Play That Song Again: Homage to 1978 and its music

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“My Big Fat 1978 Playlist — a top five selection”

With all due apologies to Charles Dickens and the year of our Lord 1775, 1978 was truly the best of times and worst of times.

A gallon of gas is 63 cents.

George Mosconi and Harvey Milk are murdered in nearby San Francisco.

Sweden is the first country to ban aerosol sprays, in concern for the ozone layer.

Anita Bryant continues her anti-gay campaign from Dade County, Florida.  I swear off the orange juice she endorses on TV.

Al Unser wins the Indy 500.

California’s Proposition 13 destroys my school’s sports and music programs.

Ford begins recalling Pintos, after certain models are found to explode into a fireball if hit from behind.  (I just Googled “1978 Ford Pinto gas tank explosion” and it’s there!  Grainy test footage from the National Safety Board.  Can you imagine if camera phones and YouTube existed back then?  The Ford Pinto would cease to exist in ONE DAY.)

Anwar El Sadat and Menachem Begin sign the Camp David Accords.  I clearly remember the news coverage on this — actual peace in the Middle East.  God bless Jimmy Carter.

Coming back from a 14-game deficit, the Evil Empire New York Yankees win the American League, beating my beloved Boston Red Sox on a home run over Fenway Park’s Green Monster.  I sit on the couch and watch in disbelief.  The man responsible?  Bucky Dent — a weak-hitting shortstop, now and forever known around Boston as “Bucky F-ing Dent.”

Prime-time TV includes “Happy Days,” “The Muppets,” and “The Rockford Files.”  (Are you kidding me?  I still want a gold Pontiac Firebird Espirit and a corduroy suit jacket.  Jim Rockford was the man.)

As I play back the film of 1978 in my mind, running through all these public and private memories, as always, is music. Great music. Terrible music. It was, quite clearly, the best of musical times and the worst of musical times.

I was a sophomore in a Bay Area high school, successful in athletics, but painfully, cripplingly shy and self-conscious. My main concerns were football, driving my parents’ station wagon, and dreaming of my neighbor Diana Murphy in a tight sweater.

There was plenty of new, interesting music filtering into the mainstream in 1978, mostly from England and New York City. Elvis Costello and Graham Parker brought some real soul to that new thing called punk rock. Devo was releasing angular, jagged songs that actually got played on the radio. The Cars had an edgy, poppy first album. Talking Heads did a spooky retake on the classic Al Green/Teenie Hodges song “Take Me ToThe River.”  And sometimes, late at night, KYA FM 93.3 would even play Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.”  (I really feel sorry for my parents in retrospect… I mean, what kind of teenage kid walks around the house singing that chorus? ” Hit me with your rhythm stick/ Hit me gently, hit me quick/ Hit me! / Hit me!”  Even today, it feels good to sing that. Try it: “Hit me!”)

There seemed to be a lot of songs about night in 1978. “Hollywood Nights.”  “Because the Night” (a classic!)  “Sharing the Night Together.” Even “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees.

And on that topic, if you want bubble-gum music, or disco teetering on its last roller skates, 1978 is where you want to go.  The aforementioned Bee Gees were everywhere, and as you read this, I know you are doing the John Travolta “Stayin’ Alive” dance move.  It’s OK.  We all do that.  “Take A Chance On Me” by ABBA.  “Disco Inferno” by the Trammps. “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste Of Honey. “Your Love Is Like Oxygen” by Sweet.  And we mustn’t leave out “Copacabana” by the omnipresent Barry Manilow.

As always, (as explained in my “High Fidelity” post a few months ago) I spend my time compiling Top Five lists.  Today is no different.

Here are my All-Time, Top Five Albums from 1978:

Number five: “Running On Empty”

Jackson Browne’s ode to musicians, support staff, and life on the road.  There’s a certain poignancy and sense of time passing in these songs:

In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own
I don’t know when that road turned onto the road I’m on…

Interesting how a man in his 20s (Jackson) is singing to a kid in his teens (me) and it’s all about sadness and loss. The lyrics still move me deeply.

‘Cause when that morning sun comes beating down
You’re going to wake up in your town
But we’ll be scheduled to appear
A thousand miles away from here.

Number four: “Some Girls”  

Just when the late 70s were going to render the Rolling Stones extinct, the boys found the perfect mix of punk, disco, cocaine, and spandex to release maybe their best record ever. Radio hits: “Miss You.” “Shattered.”  My favorites: the twang-fest country of “Far Away Eyes” and the brilliant remake of Smokey Robinson’s “Just My Imagination.”  And has there ever been a more “Keef” song by Keith Richards than “Before They Make Me Run”?

 Booze and pills and powders
Well, you can choose your medicine…

Number three:  “Live at Budokan”

Where did Cheap Trick come from?  One day, nothing, the next, these great songs all over the radio, dripping pop hooks and accompanied by screaming Japanese fans.  My California high school PE class had a swimming unit every spring, which meant a bunch of feathered-hair rowdy teens getting on the yellow school bus heading down to the city pool every day for two weeks. I had PE at the end of the day that year, so it was always warm, and I remember our bus driver playing “I Want You To Want Me” over the loudspeakers on the drive back to campus. Carefree afternoon air blew in through the open bus windows, and, hopefully, the bus would go slow so the cassette would reach the song “Surrender” and we could all sing along to every teenager’s favorite lines:

Mommy’s all right
Daddy’s all right
They just seem a little weird…

Number two: “The Last Waltz”

All the arguing, bad feelings, and personal tragedy that later befell members of The Band was still in the future. In 1978, we just had this glorious farewell concert and the roll call of amazing 1960s and 70s guest stars: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond and Joni Mitchell.  Better yet was Rick Danko’s heartbreaking, always-seemed-to-be-singing-in-a-minor-key voice on “It Makes No Difference.”   Folk, blues, soul, gutbucket garage rock — these guys could do it all; melt your heart with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or make you dance like the funky white person you are to “Up On Cripple Creek.”

And now, the number one, all-time, top five album from 1978: “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”

Still one of my all-time favorites from Bruce Springsteen, and one that doesn’t sound as dated as some of the other selections mentioned here.  Upbeat and danceable at one moment, serious as a heart attack the next. Bruce’s greatest gift as a singer and a songwriter is this: He’s not kidding.  He means what he says.

The dogs on Main Street howl, ‘cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land.

And if Cheap Trick was perfect for the PE bus on a sunny day, there was no better album to listen to lying in bed late at night with the lights off, looking out my window to the empty streetlights on Carlisle Way:

Well daddy worked his whole life
For nothing but the pain
Now he walks these empty rooms
Looking for something to blame
You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames
Adam raised a Cain.


That was 35 years ago. There’s still good and bad news… the Middle East, school funding cuts, assassinations, narrow-minded creeps pushing anti-gay legislation. The Red Sox have won the World Series. Twice.

We’ve come so far, yet somehow we haven’t really changed anything.

I teach high school sophomores and they don’t know it, but I remember exactly what they’re going through.

And every once in a while, on a warm drive home, I roll the windows down in my truck, all the way, just like the yellow school bus coming home after PE class. I play a song from 1978.  I play it loud, and it’s good. I sing along.

Erik Christensen teaches at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and dropped an open can of soda on the new carpet when Bucket Dent hit that home run. 

Erik Christensen Band plays at the Oak Harbor Tavern Friday, Sept. 27, and at Front Street Grill in Coupeville Wednesday, Oct. 9.

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