As 1979 came to a close, I found myself at a strange time of life. I was 17 years old: I was shortly going to have to commit to one University course or another; and sixth year at school was proving to be, well, a bit of a waiting room. I’m glad in retrospect I didn’t go to Uni after the end of fifth year – I was immature enough when I did go – but when my best mate and cricket partner left half way through sixth, it all seemed a bit more, well, pointless.
That’s not to say there weren’t good bits. I had picked up Higher History without having done it the previous two years, and really enjoyed that: English and French were at SYS level, and both were all right. In the meantime, the music of the time inspired me. I can’t remember exactly when I first tried forming my fingers into the unaccustomed shapes of chords on a guitar fretboard, but it was around then. The Dylan fixation extended to harmonica playing, something I still occasionally do for my sins.
So what about November and December’s albums, then? October had been a bumper harvest: in the run up to Christmas, it couldn’t be that good, could it?
It wasn’t bad. First up, Setting Sons, the fourth album in two years from the Jam. Critically acclaimed, its only single was ‘Eton Rifles,’ inspired apparently by a real life ruck between ‘Right to Work’ marchers and the titular cadet force from England’s poshest school. With no apparent sense of irony, Old Etonian David Cameron claimed it was one of his favourite songs. Our current Old Etonian Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has not, so far as I know, expressed a view.
Next up, Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s live album, Live Rust. I feel I may have said already I’ve never quite got into Neil Young in his various incarnations: even though I like the very Scottish radge-ness he’s exhibited on many occasions, including that story about him playing his new album to someone by setting up two massive speakers, one in his house, one in his shed, and then blasting it over a lake – which, presumably, was also his property – while shouting at the sound guy, ‘more shed! MORE SHED!’
Anyway. I must have heard all of this album at some point, but I specifically remember being blown away by the version of ‘Like a Hurricane’ on this a couple of years later.
Thirdly in November, I give you The Wall, Pink Floyd’s Next Big Thing. Financially strapped after a few ill-advised investments went south, they came up with a concept album based around a character called Pink who was a composite of Roger Waters and Syd Barrett and… ach to be honest I couldn’t be bothered reading the Wikipedia entry any further. The title song was everywhere when it was released as a single, and got on my nerves after a bit.
Anyway so. November wasn’t too bad. What about December?
It wasn’t great, being honest. Unless you were into Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats, or Chic’s greatest hits package, or, inevitably, The Best of Top of the Pops ’79 (bearing in mind this, unlike the many, many Now That’s What I Call Music editions, would not feature the original artists, but instead a bunch of session guys in a shed near Bromley) the stand out album of December 1979 was London Calling, by the Clash.
To my shame, I never owned it. Reaching number eight on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003, it has clearly stood the test of time better than many punk or post-punk albums from back then.
Interestingly, Pennie Smith, who took the iconic cover photo of Simonon smashing his Fender Bass in frustration at the bouncers not allowing the crowd to stand up at a New York gig, originally didn’t want the image used, thinking it was too out of focus. Fortunately the band saw it otherwise.
It’s been an odd process looking back 40 years. In the past few weeks two people who I first came to know in that era, Jonathan Miller and Clive James, have left us. Both were polymaths who weren’t afraid to stoop to the then relatively new medium of television to get their points across. Miller’s medical series, The Body in Question had aired from November 1978 until May 1979, and was pretty ground breaking in the way it popularised medical science – there’s any number of such series now, of course.
Clive James made even more of a lasting impression, with his tv criticism in the Observer being pretty much required reading for any young guns who thought themselves capable of being a writer. It was brilliant, and witty, and occasionally brutal.
But do I remember a single phrase from Clive James’s columns, or Jonathan Miller’s tv series? Nope. On the other hand, could I quote screeds of lyrics from songs that first came out in 1979 – some of which I might have only heard at the time, and rarely since? That to me is the power of music.
It’s been an odd process looking back 40 years, and not necessarily that healthy. In middle age, it’s way too easy to look backward more than forward. History, as someone said once, is just one damn thing after another, and while everyone needs to understand how they got to where they are, it’s even more important to understand what it is you’re going to do now, and why.
That’s not to say I won’t be mining my past for the occasional blog entry – there’s one on my cricket playing career, for example, in the works – but right at this point, my focus is on the future, not least because, as 2019 comes to a close, I find myself at a strange time of life. There are big changes ahead next year, new experiences to be had, chances to be taken. One thing’s for sure: there’ll be music involved.
So enjoy the dwindling days of 2019, however you may celebrate them (or, given various world events, celebrate seeing the back to them) and buckle up!