‘1978: The Year The UK Turned Day Glo’

In 1978, punk begat a dazzling array of sub-genres… and they’re all here!

If the punk movement was birthed in 1976, by 1978 it had fragmented and was reborn with vengeance as showcased in this new 3CD set released by Cherry Red as a sequel to their previously successful 1977: The Year Punk Broke collection. Covering three discs, four hours of music over an epic 78 tracks, this collection is the template of a dazzling array of sub-punk genres including new wave, punk poets, ska punk and the first foray into electronic music which eventually grew into the synthpop genre by innovative artists such as Midge Ure, Japan and Gary Numan.

The collection goes from scratching the surface of the genre with now popular artists like The Stranglers, The Cure, Stiff Little Fingers and The Boomtown Rats to the sheer rawness of the genre with unreleased tracks by the band that eventually became The Specials, then known as The Coventry Automatics, before DJ Pete Waterman took them to London.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Disc one is where the 28-track journey begins with Sham 69’s Borstal Breakout setting the tone for this frenetic experience. In contrast, with a different kind of tension is The Stranglers’ 5 Minutes. The Doll’s Don’t Tango on my Heart has got to be one of the most smile-inducing titles of the album but this was a lesser known track for a band who had their moment in the sun a year later with their Top 30 hit Desire Me.   

Tubeway Army was formed by Gary Numan when he was plain old Gary Webb, before he was musically lured away by the pull of synthesizers, and accompanied by best friend Paul Gardiner (later of Dramatis before he tragically died, too young) and Webb’s uncle Jess Lidyard.  The track included on this collection is Oh! Didn’t I Say? which is a fast-paced affair showcasing the genre’s guitars and drum combo to great effect.

The trademark sound of punk’s fast-paced guitars and prolific use of drums with a lyrical content of strong anti-establishment messages was the very core of the punk sensibility and stretched to all areas in the UK.  Northern Ireland had a lot to say socially and politically at the time, when they were deeply entrenched in The Troubles, and bands from that area are well represented here from Stiff Little Fingers to The Outcasts, Pretty Boy Floyd and the Gems; as well as Ireland’s The Boomtown Rats. Belfast-based Stiff Little Fingers, released many songs about their experiences of The Troubles and their album Inflammable Material reached Top 20 status, and are represented here with Alternative Ulster.

The legacy of overlooked artists such as Menace are represented here too, and they were once described as “the best punk band in England”. The collection isn’t without the quirky side of punk too with the unforgettable Jilted John and the irritatingly catchy “Gordon is a Moron” chant, often mistakenly given as the song title. The Freshies’ Beatlesque Moonmidsummer is by Chris Sievey aka Timperley’s most famous resident, Frank Sidebottom, and nicely followed by The Pleasers’ cover of The Who’s Mod anthem The Kids Are Alright.

Another worthy mention from the first disc in the collection is Japan’s first foray into music with the track Don’t Rain on My Parade originally sung by Barbra Streisand in the 1964 film Funny Girl.  Japan were billed as the UK’s answer to the New York Dolls and were dressed in a similar glam rock style. Lead singer David Sylvian later went on to say that this early punk incarnation of the band was one of his biggest regrets. “We were too young and too naive” he said, “we really shouldn’t have released Adolescent Sex”. He didn’t feel it was representative of what they were later to become and it truly wasn’t!  The band went on to produce ambient synth-led music with Sylvian’s glossy vocals leaning very much to art house tendencies and this was a more natural environment for them to enjoy their considerable success in.

One of my favourite tracks from the genre is very happily included on this disc, namely The Only Ones’ Another Girl Another Planet. The song is widely reported to be about heroin; however lead singer Peter Perrett denies that this is the case. Instead, he was inspired by a Yugoslavian girl who was ‘a complete space cadet’.

The last track of disc one is Alternative TV’s Why Don’t You Do Me Right? They were inspired by both The Ramones and the Velvet Underground and lead singer Mark Perry quickly established himself as a lead character of the punk movement with a re-invented, Anglicised version of The Mothers Of Invention’s 1967 song.

So, on to the middle disc which starts with the near-title track of the collection,The Day the World Turned Day Glo by X Ray Spex.  When she was Mari Elliott, she attend a Sex Pistols gig at Hastings Pier to celebrate her nineteenth birthday. By that time she’d already started writing lyrics. She advertised for “young punx who want to stick it together” and put together X Ray Spex, changing her name to Poly Styrene to reflect ‘the plastic consumerism’ and increasingly transient nature of society.  The song has a great melody and the unmistaken vocal of Poly.  A very danceable track which sets it aside from a standard punk offering and very much sets the standard for tracks on this disc.

Standout tracks on this middle disc are gems from Tom Robinson Band, and Patrik Fitzgerald whose song The Backstreet Boys is an early Bowie-esque influenced track, which starts with the spoken vocal “this song is about being beaten up in the street“.  In 1975 Fitzpatrick was unable to persuade Bowie’s former manager Ken Pitt to take him on.  Instead he became taken on by Small Wonder, a record shop in Walthamstow who were starting up their own label at the time. A perfect example of the ‘anyone can have a go’ element of punk which attracted so many to the genre.

