Saturday, April 22, 2006

Defending Eighties Rock

Alternative rock became a reality in the 1980's. It's as simple as that. There were tons of bands before then that alluded to it, you know, like the Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Big Star, and all those thousands of punk bands that came out of the woodwork in the late 70's. But really, it all started in the 80's as a thriving, vital genre of music, and without it, we wouldn't have all the great - and sometimes derivative - music that eventually would permeate the 90's and the 00's.

Now, I don't think that most people in my generation would really give a shit about 80's music. Not alternative 80's music, at least. I think there are some kids out there who really dig Journey and Pat Benetar and shit like that, but for the most part the only reverence I get of 80's music comes from reverent pop-punk crap songs like "1985" by Bowling for Soup. You know, that song where they list all those bands from the 80's so they can be old-school and cool? Or like how Reel Big Fish likes to cover random 80's tunes in their super-cool "punk songs with horns in them for some reason" formula, you know, to be old-school and cool?? That's the fun, hip way of looking at the 80's nowadays, and it's gotten to the point where "indie" bands like the Arctic Monkeys can pull off lines like that to sound ironic or something ("Dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984!" Nice reference, guys).

I don't want to sound snooty here, or high-and-mighty, I really don't. I'm sure I do, and I shouldn't. Just because I spend my spare time noodling around looking for cool, influential "alternative" bands from the 80's does not make me a hip guy, as much as I'd like it to. Ask any too-cool-for-you record store owner from the mid 80's and he'd expose me for the suburban dip I am in a second. But the truth is, a lot of the music I've been getting into from this era is just so good, I wish more people would embrace it. People have such stodgy opinions of music from the 80's - it's either synth-driven new wave or fucking Bon Jovi hair metal. People hear the name "Echo and the Bunnymen" and probably equate it to fucking Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It's a bit depressing.

No, this kind of music isn't taken very seriously nowadays - the bands that are indeed revered usually are from the alternative 90's and, even more prominently, the indie-rock of the 00's. Now, there's tons from both of these eras that I enjoy quite a bit. I grew up in the 90's, and it's practically my favorite decade of music, with bands like Radiohead, Pavement, the Flaming Lips, The Verve, Weezer, and even old stalwarts like R.E.M. making fantastic music. And now in the 00's, there's lots of great stuff to be cherished. But now that we've gotten to 2006, the term "indie" doesn't even mean anything anymore (I love Franz Ferdinand as much as the next guy, but are they really "indie"? They sound tailor-made for the radio). And the truth is, despite many people's lack of interest in the 80's alternative scene, a lot of the stuff out today was pretty much birthed by these countless bands, before anybody cared about it, and before the 90's made it digestible by the mainstream. And what we're left with is easy-going, non-risk-taking bands like Guster and Dispacth being considered cool. Hmm.

The only thing I can see fit to do is talk about some of my favorite music from the 80's. It's not as broad as it could be, I'll admit, but it's all wonderful in my opinion. I beg you to at least try and give some of this stuff a listen - it's great, vital rock 'n roll.

One band that I'm not going to talk about at-length is U2, because everybody knows enough about U2 already. They're not all that underground, but I still love them. If anybody really feels that U2 have kind of lost it in recent years, pick up pretty much any album they released in the 80's, when they were still vital, powerful, and focused. That's all I really have to say about them.

R.E.M.'s another band that people know plenty about, but the truth is that they were probably the most important band of the alternative 80's - that is, they practically birthed the whole scene. Simply put, they were all about powerful pop-rock melodies with almost impenetrable lyrics and a guitar jangle that would influence shitloads of bands after them (really, Peter Buck's guitar sound so familiar to me, it's almost uncomfortable). Not only that, but they were excessively consistent in the 80's, releasing six albums between 1983 and 1988 without compromising their artistic ability, or becoming a one-note novelty act by repeating their signature sound over and over again. Murmur in 1983 may have seemed impenetrable and moody, but by 1987's Document they were fierce, political, and focused. While my favorite album of theirs happens to be in the 90's, ironically enough (Automatic for the People is a masterpiece, simply put), and though they had to work long and hard for their eventual massive commercial success, they were simply a fantastic band, one that surprisingly few people seem to recognize beyond their 90's work.

