Stiff Little Fingers “Inflammable Material” (1979)

     Back into the world of punk rock today, and unlike most of the acts I have recently covered here, I had never heard of Stiff Little Fingers before.  They come from Belfast in Northern Ireland, and bring an even more aggressive vocal tone than anything I have heard so far as punk rock continues to move forward.  This album, “Inflammable Material”, which was their debut album, is rated as the 6th greatest punk rock album on loudersound.com.

    From a vocal perspective, and from pretty much any other angle, this is definitely punk rock, but underneath it all, it is just aggressive and fast-paced rock and roll with a more caustic vocal front.  I had to smile just a bit when I heard the opening chords of the first song, “Suspect Device”, which opens with the same basic chords as “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.  That coincidence aside, this is a pretty fun album to listen to, and there are several songs I prefer above the rest.  “Barbed Wire Love” is a great track, and I also love “Johnny Was”, which has a long, extended instrumental intro.  “Breakout” is sort of like “Blitzkrieg Bop” if Joey Ramone had a really bad sore throat.  “Law and Order” opens with similar chords to “Desire” by U2.  Any way you slice it, good chords make good songs.

     Like I have noted before, there are certain fundamental limitations and boundaries with most of these early punk rock acts, but the music is fast, powerful, authentic and a needed shot in the arm for a rock and roll genre that was showing its age.  Somehow, all these years later, singer Jake Burns and the latest version of the band continues to rock on in 2021.

Billy Joel “52nd Street” (1978)

     We end 1978 with the #1 selling album of 1979, the next release from Billy Joel, “52nd Street”.  Like his other albums, this record continues his love affair with New York City.  Like “The Stranger”, this is Billy Joel at what I consider to be his peak, and is another fantastic album.  I also recall this record as a part of my Mom’s late-era record collection.

    Side one opens with three massive hits for Joel.  The first, “Big Shot”, is a raucous look back at a friend whose life has gotten a bit excessive in every way.  Next comes his painfully accurate ballad “Honesty”, which is somewhat of a pragmatic sequel to “She’s Always a Woman”.  Next we have another TV theme song, where a cover version of “My Life” was used as the intro for “Bosom Buddies”, the world’s introduction to Tom Hanks.  All three of these first tracks are guaranteed placement on any Billy Joel Greatest Hits playlist.

     Next comes “Zanzibar”, which evolves into a very unexpected jazz blend, featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet.  Side two isn’t quite as hit-laden, but all of it is good Billy Joel.  Each of the five songs are different in style and sound, and I would say my favorite of all of them is the last track, which is also the title track.  I also really liked “Rosalinda’s Eyes” and “Until the Night”, which builds into a really nice chorus.  Overall, this is definitely tied with “The Stranger” as my personal favorite, and the trilogy of his best albums comes shortly after.

Dire Straits “Dire Straits” (1978)

     There are some guitarists you can almost instantly recognize when you hear their sound.  Eddie Van Halen immediately comes to mind, and I would probably  say the same for Jimi Hendrix, The Edge from U2, and perhaps even put Jimmy Page and Keith Richards to that list.  That being said, none of them, even Eddie, are as consistently and immediately as recognizable as Mark Knopfler, the guitarist and vocalist and founding force of the band Dire Straits.  There is something remarkably pure, crisp, and pristine about the sound of his playing.  I have always envisioned that his sound is enabled by not only his incredibly precise and pure touch, but the lightest and softest strings possible.  One of my former coworkers, Mark, stands out to me as one of several people in my past who are uniquely devoted to Knopfler and his music.  I find Dire Straits fans to be quiet, thoughtful, insightful and highly intelligent in their musical consideration, which fits well with the sophistication of this sound.

