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Hi, I’m Paola and as your host I will guide you through my first-hand experience of 80s music and the bands that made a lasting impression on me. Today I’m talking to David and we compare notes on our favourite bands.
My name is David Lichfield and I’ve been writing about music for itcher since the start of 2014.
I mainly specialise in nostalgic playlists centred upon years and genres, directing people towards great music that they may have forgotten about or may be unfamiliar with, showcasing not only the huge hits of charts gone by but overlooked gems too.
Having enjoyed a love-hate relationship with pop music since I was five years old, I have almost three decades of chart fandom behind me and like to think that I’m now rather literate when it comes to discussing music released before 1988 too. Twenty-five years ago I was more Sonia than Sonic Youth but that hasn’t prevented me from exploring the decade rigorously since.
Due to being born in 1983, I only remember the last few years of the musical decade first-hand but quickly worked backwards and investigated the earlier part of the 1980s after being given access to a number of Now! That’s What I Call Music albums.
Hi, I’m Paola and I am a regular contributor for itcher magazine in the music, movies and books section.
I have been writing for itcher since 2013 and I like to give people more work than necessary with my brilliant brainwaves at 4 o’clock in the morning (“Why don’t we write about 80s bands?”).
My mission is to entertain, educate and engage with my writing.
I tend to listen to 80s music when I want to reminisce or I know that there’s a particular mood I am in and only the music from my adolescence will do. However, 80s music is also what I grew up listening to in suburban Italy and it made me dream about having a more international lifestyle.
Back in the 80s there was no internet and no broadband so the concept of free music downloads did not exist. And as a teenager I couldn’t even pop down to a local pub to listen to bands – pubs hadn’t conquered Italy yet! You had to save your pocket money to buy records and if you were lucky one of your mates would give you a homemade mix tape on an analogue cassette.
The 1980s are not always looked upon fondly – and due to the politics of the time, some weren’t sorry to leave them behind at all, but whether you’re a fan of unashamed pop, melancholic indie-rock, shiny and futuristic synth-pop, blue-eyed soul or pioneering hip-hop, there’s surely something that you can take from the decade as a music lover.
The 80s: a decade of music pioneering, experimentation and androgynous looks. Music was still analogue and not digital but the experimentation allowed to move from acoustic and electric guitars to electronic samplers and keyboards.
Image played a major part in how bands marketed themselves and many became trailblazers, especially bands like Culture Club and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and their very specific sexual agenda.
I first discovered the work of Bernard Sumner in the very late-eighties after being exposed to Blue Monday and the debut Electronic single Getting Away with It around the same time, a year or so prior to the act’s #1 football anthem World in Motion.
New Order are here because of their sonic dance-rock innovations, aloof image, the potency of their songwriting, their vast contribution to indie, dance and club culture, Peter Hook’s robust, heart-tugging basslines and the iconic visuals provided to them by sleeve designer Peter Saville. The fact that the sometimes shambolic act’s contribution often seems accidental makes it even more impressive.
I’ve chosen to sidestep Blue Monday and instead opt for 1985 single The Perfect Kiss in its full nine-minute form – an enthralling slice of heart-tugging electro-pop which still sends shivers down spines.
PAOLA: good choice – call me predictable but I still prefer Blue Monday. I remember when the video came out and my friends and I were all like “How cool!”.
Here’s another act that are still with us albeit in their original form. The Pet Shop Boys are the most successful duo of all time and are cherished all over the world for their intelligent, wry and observational electro-pop. The act – who were conceived as an “English rap group” had four number one singles in the 1980s and are widely seen as a national treasure.
Although there have been a few missteps since, you can always expect to be offered at least one or two classic singles with each album even thirty years after their debut – and the three studios albums they released in the 1980s – Please, Actually and Introspective are now regarded as musical milestones which enabled them to win over both critics and lovers of mainstream pop with ease. Some of the band’s early b-sides are as iconic as those huge hit singles.
To support my claim, I’ve chosen 1986 single Suburbia – a world-weary hit about suburban boredom, social frustration and the violence that can result.