Another band that turned me onto 80's alternative rock was the Pixies, a band that pretty much laid down the groundwork for all the freaky, tension-filled rock that would explode with Nirvana in the early 90's and can still be heard prominently today. Sure, they sounded insane - especially with Frank Black's trademark yelping - but they were backed by instrumentation that almost sounded poppish, especially on songs like "Debaser" and my personal favorite song of theirs, "Here Comes Your Man." The touches they employed were great as well - Frank Black may have sounded angsty and bizarre at times, but he could meld his voice easily to even the weirdest, slowest songs, and bassist Kim Deal provided a wonderful, creepily melodic counterbalance to Frank's screams, one that somehow made a lot of sense (my favorite example of this being in the song "Tame", with both of them singing as if they were trying to catch their breaths before Frank starts screaming again). They also pretty much defined the "quiet-loud-quiet" setup that Nirvana would use in, like, every one of their songs. Simply put, these guys were awesome back in the day, despite their relatively short career.

Another great band from the 80's - one I actually mentioned earlier - is Echo and the Bunnymen, a band that is so consistently misunderstood it confuses the shit out of me. Some call them "goth-rock" because they tend to be very dramatic, some call them "new wave" for... uh, well, I don't know why people call them new wave 'cause they really don't SOUND like new wave, they just happen to come from around that time. But simply put, the Bunnymen sound beyond genre to me - they're very obviously influenced by the Doors, especially in Ian McCulloch's dramatic delivery, but they simply create beautiful, psychadelic guitar-rock. Ocean Rain, considered by many to be their pinnacle, is filled with wonderful, string-laced arrangements and passionate lyrics. These guys have gotten a bit more notoriety in recent years, with "The Killing Moon" making the most impression (it was used in soundtracks for both the well-revered "Donnie Darko" and the kinda-popular "The Girl Next Door"), but they're still in that 80's Band category that seems to turn people off to them before they even listen to them. Hopefully that'll change.

The Smiths were another pretty damn important band in the 80's, a band that anticipated a crapload of the guitar-driven Britpop music that would dominate the 90's. But unlike a lot of the likeminded indie-rock bands that followed them, the Smiths were much more genuine. Morrissey, unlike so many frontmen from this era that put on a "weird" persona to push the limits of their music, was genuinely unusual - dramatic, self-loathing AND self-pitying, obsessed with art films and literary figures like Oscar Wilde, and almost celebratory in his own misery, Morrissey was integral to the band's image. But what's great about him is that he's not only willing to poke fun at himself, he can do so in a witty, funny way, so much so that he ends up dreaming up an encounter with the Queen in "The Queen is Dead" ("She said, 'I know you, and you cannot sing.' / I said, 'That's nothing, you should hear me play piano.'") and mocks charges of plagiarism from his critics in "Cemetry Gates", a song about... well, playing in a cemetery for fun. And despite all the gloom the Smiths can create (like the indelible "Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head..." from "I Know It's Over"), they sound fantastic, especially with someone as talented as their lead guitarist, Johnny Marr, whose extensive guitar sound and prowess perfectly complement Morrissey's charming indulgences. Simply put... well, they were really good, although I know some people who probably wouldn't like them much and call Morrissey a "fag." But that's life.

Only a couple left, folks. Another one of my favorites is XTC, another British band that started off as a really cool herky-jerky guitar-based new wave band in the late 70's/early 80's and then came into full-flower in the mid-to-late 80's, releasing wonderful pop albums like Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons. The whole studiocraft thing started mostly 'cause their lead singer/guitarist, Andy Partridge, suffered from excessive stage fright. In their early days they wrote some awesome singles ("Generals and Majors" is pretty much the catchiest thing ever), and had plenty of great albums to back them up. Skylarking, their 1986 homage to the concept albums of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, is really beautiful, anticipating the wonders of springtime despite eventually ending on something of a sad note with the song "Sacrificial Bonfire." XTC are also noteworthy for their side project, the parody 60's psychadelic-rock band The Dukes of Stratosphear; despite being a clever excuse for XTC to indulge in the music they grew up with, the band pulls off sounding like an authentic psychadelic rock band amazingly well, the songs themselves fantastic and original on their own despite the era they're supposed to represent. Simply put, XTC were an excessively talented British alt-pop band.

