Sunday, October 16, 2011

80's Music: An Alternate History

The Db's--"Love Is For Lovers" (mp3)

The key to U2's entire success as an international mega-band was the video, I think it's "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," where Bono is heaving from exertion, steam billowing from his mouth and nostrils, while he holds a flag at an outdoor concert. That's where he established himself as the young, virile, passionate, sexual leader of a fairly mundane band. It was the image, not the music. I'm not even a U2 fan, and that's still the first image I see when I think of them. And that, in a nutshell, was the 80's.

Mother of Jesus, the 80's sucked musically! I look back on those years with near loathing the farther I get from them. At the time, I suppose I got sucked into it, wowed like everyone else by MTV and music videos that sold the songs with something other than their aural qualities. But now, I see the 80's for what they were.

Trapped between two angels--the "Good Angel" of Punk and the Bad Angel of Disco, the decade ushered in what was probably the worst decade of musical crap since the 1950's. You know I'm right. I know that many of you hear the popular songs of those ten years and revel in the nostalgia of your childhoods because those were your songs. I acknowledge that; unfortunately, I am also old enough to have a more jaundiced perspective. The 80's were, for the most part, just plain shit.

Punk knocked established rock and roll off its game. And probably with good reason. By the time punk made its presence known in the late 70's, Zeppelin was done, the Who were done, the Stones were done. By the time the punk sensibility spread in the early 80's, the "serious" singer/songwriters like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, etc. couldn't figure out what they were supposed to say. Jackson was singing about "Lawyers In Love" and Neil was supporting Ronald Reagan. By then, the "progressive" bands had deteriorated into bloated silliness and spent the rest of the decade trying to adapt to the demand for shorter, poppier, upbeat songs with embarassing results. Genesis, replacing Peter Gabriel with Phil Collins, was the most successful, but Gabriel figured out commercial success, too.

Disco initiated a corruption that has plagued popular music for decades. The return of the notion that popular music was mainly for dancing led to a total sacrifice of the song in favor of the beat (a trend which has been revived this century) and the promulgation of dance music from the exclusive clubs of the late 70's to the masses merely spread the disease.

Established bands were left trying to navigate between the Scylla of punk and the Charybdis of disco. A few, like Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads and the Pretenders and even the Cars were still new enough and artistic enough that they could chart those waters, make their own ways to safety and success without losing too much integrity. But they were the exception, and by the end of the decade, even they were pretty much finished.

Yeah, the 80's were terrible, or at least the music that people listened to was terrible.

Luckily, two people rescued the 80's for me--Nikki Hasden and my friend Bush. Nikki was an un-hip looking Mom who had scored the music review gig at the Chattanooga Times where her husband worked as, I think, managing editor. Miraculously, in a small Southern city with no music scene, she blessed us with nearly impeccable taste and a great ear for what was going on that wasn't on the TV or the radio. It didn't take more than two or three of her "finds" before I began to trust her implicitly. She introduced me to the Db's, Chris Stamey, Dave Alvin and Steve Earle, among many others. She led friends of mine to equally engaging finds like Morphine and the Waterboys. Although she didn't like Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, she put them on the radar and we found our way to them anyway. I have stuck with Lloyd Cole ever since.

My friend Bush, who was in college during the heart of the 80's, tutored me differently. He turned me on to R.E.M. (after a lot of convincing) and just kept going from there to bands like Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., Jason and the Scorchers, Other Bright Colors, The Donor Party, Guadalcanal Diary, and all things Mitch Easter. His mantra was fairly simple: he wanted it to rock. Whenever I get distracted, even now, he sends me the reminder, in one way or another, that it needs to rock.

It is through the dual lenses of Mrs. Hasden and Bush that I usually view the 80's, and because of that, I view that decade far more positively that it has any right to deserve. At some point, you reach an age, especially with music, no doubt with many other things, where you get stuck in ruts or where you have to rely on least common denominators like MTV to point you toward what you don't know much about. I have been in that position many times since I started buying popular music in 1965. Thank God I had these two people to give me some guidance, and even more, some hope about the future of music.

I look back at those days even now, and I realize that those were watershed moments for me, that even as people my age and older have given up on popular music, content to listen to what they are already familiar with, I keep venturing forward to discovery, mostly because there were those two people who said, in effect, 'Don't give up. There's better stuff out there.'

There always is. Count on it.


Billy said...

OK dammit, I'll bite. While some of your observations are great, I also disagree with your overall slam of the decade.

Every decade has had bubblegum and bubblegum crap. That the '80s had lots of disposable, forgettable "Pass the Dutchie" shit isn't unique. Respectfully, your 70s decade wasn't exactly shit-free, and I ain't just talkin' Disco. (Debbie Boone? Bay City Rollers? Barry friggin' Manilow?!?)

The 80s launched the notion of "Alternative" into a new stratosphere, and I'll be eternally grateful for that, but there's plenty about the pop from the '80s that I enjoy and find "worthy." But that doesn't mean I don't love some good tasty meaningless pop, too, and the '80s had the good kind in spades compared to the '70s.

I'll always be grateful to Mrs. Hasden for, among other things, my cassette copy of Shake Your Money Maker, which you likely found detestable, but which I played so much the tape ripped.

By the way, I wouldn't recommend the Duran Duran book to you. You'd puke at least a few times.

cinderkeys said...

It's easier to compare decades that are safely in the past. Sure, there's bubblegum in every era, but if you can find more music that's worthwhile in one decade than another, that means something.

It's harder to compare music of the present to the past. We haven't yet filtered out all the crap that will never be played twenty years from now.

And yes, the vigilant people who say "Don't give up. There's better stuff out there" are worth their weight in gold for musicians who are making music right now.