Rock of the ’80s compilations mix nostalgia, humor
It is the year 2066. As I lift my grandson to my knee, he looks at me and asks, “Grandpa Michael, what was the music of the 1980s like?”
I reflect for a moment, and misty-eyed, I begin to reminisce. “Back in the ’80s,” I say slowly, “there were a great number of bands first discovering the synthesizer. They played the instrument more for novelty effect than musical complement. Let me dig out some old CDs and give you a sample.”
“Grandpa, you have CDs? Those went out decades ago. I didn’t know you could get those players.”
“Despite what President Limbaugh claims, not all Twentieth Century technology was Japanese and worthless. Let me see...”
I find a set of discs released in 1993, Priority Records’ three-volume “Rock of the ’80s”. “Now, keep in mind, son, the most popular music of the ’80s was performed by Michael Jackson and Madonna, and the best music of the ’80s was performed by Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Sting, but there were a number of artists who had one or two hits and disappeared. Most of the fun stuff was created by those bands.”
From the Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” video
I put the discs in, and the room is awash in the jerky synth syncopation of Devo’s “Whip It,” which rattles the crystalloid air speakers. My grandson sits quietly as lead vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh half-speaks his way through the song. Reverently, my grandson sits through Blondie’s “Call Me,” The Knack’s “My Sharona,” and songs by General Public (“Tenderness”), A Flock Of Seagulls (“I Ran”), The Fixx (“One Thing Leads To Another”) and Missing Persons (“Words”).
“The set would have been more accurately titled ‘The Best of Pop Music’s One-Hit Wonders,’” I say, setting down a glass of Budweiser Youth Drink. “With a few exceptions, such as Duran Duran (“Is There Something I Should Know?”) and Squeeze (“Tempted”), these groups disappeared before you could say ‘MTV Heavy Rotation.’”
“Grandpa, what’s MTV?”
“MTV was a cable television service which showed nothing but music videos. Bands such as ABC (“The Look Of Love”), Berlin (“The Metro”), the Thomspon Twins (“Hold Me Now”) and Naked Eyes (“Always Something There To Remind Me”) owed their careers to Music Television.
“Grandpa, what’s television?”
“It’s what people used to watch before Emperor Winfrey made reading the required pastime. Do you want to hear more?”
“Sure. But I don’t want to hear any more from that Gary Numan (“Cars”).”
“That’s fine, son, neither did anyone else,” I say, hitting “play” on the machine. Most of the music had aged well, the exceptions being records too reliant on synthesizer for melody. Many of those songs were dated by the early ’90s. “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles, “99 Luftballons” by Nena and “Love Plus One” by Haircut 100 were particularly stale.
The set, which admirably includes the full-length album versions of the songs, also demonstrates a sense of humor. “Mexican Radio,” by Wall of Voodoo (which contains the immortal rhyme, “I wish I was in Tijuana/Eating barbecued iguana”) and “Weird Science” by Oingo Boingo, the most underrated singles band of the decade, join “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors as songs which remain lively and transcend their novelty.
Some of the best rock on the set is the music performed with instruments instead of computers. “She’s a Beauty” by The Tubes and “Talking in Your Sleep” by The Romantics could be released today.
A major flaw of the set is the lack of any useful liner notes. The CD booklet lists the bare basic facts but does not put the music into any historical context or timeframe. At least fifteen of the songs featured on the set were Top Ten hits, but you would never know that or any other trivia from the weak packaging. If this were a Rhino Records compilation, extensive liner notes and pictures would add to the project. But at under $10 per disc, the set is still a bargain.
As the set wound down with Cutting Crew’s (“I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight,” I sunk into a reverie for such acts not on the set as Men at Work, Asia, Kool & The Gang, Eurythmics, Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club, Men Without Hats, Stray Cats, Toni Basil, Kim Carnes...
“Grandpa, wake up!”
“Wha? Oh. So what do you think?” I say, shaking off the nostalgia.
“Well,” the grandson begins, “Aesthetically, the music shimmers with a surface sheen not technically possible in the ’70s and not desired as the twenty-first century began. Lyrically, the songs are often humorous but many have an air of pretentiousness which drags them down. Over all, the set is a wonderful archive of memorable hooks, and I wish more volumes were available.”
“That’s my boy,” I say.