The Flip Sides of 1979

As 1979 blurs into the Eighties, everyone is talking about the death of disco and the resurgence of rock and roll, spearheaded by a new wave, but what happened was not as simple as that

Concertgoers Credit: Olaf Herschbach/Getty

What seems to be is always better than nothing — The Doobie Brothers, "What a Fool Believes"

The only thing that's certain about 1979 is that it was a platinum disaster for the record business. But artistically, this year was the most appropriate ending for the Seventies: every signal has been ambiguous, every trend obscured by an overlapping one. "We dress like students, we dress like housewives, or in a suit and a tie," sings Talking Head David Byrne in "Life during Wartime." "I changed my hairstyle so many times now, I don't know what I look like." The mirror says we look a mess — tattered, shattered — yet somehow still dancing.

As 1979 blurs into the Eighties, everyone is talking about the supposed death of disco and a resurgence of rock & roll, spearheaded by a new New Wave of "young, entertaining" bands, more businesslike and witty than the "dinosaurs" they're replacing. And the West Coast singer/songwriters who made the dominant nondance music of the past five years and who helped make radio so soft are also in a slump.

What happened in 1979 was not as simple as that. You can say that the first six months belonged to disco (if records as tradition-bound as Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" or as antsy as Rod Stewart's "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" can be construed as disco) and that the last six months belonged to the brave young rockers (if bands as old-fashioned as Dire Straits or as elderly as Cheap Trick can be called brave and young).

But you'd be leaving out a good deal, especially about disco. George Meyer of the tip sheet Walrus called it "the biggest turntable hit in history," meaning that disco's dominance of radio airplay did not deliver record sales, at least not in the expected quantities. Yet this death-of-disco argument ignores the brilliantly crafted rock-disco that's represented by Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff," with its phalanx of surging, Stones-style guitars; by the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes," the closest we came to an anthem all year; and by "Pop Muzik" by M, which for the apocalyptically inclined serves as the last word on this particular style. (In retrospect, the Stones' "Miss You" seems absolutely prescient, and predictably so — if nothing else, the Stones are always atop the trends.)

And what about this claim that brave new rock & rollers — the Cars, Cheap Trick, the Knack, Dire Straits — are taking the place of such elders as Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan? At year's end, every one of those old-timers was in the Top Ten, effortlessly dominating airplay. What the industry knows, and the fan rarely considers, is that the Knack, Number One during the summer months, did not sell as many records as Led Zeppelin, Number One during the back-to-school buying season. The real question is whether the Knack could have made it to the top of the charts had Led Zeppelin (or the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac) been around at the same time. No one knows.

What we do know, though, is that the commercial success of the New Wave movement was not signaled by the ascent of the Knack's "My Sharona" to Number One last summer, but by 1978 hits by the Cars and the even more outré Talking Heads. Like the gold LPs earned by Elvis Costello, Cheap Trick and Dire Straits, the Knack's success is confirmation of a trend, not the beginning of a new one.

As for the older bands, the real point about them may be that, despite their broad-based commercial success, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac (like the Who, Bob Dylan and Neil Young) are essentially irrelevant to trends. Commercially, they are unaffected by shifting popular tastes. Artistically, they no longer set pop style by themselves; New Wave and disco are implicitly or explicitly a rejection of superstar music.

Curiously, with the exception of Led Zeppelin (which has never been typical of anything but itself anyway), all the established stars listed above have responded to the challenge from the New Wave and disco crowds. Bob Dylan recorded Slow Train Coming with two members of Dire Straits, a group whose music is based on a style he discarded a decade ago. And Kiss tried to slug out heavy metal to a disco beat. Even the new albums by Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, bands whose commercial futures are utterly secure, reflect these pressures. The Eagles have incorporated their version of disco rhythm and the raw edge of hard rock into their usual harmony blend on The Long Run, and with Tusk, Fleetwood Mac has made an album that's remarkably less burnished than 1977's Rumours. But although people are buying The Long Run and Tusk, they'd rather have had part two of Hotel California and Rumours.

What does this say about the future of such bands? It may be that the punks are right about superstar rock--that once bands get this big, they are trapped. Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles may have to forego experimentation, or else continue in the certain knowledge that half the audience will dislike them no matter what they do, and the other half would prefer something … milder. In the long run, rock's superstars may have painted themselves into a tight little corner.

Talking to a New York program director recently, I got this list of artists his AOR station was programming less frequently or not at all: America, Chicago, Hall and Oates, Elton John, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Seals and Crofts, Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Stevie Wonder.

