The early 1980s were an odd time for pop music. There’s a common train of thought that it normally chugs its way through the station marked “Craptown”. But, I have to argue, it isn’t all true. Now, before I continue, I have to say nothing with regard to music winds me up more than ‘80s revisionists. What was embarrassing and without worth in 1981 is going to be pretty much the same thirty years later, perhaps more so. Then again, some things have a kind of period charm (as they often do), like Toyah’s haircuts and dress sense, for example. Alright, so you’re not with me on that one, but you get the idea.
Now, there was some very innovative stuff going on in the post-punk era, no doubt about that. However, that’s not to say a lot of commercial pop music in the early ‘80s was bloody awful; synthetic, irony free and badly written. Oddly these are some of the reasons why some of it is actually quite good, almost deserving respect due to its brash sense of the audacious. Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” couldn’t be anymore crap if it called itself “Kids in Milton Keynes”, but somehow it works. But some producers knew how to take cheese and add it to a really good omelette, so to speak. Giorgio Moroder springs to mind straight away. When he produced Blondie’s “Call me” he had a good group and a good song to work with, so perhaps he was usually just lucky. It’s also telling that there was something of a ‘60s revival in the early ‘80s, as well as this era being the aftermath of Punk. So what you got, quite often, was a bizarre combination of classic pop sensibility, to get clichéd, with often shockingly inappropriate and experimental electronics.
But there was something about being so young at the time that gave the era a bit of a credible sheen. The stickers that came free with Weetabix were full of neon glow pop stars with ludicrous names. Hayzi Fantazee, Jo Boxers, Modern Romance, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and..er..Dollar. In 1983 “The Boxer beat” would probably have been the aural equivalent of a turd singing, but we 10 year olds loved it!
You see, nothing seemed as modern as the early ‘80s, when it was the early ‘80s. There was a definite sense that the Modern Age had arrived, and the 1960s and ‘70s for all their claims were merely a prologue to the great here and now. Of course, that’s seeing life through the eyes of a child, but there is some truth in it, I think. After all, look at all those new inventions! They didn’t have Microwave ovens before did they, and look at that cordless telephone! Even games became high tech looking, although the Rubik’s cube looked far more entertaining than it actually was. After 15 minutes I’d be bored with it. We had personal computers as well. Our family’s 5K Commodore Vic 20 was proof that the Space age was here!
In truth the same feelings had been and gone in the 1960s, but somehow the ‘80s seemed like the realisation of the technological dream. In reality, everything that seemed modern then, now seems….BIG. The mobile ‘phones of the ‘80s look anything but mobile. You could make a good novelty house out of the things. Yet, the pop stars were Bigger as well, so that kind of makes sense. We don’t get many pop stars that big and gloriously absurd anymore; Lady Gaga is kind of out there on her own. Most singing stars play it safe and get a job on The X Factor or write an autobiography at the age of 24. The industry has changed, and manufactured pop bands aren’t meant to make creative choices, they’re meant to make money. Not that the latter aim has ever been any different, it’s just they did it with tunes.
The same went for the pop groups of the time. Could any band look as modern as Duran Duran? Well, history tells us not, there’s no denying how ludicrous they looked, but at the time I would have been the last to question their sartorial choices. The fact that they were from Birmingham completely passed me by; these blokes were international playboys with money to burn as far as I could tell. But from 1981-85 they could do little wrong- Duran were the epitome of the early ‘80s band (for better or worse). Two decades later we can see that they’ll never been lauded as much as the Beatles or even the Pistols. You see, the word ‘synthetic’ keeps springing to mind when I think of them, but Duran were actually a real band that could play and write music. It’s their image that let them down. For every 12 year old girl that loved them, there’d be thousands of skint, politically aware students cursing their name and buying Smiths records instead. The sad irony for them is that their own influences were pretty cool. Nick Rhodes was even something of a Bowie clone at one stage, and there was something of the ‘glam rock’ era about them- albeit ten years too late. All in all they just seemed a bit fake, but that was probably their appeal. Such is much pop music. They had a real element of the ridiculous about them, and their non-musical exploits were just as entertaining, a bit like an all male “Dynasty” episode. Maybe one where Fallon dreams that the Carrington and Colby boys form a pop band. I’m sure that episode exists somewhere… I mean, I can’t think of another group where their extra curricular exploits include exploding yachts and dating supermodels. But maybe Simon Le Bon wanted to live the myth. Good on him I say!
