Smash! Hits of the '80s

Yours truly was too young in the 1980s to appreciate its culture, mainstream or otherwise. My father didn't play tapes of the Fall in our car on holiday trips; my mother didn't breastfeed me while listening to Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats. In terms of '80s music, my most formative memory was feeling psychedelically terrified at the sight of the black lights in the music video for Wham!'s «Wake Me Up Before You Go Go», and feeling similarly freaked out by the singer in Fine Young Cannibals. With Sting, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder bogarting the TV screen, the young me was left no other option than to seek refuge in my parents' obsolete record collection of mainly bland Beatles records. (At least they didn't sound so flaccid.) Like the dayglo fashionista hipster kids postmodernising new wave, I can only appreciate the 1980s in hindsight. And in hindsight, the yuppies and whatever cultural momentum it was that propelled grown human beings into sporting pastel, fluffy hair and shoulder pads made the '80s one of the most obnoxious and least redeeming decades in recorded history. In terms of its sound, the production values polished every edge down to a nub, making everything sound wet and limp. Pop music reached its absolute nadir, from which, thankfully, it has since made great strides (all things being relative—Kylie Minogue is no match for Rihanna or fierce Sasha).

In the 1960s, before record companies had truly honed their industry, there was no distinction between major label mainstream music and independent underground. The industry didn't understand its demographic and so just threw money at anyone they thought might possibly be considered hip by the kids. As the corporate confusion and dust of desperation settled, the '70s saw the artistically excessive (and so less commercially viable) artists increasingly displaced into a newly defined underground. By the 1980s, the schism between art and entertainment was as complete as it has ever been.

Thanks to the major labels' devious marketing in response to the masses' growing boredom with the '80s pop formula, the '90s sowed confusion as to what was mainstream and what was «alternative». Nirvana? Faith No More? Pearl Jam?! (I think it was Jon Bon Jovi who once remarked, «An alternative to what?») The greatest trick the major labels ever pulled was convincing the world Nirvana were alternative. By the '00s, indie was no longer strictly independent, and internet literacy and entrepreneurship made trendy underground acts more competitive in the market place, sometimes blurring the distinctions between «mainstream», «independent» and «underground». Hardly anyone can tell who the Man is any longer, or who is really underground.

Perhaps more than any other, the '80s stands as a decade of near complete musical hegemony of the establishment, with relatively little crossover between the commercial and the avant-garde. Its legacy is a monument to blandness: Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Blondie. And that's who nostalgic indie kidz adulate. In karaoke bars all over the world, people ineptly sing along to artistic atrocities committed by Phil Collins, Elton John, Bryan Adams, Rick Astley… You name it, it's dreadful. And then there are the goths, with their corny Cure, Depeche Mode, «Love Will Tear Us Apart» and all those awfully brooding synths. White culture has always looked to black culture for coolness, as straight culture looks to gay culture for style. But the '80s was a nail in the artistic coffin of James Brown, and disco's undertaker, too, giving us instead Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and George Michael.

Oh, and the production values… The decade of synthesizers, '80s sound engineering and mixing rendered everything plastic. Noise or even just dry, fuzzy texture were relegated to a repressed memory of the '60s.

The '80s saving grace was post-punk. Punk was always a bit shit, really. Not as gritty or noisy as its invigorating precursor, hormonal '60s garage rock, '70s punk typically featured higher, clearer fidelity, just with sloppier performances, most punk amounting to little more than incompetently played boogie-woogie. The music that wasn't performed less energetically than garage rock—perhaps due to the pretentious use of heroin as a kind of adolescently Nihilist statement—was performed impatiently—perhaps due to the speed. Punk was essentially blues without the syncopation, the groove, the sex. Eager to hit the three-minute completion mark as soon as possible, punk was essentially the musical equivalent to a premature ejaculation. «Heigh ho, let's go,» indeed…

But the '80s saw a more sonically adventurous—not to mention emotionally uncompromising—genre that was never even given a name. For want of a better word, bands like the Fall, Birthday Party, SWANS, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Jesus & Mary Chain, et al. have merely been lumped together into the «post-punk» bargain bin. It's a measure of these artists' sense of individuality and experimentation that a sobriquet was never invented that could sum them all up, despite being fish in the same pool. Unlike new wave, grunge or punk itself, «post-punk» was not a movement. The artists were too intelligent, self-sufficient and confident to join any ranks, despite not being above collaborating or touring together.

In general, however, the playing was tighter, the sound noisier, and the feelings expressed beyond the poetics of mere junkie disgruntlement set to sloppy bar rawk. Let the punk stew in his beer-and-glue stupor, covered in his neglected dog's excrement there on the floor of some uncleaned squat wherein he somehow feels morally superior to the people who originally bought the sandwiches which leftovers he picks out of the dumpster (emptied and paid for by the people who actually pay taxes for the basic services everybody enjoys), and let somebody interesting say something.

The only question is, can a decade that spawned Huey Lewis & the News, Robert Palmer and Bros. ever redeem itself?

Yes, it can. Here's a comp comprised of the best '80s acts I can think of. Obviously, other good music came out of the '80s (Devo! Grace Jones!), but I've stuck to artists specifically associated with that decade, while avoiding the one hit wonders and guilty pleasures (as if guilt and pleasure have anything to do with one another).

The result of such a collection is telling: With the financial boom and the excessive optimism it encouraged, the underground's response became ever more perverse and determined. The cleaner the sound and content of the hits, the dirtier the sound and content of the obscurities. The chirpier the one, the pissier the other. The noise of most '60s rock was a consequence of limited technology and funds; by the '80s any scuzzy noise was entirely deliberate. The results are monstrosities in sound, and Toilet Guppies dares you to name any young band making the rounds today that possesses even a fraction of the intensity of many of the acts on this Super Hits of the '80s collection!


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