In Defence of the '80s
IT is somewhat unfair the 1980s gets such a bad...
reputation. It is true; there are some horrendous aspects to the ‘80s: The fashion was hysterical whilst the ‘technology’ looks rather tragic through current eyes. There was a lot of naff-ness in the 1980s and I am happy to give the decade a kicking (in that respect). I was born in the ‘80s (in 1983) and entered the world surrounded by dodgy haircuts, huge computers- Amstrads and other such pathetic boxes- and some notable events. The Internet was on the cusp of creation while M*A*S*H viewed its final episode: One of the most-watched T.V. events of all time. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was released in cinemas: The 1980s wasn’t as awful and soulless as many portray. I guess it depends on what you look for from a decade. If you judge it solely on fashions, technologies and haircuts: The ‘80s can be judged to be a monumental joke. If you are a film buff, then you cannot really judge the 1980s to be a failure. The point of this feature was to leap to the defence of one aspect of the 1980s: The music that arrived at this time.
Having been born in a month where Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean- number one in the charts when I entered the world- sat alongside New Romantic artists like Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Culture Club. I will always be a devotee of the 1990s: The finest decade for music and an untouchable time for creativity and inspiration. From ‘Britpop’ to Grunge: The ‘90s was the zenith of music and is rightfully celebrated and heralded. I can appreciate fans of the ‘60s and ‘70s- where The Beatles and The Rolling Stones ruled (‘60s); bands like Led Zeppelin hit their peak (‘70s) - but I suppose it- deciding which decade is best- is a subjective thing. I have never really been bowled over by the 1960s: There were some legendary artists emerging- from Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix- but there were exceptions among a rather dismal period. The 1970s was a bit more consistent and prosperous: Still, there was too filler and trash music coming out. When people mention ‘80s music, there is that collective snigger: Everyone has images of Hair Metal and New Romantic bands: The ludicrous hair and nauseating songs come straight to the fore. It is true, there was some woeful artists stinking up music.
Heavy Metal enjoyed some success in the ‘70s and ‘90s- Judas Priest and Metallica found new lease in the 1990s whilst Black Sabbath was among the masters of ‘70s Metal- but rather stagnated in the 1980s. Tesla, Def Leppard and Poison mixed cheesy lyrics with banal riffs and God-awful power ballads. Black Sabbath was starting to decline: 1983’s Born Again marked the period of fallowness that was never rectified and recovered.
While Europe- and the vastly overrated The Final Countdown- Chris de Burgh and Starship were among the worst offenders of the ‘80s- hardly giving the decade a good showing- there was a lot of great music- nay, terrific music- to be discovered. With every decade, you are always going to find some rubbish and depressing crap. I think this decade has produced fewer wonderful moments/albums than the first half of the 1980s. The ‘90s had plenty of one-hit wonders- who were feeble and forgettable- and obnoxious Pop.
I view the 1990s with some rose-tinted spectacles- I grew up in the decade and had some very happy memories back then- and concede it wasn’t a flawless time for music. If I had to compile a list of my ‘Favourite Music Decades’ the 1980s would come third- behind the 1990s and the ‘00s. The ‘80s provided so much genius and wonder- that gets overlooked and mocked by many people- that we should never forget, My earliest music memories arrived in the 1980s: My first memory of music was hearing Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World; Michael Jackson’s Bad was my favourite album from the decade. Whilst I have mentioned some of the horror from the ‘80s- there is more to be found but I shall not dampen this piece- we cannot ignore what the decade gave to music. The 1980s was not a rubbish and horrible time for music: It produced some tremendous moments and paved the way for the glory of the 1990s. Let’s have a look at some of the best albums/bands from the time:
In spite of Heavy Metal suffering a recession, bands like Judas Priest were starting to turn into genuine legends. From 1980’s British Steel to 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance: Two albums that were packed with Metal onslaught and head-banging albums. Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All arrived in 1983 against a backdrop of Hair Metal acts like Mötley Crüe and Quiet Riot: The U.S. legends were not interested in crossover and remained true to their ethics. As such, Kill ‘Em All become of the most successful albums (of the band’s careers) and spawned a host of followers in its wake.
Following the death of AC/DC’s Bon Scott: The band released their finest statement- in my view at least- in the form of Back in Black. If the title track does not move you- you must be clinically dead- throw in stone-cold classics Shoot to Thrill and Hells Bells and you have a stunning album of near-perfection status.
Guns N' Roses were one of the defining bands of the 1980s and added Appetite for Destruction into the lexicon of ‘80s Metal albums. Whether you see it (Appetite for Destruction) as a Metal album- if it faultless in any genre- you cannot deny the explosions of Welcome to the Jungle and Paradise City. Guns N' Roses were at their peak at this time (1987) and never sounded as essential and together- squabble and conflicts would lead to the band calling it quits.