PAOLA: good another good choice, David. I would also pick Rent, another piece of anti-establishment critique.
Robert Smith’s ever-changing combo evolved from a dystopian, lo-fi post-punk outfit to a dystopian, high-fidelity multi-million selling success story as the 1980s progressed, and helped send guitar-based desolation, misanthropy and transgressive, gothic descriptions of unrequited love straight into the mainstream.
Illustrating my point this time is Close to Me, taken from 1985 classic Head on the Door. A remixed Close to Me was one of the first Cure songs I ever heard in 1990 – but the more urgent original version is brilliantly claustrophobic and shows that brass sections do have a role to play in indie-rock.
The band were famed for their iconic videos and won mainstream success after teaming up with director Tim Pope to produce them. The clip demonstrates that relationship’s magic perfectly.
Paola: another great song/video combo is Lullaby.
Do The Smiths need any introduction? The Morrissey–Johnny Marr songwriting team has been described as being equal to or even better than that of the Beatles, with Morrissey being one of the greatest wordsmiths that the UK has ever produced.
The band’s music sounded like a fusion of classic 60s pop with post-punk sensibilities and they produced four studio albums and a cacophony of classic non-album singles and b-sides in just four years. The band were also famed for rejecting gender stereotypes, with the flamboyant Morrissey being a poster boy for sensitivity and sexual ambiguity.
Whilst the sound and even the image of the Smiths may seem clichéd now after twenty years of mainstream indie-rock, it’s no surprise that the band are still widely regarded as the best music has ever given us.
I’ve chosen This Charming Man to show their contribution – the first track I ever heard by The Smiths (it became a hit again in 1992) and subject of their legendary first high-profile TV appearance on Top of the Pops.
Paola: I have only started appreciating The Smiths more in my “old age” – at the time they appeared on the music scene I could not understand what the fuss was all about. Yes, great lyrics but I’m still not quite a fan of Morrisey’s voice. Ahem.
Sheffield synth-poppers The Human League scored their biggest hits before I was born but gave us some of the most timeless electronic music ever. The band didn’t become a real mainstream concern until 1981’s line-up change but had released iconic slices of electro such as Being Boiled and Empire State Human prior to Don’t You Want Me – quite simply one of the best pop songs of all time.
The Human League’s most well-known album, 1981’s Dare was co-produced by legendary sonic innovator Martin Rushent and featured some of the era’s most well-crafted synth-pop, with the group repositioning themselves as a “song-based group” rather than a leftfield, largely instrumental act.
The band showed that electro-pop could be sophisticated, elegant and classy whilst being both fun and heartfelt at the same time, demonstrating that the machines used to create the music could provide soul and humanity after all.
Paola: Another great song that brings me back to my teenage years is Lebanon – just the initial bassline gives me shivers. The topic is still relevant considering what is going on in the Middle East.
Also, on a less serious note, has anyone noticed how Phil Oakley looks like Conchita Wurst in the video???
If we were to tick off from a list of what makes an 80s band transformative according to my very own and arbitrary criteria (pioneering, experimental and androgynous), then Depeche Mode definitely tick all the boxes (click here for more bands with a similar sound, definitely worth checking out!).
Everything Counts from the 1983 album Construction Time Again is my pick from their catalgoue.
The lyrics to this song felt prophetic and very insightful at the time. As we all know, the 80s were a materialistic decade but Everything Counts attacked and criticised the system – from greedy music executives to greedy bank managers.
Not only that: electronic music was completely changing the music landscape. Who needed guitars any more? Or drums? You could do everything with your handy synthesiser.
DAVID: Can’t argue with the contribution made by Depeche Mode to gothic electro-pop and rock and would have probably chosen them myself. 1990’s Enjoy the Silence is amongst my favourite songs ever – but have they ruined their legacy by being a bit rubbish for the last thirteen years or so?
