10 songs to explain the 1980s

The Guardian recently posed what it called a ‘Playlist challenge’: to select 10 songs that would ‘explain the 1980s’ to people who were too young to experience them first hand. [Oh, ok, it’s not actually recent at all. The truth is I’ve been wrestling with this for ages, both drawing up the list, and getting the damn thing written – I currently seem to have the concentration span of a small gnat, and a lot of anxiety swirling around the idea of posting anything at all.] The five best attempts (in the view of the Guardian staff…) were featured on the site last Friday aeons ago.

Now, this is pretty much an impossible task. The idea that a decade can be summarised by its music is absurd to begin with – most things that really matter in the world don’t come with a soundtrack (or, if they do, it’s coincidental: the songs that happened to be around at the time the important thing happened). Complicating that further by trying to include everything that a decade comprises – its politics, economics, history, industrial relations, sociology, culture, etc. – in only 10 songs takes the absurdity to fever pitch.

Despite all this, I decided that this was the kind of absurd, impossible task that it would be fun to try my hand at. So that’s what this post is: my suggestion for 10 songs that (wholly inadequately) explain (some bits of) the 1980s. You should keep in mind, by the way, that these are songs that I think reflect important aspects of the 1980s, not necessarily my favourite songs of the decade – that list would overlap with this one, but not entirely.

One of the defining features of the 1980s was the experience of gay men. When the decade opened, sex between men was still against the law in Scotland and Northern Ireland and even in England & Wales decriminalisation had not resulted in a gay-positive utopia, but rather a toxic environment in which grudging legal toleration was mixed with moral condemnation and stridently expressed public revulsion at the idea of men having sex together. (The idea of women having sex together was mostly treated by the heterosexual mainstream, then as now, as either trivial or titillating.) So unsurprisingly gay male culture at the very start of the decade was all about casting off feelings of shame and repression, and celebrating sex.

That spirit is captured by my first choice – Sylvester & Patrick Cowley, ‘Do Ya Wanna Funk’ (1982).

Patrick Crowley – who was regarded as a big deal in electronic dance music once, but is all-but forgotten now – died the same year this song was released. His death, coming as it did in 1982, was one of the first attributed to Aids. His collaborator on this innocent, effusive track – the vocalist, Sylvester – died of the same cause in 1988. This reflects that, for gay men, the 80s was pre-eminently the decade of Aids. And also, lest we forget, of overwhelming public indifference to Aids, at least until it was established that the earliest name for the syndrome (Gay-Related Immune Disorder) was inaccurate, and that heterosexuals could get it too.

Aids is surprisingly absent from the music of the 1980s, with many of the artists and bands who wrote songs about it – Queen, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Pet Shop Boys, George Michael – not doing so until the 1900s, and then from a noticeably oblique angle. Of high-profile artists, only Jimmy Somerville really tackled HIV/ Aids head on, and during the decade when it was defining the experience of gay and bisexual men. By the time he recorded the title track of his 1989 solo record, Read My Lips, he was reflecting the turn away from sexual liberation and towards hard-nosed political campaigning which the LGBT movement underwent in the period (as a necessary consequence of Aids, and the lackadaisical response to it by the heterosexual mainstream).‘Read My Lips’ would be an obvious song to include here – or it would, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was released as a single in 1990.

I guess I could argue the toss on that one, since it was released as an album track in the 80s, but it would still feel like a violation of the spirit of the exercise. For this reason, I’m going instead for a song from an earlier phase of Somerville’s career. It still tackles the subject of Aids head on, and there are presentiments of a campaigning spirit (“I’ll never let you down/ A battle I have found”), but this is a grief-filled song in which the personal is put ahead of the political – The Communards, ‘For A Friend’ (1988).

