How did the 80’s manage to move on from the 70’s? And did it have to involve so much day-glo?
Disco was always clearly, unambiguously the most important musical genre of the 1970’s and its vast mainstream success both undeniable and significant. The 1980’s, by contrast, don’t really have that kind of easy-to-point-to genre dominance – the story of music in the 1980’s is one of fragmentation, and that fragmentation into smaller and smaller sub-genres continues to this day. Monolithic blocks of “genre” like rock, disco, soul, funk, or punk give way to smaller sub-genres which in turn develop into their own thing.
For a band who were, at least for a while, incredibly popular, The Beautiful South have left a surprisingly small cultural footprint. There was a time when their Greatest Hits album, the magnificently-named Carry On Up The Charts, was said to be in one of every seven households in the UK. Whether anyone went round and actually counted them all remains somewhat up in the air but regardless – that such a thing could even be rumoured to be true gives some impression of just how successful they were. That album, released in 1994, was certified platinum five times in the UK alone (1.5 million sales – compare and contrast with Terence Trent D’Arby last week who “only” got to that number globally). It’s an impressive feat.
Throughout the 80’s we have been tracking the development of the video as an essential tool in any artist’s repertoire to help shift units. From simple stand-and-play live shows through to complex stories or flashy special effects the video stands as a crucial development in how music is consumed. But there is also something of a split happening. For every glorious four-minute epic there are hundreds which are completely disposable – the concentration on image leans towards accusations of superficiality if the song accompanying the video wasn’t good enough.
The expression “imperial phase” is a term coined by Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys to denote a musical act who are at the height of their critical and commercial success, when they can apparently do no wrong, and where success seems all but guaranteed. He used the expression in 1988, around the time of Introspective and “Domino Dancing”, but few bands have had an imperial phase quite like Pet Shop Boys in 1987.
It’s not like the fact that “Rocket Man” is “Space Oddity” Mk II is exactly a secret. There’s a mash-up that pretty easily combines both songs and makes the overlap pretty explicit. John himself played both “Rocket Man” and “Space Oddity” as a tribute to Bowie after his death, segueing from one to the other. If he’s prepared to do that, well, there’s not really a lot left to say on that subject. Both strike a distant, melancholic tone, though “Space Oddity”’s loss is literal whereas “Rocket Man” is more concerned with the ennui that comes from an ordinary job, even when that job is flying off to Mars and leaving your family behind.
Prince is, it will come as no surprise to anyone to discover, an astoundingly talented individual. He’s one of the icons of the 80’s, a gifted multi-instrumentalist and, during his Imperial phase, apparently incapable of touching anything musically that didn’t immediately turn out to be insanely successful. This gets mentioned because “Manic Monday” – a song written by Prince – was held off the Number 1 in America spot by “Kiss”. A song written by Prince. Sometimes it just seems like showing off, y’know? He’s playing synth and piano on this version too. There was just no stopping him.
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.
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.
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.
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.