1978 rolls even deeper. Here are the top twenty-five of Music of the Weak’s 50 favorite songs/singles of that year, with links to streaming mp3s or YouTube era-appropriate live performances, when available. (Part One is here)
25. Wire – “Outdoor Miner (Long Version)”
While the Buzzcocks were testing the amount of emotional melodrama their songs could include and still be punk, Wire took the harder—and arguably more rewarding—route of crafting baldly emotional songs just as punk and obtuse as their edgier work. “Outdoor Miner” stands as one of their best, beginning as a slow punk song and unfurling into an up-tempo ballad, bolstered by a delicate piano solo and a thousand voices harmonizing. “Stunning” is an adjective used to describe punk rock that’s more shocking than gorgeous; here, both meanings apply.
24. 10cc – “Dreadlock Holiday”
Well, this is awkward. Hearing perennial white dudes 10cc play dress-up as reggae loyalists is not an entirely enticing proposition, especially when they’re singing about getting bullied and robbed by a group of black dudes. Even if it’s unclear how ironic 10cc are being on “Dreadlock Holiday,” it’s hard to hear the song’s exuberant cries of “I don’t like cricket/I love it” as anything but tongue-in-cheek. Plus, it provides one of the best call-and-response choruses of the era. Later, when they replace the word “cricket” with the word “reggae,” it’s obvious that Godley & Creme and company sincerely love reggae just as much as they completely fail to understand it. It’s what you’d call an unconditional love.
23. Steel Pulse – “Ku Klux Klan”
Steel Pulse’s “Ku Klux Klan” is, of course, the dark flip-side to 10cc’s “Dreadlock Holiday.” 10cc imagined themselves as British tourists hitting Jamaica for whatever a 33 year-old’s equivalent of Spring Break is, discovering that all of the big scary Jamaican men want to bully them out of their money, while all of the Jamaican women want to fuck them. On the other hand, Steel Pulse, also founded in Britain, imagine themselves wandering around the States and running into the Ku Klux Klan. Things do not turn out pretty. Using Bob Marley’s reggae template to get even more bluntly political, Steel Pulse started with this simple, effective sketch of white-on-black violence before going on to be an extremely politically active band for the next couple of decades—and eventually becoming the first reggae band to play at a Presidential Inauguration in 1992.
22. The Jam – “It’s Too Bad”
“Down at the Tube Station at Midnight” is the obvious choice for a single to represent The Jam’s All Mod Cons because it represents the band’s soulful political leanings and even caused a bit of a controversy in 1978 when it got banned by the BBC. “It’s Too Bad,” on the other hand, is the delightful, deceptively simple love song at the middle of the album—and it kills every time, free from the necessary context that makes “Down at the Tube Station at Midnight” great. Bruce Foxton absolutely nails the opening bass line, and the rest of the music is equally tight. Of course, Paul Weller does the thing he likes to do, where he packs seven songs’ worth of material into two minutes, but the overall effect—the friction between Weller’s explosive songwriting and the band’s taught playing—is a seamless pop song.
21. Sniff ‘n’ the Tears – “Driver’s Seat”
Though Sniff ‘n’ the Tears’ debut single became a huge international hit in 1979, the band was never able to follow it up—making it arguably one of the greatest one-hit wonders of all time. Truly, the allure of “Driver’s Seat” is hard to pin down. Luigi Salvoni’s drumming is as easy as a rain storm and just as unyielding, providing a framework for no less than six musicians to riff off of front-man Paul Roberts’ vocals and acoustic guitar strumming—sometimes they chime in with classic rock riffs and monster guitar solos, sometimes just with interjections as simple as a keyboard chirp or funky baritone “yeah.” It all combines into a new wave song as indelible as it is elusive. Now if we could just retroactively work on the band’s name.
20. Radio Birdman – “Aloha Steve & Dano”
In the hands of Radio Birdman, the theme music to Hawaii Five-O becomes the surf rock anthem it was always meant to be. Chris Masuak and Deniz Tek reassemble the horn line into a Blue Öyster Cult-worthy guitar lick, while the rest of the band go strictly Ramones on that ass, using “Book ‘em Dano/ Murder one!” as their “Beat on the brat!” In the decades that followed, tens of thousands of scrappy punk bands would attempt to outdo each other with kitschy covers and references, but not one of those songs has the chops, the dedicated sense of play, or the staying power as “Aloha Steve & Dano.”
