Remembering the ’80s on the way back from Breck…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , — @ 1:46 pm August 10, 2010

by Tim McMahan,

What, no show reviews from this past weekend? The reason: I just got back from vacation since last Wednesday, in cool, dry Breckenridge, CO, one of the few places in the world where there is no good music — not in the bars, not on the mountains, not on the radio. Which made me thank my lucky stars that the GTI is equipped with a satellite radio. We spent the weekend listening to XMU, the indie satellite station, which I have to believe is becoming as important as Pitchfork even though their playlist is woefully narrow.

After overdosing on Arcade Fire for a few days in the row (it was as if XMU was sponsored by the band), Teresa insisted on Sirius “80s on 8” for the drive home — that meant nine straight hours of ’80s pop music. Why not? It’s been awhile since I dipped myself into the Reagan Era, music-wise.

Every once in a while, someone will tell me that he thinks his parents’ music was better than the music from the current era. Well, if his parents’ music is ’80s pop, I’m not sure that’s true. Was there a more flamboyant, more excessive era in pop music? Believe me, I know. I grew up in the ’80s with MTV and hair metal and the disco hangover. Listening back now, I have to believe all that excess was fueled by nose candy in the sort of opposite way that downers and pot influenced music in the droopy, drowsy ’60s.

By contrast, the ’80s was speed, glitter, rainbows and more more more. I can imagine high-dollar recording studios booked by rich rock bands for months at a time and helmed by zoned-out record producers who spent their time trying to figure out how they could squeeze more sound effects into every track. “I think we should add some zinger effects right here – zing zing zing,” says the mustached former Sabbath roadie as he desperately tries to keep his elbow from knocking over the mountains of cocaine piled along the top of the sound board.

How else do you explain a song like “The Reflex,” by Duran Duran? It’s as if the band and producer were trying to put every inane sound effect into every spare second of the song. Go back and listen to it again. It’s the most idiotic, cartoonish-sounding recording you’ll ever hear.

It had to be the coke that made them want everything bigger, right? Take drums. Back in ’85, your typical pop song couldn’t use regular analog drums. Not big enough. Every song had to use sampled electronic explosions – crash, crash, crash! Every beat was a bomb going off. Thirty years later, those bombs sound both big and hollow at the same time.

And then there were the egregiously narcissistic guitar solos — the staple of ’80s macho rock, so drenched in testosterone they wreaked of Brut and body odor. Sure, there were guitar solos in the ’70s, but they generally fulfilled a purpose, they at least tried to enhance the music experience. Not in the ’80s. Every hair metal song had to give 20 seconds (which felt like two minutes) to the lead ax man so he could pull down his leather pants and let everyone know how good of a guitarist he thought he was. But instead, those solos almost always just got in the way.

But more than hair metal, which was Cro-Magnon dumbshit music for a white-trash nation, the ’80s, specifically the mid-’80s, brought on the emergence of gay American dance music — post-disco good-time synth pop that was more effeminate than anything in the past. People point to Bowie’s androgyny in the ’70s, but to those who weren’t “in the know,” Bowie and the glam crowd were just a bunch of clowns who discovered their girlfriends’ make-up kits. “Gay” to them meant “Look at me, I’m a freak.”

That wasn’t the case on the dance floor in the ’80s. There was no mistaking the intent. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, George Michael, these guys weren’t wearing crazy orange Bowie wigs or dresses, but there was no mistaking where they — and their music — were coming from. Sure, they were coke heads too, and were among the most guilty when it came to excess in their music arrangements. Add the calliope of sound to the late nights, the colored strobes, the sweat and the poppers, and the ’80s for them became a glorious blur that would, eventually, end tragically.

But before that, the gay culture had never so permeated popular American culture. Before long, even ’70s legends were trying to update their sound and style to fit the era. How else do you explain Born in the USA-era Springsteen? The guy who used to look like a skinny, greasy mechanic, suddenly emerged post-workout, with tight jeans, tight shirt and headband, he couldn’t have looked more gay. And “Dancing in the Dark” — with its tooting synths — couldn’t have sounded more un-Springsteen-ish.

So that’s what went through my head after listening to “80s on 8” for seven hours. We eventually couldn’t take it anymore and had to change it back to XMU, where I discovered something about the ’80s and what’s wrong with today’s indie music. No matter how excessive or overindulgent ’80s pop music was, you almost always could find the melody to every song, and after just one time through. They were songs that, after a couple spins, you could  sing along to, whether you wanted to or not.

Try that with most of today’s indie rock. Listen to the “Barricade,” the new track by Interpol, then afterward, try to hum the melody. When was the last time a melody by Spoon stuck in your head (other than the one used in the commercial)? Can you sing one line from a Deerhunter song? When it’s not singer/songwriter fare, indie music is drama and effect, an emotional tone poem or soundscape with a few lines of poetry thrown in. There aren’t a lot of indie “songs.”

And these days, there aren’t many good pop songs, either. We listened to XMU Hits or whatever its called and got an hour of Katy Perry and the rest of the current tribe of girly girl artists who all seem to be singing the very same, proudly misogynistic songs that no woman over the age of 25 (and certainly no straight man) would take seriously. Do not compare them to Madonna.

Hmmm… in retrospect, and considering that it also marked the birth of indie, maybe the ’80s was a better era after all…

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Tomorrow: An interview with Young Love Records artists Setting Sun and Quitzow. Be there.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.