I know, I know… people's musical loves and hates are profound and personal, but a few comments in musical diaries last week got me all riled up, defending music from that "detested decade." Sure, someone has got to pay for all the therapy needed to remove Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz," Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" and/or McClaren's "Buffalo Gals" from the eternal tape loop in their heads, but there was some great stuff too.
I've always identified with Rob Fleming, Nick Hornby's malcontent anti-hero who had well-defined, rigid and highly-judgmental attitudes towards music. Here is my Rob-Fleming-style "more than top-5" list of bands from the 80s that don't suck. I think my highly-refined and specifically-defined collection of music-I-like ran its course from age 13 to about 25, when graduate school shifted the focus of my identity from music to other things. But for a few years there, peaking in my college radio show on WOZQ (1983-84) when I laid down the LAW in music to my underserving peers, my fingers were on the PULSE and I knew WHAT WAS WHAT. It took Rob till his 30s to figure out what a snob he was.
Journey below the notational flourish if your connection won't balk at embedded video aplenty and you don't mind my long-winded Rob Fleming-ishness.
A lot of great 80s music came from musicians and bands that got their start (and sometimes found their end) in the mid-to-late 1970s. So let's start there. Under the heading "Stuff I Like."
The Talking Heads
"Talking Heads 77" might be amongst the best albums ever, and you are correct: Not 80s Music! But "Once in a Lifetime" was released in 1981, and to my mind represents the apex of the combined genius of David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison. It is the distillation of art rock, new wave, and what became world music a few years later. "Stop Making Sense" is a kick-ass concert film, perhaps the best of the genre.
My favorite album of theirs, "London Calling" (their third), squeaks into the 80s with its January 80 release in the US. So while the Clash can't be considered purely an 80s band, this album launched them beyond their roots as simply a punk band and it's considered amongst the best albums of the 80s (if you're making a list about US releases). "Sandinista" was released in December 1980, another pioneer of so-called "world music" and amazingly ambitious if somewhat unfocused. "Combat Rock" (1982) is more uneven and I didn't like it as much as the others at the time, but to my mind it's stood up well. That's why I'm linking to my favorite song from that album.
Another favorite of mine from the late 1970s. I remember washing the dishes one night after dinner and listening to KROQ play "My Aim is True" in its entirety: a great service back in the 70s when most stations played one single from an album, if that. It blew me away. A short time after that night, my jaw dropped while watching Elvis Costello stop the Attractions mid-"Less Than Zero" and launch into "Radio Radio" live on SNL. Of course, Elvis Costello is still doing solid work some 30 years later. "Get Happy!!" is his first album of the 80s; my favorites on that album would be "Secondary Modern" and "New Amsterdam." "Imperial Bedroom" came out in 1982, and was highly acclaimed. I myself prefer the edginess of his earlier albums with the Attractions. Nonetheless, his 80s work is versatile and accomplished, whether it's to my taste or not. I'll leave you with "Pills and Soap," since anything that attacks Thatcherism is fine by me.
"Argybarby" was their third album (1980), with significant airplay in the US with "Pulling Mussels (from the shell)," and followed by "East Side Story" in 1981 (produced by Elvis Costello, with vocals on "Black Coffee in Bed"). Squeeze always tells a story: most of these earlier ones about young(ish) love and whatnot, in a quintessentially British way. Sweet, erudite, self-deprecating, scathing. There's some great stuff on "East Side Story." There are other more boppy Squeeze tunes, but I've always been partial to the fairly artsy-fartsy "F-Hole." Beware pop songs with a symphony orchestra! Plus added Cockney Rhyming Slang! "Peculiar barnet" indeed! So here it is.
And just because I don't like "Pulling Mussels (from the shell), here's my favorite from "Argybarby" (warning: harpsichord ahead)
I fell in love with The Pretenders in high school the moment I heard their first single, "Stop Your Sobbing," in 1979 (produced by the marvelous Nick Lowe). I didn't realize it was a cover of an old Kinks song at the time, particularly since the Kinks album containing that song was greeted with decidedly mixed reviews back in 1964, when I was 2 years old.
So, moving on to the 1980s: their first hit, "Brass in Pocket," charted, so to speak, in 1980. Incomprehensible lyrics but wonderful song. Their second album is as good as their first; quirky and rough-edged and versatile. Contrast "Bad Boys Get Spanked" with another Kinks cover "I Go to Sleep." Maybe my favorite Pretenders song is "Back on the Chain Gang" from 1982. Here's the video. Chrissy Hynde is pregnant with Ray Davies' daughter.
Joy Division/New Order/pre-Goth
Yeah, so Ian Curtis was dead shortly after 1980 dawned, but "Love Will Tear Us Apart," released after his death, was Joy Division's first chart hit. New Order re-released it in 1983. Joy Division had a massive and far-ranging impact on alternative music in the 80s. New Order had a massive and far-ranging impact on techno/dance music. New Order is pure 1980s music.