19. Bruce Springsteen – “Badlands”
Darkness on the Edge of Town’s companion piece to Born to Run’s “Thunder Road” may or may not be inspired by Terence Malick’s 1973 film of the same name, in which Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek go on a psychopathic killing spree, but, hearing “Badlands,” it’s easy to imagine that Bruce and Mary have turned into natural born killers. Gone is the sense of idealism that inspired lines like, “We’re riding out tonight, baby, to case the Promised Land.” In its place, Bruce sings, “You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come,” and manages to imbue it with the same relentless uplift. Where he once threw caution to the wind, he now struggles against the bleakness, and the winner hasn’t been decided yet. As a single, “Badlands” may not have been as popular as anything off of Born to Run, but it’ll cut ya.
18. Patti Smith – “Because the Night”
“Because the Night” was co-written by Bruce Springsteen, and it has his touch all over it, from the lonely piano introduction to the wall of sound kicking in at the chorus. But without Patti Smith’s ravaged, brave performance, the song would have merely been a cast-off or an album track. Smith has an unhinged emotionality that Springsteen—who’s generally willing to simply let his enthusiasm do the talking—probably never imagined gracing one of his songs. She imbues each line with desperate longing, turning even the most self-aware poetry—“Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe/ Love is a banquet on which we feed”—into an urgent cry. It could have been a simple, moderately schmaltzy love song; Smith turned it into an angel disguised as lust.
17. A Taste of Honey – “Boogie Oogie Oogie”
On paper, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” has all the trappings of a novelty single—a band named after a Herb Alpert song and a title that makes some sort of stupid onomatopoetic joke out of the 1978 equivalent of the word “jiggy”—but the music by Janice Marie Johnson and Perry Kibble is rich enough that it immediately overcomes all of the packaging’s presumed tackiness. Kibble and Johnson have a confidence and ease that belies their cruise-musician roots, but, Jesus, can they play. Essentially a handful of excursions into obnoxiously awesome guitar solos or vocal riffing (Johnson came up with the lyric while baiting an audience full of wallflowers into dancing), strung together with a relentlessly shifty groove, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” never loses its playfulness—which helps for the dance floor. But even on the headphones, it’s far better than it seemingly has any right to be.
16. Elvis Costello – “Lipstick Vogue”
Elvis Costello was on such a tear in 1978 that he could afford to record a cover of Brinsley Schwartz’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and let Nick Lowe take the credit for it (at least, until it blew up.) Songs were coming fast and furious—he was still riding on the success of his debut album, recording his second, and writing material for his third. Picking a favorite among them now comes down to a coin toss at any given moment. Today, the furious momentum of “Lipstick Vogue” gives it the edge. Pete Thomas’s manic drumming begins the song, and not a microsecond goes by without a beat crashing in. Everything constantly threatens to veer out of control, getting wilder and wilder until The Attractions manage to contain it all, only to let it explode again.
15. Sonic’s Rendezvous Band – “City Slang”
“City Slang” is a gruesome cage match between four musical legends from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Gary Rasmussin of MC5 compatriots The Up kicks it off with a liquid bass riff which is quickly augmented by The Stooges’ Scott Asheton’s drumming, which could rip the peel off of a banana from 100 feet away. Scott Morgan of The Rationals (who turned down Blood, Sweat & Tears’ offer to join their band) and Fred “Sonic” Smith duke it out over who is the messiest, shreddiest guitar player—but Smith (who also wrote the song) has it by a mile, turning in an absolutely blistering performance and showing all of the new jacks why garage rock was the original punk. The group only recorded the one single in its lifetime, but “City Slang” leaves the kind of legacy most bands struggle for years to achieve, and fail.
14. The Who – “Who Are You”
Yes, it’s the opening music for CSI. You know what other TV theme song was written in 1978? Andrew Gold’s “Thank You For Being a Friend,” which you may remember from The Golden Girls. But, whereas a thirty second montage of the madcap antics of Bea Arthur and friends suits Gold’s song perfectly, CSI hardly does justice to The Who’s supremely funky, epic single. The Who were operating under similar circumstances as The Rolling Stones, in danger of being rendered obsolete by the glut of punk rock streaming out of England. Their response still stands as one of the best songs of their career, at turns confrontational and sublime. Punk rock threw a party and invited everyone it knew. The biggest gift came from some badasses who had been killing it for years, and the card attached said, “Who the fuck are you?”
13. Giorgio Moroder – “The Chase”
“The Chase,” which appeared in Giorgio Moroder’s score for the film Midnight Express in 1978, knows what any great film-maker knows: how to build suspense. The opening synthesizer beats confidently set a middle-ground tempo, but there’s speed implied—as if you’re walking around in slow-motion, while the world around you is on fast forward. Moroder re-imagines disco as the music they could have been listening to in They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, bleary-eyed and paranoid, with ambient noises interplaying with the keyboard lines. Giorgio Moroder garnered an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Midnight Express, and “The Chase” is so cinematic that it could have won those awards without being attached to a movie at all.