Metallica’s Master of Puppets arrived in 1986 and was perhaps the band’s defining moment. Endless touring had sharpened the band’s music and this inspiration and energy was funneled into the album. An eight-song record with endless scope, firepower and rawness: The band would never hit the heights displayed throughout Master of Puppets. Whatever your views on Hair Metal- a noxious throwback or something genuinely special- you cannot deny the brilliance of Heavy/Thrash Metal at the time. So many of today’s examples take their leads from the ‘80s’ best. Was it not for the likes of Appetite for Destruction, Master of Puppets and Back in Black: What would modern Rock/Alternative sound like? One thing is for sure: It would be a hell of a lot poorer.
If you look at one of the worst aspects of ‘80s music; the Pop genre might be at the precipice of your mind. We shall overlook the rampant slope of mind-numbing/stomach-emptying Pop stars of the time- lest I never sleep again- but how can you deny the likes of Michael Jackson and Prince. While today’s Pop/mainstream acts are variable at best- the last couple of years has been a little spotty- some world-beating albums arrived in the 1980s. Again; we can erase the memories of some terrible albums- the ‘80s had plenty of ropey Pop for sure- but cast your mind back at the great albums from the time.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller arrived in 1982, and is arguably, his greatest album ever. Gone was the boyishness of previous albums- Off the Wall for example- and in its place was a determined and gutsy young man. Tracks like Wanna Be Starting Somethin’ tied some of Jackson’s previous work- Off the Wall and The Jackson 5- with new purpose, maturity and edge. Thriller, Billie Jean and Beat It was an unbeatable trio that ruled the charts and marked Michael Jackson as a genuine star. If Off the Wall showed what Jackson was capable of: Thriller laid it bare and elevated him to the level of global megastar. Thriller has gone onto become the best-selling album of all time and untouchable blueprint for modern Pop music. Jackson would follow-up his success five years later with the release of Bad (released in August, 1987). Whilst not as hard-hitting as Thriller: Bad took the basic formula and stretched it in various directions. Smashes such as Leave Me Alone and Dirty Diana showed Jackson at his most visceral and stunning. Bad was an album of mood pieces, stunning scenarios and ear-catching hooks. A Dance/Pop album with eccentricities and huge character: To many people; (Bad) topped Thriller in terms of quality and scope. Even Bad’s ‘filler’ material- Speed Demon; Liberian Girl; Dirty Diana- was stronger than Thriller’s mis-hits. Enforced by a period of personal turmoil and heartache- Jackson was battling demons and challenges- Bad remains one of the 1980s’ defining statements of intent.
Prince was another artist hitting his peak during the ‘80s. Purple Rain was released in 1984 and went on to collects awards and accolades: Hardly surprising given the songs that appear on the album. Prince moved his Funk/R ‘n’ B jams into new territory. Embracing Dance, Metal and Rock: From the eerie When Doves Cry to the Rolling Stones-esque riffs of Let’s Go Crazy: Purple Rain remains one of music’s finest-ever albums. Prince did not lose his sensual, sexy and grinding ways: Tracks like Darling Nikki and Computer Blue oozed sweat, libidinous intent; robotic jam and lust. Prince had a successful string of albums during the 1980s: Sign o’ the Times almost matches Purple Rain for quality and genius. Perhaps the best album of 1987; Sign’ saw Prince at his most consistent and gripping. The one-man band tricks and multi-layered vocals were matched with stunning lyrics and memorable lines. Prince was a fearless artist unafraid to address social concerns- alongside empty relationships and sex. Tales of abandoned babies sat alongside AIDS with hopefulness and God-fearing pride. A messy album that showed enormous confidence and multi-genre clashes: If the 1980s would whimper and collapse soon after- fewer great albums were produced late in the decade- Prince ensured we would dance and jive the troubles away.
Aside from the aforementioned Pop legends: Plenty of other decade-defining albums were crafted. I shall not go into too much detail- will wrap the piece up soon enough- but there are some important albums that cannot be overlooked.
The Joshua Tree (from U2) remains one of the 1980s’ best Rock/Pop albums and remains an influence for many modern-day artists. Mixing the molten lava Rock of previous albums- with lush and spirituality- that blend of anger and conscientiousness resonated with critics and fans. U2’s best-selling album ever: It is often voted as one of music’s most celebrated records in addition.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was an urgent statement from one of Hip-Hop’s leading lights. Public Enemy delivered a sensational cocktail of political anger and violent sonics. Compressed beats, genius rhymes- Chuck D on inspired form- and wondrous sampling went into an album that remains essential and landmark. In addition to many subsequent bands sampling Public Enemy: The band’s fearless vocal layering and social awareness was revolutionary in 1987.
Club Classics Vol. One united African music with Chic and Hip-Hop. Back to Life is one of the 1980s’ most recognisable moments and is a song that always gets my singing along proudly. With the radio stations of the late-‘80s with unspectacular U.S. Dance artists: Along came British rivals Soul II Soul arrived and delivered a great send off to the 1980s- the album came out in 1989. A hugely influential album that fearlessly mixed African influence- Dance and Holdin’ On- with entrancing House music.
