50 years of tunes…1980-89…

I confess to being very much ignorant with respect to the great music of the 1980s up until my early-/mid-twenties.  As a naive teen I dismissed the decade at best as full of throwaway pop and new romantic rubbish (which on the mainstream face of it I still maintain it was, for better or worse).  I received a swift education though on the eighties’ dark and noisy underbelly, upon meeting my now very good friends and (as I may have mentioned before) musical mentors Bruce and Dave, whose influence and instruction is very much apparent in the list below…

1980

‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen.  My favourite album by The Boss, just pipping ‘Born to Run’ and, for me, sitting perfectly balanced in form and content between the genius storytelling of his earlier mid-late 70s output and the giant stadium-conquering rock that was to come soon after.  Interestingly, the album would itself set off two divergent songwriting paths…to the stark beauty of ‘Nebraska’ and the smoother, radio-friendly ‘Tunnel of Love’.

And the title track my favourite Springsteen song…a beautiful, haunting, story-in-a-song.  The video below, I believe, a live debuting of the song a year earlier at a ‘Musicians for Safe Energy’ concert.  It is a wonderful performance and reflective of just one element that has made Springsteen great throughout his entire career.  When Springsteen today sings songs such as this, or Thunder Road (itself now nearly forty years old), nothing seems out of place – they are mature in both a musical and lyrical sense and bely the twentysomething age of their author – yet the (twenty-looking) thirty year old here delivers it just beautifully and his young voice is as perfectly suited as it is today.

A special mention this year as well for ‘My World’ by Secret Affair…of my absolutely favourite 1980s tracks, which never ever fails to put a smile on my face, to the point this self-confessed really bad dancer often thinks about it soundtracking a flashmob dance piece when it shuffles in on my walk to work…and the video is awesome too.

1981

I was introduced to the work of The Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce a few years back by way of a very excellent tribute in the form of the ‘Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions’ tribute records, featuring the likes of Mark Lanegan and Nick Cave.  It was then explained to me that Pierce himself was a lyricist and musician so dark and filthy and intense as to make Cave look positively angelic.

Where the Paisley Underground movement would remain relatively faithful to its Byrdsy, Laurel Canyon heritage, The Gun Club would grab those roots, with a handful of punk and psychobilly, and head in a far darker, seedier direction, passing Green on Red on the way and ultimately prove a huge influence on the rebirth of garage punk rock.  You can definitely hear Sonic Youth in there.

Pierce was a sadly troubled soul and suffered from long-term alcohol and drug abuse, which is reflected very much in (and who knows was perversely behind the strength of) the band’s material, and sadly died aged only 37 in 1996.

‘Fire of Love’ by The Gun Club is a brilliant, brilliant album.   I give you ‘She’s Like Heroin To Me’, but do yourself a favour and find the whole album.  Straight up rock and roll.

1982

I only discovered Flying Nun Records maybe four or five years ago by way of a Christmas present…a book collecting various, random, music-related lists – each put forward by a selection of musicians, writers and artists.  One of the lists therein is a top ten of Flying Nun tracks…

It was a very well written list too, describing a collection of apparently perfect pop music all stemming from a small town of Scottish heritage at the bottom of the world.  And perfect pop music it most certainly is in all of its forms – from the charming light of Chris Knox’ love songs, to Straitjacket Fits’ road movie grooves, to the dark foreboding of The Chills’ unnervingly beautiful murder ballad ‘Pink Frost’.

I suppose the relative isolation of not only New Zealand but especially the small university town of Dunedin was a necessary catalyst for a local pop scene, being so far removed from the US and Europe yet still needing to satisfy an artful and hungry young audience.  I don’t think anything can quite explain though the resultant consistent brilliance of everything that would come out of the town’s Flying Nun records from the early 80s onwards – which has garnered adoring fans from across the indie world.  It is an astonishing and most rewarding investigation which I am pleased to say I am still working through.

The 1982 ‘Dunedin Double’ ep, re-released for RSD2014…is a wonderful introduction to the wonders of Flying Nun: two 12 inch 45s at nearly 50 minutes, presenting The Chills, Sneaky Feelings, The Stones and The Verlaines.  Opening the ‘album’…The Chills’ ‘Kaleidoscope World’:

If you like what you hear.  Make your next stop on the Flying Nun journey their greatest hits double album of three or four years ago – ‘Tally Ho’.  Careful though…once you fall in, it’s a struggle getting out again…

1983

I love R.E.M. and always will.  They are and forever will be a top five favourite band.

Many these days choose to dismiss the band based upon (oft ill-judged) judgements of their 1990s major label releases and subsequent rise to stadium rock giants.  Later releases would become increasingly varied in quality, it’s true, but the pre-Warner IRS output is as consistently a brilliant collection of albums as you will find and a good number are close to dominating this decade’s list for me.  Indeed, really ‘discovering’ 80s R.E.M. would lead me to most of the other bands mentioned in this post.  And it all started with ‘Murmur’.

The band began, musically if not geographically, on the periphery of the 80s Paisley Underground scene, with collective harmonies and Peter Buck’s jangly guitar echoing the influence of the The Byrds upon the growth of southern and western Americana.  At the heart of R.E.M. though was a darker introspective feel to both rhythm and indeterminate lyrics that would move them slowly away to the New York of the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith; and then to Europe, in terms of both sound and style.

Opening the album then, the brilliant ‘Radio Free Europe’.

