Having started the year with one new bundle of fun in the house, we ended it with two, following the arrival of our second daughter on Christmas Eve. So life was filled with the very new experience of coping with number one whilst, for the second half of the year, preparing for the arrival of number two. Hence, music-wise, much the same as the previous year with just enough new albums to compile a top-ten, which was headed by The Police and Reggatta de Blanc.
Our daughter was actually due on Christmas Day, so we had already made arrangements to spend the Christmas holiday period with grandparents, just in case. So we passed the evening of the 23rd with some close friends who had already volunteered to look after our eldest daughter if the call to hospital came earlier or later. It was a great night, and my parting shot as we left their house was to joke ‘I’ll be ringing you in a couple of hours then’.
Our younger daughter has always been a bit of a party girl, and that’s why we have always assumed that the world sounded such an enjoyable place that evening, she decided to make an early entrance. So, at 4am I was waking our friends with a telephone call, the initial reaction to which was not printable here because they thought I was on a wind-up. Then they realised it wasn’t! By lunchtime the family had become four, and my wife spent Christmas being waited on in hospital while I did the rounds of family as our fourteen-month-old became increasingly bewildered by experiencing the totality of Christmas for the very first time but only seeing her Mum in a strange building at visiting times.
1979 was also the beginning of the Thatcher years. It started with the ‘Winter of Discontent’ that threatened putting the economy into recession, although to be fair in our remote corner of North Somerset it was more like a winter of mild disgruntlement. This was followed by an election after which we were promised no recession by the incoming government, so the year ended with us heading for recession anyway. As often happened under such circumstances, my main contract work began to increase because clients were reluctant to take on new permanent staff, while my sideline began to decline because it depended mainly on disposable incomes, which were on the slide.
It was also the year when New Wave bands, originally seen as an evolution of Punk, really began to make a breakthrough into the mainstream. Blondie had spearheaded this the previous year, and bands like Police were able to ride the same wave after their debut album, Outlandos d’Amour, had produced three hit singles and made the top ten in the album chart. The band had only formed in 1977 and, unusually for the times, were a trio from the get-go. The rhythm section of Sting on bass and drummer Stewart Copeland was formed first when the pair played on several art-house projects together. Their styles were poles apart, Sting being a jazz musician and Copeland coming from prog-rock as the drummer with Curved Air, but gelled well in this new area. Andy Summers joined a few months later to replace the original guitarist Henri Padovani.
Summers had far more industry experience, having played with The Animals and Soft Machine plus as a tour musician over several years. He recognised that although a trio may have advantages in creating the stripped-back sound they were looking for, it still needed some enhancement. Hence he started using an Echoplex to create the chorus effects that were a prominent feature of his playing in the band, and that were much more prominent on this album, which took less than a month to record and was released less than a year after their debut. It spent four weeks at number one, and over eighteen months on the chart. It also produced their first two number one singles.
There was an interesting dynamic in the band. At the front you had the arrogance of Sting, the primary songwriter with the distinctive voice, but probably the least-accomplished of the three instrumentally. Yes, his bass playing was important, but when compared to the likes of John Entwhistle, Chris Squire and Tony Levin it can only be considered steady. On the other hand, Stewart Copeland would easily make any top ten of rock drummers, and Andy Summers is in the definitive Rolling Stone list of 100 Greatest Guitarists.
This is immediately obvious if you listen carefully on the side one opener, Message in a Bottle. The first few bars are just drums and guitar, then the bass and voice come in and, while Sting’s vocals then feature, the rhythm section is reversed with his basslines in individual short loops supporting Copeland’s virtuoso drumming while Summers’ guitar lines underpin the whole whilst simultaneously providing atmospheric overtones.
Track two, the title track, is essentially an instrumental break and opens in a similar manner before Copeland becomes essentially the lead instrument for the first couple of minutes until Summers takes over. It is reputed to have been taken from part of their live performance of a track off the debut album; nevertheless it earned them a Grammy in its own right. Track three, It’s Alright for You, is a fairly standard new wave rocker, followed by Bring On the Night which has a much more reggae feel to it. Side one concludes with Deathwish which is almost an amalgam of the previous two tracks, but with Andy Summers providing most of the atmosphere.
