Silent Witness

Everybody knows and loves that one song by UB40 – the one about drinking red wine, which we all relate to a lot – but God forbid you think they’re a one hit band. These guys have 18 albums, they’ll have you know. I can’t say I’ve even heard of all of them, but I am very partial to their early 80’s work. Though they may have that one radio-staple big hit, and a reasonable reputation, I still think of them as very much a cult band. And though you may not think of the 80’s as a great era for reggae music, thanks to groups like UB40 and Black Uhuru, it was. Also, of course, the UK ska thing was still a big deal. So yeah, 80’s reggae is very much a thing. A mini-subgenre, if you will.

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Sign of Judgement

Marianne Faithfull digs deep into the well of blues music. She has, in her latter day career, come redefine what it means to be a modern-day blues singer. She’s drawn on everything from traditional American blues and spirituals, European cabaret and chanson, the mid-century rock canon and, of course, compositions of her own. Any musical tradition that draws from the well of human sorrow is blues, and Faithfull pulls it all together. Who else would put so many seemingly disparate inspirations all side by side and make it sound so coherent? On Strange Weather she picked songs by Tom Waits and Bob Dylan along with Leadbelly and Jerome Kern, and while some of it may seem like a pretty loose interpretation of the blues, you can’t get much more blues-purist than Kid Prince Moore, an artist so obscure that the only evidence of his existence are his 17 known recordings. But, as Faithfull shows, all of these artists from different times and backgrounds share the same sorrow.

Sick of You

“They ordained the Trumps” sang Lou Reed in 1989 “The President’s dead, no one can find his head, it’s been missing now for weeks.” Well, it’s our loss and Lou’s good luck that he didn’t live to see what a zoo this place has become. The 80’s certainly gave the songwriter-journalist plenty to write about. The New York album was one long list of grievances: urban poverty, religious fundamentalism, political chaos, the grief of the AIDS epidemic, the singer’s own feelings of helpless rage in the face of those things, etc. Despite all that we – Lou Reed, society, the city of New York, the gay community, et al – somehow pulled through and saw that at least a few things got better. I mean, we don’t talk about the ozone hole or Louis Farrakhan anymore. Unfortunately, some things that once seemed destined to live on only as punchlines in a Bloom County comic have gone on to turn our most absurd bath salt-fueled nightmares into hard reality. I, for one, would happily donate 15 years off my own lifespan to hear what Lou Reed would have to say if he was around to write New York II.

Show Some Respect

Did any 60’s survivor enjoy the 80’s as much as Tina Turner? I don’t know that anyone did. Most of the icons of the 60’s entered the 80’s looking winded and out of ideas. Turner, newly minted as a solo artist, embraced everything about it, and was embraced in return. All of the excesses of the decade, she made her own: sentimental empowerment ballads with synthesizers, logos, spandex, blockbuster stadium tours with elaborate stage design, truly gigantic hair. She did it all so well, making herself one of the faces of the decade. She even made people forget that there had ever been a duo called Ike & Tina.

Shout

Few hits from the golden age of 80’s New Wave (that would be the mid-80’s) have aged better than Shout. You could say that it has hardly aged at all. While Tears for Fears themselves haven’t exactly remained relevant cultural figures, their two hit singles have remained perennial. This is one 80’s song that hasn’t been curdled by time, saving it from the reflexive irony and condescension we reserve for nostalgia items we know are bad. Because it’s not bad, obviously, but there are a lot of songs that aren’t bad that still inspire a kind of revulsion because they’re so indelibly of-their-moment. It may have a grandiose chorus made for standing on a mountain, but it’s simple and accessible and easy to relate to, and the the whole standing-on-a-mountain thing may be corny, but at least they’re wearing normal clothes. It’s unfortunate that bad hair and design choices have the power to ruin good music, but it’s true, and look what the absence of terrible choices does for a good song.

Should I Stay or Should I Go

Well, no commentary really needed here. Everybody knows this refrain, and everybody loves it, because it’s fun to stomp your feet to and easy to relate to. The Clash have turned political angst into hit singles, but as always, it’s romantic angst that really makes the most indelible songs. You can also pinpoint it as the moment that punk rock became fully infused into pop culture’s mainline (it wouldn’t be until the 2000’s that fake punk rock would clog pop culture’s arteries like a particularly angst-ridden strain of cholesterol.) Hats off to The Clash for making an iconic hit without losing an ounce of coolness about it. 

Shoplifters of the World Unite

This is certainly the call to arms you need to hear while browsing at Hot Topic. Morrissey encourages you to stick it to the man in the quietest, most unobtrusive way possible. Meanwhile, I would not be surprised to find that ‘shoplifting’ is some obscure north of England palare for acts of a homosexual nature. “A listed crime” you say? Well, no doubt, stealing is a crime, and if you were to confess that you’ve got a sticky set of five fingers, that would be a fine double entendre too. You could be stealing some nice boy’s virtue. Yes, indeed, this is some of the most thinly coded gay agitprop to be seen on English television in Our Year of the Lord 1987 (very much not a good year for gay people.) I’m sure that it was, to those that got it, discreetly incendiary. I suspect that Morrissey’s swaying hips are still enough to set gay sadboys’ hearts aflutter with validation. I mean, it works well enough for those of us who are merely sad and romantically discombobulated without the extra burden of needing code words for it. Morrissey’s brand of bedsitter emo – miserabalism – knows no sexual boundaries (because his fans don’t have sex and when they do they hate it, haha) which may be why he’s never publicly committed to having a sexual orientation. When he quipped that genitalia is a cruel joke, his words rang true. But really, it’s the heart that is a cruel joke, and the genitals are just its unruly henchmen.