'80s music didn't suck

>> Monday, February 22, 2010

The other day I was talking to my Dad on the phone, and he asked me what I thought about '80s music. What I told him, actually, was my general theory that we tend to remember the best music of a decade while putting the worst aside--shit sinks and cream floats--and you can find plenty of crap music in the '60s if you look for it, it's just that most people forget, say, how mediocre Herman's Hermits were.

But that's not quite true; I mean, first of all, not all the cream floats, or The Zombies wouldn't be so overlooked all the damn time except for basically two songs ("She's Not There" and "Time Of The Season") that aren't even their best cuts (though they both rock). Meanwhile, even though it's been thirty years since the '70s ended and the '80s began, both decades remain unfairly reviled. In the case of the '70s, it seems everybody thinks "disco" and not, say, Dark Side Of The Moon and Born To Run, not to mention punk. In the case of the '80s... well, let's face it, mainstream '80s radio sucked, plus a lot of then-new studio tools and tricks got abused to the point that even a lot of good '80s songs haven't aged well because of the way they mis-recorded the damn drums or went overboard with a cheesy digital synth.

It's a shame, though, because there was a helluva lot of good music, and I'm not just saying that because I grew up in the '80s. There are records I'd put toe-to-toe against any album of any other era--and, conveniently enough, I have a blog and can do it publicly. So this one's for my Dad, and for the sake of filling a post, and (yes, I know I've said this before) who knows, maybe it could become a feature. Here, in no particular order and reflecting my biases, ten albums released 1980-1989 that you should know or better yet own:

David Bowie, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980): Some things are clichés because they're true. Saying Scary Monsters is David Bowie's best album is a cliché, but, y'know, it's true. Bowie left Berlin practically rabid: assaulting what was becoming postpunk in a way that basically laid the floorplans for what postpunk and New Wave would turn into, mad to kill whatever was left of his early-'70s Starman persona, crazy to turn Robert Fripp's jittery guitars loose. Bowie was a man so eager to take names and kick ass he took and kicked his own ("Ashes To Ashes") between digs at fellow musicians ("Teenage Wildlife") and "the scene" ("Fashion"). And ever with that damn perfect musical sensibility that makes anybody who's ever tried to write a song simultaneously want to worship Bowie and pummel him into mud for even existing.

The only bad thing you can say about Scary Monsters, actually, is that it doesn't sound quite as fresh anymore, but that's only because Bauhaus spent about six years copying the record and then so many people were copying Bauhaus; hey, I'm not knocking Bauhaus here, if there's a follow-up to this entry it's likely to include The Sky's Gone Out, I'm just saying--Scary Monsters was a perfect template for what a record could sound like.

Bruce Springsteen, The River (1980): The Boss came out of the '70s at a crossroads between his folksier incarnation as "The Next Dylan" and the Phil Spectorish rocker of Born To Run, depressed after a difficult legal situation with his original management that made it impossible for him to work for several years after Run had put him on the cover of Time, defiant and triumphant after returning with 1978's Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Most musicians would have struggled to choose a possible direction and finally picked one. Springsteen gave up and picked all of them.

The River is a sprawling, epic mess and that may be why there's a good case to be made it's Springsteen's masterpiece. It's all here--blustery anthems ("Two Hearts") and introspective descents into darkness ("Stolen Car"), defiant working-class roars ("Out In The Street") and bitter meditations ("The River"), moments of tenderness ("I Wanna Marry You") and fits of violence ("Point Blank"). Springsteen has recorded a lot of great records--this is the only one you actually have to own.

The Smiths, Meat Is Murder (1985): Happy Valentine's Day. If I'd been more with it last week, I might have noticed that this past Valentine's Day marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Smiths' best album--oh sure, The Queen Is Dead is made of awesome and I'll always have a soft spot for Strangeways, Here We Come, but neither of those records have "How Soon Is Now?", a song that's practically become an indie standard (it's possible people need to stop covering it for a while, in fact--except how can I blame them, I'd cover it myself if I was in a band) and could have been written and recorded yesterday. It's a cliché to say "Now?" is a perfect pop song, but some things are clichés because... well, you know.

It's not the only perfect cut on the album. "What She Said" seems a perfect retort/update to The Beatles' "She Said She Said" ("She said, 'I know what's it's like to be dead'" becoming a fey, "What she said: 'I smoke 'cos I'm hoping for an early death and I need to cling to something'"). "Barbarism Begins At Home" lets the bass do the heavy work. And then there's "The Headmaster Ritual"; the best rip on a brutal educational system ever penned in a nation where no songwriter has ever written a kind word about the educational system--Morrissey managing to leapfrog over the likes of John Lennon, Roger Waters, Roger Hodgson and Ray Davies with serious pokes in the eye. ("Same old suit since 1962"? That's just cold, man.)

