Here’s a welcome return to our occasional series of in-depth articles on issues within the music industry from our London correspondent Zakia Uddin. This time, Zakia takes a look at the ever-present phenomenon of eighties revivalism …
If the 1970s is the decade that ‘style forgot’, the 1980s more than compensated by never quite going away. It’s been vilified, mythologized and dismissed at turns for its power chords and bombast. Whatever you think about that era – and you don’t have to grown up then to have an opinion – it continues informing music, fashion and film. What is it about the decade that keeps artists coming back for more – and when will they stop plundering it?
One of the major artists of this year has been Jessie Ware, whose Devotion album cover picture consciously echoes 1980s singer Sade’s distinctive look. Ware’s hair is slicked back in the same tight bun and we see her in profile, like her predecessor. The MOBO-nominated singer wears her influences on her sleeve, saying that she asked video director Kate Morross to consider Sade’s previous artwork. Ware herself was born in 1984 – the same year Sade released her hugely successful debut album Diamond Life.
Above: hits from Jessie Ware and Sade
The revival continues in the form of comebacks from epoch-defining bands – the most recent memorial celebration was that of the Stone Roses, who released their first album Fool’s Gold in 1989. The band’s return even inspired comment from politicians willing to own up to their Madchester years. This month Dexy’s Midnight Runners released their humbly titled One Day I’m Going to Soar after 27 years of musical ignominy (largely based on this terrible terrible album cover). At the other end of the scale, the hair-rock musical Rock of Ages celebrates all the Elnett cans and power chords which were quietly put into the dressing up box with the advent of grunge.
Is the stultifying effect of the 1980s revival worth fretting over, when artists such as Ware stand up on their own and the reformation of the Stone Roses is considered more exciting than a new Madonna tour? In 2010, critic Simon Reynolds asked in The Guardian whether it’s when ostensibly cool bands start imitating Then Jerico and Robert Palmer that the 1980s revival would end, as though our cultural obsession would fade when we’d found all the good records in the bargain bin.
Above: is ‘Rock Of Ages’ as far as a revival can go?
If the revival goes on, that might be because the decade offers endless musical riches. Synthesisers, samples and Simmons’ electric drums ushered in a recognisably ‘pop’ sound, distinct from the saccharine melodies and the tinnily produced songs of the 1970s and 1960s. And like science fiction tropes cemented in the 1960s, 1980s synths still feel ‘futuristic’. The rise of MTV also gave birth to a more visual culture, making the decade a rich source of pop graphics and iconic imagery. There’s nothing that sums up the initial perceived impact of MTV on music than this panel exchange in 1984 between the future queen of pop Madonna and grizzled old John Oates. Oates angrily states that MTV is forcing musicians to become actors, while Madonna points out the obvious – isn’t a live show all about acting?
Many current commentators think the fascination with the period is deeply unhealthy. How much is that to do it with its flashiness and celebratory disposable aesthetic? Reynolds’ book Retromania argues that the obsession with the past bodes badly for the future of music. In an interview with Salon, he lamented: “No one can quite picture a future that seems positive or exciting. At one time the future seemed to suggest grand projects.” This mindset is even more evident with music, given the huge popularity of bands such as Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes whose music he describes as “bewildering” with its lack of engagement with any music of the past thirty years.
Above: Mumford and Foxes – ignoring the 80s?
The internet has been blamed for this cultural scavenging. What’s fashionable is no longer about scarcity – there’s so much material on the internet. There’s no point of any music or trend being so obscure you can’t read about it or find it online. Critics of Reynolds’ generation have fetishised waiting around for records to release and having to hunt out all the good bands. But was it really fair for everyone? For the suburban teenager it would have been a case of filling in a mail order catalogue and waiting near the letterbox for a few weeks, for a record they were buying mostly on faith. If you couldn’t get to a gig, you’d have to hope for a performance on either MTV or on a music show with a graveyard slot.
Critics miss the old tribalism of music fans forced to gather around ‘hubs’ such as the NME and the defunct Melody Maker. Outlets for talking and discovering music have proliferated. The internet has now democratised the process of music discovery, so that if you want to know what’s cool, you can instantly listen to it and decide whether it’s worth the hype. There’s no waiting around for your cool friend to validate or veto a record. Youtube, and blogs offer the opportunity of discovering music in a haphazard fashion where everything is made equivalent by simply being online at the same time. It also means anyone can be fashionable, technically making no-one fashionable – unless they ‘discover’ the coolest thing ahead of everyone else.
Above: the internet of the 1980s …
In a Guardian interview with Dorian Lynsky, Mojo editor Andrew Male commented on the endless obsession with the past: “There’s a sense that this stuff has kind of lain dormant. You can rediscover it in a way that you can’t rediscover the stuff that was always considered cool. With CD reissues, you’ve got the freedom to indulge yourself in areas that would have previously been seen as off-limits.” The only jarring note here is mention of the CD reissues. Male perfectly understands the cache of ‘finding’ and re-discovering great music at a time when there’s such an avalanche of material, good and bad, available on blogs, Youtube and music sites.
