A while back, a new acquaintance asked me what my favourite era of music was. Now, my musical tastes are pretty broad, but if pushed, I could choose an era that is special to me.
‘80’s, I guess,’ was my answer.
My acquaintance’s eyes widened. ‘You mean... like... Wham? And Spandau Ballet?’
It was one of those vomit-in-your-mouth moments that made me realise my perception of 80’s music is perhaps a little different from many people’s. Why would that be? After giving it some thought, I worked out that my idea of 80’s music actually begins in 1979, started to fizzle out in ‘83, and was pretty much dead, embalmed and entombed by ‘85.
Wham kind of epitomised everything wrong with pop music, for me. And the Stock, Aitken and Waterman thing, which took the seductive synthesizer explosion and turned into the musical equivalent of flash-porn still makes me shudder to this day.
It occurs to me now that to understand my idea of 80’s music, you really had to have been born in the sixties, and raised through the 70’s period of the Cold War. You had to be part of the Threads generation.
You had to know the official instructions for what to do in the event of a nuclear strike from the Commies (sit under a table, put your head between your legs, and kiss your arse goodbye, basically). You had to have the opinion that your parents didn’t have a clue when they thought the Beatles were the greatest thing to happen to pop music. You had to know what a Miners’ Strike was all about, but you probably just missed out on the Punk Rock movement by a few months (although you now have all the major Punk anthems on your playlist). You had to think David Bowie was the best thing ever at that time, not just now he’s gone; you owned Bowie albums on vinyl.
There are so many great examples of music that defined my generation from those late 70’s / early 80’s days, that it is impossible to be exhaustive in one simple little blog post. But there are a number of anthems I can point to that can illustrate what 80’s music – my music – was really all about.
All the great music of that time had its ideas rooted in the notion of impending nuclear Armageddon. That is a heck of a claim, I know, but if you lived through that Threads era, you will know that the threat of nuclear war was all-pervasive. No creative person could have failed to be affected by it.
As with most edgy music, Bowie was one of the first to bring it screaming into the open, helping disaffected youths struggling to find an identity in the 70’s.
The seminal album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars had a track titled Five Years. A song about coming to terms with the looming end of the world.
Scroll forward a few years, and you had Punk Rock. A cynical music industry product, to be sure, but one in which the anger and despair of many of the musicians was as genuine as that of the fans that pogoed and vomited their way through the gigs. It was, of course, inevitable that Punk would disappear up its own gaping needle wound as quickly as it spewed into existence. Sid and Nancy, the Punks that weren’t really Punks (or maybe... with a lower-case p) saw in the dragged-out last rites. What was left after Punk was a void for the young outsiders. If you weren’t there – if your idea of good music is One Direction, Bruno Mars, or Kanye West – you need to understand that pop-rock back then was inextricable from youth culture, rebellion, anger, creative expression and fashion. Punks supposedly didn’t give a crap, but look how much effort went into that spiked coloured hair, the safety pin earrings, and the tartan bondage trousers. After Punk’s implosion, what was left for the new wave of disaffected teenagers? Well, New Wave, actually.
A true, all-encompassing definition of New Wave might be hard to pin down; opinions differ. The particular niche of the maze I reflect on is post-Punk, synthesizer-driven anthemic pop-rock. It targeted kids like me – almost frozen into paranoia by the threat of nuclear war, confused by post-puberty sexual obsession, and desperate to create something that would leave an impression – and grabbed us by the throat. Key moments in the development of this musical genre still resonate with me so powerfully, that hearing the songs brings me out in gooseflesh...
1979: Are Friend’s Electric? (Tubeway Army / Gary Numan)
John Foxx (he of the original incarnation of Ultravox) and the likes of OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) had been playing with synth music for a while without ever massively appealing to the rebellious youth. What Gary Numan brought was a whole package that catapulted him to short-lived, yet strangely enduring stardom. Are Friends Electric? was a song that only a fool would call pop music. Too long for a traditional hit single, it was based around an insistent synth riff and the android-like vocals of Numan giving us a short story of loneliness and terror in a post-apocalyptic world policed by dangerous, inhuman machines. This song was a massive chart hit in the same year that Country & Western crooners Dr Hook gave us When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman, and Lena Martell hit the big time with One Day at a Time. Sweet Jesus!
