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.
The Housemartins looked and sounded like the twee-est, most effete band of all time. In their videos, they dressed in cardigans and executed deeply nerdy dance moves. Their music was sunny, strummy pop, with occasional pauses for a ballad or R&B cover. So it probably came as a surprise to casual listeners when they took a closer listen to the lyrics … and realized the baby-faced U.K. foursome were actually political revolutionaries. Motivated by Christianity and Marxism (the inner sleeve of their debut album, London 0 Hull 4, features the slogan “Take Jesus – Take Marx – Take Hope”), they directed unending scorn at a Thatcherite society that disregarded the weak. In “Sitting on a Fence,” frontman Paul Heaton lambasts a moderate who won’t get in the fray: “He’d rather not get his hands dirty/He’ll still be there when he’s 30.” And on the peppy “Get Up Off Our Knees,” he advises listeners to “end the praying” and take up arms against capitalist oppressors. Obligatory trivia note: Those perky bass lines were played by Norman Cook, who grew up to become Fatboy Slim.
A mixed-gender group of Dutch anarchists who originally chose their name because it could be quickly scrawled as graffiti, The Ex’s 1980 debut was a politically righteous blast of fairly typical hardcore punk. But while they never lost the politics, somewhere along the way they developed a taste for esoteric music of all kinds — improvised avant-jazz, Eastern European folk and traditional African sounds in particular — and launched a series of post-punk collaborations with an unlikely parade of musicians from all over the planet. The band arguably hit their high-water mark in 1991 with Scrabbling at the Lock, a genre-smashing project with New York cellist Tom Cora, but they set the stage for that album with 1989’s epic, 34-track Joggers and Smoggers, featuring everyone from Tuvan throat singers to Thurston Moore. Hot tip: See The Ex live. Despite numerous lineup changes and graying temples, they still put on a hell of a show.
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
Scottish pop poet Cole would be worthy of mention here based solely on the strength of his band’s shimmering country-pop debut, Rattlesnakes. With a title referencing Joan Didion, and literate lyrics that aspired to — and at times almost reached — Dylanesque heights, the 1984 album was immediately embraced (in the U.K., at least) as a classic, and it remains essential listening for romantic-yet-cynical undergrad English majors everywhere. But Cole and the Commotions followed up with two more excellent, not nearly as well-remembered collections, the songs reflecting an increasingly wry and grown-up view of relationships. My favorite is “Jennifer She Said,” in which Cole wags a finger at a gent who gets a new love’s name tattooed on his flesh. “Maybe you’re a little hasty,” he gently suggests, then acknowledges the pointlessness of the warning: “But they say love is blind.”
The Bodysnatchers played together for barely two years and never released a full album, but their impact reverberated well beyond their actual output. In an ’80s ska scene that featured lots of mixed-race bands but few female voices, The Bodysnatchers were the only all-girl act, touring alongside the female-fronted Selecter (and later, the nascent Go-Go’s) to bring a sense of feminist empowerment to the proceedings. Not that the band were above partying — their debut single, “Let’s Do Rock Steady,” was pure dance music — but the first original song the band ever wrote was “The Boiler,” a nightmarish, first-person account of rape. Lead singer Rhoda Dakar later took it with her when she joined The Special AKA, scoring a top-40 U.K. hit that’s still chill-inducing today.
These days, most Americans think of Adam Ant as the two-hit wonder behind the horny (literally and figuratively) tunes “Goody Two Shoes” and “Strip.” But in fact Ant was an important early player in the U.K. punk scene, and his music — both solo and with his band The Ants — was among the most imaginative and idiosyncractic to ever hit the top 40. Start with his vocals: part smooth croon, part yodelly yelp. Where did that style come from? Why is it so damned exciting? I don’t know. Then there’s the music, much of it co-written with fellow punk vet Marco Pirroni (one of Siouxsie’s original Banshees), which blended driving new wave with thundering tribal rhythms, gleeful shrieks, Motown horns and rockabilly guitar. Who does that? And why does it make sense even when played by a bunch of grown dudes wearing war paint and dressed like pirates? Somehow, it does, especially on Ant’s solo debut Friend or Foe. Wherein, as though to prove he could do anything, he even included a Beatle-y pop gem, “Here Comes the Grump,” which has been my secret mixtape weapon for decades.
Rico Gagliano co-hosts the arts-and-culture public radio show and podcast “The Dinner Party Download.” He tweets about his arch-nemesis, LAX, at @RicoGagliano.