One of the most popular critical exercises is to identify cultural influences and designate a revival of sorts. The 1980s has so far given birth to several micro-trends including witch house, electroclash, and what’s been termed ‘maximilism’ – music that layers on sound and effects and is impossible to categorise in any genre. But should we suspend the need to label and instead ask why it matters if a musician or band’s musical influences split and did reissues before they were even born? Will the next generation of artists even distinguish between their musically formative decade and that of their parents?
Above: witchhouse, electroclash and maximalism in action
The BBC recently went to a London school to test whether teenagers would recognise the Beatles ‘Love Me Do’ on the 50th anniversary of the single release. Only a few did, causing rock music journalists on Twitter to be mildly flustered about the priorities of young people today. On Drowned in Sound, a blogger spoke of his irritation with Radio 1’s commissioner for complaining about ‘festival dads’ skewing the station’s demographics. It’s easy to accuse young people of listening unimaginatively to old music and buying new music that sounds like old music, but maybe phenomena like Mumford and Sons can be explained by the increased age of the music-buying and festival-going music audience.
Critics should also take some responsibility for the never-ending revival. Underlying assumptions about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music have been shone in the spotlight and seen to favour certain types of artists – those with a long back catalogue who play their own instruments. The 1980s had some of the most unashamed pop and the quickest burn-outs, as well as having pop stars with cross-generational appeal who could sell out stadiums. New York Times critic Kelefa Sanneh said in 2003 that we have to “stop pretending that serious rock songs will last forever, as if anything could, and that shiny pop songs are inherently disposable, as if that were necessarily a bad thing. Van Morrison’s “Into the Music” was released the same year as the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”; which do you hear more often?”
Above: which makes your party playlist most often?
Carly Rae Jepsen and Britney Spears are now as likely to get serious reviews in Rolling Stone as Radiohead. Soundtracks of hipster films such as 100 Days of Summer bring together The Smiths and Hall & Oates, two bands whose fans were unlikely to be in the same place, let alone sharing a dance-floor. It’s okay to like what you like and own up to it. That’s not a bad legacy for any decade, let alone one which gave us synths and studio-shot music videos.
The most disturbing fact is that we’ll all end up listening to the same music, unable to place it. As in a dystopian scenario we’ll vaguely remember hearing it before but not know whether we were around for it the first time…
BAMM BANDS INSPIRED BY THE 1980s
Here’s a taste of some of our BAMM.tv acts who have taken an 80s aesthetic and made it their own. Remember – you can find all these acts and more on our amazing new iPad app!
Birds and Batteries – ‘Out in the Woods’
This Bay Area trio wear their influences on their t-shirt sleeves. Leader singer and musical director Mike Sempert describes the band to BAMM: ‘Randy Newman meets Gary Numan. Funky and dancy, but also really focused around songcraft and arrangement.Future music.” You can also hear some early INXS and Talking Heads in the sounds of Jill Heinke’s synths. There’s something so distinctively 1980s in their brand of warm upbeat and musically intricate pop which isn’t afraid to make people move onto the dancefloor.
Crafts Spells – ‘Party Talk’
Craft Spells specialise in that gorgeous echoing pop sensibility that underlay so many of the greatest British indie bands of the 1980s. But singer Justin Paul Vallesteros and his fellow band members Andy Lum, Jack Doyle Smith and Javier Suarez are West Coast natives, who continue to live in California. You can hear strains of Morrissey, and a distinct melancholy imported from the drizzly northern city of Manchester whose musical influence far exceeds that of London. Vallesteros is really just following in the footsteps of his 1980s jangle pop-loving counterparts who were influenced by the thriving UK indie scene.
Crashfaster – ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’
Morgan Tucker a.k.a. Crashfaster’s melds the old and the new in this cover of The Smiths’ (them again!) classic ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’. He strips away the guitar and replaces it with a sparse electropop synth backing. Definitively a child of the 1980s, the Monobomb signed chiptune artist’s music is as much informed by the futuristic bleeps and crashes of old console games as it is by the electro beats of the decade.
The Frail – ‘Count on This’
This San Francisco band do a more soulful take on 1980s indie pop. Daniel Lannon’s intensely emotional vocals contrast with a slightly heat-dazed spaced out summery backing from guitarist Rob Pera and bassist Izzy Chavarin. This intimate performance was recorded at SXSW. While their influences are firmly from the noughties – they cite TV on the Radio, the Flaming Lips and The Postal Service as influences – their spectral dreaminess recalls the bands of the jangle pop counter-movement in the 1980s.