One more band that I have to mention - the Stone Roses. While they only have one album of theirs that's really celebrated, it's such a fantastic album that it deserves as much attention as an album can get. Their eponymous 1989 debut takes all of the great innovations in guitar pop that had been bubbling in the 80's underground, marries them with an infectious dance beat reminiscent of the best British dance music, and in turn creates a set of songs that are as epic as they are simply catchy. Songs like "She Bangs the Drums," "This is the One," "(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister," "Elephant Stone," and the monstrous "I Am The Resurrection" are so fucking good I can't believe it, and the rest of the album is pretty much the same way. Ian Brown's cool vocals, John Squire's echoey guitar, and the propulsive dance rhythm of Reni and Mani all work so well together it's remarkable. The Stone Roses themselves couldn't hold onto this domination much longer; after this great record, they fell into some legal troubles which led to an extensive hiatus, which resulted in 1995's Second Coming - which is considered something of a letdown despite its merits - and then broke up. While The Stone Roses is an album that doesn't seem to be all that popular with people who aren't music nerds nowadays, I personally think it was the perfect album to end the 80's, and an album that any fan of music of ANY kind should own.

There's so many great 80's bands that I haven't even touched upon myself yet - hardcore-turned-alternative bands like the Dead Kennedys, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, and the Minutemen, plus other jangle-poppers like the dB's, Game Theory, Let's Active, the goth-rock soundscapes of Bauhaus and the Cure, noise-rockers like the Jesus and Mary Chain and Sonic Youth, and countless lesser-known bands resigned to the underground. The truth is, the 80's alternative scene set the foundation for pretty much all of the great (and lousy, I'll admit) 90's and 00's indie rock we have now. And I think it's high time more people start to recognize that.

P.S. - Just a little thing - I just downloaded the song "Do It Clean" by Echo and the Bunnymen and the iTunes genre listed is "Techno-Industrial." What the fuck??


Paul said...

I couldn't of said it better myself. You and I have had this discussion so many times, and I couldn't agree with you more.

Commenting on the whole Pixies influencing Nirvana thing, another band that I think more obviously and directly influenced Nirvana is Dinosaur Jr. Their melodic vocals and kick-ass guitar are basically Nirvana 3 years before Nirvana hit it big. In "Freak Scene" particuarly, the catchiness, use of heavy guitar, and the same "quiet-loud-quiet" thing basically make it "Smells Like Teen Spirit" 3 years before Nirvana did it.

I used to foolishly think that music basically stopped in the 80s (with a few exceptions) and that the real good decades in music were the 70s and 90s. But now, I think my favorite decade in music has become the 80s.

Luke said...

Really, Sean, you're starting to sound like an actual music critic now. It's almost a little creepy.

In any case, I'm going to go with Paul here and say that you're right about all of that. All of the bands you wrote about are ones that have helped me come to fully appreciate the 80s as one of the greatest 'underground' decades for rock. Funny thing is, I have the same problem with all of the bands that youn mentioned at the very end, since most of them are ones that I've heard about and want to listen to. I have "Bela Lugosi's Dead," but that's about it.

There's even a few more bands you might have mentioned, such as The Replacements, some of the later Talking Heads albums ("Remain In Light" was released in '80, remember), The The, early Bevis Frond, and what are probably some of Tom Waits' greatest albums. Who knows, though? Maybe once you listen to some more of this, you can do "Defending Eighties Rock: Part 2"?

Sean "Seventeen" Rose said...

Oh yeah, fuck, I missed the Talking Heads! Shitstain. Oh well.

Oh yeah, and the Replacements, I need to get into them. There's a lot of 80's college rock out there that's supposed to be fantastic, like the Dire Straits and guys like that. It might take me a while but I'll definitely write a follow up if I ever get into enough of these bands... it's a big fucking well of great music, it seems.