Monday, March 07, 2011

An Eighties Appreciation

It's no secret that I am an avid fan of 1960s music; it's the music of my childhood, the music of my adolescence, the music I grew up with, the first music that I bought. I think the latter is particularly crucial in anyone's music appreciation--the first music that speaks to us so intensely that we're willing to spend our limited allowance funds to own it is the music we're likely to love as long as we live.

However, I've been listening to a lot of 1980s music lately, and I'm about to say something that may surprise many of my friends: as much as I love 1960s music, I am convinced that the 1980s were the nexus of pop music, with more diversity, more energy, more vitality, and more creativity than any other pop music era, including the 1960s.

I credit MTV with a lot of that; when the cable channel launched with the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," they did a lot more than stress visuals as well as music. They also encouraged originality and experimentation. Since MTV of the early 1980s was hungry for videos to fill its airtime, almost any group with a strong sound and a striking look could get MTV airplay. And audiences were hungry to see music videos; watching MTV was a normal part of the weekly entertainment cycle in the 1980s, and people discussed music videos with the same intensity they devoted to hit TV shows, films, and books.

Groups like Scandal and the Motels and Wang Chung and the Stray Cats and Minor Detail and Quarterflash and Big Country would have probably gotten very little if any airplay in the pre-MTV radio-driven music days. However, MTV made room for anyone with a fresh sound and a catchy video, style notwithstanding. Rockabilly, new wave, punk, pop, dance, folk, techno, soul--there was room for all of these styles and many, many more.

I recently transferred several 1980s compilation sets to MP3 to listen to on my iPod, including Priority Records' Rock of the 1980s, Time-Life's Greatest Hits of the 1980s, Capitol's Sedated in the 80s, Rhino's Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the 1980s and a few more--and I was amazed that, after transferring more than a thousand songs from a variety of greatest-hits packages, I had only about a 20%-25% duplication of titles. There was so much energetic, catchy music from the era that each label found distinctive songs from the decade that no one else had picked up on.

There are distinctive 1980s sounds--punchy, up-front drums, strong bass lines, swirling synthesizers--that add a lot to the sound of songs from this era, but the improved production values and upgraded recording quality also helped. Even the most minor groups could produce songs with the same production values as the big guys, and multitrack recording had become cheap enough that small groups could easily afford big sounds.

I'm having fun re-experiencing a lot of these songs, many of which I haven't listened to in years. And I've learned that even musicians and groups I didn't care for could capture the feel of an era much more intensely than I had initially realized.

I guess I was lucky enough to experience two remarkable musical decades!

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