In Defense of 80s Music (part one)
Hold on to your seats. This is a long entry.
When recalling the music of the past six decades, a span that includes rock and roll in all its permutations, certain artists probably come to mind. The 1950s might conjure up images of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, The Coasters and Jerry Lee Lewis. The 1960s would have to include The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but might also include Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Supremes, The Temptations, and the like. The 1970s – my favorite decade by far – is a bit trickier: sure, it was the decade of Zeppelin and The Who (and the Stones, again), but also Elton John, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Or was it the decade of Yes, Genesis, ELP and Jethro Tull? Or maybe all you really need to say is Stevie Wonder. Or Fleetwood Mac. And let’s not forget the influx of new talent in the latter part of the decade: The Cars, Elvis Costello, The Clash, The Police, Rickie Lee Jones, Van Halen, Joe Jackson, etc.
But something funny occurs when the 80s is mentioned. Often, what comes to mind is either synth pop bands like Erasure, Howard Jones, Uh-huh, The Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Madonna, etc., or the big hair bands like Ratt, Motley Crue, Poison and the like. Of course, Michael Jackson needs to be included in your 80s recap, and let’s not forget the two blockbuster movies that encapsulate popular music of this time period pretty well: Flashdance and Footloose.
If you’re a fan of big hair bands and synth pop bands, then you likely rate the 80s as a very good decade for music. Good for you. For those that don’t, the 80s might be considered a decade to loathe, invoking images of synthesizers, drum machines, narrow ties, short hair and loads of eye makeup that induce a sort of gag reflex in some people.
But hold on, because I’m here to defend 80s music, and I think I can do so convincingly.
After reviewing the Billboard hits of the past sixty years, it’s apparent to me that for reasons not entirely understood, our opinion of decades past is skewed unfairly away from the 80s and unjustly toward the 60s and 50s.
Disagree? Have you listened to an Oldies station lately? I have, and what amazes me is just how much crap these early decades had to offer. Forgettable songs by forgettable bands. We might remember the cream of the crop, but for every Elvis, The Beatles and Chuck Berry, there was a Pat Boone, Petula Clark and Peter, Paul and Mary (sorry, not a fan).
Take a look at the top 10 Billboard songs for 1961 (according to the website xerraire.com):
- Tossin' And Turnin' - Bobby Lewis
- Big Bad John - Jimmy Dean
- Runway - Del Shannon
- Wonderland By Night - Bert Kaempfert
- Pony Time - Chubby Checker
- The Lion Sleep Tonight - the Tokens
- Blue Moon - the Marcels
- Take Good Care of my Baby - Bobby Vee
- Calcutta - Lawrence Welk
- Runaround Sue – Dion
Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the 60s, is it?
“Now wait a minute,” you might say. “Fast forward a few years and let’s see what the 60s REALLY has to offer.”
That’s a fair point. Let’s look at 1967:
- To Sir With Love – Lulu
- Daydream Believer - the Monkees
- Windy - the Association
- Ode To Billie Joe - Bobbie Gentry
- Somethin' Stupid - Nancy & Frank Sinatra
- Groovin' - Young Rascals
- The Letter - the Box Tops
- Light My Fire – Doors
- Happy Together - the Turtles
- Hello Goodbye - the Beatles
A little better list, I think, but not exactly stellar. Where’s the Hendrix? Cream? The Stones?
How about 1969?
- Aquarious/Let The Sunshine In - 5th Dimension
- In The Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) - Zager & Evans
- Get Back - the Beatles
- Sugar, Sugar - the Archies
- Hony Tonk Women - Rolling Stones
- Everyday People - Sly and the Family Stone
- Dizzy - Tommy Roe
- Wedding Bell Blues - 5th Dimension
- I Can't Get Next To You – Temptations
- Crimson And Clover - Tommy James and the Shondells
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere, but still…this is 1969! The year of Woodstock. The year of Tommy, CSN’s debut album, Abbey Road, Let It Bleed.
I think the bottom line is this: when we recall the great music of decades past, we don’t necessarily recall the hits (or at least the really big hits); we recall the songs that still resonate today, and by that definition, many of the greatest songs ever written end up rising to the top regardless of their Billboard chart performance. That’s as it should be.
But with the 80s, I think just the opposite occurs. It seems that we remember ONLY the hits, and if you’re not a fan of Michael Jackson, George Michael, Madonna and Lionel Richie, then you might cringe or wince at the music from the Reagan years.
But you needn’t. There was so much more to the decade that began with the US Hockey gold medal and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Next week, I’ll offer a defense to the decade of my teens: the 80s. I think you’ll be convinced that very often, it was something to revere, not revile.