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The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

This article was first published on CLUAS in Feb 2001

Sounds like the 80s

Kay reflects on pop from the decade that was the 80s

80's pop - what was that all about? The revival has been approaching now for the last few years - even before the 90's had a chance to pass. It's as if the thirty-something-or-others can't wait to get their teeth into a revival of their own. You can hear it on the radio, on your fave TV programme, at the latest wedding or birthday party, you can even attend clubs that specialize in it and you can't avoid it coming around again - the 80s! But you'll find one person's eighties is another's nightmare and attitudes and memories vary widely.

The decade started well enough, there was a healthy mix of musical and fashion styles in the charts with regular visits from the likes of Madness, The Jam, Fun Boy Three, Soft Cell, The Human League, Dexys etc. From the comfort of your armchair on a Thursday night watching Top of the Pops you could witness the fall out of punk, post punk, ska revival and the new electronic sound. It was challenging and knowing, more clever than cute and made for some great pop music.

LimahlThings went a bit funny around 1984. Haircuts and clothes became exaggerated but more worryingly the sounds were changing. An ugly drum sound was emerging. A synthetic, heavily affected snare and layers of tacky crude keyboard became a blueprint for mid 80's chart music. New pretenders came and went, leaving a slick, modern yet unlistenable imprint on the charts. The recording studios were replacing the warmer analogue equipment with banks of cool chrome digital outboard. The trouble lay in how the technicians would approach this new machinery and oh, how our ears suffered. An older generation (e.g. Huey Lewis, the Genesis crowd, Steve Winwood, etc) entrusted themselves to the hi tech chancers, ensuring their spot on the mainstream map.

There was little refuge to be found in any new guitar groups - sonically an underachieving tinny bunch. It seemed the engineers could no longer record a drum kit properly. The needless machinery was dictating the sound, too many gadgets and not enough ideas. Witness the disappointing sound of The Smiths' records, a great group who didn't deserve the sound of the eighties. Some bands subverted the sound quality conundrum and used it to their advantage (e.g. The Jesus and Mary Chain who swamped their girl group bop in layers of distortion). Acts from the punk era (e.g. Talking Heads, The Pretenders, etc) floundered at some stage on the rocks of the programmed keyboard dead drum sea. Others fared better, the Cure and Depeche Mode, who were not averse to the sound crimes of the day, closed the decade with the cinematic soundscapes Disintegration and Violator.

Robert Smith of the CureA lot of people turn their nose up at the music of the eighties but I suspect it's the generic synthetic sound of its mid period chart music that they're dismissing. What is often overlooked is that a fair amount of good bands emerged at that time eg New Order, The Fall, U2, Sonic Youth, R.E.M. (insert your choice). These acts followed their own course and in varying degrees used the technology of the time to their advantage (just about).

By 1987 things were looking better for the pop charts. A more innovative crew had discovered the machinery. The drum sounds had improved and a DIY ethic was informing the hits of the day eg M.A.R.R.S., S-Express. Sampling was changing how people approached the construction of sound and hip hop had emerged as a formidable creative and commercial force (e.g. Public Enemy, LL Cool J, De La Soul). The mish mash of genres - rap vs rock vs funk vs psychedelia - that people like Prince had already demonstrated, was to become the norm. Additionally, the going overground of the house/techno sound soups of Chicago, Germany or wherever else set the scene for the diverse, expanding rollercoaster the 90's allegedly were.

In 1989 music created principally by people who played guitars had regained some dignity. The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays suggested a grooviness rock had forgotten and the first few Pixies albums arrived as razor clear uneffected lyrical milestones.

And that was it, it ended there. Except it didn't, the next year just happened to be the nineties. The numbers ticked over, nine became zero. I've only mentioned a fraction of all the notable participants but you can't generalize about the sound of an arbitrary bunch of years, just leave that to the marketing heads and rose tinted revivalists. Personalize your own revival and tell us how it was.

So the eighties, you say, we survived it eh? Looks like it. Just about.

Kay Lester

(bullet) Check out also the 10 great naff songs of the 1980s (as chosen by CLUAS readers)