Trash80 – ‘Icarus’
If it was a 1980s movie, Timothy Lamb would be the popular brash older brother to Crashfaster’s sensitive soul. Trash80, as he’s known, creates huge bombastic structures that remind you of late night journeys, motorways, light shows and all the things that visually evoke huge complicated synth structures of the 1980s. He’s like a Jean Michel Jarre of the computer console. ‘Icarus’ is about as close to make-out music (and making-out) that chiptune is ever likely to get.
AND NOW … SOME 1980s TRENDS THAT KEEP ON GIVING …
One of the best-named trends of the 1980s. Named after Smokey Robinson’s mid-1970s album, it ushered in the slow jam. Characterised by deceptively low-key verses and ‘stormy’ choruses, it’s music for adults. R&B ballads may be a single and album staple for the serious pop star now, but the form really developed in the 1980s. The influence of Teena Marie, Sade and other soul stars can be seen in musicians as diverse as Jessie Ware, Miguel and indie R&B influenced star How to Dress Well. The Quiet Storm never been away, but arguably it’s at its healthiest yet.
The 1980s made pop what it recognisably is – and for such a disposable pop form, its major figures had careers that outstripped some of their ‘serious’ technically accomplished counterparts. The best example of pitch perfect pop recently is Carly Rae Jepsen with her huge, guilty and catchy as an STD pop classic ‘Call Me Maybe’. Pop and soul really merged in the 1980s, with the success of Madonna and Michael Jackson. It’s now impossible to imagine a time before synth-based R&B, which is as much informed by 1980s pop as it is by disco.
The 1980s DC punk revival could just be an excuse for skinny jeans and body contoured t-shirts, but it’s become a staple of late night clubs and bars in places like Dalston. Record labels like Dischord (above) and Touch & Go were seminal in creating and establishing a thriving DIY music culture, whose legacy can be seen in club promotion and blogs online now. The thriving US hardcore scene of the 1980s gave way to the commercially popular grunge era, which changed the mainstream viability of punk forever. But recent acts like Times New Viking and the late Jay Reatard heralded a noise revival in the mid-noughties.
Witch house – the genre where bands were so ostensibly cool that they had unpronounceable names printed in the Wingdings font. Bands like Mater Suspiria and Salem harked back to goth, taking on the Germanic aesthetic of heavy doomy bass, and reverb associated with bands like Bauhaus (above) and Sisters of Mercy. Witch house by way of goth also made death metal mainstream. Hipsters started wearing Wolves in the Throne Room t-shirts and pretending to love Black Sabbath.
Where to begin? Like the waking dream-state it’s named after, hypnagogic pop is ambiguous, and layered and mashed-up so its impossible to place any of its influences. James Ferraro’s records sound like he’s been watching John Hughes movies, and listening non-stop to the intros of 1980s high school dramas before they were soundtracked by the Shins. LA artist Ariel Pink (above) has only just found mainstream pop success but his recent championing and collaboration with R.Stevie Moore suggests his aesthetic springs from the 1980s DIY pop scene. Pink also creates all the fragments which sound like samples in his music. Instagrammed pop, anyone?
… AND FINALLY SOME TRENDS THAT SHOULD NEVER BE LIVED THROUGH AGAIN
1980s HAIR ROCK
This is a difficult one. The melodies and the wailing still choke us up but it’s hard to empathise with the unreconstructed sexual politics and the wistful paeans to wife-beating. Saying that, it’s one of the seminal eras in rock for badass women musicians – even if Vixen, and mid-1980s Heart (above) are as dated as pixie boots and puffy shouldered cocktail dresses.
THE 1980S MEGAMIX
Jive Bunny (above). Ironically, the 1980s itself saw a huge trend for 1950s pastiche pop inspired by the Beach Boys and Elvis. The megamix jammed all of these different cultural obsessions together, uniting sound samples and 1950s style production together into three minutes of ADD-styled hell.
THE SOAP OPERA STAR SINGLE
This might have been only been a UK and Australian phenomenon, thankfully. For a short period of time, the British pop charts were dominated by the enthusiastic pop efforts of Aussie soap opera stars. The most famous is Kylie Minogue (above), who managed to turn kitsch into gold. British soap stars opted for cod-reggae instead of high-NRG Stock, Aitken and Waterman-produced numbers. It might be over now (mostly because the charts are over), but one of last year’s surprise covers was Kindness’s electro-pop take on ‘Anyone Can Fall in Love’. And yes, that is the famous song by Anita Dobson, Brian May’s wife, who sang it over the Eastenders theme tune (Eastenders is a grim British national institution, like Dallas with milky tea and market stalls instead of champagne and oil companies).
What do you think of the 80s revival that just won’t go away? Share your thoughts in the comment box below …