Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Still stuck in the '80s

Since last month's post on the merits of hair bands, I have been thinking about what a busy decade the 1980s were as far as music is concerned. No decade had as many competing influences or changed more dramatically from beginning to end.

Rock of the 1970s like Led Zepplin and KISS somehow melded into hair bands. Punk splintered into pop and rock factions. An alleged child molester became the King of Pop. Rap and rock converged thanks to Run DMC and Aerosmith. Pop lite became unforgivably rampant.

MTV played videos and the compact disc was a brilliant invention.

Amid all that, it is easy to think that rock n' roll, as Neil Young perhaps feared, faded away. Crap like Air Supply and Starship littered the airwaves in 1988 when Joan Jett remembered the heyday of rock in "I Love Rock N' Roll." It was more a wistful reflection than nod to the current times.

But rock indeed flourished in the 1980s. Wedged between the lite fare of Kool and the Gang and the over-the-top ridiculousness of the hair bands were some legitimate bands. You just had to look much harder to find them.

Here's my look at the top five rock n' roll bands of the 1980s:

1. U2

An obvious choice for the top spot. "War" is released in 1983, and is an ambitious, political, rollicking record. As Bono writes in the in the revisionist liner notes, "It is a slap in the face against the snap, crackle and pop" of wallpaper music. "The Joshua Tree" is released in 1987, clinching my No. 1 ranking, as if there was any doubt.

2. Dire Straits

In the lyrics to Sultans of Swing, Mr. Mark Knopfler pens:

"And Harry doesnt mind if he doesnt make the scene
Hes got a daytime job, he's doing alright
He can play honky tonk just like anything
Saving it up for friday night"

It's an autobiographical tale. Dire Straits was a struggling bar band for many years. Knopfler taught high school classes to make ends meet. But he didn't give a shit whether or not they were popular, and the group never conformed its sound to the flavors of the day.

Instead, Dire Straits stuck with its blues-oriented foundation, and Knopfler's dazzling guitar work propelled the band into its rightful place among the elite.

3. The Pretenders

Everything you could hope for in a rock n' roll band, in which punk and rock collided and formed a thrashing, rollicking sound. You knew they were for real on their first album when Chrissie Hynde, a real vixen in her day, wrote the classic line "I shot my mouth off, then you showed me what that hole is for."

One minute, she's singing that, and the next, The Pretenders could also slow it down and play gentle, melancholy tunes.

Following in the tradition of rock n' roll greatness, guitarist James Honeyman Scott, who provided some great riffs on the first album, OD'd and died two days after Hynde kicked Pete Farndon out of the band for his excessive drug use. Months later, Farndon also cashed in his ducat for a hallucinatory trip off life.

4. Guns N' Roses

We could debate the value of labeling them a hair band for a long time, but regardless of the outcome of that discussion, it is unquestionable that GNR is simply a damned good band. While other hair bands paid attention to fame, GNR paid attention to the music.

"Appetite for Destruction" might be the best album of the decade. It was dark, angry, violent, and cocky and brooding -- can I use more adjectives? -- much like the arrival of the Rolling Stones more than two decades earlier.

"I see your sister in her Sunday dress
She's out to please, she pouts her best
She's out to take, no need to try
She's ready to make."

The onset of grunge in the early '90s pretty much happened overnight. But if there is any link between the rock of the '80s and grunge, Guns N' Roses is it. Maybe if Axl kept his shit together a little better, GNR could have transcended the two eras.

5. The Traveling Wilburys

At the same time Hair Metal imploded, rap began its ascent into the mainstream and pop turned into pussy rock comes along this late 80s oddity.

The Wilburys are more of an all-star team, and I debated leaving them off because of this. But then I reconsidered. I believe they would have done several more albums together had Roy Orbison not died. So they are included.

And if you vote in favor of including a band that fully completed one album, then how can you not include one with a lineup of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Orbison?

Some honorable mentions:

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers consistently rocked through the decade. ... Midnight Oil, a poor man's U2, remains one of my all-time favorites. "Blue Sky Mine" and "Diesel and Dust" are two stacked albums from start to finish. ... Two Boston-based bands that received consideration were The Cars and the J. Geils Band. In each case, I decided that a lot of their best rock occurred during the '70s, and some of their 80s hits, such as "Centerfold" veered too much toward pop to be considered pure rock. ... The Replacements also merited consideration.

