The last year of the decade of the seventies has a lot of warm memories for me. I ended first grade and started second grade. We saw “Rocky II” in the drive-in and “The Muppet Movie” as a field trip during YWCA camp. The “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Fact of Life” both premiered. Both were favorites of mind for a long, long time.
I have a kid’s memory of lots of grown-up stuff, too. The so-called “Iran hostage crisis” began in November of that year. Aside from the images of blind-folded people on the news, the beginning of yellow ribbons on trees also stands out in my mind. I can remember thinking Tony Orlando wrote his song for this event, but also thinking how weird it was to write such a happy sounding song for something so sad. I also remember the release of “Apocalypse Now.” Growing up in a family and community that had a close connection to the Vietnam War, whenever the topic came up in film it was a thing.
Here are 5 songs from that year that are stuck in my memory and, I think, worth your time:
5. “Crusin'” (Smokey Robinson)
Motown legend Smokey Robinson is responsible for so much of the music that I love. As a performer, writer, and producer, he’s one of the forces behind what we call the “Motown sound.” I can’t say how musical culture viewed him by the late 70s. He was probably not quite yet solidified as a legend (I think that distinction, for music, sort of relied on baby boomers being a bit older) but he might have also seemed a bit like a “has been” to some. This song, released in summer of 1979, is really just about as fine as it gets. It’s his last masterpiece and makes a challenging cover song for lots of folks today, testament to what he did so well.
4. “We Are Family” (Sister Sledge)
Sister Sledge–a group of four sisters from Philadelphia who turned into a trio by the late 70s (there actual last name was Sledge)–might seem like a “one-hit wonder” for this 1979 hit. But the group has pretty much made a living from music for the better part of four decades, so that’s probably not a fair shake. This story of this song, however, is bigger than them. It’s really the product of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers, the masterminds behind Chic. It’s a classic sound of that era and one of those songs that has a staying power than not many can claim. I remember it kind of being everywhere, just one of those songs that yu link with a time and place. At some point I also remember the tune serving as the theme song for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
3. “Chuck E.’s in Love” (Rickie Lee Jones)
Here’s what I knew about this song when I was a kid–I kept hearing it again and again, and I liked it a lot. I can remember being in the car and hearing the intro. The play between the drum beat and the bass is really distinctive, almost like their playing with and against each other at the same time. I remember watching Rickie Lee Jones on TV, too, wearing the same beret she wore in this video. Later in life I would discover Tom Waits and learn that the two were an item at the time of this song. The song is such a collection of late 70s/early 80s sounds.
2. “Rock Lobster” (The B-52’s)
I wasn’t old enough in 1979 to know where to put this song. In my young adulthood, I learned that the song was first released in 1978 and became an underground hit before being re-recorded for the band’s 1979 album. I have a very specific memory of the song but don’t really know which version it relates to. As a six-year-old in 1978, though, I figure there’s no conceivable way to think it would have been the version described as “an underground hit.” I lived a very “above the ground” cultural existence. And so here it is, one of my 1979 musical keepsakes.
My memory of the song is of a summer day at a local water park when this song started playing over the loud speaker. I went to the bathroom and had to walk through an army of teenagers surrounding the space right in front of the facilities. They were dancing and smoking. There was something scary about the song to me, accentuated by the fact that they seemed to be in a trance. In my mind, the images of the memory of that moment are so 70s. I can still see their movements, their haircuts, the swimsuits. I can still feel a little bit of the fear when I hear this song, too.
1. “Bad Girls” (Donna Summer)
We had this album in 1979. I know it well, mostly in order and nearly in its entirety. Of course, if you own a vinyl record of Donna Summer’s chances are it’s this double album, her biggest seller. My sister was a bigger fan of this than me, but that was enough to make me a pretty big fan of it. This song remains one of my favorites of all of Summer’s work, probably second only to her hit from later this year, “On the Radio.” But I ave memories of being forced to dance with my sister to “Bad Girls.” Actually, more often than not, she would just do her own dance routines and need me as her audience. I was happy to oblige. The sound and theme are pure 70s disco, but it’s not as relentless as most disco of this year. Part of Summer’s musical appeal, really, is the way R&B standard sounds, rhythms, and vocals really serve as the foundation. That comes through here.