I’ve decided to start a regular weekly feature 80s Thursday, in which I will (at first) share music from the year 1980. For the 80s project, I’m allowing all genres, pop, rock, metal, punk, reggae, hip hop, funk, disco, jazz, ambient, folk, country, world music, movie scores, game music, musicals, TV themes, etc, etc. The main thing is it has to be something I like. I won’t rank the songs at this time, but maybe in the future. In this post, I will discuss the attraction of 80s music and its strengths and weaknesses, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with my assessment. At the bottom of the post, I have shared a few highlights from Empire Strikes Back soundtrack from 1980. I hope you follow along and feel free to share your thoughts!
Each decade has its charm and newness. I love music from the 1980s. Obviously it’s a very nostalgic decade now and its influence is evident in albums by contemporary bands. You may have noticed I recently had fun compiling a retro 80s playlist with music inspired by the 80s sound.
Some complain 80s music is cheesy, shallow, with a plinky-plonk sound and ridiculous outfits and haircuts. That the music is style over substance with its focus on MTV music videos, and a departure from the long, intricate guitar solos from the 70s. Yet the 80s also offered many innovations, new bands and an abundance of music which still holds up today. Looking back, maybe the 1980s was equally as important a decade for music as the 1970s. For me, the 80s is the best decade for pop music and is more accessible than the albums from the 70s.
If you compare 80s music to the 2010s, you will notice there were far more big songs and important albums. Why is this?
There are a number of theories and I don’t claim to have all the answers. The rise of the internet and file sharing services such as Napster, Spotify and YouTube make it difficult to make a lot of money from making albums these days. There are people who claim the album format is dead because of people’s shorter attention span and the possibility to just buy certain songs on iTunes. In the past, there were fewer distractions, no smart phones or facebook. Not only for the listeners, but also those making the music in the studio.
Before the 2010s, bands sold more units. In the 70s and 80s you had to buy the full album in order to own the songs. There was more incentive to make a career of it because you could make big bucks, and the bar for quality was also higher due to record companies spending more money on the product. The music had to be great to break through and compete with other great music. I sometimes wonder hypothetically if today’s stars would be famous, if they competed with other artists in the 80s, or if they would have been minor attractions. It’s impossible to know for sure because they might have had better producers. Another reason 80s hits seem to be more recognizable and powerful than today is because the band’s had more time on their hands to create the music. There was a higher focus on production and arrangement, sometimes entire orchestras were brought in. It was a time of innovation, bands like The Smiths, Metallica, and Iron Maiden brought a new sound.
The 80s was the decade of the synth. The early 80s was a time when keyboards and synths became cheaper for musicians to own, due to more efficient microprocessing designs and competition among keyboard manufacturers had diversified the industry. As Theo Cateforis writes in his book Are We Not New Wave?, “one could basically buy a basic synthesizer for roughly $200” in 1980. Whereas in the early 70s the first popular retail synthesizer cost $1,500, a daunting investment for fledgling rock groups.
Fairlight CMI (pictured above) was a synthesizer that changed how you could make music, but was also expensive. Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Jean Michel Jarre were among the first artists to use it on their albums. Jan Hammer used the CMI to compose the original soundtrack of the 1980s TV drama Miami Vice.
Andy McCluskey of OMD explained to Trouser Press: “Someone who’s been playing a synth for 10 minutes can easily sound as good as someone who’s been playing for years, provided the ideas are there”.
Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode likewise emphasized the importance of ideas over skill: “In pop music nowadays you don’t need technical ability, you need ideas and the ability to write songs. That’s the main thing”
What McCluskey and Gahan appeared to be suggesting was a paradigm shift, one wherein a whole new wave of amateur music makers could find their way to pop stardom via the synthesizer’s new level playing field. Trouser Press ran a feature in the May 1982 issue entitled “Roll Over Guitar Heros: Synthesizers are Here”, which explored the instruments newfound popularity.
