The Dead Kennedys, “California Über Alles”. The DK’s first single, and they managed to milk it for quite awhile. They re-recorded it for their first album … might have even improved on it, it was faster, at least, which matters with this kind of music. The year after that, they renamed it “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” and changed the focus from Governor Jerry Brown to President Ronald Reagan. That version included a long lounge-jazz intro.
Gang of Four, “At Home He’s a Tourist”. Entertainment was one of the best debut albums ever. It was one of the best albums ever, period. And I’ve noted many times that it wasn’t until I saw them in concert in May of 1980 that I realized what an interesting dance band they were. It’s not that they were easy to dance to, but Andy Gill’s jagged guitar work messed with rhythm the way Ziggy Modeliste does on drums, never simply on the beat, never that far from it, either.
Marianne Faithfull, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”. Written by Shel Silverstein (“A Boy Named Sue”, “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone’”), this had already been recorded by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show and Nancy Sinatra’s buddy Lee Hazlewood. Part of the startlingly wonderful “comeback” album Broken English, it became one of Faithfull’s most popular songs, turning up in several movies.
The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays”. The Boomtown Rats were annoying even before Bob Geldof got knighted, and “I Don’t Like Mondays” is annoying as well in its bratty way. But it is also compellingly listenable, sounding at times like a punkier Queen, thanks to the massed chorus of “Tell me why!”. Plus, who hasn’t felt like the girl in the song at some point?
Blondie, “Dreaming”. Coming after Parallel Lines, “Dreaming” made it seem like Blondie would make pop hits forever. But the end was closer than we knew.
Earth, Wind & Fire, “Boogie Wonderland”. The first real disco track on this list, and a reminder that in 1979, the disparate genres, punk/New Wave and disco, dominated pop music. The next year, Blondie would offer up the New Wave Disco “Call Me”, and as I noted above, Gang of Four’s music had dance elements. But for the most part, my memory is of music as far apart as The Dead Kennedys and Earth, Wind & Fre.
Nick Lowe, “Cruel to Be Kind”. Still Nick Lowe’s most popular song in the U.S., it’s an example of the way Lowe can make you sing along with a pop song that has darker lyrics than you realize.
Chic, “Good Times”. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had to make this list eventually. I taught a class on 1970s popular culture once, and to demonstrate the difference between disco and funk, I’d play some standard disco classic with its consistent BPM, then play “The Payback” by James Brown to show how the syncopated rhythm guitar results in multiple beats. (If you know music theory, you’ll know I’m clueless about this … it’s probably polymetric groupings, rather than syncopation.) The cool thing about “Good Times” is that the drums are standard disco beat, while Rodgers’ guitar fiddles with the rhythm, rather like the afore-mentioned Andy Gill, and Edwards’ bass, sampled so often, is on its own level, as well. You can definitely dance to “Good Times”, but that’s not all it offers.
The Clash, “Guns of Brixton”. Speaking of bass players …
Sister Sledge, “We Are Family”. Rodgers and Edwards didn’t show up for awhile, but by the end of the list, they’d made two appearances. Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates have fond memories of this one.