FEATURE: A Maligned Musical Decade: Time to Stop Hating on the '80s




A Maligned Musical Decade



Time to Stop Hating on the '80s


EVERYONE has their favourite decade of music…



but you always get that argument against the 1980s – that it is completely naff and never produced anything good! I think the 1990s is the best time for music but, again, there are those who refuse to accept the brilliance of the time. I guess everyone is entitled to their tastes and preferences but there is this huge weight against the '80s that makes me a bit angry. I always hear people slag off the music based, I guess, on images like the one above. It is true there was a lot of tragic clothing and dodgy music but look at the classic albums from the decade and you have to wonder what the hell people are talking about. Inspired by a recent piece Pitchfork published regarding the best two-hundred albums of the 1980s; my eyes were watering at the sheer volume of genius that came through. Just look at their top-twenty and you cannot argue against the inclusions. From Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love (1985) to Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (1989); Madonna’s eponymous debut (1983) through to Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain (1984) – there is so much wonder and brilliance there. 1986 is a year that has been criticised for having too much computerised beats and a bit of an awful sound that did not produce much greatness.


 IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for Beastie Boys’ album, Paul’s Boutique

Aside from records like Graceland (Paul Simon) and The Queen Is Dead (The Smiths); there was not a huge force to write home about. That is okay because so much of the decade is represented in the 1980s’ list. I think about Madonna arriving on the scene and that unique, brilliant sound coming through. Some argue her peak was 1989’s Like a Prayer but you can make a stronger case for her debut. Prince has a productive decade that also saw Sign o’ the Times in 1987. He was in incredible form and showing he had no peers. Great Hip-Hop and Rap was emerging in the form of Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. On different pages in terms of their style and lyrics; Paul’s Boutique and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (respectively) are among the finest creations of the '80s. You marvel at the innovation emerging and listen to Erik B. & Rakim’s 1987 masterpiece, Paid in Full. Pitchfork, when assessing the album in their rundown, had this to say:

But formal innovations lose their shock over years; once you’ve been astonished by their novelty, you don’t stay astonished. What truly solidifies Paid In Full’s lofty place in history, and what makes it sound mysterious and untouchable three decades later, is the spartan form of cool it pioneered. Rakim cut a forbidding figure against his peers: He was a stone-faced virtuoso in a sea of party rappers, equal parts exacting and self-assured”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Eric B. & Rakim

The staggering array of Hip-Hop and Rap emerging from the 1980s was staggering to see. Pioneering and bold artists like Neneh Cherry, Kraftwerk and Pixies were ruling and it was a sensational time for Pop kings/queens. I have mentioned Kate Bush’s Hound of Love but she released the wonderful The Sensual World in 1989. Madonna was undergoing change and transformation through the 1980s. From her debut in 1983 to Like a Prayer in 1989; she established herself as the Queen of Pop and became a fashion icon in the process. They do not make stars like her anymore and, rather than conform to all the uncool stereotypes of the 1980s, she constructed her own looks and inspired legions of fans. Michael Jackson gave us Thriller in 1982 and Bad in 1987. I amused by this article that reacted to ‘scientific’ study that suggests the 1980s was the most homogenised and boring era for music:

The second landmark movement in 1983 came with the adoption of aggressive, synthesized percussion — think Phil Collins and his pulsating drum machine — and loud, guitar-heavy Arena rock with lots of chord changes, such as with Mötley Crüe, Van Halen, REO Speedwagon, Queen, Kiss and Alice Cooper. These rock bands were joined by new wave acts — like the Police and Cyndi Lauper — plus a surge of metronomic dance-pop heroes like Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys. (Michael Jackson’s Thriller dropped in late-1982) Meantime, classic country and folk lost popularity and wouldn’t return until the early aughts.


“…But these sounds and styles of the Reagan era flooded the music scene, pushing out genres like country and folk to the point that mid-to-late 1980s became most homogenous period in music over the last 50 years, based on the team’s computer analysis”.