That song was taken from an album called Red – red being the colour of Aids campaigning, but also, of course, of left-wing politics. In fact, before an 80s synthpop duo borrowed it, the name Communards was associated with the Paris Commune of 1871, a key event in revolutionary politics. It seems likely, therefore, that the red banner waved by Richard Coles in the video is meant to have a dual significance, symbolising the band’s support for left-wing politics as well as the fight against Aids. This doesn’t make them particularly unusual, because opposition to Thatcherism was another dominant strand of the decade, and of the decade’s music. For every vacuous pop video celebrating an empty, aspirational “lifestyle” there was someone prepared to make the case for the opposite political view – and simultaneously to make the case for music as something serious and worthwhile, not just a disposable commodity.

To demonstrate that, here are a Scottish band – the kind of band, coincidentally, who had no problem scoring a top three hit in the supposedly trivial and image-obsessed 1980s – drawing explicit parallels between the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries and the anti-industrial policies of Margaret Thatcher. The two are clearly different, but both had seen huge social damage inflicted on communities for the sake of economic “progress”, and both resulted in significant emigration from Scotland. Hence why this song is addressed to expatriate Scots The Proclaimers, ‘Letter From America’ (1987).

The Proclaimers looked at the issue from a distinctively Scottish angle, but there were plenty of voices from beyond Scotland raised against the Thatcherite project, too. I’ve decided to opt for a musician who is perhaps unfairly pigeonholed as a political artist (he also wrote many of the best love songs of the 1980s), and for a song which perfectly encapsulates the social and political divisions of the decade. The 80s really was a time when it felt like everything was split in two, between those who supported Mrs Thatcher and those who opposed her. And it was a time when the full might of the authoritarian state was ranged against the power of the organised working class, and consensus seemed impossible. So that’s why my song to explain this aspect of the 80s is Billy Bragg, ‘Which Side Are You On?’ (recorded & first broadcast 1984).

So far, so dour: I’ve made the 80s seem like it was a non-stop cavalcade of gloom and despondency, only briefly enlivened with flashes of political anger. But, of course, people were still enjoying themselves in the 80s. In fact, it was probably the era when the novelty song was at its most prominent: Black Lace, ‘Agadoo’; The Tweets, ‘The Birdie Song’; Matchroom Mob, ‘Snooker Loopy’; Joe Dolce, ‘Shaddap You Face’; and so on. I can’t bring myself to include an out-and-out novelty track hereeven I have some standards – but any list would be incomplete without an acknowledgement of the fact that the 80s was an era when an irreverent spirit was alive and well in the culture. There’s really only one choice for a band to represent the more credible end of the cheerful, silly side of music – so here’s Madness, ‘House of Fun’ (1982).

Of course, Madness weren’t the only band ploughing a pop furrow at the time. On the contrary, the 80s was perhaps the decade when straightforward pop, innocent of much in the way of influence from other genres, was at its zenith. And in large part 80s pop was also electropop, since this was the era when synth music stepped out of the art-circuit shadows and became one of the dominant sounds in the charts. That’s more-than-adequately demonstrated by my next choice, which for me is a truly groundbreaking moment in music history. It’s less intricate than most present-day pop (its creators had much less sophisticated technology), but pop songs still sound fundamentally the same as this, more than 30 years later – Eurythmics, ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ (1983).

‘Sweet Dreams’ is a pop song, but its also an eminently danceable record. And it’s danceable in a way that owes little to the disco-derived style that was still apparent in my first choice for this list. As such it demonstrates that the 80s saw a fundamental shift in dance music, away from the overt sexuality of a 70s track like ‘I Feel Love’ (which is, when all is said and done, a simulated orgasm) and towards the chemical euphoria of acid house, which set the stage for club culture in the 90s and beyond.