12. Tom Waits - "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis"
Maybe Tom Waits is supposed to be Charlie, opening the Christmas card and reading it out loud. Or maybe he’s supposed to be the hooker, singing to herself as she writes down her thoughts before mailing them. Either way, it’s one of early Tom Waits’ best tricks—playing a character reaching out to someone in his or her past, to see where life has picked them up and dropped them, and to reminisce about the mistakes they’ve made. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” unravels like an O. Henry story (and, yeah, there’s a twist at the end.) Lines like “Charlie, I think about you every time I pass a filling station” and “I wish I had all the money we used to spend on dope” manage to be both schmaltzy and transcendent. Elsewhere, Waits captures the ache of nostalgia in a way that no one else could pull off: “I’d buy me a used car lot and I wouldn’t sell any of them/ I’d just drive around in different cars, depending on how I feel.”
11. The Cars – “Just What I Needed”
“Just What I Needed” represents the apex of the sound The Cars invented in 1978, pushing every element of their sound to its extreme. The opening, angular guitar strums are interrupted with mightier power chords. Bassist Ben Orr takes the singing duties, and he gives a distant, unaffected performance—when he says, “I don’t mind you coming here, and wasting all my time,” it’s as if he’s being forced to admit it. When a billion other bands aped The Cars’ sound in the following half-decade, that cold irony was exactly the crucial part that most of them missed. With The Cars, if you put pressure on them, they’d probably admit they were having fun, and, even if you couldn’t necessarily tell by looking at them or hearing them, it was also obvious they weren’t lying.
10. Rick James – “Mary Jane”
Rick James’ “Mary Jane” exhibits many of the traits we associate these days with hip-hop: the taught groove that gets looped with only slight variation, the insistently laconic beat, the vocal interjections (you can practically hear the DJ scratching that wants to happen). James’ guitar playing is electrifying without being intrusive, and James uses the flute better than anyone, until Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Speaking of which, in case you didn’t pick it up, “Mary Jane” is a thinly-veiled metaphor for weed, and the song finds James dancing around that metaphor with jokey, not-so-clever wordplay (“Mary wanna mess around”?) and sincere adoration.
9. Van Halen – “Runnin’ With the Devil”
If Van Halen were really trying to convince people that they ran with the devil, their debut album was an interesting way of doing it. Van Halen is littered with doo-wop harmonies, Eddie Van Halen’s exuberant guitar-playing, and David Lee Roth’s lothario shtick—not the most Satan-friendly material. “Running with the Devil” is more of a giddy celebration—“Look at us! We’re running with the devil!”—than a solemn warning. Everything in the song, from Eddie’s iconoclastic playing to the feedback squeals that accompany Roth’s reached-for growls, sounds like it’s exploding from an enthusiasm that couldn’t be contained.
8. Nina Simone – “Baltimore”
On paper, everything about “Baltimore” reads like a sketchy preposition. Nina Simone covering a Randy Newman song about living in the inner city, and setting it to a reggae-influenced arrangement for strings and synthesizers? Yikes. But “Baltimore” somehow congeals into a whole far, far greater than its component parts. The song begins, “Beat up little seagull on a marble stair,” and immediately Simone takes a light approach to the vocals, barely annunciating the words, and turning Newman’s syrupy lyrics delicate. Giving the song a reggae strut was a masterstroke, as The Tamlins would take it all the way two years later. But the greatness of the song lies simply in Simone’s ability to invest the lines, “Ol’ Baltimore/ Ain’t it hard just to live” with a wealth of emotion. That’s what she does.
7. The Police – “Roxanne”
Last year, a demo recording of David Lee Roth’s vocals from “Running With the Devil” made its way around the internet. Unaccompanied by Van Halen, Roth’s vocals were similarly hilarious and astonishing—you could hear, plainly, all of the vocal interjections and weird inflections he’d added to the song, how he’d helped shape its awesomeness. But, on “Running With the Devil,” Van Halen also bear some of the song’s weight; Sting’s vocal on The Police’s “Roxanne” is just as, if not more, intricate and compelling (and hilarious in its self-seriousness), without much more than a skeletal framework of music backing him up. Sting’s voice is the song. Nowhere in The Police’s catalogue does he reach so deeply for the notes—you can hear them fight their way out of the depths of his body—and nowhere does he succeed so wildly.
