In my early years of discovering music in the 1970s, all I really listened to were the bands/artists my parents liked like The Seekers and Nana Mouskouri, and of course ABBA who were HUGE in Australia at the time.
But then somewhere around disco bursting onto the scene, all kinds of other music grabbed my attention, and even though I sometimes felt guilty about listening to it because Baptist guilt and all that – I wrestled for years until I left the church about how holy music and wasn’t, a stupid exercise which only served to torment me and make me miserable – I discovered I loved it.
I would spend hours listening to the radio in my room doing what all kids did then and taping the songs as they were broadcast with an accomplished use of the record and pause buttons – and how I hated stations forward or back announcing the songs! – and then listen to them obsessively. I gravitated most towards disco and quirky pop which might have been a clue I was fay or simply that I have a love, which endures to this day, of things that sit just off the mainstream.
Honestly at the time I don’t think the fact that I was different occurred to me: I just knew I loved music, loved certain types most of all and that listening to it made me happy and alive in a way that few things did, especially in an age when there were so many things trying to make me as miserable as possible.
These five songs are just a sample of the music that captivated me during the era and represent the sorts of songs that made life feel brighter, better and capable of being so much more than it seemed to be.
As moody pop goes, “Pop Muzik” by British act M (aka Robin Scott), which came out in 1979 – check the songs below and you’ll see what a fecund period this was for one-hit wonder songs that really made a massive impact – was in a class of its own. Lifted from his debut album New York • London • Paris • Munich (which in came from its highest profile single), “Pop Muzik” was result, says Scott, of a desire to write a song that “a fusion of various styles which somehow would summarise the last 25 years of pop music” (One-Hit Wonders at the BBC, 17 April 2015) and the reason the song emphasised why everyone was talking about pop music? Because in the era of disco, he said, everyone was all about pop, which was eminently true of a song that went to #1, had a captivating clip that was cool sophistication and edge, and which demanded repeat listens, especially by one young boy in country NSW who was discovering that perhaps he really liked pop a lot, especially of the idiosyncratic kind, and that M knew something that he was just finding out and that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
How could you not feel vivaciously alive when this song by French singer Patrick Hernandez came on the radio? Hitting the top of the Aussie charts in 1979, “Born to be Alive” was a slice of effervescently upbeat pop that came with an equally fun video clip and and which had the sort of ecstatic vibe that lifted me when the bullying was too much and life felt like a LOT. It was hard not to get weighed down but when this song let loose with its opening refrain, with the promise of bouncy pop goodness to come, something lifted in me and I felt like maybe things might not be so bad after all, if only for the three minutes of the single version which before the age of lots of disposable income and the internet was the only iteration I ever heard. As musical pick-me-ups, “Born to be Alive” is almost without equal, a song that lyrically celebrates the wonderfulness of being alive but also has the music to do justice and to amplify the lyrical intent.
Points to British new wave band Toto Coelo for coming up with a fantastically weird and inherently noticeable title but what really grabbed me about “I Eat Cannibals” was how quirkily offbeat it sounded. I have always love quirky stuff, and while I know well and truly own and embrace that about myself, I was only beginning to figure that out about myself, and honestly, I wasn’t thrilled at the time. Bullied at school, not quite fitting the Church crowd, I was always an outlier and I guess a part of me hoped I’d just be normal in my musical tastes whatever that means. My love of ABBA aside, which was mainstream at the time – in the later ’80s and ’90s less so pre their now-enduring revival – I was drawn to the weirdly clever song which actually tackles, so I’m told, the effect capitalism has on us. That would’ve got lost in the shuffle back then, and likely still is, but as quirky new wave pop goes that was happy to be a little different – it didn’t give the group a lengthy career but anyway – this was, and still, is, quite weirdly, oddly, thoughtfully, strangely perfect.
Released in 1979 at the height of my late ’70s discovery of Music That Wasn’t ABBA, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by British new wave band The Buggles was a very clever song that beautifully balanced melancholically reflective lyrics with an upbeat melody that was tinged with a regretful air of its own. It grabbed my attention not simply because it was everywhere – it hit #1 in Australia as well as in Italy, Japan, Swden and a number of key music territories – but because it touched that part of me that loves song with a real emotional edge. It sounded different to anything else out at the time and its musing on the way technology was impacting the creative arts was the start of a conversation we’re still having today, which means that while the title may have dated a little, the subject matter it address is still highly relevant. Bonus points for the song still sounding catchy as hell too.
When I first heard “Elaine” by ABBA when it was released in 1980 as the B-side to iconic single “The Winner Takes it All”, it sounded indescribably dark, dangerous and almost raunchy to a very sheltered Baptist pastor’s son (not so sheltered now but even so, the song still has an edge), not to mention threatening, desperate and sad, qualities that the Swedish foursome’s earlier songs didn’t so overly display (though they were there if you looked). But as ABBA moved on with their career, their albums grew progressively more musically sophisticated and lyrically mature, and while they didn’t completely lose the sunny upbeat feel of earlier material, many of their later songs did dwell in the darker, more nuanced areas of life and “Elaine” was, and remains, evocatively emblematic of that shift.