This week’s episodes in my “Real Eighties” series are about the influence of technology on the decade – and by “decade” I mean “from about 1980 to 1986 or so”.
The biggest influence? Traditionally, becoming a working, performing, record-selling musician was the culmination of a process that took as long as becoming a doctor; a musician in any genre, from classical through pop, would spend years, even decades, learning the craft, whether it was playing guitar or piano or singing or whatever, well enough to make it in the bigs. The rock and roll era changed that, somewhat – musicians could get contracts, airplay and sales with less experience and polish. But the musicians that became known as musicians, even in the rock and roll era, were the ones that either paid their dues in years of working on the craft – artists and craftsmen as diverse as James Burton, Pete Johnson, Steve Cropper and Reg “Elton John” Dwight – and the occasional prodigy (think Eric Clapton and Richard Thompson and, for that matter, Jimi Hendrix).
Punk rock forwarded the idea that amateurism – inspired or, usually, not – could be music, and that music was as much about attitude as craft.
And when that attitude was combined with newly-relatively-cheap technology – frequency-modulated digital synthesizers and sequencers – it became possible for someone who had not spent his/her entire adult life learning how to play an instrument to not only sound good, but impressive. It’s a trend that’s accelerated over the past thirty years, with Auto-Tune obviating the need to learn to sing and programs like GarageBand putting technology that, in 1981, was found in half-million dollar studio setups on peoples’ laptops for free.
Anyway – the trend led to an awful lot of dreck, naturally – Men Without Hats, anyone?
But it had its upside. One of the uppiest was Human League, who, along with Thomas Dolby (see yesterday) were famous for being able to make all this new technology sound…well, musical. And beyond that, human.
And at their best, they were very, very good…
…using the synthesizer to walk the line between familiar and new sounds, and as an expressive medium in a way that’d largely eluded earlier (and, I’ll speak editorially here, a lot of later) efforts at electronic music.
So to the extent the stereotype was right; the revolution in technology brought forth a wave of electronic pop, much of it dreadful. Just as every advance in technology always has, and still does.