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Unlucky for some: The 13 most underrated songs from 1978

@TomTaylorFO

In 1978, punk was in full bloom and brilliant records like Blondie’s Parallel Lines and Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food were there to prove it. Elsewhere, disco was gracing the dancefloor with Chic and everyone was strutting their stuff to the joy-giving grace of ‘September’ by Earth, Wind & Fire. As this feature has developed it becomes clearer with every instalment that the 1970s was the greatest decade in music and ‘78 proves that once more.

Elsewhere in the world, people were shaken by the seeming mass madness of the People’s Temple Jonestown suicides as cult leader Jim Jones told his 900+ followers now holed up in Guyana to commit suicide. A total of 909 fatalities were recorded. This swathe of trouble and other headlines like it seemed to drive art towards a more exultant and escapism realm. The results were magnificent.

In fact, so many great tunes came out that many masterpieces went unrecognised or under-appreciated. However, with Unlucky for Some, we look to redress that balance by shining a light on some underrated records. And boy, do we have a smashing collection for 1978, all homed in a stellar playlist at the bottom of the piece.

The 13 most underrated songs from 1978:

13. ‘I am the Fly’ – Wire

The masters of artistic brevity, Wire rattle through a smorgasbord of stimulus like a network of charged particles in a fashion fitting of their name. The cockney delivery to their vocal take on ‘I am the Fly’ might be reminiscent of punk, but that blunt term masks the massive welter of influence underneath.

They really were the flies in the ointment of the music industry at this time and their chanted incantation in this rhythmic ditty rams that message home with all the subtlety of a Netflix series ending holding out for a sequel. Rarely does something so avant-garde facade itself as something so immediately listenable and toe-tapping. Wire had truly great melodies, ‘I am the Fly’ should be recognised as one of the best of them.

12. ‘Crazy’ – Valerie Carter

Mention Valerie Carter’s name to anyone lucky enough to be living in Laurel Canyon when music burst out in brilliance in the Hollywood valley as though some creative manna from heaven was seeping out of the local faults, and most people will tell you how fantastic she was. She worked alongside greats like Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Linda Rondstadt. However, for reasons surely explainable only by a sheer saturation of talent, her solo work is pretty much unknown to the wider public. 

However, in recent times her soft soulful ways have been given a new lease of life with various re-releases. Taking to song like a bird to flight, her breezy, fluttering vocals are as effortless as they come. ‘Crazy’ is a classic ‘70s production reminiscent of an even more mellowed Minnie Riperton, Carter never breaks beyond a sultry croon and the night-drive music slowly follows suit. With only 18,000 monthly Spotify listeners out there, the world surely needs more of the balm of her wholesome prettiness right now. 

11. ‘Chase’ – Giorgio Moroder

In an era where inventiveness threatened to lap the racetrack rabbit and get ahead of itself, Giorgio Moroder kept the scientists of sound true with his rhythmic sensibilities. The Godfather of Disco was a postmodernist of the dancefloor, pioneering techniques alongside the evergreen of timeless rhythmic repetition. 

‘Chase’ is a fine example of the results of his wizardry. The one-word title is perfect. With the track, Moroder put the listener behind the wheel of some cruising car ala Ryan Gosling in Drive. The word ‘cool’ often doesn’t get the credit it deserves for churlish, nerdy reasons, but the Italian composer kicks up a plume of dust as he blazes a trail into the future, sporting an aviator-clad grin.  

10. ‘Night People’ – Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint is a difficult musician to explain, and that is part of the triumph of ‘Night People’. Incorporating R&B elements of his New Orleans foundation, alongside funk and disco flourishes, with a fair glug of honky-tonk, his cocktail of sound is a heady one. But boy does it go down easy on the rocks of nighttime. 

His wayfaring ways behind the scene as a producer of the likes of The Meters, Dr John and Labelle meant that throughout his career his own output was sporadic. Nevertheless, that also meant that when he stepped into the spotlight it was always singular and done with individualistic sincerity. 

