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

6 comments:

Ted Cross said...

Oh, how could you possibly leave off U2? They were hands down the best of the 80's. Like you, I wasn't thrille with what I heard on the radio in the 80's. I still listen mainly to music that came out of the 60's and 70's, like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Beatles, and the Stones.

I haven't liked the turn away from musical talent recently and towards choreographed dancing by pretty people who have no idea how to play an instrument or write a song. There are still great bands, but they don't make it onto the radio much. Bands like Tool, APC, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Green Day still give modern music hope!

Vivian said...

I guess, since U2 didn't become a ubiquitous hit until the late 80's, I thought of them as more of 90's band. And, don't hate me, but I'm not crazy about U2. Sure, they had some good songs, but Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For was overplayed to the point that I grew to hate it forever. Not their fault, I know. But later on, they got all weird and came out with songs like Lemon, and I wondered, what are they doing? It was as if they were sorry they'd missed their chance to be another 80's synth dance music band so they decided to make up for it by becoming a 90's synth dance music band. They're OK but I'm not a fan.

I'm not familiar with Tool and APC but I like the other bands you mention.

Anonymous said...

I went to Jr. High and High School in the 70's, college in the 80's. I was a music fan/buff. Some years in the 80's were better than others, but there was a certain monotany that definately defined mid 80's music (folks started relying solely on synthesizers then and of course the scandals about singers who either didn't sing their own songs, OR can't sing (Madonna is a classic case in point, IMHO, but folks like her I guess for other reasons).

Other genres of great musical emergence in the 80's though--John Cougar Mellencamp, Tracy Chapman, Sting and in LOTS in the folk and jazz genre which is also what I was listening too--Chic Corea, Stanley Clarke, Herbie Hancock, etc. for example.

Vivian said...

Oh yeah, who was that duo that turned out to be lip-syncing their way through their concerts? I've forgotten their name. They disappeared pretty quickly after that. Was that 80s or 90s?

Vivian said...

Milli Vanilli! That's it. I just looked them up and they were late 80s. They didn't last long either, before their dishonesty over where their vocals came from sunk them.

Niko Bellanti said...

Although I enjoyed your blog (a friend and I found it when we were searching the diabolical Thomson Twins), you have made a few exceptionally bad objective errors on your "Bad Eighties Music" list. How bad? So bad it comes off as a tragic case of music illiteracy. Sort of like saying you dislike Jane Austin because she wrote stories about boring white chicks. Or looking at a Jackson Pollack and saying "Thems just squiggles. He aint no artist. Shoot, I could do that". Yes you appear that bad to those who know a little bit about music and music history. I dont mean to sound harsh but its beyond a matter of taste when you consider that a few of the eighties bands you list as bad are highly influential bands and/or come from epically influential bands and even an iconic groups who remain relevant today...um....unlike Wham!.

Depeche Mode continues to influence bands today. Their music continues to be relevant (played in hip night clubs, underground clubs) and has been remixed by most of today's electronic musicians in some way or another as a way of paying homage. I wonder if the great German film maker Wim Wenders would put Wham in one of his movies where Depeche appears with U2 and other great iconic bands from the nighties? To put them in the same list as Toto is...it's like putting a Velvet Elvis painting in the same category as a Mucha or a Rothko - it's absurd. It just very wrong on so many levels. As for Love and Rockets I have one word - Bauhaus. That would be the band, not the art movement that I am referring to. Their Ball of Confusion cover is still an indie fav and its ludicrous that you would have them on a Bad Eighties Music list. Now I am going to go back and listen to some truly Suicidal Eighties Music. I'll start with Don Henley, Toto & add in Styx to make it a painful slow death. If that doesn't do the job, I'll finish it off with Wham!

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