6. Cheryl Lynn – “Got to be Real”
Cheryl Lynn’s deathless “Got to be Real” was co-written by David Paitch, the keyboardist from Toto—which may explain why it’s a bit like a suped-up version of disco. Every aspect of “Got to Be Real” is pushed to the extreme—the horn section is one of the most thunderous in the history of music, and Cheryl Lynn’s performance redefines the idea of the diva with every syllable. It’s a disco song that’s built like arena rock. Yet, the song never tips over into the realm of gimmickry. The horns are so spot-on and iconic that it’s amazing there’s not an entire sub-genre of hip-hop dedicated to them. Lynn’s vocals are forceful without ever getting obnoxious or grating. Not only does “Got to be Real” make good on its title, but it does it under the most mythological circumstances.
5. The Clash – “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”
The Clash’s monumental 1978 single, “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais,” is a thorny mess of contradictions. It introduces itself as an aggressive, charged punk song with its opening chords before promptly slowing down into a ska beat. Joe Strummer rails against reggae performers Dillinger, Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson for giving a concert in the titular venue where “if they got anything to say, there’s many black ears here to listen,” and, instead, “onstage they ain’t got no roots rock rebel.” Later, they criticize punk bands for “turning rebellion into money,” even though that’s presumably exactly what they were trying to do. The Clash succeeded in being one of the first punk bands to adopt reggae into their sound, giving one of the most inspired performances of their career. If their ideals got a little muddy along the way, that only makes the whole thing more punk rock.
4. Blondie – “Hanging On the Telephone”
Deborah Harry almost sounds like she’s singing through the phone receiver on “Hanging On the Telephone,” the introductory track to Blondie’s Parallel Lines. Her spastic performance—urgent and sexy, especially when she gets to the part where she growls, “I can’t control myself”—mines The Nerves’ bare-bones 1976 original version for every ounce of drama in it. The band backs her up with a fiery force unheard in most of their new other work—which tends to be a little more patient and commanding. When Blondie get to the chorus, however, “Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone” comes across more as a stern warning than a desperate cry. Even in when faced with a man who is ignoring her when she apparently needs him most, Debbie Harry is still in complete control.
3. Funkadelic – “One Nation Under a Groove”
George Clinton always had a bit of a ringleader thing going on, but on “One Nation Under a Groove,” he conducts one of the tightest three-ring circuses of his career. Funkadelic, as it always does, bursts out in all directions at once—but it always comes back to the central groove, as if uniting the song itself is the first step toward building the nation in the title. In the midst of it all, Clinton exhorts and gesticulates like James Brown, appropriating Brown’s “Get up on the good foot” line, and making you swear to him that you will funk. Not only did Funkadelic suggest that music could help us “dance our way out of our constrictions,” but “One Nation Under a Groove” topped the soul charts in the U.S. for six weeks, turning the title into a reality.
2. Dinosaur – “Kiss Me Again”
When classically trained cellist Arthur Russell—who, by 1978, had already collaborated with Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Glass, and Rhys Chatham, among others—fixed his attention upon disco, he made ripples in the musical landscape which are still being profoundly felt today. You can hear the influence of “Kiss Me Again,” Arthur’s first single and the first release on the Sire label, in just about every DFA record. Russell was operating in Steve Reich territory, building “Kiss Me Again” on frequent, subtle shifts, beginning with immediately recognizable guitar playing by David Byrne, and slowly highlighting bongos, horns, strings and a delicious piano solo. Vocalist Myriam Naomi Valle gives an exquisite, stream-of-consciousness performance, almost as if she’s leading you through all of it like Virgil leading Dante through the nine circles of hell. By the end of the thirteen minute epic, you feel as if you’ve gone through something just as profound.
1. Ramones – “I Wanna Be Sedated”
“I Wanna Be Sedated” has probably been plenty of folks’ introduction to the Ramones—at first, because it was the lead off song on the Greatest Hits compilation Ramones Mania in 1988, accompanied by an iconic video of the band sitting nonchalantly at the breakfast table while all kinds of crazy shit goes on around them; later, because it appeared on an early level of Guitar Hero II. But “I Wanna Be Sedated” wasn’t even chosen to release as a single from the band’s fourth album in the span of two years, 1978’s Road to Ruin—instead, it was the B-side to the fourth single, “She’s the One.” (Remember that song?) Nevertheless, “I Wanna Be Sedated” has come to represent the Ramones as surely as “Blitzkrieg Bop” or “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”—and rightly so. It’s as perfect as a song can get—even more economical than its two and a half minutes suggests, completely on message, wryly funny, danceable, pogo-able, and the Ramones throw in a key change and a surf rock break just for fun. Since the song is cyclical, it even lends itself to getting thrown on repeat. Despite the endless amount of styles and subgenres flourishing in 1978, “I Wanna Be Sedated” still manages to stand above and outside of them, representing nothing more than consummate musicianship.
-Martin Brown, 2009