It is a decade that is very often maligned by rock and classic pop fans, particularly those who followed some of the innovators of the form from the 1960s. The ’80s were pretty hard on the artists of that previous era. And why was that?
(image: Lawrence Whittemore)
It could be that the ’80s had become a producer’s decade, a time when digital technology ruled the roost over the warmth of analogue technology of decades previous. This not only affected the way the records sounded. It also affected how they were recorded, too. Further, the ’80s was the first decade in which youthful visages on a TV screen became inextricably linked to mainstream success, forcing many veterans to rethink their presentation, sometimes with not-so-great results in the wardrobe/dance-move department. Quite simply, there was a new generation of competitors for the (dollar) attention of the average music fan. The veteran artists themselves who had established the rules of popular music in the ’60s were in a new arena, with time having marched on in all kinds of ways.
Needless to say, it seems like a given to say that most iconic artists of the Love Generation didn’t have a very good decade in the age of the Rubik’s Cube, the 20-Minute Workout, and the fuschia legwarmer-headband combo, at least not in terms of their comparable output in each period. But, this is too simple to be true across the board. Through it all, some very good music was made, maybe against all odds. Some of it was because of the new technology and approach that the decade offered which opened up stylistic possibiities. Some of it was inspite of that technology, with the artists turning to their considerable artistic strengths and experience in the face of younger competitors and new fangled tools.
Either way, here are 10 moments in the careers of the masters in a decade that was otherwise unkind to members of their generation and sometimes to them personally, critically speaking.
Listen to this track by British songwriter and lost Macca-esque psychedelia creator John Bromley. It’s “So Many Things”, a 1969 song as taken from his sole album Sing. On that album, and on this song, he is backed by The Fleur De Lys, his labelmates at the time. That band in turn was something of a rearguard to the British Invasion, launching in 1964, but never quite reaching the heights of their fellow beat combos who’d made the trip across the Atlantic.
The Fleur De Lys had trolled the edges of the ’60s rock scene, with touches from Chas Chandler, Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate Records, and Jimmy Page who had produced one of their singles, “Moondreams”. As you can hear, their sound had morphed into a classic Beatlesque stew with not just a few Who references, with the band having once recorded Pete Townshend’s “Circles” in 1966.
Bromley was primarily a songwriter, penning tunes for singer Jackie DeShannon. By the end of the decade, he was encouraged by Polydor to collect some of his singles together, including this one, for a full length album – Sing. Appropriately, it’s Bromley’s voice that stands out here, with lyrics that touch on a very important ingredient to be found on a certain kind of psychedelia that was in it’s last phase by the time this song had been recorded.
Listen to this track by former Roxy Music member, producer, and ambient art rock forseer Brian Eno. It’s “St. Elmo’s Fire”, a song as featured on his landmark 1975 album Another Green World.
When not playing the songs on the album completely by himself, he is joined by some luminary musicians from the prog and art rock camp, including Robert Fripp (who plays the squiggly guitar break on this tune), John Cale, and Phil Collins of Genesis, one of the many bands to which Eno would lend his sought-after production skills.
Eno’s feel for texture in the producer’s seat would also inform this record, which was looked upon as a crossroads album away from rock songs, albeit ones with unexpected angles, and into a more experimental space where minimalist mood pieces were more central. This song is one of five out of fourteen that contains lyrics, for instance.
There is a lot of talk about experimentation when artists put out records that diverge from the pop song plot. But, the question in this case is, was the experiment a success? (more…)
Listen to this track by British singer-songwriter, producer, and neo-classical, electronica, art rock vessel Imogen Heap. It’s “The Listening Chair”, a single as taken from her latest record Sparks. That record began three years ago, when she began to collect sounds and subject matter to use as material to weave into its fabric, sourcing much of it directly from fans. The sounds themselves are field recordings of ordinary sounds, serving Heap as “sound seeds” for new songs. Even the cover of the album is a collage of footprints made by fans. The subject matter began to coalesce when she began to find common threads in the suggestions for songs made by fans her own age, and at the same stage of life.
On this song, a complex series of melodic and harmonic lines are created from her voice, with layer upon layer being added to create a song that can be described as being delicate, and full of existential darkness too, like that of a life itself. And funny that! This is Heap’s aural autobiography, from her early childhood to her 35-year old self, from talking to animals to making love, making money, and making a difference.
In any case, what does the listening chair represent beyond that? Well, it’s something that’s never been done before. (more…)
Listen to this track by synth-pop purveyors and technologically minded quartet from the Wirral in the northwest of England Orchestral Manoeuvers In The Dark, aka OMD. It’s “Tesla Girls”, a single as taken from their 1984 LP Junk Culture.
The album was the follow-up to Dazzle Ships, which had served to be something of a dip in their fortunes chartwise the year previous, a record that’s now celebrated as being ahead of its time, even if it was misunderstood by critics upon release. It could be that their work had drifted into darker political themes and more experimental textures that perhaps didn’t play as well on the radio by 1983.
This song was a definite move in a more pop direction after the more avant garde approach of Dazzle Ships.This single was the third salvo from Junk Culture as a whole after “Locomotion” and “Talking Loud and Clear”. And what a bright and chirpy song this is, although as usual the lyrics of this song make it angular and distant for contrast, and somewhat mysterious too. And to that point, who are the Tesla Girls of this song, anyway? (more…)
Listen to this track by former member of pub rockers The Motors and power pop proponent in his own right Bram Tchiakovsky, also the name of the band. It’s “Girl Of My Dreams”, a minor hit as featured on his 1979 solo album Strange Man, Changed Man.
The track scored attention on both sides of the Atlantic, with a sort of stylistic reversal at work. By that I mean that Bram Tchaikovsky was a British musician, playing American-style power pop, a style which had been influenced in turn by British musicians in the ’60s.
Influences in rock music had become pretty permeable by the end of the Seventies in that way, with an incredible and seemingly simultaneous shift back to the musical basics on both sides of the pond that made rock music so vital in the first place; hooks, lyrics that spoke to the experiences of an audience, and a simple is best approach to everything, from solos, to arrangements, to production.
All of that can be found here in this unassuming pop song. So where did it come from? (more…)
Listen to this track by Austin Texas rock auteurs Spoon. It’s “Jonathon Fisk”, a single from their critically-acclaimed 2002 record Kill The Moonlight, their fourth. The album would place them on track to be one of the most consistently great bands of the 2000s, establishing an artistic trajectory and momentum they continue to create for themselves today. The record would make all kinds of best-of lists across the music press.
The song is a childhood recollection by singer, guitarist, and writer Britt Daniel of being bullied by the titular figure; a kid who talks with his fists, and counts the narrator’s teeth every night. But, this is no act of revenge, the result of a songwriter lashing out through his art. It goes deeper than that, back into the primal fear of what it feels like to be persecuted by a school bully when you’re a kid, and to realize you’re still carrying it with you.
But, this being Spoon, the whole drama unfolds using the most basic of tools, and to the most precise effects. (more…)