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?
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.
1. Touch of Grey – The Grateful Dead (1987)
The ‘Dead are the quintessential hippy band, dealing in an amalgam of country, psychedelia, jazz-rock, bluegrass, and blues, famously presenting their material via extended jams for the benefit of hoards of tie-dyed, blazed-up followers. Their catalog is celebrated, with albums like American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead being examples of their artistic reach during their prime. But, they never scored a top ten hit; until the 1980s. And this one is very deserving indeed.
Even if they were looked upon as being a band of an era long gone outside of their deadhead fanbase by 1987, this song was undeniable. It even got play on MTV! Its success had to do with how catchy it is, of course. But, I think the reason it succeeds so well is that the song tells the story of the band as they were at the time, and of that very core audience that had grown up with them, and that was then growing older. “I will get by, I will survive” and eventually the “WE will get by” by the end of the song held all kinds of meaning for both its authors and its fans.
The Stones take a lot of heat for being too old to rock these days. But, they’re used to that by now, considering that this kind of rhetoric was being flung at them thirty years ago, too. They’d certainly weathered the trends more so than having convincingly integrated them by the time this song came out, with album reviews not being quite as widely praised by the beginning of the ’80s as compared to their ’60s and early ’70s period. Yet, with this track, they managed to use the tools of the time to hook into the spirit of what made their music so compelling twenty years before, even if they really had passed their peak by this time.
“Undercover Of The Night” concerns itself with violence, with corruption, with moral shades of grey that had typified songs like “Street Fighting Man”, “Stray Cat Blues”, and “Sympathy For The Devil”. Also, they found their mojo with the blues again, with Richards’ crunchy and appealingly atonal rhythm part locking perfectly with Mick Jagger’s rapid-fire snarl of a lead voice, plus his bluesy harp playing which had graced their earliest hits. Even bassist Bill Wyman gets a piece here, with a bassline that provides a vital call and response dynamic to the whole. With this song it sounds like they just said “Fuck it. We’re the Stones. Let’s sound like the Stones.” So, they do, and for the last time in a while from then on as the Jagger/Richards schism began in earnest.
3. That Girl – Stevie Wonder (1981)
Stevie Wonder really was one, scoring a number of hits on the Motown label in the ’60s, before he was 21. That doesn’t even count the second phase of his career during which he was artistically untouchable as an album artist. But, by the 1980s, it appeared that his prime was behind him. “Ebony & Ivory” and “I Just Called To Say I Love You” loomed ominously in his future. But, just as he was wrapping up his artistically fertile album phase to prepare for his more commercially-minded maudlin one, the highlights of that earlier period represented on his 1982 compilation album Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I was released.
On it was this song, originally a b-side that now served as a lead single to this retrospective, released at the tail end of 1981. And like a rush of fresh air into a stuffy room, this song captured the artist in his prime, with some of the best singing of his career, along with the jazzy changes that had made his ’60s and ’70s hits so distinguished. His music would eventually embrace the technology of the times in the ’80s, which was something of a detriment to it, unlike when he did so the decade before. But on this single, that old magic that bridged the gap between soul, jazz, and pop shimmered with glory on radios all over the world in the spirit of his ’60s and ’70s prime one last time, with a bit of lyrical acrimony meets desire that would be absent from the crowd-pleasers later on.
4. Most Of the Time – Bob Dylan (1989)
By his own admission as outlined in his autobiographical Chronicles, Vol. 1, Bob Dylan found himself adrift by the mid-80s, feeling artistically bereft and even thinking about retirement. Considering himself something of a throwback to an era long gone, in line with many critical opinions at the time, Dylan speculated that being a fan of his at the time must have felt like wandering through “deserted orchards and dead grass”. His own words. Harsh.
But, ironically it would be one of the key voices in ’80s rock production that would come to his aid during this time of being supposedly abandoned by his muse. Daniel Lanois who had produced some of the best selling records by U2 and Peter Gabriel would help Dylan create one of his most enduring albums of the decade in Oh Mercy. “Most Of The Time” is the best song on it, emotionally connected, full of pathos, and eloquently presented by all involved. Don’t listen to this one after a break up, kids – trust me. It is one of those songs that will remind you why Dylan was considered such a strong voice of an era, even if that era had passed. But, as it turns out, this song carries enough resonance of raw human experience that makes the generation question completely moot, anyway. Also, be sure to check out the acoustic version, which shows just how close in spirit this song is to his earliest and most celebrated songs.