Here's a great Joy Division track (1979, mea culpa):
And New Order's masterpiece:
Another band from the North of England (Sheffield, not Manchester like Joy Division/New Order) just because: Clock DVA. Not particularly well known, no big hits. But this song really captures a particular musical moment in 1981. Really dark.
Another "just because" from 1980, this time from Wales. Kurt Cobain said that "Colossal Youth" by Young Marble Giants was one of the five most influential records he had ever heard. Peter Buck from REM was also a big fan. For your listening pleasure: "Salad Days."
Time for some "pure 80's" music.
This band formed in 1980. How can anyone claim that 80s music sucks and somehow ignore the massive influence of Michael Stipe and the long career of REM? I'm not sure if the notion of a "college radio" band is confluent with the 80s, but I know that REM featured heavily on my college radio show. Not sure much more needs to be said. Their stature is well known, and by the late 80s they were pretty mainstream. No need to embed a video. But you can listen to one of my favorites, Rockville.
Ditto above for U2. 1987's "Joshua Tree," produced by Brian Eno, was their best-selling album and ranked as one of the best 100 albums of all time. No need to embed. Y'all know U2.
The Violent Femmes
This band formed in 1980 as well, and also featured heavily on my playlists. Like REM, they were alt and cult in the early 80s, with a sound completely different from the alt/cult music happening in the UK: edgy, folky, country punk fusion. Crazy stuff and their first album was like nothing I'd heard before. They never got mainstream, though. Dig the xylophone solo (1983):
Pure 80s. Pure genius. At the time I was blown away by the obsessive longing and deep sadness as well as cynicism in the Smiths' songs, oddly and wonderfully matched with lilting, quintessentially English melodies. "Big Mouth Strikes Again" captures what I mean by that perfectly. Morrissey made for a charming and obnoxious front man: floppy and foppish and narcissistic and self-loathing. I hate when my favorite songs are debased as TV themes: this particular song broke my heart when it came out, and it might just be the best song ever written, much better than any TV theme deserves.
They pretty much defined Goth throughout the 1980s. Robert Smith's signature sound and signature style are pretty synonymous with Goth style. It is poppy and dark and all kinds of interesting, edgier in their early days, but no matter what they do and who is in the band, it always sounds like The Cure. Here's one of their later hits.
That whole Ska/2 Tone/Rocksteady Phenom
The so-called "second wave" of Ska washed from the late 70s into the early 80s with bands like The Specials (77) and The English Beat (78). Those bands broke up and reformed in many successful incarnations during the early 80s, and their influence was significant. "Ghost Town" was a big radio and MTV hit for the Specials (1981). The English Beat's first album, "I Just Can't Stop It," came out in 1980. Every song on that one is a gem. Here's one that isn't played on the radio all that much:
Madness is another similar band, more poppy but with some great horns. "One Step Beyond" came out in 1979, but quite a few hits came from their second album in 1980, including "Baggy Trousers." Their later work is less ska, more pop, and "House of Fun," their first #1 hit, came out in 1982. Here's their lovely silliness encapsulated before they got tighter and poppier.
UB40 is more British reggae than ska, very popular and nominated as Best British Group in 1984. Eddie Grant is another "reggae" artist (he is from Guyana) who has had a long career, but made it pretty mainstream with his 1982 single "I Don't Wanna Dance" (I loved that when it came out). Most people know him for "Romancing the Stone." :-\
That whole World Music phenom
A lot of late 70s/early 80s bands were moving in a "world music" direction: Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, the Clash and more. Probably Paul Simon's "Graceland" album popularized world music more than the more alternative artists mentioned. It's a great album and got lots of mainstream play. The album won a grammy. Simon collaborated with African musicians on lots of the album's music, not just "borrowing" from the style. He kinda made Ladysmith Black Mambazo a household name. One of my favorites although probably not the biggest hit from the album (live):
Oddball 80s Stuff
Where would you categorize bands like Camper Van Beethoven and They Might Be Giants? The Dead Kennedys? Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds? Mojo Nixon? Important stuff.
What About Hip Hop?
I didn't listen to it then. I don't really listen to it now, but when I hear the good stuff I like it. Gangsta Rap does nothing for me. But much of it was influential. I love the Beastie Boys; I came to them in the 90s though; I didn't like it at the time. Someone else will need to write the hip hop diary.
Ditto Heavy Metal.
Okay, okay, now for the musicians most people associate with the 80s.
You made me do it.
Prince. (who is a fabulous guitarist! and great performer!)
Michael Jackson. (he reinvented himself as the King of Pop and he wasn't far wrong)
What did the 80s leave us with? For me, bands like the Pixies. The beginning of Nirvana. Yo La Tengo. Sinead O'Connor. Indie and grunge. Eclectisicm that would become Beck.
Here's what NME considers the 100 best songs of the 1980s.
Just for fun, here's a photo diary of the graceful aging of 80s music icons.