     Like Van Halen and The Cars, “Dire Straits” is the third significant self-titled album released in 1978.  I remember purchasing it about a decade later, but had forgotten how beautiful and soothing this entire record sounds.  It opens with the emerging sounds of “Down to the Waterline”, and honestly, each of the eight songs that follow are so pleasant and enjoyable to listen to, especially in a quiet moment.  I will end my assessment with the trademark song from this debut momentarily, and even though I love the entire record, I’m particularly partial to side two.  “In the Gallery” has a beautifully played subtle funk to it, and the song that follows, “Wild West End”, is my second-favorite song on the album.  The chord sequence and melody of this song is just so beautiful, I could listen to it every single night as the sun goes down.  Knopfler’s speak-sing vocal style is unusual but works so well, especially on this love-from-afar song.  The album closes with “Lions”, which is the perfect book-end to the opening track.  I just don’t know how you can listen to this album, especially side two, and not be immediately hooked.

     Of course, the signature song of this record is the first song on side two, “Sultans of Swing”.  From a musical perspective, the guitar playing on this song just blows me away, particularly the note-for-note perfection of the solos near the end.  Lyrically, most people recognize this as the ode to London that it really is.  However, for me, I have always associated it with New Orleans.  If you listen to the story, it connects me to the Dixieland jazz players at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter.  After my parents moved there, my Dad would take me there to see and hear his favorite music.  I always loved this connection, as he and I did not always connect on music the same way I did with most others.  However, in Preservation Hall, he was just another music lover like me, and this song transports me to a misty, dark night, “Coming in out of the rain to hear the jazz pour down”.  I love this song, I love this album, and most of all, I love you Dad.  Thanks for showing me that side of you all those years ago.

The Who “Who Are You” (1978)

     As we move into the late 1970s, we see several of the long-time dominant British rock bands searching for their sound amidst a sea of change in popular tastes.  The Stones managed to make it work with “Some Girls”, but we will see a couple of less consistent attempts by their peers over the next year.  We start with the latest album from The Who, “Who Are You”.

     I think the common theme and biggest thread on both of the albums I am referring to (I will leave the other out of the discussion for now) is an over-reliance on synthesizers that while attempting to sound cutting edge, actually has created the most dated elements of each album.  A band like The Who feeds off of the aggressive guitar of Pete Townshend, which is pretty much buried on this album until the final track.  Interestingly enough, three of the nine songs on this album are written by bass player John Entwistle, which has to be an all-time high.  It is no secret that during this time frame, lead guitarist and creative force Pete Townshend was mired in the lowest depths of his alcoholism.

       Songs like “New Song”, “Had Enough” and “905”, also sung by Entwistle, are easy enough to listen to, but none of them really stick with you.  Probably the second-most notable song on the album, “Sister Disco”, their observation on the evolving musical world, offers the most intrigue.  It is also the one video performance from the 1982 Who concert that I attended in Boulder that wound up on the early FM-TV rotation on Channel 12 in Denver, prior to the explosion of MTV.

     “Trick of the Light” is the only other song, prior to the conclusion, that has any hint of the old Who attitude.  It is also an Entwistle track, and one of his best ones.  I particularly like the chorus on the track.  I will leave the remainder of my discussion for the famous title track.  While in recent years it has been reduced to being a theme show for some show I have never seen, and a song sports teams play while introducing their starting lineups, “Who Are You” is the one great song on this album.  Like many great Who songs, it is very autobiographical, documenting Pete’s alcohol demons, in particular referencing one drunken night with Steve Jones and Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols.  This is the one song where the sheer power of Roger’s voice tells Pete’s story, Pete blasts back the power chords with a very creative acoustic mid-section, and the explosive force of Keith Moon is presented to us.

     Ah yes, Mr. Moon, Moon the Loon.  Sadly, just one month after this album was released, we lost Keith.   Also fighting the battle of alcohol and drug addiction, he actually overdosed on pills prescribed to help reduce his dependency.  The parallels of The Who and Led Zeppelin are eerily similar, and for most rock fans, the era of rock drumming was truly ushered in by Keith and John Bonham.  Keith’s drumming was one of a kind, he was set free by Townshend’s steady rhythm to aggressively free-lance as if each song was a four-minute drum fill.  If you are familiar with Animal, the crazy Muppet drummer, most believe that Keith Moon was the template, the crazy and manic drummer on and offstage, one whose behavior was endearing and exhausting all at the same time.  While The Who would press on, they would never be the same.