Mid-way through this marathon listening session we come across the Rich Kids with Ghosts of Princes in Towers featuring Midge Ure on vocals and Glenn Matlock on guitars, and produced by former David Bowie sideman Mick Ronson.  This band had high hopes by their record company EMI, however their released songs mostly bombed which lead former Sex Pistols bandmate John Lydon to nickname them rather unkindly “The Shit Kids”.

Following on the The Rich Kids offering, we have Ultravox! (with !) featuring John Foxx on vocals before Ure came along.  The track chosen here is Slow Motion from their third album Systems of Romance, which has elements of Foxx’s trademark synthesizer action and was produced by legendary Kraftwerk producer, Conny Plank.  Not unsurprisingly, this is a standout track for me.

John Cooper Clarke was a performance poet before it became a populaist activity.  A regular at The Twisted Wheel in his native Manchester, here was can hear his witty rendition of Kung Fu International.  Another standout track or me is the immediately likeable Love is Blind by Nightshift with its melodic bass guitar riff.

The pace is picked up somewhat by the UK Subs’ Live in a Car which has frenetic guitars more relatable to the traditional punk ethos which carries us towards the final track, by Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, whose founder member CP Lee sadly passed away recently. Heads Down No Nonsense Mindless Boogie‘s bassline has elements of a Status Quo pastiche, albeit with a punky riff.  Messrs Francis and Parfitt were allegedly unamused, with this single still managed to reach the Top 50 in late 1978.

The last 25 tracks in this collection, on disc three, starts with John Lydon’s second band, Public Image Ltd, and their near-eponymous debut single Public Image. 

Ditching his Sex Pistols persona of Johnny Rotten, Lydon reverted to his birth name and put a band together with John Wardle (aka Jah Wobble) and ex-early Clash member Keith Levene.  Named after Muriel Spark’s 1968 novel The Public Image, this single reached the Top 10 in 1978.

One of the major record companies of the genre was Rough Trade, and Scritti Politti were an early signing for the label.  Inspired by seeing Sex Pistols perform live, Green Gartside formed his own band and named it after the writer and communist Antonio Gramski.  This track 28/8/78 features a Radio 4 broadcast of a riot which occurred at Notting Hill Carnival.  The song later received the stamp of approval from John Peel which assisted Gartside’s decision to approach Rough Trade.

Not far into the third disc we have the epic Johnny Thunders, with the legendary You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory and the full album version of the track featuredAfter he left the New York Dolls, Thunders relocated to London and hooked up with Malcolm McLaren with Thunder’s band The Heartbreakers, supporting the Sex Pistols 1976 Anarchy in the UK Tour.  After the band broke up Thunders remained in the UK and was supported by an array of artists of the genre including Chrissie Hynde, Peter Perrit, Phil Lynott, and the Pistol’s Steve Jones and Paul Cook.

Other standout tracks on disc three are The Monochrome Set’s Alphaville, who didn’t achieve a massive amount of success themselves but went on to be a significant influence on bands like The Smiths and Franz Ferdinand. Represented here by their track In The Crowd (arguably on the fringes of what you’d traditionally describe as ‘punk’), Mod rockers The Jam later transcended any genre-based labels to become one of the biggest and coolest bands of the 1980s.

Destination Venus by The Rezillos features Jo Callis, later famed for being in ‘80s legends Human League, but here under the name of Luke Warm.  This fun-packed track failed to crack the Top 40 despite TOTP appearances.  It’s led by twin vocals of Fay Fife and Eugene Reynolds taking a sabbatical from their studies to give the music industry a damn good try.

The mighty Cure feature on disc three with their track 10:15 Saturday Night with the unmistakable vocals of enigmatic lead singer Robert Smith who wrote the song at the age of 16 after ‘a particularly morose Saturday when he watched the beertap drip from his father’s homebrew kit’! This song gained label Fiction to sign them, who were equally impressed with the track Killing an Arab.  Forty years later The Cure are still going as strong as ever, and still producing innovative alternative music.

The final track of disc three is White Christmas by Slush as you’ve never heard it before, which somehow epitomises the underlying novelty, transient value of punk.

By 1979, the music industry was moving on apace with new acts like Gary Numan, Human League, The Pretenders and The Police hitting the top of the charts.  Whilst not described purely as ‘punk’, they surely found their roots in the genre which often helped them up onto the industry’s ladder and gave them a friendly shove upwards. Many of those artists went on to much greater things, but they couldn’t have done it without the punk movement which provided the ultimate sea change in the music industry, the  effects of which are still influential for young artists entering the industry today.

‘1978: The Year The UK Turned Day-Glo’ (CDTRED818) released by Cherry Red Records, August 28, 2020, RRP £17.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red.

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Ange Chan is a freelance writer, having produced two novels and six volumes of poetry.  She was also prolific in the anthology collection Me and the Starman, (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon) and is a lifelong lover of music, having first been published in the 1980s music press. As well as being a frequent contributor to the pop culture website We Are Cult, she is working on her long-standing third novel Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots.

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