1978: A Vintage Year

It was a time of plenty, and of unbridled creativity, in the pop world. Ben Wardle revs up the DeLorean to revisit an amazing year that was pivotal in the development of music as we know it.

1978: A Vintage Year - Prince

I know what you’re thinking. I’m joking, right? Compared to the triumvirate of 1956, 1967 and 1977, 1978 was a freakshow. There’s no pelvis-thrusting Elvis; no Sgt. Pepper-era Fabs and no sneering Rotten. No, it’s John Travolta in Grease, Brian and Michael’s Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs, Terry Wogan’s The Floral Dance, Boney M., Brotherhood Of Man… I won’t go on, I’m depressing myself just writing down the names.

Go to any charity shop, have a rifle through the records and you’ll still find The Sound Of BreadBlondes Have More Fun and Nightflight To Venus. That’s because 1978 was the final year in a decade-long run of staggering UK record sales before a slow decline set in. 1978 managed to more than double 1970’s 50 million sales, with over 107.3 million, according to the BPI. And that was during an oil crisis, which limited supplies of vinyl. Recorded-music sales would not reach these heights again until 1985, when Brothers In Arms and the scramble for CD repackaging supercharged the figures.
Sale levels are no indication of quality. Some might even argue they’re inversely proportionate. But think about it: when a business is swimming in cash, those working in it feel freer to take risks; they are more indulgent with creativity and more experimental.
In 1978, change was in the air: disco and roots reggae were both reaching maturity, punk had kickstarted a wave of new talent, the old guard were making an effort and an underground buzz of experimentation and newness was palpable. Singles were so popular that the Top 50 was extended to become the Top 75. Smash Hits was launched, marking the beginning of the savvy, ironic relationship with pop music that is still the adopted tone of so many music writers. And for all these reasons and more, it turns out that 1978 gave us pop’s greatest year.
But before we start, I have a confession: in November 1978, I turned 13 and went to my first gig: Buzzcocks at Hammersmith Odeon. Afterwards, while I waited for my mum to pick me up, watching Austin Princesses and Ford Capris chugging out towards the Westway, I tore the poster down from the wall outside. Back at home, I Blu Tacked it, still damp, to my bedroom wall. I never let it out of my sight. Now framed, it still has pride of place in the family home.
So yes, I’m biased: 1978 was my first full year of pop music and I cherish all the music I fell in love with then. And it’s not just me – a lot of the musicians, DJs, music execs and journalists who continue to shape music’s future, came of age in pop’s greatest year.1978: A Vintage Year - The Clash
Heavenly Records impresario Je Barrett, purveyor of seminal pop for almost 30 years, from the Manics to future classics such as Temples and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, recalls 1978 fondly: “I turned 16 in May and started full-time work in June. Terrible job. Forest won the league. Punk rock and Brian Clough…
“1 July 1978 is a date I never forget: the Clash On Parole tour, Leicester Granby Hall – The Clash/Suicide/The Coventry Specials.”
Like Barrett, the man who brought us The Jesus And Mary Chain, Primal Scream and Oasis remembers the same tour changing his life: “The Clash at Glasgow Apollo in July 1978 was a fucking amazing show!” says ex-Creation boss turned manager-guru Alan McGee.
Arguably, The Clash playing live was the culmination of the goodwill they’d amassed during the previous year. And while it’s true that 1978’s eagerly anticipated follow-up Give ’Em Enough Rope was a slight disappointment to fans, the fact is the band did release their greatest record – and one of the greatest singles – in 1978: the mighty (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.

New Wave Of Talent

To many, this is the pivotal record of 1978. Lyrically complex and musically genre-defying, it set the benchmark for everyone else who thought it was enough to wear tight trousers and sing in an English accent. Film director Danny Boyle claims he’d tried to put it into most of his films, before finally using it in the Trainspotting sequel: “It’s the greatest song ever written,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I won’t hear any arguments about that.”