Tommy Lee of Motley Crue performs live onstage in February 1986. The 1980s marked a period of low diversity in music, according to a new computer science study. Photo by Peter Still/Redferns

This theme doesn’t mean music from this era was bad, but rather it suggests “a small number of styles were very catchy and therefore dominated,” Pagel said. This catchiness may linger to this day and explain why themes from the 1980s have bounced back over the last decade”.

Maybe 1990s’ Pop and Rap scene were more vivid and populist but you cannot claim the decade lacked inventiveness, spark and imagination. I will end the piece by selecting tracks from the albums Pitchfork selected as the best of the 1980s – that shows what an array of brilliance there was! Rap, especially, was noted for its scene and culture during the 1980s:

As complicated as it was creative, as contradictory as it was all-conquering, the story of hip-hop's eventual aesthetic takeover starts in the '80s. From artists like Slick Rick to the Fresh Prince, Public Enemy to the 2Live Crew, N.W.A to BDP, Salt-N-Pepa to Queen Latifah, The Fat Boys to De La Soul—this is where rap's various ideologies and innovations begin spinning outwards, spreading geographically and, culturally. Early on, it wasn't an album genre; hip-hop was all about parties and park jams, preserved and propagated via bootleg cassette. Soon after it was about stars and singles, disco loops and breakbeats, drum machines, and ultimately, albums. The art of the hip-hop album was perfected by the close of this remarkable decade”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Bananarama

Whether you prefer an '80s record like Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (1980) or Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation (1988); plump for Joy Division’s Closer (1980) over Janet Jackson’s Control (1986); there was so much range and terrific stuff coming out. The 1980, of course did bring us Bros, Spandau Ballet; Bucks Fizz and Duran Duran. Some love the music of those artists - I am partial to classic Duran Duran – but there was that ‘look’ that gets in the way of the music. Look at the publicity photos and it tends to be the large hair, matching outfits and eye-catching looks. I agree the fashions and styles of some artists distorted the music but the likes of Tears for Fears, Eurythmics and Bananarama were making some incredible music – even if the fashion has dated somewhat. If you cast aside the worst of Pop music and a lot of the rough edges; I argue the 1980s was as strong and interesting as the 1960s and 1970s. Rock was less of a potent force during the decade and artists were more pansexual in terms of their compositions and themes. Everyone from Orange Juice to The Clash were bringing in Calypso, Funk and Synth-Pop and lacing it together wonderfully. There was so much more richness at the forefront compared to the 1970s. With a decline in genres like Rock and Punk, more female artists were coming to prominence.

I have mentioned Madonna and Kate Bush but we also had Suzanne Vega, k.d. lang and Sade releasing incredible music. It was a great time of hubris for female artists who were, for the first time in a long time, given a lot more attention and focus. I am not saying there was no sexism in the 1980s but female artists were flourishing and showing just how exceptional they were. Music journalism was booming and great independent labels were formed. Whilst Smash Hits and The Wire were looking at the new releases; Creation and 4AD were among the labels leading the charge against the big boys. Black artists like Prince, Salt-N-Pepa; Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and De La Soul were making waves and, alongside the rise of music television, it meant there was less homogenisation on the screen. The Tube and Top of the Pops gave artists of the day a stage on which to perform and MTV were playing the biggest and most spectacular videos of the time. Groundbreaking videos such as Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel), Thriller (Michael Jackson) and Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime pushed technology and techniques to the limit and it was a golden era for music T.V., journalism and progression. Maybe a bigger explosion came in the 1990s and, to me, it is a stronger decade but the 1980s was a wonderful time for music and culture. In many ways, I wish we could return to a time when there were those huge Pop artists challenging one another; music T.V. and journalism were fierce and huge shifts were occurring. I really love the '80s and think it gets a hard press. I think we should all take time out and appreciate all the amazing albums, artists and moments that reigned…

DURING a fantastic decade!