News of singer-songwriter Alex Chilton’s death last week made me immediately think of one thing. It wasn’t his revered work with The Box Tops or Big Star. No, it was that song. If you were in high school in the mid to late 80s, you know what I’m talking about. I doubt I am the only person who first became aware of Alex Chilton thanks the The Replacements’ song off Please To Meet Me that bears his name. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, really. It’s just sort of where Generation Xers stood in the chronology of rock music.
Now, perhaps what is the fault of Generation Xers is the glorification of 80s music. I’ll admit a higher tolerance for and happy acceptance of mediocrity from that decade than other ten-year spans of time. I am much more apt to sit through Living in a Box by Living in a Box and Wishing by Flock of Seagulls than my older brother, who is probably more inclined to enjoy a 10-minute Allman Brothers opus or even a classic rock staple. None of this is inherently good or bad. I suppose each of us romanticizes certain music like we might a girl from high school we secretly admired or a particular time in our youth. Maybe we think it is truly better than it really was.
Music is indelibly linked to memory, a certain time, place, or person. That is both normal and glorious. Maybe there’s a woman out there who gets melancholy when she hears Johnny Hates Jazz’s Shattered Dreams because it reminds her 1988 junior prom gone awry. Maybe The Human League’s Human resonates with a guy in his late 30s because he heard it in the car coming home from high school after getting cut from basketball tryouts. Who knows? Our experiences intertwine with music, which helps hearing a song transport us back to a place and time. It’s really pretty fascinating when you think about it … OK, well it is to me.
When we get older, though, songs can also become a vessel for introspection and reflection, but they can still be tied to an event, place, or person, however. For instance, when I hear Maroon 5’s This Love, I think of my oldest son at 3, always mentioning how much he liked that song when it came on the radio. Even A Life Less Ordinary by Carbon Leaf reminds me of being in Florida in the mid 2000s, hearing it and being surprised yet pleased that it was being played on commercial radio. But two decades have passed since the 80s, and music fans and pop culture in general, tend to categorize 80s music as primarily songs released between 82-85, which I would concur, were the quintessential salad days of music that defines the decade.
Tears for Fears’ Sowing the Seeds of Love is an 80s album, released in 1989. But it is a timeless record in many ways. Their album Songs From the Big Chair, released in 1985, however, is much more part of the 80s cannon and rightfully so. Is it as good as Seeds of Love? Nope. But the period of the decade it was released in factors heavily into that assessment. So when asked about 80s music, people younger and older than those born from, say 1965-1975, may think Matthew Wilder’s Break My Stride offers a fair sampling of the music of the time, I would disagree.
Instead, I would argue that there was a sub 80s genre bubbling up in the second half of the decade featuring the alternate bands, whose only real distinction now is that they were making music that has proven the test of time. Then, they were alternative presumably because they were a little less compartmentalized. They had an edge, a smaller label, something just off the Top 40 mainstream. These bands, those who would have been featured on MTV’s 120 Minutes and not right after Madonna in the middle of the afternoon, are often the decade’s greatest legacy but get trumped in the memory of many by parachute pants, dated synthesizers, and flashy videos. And the before-mentioned Replacements lead the way.
I recall a Replacements fan telling me how soft Paul Westerberg got on All Shook Down. I felt just the opposite. I liked the record. Not so brash but much more mature. Anyway, it was competing with the hair bands for record sales. Despite the fact that they were a wretched, lifeless, musically inadequate subgenre, hair bands had many fans, the bulk of which have presumably and hopefully outgrown them. Looking back, Can’t Hardly Wait is one of the 80s best songs, simply because it happened to be released in the 80s – not because it sounds anything like what the masses deem “80s music.” The hair bands may have tied to give off the vibe of the toughest most visceral bunch around, but I’d take the Replacements in a battle of the bands any day.
The Smiths were another act that defined the times for me. No one could wail about mood swings and temporarily dire circumstances that a teenager could relate to better than Morrisey. They were a band many people had heard of, but those same people couldn’t hum one song by them (a little like me and Kayne West). Years later, How Soon is Now would become the theme to Charmed. For fans not aware of the tune the first time around, it introduced The Smiths to Alyssa Milano fans everywhere. And while time has suggested to me that Johnny Marr and not Morrisey was truly the heart and soul of The Smiths, the band’s mix of odd and almost depressing lyrics set against a peppy, jangly guitar-coated soundscape proved to be refreshing and enduring.
New Order may fall closer to the typically defined 80s’ sound because of their heavy reliance on keyboards, but there was always something more going on with this bad. Bizarre Love Triangle alone would have secured them as an important player in the second half of the 80s music scene, but albums like Brotherhood and Low-Life were solid throughout. They enjoyed their biggest hit with True Faith and ended the decade with a disappointing Technique, which still included one of their finest songs Love Less. They were always about melody over electronics. Good guitars and bass lines over top the wash of keyboards. They sounded like no other band, and they still sound good all these years later.
Natalie Merchant did not sing in a foreign language, but even by 1985’s Wishing Chair, there were times when the passive listener couldn’t tell the difference. 10,000 Maniacs' 1987 release In My Tribe was their breakthrough not only into the mainstream’s consciousness but to a better overall sound. It was a mix of Merchant’s unique vocals and a ringing guitar sound. Lyrics were serious, deep sometimes, and the music, while well played and smart was catchy and accessible. Their songs seemed to escalate, climb with a tension until they got to the point where Merchant’s voice would nearly crack, see “All these cold and rude things that you do...” off What’s the Matter Here. This is one of the band’s that made my segue from high school to college a little easier.
Many of you may scratch your head when I say that The Housemartins were another late 80s difference maker. Sure, their bassist went on to become Fatboy Slim, and their singer Paul Heaton went on to form The Beautiful South, a band that enjoyed massive popularity in the UK. Add to all that this band was around for just a few years, and you don’t have the greatest argument for influence on a decade partially defined by its music like few other decades. But there was something quirky, fun, and oddly cerebral about this band. Political commentary meant nothing when it was accompanied by such brisk and perky music. From the pop punch of Five Get Over Excited to the harmonies of Caravan of Love, to the balladry of Build, they were the thinking man’s pop that squarely contrasted non thinking man’s rock like Poison and Motley Crue.
Finally, for me, OK maybe I’m the only one in America who feels this way, The Style Council were a band that never got their due but may a huge difference throughout the decade. While their star was fading over the the period of 87-89, they still were capable of making music like no other band around. When I was 18, my favorite song during the summer of 1988 was The Story of Someone’s Shoe off Confessions of a Pop Group. Perhaps that explains why I had no girlfriend and never went cruising. It was Paul Weller singing with the a cappella group The Swingle Singers accompaning him along with a vibraphonist. Not exactly the same type of stuff he was doing with the Jam at the beginning of the decade. But like them or not, The Style Council ventured boldly into every musical genre – sometimes with more success than others.
So for all three of you still reading, this lengthy, convoluted journey from the sad news of a rock and roll star's passing to a dissection of late 80s bands whose music refuses to die is complete. What a long, strange trip it's been.