Gary Numan looked and sounded like an android. An extremely cool, fascinating android. He sang about a world that my generation already inhabited in our nightmares. We were no longer alone. We were Numanoids.
1980: Enola Gay (OMD)
OMD finally hit it big with this song, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest songs of the era. Enola Gay doesn’t follow Numan’s format of painting a grim post-apocalyptic future, but rather looks back on the nuclear bombing of Japan in World war II. The hit single was released around the time that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allowed American nuclear missiles to be based in England. My generation felt we had moved one step closer to Armageddon. OMD had perfectly captured the mood.
1981: The Voice (Ultravox)
This single by Midge Ure’s revamped Ultravox really hit the stride when it came to the sweeping synth-rock anthems the band became renowned for. The lyrics are somewhat obscure, the music enthralling, but what really gives the song a place on this list is the video... or rather one of the videos, as, oddly, two were produced for it. The film we are concerned with is a mish-mash of scenes that appear to show soldiers and civilians being incinerated in a nuclear blast. A grim-faced newscaster tells the world. Meanwhile, a famous pianist’s music is seen as a force for peace, symbolised by the presence of white doves. Later, white robed people, perhaps some kind of priests, release more white doves. An overlay of text seems to indicate that things go wrong when people follow orders, or believe the media too much. It’s vague, it’s somewhat confused, but together its components hit a nerve.
1982: Mad World (Tears For Fears)
The synth rhythms of Mad World moved on a step from the likes of Numan and Ultravox. The sound was more organic, more personal, a move that reflected the evolution of New Wave music. The change was also apparent in the lyrics. No future dystopia here, or warnings of nuclear doom. Nevertheless, a song that contained the haunting lyric, the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had clearly had its roots in the darkness of ’79 and ’80. Famously, the band’s name was inspired by Primal Therapy, a form of psychotherapy intended to relieve neurosis caused by childhood trauma. That was something the Threads generation could relate to. But instead of painting a sweeping picture of global destruction, this song directed listeners to their own inner pain. Perhaps it was a small step in the inexorable drive toward the Me! Me! Me! culture of the later ‘80’s. Still, it captured enough of the feel of Armageddon to be featured in the brilliant movie Donnie Darko, which, of course, deals with a disaffected young outsider and the end of the world.
1983: Blue Monday (New Order)
New Order arose from the ashes of Joy Division, and were steeped in synthesizer sounds. Blue Monday a huge hit for this band whose terrible vocals somehow never came in for the media abuse suffered by Gary Numan. Blue Monday, for all its insistent synth and dark, dour lyrics, is unashamedly a dance track. It is probably the song that signalled the beginning of the end of post-Punk New Wave as pop-rock. A nightclub I used to attend had a second dance floor hidden away, where the songs were all Punk and New Wave. Pretty much no one danced, but we all looked incredibly cool. We drank, we smoked ordinary cigarettes, and we copped off. No one was dropping tablets in a place like that (maybe a bit of speed). Blue Monday was club music for the other type of club. For the post-Punks, it seemed like this type of music was the start of the downward slope... into ‘house’ music, and ‘raves’ whatever the hell they were. The 80’s – the 80’s that other people remember – had arrived.
Before the 80’s finally disappeared up its own arsehole however, there was one last throw of the dice, as synth-rock gave us the all-time great nuclear Armageddon anthem...
1984: Dancing With Tears in My eyes (Ultravox)
A stunning anthemic tour of the last moments before the Big One drops, and we all leave our shadows behind, in the way OMD’s Enola Gay lyric, it’s 8.15, and that’s the time that it’s always been envisioned. DWTiME was the last word in sweeping apocalyptic post-Punk synth-rock. An immortal anthem, it had the slowly-maturing kids of the Threads generation nodding their heads, and saying Yes, that’s our nightmare, right there.
Words © Darren R. Scothern, 2016.