The Rolling Stones “Some Girls” (1978)

     As the world of music continues to evolve, we see the Rolling Stones continue to move with the times.  Some people would say that “Some Girls”, their 1978 release, is their best album ever.  I may or may not agree with them, but I would be hard-pressed to argue.  I will say that I believe it is one of the last two great albums they produced, with one more still to come.  There are several of their very best later-era songs on this record, and it is rated #468 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Their most contemporary song leads off the album, the classic disco/samba-esque “Miss You”.  I’m getting to the point where I can associate many of these albums and songs with a particular memory in my life, and this will always take me back to 1978 basketball camp with Matt and legendary hoops coach Larry Brown, where this song was on constantly.  It isn’t an all-time favorite for me, but it certainly is classic Mick, as is this entire album. 

     Next comes one of several straightforward rockers, “When the Whip Comes Down”, followed by their cover of The Temptations’ classic, “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”.  I really love the title track, it is overflowing with the personality and raunchy persona of Mick.  The end of side one gets back to basics with “Lies”.

     Side two is a pretty spectacular collection of songs.  We start with the wonderfully absurd “Far Away Eyes”, with Mick posing as a country-gospel-blues vagabond.  One more straight up-rocker follows, with “Respectable”, and then we turn it over to Keith Richards for one of his best-known solo vocals, “Before They Make Me Run”.  This was always a particular favorite of my friend John, back in the early 80s.

     As good as those first eight songs were, the real enduring greatness of this album fully emerges on the last two tracks, both of which feature some really sublime drumming from Charlie Watts.  We start with “Beast of Burden”, featuring an opening riff from Keith that is timeless, and one of the most profound and impactful songs ever released by the Stones.  The final track is sheer greatness, their ode to New York City and its manic and disastrous state in the late 1970s, “Shattered”.  I have always loved this song, but one memory stands above the rest for me on this track.  The year was 1988, and I was due to return to my hometown from my college town, which was about a 1.5-hour drive.  It was a warm summer day, and my 1981 Camaro and the best stereo system I had ever owned were ready to roll.  A younger schoolmate and friend of mine from Parker named Mike was to join me for the ride.  Now Mike and I were not close, he is not one of the 5+ Mikes who make my current life as good as it is.  That being said, for that day, we were tight, and excited for the ride home.  For whatever reason, we latched on to “Shattered”, somehow the mix just sounded perfect in my car.  For pretty much that entire ride, we kept that song on continuous loop and it just got better and better.  Like many days tied to the music of my life, it is a moment I will never forget.  I honestly don’t know if I ever saw Mike again, and sadly he passed away a year or two ago.  So, Mike… tonight I hopped on the closest highway and played that song as loud as I could on repeat, just for you, my friend.  Thanks for the company and the lifelong memory, once upon a time…

The Cars “The Cars” (1978)

     Another self-titled debut album today, and definitely one of my favorites of all time.  Although they may sound like an early-entrant British new wave act in some ways, The Cars were all American, hailing from the Boston area.  Their first album, “The Cars”, is the #353 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     When I think of The Cars, I always think of intersection.  First off, I don’t believe there has ever been another band that has so seamlessly and evenly blended the musical contributions of guitar and keyboards.  Secondly, and even more significantly to me, through their run of success into the 1980s, The Cars represented a point of unity among the crowd of music fans I grew up with.  There was a growing divide between the guitar/classic rock traditionalists and the group of fans who were embracing the change of punk/new wave/alternative music.  Socially and in style, these subgroups drew strong lines in their allegiances and preferences, but there was one thing that was universal to us all… We all LOVED The Cars.

     The first album by The Cars is an absolute breakthrough, and you will likely recognize the majority of songs on this album.  One last element to discuss before we look at the songs more closely, was the commonality and shared vocal leadership between Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr.  As a novice Cars fan, I naively assumed nearly every song was sung by Ric Ocasek.  That said, their voices are remarkably similar in style and range, and I was surprised to learn how many of The Cars’ most successful tracks were actually sung by Ben Orr.  In addition to Ocasek, who sang and played rhythm guitar, and Orr, who also played bass, we have Elliot Easton on lead guitar and backing vocals, Greg Hawkes on the essential keyboards and backing vocals, as well as the occasional saxophone, and David Robinson on drums and backing vocals.

