Into The Eighties

Originally posted June 24, 2009

I generally don’t spend a lot of time contemplating the 1980s. The years of big hair, thirtysomething and “Greed is good” don’t attract me much. I find myself, as regular readers no doubt figured out early on, much more interested in the 1960s and the 1970s, the years when I did the bulk of my growing up.

I do tend to subscribe to the theory that we never cease growing up. There is always work to be done, and there always will be. For me, some difficult parts of that work came in the 1980s, making some of those years hard. On the other hand, some of the finest years of my life – professionally and personally – came during that decade, so on the plus-minus scale, it’s mostly, I would guess, a wash.

But according to the numbers I shared here a few weeks ago, I’m not all that much interested in the 1980s, as least as far as the music of the decade goes. Here are the numbers of mp3s, sorted by decade since 1950, as I reported a few weeks ago:

1950s: 1,152
1960s: 8,820
1970s: 13,445
1980s: 3,327
1990s: 4,525
2000s: 5,319

There are fewer songs from the 1950s than from any other decade because, turning six just before the decade ended, I remember so little of those years, both in a large sense and musically.

If I were asked what song from the Fifties I remember most from hearing at the time, it would be a tie between Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” (No. 1 for six weeks in 1958) and David Seville’s “Witch Doctor” (No. 1 on three different charts in 1958 as well). Those are fun, which has its place, but not exactly the kind of artistry I like to recognize here.

Leaving the 1950s, then, as something incomplete, the numbers above show an interesting tale: I clearly have much less interest in the 1980s than I do in any of the other decades I remember. And I’m not sure I know why.

I used to think it was the music: arena rock and synthpop and drum machines and dancepop are what come to mind. I know I wasn’t listening to much pop music when the decade started. As I spent time on various college campuses through the decade, as a grad student, a writer and a teacher, I heard more current music than I had in a while. I liked some of it, and as I dig further into that lost decade these days, I find I like more of the music than I would have expected. (That means that on another day down the road, when I run the numbers, that imbalance may have diminished a bit.) So it might not have been the synthpop and the drum machines and the dance pop. (Arena rock remains less than attractive.)

I called the 1980s a lost decade just above. That might be a bit harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. I didn’t care for a lot of what I saw happening in public affairs or in popular culture, so I think that for chunks of the decade, I just checked out – from music, from most television, from film, from current fiction and nonfiction and from current events (with the exception of those that immediately affected how I was earning my living at the time as a reporter, a public relations writer or a teacher). And at the same time, I was looking for a place to roost, moving from Monticello, Minnesota, to Columbia, Missouri, and back to Monticello. From there, I spent a summer in St. Cloud, then moved to Minot, North Dakota, for two years, and finally ended the decade in Anoka, Minnesota, just north of Minneapolis.

And here’s a random selection from each year of that decade of drifting:

1980: “One Love” by Sniff ’N’ The Tears from The Game’s Up
1981: “The Innocent Age” by Dan Fogelberg from The Innocent Age
1982: “Tables Turning” by Modern English from After the Snow
1983: “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart” by Bob Dylan, New York City, April 23
1984: “None But The Brave” by Bruce Springsteen, Born In The U.S.A. sessions, New York City
1985: “Minutes to Memories” by John Cougar Mellencamp from Scarecrow
1986: “Love You ’til The Day I Die” by Crowded House from Crowded House
1987: “Isolation” by Joe Cocker from Unchain My Heart
1988: “Let The Rain Come Down On Me” by Toni Childs from Union
1989: “The Last Worthless Evening” by Don Henley from The End of the Innocence

That’s kind of an interesting mix. I do have a few thoughts:

As much as I like most of Fogelberg’s work, and as beautiful as I thought The Innocent Age was when it came out, its lush orchestration is sounding more and more overblown as the years pass.

The Dylan track is an early version of “Tight Connection To My Heart,” which showed up on Empire Burlesque in 1985; you can find this version on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3. It’s interesting to compare the two and get a look at Dylan’s creative process, looking at what he retained and what he changed. The Springsteen track is from the third CD of The Essential Bruce Springsteen. It sounds more relaxed – but no less muscular – than the songs that made it on to Born In The U.S.A., if that makes any sense.

The Crowded House tune is a lot more, well, angular than the stuff I know best by the band. I have a soft spot for “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” but the lushness of that ballad wasn’t a fully accurate picture of the band, either. The truth was, I guess, in the middle.

I’ve never known Sniff ’N’ The Tears’ work well, so we’ll let “One Love” pass. As to the Modern English track, “Table Turning” is kind of just there, with nothing – to my ears – that differentiates it from a thousand other songs from the same period. It certainly pales next to the same album’s gorgeous “I Melt With You.”

The Toni Childs’ track is from a cryptic album I’ve loved since 1988. The Mellencamp and Cocker can go without any comment. I do wish that a different Henley tune from The End of the Innocence had popped up. From the first time I heard “Heart of the Matter,” I’ve thought that Henley asked the key question about the 1980s:

“How can love survive in such a graceless age?”

Well, love did survive, of course, as did I and most of us who were around for those years. But they truly were, in so many ways, graceless. As do most years, however, they at least left some good music behind.

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