Look, I rail against the horror of Seventies music all the time, but the decade certainly had its highlights, especially along the roads less travelled by. As the decade closed, though, few would deny that an appalling ennui had overtaken the zeitgeist, with West Coast singer-songwriters vying for chart position against guys shrieking 4/4 Disco (with rhythms so simple even white people could find them) in manic falsetto, while John Travolta strutted around in white suits across illuminated dance floors. It got so bad that rock ‘n roll became ripe to breed its own counterculture – and then, all too briefly, something wonderful happened.
For a few years there, until the likes of Lionel Ritchie, Phil Collins and Huey Lewis imposed a new, bland consensus on the Eighties, there was a tremendous burst of energy and creativity. In England, as the shock of the Sex Pistols played itself out and faded away, bands like XTC and Squeeze were cranking out first order British pop that hearkened back to the best days of the Who and the Kinks – some thought even the Beatles. A Buddy Holly-looking dude named Elvis Costello was cutting high energy discs. A fantastically rebellious outfit calling themselves The Clash, supposed punks who weren’t punks at all, being politically engaged, talented, and passionate, rather than nihilistic and deliberately ham-fisted, were beginning to make a name for themselves. Back in CBGBs in New York, the Ramones were tearing the cosmos a new one, the Talking Heads were introducing pop music to an exotically rhythmic form of art rock that fairly boggled the mind, and a gorgeous blonde named Deborah Harry came out of nowhere, fronting a band called Blondie, and proceeded to blow the doors off the whole bloated pop radio edifice.
Everybody remembers Heart of Glass, and The Tide is High, but those eminently catchy tunes were mediocrities next to Dreaming, which fired on all twelve supercharged cylinders, combining the melodicism of traditional pop with the ferocious energy of punk to create a level of excitement that still stirs the blood over 40 years later. Propelled along by drumming reminiscent of Keith Moon at his peak, and accentuated by ripping guitars and soaring synthesizers, Dreaming is made whole by the sheer power of Harry’s piercing, unwavering vocal. An audience long since stunned into decadent, ambient passivity by the metronomic thump of songs like Do The Hustle and Shake Your Booty, and the empty pop stylings of Captain and Tennille and The Starlight Vocal Band, was jolted abruptly into full consciousness. All of a sudden it wasn’t Muskrat Love and Midnight at the Oasis. The DJs might just as well have announced “we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this special report”, while the dashboard radio started screaming at us: Wake up, numb-nuts!! Something is happening!!
It couldn’t last, of course. All too soon it was Duran Duran, Culture Club, Bananrama, and the Spice Girls. As the Eighties wore on, there were, again, highlights, especially on the roads less travelled by. But for just a couple of years there, the airplay was going to the most energizing stuff any of us had heard for years, and popular music seemed set on a trajectory that would take us back to the exhilarating heights we’d thought we’d never revisit.