     The album opens with the introductory “Good Times Roll”, which they certainly do, with Ocasek on lead.  The hyper-catchy “My Best Friend’s Girl”, also featuring Ocasek, comes next.  This song has always been a favorite of mine, and even my mom loved this song.  This is followed by “Just What I Needed”, which has been featured in many recent commercials, and is our first introduction to the similar voice of Ben Orr.  Side one winds down with the quirky but perfectly Cars-sounding track “I’m in Touch with Your World” and “Don’t Cha’ Stop”, a faster-paced rocker, both with Ocasek on lead.

     Side two opens with my other favorite track on the album, “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”.  Such a great intro with the drums, then the guitars, then the keyboards and Ric Ocasek’s unusual voice all coming together in perfect harmony.  The rest of side two features Ben Orr on lead vocals, even if like me, you might have thought these were Ric Ocasek songs.  “Bye Bye Love” is a perfectly simple little rocker, and then comes “Moving in Stereo”.  Not only is “Moving in Stereo” a great song, for most teens of the 80s, especially male ones, it is permanently equated with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”…  “Hi Brad…”.

     “All Mixed Up” is an ideal closing song to this highly memorable debut.  The Cars would make many more albums, each with several high points, but it would be hard to argue against this debut album as their finest and most complete work.  It is just a great record, one I thoroughly enjoyed listening to again.

Bruce Springsteen “Darkness On the Edge of Town” (1978)

     It took three years due to legal and managerial disputes, but we have the next release from Bruce Springsteen, “Darkness On the Edge of Town”.  My reaction is rather divided on this album, there are songs I really like, and several I really don’t care for that much.  Like many of his albums, it is highly regarded by many, and it is rated #91 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Both sides open with two of Bruce’s most frequently played live tracks.  To start side one, we have “Badlands”.  I like the overall melody but there is something about the chorus I don’t really enjoy.  No mixed emotions on the next song, I find “Adam Raised a Cain” to just be really, really annoying.  Most of the rest of side one doesn’t do much for me, although the last song on side one, “Racing in the Street” is much more endearing.

     “The Promised Land” starts off side two, and this is much more to my liking.  It’s upbeat without being too much, just a really enjoyable listen and a real favorite on this album.  “Factory” is another powerful song, and although I run hot and cold with “Streets of Fire”, the rest of side two ends on a high note with “Prove It All Night”, probably the most well-known song on this record, and the title track.

     I’m glad I have given the Springsteen catalog a much more extended consideration during this journey.  I will never be a passionate fan of “The Boss” like many of my friends, including my friend Dan who puts Bruce at the very top of his list.  That said, his impact, particularly as a live performer and storyteller of American music and society is unmistakable.

Van Halen “Van Halen” (1978)

     After yesterday’s disco double-album extravaganza and a flurry of punk rock and new sounds, one might have been wondering, what was left for the guitar rock and roll band to accomplish?  The giants of the British Invasion era were all running low on fuel, and while we saw some innovation from bands like Boston and AC/DC, the format was looking a bit tired.  Thankfully, for all of us, we got the guitar hero we needed and wanted, when we needed him most.  Entering the big time in 1978 was none other than Edward Van Halen and his band, which included his brother Alex on drums, Michael Anthony on bass, and the one and only David Lee Roth on lead vocals.  “Van Halen” is one of three major self-titled debut albums to enter the scene in 1978, and none carried more weight and influence ultimately than these southern California sensations who redefined the term “party band”, as they had spent years honing their craft literally playing backyard parties and bars building their brand.  This highly influential album, rated way too low in my opinion, is the #292 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Each of the other three members were key contributors to their success.  Often overshadowed by his younger brother, Alex Van Halen is a phenomenal and distinctive drummer whose sound is instantly recognizable.  Nobody goes overboard with praise for Michael Anthony’s work on bass, but aside from his steady work there, his real gift to the band was his powerful high harmony backing vocals.  And of course, there is David Lee Roth.  He is cartoonish, excessive in every way, and more than a little absurd and ridiculous, but back in these early days, his alpha-male bad-ass command of the stage made him the lead singer most every girl wanted, and most every guy wanted to be.  His gift for bringing fun and showmanship to the songwriting, cover song selection, and performing was a major part of lifting Van Halen to a status other guitar-heavy bands could only dream about.

