Them’s Fightin’ Words: ‘Music in the '80s Sucked’

YouTube screenshot from MTV feature of "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits.

Music in the 80s Sucked,” Erik Root, chair of Economic Philosophy at West Liberty University, writes at the American Greatness website:

The 1980s represented the creeping destruction of musical creativity. The few shining moments in this decade were achieved by those acts allowed by their corporate producers to test the boundaries of acceptable on-air material—Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” falls into this category.

Most of the music in the 1980s, however, to put it colloquially, sucked.

It is remarkable that the music execs and radio gods decided to clamp down on creativity at the moment they did. It was only 10 years earlier, in 1974, that a small band signed with about as independent a record label (London) as one could get at the time, and packed Austin stadium with 80,000 of their closest friends. Try doing that without major label backing. ZZ Top did it, though, and they were immensely popular even before their hit song “Tush” and their signing with Warner Brothers. But in the 1970s, as now, the market craved something original, even if it was not audience tested and approved. It worked.

When the record labels merged and clamped down on musical talent, they froze out the bands that would have carried their creative market into the next decade. Those who wanted to remain a signed act were forced into the company playlist with company producers and company song writers. Many bands before the explosion of the internet and independent labels were sadly never to find broad fame and marketability they deserved because music executives really did not have the expertise they thought they had.


There were plenty of quirky acts that somehow snuck in though, particularly early in the 1980s. Even before MTV debuted and ultimately changed the business of the music industry, a slew of new acts influenced by the DIY ethic of punk rock were making their mark. Punk was a mid-’70s British reaction that dubbed bands built around musical virtuosity such as Led Zeppelin and Emerson, Lake & Palmer “dinosaur acts.” While the worst of the punk bands could barely play, the ethos of punk opened the door to rock’s new wave, which rejected musical flash for lyrical and melodic craftsmanship and a more stripped-down sound reminiscent of rock in the mid-‘60s. New wave acts such as Blondie, the Pretenders and Elvis Costello are beloved by millions to this day.

The best new wave acts quickly established themselves as successful first-tier groups. But even stranger bands quickly gained a foothold in the early 1980s. As original MTV VJ Martha Quinn told the Television Academy Foundation in a recent video interview, when MTV debuted on August 1, 1981, they were so desperate for new videos that rather than run another Rod Stewart or Styx clip, they were forced to run videos by strange British bands that nobody had heard of over and over again, simply because these acts had videos they created, often shot on very low budgets, for exposure on the BBC, and in Europe, where touring is often less profitable than in America.

The Microchip powers the ‘80s DIY Revolution

For listeners, this blend of artistry made the ‘80s a fun mix of old acts slightly past their freshness and quirky newcomers, all benefitting from a revolution in music technology. The microchip revolution led to continuously more affordable and more powerful music technology. In 1979, Peter Gabriel paid about £18,000 for the Fairlight, the first sampling synthesizer (meaning it could record a sound via a microphone, and then play it back in time, and at any pitch on the instrument’s musical keyboard). During the 1970s, the first analog synthesizers were mammoth devices that looked they needed a telephone switchboard operator to control.

By 1984, E-Mu’s Emulator II keyboard reduced the cost of sampling to under $8,000, and the price for digital keyboards would drop throughout the decade, even as their technology became more and more powerful. The microchip turned these instruments into an increasingly more compact and portable musical keyboard. Thus the rise of two-person synth acts in Britain at the dawn of the MTV era such as Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart in the Eurythmics, ‎Vince Clarke‎ and Alison Moyet in Yazoo, and Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith in Tears for Fears, all of whom secured big label recording contracts via digital keyboards and drum machines — and got massive airplay on MTV, because the budding music channel needed new product to meet their self-imposed mandate of 24 hours a day, seven days a week of rock videos. (Yes kids, it’s true — MTV was once actually was dominated by music videos.)


Around the time Gabriel first began to first record with the Fairlight, on his eponymous third album, he also helped to shape another radical new sound that defined the 1980s, but unfortunately, by the time the decade was over became a cliché: the gated snare drum sound. It began as a control room accident while recording drummer Phil Collins, but between Gabriel and Collins, the mammoth snare drum, often the loudest instrument in the track, became omnipresent in pop music until the 1990s.

The gated snare drum sound was often employed in the ‘80s to beef up the sound of that decade’s increasingly sophisticated and affordable drum machines. While purists understandably bemoan the rigidity of hit songs built around these devices, which invariably had little or no tempo variation, drum machines opened a new door for songwriters. Getting professional-sounding drum tracks is the most difficult part of any rock or pop recording, since finding skilled drummers is much more difficult than finding guitarists and bassists skilled enough to play simple pop songs. And even if the drummer is up to scratch, drums are the one instrument that demand a near pro-quality studio to obtain a pro-sound, as a drum kit covers the entire music frequency range, from the pounding lows of the kick drum, to the airy highs of its cymbals. Thus, digital drum machines were a godsend to anybody writing songs during the 1980s.