So it was the Modern age being as modern as some of us could imagine, and the music was being just as glossy. But just cause we couldn’t quite see how things would change and how fast they could (and would) change, the image of those days seemed like the future had arrived. Music was full of electronic sound effects and towards the end of the decade the guitar was looking a little bit redundant, unless you were in Poison (or God forbid, WASP). You could argue that it took the likes of The Stone Roses to bring The Guitar back. But in the early ‘80s there was still the guitar in full effect, paired up with the synthesiser- an instrument that has never quite left the ‘80s. The music had a kind of tacky glamour about it and subtlety was unheard of. Going back to Toyah, what was the woman wearing? Infact, women had the worst deal, if you ask me. The girls in those Duran videos, circa 1983, are usually covered in neon-glow paint.
The lyrics in commercial pop were usually really trite, or just downright terrible, and the same could be said today. Sadly, I have to admit Duran are the worst offenders here as well, as “Don’t say you’re easy on me, you’re about as easy as a nuclear war…” has to be one of the most laughably bad lyrics ever. Yet it’s strangely appealing at the same time, as if they were being deliberately rubbish. On the other hand… All that in a number one hit as well! Is there something I should know? How to write songs would be a good start.
The hits did get better, in that sense. The song writing wasn’t all bad. Culture club were interesting, and not just because Boy George wasn’t a girl. They were bad pseudo-reggae weren’t they? Far too bland for me, but the songs had a certain well crafted charm. A couple of years before Adam and the Ants had been the most utterly entertaining thing in the charts. They started off in the punk era and found their true niche at the beginning of the ‘80s. The hit songs usually had amusing catchphrases, and often had some historical stereotypes as their hook (usually dandy highwaymen and the like). It was like someone had decided to mix Glam rock with Punk and call it something else. The “New Romantic” movement generally involved dressing in frilly shirts, period costumes and wearing makeup. And that was just the boys. The haircuts also tended to be fairly scary too. Philip Oakley’s style was just perfect for a quirky, electronic pop group, but outside of The Human League it seemed ludicrous. It was all about context you see, and the early ‘80s pop brigade was all about keeping it in context. You had too, or you started to see how silly pop stars really were.
There were bands that wanted nothing to do with this fancy dress party, of course. In Manchester, Tony Wilson, New Order and Factory records were declaring that the Hacienda ‘must be built’. A trendy night club like that had nothing to do with tacky pop trash, surely? Yet the same cheesy bands played there over the next couple of years. Regardless of what was going on in the ‘alternative’ scene, the charts were usually a bright, trashy collection of banshee wails in the early ‘80s, and we’re not talking about Souxsie. There’s a television advertisement some of you might remember from the time, for Kit Kat, which epitomises the time as far as I’m concerned. Faced with a new band, a manager plays back their demo recording. The band are a mixture of sexes and dressed in bright clothes and with hair that has probably had a full can of hairspray used on each barnet. The band are kind of like Kajagoogoo- you know, that sort of outfit. Anyway, the song that follows is atrocious. Rather like…well, rather like Kajagoogoo to be fair. It went on in its brash, synth and drum ridden way, accompanied by the lyrics:
“Alien invasion!…what on Earth are we gonna do?!…”
Then suddenly one of the band members goes, “This is the best bit” and on cue, a loud scream emits from the tape recorder.
At this point the poor bloke has had enough and decides to have a break, have a Kit Kat (you know the drill). The advert’s punch line is the manager saying, “You can’t sing, you can’t dance, you look awful!…You’ll go a long way!”
That was pure 1983.
Most of the real musical class of ‘83 really couldn’t do much and did look awful, and a lot of them did go a long way too. You see, it didn’t matter how bloody awful you were, it was good to have a go, because you never know, the public might like you. Inspirational if you ask me, and oh so very British.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you’re not really creating timeless and crucial art. Sometimes it’s all about having a laugh and making people hum your tunes, and making people buy them. It’s about cheesy pop trash that makes us smile. It’s sometimes about making stacks of money as well, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone that.