The year of the socially mobile popstar

Lee Elliot Major asks could number ones reflect generational trends in social mobility

“We don’t need no education,” proclaimed Pink Floyd’s Number One single Another Brick in the Wall in December 1979. Ironically, they were one of the few privately schooled bands among the best selling musical acts that year. Most musicians had come from humble beginnings to reach the heady heights of prime spot in the official charts. 1979 was the year of the upwardly mobile pop star.

Sting, Gary Numan, Trevor Horn (of the Buggles), and Ian Dury were all working class lads attending state schools. Between them, they amassed six chart topping songs. Like many from 79, they remain enduring classics. The melodic post punk tunes, Message in A Bottle and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick; that pop masterpiece, Video Killed The Radio Star; and the song that heralded the emerging era of British electronica, Are Friend’s Electric: all are favourites on modern-day i-tunes playlists.

And this was not just a British phenomenon. Blondie, fronted by an adored female singer, once an adopted child, charted two Number Ones. Deborah Harry had lived the American dream. So too, the Bee Gees – whose dance floor classic Tragedy, was one of several disco delights in 79, including the Village People’s unforgettable Y.M.C.A and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

Quite simply, 1979 was the finest year for Number Ones in Britain. But why?

Here’s my theory: in 1979, the raw creative talents born during the golden generation of upward mobility peaked to produce great music during modern Britain’s darkest depression.

The problem of low social mobility was catapulted into British public debate by a Sutton Trust study in 2005. It concluded that the chances of climbing the social ladder, particularly from the lowly rungs, had declined over recent generations. The home you were born into (rather than individual talent) mattered more for future success for those born in 1970 than it did for those born in 1958. We were becoming a less fluid society. Ever since the study, politicians have been climbing over themselves to find ways of making Britain more mobile again.

Could the fortunes for musicians have echoed these broader generational trends? Most of those born in 1958 and the preceding years who topped the charts in 1979 had climbed the social ladder. At the same time, their musical expression culminated during one of the worst periods of modern British history: there was high inflation and employment, and economic failure. In bad times, they say, the best of art shines its light.

The gap between the rich and poor in Britain widened from 1979 onwards, sowing the seeds for lower social mobility for future generations. The tragic outcome of low mobility is a smaller pool of emerging talent from poorer backgrounds who get fewer chances to fulfil their potential.

How did this downward spiral of opportunity hit the generation born around 1970 in terms of musical success? Looking at the Number Ones 21 years later, in 1991 reveals one of the worst years by any measure. Chesney Hawkes, Jason Donovan, and Hale and Pace (‘The Stonk’) topped the charts that year. There were sad re-releases by Queen and the Clash. It was such a poor period that Bryan Adam’s ballad Everything I Do stayed Number One for 16 weeks (still a record).

In fact there were few British artists featuring at all, let alone those who had risen from lowly upbringings. In just over a decade the sublime highs of 1979 had turned into the embarrassing lows of 1991.

Which leaves just one question: will we ever see another 1979? The Sutton Trust has produced a mountain of statistics showing that low mobility remains a problem for children growing up now. But today’s charts reveal a mixed story. Women with working class credentials such as Adele and the late Amy Winehouse have been hugely successful – and are among a host of musicians from just one state school, the BRIT performing arts school. And yet a recent survey by the Word magazine suggested that the majority of pop musicians are now privately educated, citing the likes of Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, and Lily Allen.

So perhaps Immobility hasn’t killed the working class star. But the upwardly mobile popstar will never dominate the nation’s soundtrack as they did a generation ago. We will probably never hear the likes of 79 again.