By itself that list means little, except that radio was cleaning its closet. Wonder, Joel and Simon hadn't released new albums in a long time; some of the others were past their commercial peak and would have been dropped from the playlists anyway. As competition becomes fiercer, each station must settle for a narrower demographic range. Right now the goal is males, ages eighteen to thirty-four, who buy the kinds of products AOR stations are likely to advertise. The artists on that list who don't seem to belong there — Ronstadt, Simon, Joel, Wonder, Taylor —  have greater appeal to people who are older, younger or female.

The antidisco movement, which has been publicized by such FM personalities as notorious Chicago DJ Steve Dahl, is simply another programming device. White males, eighteen to thirty-four, are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks and Latins, and therefore they're most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security. It goes almost without saying that such appeals are racist and sexist, but broadcasting has never been an especially civil-libertarian medium.

In times when straight pop music is boring or ineffectual, minority tastes — rock, soul, disco — prosper because the mass audience drifts away. The failure of artists like Joel and Simon to release any new music left mainstream pop in the doldrums. Disco was the first choice to fill the resulting vacuum. That's why so many radio stations rushed to change their formats, why certain rock acts (The Kinks!? The Beach Boys!?) tried to make disco crossover music. But disco didn't do the job — for rock acts and record companies the sign was sluggish sales; for radio stations, disco pulled in an audience that was older, younger, more female or less affluent than desired. And it was easy enough to see that stations that had stuck to hard rock — KMET in Los Angeles, for instance — were prospering in just the demographic areas radio needed.

So rock rose. But it would be foolish to think that the release of records by Simon, Joel, Wonder and Ronstadt wouldn't push a lot of the new rock & roll right off the airwaves again. Melody beats the big beat every time, which is the reason Simon and Garfunkel outsold the Rolling Stones in the Sixties. Trust this argument; history is on its side.

Less trustworthy, but worth considering: in the Seventies, a new kind of rock band developed that managed to sell its members as role models to the younger rock audience. But Grand Funk is gone, Alice Cooper's career is in limbo, Aerosmith is on the wane, and "I Was Made for Lovin' You," however effective its disco beat, must have eroded Kiss' credibility with its hardcore fans. Such acts are meant to be outgrown, and they can't convert the next generation — there is nothing more obnoxious than your older brother's favorite band, except maybe your younger brother's favorite band. Along with old-line sounds — as exemplified by Foreigner — the Knack, the Cars and Cheap Trick appeal to this segment of the audience, too.

But there's nothing remotely "new" about what these bands are doing; once more, the New Wave is filling a market void, not instigating a revolution in pop-music taste. The people who might do that--the Clash, to cite an extreme example--are still largely unheard by the pop audience.

Which is not to suggest that nothing at all is happening.

Call what remains a report from the front; what a fool believes; what any man could learn by paying attention to the radio:

There was the week last winter when Elvis Costello came out with Armed Forces, a record so brave it couldn't be true; the week he called Ray Charles a nigger, I knew that it wasn't… Listening all summer long to Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" and finally deciding that the Stones should have had her produce Some Girls… Watching the kids at the beach with their Cheap Trick tapes, spinning "Surrender" twenty times a day… Blowing my last five bucks on Van Morrison's Into the Music and feeling cheered up… Playing Sly Stone's new record, which was like running into a dear old friend... Seeing The Kids Are Alright and starting to cry when Keith Moon made that sudden, awful change from indestructible youth to fatigued old age… Discovering Peaches and Herb's "Reunited" on the radio one Sunday morning and stopping the car, breathless that soul music still lived…  Gaping at James Brown dancing at his own press party… Neon Leon at the Mudd Club, Beaver Brown at the Fast Lane, Ellen Shipley in Poughkeepsie, Carolyne Mas at the Other End.

Most of all, I remember two weeks in September when I saw the Who three times, followed by Bruce Springsteen and then, out in L.A., the Talking Heads. The Who told me that the old ways are sustaining: Townshend played his heart out, Kenney Jones fit like a glove, and I was as awed by them as if they were a new band. Bruce Springsteen playing at the MUSE shows inspired in me what he always does: the faith that this moment can be as magic as my memories. And the Heads played with the ferocity of a band that's learned its skills from six months on the road--a joyous, crazy show that lived up to the others on a night when I would have asked for nothing more than entertainment. Better than my dreams, those moments.

But I would trade them all, and all the rest I haven't mentioned, for the time at the breakfast table when my eight-year-old daughter walked in singing the "new" song she'd heard on TV: "Hearts of Stone"--not by the Stones or Springsteen but by Otis Williams and the Charms. At times like that, I don't want to revolutionize the radio, or even hear the new-new New Wave — I just wanna dance.