music is math…

Best of the 80s, anyone?

No, don’t worry!  This isn’t a blog about how we can now fully appreciate the true genius of Duran Duran, thus justifying the recent wave of pointless synth-laden imitations and “cool” t-shirts advertising the fact that one was born in (and therefore probably quite unaware of) the decade in question.

The 80s have understandably left a sour taste in the mouths of music lovers across the world and many a record collection reflects this.  The prolific mainstream rock scene so iconic of the 60s and 70s was giving way to something new.  Almost three decades on and popular music still bears the scars that resulted in the rise of consumerist culture and the valuation of what was fast and shiny over what was personal or meaningful.  I mean, could there have been any X-Factor or American Idol nonsense in the without it?

However, our planet is a mercifully large and diverse one in which it is possible to find all sorts of interesting places and people to whom George Michael’s ‘Faith’ is not considered a relevant or worthy contribution to civilised society.  To many the 80s were just another decade, or even a creative influence, as this list attempts to prove…

1. Paul Simon – Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes

Taken from the excellent ‘Graceland’, this track demonstrates the album’s fusion of South African and western pop music.  The ensuing controversy over the album promoting apartheid South Africa sets it firmly within the context of the period (that and the liberal use of slapped fretless bass) but actually endures to this day as an example of the quality of African music and the benefits of crossing racial divides.

In terms of pop music and Africa, the 80s is unfortunately remembered more for “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” which, despite raising phenomenal amounts of money, is in reality a completely unlistenable and patronising piece of music.  If they inflict another version of this rubbish on us in the future, I suggest giving a fiver to Oxfam and buying something like ‘Graceland’ instead.

2. The Smiths – There is a Light That Never Goes Out

Civil unrest, Thatcherism and society’s newfound love of hairspray must not exactly have made it a hopeful age for those of a bookish, romantic disposition.  Fortunately, Morrissey and Marr came together in 1982 to produce songs that sum up the frustrations felt by many in dreary, deprived towns in the north of England.

The combination of wry, articulate lyrics and a very British jangly guitar sound was the ideal antidote for a working class alienated by the money grabbing, cocaine fuelled, linen lined excesses of 80s culture.  In this 1986 classic, Morrissey reminds us of the simple, yet fragile, pleasures of love in life against a gritty urban landscape of busy roads and dark underpasses.

3. A Guy Called Gerald – Voodoo Ray

Something a little different now.  The development of house music in 1980s Chicago is one the decade’s most overlooked gifts.  This 1988 acid house classic from English producer Gerald Simpson shows the influence of disco and the true potential of synthesisers.  The electronic era had arrived and dance music would never be the same again.

4. Eric B. & Rakim – I Ain’t No Joke

Part of hip hop’s “golden age”, this duo represent the 80s real musical success story.  The fresh and innovative sound of old school hip hop evolved and from the second half of the decade artists such as Eric B. & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy led the way in creating an unforgettable musical era.

This opener to the album ‘Paid in Full’ is vintage “golden age”, cutting up an old soul sample over an 808 breakbeat.  The only other element is some typically boastful (but positive) rhymes and there you have a simple but classic tune, made the way rap music should be.

5. Tenor Saw – Ring the Alarm

Like hip hop in New York, Jamaica continued to produce amazing music with the rise of dancehall.  Electronic instruments began to be incorporated into “riddims” and a new style of “ragga” vocals emerged.  Dancehall stayed true to the soundystem culture of Jamaica as well as drawing on modern global influences to produce a unique and infectious sound. 

As with hip hop, we in the west regrettably overlook Jamaica in our judgement of 80s music too often.  Obviously, the conclusion one comes to is that it can’t all have been that bad then.  The death or decline of several musical icons and the shift in the sound of pop and dance music did the decade no favours.  Every decade has produced obscene amounts of worthless musical contributions but got away with it because it rarely fits into a perceived decline in society in general.

So, the next time someone disrespects the 80s with a grossly generalised statement (as people often do), tell them they are in fact wrong.  Not only that, but to be dismissive of everything the period has to offer is to also be unaware of some truly great music.

P.S. Check out the first of what will hopefully be many Spotify playlists here to listen to all these tunes (and some bonus selections) in one place.  Couldn’t find “Voodoo Ray” on there though.  Damn you Spotify!

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