     The album opens with the thunderous “Runnin’ with the Devil”.  An attention getter for sure, but the next five minutes or so gave us all we needed to know that this was something new and amazing.  We start with one of the greatest recorded rock guitar solo performances of all time, “Eruption”, which leads right into the raucous cover of “You Really Got Me”, originally performed by the Kinks.  This is truly party rock at its finest, and just a spectacular and much needed resurrection of guitar rock.

     This album is almost completely a smash from beginning to end, with only two tracks that I don’t really enjoy.  “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” is more Eddie Van Halen magic, with an equal dose of David Lee Roth bravado.  Side one ends with more insane guitar work from Eddie on “I’m The One”, which also has some of Alex’s best drumming, and even an impromptu doo-wop chorus.

     Side two opens with more rock machismo on “Jamie’s Cryin’”, the Van Halen warning note for one-night stands on tour.  “Atomic Punk” is one of the two songs I typically skip, it is just a bit too caustic for my tastes.  They bounce back strongly with “Feel Your Love Tonight”, another celebration of the rock and roll dream we all had growing up, as the aspiring life of the party with your buddies and the girls who may or may not have noticed or cared.  That may be my favorite song on an album filled with great ones.

     “Little Dreamer” is a slower, bluesy song, which showcases both Roth and Anthony and their vocal prowess.  Next, we have the perfect song to end this great album, “Ice Cream Man”, a blues cover by John Brim that goes from zero to one hundred quickly, just one more Van Halen blowout.  Much like “Bring It On Home” on Led Zeppelin II in terms of slow-fast-slow, it is an all-time classic for the band.  Unfortunately, the band felt the need to put one more song on the record, and that song, “On Fire”, is a pretty rough listen.  Just too much, too high, too loud, and too unmelodic.  After this great album, we can overlook this last misstep.

    Just this past week, we sadly looked back at the one-year anniversary of Eddie Van Halen’s untimely death.  The rock world has many guitar heroes, but in my Mt. Rushmore of guitar gods, Eddie’s place is forever secure.  Van Halen has given me many great memories over the years, and I will always recall what a groundbreaking debut this album was.

Various Artists “Soundtrack – Saturday Night Fever” (1977)

     I originally thought today’s album would be the #1 seller for 1977, but due to it’s late in the year release, it was actually the #1 selling album for 1978.  It’s time to dance, as we have the famous soundtrack to the movie “Saturday Night Fever”.  This album is most prominently known for the hits from the Bee Gees, which I do love.  That being said, it is a double album with a lot of other material as well.  A defining album for the late 1970s, the disco craze was real and I remember this album always being on at my next-door neighbors, who had five kids of various ages older than me.  This record is rated #162 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  As I already observed, this is a double album of disco music, which other than the Bee Gees, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into.  Without any further delay, let’s boogie right in.

     The album starts with perhaps the most well-known of these many big hits, “Stayin’ Alive”.  Not only is this a legendary song on its own, I have heard it merged into a mashup with AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, and I even heard the Dave Matthews Band play that exact mashup in concert.  Like many of the Bee Gees’ songs, Barry Gibb absolutely riffs out in his falsetto at the end of the song.  Next comes the soft classic ballad “How Deep is Your Love”.  Not only is this a beautiful melody, I’m particularly partial to this as it was one of two primary “go to” songs for my son’s a capella career at Amherst College.  If you are so inclined, here is a link to that very performance.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-9mhS7TvOs

     The Bee Gees just keep on crushing it, with “Night Fever” and “More Than A Woman”, both of which were also huge hits from this album.  They even wrote the next hit, “If I Can’t Have You”, another huge hit that was performed by Yvonne Elliman, who once appeared on the “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack.  So, I think you can see the problem here… we have four album sides of disco music, and I feel like we have already had every hit from this album… with three sides left to go.  Where do we go from here?

