Monday, October 6, 2014

Rocktober: Defending '80s Music - When Weird Was Cool

Herein, Billy attempts to discredit any music snoot who summarily dismisses the 1980s as weak in the realm of music in either quality, style or relevance. He probably doth protest too much. Eventually he will get to his real point, which is to declare his love for Kate Bush and The Art of Noise.

Do you remember being a little kid, and visiting your grandparents' house? And you thought how huge everything was? The rooms, the yard, the trees, everything was huge!

And then, 25 years later, you find yourself driving by the place where your grandparents lived, and you wonder what they did with the huge mansion and multi-acre lot, and you wonder why they replaced it with a tiny house on a quarter-acre.

And you think, That's impossible! And you say it in that Luke Skywalker You can't be my father! kind of way.

Music from the 1980s is my grandparents' house. At the time, I thought the music was huge and full of endless adventure and possibility. Teens in 2387 AD would discuss Rush and U2 with the same reverence with which we speak of Brahms.

And then, 25 years later, I find myself listening to all these people who insult '80s music, who state -- with a discomforting, disarming level of certitude -- that the '80s was probably the worst decade in modern music history. (Sometimes they'll concede that the current decade might end up worse.)

The inescapable undersized nature of my grandparents' house can be measured in square feet and acres. I can look upon it and know, even if it hurts, that it wasn't as endless and ginormous as my childish mind envisioned. But '80s music was endless. It was ginormous and huge and wild and free, just like Dee Snyder's hair! And the way '80s music looks or sounds in your rearview mirror is based on a sort of random selection from "The Jerk." If you pick the wrong songs or bands, the '80s look sorta pathetic, but if you pick another set, the '80s were the galactic space station of awesomeness.

Take, for example, weirdness.

The '80s was superbly comfortable with weirdness in music. Oddity was frequently incorporated into the fabric of pop and mainstream rock. While both the '60s and '70s were totally weirder, I believe both decades were so tripped out on drugs that they didn't realize how weird they were. They thought it was normal. By the '80s, however, the weirdness was clearly weird, and it was embraced unironically.

"She Blinded Me with Science" and "My Future's So Bright..." are just two extremely easy examples. Weird Al broke into our pop culture world in the '80s. Bauhaus and the entire goth and pseudo-goth movement went bonkers in the '80s. The fact that millions of young girls and women became sexually attracted -- (insanely so!) -- to men who spent more time on their hair and makeup than women was gag me with a spoon weird.

But amidst the embrace of weirdness was some stunning brilliance, and a lot of it. That Robert Smith, for all his theatrics and freaky facades, always thought of himself foremost as a pop artist said a lot about the '80s. "In My Room" by Yaz is wicked weird and all the more awesome for it.

Lately I sought out two albums that served as capstones to my love of weird artists: In No Sense? Nonsense! by The Art of Noise and Hounds of Love by Kate Bush. Neither are on Spotify. Neither are in Amazon's digital music collection. I had to buy In No Sense... in CD form through an Amazon-affiliated distributor, and Hounds was thankfully available on iTunes at reasonable cost.

Without Kate Bush, many of today's slightly off-beat pop goddesses (or goddess wanna-bes) wouldn't exist. Lorde, Goldfrapp, Bjork, Florence (of the Machine), KT Tunstall, St. Vincent, and yes, even Lady GaGa. I'm not even sure we'd have Katy Perry. What I can't say with certainty is how many male singers and rock acts were influenced, but I'm sure there were many.

Who knows if Art of Noise inspired anyone? All I know is theirs is the rare band name which precisely and entirely describes their musical mission. In No Sense is what happens when Blue Man Group worries more experimenting with sound than spectacle. Take every ounce of experimental or showman energy BMGroup spends on facade and appearance, and channel it back into the music, and you get AoN.

While In No Sense... was not the band's most popular release or the most beloved by their ardent fans, I cherished it because it was a modern take on classical arrangements. The album has recurring themes, with key sounds pushing up to the surface several times over the record, with key instruments playing important roles, then fading back or out, then reemerging. And in the hands of AoN, anything and everything is an instrument. Keys on a key ring, Freighter horns. People walking in halls. All noise, in the right hands, can become part of a moving symphony.

Now, the mainstream sounds increasingly assimilated, and everything else is fringe because no one listens to radio anymore, so there's no unified celebration of oddity in music.

Perhaps we have been blinded by science after all.


Bob said...

Point of clarification: is "80s music" music that pre-established bands/artists happened to record during that decade because they were already vital and continuing on because that is what musicians try to do? Or is "80s music" those artists who appeared in the 80s for the first time in our collective consciousness? Or both?

My point being that most of the top notch "80s" bands that one is tempted to mention are really musical pioneers of the 70s--talking Heads, Dire Straits, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Van Halen, Bowie, The Cars, The Clash, The Ramones and The Cure, among others. I'm tempted to argue, not very strongly, that much of the 80s sounds are weaker versions of these pioneers.

I have no doubt that I am one of the straw men in your argument, and deserve to be, but I've always maintained that there were great 80s bands who weren't in major MTV rotation, if in any rotation. So ultimately, we agree. If each of us can pick and choose, the 80s had some damn good stuff to offer.

troutking said...

Yeah, that's right. Huey had an album out in the 70s. Not to mention his band Clover who were Elvis Costello's studio band on My Aim is True.

Billy said...

@Bob - While I get your point, by your logic, Grunge is actually '80s rock that just happened to find its way to big labels in the early 1990s. I'm not sure that's how history will see it.

Further, I'm not sure 1970s Phil Collins would want to claim credit for 1980s Phil Collins.

Yes, I'm beating up a straw man in this one, but mostly I'm just celebrating how goofy weird or unusual, yet good, a lot of mainstream stuff was in the '80s.

Anonymous said...

i have to disagree with Billy, or agree with Bob. You are talking about corporate rock of the 80's. The DIY ethic of the 80's spawned some of the most innovative and ground breaking rock that is still reverberating today. That is the post punk era where bands were venturing outside of the traditional punk rock sound. You had the Paisley underground in LA (Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, Rain Parade). You had the San Francisco faction (Game Theory, Camper Van Beethoven). You had Seattle spawning (Wipers, Melvins, Screeming Trees, mudhoney, and eventually Nirvana. You had Athens/Atlanta/Realeigh giving up REM, Guadalcanal Diary, DB's, and Let's Active. You had New York spitting out Sonic Youth, the Swans, Pussy Galore, and Royal Trux. Not to mention bands like the Wire, Buzzcocks, Minutemen, The Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Replacements, Butthole Surfers, Pixies, the Smiths. Gang of 4, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, swell maps, violent femmes, mission of burma, the fall, the feelies, the flaming lips, echo and the bunnymen, 10,000 maniacs, Public Enemy, beastie boys, pere ubu, X, Janes Addiction, Red hot Chili peppers (yes they were good bank then) And, that's just the ones I can think of off the top of my head that paved the way for the 90's. I enjoyed all of these bands and a lot of them have records in the holy Rolling Stone top albums of all time.

Thomas Dillow said...

The Pixies! C'mon people!