Professor Mark Csele

The 80’s Musical Tour

Being a member of ‘Generation-X’ my favorite music is from the 80’s, especially early 80’s. Much of this music, now called ‘retro’, was consider at the time to be ‘alternative’ and played only by radio stations such as Toronto’s CFNY.

The eighties were a time of transition – a break-away from the ‘corporate album rock’ of the 70’s. Just listen to some of the junk that was passed-off as music during that decade and its not hard to see how the sound of the 80’s offered such a refreshing alternative. DISCO was definitely _DEAD_ and we all just could not stomach one more song by Terry Jacks (His infamous ‘Seasons in the Sun’ made the list of the worst 50 songs of all time). Not that all seventies music was bad, there was even some decent disco (seriously ;), but it was, as a whole, a tired and uninspired decade, musically.

The eighties were also a decade of “One Hit Wonders” – while some bands lasted for some time, many had a massive hit and were never heard from again – most of the mid-80’s CFNY playlist falls into this category.

Aside from the one-hit wonders there were a few ‘album’ artists of the eighties – most were successful carry-overs from the seventies (which, as I said, weren’t totally void of talent, just mostly :). My faves include Kate Bush (Hounds of Love was awesome but she had a host of goodies from the late seventies too), Pink Floyd (nothing too early, I like to be able to listen to my music without the aid of hallucinogens :), New Order (Substance 1987 still sounds good), and Depeche Mode.

So, what characterizes Eighties music ?

I suppose, more than anything, the eighties can be characterized musically as One-Hit_Wonders and Synthesizers.

It was a time when electronic music became embraced and common and the synthesizer grew to become an instrument in it’s own right. The wailing guitar of the early 70’s and the disco sound of the late 70’s gave way to a new sound which could not exist in nature – the sound of the synthesizer.

In the 1970 most bands used ‘traditional’ instruments such as guitars for melodies. In the video below you’ll hear what a ‘typical’ 70’s band sounded like. The video is Sweet’s Love is like Oxygen. It’s sound was like that of many bands of the day. This song was released in 1978 and at this late a date many bands, including Sweet, were beginning to use electronic instruments however they were used to emulate traditional instruments: In this case an electronic piano is used to emulate the real thing.

By comparison, consider a ‘typical’ 80’s tune like Depeche Mode’s Everything Counts. Depeche Mode used synthesizers as instruments in their own right creating a new sound which ‘traditional’ instruments could not produce.

The difference is quite pronounced: The synthesizer as an Emulator of a traditional instrument as opposed to the synthesizer as it’s Own instrument. Now to be fair, the eighties were not the first time artists had used the synthesizer as an instrument in it’s own right and homage must be paid to the pioneers like Hot Butter with the 1972 hit “Popcorn”. First recorded in 1969 by Gershon Kingsley (and rerecorded by Hot Butter), the primary instrument was a primitive analog Moog synthesizer (which used analog voltage-controlled oscillators and filters).

Another pioneer in the use of synthesizers (and a personal favourite) was the German group Kraftwerk. Their first major album, Autobahn, released in 1974 set the tone for the band which would last into the 80’s – watch a Kraftwerk video (try “Showroom Dummies”) and you’ll see that all of their instruments were purely electronic. But both of these efforts were, at the time, considered “experimental” or “fringe” …. in the 80’s this sound would become mainstream.

The early 80’s were also a time dominated by ONE-HIT-WONDERS: Artists who had one, extremely popular hit, never to be heard from again. To understand this phenomenon, consider the technology of the time. In the 1970’s most listeners bought entire albums on vinyl but as the prices of record albums climbed to over $10 (thats 1980’s dollars) many listeners bought 45 rpm singles for the ONE song they liked rather than an entire album. For the more serious, 45 rpm 12-inch singles provided optimal quality (Most dance bar DJs used 12-inch singles). The CD, which became affordable in the mid-1980’s as prices dropped below $300 (I bought my first player for $300 in Dec. 1985), changed how music was distributed as people bought entire CD’s instead of singles. This may help explain why there were so many one-hit-wonders during the early 80’s. We’ll wait and see if the phenomenon is repeated again given that online download services allow the purchase of an individual track.

First Stop: 1979

Our first stop in our tour of 80’s music actually begins in 1979 with Gary Numan’s classic song Cars. Indeed from a music standpoint the 80’s sound begins now! Some consider the entire era of 80’s music as having been heralded by either Numan or The Buggles ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ which was the opening video played when MTV started.

Numan joined a punk band in England in the mid-70’s. Their sound, though, was anything but typical screaming punk music as Numan set aside his guitar in favour ot the synthesizer. Influenced by David Bowie and European techno-pop groups such as Kraftwerk (of which I have a decent selection myself) Numan drifted away from the fading 70’s punk sound to develop a new, electronic sound.

Numan’s music was further reinforced by visuals. His video for Cars, which appeared on the new MTV, featured new video techniques which weren’t seen in the ‘standard’ video where performers stood around and played through the song (I so loathed band-centric videos). The album featuring Cars became a #1 hit in the U.K. and placed Numan on the U.S. Pop charts for his one and only time (like so many other ‘one hit wonders’ during the 80’s).