1984

Another relatively recent discovery of but six or seven years ago, again via Bruce…’Native Sons’ by The Long Ryders.

Where R.E.M. would skirt and then move away from The Paisley Underground, the Long Ryders for their relatively brief but brilliant existence would stay very much at the heart of it and as such were a major factor in the birth of alt-country and the ultimate proliferation of Americana (good and bad) we experience today.  If that sort of thing appeals and you don’t yet own this album, seek out the Deluxe version which is well worth a couple of extra pounds – not least for a brilliant cover of Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’.

The whole album is great…taking Laurel Canyon and subtly adding a harder rock and roll edge…an example, featuring backing vocals from the great lost Byrd – Gene Clark (…see 1974) – Ivory Tower:

Check out as well the later media stylings of lead Long Ryder Sid Griffin…who indeed introduced me to the work of Gene Clark and has written extensively (and very well now) on Bob Dylan.  His bluegrass outfit The Coal Porters are outstanding too.  And he’s a top man with very handy recommendations for eating in the south eastern states of the USA.

Coming a close second in 1984, a revolutionary outfit taking British folk ancestry and sensibilities into the rock, politics and society this side of the Atlantic…The Smiths, with ‘The Smiths’, a brilliant record.  More on them in a bit…

1985

After R.E.M., discovering Husker Du was the completion of my younger self’s eighties epiphany and realisation of the genius that presided below the surface.  So this, and then Sonic Youth, and then Dinosaur Jr, amongst many others, was where grunge and college rock in general had grown from (for more on the whole shebang…see Michael Azerrad’s amazing book ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’).

And ‘New Day Rising’ is by far and away my favourite Husker Du album – covering all pop and (post-) punk bases.  The title track, below, is driving, thrilling, relentless, screaming tuneful noise, while ‘Books about UFOs’ is a perfect, jaunty pop song.  The record even, in the freakiest of terms, addresses in somewhat commercially savvy terms the age old question of how one skins a cat.

The musical differences in songs across the album are polarised to a degree by the respective authors – Bob Mould and Grant Hart – differences (amongst other factors) which would ultimately lead to a less-than-amicable break-up of the band.  I am lucky to have seen both Mould and Hart perform separately but would give anything for the most unlikely of reformations.  Saying that, even remastered versions of the Husker Du albums would be something…

I’ve already mentioned my love of R.E.M. and somehow Husker Du won out over what I think is my favourite ever R.E.M. album…’Fables of the Reconstruction’ (so it must be good).

Also this year…the savage and brilliant noise that is the Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Psychocandy’, which I was privileged to see in its entirety last year.

1986

A quite extraordinary album, albeit, amongst friends, one I don’t feel all that able to discuss in any great depth.  The Smiths’ ‘The Queen is Dead’ pretty much has it all and dare I say is near-perfect – influences are drawn from across popular music dating back to at least the 40s and 50s, right up to 70s proto-punk, while sounding like nothing else at the same time.  As mentioned previously I am fascinated by how the lyrics, vocals, structures and music of these songs bear so many parallels with traditional folk.  The band and the album would influence greatly the work of both peers of the time and may others from thenceforth…

My favourite track from the album, I think (it’s tricky)…’The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’:

More R.E.M. for an honourable mention, and fitting given these two bands’ mutual respect for each other – the exceptional ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ – with the likes of ‘Cuyahoga’ and ‘I Believe’ some of the band’s very best work.

1987

Guns n’ Roses were an early favourite for the young music fan in me, not least because my father hated them…

…Appetite for Destruction is one of the great rock and roll albums…an aggressive, visceral thrill ride unmatched by anything at the time and probably since.  Sneering guitars and crunching vocals, full of sex and drugs, and in it’s own place well and truly in the gutter away from the bubblegum pretence of the band’s motley crew of peers.

The occasionally brilliant but ambitiously flawed ‘Use Your Illusion’ double album would follow in the early 90s, unwittingly setting the band up for dismissal from rock music’s evolution with the arrival of a new teen spirit.  14 year old me was lucky enough to see the band just before that sad but timely departure in 1993 and they were wonderful.  I passed on the band, in name but little else, at Reading Festival a few years ago but saw Slash and Duff with Velvet Revolver around that time and it brought it all gloriously back…leather trousers, top hat and all…covering this:

1987, with a slight change of mood, also continued R.E.M.’s magnificent IRS output with both ‘Document’ and ‘Dead Letter Office’ making their way into the world.

1988

Opening with probably the best song ever written, by the man with maybe the best guitar sound ever, and again there’s not much more to say than that really…

Ladies and gentlemen…Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’…I love this band and I love this album.

1988 a frighteningly good year for albums it transpires, particularly from our cousins across the pond.  Running Sonic Youth very close indeed: R.E.M.’s ‘Green’, Dinosaur Jr’s ‘Bug’, Mudhoney’s ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’ and Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’.  Every single one of them magnificent.

1989

Something of a leftfield choice for me, but one of the best pure, unadulterated pop albums ever…Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’…

Another opening (the title) track…and one finishing the 80s where Secret Affair starts them for me…a wonderful pop song which regularly instils in me the desire for a flashmob dance routine around the streets of Reading or London…

Running a close second for 1989, The Wedding Present’s ‘Bizarro’ – jangly indie pop at its absolute very best.  See ‘Take Me’, in all of its nine and a bit minutes of guitary glory:

Oh yes.  And The Stone Roses’ ‘The Stone Roses’ is alright too.

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