1980s British pop - The ideological and musical battles of the decade we can't seem to recover from
As Tracey Thorn and Duran Duran’s John Taylor hit the Edinburgh Book Festival, Alan Bissett explores the music of the 80s
This article is from 2013.
Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn and Duran Duran’s John Taylor represent two very different sides of 1980s British pop. As they descend on Charlotte Square Gardens, Alan Bissett wonders whether the world will ever recover from the ideological and musical battles of that fateful decade
Where the case is more clear for other decades of British pop glory – leaping with Beatles, Bolans and Blurs – the jury’s still very much out on the 80s. When American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman dismisses Peter Gabriel’s Genesis (‘too artsy’) in favour of the Phil Collins-fronted outfit, he draws a neat line between the relentless experimentation of the 1970s and the surface-obsessed 1980s.
This symbolism exists in the album which closed the 70s, Pink Floyd’s The Wall. With Led Zeppelin already down, The Wall was the last hurrah for the rock behemoth and the ‘concept album’. Floyd’s magnum opus might not prefigure the 80s pop cheeriness but it certainly anticipates Thatcherism, with all its social alienation and ‘thought control’. By the middle of the decade, however, few artists would be thinking so deeply about these things.
UK music kicked off terrifically in the 1980s, drawing inspiration from three key 70s co-ordinates: David Bowie, Kraftwerk and punk. The Sex Pistols, having scoured the landscape of rock dinosaurs, cleared the way for an energetic New Wave. Lyrical wit and edgy textures were crushed into pop gems by Joy Division, Elvis Costello, Gary Numan, The Police, Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow and Toyah Willcox.
Ska groups like Madness, The Specials, UB40 and The Beat inherited a social commentary from the likes of The Clash. Meanwhile, the New Romantics took their visual cue from Bowie’s sartorial flamboyance, and their musical one from his ‘white soul’ era, with a coke-dusting of the Berlin period. If there’s a clear sonic distinction between the 70s and 80s, it’s that drums and guitar, emblematic of a rock‘n’roll spirit since the 1950s, were junked for washes of synth, Casio percussion and billowing saxophones to signify emotion.
That said, the demise of rock benefited Scotland disproportionately: the lair of hair-monsters Nazareth became the minor coup of Postcard Records, Orange Juice, Altered Images, The Fire Engines, Josef K, and The Pastels. Glasgow’s still-thriving indie scene remains thankful.
After the anarchist youth revolt of punk, British music soon lost its way politically. Where New Wave and Ska still represented something of a challenge to the emerging Thatcherite creed, the New Romantics embraced it. Bands like Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, ABC, Ultravox, The Thompson Twins, Kajagoogoo, Heaven 17 and, especially, Duran Duran truly defined 80s glitz. Bowie threw his lot in with them early on with 1980’s Scary Monsters, before setting a course for the heart of pop three years later with Let’s Dance.
The New Romantics trounced punk. Think of this period and you see Simon Le Bon pleasure-boating in the video for ‘Rio’ and Martin Fry’s gold lamé suit. Image has never been an irrelevance to pop, but thanks to the MTV explosion, the decade frontloaded visuals at the expense of music like never before. By the mid-80s, the blow-dried, perma-tanned puppetry of Wham! and Bananarama were the biggest things in the country.
It would be tempting to remember the 80s as a time of fun abandon, when the solemn profundity of post-Sgt Pepper rock was finally jettisoned for the endorphin rush of pop singles. But this was the terrain, let’s not forget, on which a civil war was being fought. The Miners’ Strike – the last stand of the British working class against Thatcher’s onslaught – happened at the same time as pop music was turning towards empty capitalist slogans about following your dream and being all you can be.
Even Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and the Live Aid concert at Wembley, while certainly well-intentioned, fatally decontextualised the issue of poverty and meant that charity was to replace protest in the national consciousness. Queen raised an apolitical fist at the centre of the decade to stadium-sized cheers, leaving Red Wedge – the socialist pop collective of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, The Communards’ Jimmy Somerville and Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn – as the sole musical resistance to Thatcher.
Still, no other decade could do shallow quite as seductively as the 1980s. The likes of Pet Shop Boys and Eurythmics became influential not for what they had to say but for their icy Kraftwerkian aesthetic, offering an electronically raised eyebrow at all the permed moppets.
The point of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ isn’t what it means, but the possibilities for new genres in its squelchy keyboard lines and glitchy, processed beats (hello, Kid A). Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s turbo-charged, gay-sex drama ‘Relax’ shocked the mainstream to the extent that Radio 1 issued a ban. Bonnie Tyler’s soaring ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ remains the glorious zenith of the power ballad. Acid house brought ecstatic, dancefloor vistas into pop clothing c/o S’Express and The KLF. And forget The Streets: it was Neneh Cherry – a punchy, what-is-she-like, urban tyke – who first gave British hip hop credibility.
Perhaps because our country was taking an economic hammering, Scotland retained emotional layers to its pop. The Blue Nile were one of the few to combine the synth and Linn drum-track with a deep, yearning melancholy, while Cocteau Twins oozed a shimmering beauty. Their fellow Scots rejected electronica entirely for a more organic sound: Hue and Cry, Deacon Blue, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions and (on their first album, at least) Wet Wet Wet remain fantastically underrated bands whose lyrical nous was matched by a passionate soul-pop delivery that’s only embarrassing if you want it to be.
Certain artists thrived from challenging the prevailing fashions. Kate Bush’s proggy Hounds of Love is the crowning achievement of the British album in the 1980s. The Smiths created a mini-revolution out of rejection and The Cure spun an entire sub-genre – goth – from threads of twisted, blackened pop. Any teenager who didn’t fit into the branded new Pepsiworld which British town centres had become could still find heroes in the Top 40.
This music of outsiders has proven to be enduring. Now that all the Five Stars and Simply Reds have fallen away, statues of Morrissey and Marr, Robert Smith and Kate Bush remain. Belated reinforcements arrived late in the decade, via the shoulder-swinging shape of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, whose E’d-up Madchester anthems would spawn the 90s knees-up of Britpop and rave.
But the complex ideological battleground of the 80s produced another, somewhat more depressing result. In 1987, Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s Hit Factory moved onto the block and, using refugees from the improbably successful Aussie soap opera Neighbours, created the sort of sugary, production-line pop that could appeal only to children under ten. Where Toyah Willcox, at the start of the decade, had wanted to ‘turn suburbia upside down’, the Hit Factory wanted everyone to move there. It spelled out British pop’s long-term doom.
Just as Thatcher’s policies created an eventual economic collapse, so too has our musical currency gone into stagflation. Simon Cowell, a protégé of Pete Waterman, brought the Hit Factory business plan into our X Factored present, clogging up not only radio playlists but television schedules with a nightmarish supply of pop mannequins.
For One Direction read Bros. For JLS read Big Fun. For Olly Murs read Rick Astley. The 60s and 70s might have ended, but the 80s, with its permanent future of serotonined product, never did. It’s almost enough to make you build a wall.
Tracey Thorn, 18 Aug, 8pm, £10 (£8);
John Taylor, 17 Aug, 9.30pm, £10 (£8)
Alan Bissett on Trainspotting, 14 Aug, 1pm, £15 (£12).
All events at Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888.
Alan Bissett: Ban This Filth!, Scottish Storytelling Centre, High Street, 0131 556 9579, 2–11 Aug, 9pm, £12 (£10). Preview 1 Aug, £8.