The drum machine was tailor-made for the next important element of the ‘80s DIY music revolution, the cassette four-track recorder. In 1979, TASCAM introduced its Portastudio, the first four-track cassette recorder, which allowed a musician 30 minutes worth of four individual tracks to record his demo, by using a newly designed recording head that played only one side of a cheap commercially available 60-minute stereo cassette. The normal pattern was that a drum machine went on track one, a bass guitar on track two, a guitar on track three, and the lead vocal and lead guitar solo on track four.

The sound quality wasn’t especially good. (One of the most deceptive advertisements I ever saw was in the mid-‘80s, when Fostex compared their rival cassette four-track system to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Yes, the Beatles’ epochal 1967 album was recorded on a four-track recorder, but unless you had the one-inch wide-tape reel-to-reel four track machine that EMI used and the acoustically-treated studio that housed it and all four Beatles and George Martin, your mileage may vary. A lot.) But what the cassette four-track machines lacked in sound quality, they made up for in opening the door to allowing virtually any songwriter the ability to write and record sketches of his songs in a relaxing home atmosphere without having to pay expensive studio fees.


The Compact Disc Revolutionizes Music Consumption in the ‘80s

Consumers benefitted from the technology explosion of the 1980s as well. The digital compact disc was a legitimate revolution in music delivery in the 1980s, and while purists today deride the sound of many of the first compact discs, they had several immediate benefits.

Prior to the CD, listeners took for granted the scratchiness of the LP record, and that repeatedly playing them risked creating pops and skips that could render portions of a record unplayable. And while recording an LP to cassette simultaneously helped to reduce the chances of the former’s eventual destruction, and made its contents transportable to car and portable players, it did so at a loss of fidelity.

The compact disc eliminated the scratches, and was the closest a home listener could get to hearing a recording as it sounded to the artists in the studio. Its clarity was a revelation. Like MTV before it, the CD also gave the recording industry a massive shot in the arm, as millions of listeners sought to replace their existing vinyl LP collections. As with movie studios and home video, record labels soon discovered their back catalogs were significant financial assets.

Dinosaurs Reassemble In New and Old Combinations

Meanwhile, back on the airwaves and on MTV, during the summer of 1983, the charts were dominated by two acts: a cleaned up, newly cheerful, suited and booted David Bowie teamed up with former Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers to make Let’s Dance, whose title song seemed to be everywhere. And Synchronicity, the last studio album by the Police, with its equally omnipresent hit single “Every Breath You Take.” Concurrently, British dinosaurs like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, and Bad Company all imploded during the early years of the 1980s. But during the middle of the decade, the survivors of all of these acts launched intriguing solo projects.

Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin teamed-up with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company in The Firm for two albums and hockey arena tours starting in 1984. Pete Townshend broke up The Who after their “first farewell tour” (as it’s known today) concluded in 1983, to make a 1985 solo album called White City, accompanied by a long-form video, and one of the best concert videos of the decade, videotaped at a November 1985 charity concert in London’s Brixton Academy concert hall. Keith Richards, angry that Mick Jagger had put the Rolling Stones aside in the mid-‘80s to concentrate on slick, studio session musician- and technology-laden solo albums, made the best Stones album in years as a solo artist with 1988’s Talk is Cheap. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Roger Waters each toured with solo albums in the middle of the 1980s.


Near the end of the decade, shifting concert economics meant that most of these “dinosaur acts” had reunited in form or another. Keith and Mick put aside their differences and went back out on tour in 1989. The Who, whose surviving original members needed the cash flow, reunited for a tour that same year. Pink Floyd reunited, minus the dictatorial Roger Waters, to play the largest outdoor stadiums in North America starting in 1987. (It would take Led Zeppelin’s frontmen, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, until the early 1990s to reunite for their own tours of hockey arenas.)

MTV Cops

MTV also dramatically influenced the look and sound of traditional network television. While the story may or may not be apocryphal that Miami Vice was birthed via two words brainstormed onto a cocktail napkin by Brandon Tartikoff, NBC’s president during the 1980s — “MTV cops” — there’s no doubt that Miami Vice was heavily influenced by the look and sound of MTV.

Don Johnson became a fashion icon in the mid-‘80s thanks to his character’s ubiquitous white suit and t-shirt combination, but rock stars had been appearing on stage in this look for at least a decade prior. WKRP in Cincinnati, which aired from 1978 to 1982, established a place on primetime TV for the songs viewers were listening to every day on their radios.

But Miami Vice was the first network crime drama willing to shell out the money each week to buy the rights to those recordings, and then build MTV-style sequences around them. (To the point where in several instances, Miami Vice produced more compelling film sequences for those songs than the videos the record labels crafted for MTV.) In addition, Miami Vice’s producers hired musician Jan Hammer to score the rest of the series.