Acid house is probably the last most recent genuine revolution in youth culture (rap was also revolutionary, but it had begun in the 70s, and came to prominence a little earlier in the 80s). Like all proper youth culture revolutions, the thing that most defines acid house as such is that it had the power to genuinely frighten (some) older people. House music, and particularly the informal outdoor parties at which it was played, caused the mother of all moral panics: home counties’ police forces were placed on a state of high alert virtually every weekend and, ultimately, the law was changed to drive the scene into indoor venues where it could be more easily controlled. The hard thing now is working out quite why early house music was seen as so utterly horrifying – beyond, that is, the usual fear of drug-related subcultures, and the uneasiness of the more staid parts of the establishment at the thought of lots of young people getting together and enjoying themselves.

I mean, take this track. All the hallmarks of house music are present and correct – the repetitive beats and bleeps, the absence of much in the way of traditional melody or harmonic structure, the extensive use of samples. I can see that some people might find it a bit dull (personally, I quite like it) but you have a listen and see if you can work out why people had genuinely persuaded themselves that it signalled the end of civilization – A Guy Called Gerald, ‘Voodoo Ray’ (1988).

Of course, acid house wasn’t the only genre of music around in the 80s that made use of repetitive beats, samples and loops in place of traditional song structures – rap did the same thing. But rap is also very different, in that it places the human voice and the spoken word at its heart. A house track is made to be experienced, but a rap track is made to be actively listened to, and encourages the listener to engage with the ideas it expresses.

In the case of a lot of early rap (before the mainstream of the genre transformed into the ultra-consumerist, hyper-masculine cartoon it became for a while), those ideas related to the experience of disaffected African American urban youth. That experience was reflected in the radical anger and controversial lyrics of crews like Public Enemy, but it was also reflected in less confrontational terms by others. As with this track, for example, which counsels a more traditional path to self- and community-improvement: stay in school, work hard, say your prayers here’s Run DMC, ‘It’s Like That’, (1983).

Of course, the fact that the 1980s was a decade of electropop, acid house and rap doesn’t mean that people had completely put away their guitars. Probably the most famous British guitar band of the 80s was The Smiths, and the way that band is usually caricatured has coloured the way all guitar music of the period is perceived – as the work of a bunch of dour miserablists who wouldn’t have known how to have a good time if their lives depended on it. This has contributed to the impression that people with guitars strapped to their midriffs had stopped having fun around the time glam rock died, and didn’t start again until Britpop came along. As a corrective to that mistaken impression, here’s a song to represent the 80s’ strong tradition of guitar-driven pop – it’s Julian Cope, ‘Trampolene’ (1987).

Well, so far in this list I’ve tried to cover a lot of the bases: gay life, pre- and post-Aids; Margaret Thatcher, and the political music written in response to her; fun, escapist music that captured the decade’s irreverent spirit; the mainstreaming of rap music; the death of disco and the birth of acid house; and pop music, in both its electronic and guitar-oriented forms. As I suggested at the start of this post, that’s necessarily an incomplete list, one that excludes much more than it includes, and would leave anyone who relied on it alone woefully ignorant of the 1980s. But it’s my best effort, and I think is reasonably wide-ranging. (Ok, so hair-metal is absent. And – much more seriously – so is any representation of the experience of women in the decade of Greenham Common, the emergence of the female professional as a “type”, and the social revolution that saw women becoming the principal breadwinners in many households. Sorry, something had to give.)

This list is also, as it stands, only 9 songs long. It needs a capstone, something that will both complete it (insofar as anything this incomplete can ever be completed) and help it to cohere. A song that will simultaneously merit inclusion on its own terms, and draw together the strands suggested by some of the others. But finding a song that will do all that is, if not outright impossible, then certainly way beyond my capabilities.

So instead of that here’s a downbeat, distorted, guitar-driven song that nonetheless manages to sound anthemic. Think of it as the antidote to everything that received opinion tells us the 80s was – super-shiny, corporate, shallow, escapist. Think of it as some kind of inadequate summation of the alternative 80s, and take it as at least a semi-fitting ending to this list, which has tried to express some of the variety and diversity of the decade. Think of it, above all, as – The Jesus and Mary Chain, ‘Just Like Honey’ (1985).

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