Grammatically correct sentences! Posh English pronunciation! Duran Duran songs and lyrcis were an English learner’s wet dream. Several years before I first landed in London, I listened to Duran Duran methodically trying to learn Simon Le Bon‘s lyrics but also his intonation. Thank you Simon Le Bon and your pretentious public school lyrics, your elocution and pedantic use of the English language. In my eyes that’s your outstanding contribution to music there and then.
From Duran Duran’s 1981 self-titled album I am choosing Careless Memories. The media called them the “Fab Five” as they caused the same levels of hysteria as The Beatles twenty years earlier.
This song’s sound is heavy with keyboards and guitar (OK so in this case they were not as pioneering as Depeche Mode but bear with me because even Depeche started using guitars later on). The song is about trying to get over an ex but uses some clever music arrangements to avoid it make it sound soppy.
DAVID: Some great pop singles but not the most emotionally complex act in the world. Good fun but wouldn’t have selected them personally.
Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? was Culture Club‘s most popular single from their 1982 debut album Kissing to Be Clever and made a lasting impression thanks to Mr George O’Dowd, fashionista and ex shopkeeper, who had branded himself as the androgynous pop sensation Boy George.
The band’s sound was fresh with hints of reggae and gospel. The band put sexuality and sexual identity on the map. Kids loved them, their parents hated them (“Is that a man or a woman?”). You actually WANTED to love Culture Club because that would upset your parents. Funnily enough, in a grand gesture of open-mindedness, my Mum totally embraced Boy George as an artist. Go Mum!
Androgynous look and experimentation: tick! Culture Club‘s sound relied on reggae beats and soul and they used both synthesisers and guitars so they don’t get an extra vote for pioneering, but I’m OK with that.
DAVID: Can certainly appreciate their musical eclecticism, diversity and flamboyance but hard to take a band who sing “war is stupid” overly seriously.
More sexual politics. If Culture Club and Boy George represented your gay boy-next-door with ribbons in his hair, Frankie Goes to Hollywood were all about flaunting their sexuality and being all in your face about it, bondage clothing included. Shock horror for parents worldwide!
Of course, the song that best defines them and a whole era is Relax from the 1984 album Welcome to the Pleasuredome.
For more juicy gossip I recommend reading Mark Ellen‘s book Rock Stars Stole my Life! as he witnessed major music events, from presenting Live Aid to travelling with Frankie Goes to Hollywoood on tour. Here’s a quote from Mark Ellen‘s book, as he recounts an interview that Frankie Goes to Hollywood‘s lead singer Holly Johnson gave to an Italian TV channel with presenter Red Ronnie: “’I’ve got a pet tiger called Tessa,’ Holly twinkled, ‘but I don’t let it in the living room. I’m buying a church and starting a new religion.’”
DAVID: Obviously wasn’t around at the time but can certainly see the appeal of such a rebellious, edgy situationist act. Would argue that they weren’t prolific enough to qualify, but that certainly didn’t stop the Sex Pistols from becoming one of the most influential acts ever.
Summer of Love 1983: Every Breath You Take from the 1983 album Synchronicity by The Police is played on all radio stations.
This song will end the first part of The Police‘s career as a band (they will only reunite twenty years later for a worldwide tour).
The Police blended different music styles and lead singer Sting crafted some memorable songs, which were often quite dark underneath a shiny exterior. Every Breath You Take is in fact a song about stalking and obsession, and not the romantic love song that many people think it is.
Although as a band The Police lasted only six years, they left a lasting music legacy.
Wait… I think I can hear your protestations… what about being experimental, pioneering and androgynous? Ahem… You are right. Maybe we can score The Police a point for pioneering music, because they did create a new style but there was no synthesiser in sight! The fact that people still play Every Breath You Take at weddings many decades on from release is a testament to the band’s foresight. They knew how to write songs that would become classic, and that’s a real talent.
DAVID: Sadly looked down upon by many due to Sting being such a pretentious figure but classic singles and a very unique and evocative, reggae-tinged sound.
Our teenage years shape they way we consume music. To me, 80s music was a heavy combination of the right look, style and content. For David, who caught up with the 80s later on, it is all about innovation, deep and meaningful lyrics and iconic status. Two voices, one passion for 80s music.