9. ‘Accidentally like a Martyr’- Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon’s third album Excitable Boy was a massive success thanks to the mammoth hit ‘Werewolves of London’ but hidden beyond the fun of the lead single was a slew of introspective songs that showed off the magnificent depth of his songwriting. With Jackson Browne co-producing and helping out on instruments, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie dropping in with rhythm section royalty and the likes of Karla Bonoff providing backing vocals, the record was always going to sound crisp. 

However, ‘Accidentally like a Martyr’ it is one of only two tracks on the record for which Zevon gets sole songwriting credits. This level of separatist sincerity is palpable on the track. The musicology proves he is surrounded by stellar talent but it is the story he tells that shines through the brightest. The lyrics allure through the racket like Humphrey Bogart on the corner of some crowded bar, resulting in an unfurling melody with plenty of braced potholes along its memory lane. 

8. ‘Shutout’ – The Walker Brothers

Scott Walker and his brothers knew how to capture an atmosphere (or rather ratmosphere) and they never did it by half. Taking inspiration from David Bowie’s Low and Heroes the Walker Brothers burst into some sort of dystopia with an adrenalised beat and Scott’s usual matador-like composed rattling of literary wordplay. 

With a feel that is almost reminiscent of the film The Warriors, which came out a year later, there is a playfulness to the song that is almost always underreported when it comes to the wry smile of Scott Walker. He was not unaware of his brash bravura, in fact, he was basically in a boyband in the early 1960s so popular tastes and pop sensibilities were not lost on him and they forever remain somewhere in the vast cacophony of his output. Night Flights might be a near-mystic album, but the driving force behind tracks like ‘Shutout’ is rollicking rhythm. 

7. ‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’ – Nick Lowe

‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’ is somewhat of an oddity. As Nick Lowe explains himself, “There’s one song of mine called ‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,’ which was a fairly big hit in Europe, and people ask me for that sometimes, and I just don’t do it. It’s a really good record, but there’s not actually any song there. It was a half-baked idea I had when I went to the studio, and the bass player and drummer sort of put a little sauce in it.”

Continuing: “But if I played it with just an acoustic guitar, the audience would probably give me a little clap in recognition, but by verse two, they’d be looking at their fingernails, waiting for the next one. There really isn’t anything to it.” As a master songwriter, the bare bones of the song’s structure does indeed stand out from his catalogue, but there is no doubt something about the cobbled flourishes that give it a unique punk-jazz feel.

6. ‘Video Life’ – Chris Spedding

In a fitting segue from Lowe’s oddity, there isn’t much to the structure of Chris Spedding’s little known belter either. The triumph of the song exists in the rarefied reaches of energy and atmosphere. It achieves the alchemical feat of somehow revelling in the realm of nostalgia. 

You can’t sit down and aim to write a track like ‘Video Life’ you have to catch the right whim of creative flow and hope that you can cling to its coattails as it mystically weaves a sense of shared memory into a melodious swirl of retrospective eudemonia. The famed Sex Pistols producer grasps this thistle of glossy-eyed youthfulness with two firm hands and doesn’t care to flinch.

5. ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ – Ian Dury & The Blockheads

‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ might have been written in 30 minutes in earnest by Chas Jankel, but it was a song that Ian Dury had been cogitating on for about three years. Reflecting on the abuse he faced owing to his disability, the brilliance of the song is that it shrugs off the slings and arrows of torment in style and together with Jankel, they found exultation beyond circumstance. 

With rose-tinted eyes, Dury turned a caustic tongue-lashing by an old lecturer who labelled him a lunatic owing to his polio into a wry triumph of defiant individualism as he delivers the line “It’s nice to be a lunatic,” in a style so cool that frozen cucumbers are in awe. The influence of the track still reverberates massively today, and it is high tide it is remembered as one of the finest from the era. 

4. ‘Readers Wives’ – John Cooper Clarke

In John Cooper Clarke’s poetry, nothing is commonplace. A platitude is about as placeable – to put it in his own unique terms – as a scientific term for the back of the knees or Chinese cheese. His love poems mention leccy meters and if he ever penned a leccy meter poem it would no doubt mention love.