     First is “A Fifth of Beethoven”.  I don’t think I have heard this song in 40 years, but I did love this creative disco take on Beethoven music.  Next, we have a repeat of “More Than A Woman”, except it is performed by the group Tavares.  An interesting alternate take you may not be familiar with.  From here, it starts to wobble a bit more.  We have “Manhattan Skyline” by David Shire, which is pretty bland dance music, and “Calypso Breakdown”, all 7:48 of it, isn’t much better.  “Night On Disco Mountain” sounds more like disco horror movie music, helping to illustrate why the Bee Gees, and not David Shire, got famous from this record.  Is this album over yet?  The good news is that we have a Kool & The Gang song.  The bad news is it is more disco horror movie music on the song “Open Sesame”.  This is not getting better. 

     Just as things were looking really bleak, the Bee Gees come to the rescue with “Jive Talking”, which is awesome, and we have more safe ground with yet another Bee Gees hit, “You Should Be Dancing”.  I now have hope that I’m going to make it to the end.  That hope stays alive with none other than KC & The Sunshine Band and one of their funkier tracks, “Boogie Shoes”.  A few weeks ago, my son and I debated whether or not this was in fact KC… he was right, I was not.

     Sadly, this hot streak comes to an end with more David Shire, on “Salsation”.  To be fair, most of these songs are likely background music at best.  That doesn’t make it any easier to listen to it.  The mood lifts a bit with “K-Jee” by MFSB, and we finally reach the finish line with the disco classic, “Disco Inferno”, by The Trammps.  Another guilty disco pleasure, the only problem have here is that this version is 10:50 long.  I get it, this must be when Tony Manero really earns his keep on the dance floor.  If I actually add this song to my playlist, I will have to find the edited single version.

     We made it… 2 records, 4 sides, 17 songs of disco magic from late 1977.  As a collection of Bee Gees greats, this record is timeless.  I will probably skip the filler material in the future, but as always, I am happy I finally took the time to listen to this entire record from beginning to end.

Sex Pistols “Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols” (1977)

     We have dipped our toe into the pool of punk rock several times, especially in 1977.  All that being said, I feel like it is today’s album, more so than any other, that truly jump-started the punk rock movement, never to be the same again.  That’s right, its time today for “Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols”.  Amazingly enough, this is the only studio album the Sex Pistols ever recorded, and it is rated #80 on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Greatest Albums of All Time.  Not surprisingly, it is the #1 rated punk rock album of all time, as rated by loudersound.com.

     Listening to the entire album twice today, I was surprised by the higher-than-expected musical quality of the record.  My preconceived notions were mostly shaped by the recollection that bass player Sid Vicious, the iconic and tragic poster child for self-destructive punk attitude, barely even knew how to play his instrument.  As I heard some really solid bass lines to compliment the guitars, it turns out that guitarist Steve Jones also recorded most of the bass on this album as well.  Of course, the true face of this band is none other than John Lydon, known then as Johnny Rotten.  Time and age haven’t really helped evolve Mr. Lydon into someone I would want to spend much time with, but in his day, his raw, attitude-filled and angry singing truly defined and shaped a generation-plus of punk rock.

     The album opens with “Holidays in the Sun”, which is definitely one of my favorites on this album, and certainly got me in the mood for the rest of the record.  There is some variation in style and presentation, but not a lot.  It is in-your-face aggressive, fast, authority-hating, lets-fight-right-now rock music.  Other standout tracks (for me) include “No Feelings”, “Liar”, the highly controversial “God Save the Queen”, and the genre-defining “Anarchy in the U.K.”  Even as one who wasn’t a big punk rock follower, I have always loved the attitude and intensity of that song.  The last song on the album, “E.M.I.”, is a classic dismissal of their former record label and the music industry as a whole.

     Every punk rock band, and to a lesser degree, any rock band since that time, can all thank the Sex Pistols for taking rock and roll, which has always been an anti-establishment and anti-authority form of music, and pushing those boundaries several degrees further.  I watched my college roommate and many of his friends immerse themselves deeply in this world, and some of them are still punk to the core, all these years beyond.  I love that about them, just as much as I love each one of them.