We’re Number Two: 1985 – “Holding Out For A Hero”, Bonnie Tyler

How much more 80’s could it be? None. None more 80’s.

Whatever artist Jim Steinman is writing for you pretty much always know when it’s one of his songs. Whether it’s Meat Loaf, Celine Dion, Air Supply or this week’s entry Bonnie Tyler, Jim Steinman songs always sound like Jim Steinman songs and nothing else really does. He’s practically a genre unto himself. You can expect big, operatically over-the-top production. Whatever the song is it will be bombastic in the extreme. There will be a sense of things moving very quickly, even in slow-moving power ballads (which is quite the trick). As often as not the song will incorporate a catchy, easy-to-remember phrase that’s either lifted from somewhere else (“bat of out hell” perhaps being the most obvious) or put together to make it sound like it might have been but you just haven’t come across it yet. Like, for example, holding out for a hero. I mean, it’s kind of an expression but it’s not exactly in everyday use.

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We’re Number Two: 1984 – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, Cyndi Lauper

You spin me right round

Let us begin this week by getting something out of the way right off the bat. The problem with “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” is straightforward – it just isn’t a terribly good song. That’s a shame, because it clearly means well, Lauper is a fantastic performer (well, usually) and as 80’s feminist songs go its clearly coming from the same place as Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox’s “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” or the we-can-have-fun-too vibe of Bananarama. “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” is rather more political, though, and “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” isn’t laying claim to any specific political agenda, just that girls… well. You can guess. They want to have fun.

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We’re Number Two: 1983 – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”, Eurythmics

Not necessarily in that order

One of the consequences of the development of comparatively cheap synthesizers is the ability for more music to be produced by fewer people. Bands no longer need to consist of four, five or more members as per a traditional rock act. Instead they can consist of one or two people, a box of electronics and, as long as the song is halfway decent, away we go. Obviously two-pieces aren’t a unique development of the 80’s – hello Sparks! – but synths made it substantially easier for them to exist.  There’s dozens of 80’s acts who fall into this category – to take a random selection let’s say Tears For Fears, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Yazoo and, of course, Eurythmics.

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We’re Number Two: 1982 – “Private Investigations”, Dire Straits

Smokin’

Credibility has never been much of a barrier when it comes to reaching the upper echelons of the charts. Lots of point-and-laugh bands have made it. Scraping into the Top Ten, or indeed any position on the charts, does not require cool, or sophistication, or talent, or anything else. It requires, as we know, popularity alone. The place of the “credible” as opposed to the “popular” reaches its zenith in the 90’s, when the Authenticity Wars would leave many a causality in its wake but it’s a process that exists here, too, in the 80’s.

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We’re Number Two: 1981 – “Vienna”, Ultravox

A grave concern

In the same way that “Bohemian Rhapsody” did not invent the music video, MTV did not invent the idea of music television. That’s not to suggest that either of those two events aren’t significant features in the development of their respective fields, but neither are the originators. The idea of “videos”, in the modern sense, had been around since at least 1966 with The Beatles recording specific promo clips for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, and arguably could be tied all the way back to A Hard Day’s Night. And certainly the song portions of Magical Mystery Tour, free of any other contextual connection to the movie they’re in, are straightforwardly music videos.

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We’re Number Two: 1980 – “Antmusic”, Adam And The Ants

Yes please

More people should talk about Marco Pirroni. He’s awesome. Quite apart from the fact that he appears to be a fantastically chilled, intelligent and knowledgeable individual he’s also a spankingly good guitarist and an incredibly important figure in the punk scene. He’s also one half of the powerhouse behind practically all of Adam And The Ants / Adam Ant’s 80’s success (co-songwriter and musician), he’s all over Sinead O’Connor’s best work, and of course there’s the whole Siouxsie And The Banshees time. He’s just one of those musicians who adds to absolutely everything he appears on but never seems to get all that much in the way of recognition.

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The 1970’s

The 60’s stopped dead. What replced all of those beads, kaftans and unfeasably successful comedians?

Glam. Disco. Punk. New wave. Heavy metal. Funk. Prog. There are a lot of emergent movements in the 70’s, some of which overlap – the distance between glam and disco is nearly nothing – and some of which clearly don’t. But what all these genres have in common is that they will have legacy going forward. The Long Seventies extend a decent distance into the Eighties, and there’s a fair argument to be made in the case of disco they extend all the way until now, and the multiplicity of genres which develop in the 70’s will, ultimately, go on to have more direct resonance than anything the 60’s produced. The Long Sixties died in 1970. The Long Seventies dig well into the 80’s – probably at least until 1983. The obvious question here, then, is why? What is it about the Seventies that meant their cultural impact has a momentum that the Sixties, despite the mythological placement in the cultural memory, didn’t?

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We’re Number Two: 1979 – “Oliver’s Army”, Elvis Costello

I look just like Buddy Holly

Key changes are almost always a cheap way of getting a bit more mileage out of a song which has otherwise run its course. The results are almost always unbearably cheesy and corny. Think of, say, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder, one of the very worst key changes in musical history (quite the achievement for such a talented person, but then the 80’s were rough for everyone). It doesn’t add anything, it just cranks it up a few tones in the hopes of wringing a bit more emotion out of the song. Unsuccessfully, as it happens. Or the somehow-even-more-ghastly key-change in Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You”, not a feature of Dolly Parton’s infinitely-superior original. Technically, yes, it’s amazing Houston’s voice can even do that while at the same time being absolutely bloody terrible and, like the Stevie Wonder example, adds nothing to the song except perhaps an excuse to show off.

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We’re Number Two: 1978 – “Denis”, Blondie

Who’s That Girl…

The CBGB’s scene has become so mythologised at this point that it’s easy to forget, sometimes, that the bands that came from it were actual, you know, bands. Excellent t-shirts though they all make, The Ramones and Blondie tend to get lumped in these days with “fashion” as much as “music” and that’s a real waste. Both bands, along with Talking Heads, came to define the New York new wave scene but they were acts that were being primarily defined in relation to punk, itself incredibly short-lived and already starting to look like yesterday’s genre. That’s not inappropriate, and there are certainly great punk albums to come post-1978 (not least of which, London Calling) but already bands were being set up in, if not opposition, then at the very least in contrast to the punk scene.

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We’re Number Two: 1977 – “Sir Duke”, Stevie Wonder

Perfect

And so we finally arrive at the Stevie Wonder entry. It is, of course, simply impossible to imagine this project existing without the inclusion of Stevie Wonder at some point and there’s been more than a few times he could have qualified but holding off until “Sir Duke” rolls around means… well it means we get to talk about “Sir Duke”. There are times, when one approaches a work of art, that its manifest brilliance is simply self-evident. There is little point asking if, say, the Parthenon in Athens is a greater achievement than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or if Hamlet is a greater achievement than The Night Watch. They are all works of art in one form or another and they explicitly, clearly improve the world simply by existing.

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