What exactly is a punk poet and is it reductive to call him one? Firstly, yes, he is, and secondly absolute not. He is a ‘punk’ poet for one very good reason—he exhibits the artistic tenet of individualism like no other, leaving the sonnets in song to Leonard Cohen, as Cohen has got the market covered anyway. But with an eye for the main chance, Cooper Clarke wonders who is writing songs about cheap cottage-industry porn mags? Well, I can give you one name: Dr John Cooper Clarke. And I can’t guarantee that it’s the best song about cheap cottage-industry porn mags, but I’d place a bet that’s in the top one. Just check out that beauteous piano, it’s up there with the chesticles of Crissy from Chester (March 1976 edition)!

3. ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ – Tom Waits

When it comes to his 1978 record Blue Valentine, Waits’ stripped-back tales seem to slur and stagger their way through the speaker, as beer breath wheezes from the laboured piano keys like the sound from a drunken accordion. It is a credit to Bones Howe’s minimal production that the songs seem to be recorded a million miles away from a studio despite the crisp audio. Of all these dive bar anthems, ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ is one of the best songs Waits has ever written. And that makes it one of the greatest songs of all time, period.

In the song, Waits narrates a first-person letter from a prostitute to an ex. She writes of how she has fallen pregnant, cleaned herself up and is safe in a loving relationship. Then slowly details of how she still misses Charlie and thinks of him every time she drives by a gas station because of all the grease that slicked back his hair, reveal that all is not as it meets the eye. This funny unspooling story, the dogeared delivery that lends it an air of dogged realism, and the beautiful melody that makes books seem disgustingly silent, whisks up a work of art that you could drop a bomb into and never hear it hit the bottom.

2. ‘High on a Rocky Ledge’ – Moondog

Some songs can be described as hymnal, but ‘High on a Rocky Ledge’ is quite simply a hymn—albeit Moondog disavowed any traditional faiths when he was blinded as a boy when a bomb that he found in a field went off in his face, so there is no knowing who exactly it is a hymn for. Nevertheless, the same revered spiritualism soars throughout. However, what makes it all the more touching is the lack of dogma and solemnity, it is as spiritual as music gets (just about) but it is brimming with a sense of boundless life. 

50 years ago, if you walked up New York’s Sixth Avenue, between 52nd and 55th Street, then the chances are, you would be greeted by the peculiar sight of a Viking simply standing on a box, holding a spear. Most of New York’s busy denizens simply absorbed this oddity as one of the city’s most eccentric vagrants and went on their way — completely unaware that this blind Norseman was quite possibly the greatest composer of the 20th century. Moondog was a true original, a hero and revered numen to boot, this song is his humble opus.

1. ‘Blue Crystal Fire’ – Robbie Basho

Speaking of spiritual songs, Robbie Basho’s ‘Blue Crystal Fire’ is so beautiful and reverent that I almost thought it was far too reductive to place it on a list, of all things. However, I ultimately concluded that if it brings the song to more people who need to hear it then my own consternation about sharing it in this way is pointless. I wouldn’t mention this personal fretting if it wasn’t an indicative measure of the song itself. 

You might not like the song, it’s not for everyone, but I do believe that you will remember the first time you heard it. I also believe that you won’t have heard anything quite like it. And lastly, I can guarantee that some of you will fall into its snare as though you have been waiting to hear it all of your life. And that is just about the highest praise you can give a piece of music. This is someone reaching for the ether with absolute integrity and the song he casts down from that lofty height is an outstretched hand to his own exultant space, that is art in the truest sense.

Lesser known than his friend and contemporary John Fahey, Basho is an American primitive folk guitar hero who died tragically in 1986 at the age of 45. In that time, his music tapped into something that makes American primitive seem less like a genre label and more like a channelled soul. With a voice that harks back through eternities in a howling wolf-like fashion, the swelling brilliance of his sheer guitar mastery conjures up more than a man and his guitar should be able to contain, it’s as though he could stop his fingers and shut his mouth and the song would go on playing. I would apologise for it not being on Spotify for the sake of the playlist below but it almost seems fitting.

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