Sunday, September 12, 2010

FYI: Eighties Music Really Did Suck

How do you know when you're getting old? Is it when that first grey hair appears, or the first time you groan as you hoist yourself out of a chair? Well, here's my definition: you know you're getting old when the music of your youth develops nostalgia value. This has happened to me. It's become a common thing for night clubs to have "eighties nights." That makes me feel ancient.

Is it just a matter of the eighties getting their turn? After all, clubs used to have sixties nights and seventies nights (maybe some still do) and many radio stations devote themselves to these decades. But you see, there's a difference: the eighties were musically wretched. It wasn't all Duran Duran, Thomas Dolby and Bruce Springsteen. It was also Mr. Mister, Soft Cell and Toto.

I decided that there was a need for this essay one summer evening. I was at a friend's house watching a DVD of the eighties stage musical, Chess. If no bells of recognition are going off in your head, this might help: the eighties hit, One Night in Bangkok, is from this play.

Watching this eighties play led to talk of eighties music. The youngest person in the room, a striking beauty in her twenties, mentioned eighties nights in clubs and how fun they are. I felt a moral obligation to speak up.

"You know, eighties music really sucked. People don't realize that because nowadays they only play the good stuff. They never play all those shitty songs that were on the radio when I was a teenager."

"But that's true of any decade," our hostess pointed out. "They only play the good songs from the seventies, too."

She had a point. So what is my basis for claiming, nonetheless, that the eighties sucked worse than other decades, musically speaking?

The Argument

For one thing, I've lived through other decades, so I do have a basis for comparison. I can vouch for the fact that the radioscape improved immeasurably once the eighties ended and the nineties began. It was great; finally we were through the bland desert of tinny electropop and into a verdant landscape of Third Eye Blind, Matchbox 20, etc. The noughts were also good, as far as I could tell, though I've spent the latter half of them in a town largely devoid of decent music radio.

I can't speak with authority of the decades that preceded the eighties, since I either wasn't around yet, or was too young to tune my own radio dial. But I have some idea, at least of the sixties, because my brother had Woodstock on a set of vinyl records. Not just the best of Woodstock—the whole thing. It stands to reason that the decade's most massive, notorious concert would include artists that faded into obscurity as well as the ones who are still remembered, and it does. Many of the songs on the Woodstock album were just OK, or even forgettable, but there is not the killing monotony of sound that marked the eighties.

I don't think so, anyway. This is only my opinion, and you may well be asking yourself why should give it any credence. That brings me to my other point: I am not the only one who found the eighties to be musically monotonous. The Fifth Estate did a segment on it once. I have tried to find out which episode it was, but the CBC has been diligently at work making its web site ever less navigable and functional, and I was unable to glean anything from it. I'll have to settle for estimating that the episode aired in the late eighties to early nineties. It discussed the bland sameness that possessed radio stations in this period and the independent music industry that sprang up in response. I remember the narrator stating that many of these new outsider bands sounded angry, and they had reason to be: radio was neglecting them. Alternative bands existed throughout the eighties, but did not get played on mainstream radio stations until the nineties. Not on any that I had access to, anyway.

The Evidence

I can argue myself blue in the face on this point, but unless I can give you a listen to the sort of crud I heard as a teenager every time I turned on the radio, you are unlikely to be persuaded. And thanks to Jango, I can do just that.

Jango is a free, web-based service that lets users create their own "radio stations." Here's how it works: you type the name of a musical artist into the search box. If it's found, Jango will create a new station named after the artist (you can rename it if you want) and begin playing a random selection from that artist. But it will go one better than that. It will provide a list of similar artists that you might also enjoy and want to add to your station, and it will insert their songs into the playlist. Jango is pretty good at finding matches by style and period.

The idea, of course, is to present you with music you will like, but there's nothing to stop you from using it for other, more nefarious purposes. I found it an invaluable tool for digging up all those old forgotten bands that dissolved my brain cells during my youth. I got the ball rolling with The Thompson Twins, and soon I had a whole stack of dismal bands. Mind you, The Thompson Twins weren't the worst the eighties had to offer. (I'd tried Chalk Circle first, a band I remember with deep disgust, but Jango didn't know it.) However, Jango helpfully brought up other bands that were even lamer, and I added the worst of them until I created a station that is truly soul-destroying. I offer it here for your listening displeasure: Vivian's Bad Eighties Music. Take only in small doses, and bear in mind that this is what about three-quarters of airplay sounded like during my formative years. Condolences accepted.

To be fair and balanced, I also created a Jango station of good eighties music. This one, Vivian's Good Eighties Music, reproduces the experience of going to one of those eighties club nights.

The Playlists

Here are the playlists for my two Jango radio stations. Keep in mind that these lists do not encompass everything you will hear on these stations, since Jango inserts its own "recommendations" from time to time.

Bad Eighties Music

  1. Icehouse
  2. Book of Love
  3. Depeche Mode
  4. Johnny Hates Jazz
  5. Love and Rockets
  6. Mr. Mister
  7. The Housemartins
  8. Soft Cell
  9. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
  10. XTC
  11. The The
  12. Missing Persons
  13. Berlin
  14. Cutting Crew
  15. Thompson Twins
  16. China Crisis
  17. Toto

Good Eighties Music

  1. Simple Minds
  2. Fine Young Cannibals
  3. The Fixx
  4. Eurythmics
  5. Duran Duran
  6. Pet Shop Boys
  7. The Human League
  8. ABC
  9. The Cars
  10. T'Pau
  11. Spandau Ballet
  12. a-ha
  13. Bronski Beat
  14. Arcadia
  15. Thomas Dolby
  16. Wham!
  17. Yazoo