for that matter ever listen to it). The headline song from the album “With a Little Luck” (#1 May) was a decent song, but nothing like past stellar McCartney songs such as “Band on the Run”, “Uncle Albert”, “Maybe I’m Amazed” etc.

Meanwhile, Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (#1 Dec.) was so cloying it made me yearn for the early 70s Diamond and Streisand.

Disco, R&B and Funk

Quite a bit of R&B music seemed to be subsumed in disco music, of note was the newly crowned Queen of Disco Donna Summer “Last Dance” (#3 Aug.) and her first #1, the remake of Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” (#1 Nov.), though I can’t say I liked either song very much.

In contrast, Earth, Wind and Fire continued to put out excellent songs with 1978 being a particularly stellar year. It began with the lively and brilliant “Fantasy” (#32 Apr.) (“Our voices will ring together, until the 12th of never“)  which somehow only managed to barely make the top 40. Next there was the great jazzy remake of the Beatles “Got to Get You Into My Life” (#9 Sep.). Last the superb “September” (#8 Feb. ’79) (“Ba de ya, say do you remember, ba de ya, dancing in September“) closed out the year. EWF combination of a great funk rhythm section, a superb horn section, wonderful high harmonies and many excellent tunes made them the best R&B group of the late 1970s (and early 1980s) bar none.

Meanwhile, the Pointer Sisters had their biggest hit and first top ten with the slow, soulful “Fire” (#2 Feb. ’79), a Bruce Springsteen composition. But my favorite popular R&B song of the year was the lively disco/funk song “Le Freak” (#1 Dec.) by Chic which could even get me dancing.

Completely under the radar, a new promising 20-year-old artist from Minneapolis released his first album and charted his first single “Soft and Wet”(#92 Nov.) to little critical acclaim. But for Prince it was to be the beginning of a recording career which spanned almost four decades.

*********************

1978 remains one of my favorite years for rock music, perhaps it was the mostly good memories the music evoked, or that the music was in many cases new and different. In either case, it was a nice revival for rock music which had been in the doldrums since the advent of disco in the mid-1970s.

From → Music 60s70s

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