Music of the 1980s

Written: 9 September, 2000

The 1980s is when I really started getting interested in music.

I started out the decade, at ten years old, somewhat frightened and intimidated by rock music. Rock music was something that older people listened to. I had liked KISS during the late 1970s, but that was mainly because they looked like superheroes.

We got cable TV around 1981, and the channel that was of the most interest to us kids was MTV. I remember coming home for lunch and we had just had the cable installed, and I turned the channel to MTV, and the first video I saw was a Triumph video, where the group was standing on a giant guitar that was flying through outer space.

Suddenly I was becoming a music fan. I'd not liked radio because I could never tell who was singing the song, or what the song's title was, because sometimes the DJ wouldn't even say who it was, or he'd only say it after playing a few songs in a row and by that time I might have switched the station. But MTV made me aware of who the artists were because I could put faces to the music, and each song opened and closed with the name of the artist and name of the song printed at the bottom of the screen. So, a novice like myself could feel knowledgeable about current music very quickly.

But I couldn't watch MTV all the time -- my mom usually took over the TV after 6pm -- so I ended up listening to the radio more. I remember when Def Leppard's "Photograph" had come out (I had really liked their song "Bringing on the Heartbreak" before that), and I found that I stood a better chance of hearing the song on the radio, where there were many music channels, that simply waiting for it to play on one TV channel (MTV).

1985 was a sort of middle period for me, because I was getting interested in new music as well as old music big-time. I would occasionally buy magazines like Creem and Spin, and was interested in reading about the new groups that were out there.

There is a kind of myth out there that the 1980s didn't have alternative music, that it was all Top 40 stuff until Nirvana came along in 1992. But I know that as a teenager in the 1980s, most of the stuff I listened to was a bit off-the-beaten-track, not just the Top 40 stuff. CBC (Canadian) TV used to have a show called "Video Hits" which came on around 4:30pm, hosted by a blonde VJ named Samantha Taylor (no relation to anyone in Duran Duran), and they used to play videos by people who were a little more obscure, like Platinum Blonde, The Box, Parachute Club, and Honeymoon Suite. I remember during this period my favorite then-current bands included Jesus and Mary Chain, Scritti Politti, and The Dream Academy. I remember that I first heard of 10,000 Maniacs in an issue of Creem, and then later saw the video for "Like the Weather" on either VH-1 or MTV at around 6am one morning when I happened to be up. I still like some of the songs on their "In My Tribe" album (although I no longer own the record).

There was also a sort of alternative station in the mid-1980s in my area that would play cool stuff. It was on that station that I first heard Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" (edited version, though). I still remember some of the songs they played on that station, but I don't know who they were by. There was one that went: "Where, where the hell is Bill/where, where the hell is Bill...Well, maybe he went to buy a British flag, " etc., and another one that had the chorus "Take the skinheads bowling, take them bowling." I think one of those might have been by Camper Van Beethoven (a line from their 1980s song "Club Med Sucks" I was just thinking about recently: "I want no part of your death culture"). I also liked Robyn Hitchcock's "My Wife and My Dead Wife" although I didn't realize who sang it until a couple years ago.

Late 1980s stuff that I dug were songs by XTC (and their pseudonym, The Dukes of Stratoshpear), Lou Reed's "Romeo Had Juliette" and "Dirty Blvd." (off his 1989 NEW YORK album), Morrisey's "Girlfriend in a Coma" (which I'd taped off MTV at the time), Elvis Costello's "Veronica" (ditto), and Roger Waters' "The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking." Of more radio-friendly material, I liked some of Prince's 1980s stuff, particularly his Parade album (which had "Kiss" on it). I was really getting into 1960s music (especially the Beatles and Monkees) during the 1980s, so I really liked it when I saw new groups like Plasticland, Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians and Lenny Kravitz who seemed to reflect that 1960s style.

In 1988, I wrote a piece saying that I wished Huey Lewis would grow his hair long (instead of boasting how he'd cut it, in the song "It's Hip to Be Square"), which is what I was doing in the 1980s. Around 1987, The Beatles albums were released on CD, and I recall a news anchor mentioning that although the records were making a comeback, their haircuts weren't. The hairstyle then was kinda like the hairstyle now, although maybe it's even worse now, with many men trying to have their hair as short as possible, or practically non-existent. Growing my hair long in the 1980s felt like rebelling against the establishment, against the conformity I saw in the nearly all-white suburb where I lived. So, it kinda surprised me just a few years later -- after I had graduated -- when I saw high school kids with long hair, trying to look like Eddie Vedder. Long hair had become "in" again, but I didn't feel like the new grunge sensibility or the new music was something aimed at me. I was glad that the guitar had returned to prominence in music, but it just seemed too bluesy and boring for me.