(I first parked these thoughts in the comments box at Freaky Trigger’s Popular, where you’ll find me hanging out on an increasingly regular basis. What follows is an amalgamated and slightly tidied-up version.)
In a way, that wonderful Barney Bubbles pic sleeve is the first clue: that the ground is fundamentally shifting, that certain key characteristics of chart pop are mutating, and that a whole new vista of as yet untapped possibilities are opening up. For just as we prepare to bid farewell to those cheerfully corny NUMMER EINS TIP-TOP SUPER-HIT IN GROSSBRITANNIEN! import sleeves at the top of each entry, so we prepare to welcome – for better and for worse – an altogether more visual, more design-led, more themed approach to the pop single.
Forget the false dawn of “Rat Trap”; for me, the success of “Rhythm Stick” was a sign that Our Side were indeed taking over. As such, it marked a clear staging post, heralding the true start of not only my all-time favourite year for pop, but also the start of a whole new Golden Age, both for pop in general (unquestionably matching the glories of 1964-67 and 1972-74), and for me personally. For from this point on, and for several years to come, I felt that that much of the best pop was capable of precisely representing me – my generation, my outlook, my emotions, my concerns – and that I was a fully-fledged member of its natural constituency.
Simultaneously with this glorious upswing in the charts – an upswing which had been heavily hinted at during 1978, and which was now starting to bear full fruit – a similarly major upswing started to take place in my personal life. Simply put, I began to get my shit together: gaining confidence, making friends, having adventures, “re-inventing” myself, as I dubbed it then and still view it now. 1979 was a year of fun, friendship, excitement and experimentation; of major milestones; of massive changes. I started the year as a nervous, fearful, virtually friendless, deeply immature 16-year old schoolboy; I ended it on the threshold of stepping out into the real world, beyond the cloistered confines of my Cambridge boarding school, making independent choices, earning a real wage, tearing up the past and beginning an unguesssable new chapter.
A month or so earlier, with “Rhythm Stick” still climbing the charts, I saw Ian and the Blockheads in North London (Shepherd’s Bush Empire, was it?), supported by Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, Humphrey Ocean & the Hardy Annuals, and a surrealist puppet show. Discounting various school bands, it was only my third gig – and coming after the disappointments of the first two (including being stuck behind a concrete pillar in the back corner of Earls Court for Bowie’s Stage tour, an experience which put me off arena gigs for the next decade), the Blockheads’ magnificent two and a half hour set came as a revelation. To this day, and even allowing for the novelty of the experience at the time, I have rarely heard any band play so wonderfully well together (drummer Charley Charles particularly standing out in my memory). And what excitement – again rarely matched since – to hear my favourite single in the charts being played while it was still actually in the charts!
It was partially the knowledge of Dury’s declining health that coaxed me into seeing him and the Blockheads a second time, towards the end of the 1990s – and what a show that was, with the irrepressible Norman Watt-Roy vying with Ian as the true star.
I must also get around to revisiting Dury’s 1979 Do It Yourself album. It didn’t contain any singles – which although admirable, failed to prolong its shelf life – and despite wonderful tracks such as “Sink My Boats”, there couldn’t help but be a sense of general anti-climax after the glories of New Boots. Undaunted, the band bounced back with “Reasons To Be Cheerful”: the first ever rap hit anywhere, and given Chaz Jankel’s musical connections, presumably made in the knowledge of the newly emergent genre…?
However, I’m still struggling to articulate what it is about “Hit Me” that affects me so much as a piece of music, rather than for what it represents in the wider context of chart pop. And I think it’s primarily to do with what I perceive as the almost dream-like quality of its opening, dominant piano/bass-led riff, coupled with the almost mythical travelogue of the verses. For me, the chorus is where “everybody else” is invited in for a chirpy, cheeky Cockney singalong, as if that was what the song was all about – but for me it’s almost a smokescreen, an entryist device which allows the rest of the track to exist. And it’s within the restlessly undulating contours of the rest of the track that I reside as a listener, shifting over periodically to admit the chorus’s house-guests.
Dream-like? Un-equipped to play vinyl in my school study, I had this on one side of a home-made C90, which I used to play over and over again as I drifted off to sleep, inventing videos that eventually turned into dreams. And so there’s something here which touches that half-asleep/half-awake state of consciousness, in a way that still cuts deep – allowing me to visualise the music almost as a physical space, which part of me still inhabits. (If that doesn’t sound too pretentious.)
Postscript: I had experienced a similar effect with Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” a few months earlier, albeit as a one-off moment. The first time I heard the track was on FM radio one morning, as I emerged from sleep into wakefulness, and so the sparse, haunting oddness of the arrangement – the syn-drums, the rising and falling string shimmers – first took root in my sub-consciousness as I dreamt. I woke up with the strangest sense of wonder at what I literally perceived as its other-worldly quality, and it’s a sense of wonder that I’ve never quite lost over the years.