[28 January 2002]
The 1980s have been compared to the Eisenhower years, with the ‘90s roughly equating to the incredible period of wealth building that followed the end of WWII. Such a cyclical view of history would mean that we are now in a period equivalent to the mid-‘60s, in which citizens of the United States began for the first time to question their government, their role in the world, and their own direction. Maybe, maybe not. To me, the 1980s have always been the dark days, the decade in my lifetime when things looked truly blackest in many ways. I spent the first half of the decade in college and the hazy year that followed graduation, while in the second half I came to the conclusion that there were no jobs, I had chosen the wrong major, and Ronald Reagan was the antichrist. All of this took place to a surreal soundtrack that heralded, unbeknownst to us at the time, the fragmentation of popular culture that is the norm today (quick, name the one major musical movement or style of any of the past three or four years). In addition, it was a period of unbridled pop music with rock & roll taking a definite backseat until the appearance of grunge near the decade’s end, somewhat like the period of pop that took place shortly before the arrival of the Beatles put an end to Connie Francis and Frankie Avalon.
Hit Me With Your ‘80s Box is a pretty honest look at the music of the ‘80s in that it doesn’t flinch from including the truly frightening (Rick Springfields’ “Jessie’s Girl”) the derivative (Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” and Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom”) the retro (Stray Cats), and the music that was truly evocative of the time (Men at Work, Greg Kihn) along with tracks that stand the test of time (Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket”, Devo’s “Whip It”, Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell”, Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine”).
The Pretenders were a real rock & roll band at a time when there were very few such groups outside the burgeoning L.A. punk scene and a few holdouts like Springsteen. Chrissie Hynde came on like the punk kid sister of Jerry Lee Lewis, all heavy mascara, leather pants, and snotty attitude. She had the songs and the band to back it up, though. “Brass in Pocket” is her tribute to Motown and is quite uncharacteristic of the Pretenders’ first album, making it a prime candidate for 1980s chart status. Rick Springfield, on the other hand, was about as wimpy a guy as you could ask for, and anyone who remembered his earlier try at pop music stardom (“Speak to the Sky” was a hit that everyone forgot once Rick hit General Hospital). Rick wrote this one single-handedly, so he has to take credit for such gems as “She’s lovin’ him with that body, I just know it”. The song also features the synthesizer punctuations that were de rigeur on anything committed to tape during the decade.
Hall and Oates had been a hit machine since the beginning of the ‘70s, but they truly blossomed in the ‘80s with hits like “Did It in a Minute”, “Kiss on My List” and the track included here, “Maneater”. Despite some objections to its supposedly misogynist lyrics (did anyone really think this was the first song lyrics to paint a picture of a super-fatale femme??), the song says “eighties” aurally the same way a Nagel graphic does visually, and both are irresistible if somewhat clichéd. Rick James was supposed to be Prince’s competition, and though “Super Freak” is a great track with a bass line that provided the foundation for other hits (“Der Kommisar”, “Can’t Touch This”) and Rick’s spin-off the Mary Jane Girls were hotter and more real than Prince’s Vanity 6, James was doomed to end up addicted to crack and in trouble with the law before the decade was out.
The number of folks included on this collection who are still performing is small: Chrissie Hynde, Hall and Oates (to very much smaller audiences), Brian Setzer of Stray Cats, Glenn Frey. Bobby Brown left New Edition (“Mr. Telephone Man”) to become the Puff Daddy of the early ‘90s only to fade into obscurity as Mr. Whitney Houston. Colin Hay of Men at Work still does songwriting and performing, but on a much lower-key basis. Duran Duran did the reunion thing, Billy Idol came back to tell the story of his 1980s heyday of debauchery and sing the old tunes, Thomas Dolby has continued to work as a producer and, most recently, Internet entrepreneur. The Bangles (“Walk Like an Egyptian”) managed to reunite, as did Belinda Carlisle’s (“Heaven Is a Place on Earth”) old band, the Go-Gos. I don’t know what the hell is going on with Cinderella, but I’d rather never have to hear “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)”, which closes this set, ever again.
What songs was I happiest to hear off this collection? Well, besides the Pretenders, I enjoyed remembering the Waitresses “I Know What Boys Like”. Lead singer Patty Donahue (who sadly passed away in 1996 after a battle with lung cancer) sang the lyrics with a bratty, jaded, deadpan that no one else could have mustered. The Waitresses also did the theme to one of my favorite ‘80s TV shows, Square Pegs, which starred Sarah Jessica Parker. I’ve also always been powerless to resist Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance”. Not only was the tune and that octave-jump synthesizer hook unforgettable, but the video, which placed the band in at a medieval fair (or faire, I suppose) featured a midget and was really great as well. Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” is as close to a real rock anthem as the decade ever got, and who could forget Billy’s glory days as leader of punk-glam group Generation X? Though “Cruel Summer” was not their best hit by far, Bananarama stole my heart and forced me to buy their albums right up through their cover of “Venus”. Brittney Spears? Christina What’s-her-name? Fahgettaboutit!
Though I never liked it, you’ve gotta admire the chutzpah of Peter Schilling, whose hit song “Major Tom (Coming Home)” is nothing but a retelling of the story from David Bowie’s breakthrough hit “Space Oddity”. I’m surprised there was no lawsuit (or maybe there was?) It wasn’t the first time Major Tom had been heard from since he drifted off into space—Bowie himself brought the good Major out of retirement for his song “Ashes to Ashes” from 1980’s Scary Monsters.
My favorite ‘80s song has to be Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine”. Though the rest of the group’s output went pretty much nowhere, this song (written by ex-Soft Boys guitarist Kimberley Rew) is just soooo upbeat, sooo sunny, and sung with sooo much conviction, that you just have to love it. It’s been on the soundtrack of all kinds of films over the past few decades. To see why, put it on and go about some normal daily activity-take a shower, cook breakfast, empty a litter box, vacuum, get the mail—it makes no difference. With that song as the soundtrack anything you do will seem like a major life step. That was exactly the kind of optimism we all needed to get through the ‘80s the first time around. If you weren’t there for it, then you’ll no doubt enjoy many of the tracks on Hit Me With Your ‘80s Box. If you were there, you’ll have your own stories, ghosts, and memories to contend with. Happy listening.