It's 1979, Okay?

One evening, not long ago, my boyfriend fell into a DJ mood and decided to play only songs from 1980: The Jam's "That's Entertainment," the Xanadu soundtrack, Hall and Oates's "You Make My Dreams"--the range of classics was truly startling. As he went on, a friend and I began yelling out song titles; unfortunately, most of what came to us actually stemmed from 1979. No problem. He just leapt back a year. And that's when my rock-critic radar started to bleep. 'Cause the songs--the majority from debut albums--hardly sounded dated. It seemed like I'd just heard them on Radio K or KDWB. I'd stumbled onto what rock critics call a "confluence": 1979 was 1997's "totem" year, i.e., 1997 was the year musical ideas born in 1979 came to fruition. The assembled evidence below exemplifies the trend.

TWO-TONE TO REEL BIG FISH

(Or How the First Generation of White American Kids Learned to Skank)

When The Specials crossed the pond in 1979, the stuff appeared exotic. Not many people (especially those under 20) had heard the original, sexy ska out of mid-'60s Jamaica. Anyway, the new English ska was revved up, pissed off, and even more provocative to this listener because its cast was integrated. Except, of course, for the sweetly silly knobheads Madness, who turned out to be the '80s' most successful ska band. And its most influential, if this year's nutty "ska-core" crop is any indication.

MORE SONGS ABOUT CHOCOLATE AND BOYS

The Undertones' first album is pure-adrenaline teen clamor, with a piping brogue-ridden singer, lots of guitar, and shouted, anthemic choruses dissing male models. Bis's first album, This Is Teen-C Power, is pure-adrenaline teen clamor, with a piping brogue-ridden singer (or three), lots of guitar (plus organ), and shouted, anthemic choruses dissing pop stars. With a guitarist born after the Sex Pistols broke up, the latter may exhibit a wink more sardonic self-awareness than their predecessors (although the Undertones were hardly guileless innocents--see "Teenage Kicks"). Nevertheless, Bis at the Entry proved as incendiary, joyous, and pogo-friendly as the Undertones 18 years before. The only difference being my distance from the teen-Cs onstage.

DO THE CAMEL WALK

'Course, Bis also stole sonics and sensibility from those bee-hived Georgia partyhounds, the B-52's. And they weren't the only such thieves. Vicious new-wave lezzies the Need stripped the B-52's of foxy Farfisa and fag-friendly subtext, and cranked the volume on both; "Do the rock lobster" became "Rim me, Isabella." True to its bloodlines, The Need creams the competition for "party dance album of the year." Finally, I accuse the Spice Girls of significant style robbery: Their droll outfits--those slit skirts! that ruffled décolletage!--mock-exaggerate the '80s just as Kate and Cindy's getups did the '50s. (Spice lawyers tell me they'll plead insanity.)

PLEASURES STILL UNKNOWN

Sure, Radiohead's Thom Yorke sounds nothing like goth king Ian Curtis, formerly of Joy Division and late of the earth. And not by any stretch can OK Computer be described as a "dance record," a label Joy Division's 1979 debut occasionally merits. Yet, between the two singers' dismal visions and the two rock bands' casual incorporation of new technologies, there unwinds a shared story, or paradox: the shaken man in the machine; the man shaken by the machine, shaken by his acquiescence to the machine. Guess who wrote which line: 1) "This is my final fit/my final bellyache/with no alarms and no surprises." 2) "It was me, waiting for me, hoping for something more."

CAN'T STAND LOSING YOU

From his Police debut onward, Sting has seldom stopped sobbing about being left behind. Who would've thought he'd be carried back into the current by an American rapper who grew up hard in Mount Vernon, north of the Bronx? Who would've guessed that this man, grieving a friend, would transform "Every Breath You Take," Sting's most noxious, creepy song, into a fluid communal elegy? Who could've imagined Sting and Biggie Smalls redeemed in the same pop tune? And, as if that stunt weren't enough, Puffy Combs has just reconstructed "Roxanne," the 1979 single that introduced the King of Pain's whine to the world. Message to Daddy: If you love someone, set them free.

RETURN THE GIFT

In an interview last spring, Sleater-Kinney guitarist/singer Carrie Brownstein revealed that she'd been listening to a lot of Gang of Four (debut: 1979). Dig Me Out splashes in the trickle-down (see zigzagging guitar stutter and dense, overlapping vocals) without drowning in it. If anything, the Gang of Four's influence pushed the trio to greater musical complexity and self-confidence. "Dig me out!" wails Corin Tucker to her bandmates--out of the sinkhole of history. The coolest thing about Sleater-Kinney: They know how to use the past as a shovel. Would it be too much to request a cover of "Anthrax"?

 
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