Side two starts with Walking on the Moon, the track most evocative of the album’s title in English, White Reggae, and is an undoubted classic track. The combination of Sting’s wailing vocals, Andy Summers’ echoey guitar and Stewart Copeland’s dub drumming create an atmosphere so perfect for the lyrical subject matter that, regardless of how much you like later albums and tracks, they have never been able to exactly reproduce. But who would want them to?
By contrast, On Any Other Day is very ordinary but, in effect, has to be – how else can you follow perfection? Next up the reggae returns with another great track, The Bed’s Too Big Without You, in which Sting’s bass comes to the fore. From here, although the pace is kept-up well, the album fades away gradually from the fairly short Contact, through Does Anyone Stare, both Copeland compositions, to finish with No Time This Time that has a much more punky feel to it and brings Andy Summers guitar more to the fore.
Listening to this critically some forty years on, the phrase “all killer, no filler” came to mind – in the context of ‘is it’? Yes it has some great tracks including one absolute classic, but some of the rest does have the feel of ‘filler’. This does tend to fall in line with some of the historical reviews, where the implication was that the label needed a second album, but the band were somewhat short on new material for it, and thus were forced to adapt some existing material – not an unusual scenario. Which translates to it being more ‘of its time’ than timeless.
The rest of the top ten list included what turned-out to be fairly-major releases. Off the Wall, the first solo album from Michael Jackson, plus his first collaboration with Quincy Jones, another debut classic in Gary Numan’s Replicas, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Discovery from ELO, Judy Tzuke‘s debut album Welcome to the Cruise, eponymous debuts from Sky and Christopher Cross, Number One in Heaven from Sparks and Spyro Gyra’s Morning Dance.
There was another album that did not qualify for the top ten, being a live recording, but there was no way it could be left out. The original exclusion of live music was because, let’s be honest, most early live rock and pop recordings were pretty bloody awful because early PA systems were not up to it. But technology moves on, and so should I. So, along with the actual purchase of the odd decent live album, hail the introduction of another new occasional section to accommodate the best of them which would, eventually, evolve into the regular annual blog section on gigs experienced during the year.
The album that caused this evolution was Misty in Roots’ Live at Counter Eurovision, not only the best live album I had heard by that time, but probably one of the best reggae albums of all time to boot. Once again, a big thank you to John Peel for playing a track from it in nearly every programme for months, or so it felt at the time, but it is exceptional and still, forty years later, one of my few go-to albums when I find myself temporarily unable to make a selection.
But, under my self-imposed rules, it still couldn’t have won, and so that choice eventually came from the top three, which were Reggatta de Blanc, Welcome to the Cruise and Number One in Heaven. Some of the rest suffered from what was becoming standard practice by record labels in dictating album track order and lumping the single releases up front thus ruining the overall balance of an album. Discovery is one of ELO’s best albums, albeit short at just 36 minutes – in fact as a vinyl play, you have barely sat down to listen when it is time to flip it over! And although it has no bearing on this subject, if you’re going for a listening test on a potential new Hi-Fi system purchase, take Christopher Cross with you because the sonic range is exceptional – particularly on Ride Like the Wind.
So, would I change this album of the year? Well, I don’t play Reggatta de Blanc as much now, in fact I tend to prefer later Police albums like Synchronicity. Number One in Heaven is still a regular listen but, other than Misty in Roots, the rest rarely get an outing. So the choice lies between ‘White Reggae’ and the real thing. And, yes, I would change my rules and my choice to the authenticity of Live at Counter Eurovision in a heartbeat.
If you want to download or stream any of the top three albums, or some of the others, here are the links:
I have also compiled a playlist containing fifty of the best tracks from 1979. To stream the playlist on Spotify, click the logo below: