The fall of 1979 can best be summed up in one word: “eh.” Disco ruled the charts, but a New Wave was breaking. I was a newly minted ninth-grader and having a blast – primarily in cartooning, a fun elective where we made silly Super 8 movies – but also in most everything else. I got good grades, had good friends, and had good times.
In the wider world, however, things weren’t quite as upbeat. Unemployment averaged 5.8 percent, the lowest it had been since 1974, but as the year wore on that number inched higher. The bigger concern: inflation, which rose from 9.3 percent in January to 13.3 percent in December.
As recounted in “The Great Inflation,” a Federal Reserve historical overview, the reasons for the spiraling inflation were plenty, including the Fed’s own policies, President Nixon’s decision to opt out of the Bretton Woods system (aka the gold standard), and the oil shocks of 1973 and 1978-79. This March 1979 news report from WEWS in Cleveland does a great job of explaining the ripple effect that OPEC’s recent decision to raise the price of oil would have:
Now, factor in oil-related events beyond OPEC – like the Iranian revolution, which decreased overall oil production by about seven percent, and old-fashioned hoarding, which was also in play, and the result was scenes like the ones captured by the MacNeil-Lehrer Report in June 1979:
Beyond the economy, this year in American history is notable for the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident that March; President Carter being attacked by a “killer” rabbit in April; McDonald’s introducing the Happy Meal in June; Steve Dahl’s “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park that July; Michael Jackson releasing Off the Wall in August; and, on Sept. 23rd, an anti-nuclear protest in New York City drawing an estimated 200,000 people.
Of course, as a 14-year-old boy in suburban Philly this September day, a fine Saturday with highs in the mid-70s, I was at once aware and unaware of much of that. My family watched ABC’s World News Tonight most nights, and read the newspapers – granted, in my case, that meant scanning the headlines before diving into the Sports and Entertainment sections, but I knew what was what. Kind of.
I likely spent part of the day playing ball in the street with friends, or at the park doing the same. A radio may or may not have been blaring, and if one was that meant WIFI-92, the Top 40 station I wrote about in this remembrance of Donna Summer, was providing the soundtrack to the fun.
Movies in the theaters that month included Amityville Horror, More American Graffiti and Monty Python’s Life of Brian; and, over the next few months, included 10, The Rose, 1941 and The Jerk. Of those, I only saw More American Graffiti and 1941 in the theaters, though I read the Amityville Horror book. But here’s one memory tied to one of the films I didn’t see, 10: Not long after its release, a girl came to school with her hair braided in cornrows exactly like Bo Derek’s. Now, cornrow braids work for some folks – Alicia Keys springs to mind. Others? Not so much – and this girl definitely fell into that camp. Everyone looked. Everyone laughed (though hopefully not to her face). And she arrived at school the next day with her locks returned to their natural curls.
And, with that, here’s today’s Top 10: September 29, 1979 (via Weekly Top 40)…
1) The Knack – “My Sharona.” The debut single from the new-wave Knack knocked just about everyone for a loop – most of all, I’m sure, the band itself – when it landed atop the Billboard charts for six weeks in a row, with this week being its last; and it went on to be the the year’s best-selling 45. It’s an undeniably catchy tune, and one that won over many young music fans such as myself – small surprise since the Knack’s Doug Fieger later said it was written from a 14-year-old boy’s POV. But Capitol’s accompanying promotional campaign, which conjured the Beatles, ultimately caused a mean-spirited backlash (“Knuke the Knack,” anyone?) that soon doomed the band to joke status. Which is a shame because, as I said, this song is a delight – and the followup single, “Good Girls Don’t,” was pretty darn good, too.
2) Robert John – “Sad Eyes.” The No. 2 song, which would inch up a notch to rule the Billboard charts the following week, is this easy-listening favorite.
3) Herb Alpert – “Rise.” No. 3 this week is this light disco instrumental from legendary trumpeter Herb Albert. It would take the top spot in four weeks’ time.
4) Michael Jackson – “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” What needs to be said about this, this week’s No. 4 single? That it’s disco? Yes? That it’s undeniably catchy? To quote my wife, “it’s a great song.”
5) Earth, Wind & Fire – “After the Love Is Gone.” Rounding out the Top 5 is this EW&F classic, the group’s sixth Top 10 hit in six years.
Making their chart debuts this week…
6) Blondie – “Dreaming.” Clocking in at No. 79 is this, my all-time favorite Blondie song. I could play it on a loop – and, in fact, I’ve done just that. Here’s a factoid about it that I never knew: According to Blondie’s Chris Stein, the song’s a direct cop of Abba’s “Dancing Queen” (though I and American Songwriter don’t hear it).
7) The Records – “Starry Eyes.” And at No. 89 is this under-appreciated classic from the Records, a British power-pop band. It hails from their debut album, which was named Shades in Bed in the U.K. but morphed into a self-titled delight in the U.S., where the album also featured a much cooler cover. That’s the reason I bought it, actually.