Thursday, 14 June 2007

1982 and all that: pop's golden age?

This year is the anniversary of 1982. People did different things then, lived different lives, to paraphrase Chris Morris's Day Today spoof of witless 'reminiscipackages'. At present, of course, the reminiscence industry is busy churning out 'Falklands: 25 years on' retrospectives. Sends an instinctive shudder through lefties of a certain age, all this, I'd imagine - that conflict being commonly cited ever since as the motor for Thatcher's 1983 election landslide and the hammerings of the Left that followed.

But bollocks to all that. Let's concentrate on the good stuff from that time, specifically the pop music. It's been said that great pop music can inspire tumultous social changes, but I've never bought that line. It's surely the other way round - tumultous social changes can inspire great pop music. And this is one of the reasons why the early Eighties were such a fascinating period in the history of our popular culture.

Of course, there's a huge amount of subjectivity at work here. That this was the period when I first started following the charts and buying records (Madness singles, mainly, from scrimped-together pocket money) certainly informs my fondness for the music of the time. Yet I'm less fond, now, of the era when I was actually most going to gigs, clubs and buying albums by the shedload (the early Nineties). I was clearlier a cannier judge of a tune at 11 than I was at 21. The early Eighties rocked. The early Nineties didn't.

Much of the era's vibrancy is exhaustively documented in Simon Reynolds' masterly Rip it Up and Start Again, which argues, rightly, that 'post-punk' was actually far more important than the initial punk uprising. Things really got interesting when the ideals and sounds that inspired punk were blended with the other pioneering sounds of the era, such as disco, electronica and hip hop. All had their roots in the late Seventies, but from very different starting points, geographically and sonically. Most importantly, all had their moments of utter greatness. Punk v Disco was always one of pop's most pointless stand-offs. To take sides would make as much sense as cutting off one of your ears. And the likes of Talking Heads, Blondie, PiL, Gang of Four understood this. Throw in yer Two Tone acts and yer complete one-offs such as Dexys and you have a scene set for one of pop's high-watermarks, which is what 1982 was. A year in which there truly was something for everyone.

So here's five very different, very diverse reasons why 1982 was so great.

1 Party Fears Two - The Associates
Scotland rocked in the early Eighties. Or rather it didn't, and thank Christ. By the late 80s, much mainstream Scottish music had slipped into a slough of bombastic mediocrity typified by the likes of Simple Minds, Del Amitri, Deacon Blue and co. Earlier in the decade, however, the sound of young Scotland (Altered Images, Orange Juice and co) was playful, experimental and infused with a gloriously expansive pop energy. These elements were never more majestically combined than in Party Fears Two. There's loads going on here - the expectant opening synth chords, the infectious piano riffs, bass, string and synth sounds going all over the place - all topped off by Billy Mackenzie's awesome vocal histrionics, which could be about everything or nothing; a cry of despair or hope. A song that it's impossible to tire of.

2 The Message - Grandmaster Flash
Much early hip hop lacks the slick expert production sound of the likes of Dr Dre, but what it lacks in polish it made up for in innovation, lyrical dexterity and righteous anger. The Message has been much lionised in subsequent years (it was never a massive hit at the time), but rightly so - a compelling state-of-the-city lament for New York urban decay, and the best political record of the period. It's something of an indictment of these times that a record as powerful and indignant as this now sounds so dated. It still hits the spot, though.

3 Inside Out - Odyssey
Eighties soul is terribly undervalued, and even within the story of the soul/disco/funk of the time, Odyssey rarely get much of a mention. More popular in Britain than in their native New York, they produced a string of cracking singles notable not just for their polished and soulful tunes but the heartfelt yet emotionally mature lyrics. Few break-up songs hit the spot like their 1980 hit If You're Looking for a Way Out, and few betrayal songs are as accomplished as Inside Out - six sublime minutes that stretch keyboard, string and bass arrangements to their emotional limit. And it manages to be magnificent despite the fact that Louise Lopez's vocals are slightly off-note for the duration.

4 Say Hello, Wave Goodbye - Soft Cell
Soft Cell can sometimes be written off as mere ultra-camp electro-disco tarts (not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that), but there was always a hell of a lot more going on in their best work. Marc Almond was an expert conveyor of angst, loneliness and despair. Indeed, it was key to their considerable chart success. If their cover of Tainted Love (notably inferior to Gloria Jones' northern soul original) made their name, its more downbeat successors - Bedsitter, Say Hello, Wave Goodbye and Torch - saw them give full vent to their capabilities. Say Hello... is the pick, a heartfelt lament for an opposites-attract relationship gone horribly sour, complete with orchestral flourishes and compelling choruses. Those who think electronic-based music can't convey emotion have always been fools.

5 Ain't No Pleasin' You - Chas'n'Dave
Not an ironic choice this, honest, much though the Kings of Rockney have of late been appropriated by the Hoxton set since Pete Doherty started bigging them up. OK, so Ain't No Pleasin' You doesn't slot into any of the categories or trends mentioned above - and wouldn't have got remotely close to even a cursory mention in Reynolds' book - but it's still a great sing-a-long slice of pub white soul. A male "I will Surive" if you will. More personally, and perhaps pathetically, much of my affection for this song is down to its recent embrace by some Leyton Orient fans - and its association with the spontaneous pub party on the night we got promoted in May 2006. Belting it out it in a big arms-linked scrum at a karaoke on that delirious evening is one of my happiest memories. Sentimental, sad, but true.

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