In this article, I’m talking with Sarah Lewis, Author of “Your Eighties“, a book which celebrates the 1980’s and pop culture. I’ll let her get straight on with it:
What major trends in music shaped an era which we call the 80’s?
If there’s one word that sums up music during the Eighties, it’s “diversity”. Unlike any decade before or since, the era produced a spectrum of sound ranging from the Seventies overspill of Disco and Punk, through to Hip Hop and early Rave as we approached the Nineties. At any point during the Eighties, but especially around 84/85, you only had to look at a section of the charts to appreciate how varied the music scene was then. There would be Synth Pop and High Energy nestled alongside Rock and Metal; A Flock of Seagulls, Hazell Dean, Billy Idol and Iron Maiden all within a few chart places of each other.
Some music genres ran throughout the decade, their prominence varying due to the fashions of the time as much as the style of music they offered. For example, rock bands such as Def Leppard and Bon Jovi reached the height of their popularity in 86/87, when the mass appeal of big, permed hair was also at its highest. Although there is no denying that these music types are evocative of a particular period in time, the era-shaping trends of the Eighties were those music genres that went on to become an entire movement, the foundation of music production through to present day. I believe there are five main Eighties trends that can lay claim to having done this.
Two-Tone and Ska: The cornerstone of British music as we transitioned from the Seventies into the Eighties. Emerging from an anti-racist ideology, the message of tolerance and inclusion was often delivered both lyrically and visually, in the multi-racial mix of the bands’ line-ups.
New Romantics: Part of the UK’s broader New Wave scene, New Romantic groups such as Visage, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran brought to the fore the integration of music, image and fashion, epitomised by Blitz Kids Steve Strange, Boy George and Rusty Egan.
Post-Punk: A term that encompassed a wonderfully eclectic mix of artists from Bow Wow Wow and Adam & The Ants to Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure and Echo & The Bunnymen, all of whom were unashamedly innovative and distinctive in their music and appearance.
Synth Pop: For many, the sound of the synthesizer is the sound of the Eighties. Whether it was Gary Numan, Ultravox, OMD, Howard Jones or The Pet Shop Boys, the inimitable appeal of Synth Pop grew prolifically throughout the decade.
Hip Hop: Colourful, vibrant and relaxed, the ‘uniform’ worn by performers and followers echoed the Hip Hop sound. Although mainly associated with American acts of the late Eighties, such as De La Soul and Run-DMC, it had filtered into the UK charts during the first half of the decade, thanks to artists such as Grandmaster Flash and Rock Steady Crew. It reflected a growing interest and demand in all things American, as the UK and U.S.A. grew their ‘special relationship’.
What did Independent music do for us?
One of the reasons we had such rich, diverse music in the Eighties was due to the rise of Independent labels like Mute (Depeche Mode), Factory (Joy Division & New Order) and Rough Trade (The Smiths) records. Simply being signed to an independent record label was a statement of refusal to toe the corporate line. What it meant in reality was artists’ creativity and productivity grew, free from the constraints of the industry’s profit-managed decisions. Perhaps the most infamous example of this lack of financial regard was Factory records release of New Order’s “Blue Monday”. The artwork for the record’s original sleeve had been so expensive that each single sold actually made a loss! Never a better example of putting artistry above accounting.
Note from the editor : This clip of Bill Nelson interviewed by Mariella Frostrup is testimony to the “Do It Yourself” indie movement. Bill started Cocteau Records way back before the main independent labels and is one of my five favourite artists of all time.
The music itself, and access to it, was something of a phenomenon too. The publication of the first Indie Chart in January 1980 provided a more comprehensive picture of what people wanted to listen to, rather than the fragmented snapshots of popularity previously available. The effect of this was threefold. Firstly, it allowed radio stations and record shops to effectively meet the demand for Indie music, meaning fans had better access to the music they wanted. This, in turn, led to a crossover into the mainstream charts for a number of acts who attained fan-bases on the scale of artists signed to major labels, without losing their credibility as independent artists. The money this brought in to the independent labels provided the means to sign more and more artists, so that Indie music flourished, becoming a huge part of the diversity we have come to associate with the decade.
Tell me one of your favourite stories from “Your Eighties”
Well, without giving too much away, it has to be a recollection from James Sheppard, an 80’s fan who contacted me through my website (www.my-eighties.co.uk). I had asked for people to get in touch with their memories of growing up in the Eighties, and he replied with the opening lines “The 80s started as a decade of hope. On the 16th December 1979 I turned 9, and on the 18th we moved into a new house after a Harrier jump jet had crashed on our old one.” How could I not follow that up? Further investigation saw James recalling a tragic accident, which had made headline news. It was a privilege to be entrusted with his personal perspective, which I hope I have suitably conveyed in the book.