With Grunge looking towards the horizon- Nirvana would arrive in the late 1980s- nobody can ignore the influence of Pixies’ finest album, Doolittle. An album that single-handedly inspired Nirvana- and Nevermind’s quiet-loud dynamic particularly- it created waves back in 1989. A half-hour of sheer excitement, noise and dynamic chaos: Bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana pricked their ears up and took notes. From the disturbing imagery of Debaser- slicing eyeballs and all! - to the demented Tame: It showcased a tight and exhilarating band who could ably mix danger with tenderness. Beside barking tracks like Crackity Jones and Wave of Mutilation lay heart and common sense. Doolittle was an album that showcased tremendous musicianship: None rocked as hard and memorably as Pixies’ bass player extraordinaire, Kim Deal.
One of my favourite albums of all-time is Paul Simon’s Graceland. Arriving at a time of racial segregation- apartheid divided South Africa at this time- Simon made some very risky moves. By collaborating with South African musicians- especially Ladysmith Black Mambazo- he defied conventions and rules: He would face backlash and criticism from a lot of commentators at the time. In spite of the political strife and controversy of the time; Graceland has almost-literacy status. The characters, scenes and minuets are charming, nuanced and phenomenally original. What is most astonishing about the album is how undated it sounds. Even with the glossy production throughout, the album still sounds as essential and modern in 2016. Life-affirming tracks and insatiable choruses can be heard throughout Graceland, You Can Call Me Al and That Was Your Mother. Stunning harmonies throughout Homeless- Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s biggest contribution- effortless pair with underrated gems like Under African Skies and All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.
Say what you want about Madonna- most tabloid newspapers have over the years- but she was one of the most important artists of the 1980s. Sturdy, relatable and catchy- Madonna tuned in her best vocals to date- hits like Papa Don’t Preach and La Isla Bonita show Madonna at her songwriting peak. Fun and frivolity spar with maturity and focus. Few Pop albums of the time were as strong as True Blue. So many of today’s mainstream Pop artists take their lead from Madonna’s concoctions of fun-cum-melodic Pop.
Among the upbeat and celebratory music of the time were some somewhat depressive and dour acts. The Smiths can never be accused of being serotonin-blessed and joyous. Whether you see the Manchester bands as a too-sad-to-appeal band or genuine legends: Who can deny the brilliance and influence of The Queen Is Dead?! The dour and tragi-romantic were foundations with which the band built upon to spectacular effect. Humour, wit and desperation ran through There Is a Light That Never Goes Out: Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others is a funny- if somewhat unmemorable sign-off- whilst Frankly, Mr. Shankly is among The Smiths’ most quotable songs. The album’s title track is a rollicking and propulsive number: Cemetery Gates and I Know It’s Over are among a handful of reflective and haunting moments from the album. Songs were crafted and created during marathon writing sessions- during the summer of ’85, Marr and Morrissey sat down and penned some of the album’s best-loved songs- and you can hear the sweat and attention in every moment. An album that inspired the ‘Britpop’ movement: The Queen Is Dead is The Smiths’ most-celebrated album.
I have not even mentioned albums by R.E.M. and Tears for Fears: Murmur and Songs from the Big Chair are some of the 1980s’ biggest albums. I hope I have scratched the surface of 1980s music: Showing how many phenomenal moments were created. The albums/songs I have mentioned are only a brief representation of what the decade produced. I will bring in a few more songs before concluding- see below- to showcase what range and variation ‘80s music provided.
If you are skeptical about the 1980s and the music it birthed: I hope I have made a little headway in changing minds and consensus. I am never going to change my mind about music’s best decade: The 1990s will always be king to me; no other period of time gave us so many world-class albums and monumental bands. Without the stars and heroes of the 1980s, how many of the ‘90s best would ever have seen the light? With Madonna inspired a new wave of Pop acts; Pixies laying the foundations of Grunge: So many of the decade’s musicians enforced the sound of the ‘90s and inspired legions of new, up-coming artists. In the same way as the 1990s compelled ‘00s music- and still does today- the 1980s is essential and crucial. I have a lot of respect for those who adore ‘80s music: Too many people turn their noses up and have narrow memories of a wonderful decade.
Yes, the fashions and styles of the time were appalling and should be buried in the pits of Hell. The 1980s- society and technology in general- have left negative dents and ridicule and derision runs thick and fast. If you extract everything and leave the music alone you will find so much treasure and wonderment. Take time (today) and re-discover the Pop majesty of Prince and Michael Jackson; the boundary-pushing magic of Graceland: Along to the Metal legends like Metallica and AC/DC hit their stride. When you really thing about it you cannot deny: The music of the 1980s left…
ONE heck of a legacy.