White Man… was pivotal in repositioning The Clash away from punk rock, which had given the industry a boot in the rear in the previous 18 months. Now a lot of those signings were coming to fruition and the word ‘punk’ had been replaced with ‘New Wave’, to describe any new artist with short hair and tunes. But despite the vagueness of the genre, New Wave re-established a Beatles-level of succinct tunesmithery, translating the energy of punk into genius pop.
Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook would of course go on to produce some well-loved pop music of their own. Back in 1978, they were enjoying their first hit single with Take Me, I’m Yours. Says Difford: “1978 was a good year for records. It was our first sailing in the choppy waters of the charts and I think we did okay. We were in good company with The Damned, The Police and Elvis Costello; not to mention Brian Eno.”
1978: A Vintage Year - The PoliceEno’s 1978 was the beginning of the pop polymath we know today. Yes, he produced the brilliant debut by Akron New Wave misfits Devo, as well as Talking Heads’ groundbreaking More Songs About Buildings And Food. But he also found time to invent ambient music, releasing his twin masterpieces Music For Airports and Music For Films in March and October respectively. So, just to be clear, 1978 gave us Brian ruddy Eno in full effect.
Inspired by Eno as well as punk, Swindon four-piece XTC bolted out of the stable in January with the uptight, New Wave masterpiece White Music. Frontman Andy Partridge, now long established as one of pop’s great songwriters, remembers the year: “1978 was interesting, because after the punk bomb had gone off, we could look around the flattened landscape and say: ‘Okay, what sort of a musical world would we like to build now?’. The bang had cleared a lot of ugly furniture out. It was up to us all to decide if we wanted to put something new and beautiful in… or just replace it with different ugly.”
Very much in the former camp is one of 1978’s most persistent icons: Debbie Harry. But much more than her image, it is Blondie’s third and greatest album Parallel Lines that burnishes the gold of 1978: a seamless run of New Wave guitar pop with a tantalising glimpse of where the band would take it next in the shimmering disco-ball groove of Heart Of Glass.
Aside from classic punk debuts such as Siouxsie And The Banshees’ haunting The Scream, The Adverts’ Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts and Buzzcocks’ Another Music In A Different Kitchen, the most widely acknowledged punk flowering of 1978 was The Jam’s All Mod Cons.
“It had a huge impact on me,” says Barrett. “Great songs and a Holy Grail inner sleeve, which served as something of a life map.” It was indeed a life map for every late-70s teenager, so efficiently had Weller grabbed the zeitgeist. Without The Jam, the UK’s pop map for the next 30 years would have looked entirely different.

Gender Equality

Punk had liberated musicians of both sexes. While The Slits were morphing from their ’77 punk roots and preparing the following year’s reggae-driven Cut, other punk females now grabbed the limelight: X-Ray Spex released their amazing Germfree Adolescents with Polly Styrene’s unique take on 20th-century weltschmerz [world weariness]; Fay Fife’s strident vocals dominated on Can’t Stand The Rezillos and Penetration’s Moving Targets triumphed mainly because of Pauline Murray’s precision. These singers, along with the aforementioned Siouxsie, refused to conform to any previous rock role models and began to break down the sexism and bigotry inherent in the music business. Thanks again, 1978.1978: A Vintage Year - X-Ray Spex

The most singular voice to emerge in 1978 was also female. On 20 January, her debut single was released and in four-and-a-half minutes suggested a new way forward for pop. Kate Bush had been ‘in development’ at EMI for three years, but aged 19, she was ready. She would go on to release more groundbreaking albums but her debut, The Kick Inside, featuring legendary single Wuthering Heights, still sounds remarkable 40 years later.
Bush is one of a number of artists who debuted in 1978 and went on to dominate subsequent decades. Not all of them were heralded at the time, but all went on to reinvent the level of international success possible for British artists. Dire Straits hit the ground running with Sultans Of Swing and their self-titled debut, but The Police and Prince – both of whom debuted in 1978 – took a little longer. Think about it: even the glory years of the 1960s never produced a royal flush like Kate Bush, Prince, Dire Straits and The Police.
Meanwhile, over in the US, another debut was being prepared by a former child star of the early 1970s. Along with his sister, Janet, Michael Jackson was demoing the record which would establish him as the biggest pop star of the next 20 years. Listen to 1978’s demo of Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough on the Deluxe Edition of Off The Wall and even just with basic keyboards and Coke-bottle percussion, the Michael Jackson sound is fully defined.
Van Halen by Van Halen went on to sell well over 10 million copies. One of those buyers was Mike Smith, now managing director of Warner/Chappell Music UK. Smith’s roster includes Blur, The White Stripes, Mark Ronson and Arcade Fire. Back in 1978, he was a pre-teen metal fan. “Van Halen’s first album was revolutionary,” he says now. “It changed rock music forever. What is interesting about ’78,” he continues, “is that all of the original heavy-metal acts were making records that were taking their key from punk and were more stripped back and exciting. You had live albums from AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and Ted Nugent that surpassed their studio work to date – aggressive and exciting. Girlschool released their first single Take It All Away, which takes the best of rock, metal and punk. Motörhead released their Louis Louis EP and AC/DC released Powerage and If You Want Blood. These three bands were my favourites and encapsulate the influence of punk on metal.”1978: A Vintage Year - AC/DC
Above all, 1978 nurtured all things new. “It was an odd year,” says ex-NME scribe turned award-winning comedy writer David Quantick: “Punk became mainstream pop and what we call postpunk was still getting dressed.”
In his excellent book about postpunk, Rip It Up, Simon Reynolds rightly points out that the whole shi towards independent record-label culture began in the UK in 1978. The year saw the births of Rough Trade, Factory, Cherry Red and Mute. Each of these labels would go on to shape new music and the structure of the international record business. In 1978, their releases were limited, but the handful of records that did come out remain hugely in uential: think The Normal’s Warm Leatherette, which set the template for the minimalist electronic klang of future dance music.

