I’ve been doing this series of “Thirty Years Ago Today” anniversary posts about great music of the eighties for quite a while now.
Here’s the thing I’ve discovered in writing this series; for many of the records I’ve covered – The RIver, Shoot Out The Lights - it hardly seems like it’s been thirty years, since the records seem (to me, anyway) so very timeless; they’re no less a soundtrack in my forties than they were in my teens and twenties.
With others, though? They’re definitely archaeological artifacts; Boy, U2′s first album, hinted at greatness and timelessness to come, but it was very much a time capsule for an idealistic post-punk do it yourself world of music I craved being in at the time. Zenyatta Mondatta and Blizzard of Ozz seem like museum exhibits showcasing one of those rare times in music when pretty much anything went.And it’s one of those latter that brings us to today’s anniversary. It was thirty years ago today Prince released 1999. And it may have not only been one of the greatest albums of the eighties – but if you had to pick an album to serve as a time capsule of what The Eighties were, musically, you could pick a lot worse. If you saw The Eighties as…:
- an inflection point in R&B between the funk of the seventies and the hip-hop-inflected R&B of the nineties, 1999 was a key turning point. While there was no hip-hop on the album – the term was still on the fringe of pop music culture in 1982 - 1999 linked the big-funk-band ’70s with the technology-driven groove that has dominated R&B for the past twenty-odd years. Listen to “DMSR”, and tell me that’s not made for sampling.
- an era driven by unprecedented change in music technology: In spades. There’d been synth-pop albums before 1999; there’d be many after. But when it came to integrating bleeding-edge technology (synths, a top-of-the-line Linn drum machine) with tradition (Prince’s signature Hofner guitar, a cheapo knockoff of a Fender Telecaster), 1999 was the gold standard. Listen to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”, or the title cut, for two of the most glorious melanges of style…ever!
- a period of glorious intermingling between “black” and “white” music: There’s a story – possibly apocryphal, although I remember it came from a decent source back (koff koff) years ago – that John Mellencamp, who was just starting to wiggle his way toward critical respectability, came out to do an encore at a show, carrying a boom box. As the story goes, he said “This is a great rock and roll song”, held the boom box up to the mike, and played “Little Red Corvette” for the audience. This was kind of a big deal for me; you didn’t get exposed to a lot of “black” music in rural North Dakota in those days. And learning from Mellencamp (for whom I didn’t much care at the time) that there was in fact a link between R&B and R&R kicked loose a brick in my mind that got me thinking, and sent me – thirty years ago this coming winter – into the back room at the radio station I was working at, to dig out some old Motwn records and start piecing together the great rock and roll tradition for myself.
- Minneapolis’ musical glory days: this was the album that blasted the Twin Cities onto the musical map.
It’s all of that. And it was anything but timeless; how many albums give themselves a shelf-date? The world didn’t end in 2000; everyone had a bomb but we all didn’t die any day, not yet. “Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999″ is a statement of ironic nostalgia.
But as an artifact of a long-gone time?
What an artifact.
And what a time!