5. My Secret Place – Joni Mitchell (1988)
Joni Mitchell had been famously exploratory when it came to making records since her debut at the end of the 1960s. She started as a folky poet, drifting to a confessional singer-songwriter (a term she hates, of course), to a full-blown jazz-rock storyteller, working with some of the top session guys, and jazzmen of their time. Her range of influence during this period is very difficult to ascertain in terms of how huge it was. Prince was a fan. So was Elvis Costello. Annie Lennox, too. But, by the ’80s, she also was thought of as a figure of a generation gone by when it came to the average radio-listener, even if those aforementioned artists who were making critical headway at that point had done so at least in part under her influence. This could also be that Mitchell insisted on writing songs of protest at the time that were often pretty stridently expressed, a definitely unfashionable choice in the mid-to-late ’80s.
But when it came to writing songs that were unmistakably her own, she still had plenty of gas in the tank with this song on her 1988 album Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm, a duet with Peter Gabriel (geez! Another fan!) who is technically a ’60s artist, sort of, who had it pretty good by the ’80s. Duets with rising stars were a common gambit for artists in her position at the time, I suppose (Aretha/George Michael, Dusty/Pet Shop Boys, et al). But this song is pure Joni, full of her trademark open tunings, appealing lyrical impressionism that is still warm and emotionally connected, and gauzy atmosphere that makes it a high point of her latter day period without dated production getting in the way. More highlights were to come by the 1990s, including a multiple grammy win for 1994’s Turbulent Indigo, which would be a highlight of her late period before her eventual semi-retirement by the 2000s.
6. I’m Coming Out – Diana Ross (1980)
Along with her compatriots in the Supremes, Diana Ross is responsible for some of the biggest and most era-defining hits of the 1960s. For number one records on the R&B and pop charts, they rivaled the Beatles. By the early ’80s, Ross was on her own. For the first time, she’d managed to get out from under the stern influence of Berry Gordy, hence this tune that appears on her album Diana. Arguably later on in the decade, she’d fall to maudlin duets and otherwise replaced by ingenue singers of accessible soul-pop and dance-pop like Whitney Houston and Madonna. But, this song from her latter day period in the top ten is as full of joie de vivre as any Supremes tune, with the help of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic who produced it, and who play on it.
Its quality is helped along due to the fact that Ross remained to be one of the few ’60s pop singers to have made the transition into the disco era with any sort of authority. By the early ’80s, she was still riding high in that musical vein, as well as catching the wave of emerging gay culture that took this song as a theme. Even if her career in the top ten would taper off during the rest of the decade as newer and younger singers began to fill the space, this is one of the songs that managed to speak to the times in which it was made without sounding as if everyone concerned was trying too hard to be relevant, a common malady for established artists at the time.
7. Rockit – Herbie Hancock (1983)
There are a many examples of established artists having made their names in the ’60s trying it on as far as a contemporary sound goes in the 1980s. What comes through in the worst examples (*coughStarshipcough*) is the obvious bid for relevance using the accouterments of the time without the artistic foundation to support it. But, with Herbie Hancock who started as a post-bop jazz pianist in the early ’60s, the line from an original sound in acoustic jazz to the electro beats of the early ’80s had been a path he’d been on for at least a decade. He’d explored an interest and capacity in soul, funk, and synthesizers as they intersected with jazz by the end of the ’60s. These recordings were informed by emerging technology, but driven more so by artistic curiosity than by new toys.
By 1983 this song was not an imitation of a sound by some academic muso from the ’60s. It is the real thing, with an undeniable central riff, and all kinds of supporting textures to make it a substantial entry into the electro genre. And for an egghead jazz guy, Herbie Hancock certainly benefited from the video age, with a video (directed by Godley & Creme!) that emphasized how much it lent itself to visuals especially for an instrumental, and generally how much it is about audience benefit, rather than that of an artist trying to stay ahead of some ephemeral trend. It wasn’t a play for popularity. It was about enthusiasm for exploring new forms that are connected to common sources out of which the artist had come from the start. That’s why this song works so well; that enthusiasm comes through, and leaves those bids for “relevance” tried by others in the dust.
8. Wonderin’ – Neil Young (1983)
Neil Young had embraced synthesizer technology by the 1980s, too. And his record company hated it. His album Trans had embraced synths and vocoders, and had left behind what many considered to be his signature sound. So his record company demanded that he record “representative work”. Purportedly someone said “we want a rock ‘n’ roll album!”. So, Young recorded one. But, “rock ‘n’ roll” had come to mean many things by the early ’80s. So, what does a ’60s and ’70s icon do when confronted by having to make a rock ‘n’ roll album in the ’80s? Well, he went back to the ’50s of course and made Everybody’s Rockin‘. What a joker!
