The 1980’s were interesting from a musical standpoint. The 80’s just left the glittery, blurry-eyed and afroed polyester cocaine-addled disco era behind, along with an impressive flareup of actual punk, as opposed to the punk poseurs of today that would no sooner hit someone over the head with a beer bottle than stick a needle in a vein. Not saying either of those things are worthwhile, but they were characteristic of the movement, which is now thoroughly sterilized for the mall and pop culture of later rebellious and angst-ridden youth. The folk and novelty music movement was appropriately put in its place as well and mostly sold on K-Tel records and 8-track tapes on the American-made television, which had yet to embrace MTV and cable box’s offerings, which began a noticeable decline in American culture in nearly every way. But that’s another post.
Which is largely what we get from musical history. If you hear music from the 1980s these days, it’s usually in a Wal-Mart or as a backdrop to some “retro” commercial and is one of a lot of crappy artifacts that somehow have persisted into the 2010’s and beyond. “Girls just want to have fun,” and that bubblegum crap sucked back then, and it still sucks. I don’t know who makes the decisions to keep those songs alive, but they must be a deaf associate of the devil himself. If you blindfoldedly threw a dart at a list of songs from the 80’s you’d likely hit better efforts. The world at large was celebrating Madonna, Bon Jovi, and hairspray, while I was sitting in a dark room in rural Virginia quietly listening to The Smiths and Jesus and Mary Chain.
I present here a Spotify playlist I’ve put together from the 1980’s that I feel represents a pretty unappealing but bubbly and poppy era much better. Better than the brown and rusty, dirty yellow 1970’s for sure, however. What persists in my mind from 1980’s pop culture, which I did my best to remove myself from in every way and did an excellent job of, was neon dayglo colors, jelly shoes, Wayfarers, raggedy girls fashions along with ultra-tight designer jeans, mesh shirts, acid washed denim and really gay and stupid men’s hairstyles. This of course was a time that calling your friends “gay” and “a retard” was a funny, largely innocent slight to them and not a reason for snowflakes to incite riots in the streets as it’s become today. Cultural shifts at work. The Meatmen wouldn’t even be able to record in a studio today, most likely.
What most people think of when they describe the 1980’s music scene is synth, electric drums, glam, and quick little pop hooks, with a visual that quickly sold. The 1980’s were the end of “ugly” bands, with the advent of MTV. If you weren’t TV-friendly and didn’t have ultra-strong musical chops, or really strong connections in the business, you could forget it. Every song had a video to accompany it, and the video sold the song. Marketing took a stranglehold on music in the 1980’s and hasn’t let go since. It’s how people today like Russell Simmons can make so much money selling awful “music.” He’s a great marketer. In my opinion, MTV ruined the interesting, if not exciting, direction music was heading in, despite the company abandoning the video music format that made it so popular. Many, many great artists were left in the dust. Luckily the internet has leveled the playing field once again.
A lot of these songs weren’t part of my library back then although I thought they were commercially catchy and appreciated them on some level. Mostly their B-sides and more obscure songs from the artists, maybe. What I preferred never made it onto the radio, and I didn’t have the resources to compile a comprehensive library of the better music available. Few did, and that doesn’t just mean money. Accessibility was a real problem in the 1980’s before the internet. We quickly forget what it was like to procure Grateful Dead tickets on the morning they went on sale over the phone, or a cassette tape that wasn’t in the Billboard top 10 if you lived in a small town. CD’s weren’t even mainstream at the time, until the late 80’s. A good CD player in the early 80’s would set you back $1000, which is like a billion dollars in today’s money. And no respectable artist would sell out to a point they had the option to release their songs on a compact disc back then anyway. That was for the Debbie Gibsons of the world. That, of course, changed quickly.
Frankie Says Relax
I didn’t listen to many of these songs back in the 1980’s as I did with say, The Smiths or Let’s Active, but they are at least some of the better songs from the 80’s, which should be curated and kept on life support by someone. The way I procured music is unlike any way children will ever have to again in history, which was to order vinyl albums from NYC or LA out of hand-typed underground magazines I got from basically head shops and subculture establishments in college towns and big cities and record them to tapes in my dorm room. I still have my JVC tape player, incredibly.
I didn’t receive any radio stations worth mentioning in boarding school which was in the middle of a huge farm, and at home, in SC we didn’t have any good radio, and we only had two places to buy tapes and albums in my hometown anyway. And they sold whatever was playing on the radio, which was typically pop garbage and heavy metal for stoned teenagers that drove custom vans. I ordered tapes via mail order from Britain and bootlegged tapes. I also managed to have roommates and friends in boarding school with awesome musical taste who I could record from and did often. I still have those tapes floating around somewhere, with the Dead Milkmen and T.S.O.L. well-represented.
The metal scene, which should be mentioned, had some standouts, depending on your definition of “heavy metal.” Back then I didn’t care for any of it, except maybe early Van Halen(Diver Down), AC/DC(Back in Black) and bands with guitar gods at the lead, which was a prelude to my guitar obsession which has since permeated my life. This was around the time I began learning to play the guitar seriously. (I’m still working on it.) But I recognized the virtuosity of Eddie Van Halen and appreciated the simple riffs of Angus Young. Johnny Marr’s guitar work wasn’t lost on me, either.
Led Zeppelin, Rush, the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton and a handful of other legendary bands were indeed awesome in their own right, and still are, but just didn’t appeal to my state of mind and demographic at the time, which is why I’m not talking about them much. But there was some good stuff here and there during the decade, and I did attend quite a few of their concerts during that time. The Rolling Stones, the Who and even Paul McCartney before becoming a knight put out some good work. And don’t forget Michael Jackson and the Quincy Jones and Motown empires. I’m coming mostly from an “alternative” background, however. And although I did own their albums, they weren’t played nearly like the bands mentioned here.
The journey of good, alternative music in the 1980’s went something like this:
College radio stations would play local bands that were on their way to becoming regionally and even nationally known and played at fraternity parties and campus parties that were regional. Even some well-to-do boarding schools landed some big names. My own high school had REM booked until the school feared it would draw undesirables from nearby Charlottesville/Univerity of Virginia and got another band at the last minute. Think The Replacements, Husker Du, Violent Femmes, B-52s, the White Animals, etc… College prep students would pick up on these groups and music from hanging out on colleges, as we were able to do with a great deal of relative independence, and have older siblings in college that were among the musically privvy. The prep school kids took that music home with them, and it filtered into local private schools, and from there into the “alternative” kids of public school several years later. I had almost graduated from high school in 1988 before the Violent Femmes or Psychedelic Furs hit my hometown’s alternative scene, for example, and that was mostly because of their songs appearing in John Hughes pop films, like Pretty in Pink.
We’ve finally reached a point in time that I fantasized about as an adolescent: when I can pull up any song I want at any time. That’s a luxury that only people from my generation and prior know exists. I recall well lying in bed as a teenager and imagining the future when something called YouTube and Spotify existed.
Also published on Medium.