Public Enemy, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988): PE didn't invent hip-hop, or even socially-conscious and political hip-hop. But I don't think anyone--particularly amongst us suburban white folks--can say that PE's arrival wasn't when shit got real. For much of the decade, rap and hip-hop tended to be seen as party music when it was taken seriously at all.

Millions was a technical masterpiece: there are few DJs out there who can match the taste and, I dunno, aggressiveness of Terminator X--I almost hate to use that word given PE's militant image in some quarters, but there's an angry exuberance in a track like "Bring The Noise" that won't be denied, you're either swept up in it or you're not, and if you're not, I frankly think there's something wrong with you. And I think Chuck D's flow is just as unstoppable, his cadences making lines like "They wanted me for their army or whatever / Picture me given' a damn I said never / Here is a land that never gave a damn / About a brother like me and myself / Because they never did" in the anti-military "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" viscerally work. Hell, even Flavor Flav's shtick works for the record, something that would wear out before much longer.

Hip-hop isn't to everyone's taste, nor are left-wing politics. But if you want to know if the genre is capable of being powerful and important, and whether it can say something as meaningful as any protest anthem by Joan Baez or Pete Seeger, this is the record to start with.

The Clash, Combat Rock (1982): Speaking of left-wing politics. Again with the clichés: it was said that The Clash were the only band that mattered, and again with the truth. I've gradually come to the conclusion that The Clash might well have been the second-best rock band ever, after The Beatles.

Combat Rock, the band's penultimate studio album and the last with the core, classic lineup is evidence of both propositions. This was an album, and a band, that embodied Dylan's credo that pop music ought to be about something, and a band that hit hard from the left with cuts like the bitter, jittery "Know Your Rights" ("This is a public service announcement--with guitars!") and the somberly anti-imperialist ballad "Straight To Hell." Which doesn't sound like it would be all that listenable, except that The Clash's other ethos was to try to capture the sound of the neighborhood streets they grew up in--a sea of radio melodies from a dozen genres pouring through open tenement windows, styles ranging from '50s British rock to raga from the East and reggae from the West. Not to mention that Rock's big radio hits were the cheeky "Rock The Casbah" and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go," a song that I suspect is impossible not to sing along to.

To be fair, it's not as strong a record as the band's '70s albums--but those would go in a different blog entry. I wrote, earlier, that there was only one Springsteen record you had to own; I don't think you have that luxury with The Clash, it's all of them or why are we even talking about rock'n'roll? You may, of course, beg to differ.



Michael Rawdon Monday, February 22, 2010 at 12:33:00 PM EST  

I do think 80s music was pretty crappy, in general. Worse than 60s, 70s or 90s music. It's perhaps unsurprising that your article doesn't change your mind since you cover a bunch of bands where my opinion runs from "don't care" (Springsteen) to "can't stand" (The Smiths). Neither punk or hip-hop have ever done much of anything for me. Bowie is very hit-or-miss, although his generally experimental approach was always likely to yield those results.

Most of the albums from the 80s in my library are artists from earlier decades soldiering on: Elton John, Jethro Tull, Pete Townshend, etc.

Of the artists who I think had their heyday in the 80s, I find the following in my library: Chris De Burgh, Rush, Marillion, Pallas, Men Without Hats, The Box, Van Halen. Of these, Marillion and Men Without Hats were the clear standouts of the decade. (But admittedly Van Halen never wowed me like it did some people.)

But by-and-large I think it was a pretty fallow decade for popular music.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Monday, February 22, 2010 at 1:49:00 PM EST  

Most of the 60s happened in the 70s, so what we call the good stuff of the 80s actually came out of the 70s. (grin)

Dr. Phil

Nathan Monday, February 22, 2010 at 2:33:00 PM EST  

"...Mrs. Brown, you've gaw a luvlie daw-ehhh"

I still tear up a little over that one, you bastard.

colegra = an over the counter remedy for allergies of the sphincter.

Eric Monday, February 22, 2010 at 3:07:00 PM EST  

By that logic, Dr. Phil, all the good nineties stuff came out of the '80s.

I'll grant, however, that albums in 1980 might be on a line there. But you have to be arbitrary somehow, and that's how I'm doing it: I could drop The River and Scary Monsters and add Blue Sky Mining, Violator and I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got on the other side, in 1990. (I'd especially love to add the Sinead--it's a wonderful record--but see, I'm trying to be consistently arbitrary.)

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