Years ago, I was working in an “oldies” station. Still being in the middle of a radio career, and trying to keep my options open (I’d always wanted to do news and talk, and was chafing with life as a disc jockey – but “when in Rome…”, as they say), I asked the station’s program director what it was that made a song an “oldie”.
He replied that music directors operated on two key bits of psychology:
- People are intensely emotionally attached to music that connected with them during puberty; music mixes with raging hormones to create a powerful, almost chemical bond.
- People are also mentally and emotionally attached to the music that was in their lives when they were in their late teens and early twenties – but for slightly different reasons. It was the music that was current, and on their minds, and affecting their emotions, about the time their brains were finally, belatedly getting formed and becoming adult.
I was sitting in a Culver’s the other day. They were playing Sirius FM’s “Original MTV Veejay” station – the station where Martha Quinn and the rest of the original MTV VJs (no, I can’t remember anyone but Martha Quinn) voicetrack the songs that were in vogue from 1981-86ish.
And for some reason, they played a 4-5 song sweep of nothing but music that was on the radio and MTV when I moved to the Twin Cities, 30 years ago next month.
And, just like my old program director said, it was incredibly evocative. I remembered how it felt driving across the prairie for the last time as a North Dakota resident, listening to Rain on the Scarecrow. Driving down 494 and turning onto the Southtown Strip for the first time as “Money for Nothing” played on the radio. My first rush hour on 494 at Cedar, racing to my first job interview in the Cities to the tune of “Shout”, in WLOL. Watching MTV after a long day of cold calling and seeing “Take On Me” for the first time.
And I started writing this post on my phone.
(Warning: immense number of embedded videos below the jump. You’ve been warned).
I’ve spent a lot of time, on this blog and in real life, setting people straight about what “the Eighties” was really like when it came to music; it wasn’t just haircuts and synthesizers. There was a lot of really, really great music out there – even allowing for the fact that I heard all of it at a time of my life where music is going to have a huge impact on me, especially given the circumstances.
Of course, the more I thought about it – and the more that Martha Quinn played as I sat in Culvers last Sunday – the more I realized that there was great music, there was some really ungawdly crap, and there was some that is lost to history – luckily in some cases, but by no means all.
The Good: There was a lot of objectively great music out around that time:
Money for Nothing by Dire Straits, of course – the big hit single from the album that launched them from “Biggest Cult Band in the World” to one of the biggest attractions in music, at least for a few years:
And “Shout” by Tears for Fears – a paeon, literally, to primal scream therapy, and the ploddiest dirge I’ve ever loved:
It was also the summer I discovered Lone Justice…
…and when John Cougar officially became John Mellencamp, and put out one of the three albums of his you’ll ever need…
…with an entire album that might as well have been recorded in Jamestown.
Of course, you couldn’t escape Norway’s first and last entry in the Top Forty, either on radio or MTV…
…and that wasn’t a bad thing at all.
It was also the summer the Replacements forever earned the ire of the hipsters by actually going major-label, with “Tim”, their best album, released the week I moved down to the Cities:
In fact, the cool thing about “The Eighties” – which really means 1978 through about ’86 – was that, like most of the better periods in the Rock and Roll era, the “Top Forty” and “Alternative” charts largely overlapped:
(And why the hell has nobody ever put the original, official video of “Litany” by Guadalcanal Diary online?)
The Bad: Of course, you’ve gotta sort through a lot of rocks to find gems. And the month I moved to the Cities, there were plenty of pieces of rock – or worse.
Anyone remember “Mister Mister”? The answer to the question “OK, U2 mixes Christian symbology and rock brilliantly – but as opposed to what?
And the eighties had more than their fair share of slick, anonymous bands playing awful music:
And the seventies idea of the “Supergroup” – people from big bands joining together to form even bigger bands – hadn’t yet been euthanized:
But worst of all? Two phenomena reached their peak, I think, that summer:
First: several bands that had hit their heydays in the late seventies and early eighties got to 1985, and realized that they’d lost all their money from their first heydays to all the usual rock and roll ailments – drugs, excess, bad/unethical management – and needed one more big hit to pay them enough to stay solvent. So they turned to Desmond Child, the biggest name in eighties music that you never heard of. Child, a songwriter and producer whose fingers crept into the most out-of-the-way corners of music at the time (and still is; you have no idea how big Desmond Child is until you read his songwriting credits).
Child’s music would be behind the “one last big final comebacks” for Cheap Trick and Aerosmith later in the decade – but the summer of ’85, it was Heart that needed Career Pumping Resuscitation:
Which put me off of “Heart” for a good decade.
But the worst phenomenon was the number of sixties-era hippie bands who made one last big pitch for relevancy around this time. There were some gems in the lot (“Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead is one of very few songs by that loathsome jam band that I can listen to with a straight face, but that was a few years away yet). But the dreck was…very, very drecky.
Most of it was better, however, than the worst of the lot; not just the worst song of that summer, but perhaps the worst song in the history of pop music; “Starsip” (nee Jefferson Starship, nee Jefferson Airplane) and “We Built This…
Sorry. I had to go chunder. I can’t even write it. I’ll just post the damn video.
Even then, the first time I saw it, I remember thinking “what did the universe do to deserve this?”
The Obscure: There were also some bits and pieces that started obscure and stayed that way – but for whatever reason stuck with me.
Everybody remembers “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”. With good reason; it was a great freaking song. But almost nobody remembers this one:
And that’s kind of a shame.
Marillion is one of those bands who you’ve either never heard of (99.9% of the world), or you’re a fanatic.
I’m neither – I’ve heard of them, and I’m not a fantatic. But for whatever reason, this song – which I saw on MTV on my first morning in the Cities – has stuck with me:
As did this one – which I saw the same day for the first and last time (until just now, when I looked up the video). Not sure why I remembered it; perhaps the sheer excess of the whole thing? It’s not bad enough to make the “Bad” list (above), but just over the top enough where it’s stuck with me (and, I guess, almost nobody else) for a long, long time:
The opposite extreme?
Excess? Well, no duh. It’s The Alarm.