Musical Schizophrenia

Indie label Beggars Banquet had formed the year before with two releases from The Lurkers, but it was in 1978 that future 6 Music DJ Steve Lamacq fell in love with them: “I first heard Ain’t Got A Clue on ‘Kid’ Jensen’s drivetime Radio 1 programme and from then on, they were my band. The first gig I ever went to was in September 1978 – The Lurkers at the Chancellor Hall in Chelmsford.”

Lamacq is quick to point out the eclectic nature of 1978: “I enjoyed a brilliant year of musical schizophrenia in 1978. There were all these great punk and New Wave singles coming out on a weekly basis, like X-Ray Spex, The Ruts and the debut Siouxsie single. But I also remember buying the 12″ version of Evelyn Champagne King’s Shame – the disco scene was improving by the week in 1978. On top of that, Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution album came out, still one of the greatest British reggae albums of all time!”
Indeed, both roots-reggae and disco had been fermenting throughout the 1970s, but were now really coming to fruition. Bob Marley’s success gave Island Records renewed confidence in reggae, and alongside Steel Pulse were fellow Brits and future reggae superstars Aswad, who put out their second offering Hulet and the scathingly political debut album from Poet And The Roots (aka Linton Kwesi Johnson) Dread Beat An’ Blood.

King-Size Reggae

The year’s crop of Jamaican releases was not shabby either: Dr. Alimantado’s Best Dressed Chicken In Town remains a classic, as the good doctor toasts wisdom over some of Studio One’s finest grooves, and Gregory Isaacs’ Cool Ruler, while not yet putting the lovers’ rock godfather on the map, did at least give him his moniker. Almost as busy as Island Records were Virgin, whose John Lydon-A&R’d Front Line imprint gave us Prince Far I’s Message From The King and Culture’s Harder Than The Rest. Let’s not forget the deathless Uptown Top Ranking by Althea & Donna, which dominated the airwaves throughout the first half of the year.1978: A Vintage Year - Steel Pulse

Disco had enjoyed a successful 1970s, but in 1978, it went stratospheric. Many of the records that still send handbags floorwards were released that year: Village People’s Y.M.C.A., Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Chic’s Le Freak, The Jacksons’ Blame It On The Boogie, Taste Of Honey’s Boogie Oogie Oogie, Funkadelic’s One Nation Under A Groove, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) by Sylvester… Not to mention the ubiquitous Saturday Night Fever soundtrack from late ’77, which hung around 1978’s album chart for 18 weeks like a squirt of Tramp by Lentheric.
What genre wasn’t representing great music in 1978? Well, possibly the old guard. If 1978 was about celebrating the ‘Now’, then you must have felt decidedly sheepish if you were from ‘Back Then’. With the exception of the Fabs’ Rarities album, which emerged at the end of the year, this period was more Rutles than Beatles. But possibly because of 1978’s new breed yapping at their heels, two key bands from the old guard gave us their final best shots.
Like John Entwistle’s flares on the cover, Who Are You is slightly dated. But it is blessed with The Who’s finest hour: the extraordinary title track. It’s also graced by an energetic Keith Moon, who died three weeks after its August release. Earlier that summer, The Rolling Stones had put out Some Girls, which, despite being a generic hotchpotch of rock, country balladry and disco, still hangs together beautifully, 40 years later.
In 1978, pop music finally grew up. It was a line in the sand between the past (the heady mid 50s, the golden 1960s and the corpulent early 70s) and what was to come in the next 20 years – before the internet, filesharing and streaming would change everything again. Here’s hoping we see another year of its calibre. “It was a jamboree of all sorts,” says Squeeze’s Chris Difford. “I didn’t like everything, but I could sense change in the wind.”

Read more: Label Stories – Drag City: We Built This City