Basically, this was an anti-80s record. It wasn’t a culturally important release, which may have been the sticking point for critics. And it didn’t shift units the way that Harvest had done, which was the sticking point for the label. But, it showed that Neil Young’s songwriting range went beyond his signature sound everyone demanded of him. Maybe he did it to piss off David Geffen. But in my humble opinion, this really is a great little rock ‘n’ roll song with real heart and affection for where rock music had come from during a time when (Stray Cats notwithstanding) the roots of rock ‘n’ roll were being forgotten in the mainstream. Eventually after a period adrift, Young found a way to keep rocking in the free world by the end of the decade to everyone’s satisfaction, even his record company. This was just in time for an era when his musical children would laud him as a grungy godfather in a class by himself.
9. Come Dancing – The Kinks (1982)
Like Neil Young, Ray Davies and his output with the Kinks has now been established as a key influence to bands that emerged in the 1990s, particularly to Britpop acts. But after their ’60s heyday, the band largely lost its mainstream radio appeal with a series of concept records and a rotating line-up around Ray and brother Dave. But, by the 1980s, they’d decided to (wait for it) give the people what they want. And this was their best answer during that period; an eloquent, charming, tuneful, wistful story-song about growing up in the 1950s, enjoying good times at the local palais during a more innocent age. It would be their highest charting US single.
Maybe this song wins because it answers the question of being contemporary with a shot of nostalgia instead. But at the same time, that very idea of being contemporary and throwing away the past is woven right into the song itself. The palais, once the center of a childhood is demolished, making way for the new. Whether the new is better than the old isn’t really addressed with any absolute value, perhaps because it’s too big a question to deal with in a four-minute pop song. But, the very fact that its the Kinks singing it that which gives it a layer of communication to a contemporary audience; that there is value in the old as well as in the new. This song says that treasuring our memories, being as they are the fabric of our lives, is something to be appreciated in any age.
10. Graceland – Paul Simon (1986)
If this were a competition around which “’60s rocker” (ugh!) did the best business in the ’80s in terms of cultural impact as well as selling records, then Paul Simon would be a definite contender, maybe vying for top spot with Tina Turner or Steve Winwood. His Graceland album seemed to transcend the idea of a collection of songs, and approached something like that of a case study about how a single album could change the course of a whole career. This album did this not by negatively impacting the importance of what came before, but rather by expanding the palette from which the artist had drawn up until this point. It’s been played and overplayed by now, full of all kinds of praise and criticisms as to its approach or its real quality beyond the gagillions of units its moved. But, it may be the best example of how an established artist created a definitive work outside of the era with which he is otherwise associated.
Of course (as I am wont to say) none of the massive success would make any difference if the work itself didn’t connect well beyond just sales figures and mainstream ubiquity. It does, and on multiple levels. For one, even if Simon incorporates the music of South Africa into his arrangement here (along with some Scotty Moore-like guitar), he’s still true to his own strengths in the songwriting department, not relying on some gimmick to get him by. And like The Grateful Dead song above, he hooks into the sensibilities and experiences of the audience that has followed his career up until this point; a broken marriage, a child in tow, and a quest as identified by a cultural mecca known to baby boomers from way back. As it turns out, the melange of musical styles found on this song managed to short circuit that expectation for an ’80s sound, while making it and other songs on the album live well beyond the times and the generational biases in which it was created.
Given that the output of these artists above is incomparable to even each other’s, its hard to pinpoint the reasons for why some ’60s figures overcame the musical changing of the guard while others didn’t. Some were undone by trying to follow trends that were not in tune with their talents. Some were undone by dated production, or by the changing rules of pop music success that emphasized youth and (let’s face it) photogenic appeal on MTV. Some overcame on some recordings during the ’80s, and crashed and burned on others. Most of these can be applied to any artist in any era.
I think one of the common denominators to be found in the above examples of ’60s icons in the ’80s, and in others not named, was the ability to adapt and to take chances, pushing through the musical and even cultural factors that perhaps worked against them on paper, yet also staying true to their own voices. In effect, it was those very qualities that won their success in the first place that helped to secure them twenty years later on. In this, maybe the game hadn’t really changed much at all.
So, getting back to the list, which ones have I missed? Tell me all about it in the comments section!