I'm sure if I have forgotten someone, you will surely let me know.

Notable omissions:

You may be wondering why I have not included my all-time favorite of all all-time favorites, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, in any of the above. While he did produce some work that clearly merits inclusion in the top five during the decade, notably The River ('80) and Nebraska ('82), he also produced the worst albums of his career in the 1980s.

In my mind, you subtract the bad from the good. In the '80s for Bruce, it's about a wash plus Brilliant Disguise. And Brilliant Disguise, as good as it may be, cannot carry the albatross of the double-release on its own.

Moreso, Bruce became a musician in the 1970s. He became a rock star with the release of "Born In The USA" in '80s. There's a difference. ...

Also, I'm sure DA will cry foul that I did not mention The Pixies. Well, DA, I respect their talent, but they're just not my bag, baby. So they're not on the list.

There you have it. I promise that I'll end this '80s kick soon and move into a more relevant decade. As some of you know, I have a tendency to remain about 10-15 years behind the times.



At 12:37 AM, Blogger Joependleton said...

Cat, you forgot about The Escape Club.

Good list. I think Dire Straits might be a bit too high.

The Police maybe should be on that list.

I know I'll get ripped for this - except from Sandman, but what about Huey Lewis & The News.

Sure, looking back now, it's pop crap, but compared to most of the shit coming out in the 80s, as least they had some sort of rock element to them.

At 8:50 AM, Blogger SJPSandman said...

Huey Lewis sucks ass

At 8:53 AM, Blogger SJPSandman said...

And yes, the Police should DEFINITELY be on that list.

As for Dire Straits, they're awesome, especially when one is under the influence of certain hallucinates. There's something to be said about being able to SEE music. Mark Knopfler is a genius!

At 11:47 AM, Blogger Pete said...

When I cobbled together my list, I did it off the top of my head, and was afraid I was going to completely overlook someone.

The Police would be that band.

They absolutely belong up there. At No. 3, behind U2 and Dire Straits.

As for Huey Lewis & The News, he's a guilty pleasure of mine. Doesn't make the top five, but he rocked the '80s.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Joependleton said...

SANDMAN: I'm gonna say Huey Lewis is better than Billy Joel. At least Huey knew when to go away.

Hey Pete, my guiltiest pleasure of the 80s is the Hooters. Nervous Night one of my favorite albums of the decade.

At 6:25 AM, Blogger SJPSandman said...

I'll assume the reason you named Huey Lewis better than Bill Joel is simply because you had a fight with Mrs P, or something, your're angry, frustrated and you just need to let off some steam by pissing someone else off.

My guilty pleasure of the 80s: Debbie Gibson

At 6:27 AM, Blogger SJPSandman said...

One more thing, be on the look out on My Two Cents sometime this weekend.
HUGE music-related blog coming

At 9:16 PM, Blogger Joependleton said...

Sandman: I honestly believe Huey is better than Billy Joel.

The cat had a string of huge hits, made great videos and when it was over, he didn't hang around. He went away.

You see, I really hate Billy Joel and think he stinks.

There are other acts which I hate (Pink Floyd, Bad Co.) but I don't think they suck.

As for my ultimate 80's guilty pleasure, there's no question it's Asia.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Todd Cohen said...

You definitely need a Guilty Top 5.

I wonder if Golden Earring and Devo would make the top 5. Here's hoping Michael Jackson doesn't make the cut.

Whenever that kid pops up in a flick even my school kids rip him mercilessly.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger SJPSandman said...

How do you not like Pink Floyd and Bad Company?!
Just wait for my next blog

At 7:42 AM, Blogger Dan said...

Hadn't checked out your blog in a while and I see my name was mentioned.

Yes, Pete, your exclusion of the Pixies is shameful. The Pixies--not Nirvana--are ultimately responsible for ridding the world of that dreadful form of music known as hair metal. And for that, they must be forever worshipped.

Your list completely neglects the alternative movement of the 80s. Where's the Cure? Where are the Smiths? Husker Du? R.E.M.?

At least you threw the Replacements a bone.

Joe, I appreciate your mention of the Hooters. In 1985, they were just about the biggest thing in the Philadelphia area. Over 20 years later, tunes such as "And We Danced" and "Day by Day" remain relevant.


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