Hearing this song today, it sound pale and lifeless in comparison to modern music however in the early 80’s it was revolutionary as few artists had used the synthesizer as a lead instrument (other than a few European bands such as Germany’s Kraftwerk which never made it big in North America). His music influenced many artists to follow during the 80’s and his work paved the way for a decade of electronic music.

As You Listen to the sound clip notice the synthesizer which actually SOUNDS unlike a real instrument. Before this point, many artists tried to use a synth to emulate a real instrument. Numan used the synth in it’s own right.

Second Stop: 1980

Our next stop on the 80’s tour is Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. In 1980 a synth player named David Bell and a singer named Marc Almond put together a band whose music was a combination of synthesizer-meets-soul. Their hit Tainted Love was a re-make of a classic motown soul tune. 

The influence of Soft Cell can be heard in mid-80’s bands such as ABC which added a touch of soul music to their songs. Other 80’s bands re-made motown classics with an 80’s (a la synth) touch.

Tainted Love reached number 8 in US pop charts. Soft Cell, like so many other 80’s bands, was a one-hit-wonder and broke up in 1984. The band’s singer Almond later had a hit with Bronski Beat.

Third Stop: Depeche Mode in 1981

One of the most popular 80’s bands, Depeche Mode was founded by Vince Clark, Andrew Fletcher, and Martin Gore in the late ’70s. Just Can’t Get Enough was released in 1981 and was their first big hit. At first the band was considered ‘alternative’ and was heard in dance bars and on radio stations such as Toront’s CFNY but by the mid 80’s they would become accepted by mainstream radio.

Vince Clark, who had written most of the band’s early music, left Depeche mode almost immediately after their first album “Speak and Spell” to form Yaz along with singer Alison Moyet (see our next stop). Although many felt Mode was doomed after Clarke left, the band went on to fame and fortune putting many hits into the North American top-40 lists. Their first big North American hit was in 1984 with People Are People. Unlike earlier works which are ‘lighter’, their post-Clarke music is darker – many songs had a ‘meaning’ if you listened to them (Don’t you just hate having to listen for some hidden message :). Some of their songs had a downright macabre theme and the band went through several periods where there ‘sound’ changed.

Still very listenable, Mode is still successful even today. Very few bands have survived two decades but Mode’s latest hits have attracted an entirely new generation of listeners – many perhaps unaware of much of their earlier work. This puts Mode in the same category as REM for endurance-through-the-ages!

Fourth Stop: Yaz

The early 80’s band Yaz was composed of an R&B; singer named Alison Moyet and ex-Depeche Mode keyboard player (and founding member) Vince Clarke. When Clarke left Mode many thought Mode was finished since he _WAS_ Mode. Mode went on to many hits though. 

Yaz broke up in 1984 after only two albums and Moyet went on to a solo career. Many Yaz songs hit the US charts only after the band’s break-up. Even today Situation remains a decent-sounding track full of the ‘feeling’ of 80’s tunes and has aged gracefully (as opposed to many other ‘dated’ sounding tunes). The album still places high on my list of favorite tunes.

Fifth Stop: A One-Hit Wonder, Thomas Dolby

If you had to choose one song that said ‘EIGHTIES’, this would be it. And while it might not be fair to call him a ‘one hit wonder’, few listeners have probably heard anything from Dolby other than ‘Blinded with Science’ (certainly not from his much later stuff like ‘Aliens Ate My Buick’ …. have YOU heard of that one??). Aside from ‘Science’, I think his best effort was also found on the same album – a haunting tune called ‘One of our Submarines’.

Born Thomas Robertson, the name ‘Dolby’ might well have been chosen because of the popularity of the noise reduction system by the same name which was an essential feature of almost all cassette decks of the era (specifically, 1983). I might be critical here, but havng heard him live I consider Dolby not a true musician but rather a computer programmer who enjoyed putting music together (no disrespect intended there, computer programmers were a talented bunch, especially in the 80’s). I suppose the computer WAS his instrument. In this light, one notes that his music videos show him with computer terminals.

Final Stop: New Order

No tour of the 80’s would be complete without mentioning New Order. This band was was formed from remaining members of a 1980’s band called Joy Division. As New Order developed, their music became danceable and went over well in dance bars. Their first top-ten hit was Blue Monday released in 1983 (I have the 12-inch vinyl version of that song which features an incredible 133 beats-per-minute bass track). Bizarre Love Triangle was released in 1986 and is still played in bars. The band is still together (last I checked) however they seem to lack the same spark that made them popular in the 80’s. If you like New Order, the ‘required’ anthology is ‘Substance 1997’ which contains all of their greatest 80’s hits. 

Parting Notes

There were a lot of really great tunes during the 80’s ranging from alternative to top-40. I’ve only used a few on this page – I had chosen these six as they really represent the sound of the 80’s as well as illustrate how that sound changed over the course of the decade. I tried to avoid anything too specific but could have gone into, for example, songs with a “cold war” influence like Nena’s 99-luftballoons.