Monday, April 2, 2012

Late 70s Malaise Rock

Ever since I finally broke down and bought a turntable a few years back, I have been delving deeply into the music of the 1970s.  Don't get me wrong, I'd always loved disco, funk, punk, classic rock and the like.   However, I had neglected the poppier regions of the musical landscape, perhaps out of an over-developed sense of musical snobbery masking itself as refinement.  Of the many sub-genres I've found lurking in the grooves of wax from the polyester decade, none interests me more than something I call "malaise rock."  The term, of course, alludes to president Jimmy Carter's famous speech in 1979, where he responded to the energy crisis by giving America a sermonizing speech on the need for a kind of political spiritual renewal.  Even though he never used the term "malaise" in the speech, that term stuck not only as the embodiment of Carter's presidency, but of America in the late 1970s more generally.

I have vague memories of this time of high inflation, scarce gas, and international tension.  While the hostage crisis in Iran did not register with me, I have a very vivid recollection of sitting in my parents' car while they physically pushed it to the gas station a couple of blocks away so as to avoid using gas to get there.  I had no way of understanding why they were doing that, or the financial struggles my parents did a fine job of hiding from me.  

The pop music of this era reflected a nation literally and figuratively running out of gas.  Written mostly by Baby Boomers, it also spoke to a sense that the hopes and dreams of the sixties had died for good.  I normally have little use for Jackson Browne, but "Running on Empty" eulogizes the loss of a generation's dreams rather well.

More literally, The Kinks' "Gallon of Gas" from 1979 commented on rising gas prices, fitting with the theme of economic decline voiced by the album Low Budget that it came from.

On my old blog I wrote a whole essay about this song, whose dark themes are somewhat hidden by the lush production and famous saxophone riff. It's a song about those nights after days of pursuing a dream that isn't coming true, living in a place you can't stand and getting drunk to forget about it all. Let's just say that my time in Texas attached me to this song in a way that others might find a little hokey for a piece of seventies AM radio pop. The sense of exhaustion in this song mirror's Browne's metaphor of "running on empty."


You may look askance at me for adding this disco party classic to a list of malaise music, but hear me out. I've always thought this song was meant to be a little ironic. It came out in 1979, during the middle of bad economic times, evidenced by the "leave your cares behind." The theme seems to be: "it's all going to shit, so you might as well party until the whole thing goes up in flames." The catchy riff has a robotic feel to it, as if having a good time has been drained of emotion to become an exercise in pure escapism.

Speaking of late-1970s decadence, no group exemplified that era's escape into empty pleasures than Fleetwood Mac. (The sub-genre of 70s California Cocaine Rock will most likely be the subject of a future post.) During the sixties, drugs held out the possibility of liberating the mind and expanding consciousness; now they were just a means to the end of getting loaded. No single album captures the feeling exhaustion brought on by overindulgence better than Fleetwood Mac's epic 1979 double album Tusk.  To me, "That's All For Everyone" sounds like the dizzy, drug-addled stumbling of someone about to pass out.  Other songs, especially Stevie Nicks tunes like "Angel" and "Storms" rue over lost love and missed opportunities.  These songs sound like drinking to forget distilled into the grooves of a record.

And sure, many folks wanted to forget the seventies as America passed into its neo-liberal redwhitenblue Reaganite capitalist wet dream in the 80s.  But guess what, the bill for thirty years of neo-Gilded Age economics has come due, and malaise is again the order of the day.  Too bad our current Top 40 offers little of the commiseration provided over the airwaves back in the late seventies.

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