In the early 1970s, Hammer made a name for himself as the keyboardist in the pioneering and often bombastic jazz-rock fusion group the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Later that decade, Hammer would begin an association with former Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck that continues to this day, strapping on one of the first portable Mini-Moog synthesizers, plugging it into a guitar amplifier, and developing a guitar-like sound and technique sometimes indistinguishable from Beck’s stinging guitar lines.

By the time of Miami Vice, Hammer became one the first musicians with a background in classical, jazz, and rock music to incorporate all of the technology then available into his recordings. He scored Miami Vice with a Fairlight sampling sequencer, a Linn drum machine, his trusty Mini-Moog and guitar amp, and a mulitrack tape recorder as a one-man band working in his home studio. He had the musical chops to alternate between heavy rock, reggae, classical, technopop, Phil Collins-style heavy drums, and other genres. Musicians like myself would hear Hammer’s new material each week on Vice and begin to incorporate it into our own playing.


Live Aid: The Alpha and the Omega of the MTV ‘80s

In 1984, Bob Geldof, who in the late ‘70s fronted an Irish punk band called the Boomtown Rats, and then starred in the 1982 movie version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, got together 35 or so of Britain’s pop idols in a project dubbed “Band Aid” to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” after he saw a series of BBC reports on famine in Ethopia. This began one of the more saccharine trends of the decade — the all-star relief project. Band Aid begat Live Aid, which begat Farm Aid, and a host of other well-intentioned efforts.

Live Aid actually did little to eliminate famine in Ethopia. But for music itself, it was the alpha and the omega for the MTV era. ‘70s acts such The Who and Led Zeppelin reunited for one-off shows there, Queen’s brilliant performance was the centerpiece of the recent rock bio film Bohemian Rhapsody. Loads of MTV-era video-driven acts took to the stages in both London and Philadelphia. Live Aid made superstars of U2 and gave numerous acts such as Queen a boost in sales and popularity.

But somehow, in retrospect, Live Aid marked the beginning of the end of the sort of song-driven melodic music that had dominated pop and rock since the days of the Beatles. By the beginning of the following decade, Nirvana’s Nevermind album and the Seattle grunge scene virtually killed off the “hair metal” acts of the 1980s for a return to a stripped down punk-inspired sound. Rap music and “death metal” largely rejected melody in general. By the first years of the 21st century, Napster and iTunes dramatically changed the economics of the music industry, destroying many existing bands.

“I’ve asked this so many times to our ‘80s artists, ‘why do you think the ‘80s has such staying power?’ because it does,” Martha Quinn, one of the original six MTV VJs recently told the Television Academy Foundation:

Tommy Tutone, Mr. “867-5309,” said something so impactful to me. He said back then we thought we could change the world, and you can hear that in the music. It’s that ebullience, it’s that “we are we are strong, we’re gonna make our voices heard,” and it still was with that optimism of “we can make a difference.”

I feel like when grunge came along, people were still wanting to make their voices heard, but it was with more of a defeatist attitude, more of a “we’re just screwed” attitude. And you can see it in the style. You know, the ‘80s was big [and] bright. Look at Twisted Sister with the makeup, and the — excuse my expression — but the balls-to-the-wall visual [and] musical expression, and I think that that was fueled by an optimism. Keep in mind, this is during the Cold War, when Prince was writing, “We could all die any day. “Party like it’s 1999” is really kind of a hysterical joie de vivre, thinking about the bomb [that] could be dropped at any time. So, I think that there was this kind of, “hey wait, we know what to do, we can change the world” [attitude].

It’s so interesting to me that when the Berlin Wall came down, which was a huge moment politically, suddenly that’s when the shoulder pads shrunk, the hair came down. It’s like Kurt Cobain single-handedly — I’m sorry grunge people — but he came along and kind of made everybody feel stupid for their big hair and their shoulder pads and their bright colored spandex. And I don’t think we’ve been able to shake that yet. You know, everybody went, oh yeah, we better cut our hair, and we better pare it down, and we better just wear flannel shirts and go back to jeans.

* * * * * * * *

I love the ‘80s. There’s something about the ‘80s. The ‘80s has transcended a decade and it has become a genre. It is like rockabilly or New Wave or hip hop. The ‘80s is its own thing. The ‘80s make people feel good. I don’t recall that we used the word ‘awesome’ all that much in the ‘80s, but it’s now come to describe the ‘80s. It’s a perfect word [for that]. I think it’s [also] what I was talking about before, that the music of the ‘80s is so ebullient and filled with optimism, and ‘yeah!’ It just makes you feel good. It’s also back when a lot of music was being made still actually on tape, and so it has a very real feel to it as well. It just makes people feel good…anything that’s about making people feel upbeat and feel good about their life and as they go about their day, I’m all about.


While David Letterman made an increasingly cynical irony his trademark on late night television in the 1980s, there was surprisingly little of it in ‘80s pop music, and in retrospect, and in light of what followed in the music produced in subsequent years, that wasn’t a bad thing.


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