Back to the Underrated '80s Bands: 10 More You Need to Hear Now
Who among you remembers Strawberry Switchblade?
Let us not be too nostalgic for the 1980s. Those of us who lived through it spent a lot of time worrying we’d be vaporized in a nuclear war, and for every great Spielberg film that helped us escape that grim reality, there was an equal and opposite bad Spielberg film. (Always, anyone?)
One thing we can objectively say about the decade, though: It generated a fantastic amount of great music, much of it underappreciated not only today but at the time. Some of the best bands of the era managed to score one or two paltry hits. Some of them scored none. (Don’t let anyone tell you all the stuff that’s now lauded as “classic ’80s” music was what Americans were actually listening to back then. Even The Smiths never cracked the U.S. top 50; they were fit only for the weird kids in art class.) And I now have the honor of presenting the fourth installment of the Weekly’s ongoing attempt to rescue their work from the dustbin of history, in all its weird, wonderful, sometimes hairspray-soaked glory.
Wall of Voodoo
Let’s start with some homeboys. Noir poetry backed with new-wave synths and splashed with overdriven spaghetti Western guitar? It’s a sound that could really only have come from ’80s L.A. You are likely well-versed in Wall of Voodoo’s lone hit, “Mexican Radio,” and may think of them therefore as nothing more than a quirky novelty act. (Admittedly, frontman Stan Ridgway’s drawling delivery of lyrics that rhyme “Tijuana” with “barbecued iguana” does little to dispel that impression.) But the band’s early work was some of the most tightly wound art-punk of the era. Their squalling take on “Ring of Fire” is one of the few Johnny Cash covers that adds anything substantial to the original, and their last album with Ridgway, Call of the West, is a cinematic, irony-drenched masterwork. The neo-cowboy title track concludes with a distant voice shouting into the void: “I used to be somebody, goddamn you!” This is the black-velvet heart of the American Dream.
This two-girl Scottish act were momentarily big in the U.K., and momentarily even bigger in Japan — due in part, no doubt, to their almost anime visual splendor; all sky-high, flower-and-bow-festooned hair, bright makeup and polka-dot dresses. Their baroque pop was the real deal: The bubbly synth beats percolating through their sole, eponymous full-length album are offset by lush orchestration and an aching melancholy (they once covered Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” without batting a false eyelash). “Our look was colorful,” Switchblader Rose McDowell told The Guardian in 2015, “but our minds were dark.” Ensuing electro-pop and shoegaze acts, whether they knew it or not, owed a lot to these women. If Lush’s Miki Berenyi didn’t spend time bingeing on Switchblade songs, she sure absorbed their vocal style through some secondary source.
The Cleaners From Venus
The Cleaners From Venus’s 1981 debut kicks off with “Swinging London” — an ode to the glory days of Britain’s Mods. “Oh, the clothes they wore! Oh, the things they saw!” frontman Martin Newell exclaims over a frug-worthy riff. And that pretty much set the tone for the Cleaners’ entire, enormous catalog: charming, wistful pop for harder times. Newell, the band’s sole constant — one of that unique breed of eccentric U.K. musos who seem pathologically unable to stop churning out perfect pop tunes — dropped no less than 13 albums over the course of the ’80s, many recorded on home gear and self-released on cassette. Those masterpieces made him one of the godfathers of cassette culture and lo-fi. But newbies looking for a less scruffy entry point into his universe might try the more glossily recorded “Illya Kurayakin Looked at Me,” which condenses the entire decade of the ’60s into one three-minute burst of bittersweet beauty.
From their name, to their pencil-scrawl album art, to their spartan arrangements consisting mainly of a single guitar and drums, this German (yes) trio seemed determined to prove a pop band could be minimalist to the point of austerity and still be a ton of fun. You know their hit “Da Da Da” (or at least the portion of it Volkswagen used in their 1997 Golf commercial), and you probably resent me for even bringing it up because now that chorus is going to be lodged in your head for the next two days. But really, all the band’s tunes were infernally catchy earworms, written in a surprising variety of styles — from punk (“Ja Ja Ja”) to calypso (“Energie”) to power ballads (“Broken Hearts for You and Me”). They did a ska-like cover of “Tutti Frutti,” for God’s sake. It’s enough to make you suspect maybe these guys were way better musicians than they let on, and surprise! They were. Evidence: This live clip, in which guitarist Gert Krawinkel reveals himself to be a stealth psychedelic shredder. Blindfolded.
Rap started as upbeat, funk-and-disco-influenced dance party music. But by the mid-’80s, new-school acts like Run-DMC had lent it a tougher B-boy attitude, often spattered with rock samples. It took DJ/producer Kurtis Mantronik to yank the form back into the clubs, dropping MC Tee’s old-school raps into what were then considered super-complex electro-funk beats. Ironically, by the time Mantronix’s third album, In Full Effect, rolled around in 1988, adding deeper, darker soundscapes and a heavier dose of turntablism to the mix, their semi-retro style had become downright futuristic (as was the recording process: The band claimed it was the first album mastered on DAT). These days they may be best remembered for contributing the robotic “I got two turntables and a microphone” sample to Beck’s “Where It’s At.” Let’s change that, starting right now.
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