The change of the billboard top 100 could be a reason for the decline in popular music. In the past, the best popular music charted. Today, a lot of bland music of only reasonable quality manages to top the charts, and we are lucky if we get twenty great songs in a year. Whereas in the 70s and 80s you got over 100 classics each year. In a Forbes article named Where Have All The Rock Stars Gone? , the writer discusses the changes in the music industry and that some high school kids now prefer listening to older bands such as Led Zeppelin.
You could say the 1970s and 1980s was a time when the best guitarists, best bass players, best drummers, and best singers showed their skills. In the 2010s, there’s a feeling the most talented musicians may not be on the billboard charts anymore and the music is no longer about great musicianship and longevity. Of course, there was also overlooked talent in past decades which was not on the billboard.
In the 80s, the record labels gave the artists a budget, while todays band’s in many cases have to do the self-promotion themselves, which both limits their earning and takes away time to make the music. Today many record labels have closed down because of free music on the internet, so the artists are on their own and therefore we see a lot more “homemade” music.
It takes months or years of hard work to learn to play an instrument well, you can’t do it overnight. In the 70s, bands were given time to grow as artists by the record companies whereas today the musicians are expected to make a splash immediately, and they may not be ready to deal with the fame that accompanies that.
Talent is clearly a factor and bringing that talent to the masses. Perhaps the talent scouts of yesteryear had more understanding of musicianship as it wasn’t just about fame and appearing in a talent show, but about the product.
In terms of bands, producers, songwriters, composers and singers, many great artists were at their peak in the 70s and 80s. Originality attracts attention, and today’s popular music seems to lack a new direction, and goes for a copy-paste culture of influences. For some reason the contemporary talent is not given the opportunities by record companies like in the 80s.
Prince has been around for a long time and talked to The Guardian in 2015 about changes in the music industry.
He says there’s no danger in modern music: “When was the last time you were scared by anyone? In the 70s, there was scary stuff then.” He suggests that the blame for any malaise lies not merely with the record companies – “accountants and lawyers stepped in while producers were in the studio, they started looking for things that they thought would work, so dozens of rock bands come out every week and you can’t even name them” – but also a lack of jazz-fusion bands. The latter, you have to say, seems a fairly unique interpretation of the situation.
“Well, I don’t think people learn technique any more. There are no great jazz-fusion bands. I grew up seeing Weather Report, and I don’t see anything remotely like that now. There’s nothing to copy from, because you can’t go and see a band like Weather Report. Al di Meola, the guitar player, he’d just stand in the centre of the stage, soloing, until everyone gives him a standing ovation. Those were the memories that I grew up with and that made me want to play.”
Musician Rick James spoke in an interview that the rise in sampling in the 90s was partly due to “the government taking music programs out of school. In the days when I was going to school, you could take trombone, saxophone, guitar or drums. You were taught theory and harmony, and all that kind of stuff, composition. Now the kids don’t have any of that. So all they can relate to is the old Gs and the old timers to guide them. I think maybe that’s why they sample so much”
You’d think with the advancement of technology that music had a bright future. I often wonder how it’s possible for the music to sound better in the 80s despite using old equipment. Some say the musicians and producers got lazy and are too reliant on computer software to create the music, yet it is still odd that they can’t make the music sound as great today as it did in the 80s. It probably has to do with the importance of ideas, or lack thereof, as mentioned above by Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode.
Obviously it’s tough to be objective as a number of artists and tunes are linked to my childhood and probably are not important to other people. For this weekly feature, I will attempt to include iconic music that people are familiar with, and also less famous tracks that I think deserve more recognition. I hope to blog on the years 1981-1989 in the future.
With the new Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens out in December, let’s start off with the soundtrack for Empire Strike Back (1980), a great score from a time when John Williams was at the height of his powers.
Yoda and the Force (excerpt) (from Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – Trailer #2)
Are you a fan of 80s music? Which is your favorite album from the year 1980? Do you remember when Darth Vader was on the front page of magazines?
Do you agree 80s music sounds better than today’s music, and if yes, why is that, with the advancement of technology? Is today’s music disposable?