Think of the 1980’s and if you’re anything like me, you’ll think of yuppies in box suits speaking into bricks, cocaine-fuelled laser dance floors, shoulder pads, massive hoop earrings, perms and the popular emergence of synth music. Think of the Noughties and the Teens/Tens/Tweens, and you’ll think of technological advancement, cynicism, skinny jeans, difficulty in finding suitable names for the current decade and easy access to a proliferated music market.
As a twenty-seven year-old, my direct experience of 80’s music mainly involved the Thundercats theme song, and hence my reflection upon the decade relies mainly on caricatured images garnered through music and films. In my mind, people spent the entire decade driving around in seemingly mis-matched partnerships, only to discover that they really weren’t so different after all thanks to a story arc involving snappy banter and exploding vehicles, all to the sound of synth pop and power ballads. Admittedly, in reality this may only partially account for the decade, particularly given that one thing shared by the 80’s and the Noughties was a global recession, but cherry picking from the past wearing rose-tinted glasses is the prerogative of the partially informed current-day writer, so I’m going ahead regardless.
In my mind, people spent the entire decade driving around in seemingly mis-matched partnerships
Like any decade, the 80’s saw a transition in popular music as new sounds like electro, techno, house, synth pop, New Wave, New Romantics, glam metal, soft rock and hip-hop allowed artists to remain shoe-horned into arbitrarily distinct musical categories forevermore. It was the technological advance in synthesisers, though, that really changed the game. Quirky visionaries like Kraftwerk and Brian Eno had already shown the potential of electronic music, but it was only when MIDI came online in 1983 that it all became easier, with less need to engage in time-consuming practices like mechanically innovating sound effects and learning the piano properly.
Ambience: Never has a single note done so much
One thing synth music boasted like never before was an ability to create ambience, with all the possibilities afforded by multi-layered tracks and easily manipulating sounds. Whether used for pure ‘soundscape’ (the pretentious name for five minutes of swishing sounds) or as accompaniment in pop tracks (e.g. Prince’s Little Red Corvette, below). ‘ambience’ finally became a term used for emotionally evocative music rather than just the type of mood lighting at a cocktail party.
‘Ambience’ finally became a term used for emotionally evocative music rather than just the type of mood lighting at a cocktail party.
The 90’s took something of a break from ambience, as anything remotely resembling the previous decade was hidden in the closet above all the totally-not-ridiculous baggy 90’s clothing. Gradually, though, as is always the case, aspects of the decade’s style re-emerged in popular culture. This started to take effect most prominently in the past few years in mainstream pop, as singers and acts like La Roux, Ellie Goulding, Bat For Lashes and The Naked and the Famous (below) infused their tracks with 80’s-style synth, leading the boom in shoulder padded jacket sales in charity shops. The trend had already been established in electro music, with a host of French and German producers like Digitalism and Moderat in particular filling dance floors with atmospheric 80’s-inspired dance tracks.
One area where creating a mood through synth music is particularly appropriate is in films, and it’s noticeable that 80’s-style soundtracks are making something of a come-back. A good example is the Ryan Gosling blood-fest Drive, where he silently but strongly pouted his way through an hour and a half of newly crafted very-definitely-80’s electro music (below) It reminded me of 1982’s Blade Runner, where an equally strong but silent, pouty Harrison Ford patrolled the streets to the sound of Vangelis’ genius soundtrack.
Girls (and boys) just want to have fun: Shoulder-pumping beats
I can only imagine what it must have been like to be driving my Corvette, white jacket sleeves rolled up to my elbows, hearing the pulsating beat of New Order’s Blue Monday kick in for the first time. Presumably my aviators would have fallen off; such would have been the jerkiness of my involuntary shoulder movement.
Along with power ballads, the synth pop genre perhaps most simply defines the sound of the 80’s for those of us who became acquainted with the era primarily through student union cheese nights. The likes of Human League, Gary Numan and Cyndi Lauper serenaded the masses with songs punctuated by the trademark reverb-laden 80’s snare sound, and even ‘alternative’ bands like The Cure used the effect to good, ahem, effect (although Robert Smith would probably kill me- or at least sulk under a tree about it- if he were to hear me calling his music ‘pop’).
The likes of Human League, Gary Numan and Cyndi Lauper serenaded the masses with songs punctuated by the trademark reverb-laden 80’s snare sound.
Accordingly, the past decade has seen the re-introduction of the shoulder pumping beat in its own contemporary style, though the meat of the sound remains decidedly 80’s. Vitalic, the French electro producer, is a good example of the modern adaptation of the 80’s electronic drum sound (below), and the same can be said of acts like LCD Soundsystem and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. Even the more dirgy current genres of electronic music like Dub Step have extracted aspects of the 80’s production quality to add feeling, as in Skream’s remix of La Roux’s In For the Kill (below).
Luckily, living in the era we do, listening to current stuff opens the door wide open to its 80’s musical heritage, leaving people like me to excitedly explore the rabbit-hole of online musical discovery.
Total Eclipse of the Power Ballad
So, as I celebrate the re-appearance of certain elements of 80’s music, it’s with a heavy Chicago-style heart that I also mourn the death of the power ballad. With the discovery of irony in the early 2000’s, the innocence that allowed the inception of the fist-clenching gut wrenchers produced by the likes of Bon Jovi and Bonny Tyler has been killed, perhaps forever. Even the cock-rockers of the day who spent most of the decade singing about sexually assaulting women produced some absolute power ballad classics, like Aerosmith’s Cryin’ and Kiss’ I Still Love You.
Even the cock-rockers of the day who spent most of the decade singing about sexually assaulting women produced some absolute power ballad classics.
Nowadays the closest thing we have is douche-bag soft rock espoused by sensitive souls like John Mayer, James Blunt and James Morrison, who unfortunately as teenagers never had their guitars ripped away from them as they hogged attention at house parties. The indications are, at least, that these guys will soon join Bryan Adams and Celine Dion in the halls of commercial naffness.
In the spirit of reminiscence of the 80’s (without having been there), I’ll leave you with the ultimate 80’s sign-off, reminding us not to forget about the power of the music from a decade where, devoid of self-consciousness, epic melodies and moody synthesisers were valued above all…
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