Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, was a wise man. The more you listen to his music, the better it gets.
On his album Lick My Decals Off, Baby, released in 1970, there’s a song called “The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or the Big Dig)” on which he says something quite insightful: “It sure looks funny for a new dinosaur/T’be in an old dinosaur’s shoes.”
I have several Remember the ’80s compilation CDs. I don’t keep them as a joke. I find them to be a fascinating time capsule and a great vantage point by which to view a decade that is not all that far behind us yet sometimes seems centuries in the past.
I tend to view any time period in which I was alive through what music was around and what I was listening to. There was so much music happening in the 1980s, it is impossible to say it was all good or all bad. The good stuff was great and the bad … well, to me, it was a low-impact bad. Still, it makes you wonder why songs like Cutting Crew’s epic “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” and countless others like it were so incredibly popular.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to a lot of 1980s records by artists who emerged in that decade, like Madonna, as well as acts such as Bowie, Springsteen and ZZ Top, who found themselves suddenly verging on the archaic as the decade almost ran past itself at MTV warp speed. These three changed their sound radically and, by doing so, not only survived the ’80s but fairly exploded in popularity, with records that sound alien to what they did before.
On a music-fanatic sidebar, I think one of the greatest sleights-of-hand ever perpetrated by an artist was David Bowie going from 1980’s Scary Monsters, one of the greatest records I have ever heard, to Let’s Dance in 1983, which besides Stevie Ray Vaughan’s searing guitar lines is almost completely dismissible. It is hard to believe it’s the same guy who put out Low!
It is my opinion that the savvy Mr. B. thought it was time to land his spacecraft and drench his beak in the deep lake of American financial liquidity.
I think it would be difficult-to-impossible to pinpoint the “thing” that drove all the decade’s big hair and shoulder-padded jackets. But I do remember, at least in America, an almost narcotic sense of optimism. Even if you were broke, there was a feeling that somehow, things were good — or at least, if the ocean liner was iceberg-bound, you might as well finish off the champagne.
President Reagan sold optimism well. He sold it better than any president I have ever seen. Even when I knew what he was saying was based in a reality that didn’t exist, he really made me want to drive that car off the lot.
For every current, there is an undercurrent. To get the desired effect of ’80s joy and make it stick, dissenting voices had to be silenced.
Seasoned veterans of L.A. might recall when, in the early part of the decade, heroin was almost handed out in grocery bags. It was cheap, plentiful and potent. I had never heard of Hoover’s COINTELPRO at that time, but I knew something was up. Someone wanted all the punk rockers dead, addicted or in jail.
Meanwhile, the big music was so bright and so happy. It was like living in two worlds at once.
In the 1980s, even I used the music at times as a narcotic. In 1984, a particularly grueling year of touring — fraught with violence, tough living situations and an overall aura of hostility — I taped music at the homes of two different industry people who got sent everything. I hauled Culture Club, Duran Duran, ABC, Cyndi Lauper and others through one American city after another. I bought a used cassette of Madonna’s Like a Virgin and played it multiple times a day to prepare for the ashtrays whizzing by my head that night.
While the music seemed to be saturated with dazzling cheerfulness, I wondered if it was the soundtrack of a film coming to an end, and if the performers were trying to outshine a rapidly approaching darkness for as long as they could.
The one who seemed best prepared for the end of the decade was Madonna. Not only had she turned herself into a hard-bodied badass, à la Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, her business model was armored up and good to go, a blueprint for what was to be.
The reason I mention all this is because I wonder if we are there again. The music of power brokers such as Beyoncé and her husband is as big as the weather or the GDP of a Western country. The overwhelming use of production is counterweighted by the almost complete nudity of some of the performers. The lyrics are spiked with sexual references and swearing, enough to stimulate for a while. But ultimately, what sells is nothing new.
Are these people to be the next dinosaurs? Or is the music environment so dynamic, so multiplatformed that its brightest lights, who reside in the thin air at the top of the food chain, will be able to shape-shift into an even more un-killable corporate mutation? Could it be that the 1980s almost killed off popular music but what survived gave rise to a far more virulent strain?
I watched the Britney Spears and Iggy Azalea video for their song “Pretty Girls.” I don’t think it can cure cancer, but if you played it for members of ISIS, they just might instantaneously vaporize.
Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.
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