Hail, hail – what an age we live in!
Times move swiftly, and even the prescient find themselves perpetually blindsided by the scientific community’s brisk and thorough progress in proving what we already knew. It was already gospel truth, and now science has it double-underlined: music in the ‘80s was irredeemably shit.
This statement rings so indelibly true for those not tainted with the stain of living through that period that it seems unnecessary to prove; however it’s nice to get some scientific approval. Indeed, that was my first response to this latest tidbit, but after some customary deep reflection, I had to question whether the received wisdom really holds up.
Oh the ’80s, fondly remembered or wryly bemoaned it’s a decade that has polarised music fans. Recent studies have claimed 80s music is boring, but could science be wrong?
But first, what’s the consensus? If we leave aside the rose-tinted bleating of the MTV generation, who will stubbornly insist that Bananarama deserved to happen, it’s indisputable that society as a whole has recognised the ‘80s from a cultural perspective as a period of unparalleled mediocrity and commercial blandness.
And now this latest scientific research, which consisted of analysing the theoretical and technical aspects of songs from the Billboard Hot 100, has confirmed this assessment in concluding that the ‘80s was the least musically diverse period in the last fifty years.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this blandness is seen in the infamous ‘80s ‘Drum Sound‘, characterised by a snare drum treated with an enormous gated reverb effect, Phil Collins style. Combine this with the primitive digital tones of a small clutch of suddenly-semi-affordable drum machines, and you’ve got the makings of an ugly trend.
The monotony also extends to the other most identifiable feature of this culture-swamp – the synthesisers. Once again, we find ourselves victim to the twin demons of progress and affordability.
As digital synthesisers began to exit the lab and enter the mainstream, they started to crop up all over the place as musicians recognised the potential to imitate existing sounds and conjure ones that had never been heard before. Here we had a new technology that was widely available, but not yet widely understood.
Though musicians eagerly embraced the new technology, they rarely strayed far from their default factory sounds. Some of those tones may (kinda) hold up today, however it would be a good while before folks figured out how to make synthesisers sound like anything other than the aural equivalent of the wardrobe from Miami Vice.
It’s vital to remember here that the ‘80s was the last decade where the trend towards increasing access to the Mighty Pop Monoculture had not yet met the internet and its tendency to fragment and isolate. Through the internet we can access and critique a vast cultural world, full of eddies and currents.
We curate our own walled garden, avoiding that which confuses us. By contrast, the ’80s pop cultural landscape was that of a mountain – a single, dizzying edifice that dominates the landscape and challenges you to scale it.
True, cable TV introduced some degree of fragmentation, but it would take a while to trickle down to the average consumer and today is in an apparently terminal decline. Thus in the ‘80s the increasing advances in mass communication allowed a narrow band of trending sounds to be spread to a mass audience of unparalleled size, without any countervailing force by which individuals could poke holes in the monoculture.
But there’s a danger here of oversimplification. Yes, pop music in the ‘80s was particularly bland and repetitive, but we would do grave injustice to that decade’s wretched denizens if we were to tar them all with the same brush.
While plenty of music makers dove headfirst and eagerly into that syrupy morass of lycra and fog machines, we must remember those who steadfastly bucked the prevailing trends and produced music that sounded nothing like the mainstream – and this was all done pre-internet.
Yes, it’s still hard nowadays to get attention through the unceasing barrage of ‘What if the Avengers were Disney princesses??!’ images, but it’s still immeasurably easier to get your cutesy ukulele cover of Bad Blood trending than back in the grim days of flyers and fan-zines.
Yes, it took a couple of decades for the pioneers to get their dues at anything above subsistence level, but given the scale of the creativity displayed by the ‘80s underground, we cannot let the mainstream sound dominate our recollection of the era.
The first records that spring to mind here are Tom Waits’ bizarro ‘80s classics, Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. Where the pop mainstream was marked by crisp, digital rhythms and cavernous, reverberating synthesisers, these records are about as raw and analogue as it gets, sporting close miked, dry arrangements with a plethora of quirky, semi-homemade instruments.
Throw in Waits’ unintelligible death-rattle of a voice and you’ve got yourselves a winning antidote to ‘80s excess. Also worth a look-see from that the era is Marianne Faithfull’s Strange Weather, a moody baroque pop collection featuring a title track written by Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan.
Of course no discussion of the ‘80s underground is complete without discussing what we’ll loosely call ‘alternative rock’. There are no manicured digital tones here, rather a gaggle of squirrely, squealing tracks that are anything but radio-friendly.
Most notable is Sonic Youth, whose most munted and daring tracks – from the clattering no-fi of Confusion Is Sex to the quasi-prog noise rock of Daydream Nation – are housed squarely within the bounds of the 1980s. Due recognition must also be given to the Pixies, who snuck in two screechy classics before the end of the decade; Surfa Rosa and Doolittle.
Throw in another potent duo, Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me and Bug, and you’ve got yourselves a nifty little slab of alt rock that proudly and completely ignores the sounds of the ‘80s zeitgeist.
Finally, no mention of the 1980s’ underside would be complete without Nick Cave. Yes, I’ll concede that every so often the snare gets a little bit of that overcrisp ‘80s sheen, but in almost every other respect, Cave’s albums with the Bad Seeds throughout the 1980s are completely out of step with the prevailing trends.
Out of time, out of tune, and almost campily dark, the albums are a strange and gripping blend of punk energy and melancholy tunefulness. Those seeking more polished and melodic fare in this period should check out Your Funeral…My Trial or Tender Prey.
More hardy listeners are kindly advised to venture into the Cave’s solo debut From Her To Eternity, a brittle slab of gothic grind that is yet to find a category to which it can be comfortably confined.
So take heart then – even the foulest decade is not beyond some form of redemption. Taken as a whole, the current view of the ‘80s is pretty bang on, but let’s not wallow in cheap misery. Instead let’s dust off the ol’ rosy spectacles and squeeze out a sliver of silver lining from that noxious sulphur cloud of a decade.
Though their spandex-clad seizure of the pop music charts might have seemed near-irreversible, the bland tropes of the ‘80s were not all-encompassing. Great, thoughtful music was made in those years, and we owe it some recognition.
Check out our list of the best Disney songs too.