Similarly, the racism faced by The Special Beat when they toured the former East Germany, was another tale that captivated me when I interviewed Ranking Roger for the book. His story of the “so- called Nazi Skinheads” they encountered is compelling, as is his recollection of the more lighthearted moment when Saxa had David Bowie running errands for him, when The Beat played his support in 1983!
I can honestly say that I enjoyed every interview I undertook for ‘Your Eighties’, and the stories they produced were often hilarious. Dr. & The Medics’ Clive Jackson’s description of his wardrobe malfunction was just one of the factors that made interviewing him and the band one of the most memorable, as was Buster Bloodvessel’s onstage injury, which led to him referring to a certain part of his anatomy throughout the interview. In capturing those moments, I feel the book not only provides an insight into the Eighties, but into some of its most recognisable personalities too.
To what extent did 80’s music reflect the political and social culture of its time?
Enormously. This is a question I posed to my interviewees for ‘Your Eighties’, all of whom confirmed my own belief that one of the reasons 80’s music has endured is because of its reflection of the time in which it was written. Whether it was industrial unrest, consumerism or nuclear war, no subject was considered too big or difficult to tackle for songwriters of the Eighties. It wasn’t only those acts who were overtly political or outspoken, like The Style Council, U2 or Billy Bragg, who featured the decade’s issues in their songs. Both Ultravox’s “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” and Nik Kershaw’s “I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” were about nuclear war. As a generation, those who grew up during the Eighties could hardly fail to have some political and social awareness, simply because of the music we were listening to. From Kershaw’s pop ditty to protest songs like “Between The Wars”, and even band names (UB40 and The Beautiful South), we were never far away from politics or social comment. It caused us to think, question, have a conscience and believe we could change the world for the better. We were the ideal audience and supporters when Band Aid and Live Aid came to being in November ’84 and July ’85 respectively. In addition to the pure enjoyment at witnessing the collaboration between some of the biggest stars at the time, there was a tangible feeling that we were part of history in the making. We were right.
Who do you consider to be the most important music acts of the 80’s and why?
I think the importance of those acts most associated with the five main 80’s trends we discussed earlier are a given, although some are more notable than others. For me, Terry Hall is outstanding, not only in his role with The Specials, but also with Fun Boy Three, The Colourfield and his various collaborations as a solo artist. His continual re-invention and refusal to stick with the same, safe formula ensure his music extends way beyond the boundaries of the Eighties, which are also the reasons why I consider Paul Weller and Madonna to be important contributors.
Editor’s note : Madonna shaped much of my life in the 80’s :-) to the point of applying a beauty spot when performing
I find it difficult to answer this question from a purely musical point of view because, as we’ve already seen, 80’s music was influenced by and influenced, so many other factors. George Michael’s song writing is 80’s pop at its best, but we also shouldn’t forget that Wham! were the first Western band to tour communist China in 1985, a ground-breaking event. There is no denying the influence, quality and popularity of Culture Club’s music, due in no small part to distinctive vocal talents of Boy George. What is contentious is how successful the band would have been without George’s much- imitated look. Making their chart debut a year after the launch of MTV, Culture Club’s visual presence was fundamental to their success, but that does not necessarily lessen their importance within 80’s music. To some extent, this is also true of one of my favourite 80’s acts, Adam & The Ants. Despite having built up a notable, loyal following since forming in 1977, it was the emergence of the music video, and the band’s full embrace of it as a promotional platform, which gave Adam & The Ants a turbo boost to the top of the charts.
What is the legacy of the 1980’s on modern popular culture? What should be forgotten and what should be resurrected?
Experimentation and change are the keywords when talking about the legacy the Eighties left on modern popular culture. Whether it was music, fashion, comedy or an opinion, individuality was encouraged and positively embraced. That is something sadly missing today. Not only is there a uniformity and blandness in contemporary music and fashion, it’s almost as if the twenty- somethings and younger flatten out their personalities too when they take to the hair straighteners. Whether the cause is due to information overload, or maybe even a fear of being labelled politically incorrect, there is a palpable apathy amongst what should be the movers and shakers of a generation. The pursuit of recognition and reward for creativity, talent and (dare I say it?) making a difference in the world have been replaced by the fast-fix desire for instant fame, and a general dumbing down, in favour of mass accessibility. Whilst reality shows and the likes of the X-Factor continue to thrive, it’s unlikely to happen soon, but I do live in hope of an 80’s renaissance that sees people once again unafraid of being different and having an informed point of view.
I don’t believe there is anything that should be forgotten from the Eighties, if only to avoid making the same mistake twice. However, just because we should remember certain things doesn’t mean they should be resurrected. There are a number of offenders that fall into this category, including puffball skirts, mullets, Orville the duck, and The Toy Dolls’ version of Nellie The Elephant!
You can find Sarah Lewis’ books “Your Eighties” and “My Eighties” at Amazon: