Purple Lips

His lips are purple because he is dead. It’s a fitting love song coming from Nico, who doesn’t do love songs. Nico was nearing the end of her life, and heavily weathered by hard living. She had renounced all glamour, and her music at this point was coming someplace so deep underground it was truly frightening. Once she had paid reluctant lip service to pop appeal, but towards the end she refused to compromise her dark vision, though she was sometimes bitterly angry that no accolades or money ever came her way. She was probably insane, or at least deeply disturbed. How she succeeded in making any records at all, after she allowed her life to revolve around heroin and music industry forgot her, is remarkable. Nico didn’t exactly flourish as an underground artist, but she scraped together a career and left behind a substantial legacy that remains important, at least to a handful of people with very bleak tastes. And, as the old guard continues to drop like flies, I can’t help but think that an artist such as Nico could never come along today. Today a weirdo with a vision would have the tools to support themselves without  traditional stuff like record contracts and press attention. But they would not have the tools to become that weirdo in the first place, because nobody is that isolated anymore. Nobody thinks of singing only to themselves.

Pull Up to the Bumper

Grace Jones

Grace Jones’ message has always been empowerment through sheer glamour. It’s an understatement to say she’s intimidating; she promises to demolish anyone who throws her shade, especially if it’s some weak-ass man. But she isn’t above a good dick metaphor, either. You can be queen of the street scene and the runway, but sometimes you still gotta cruise for it, ya know? Even Grace Jones is concerned with finding that perfect long black limousine. I suspect that Jones’ gay followers particularly enjoyed this ode to the cruising life, back when cruising was still a relatively harmless pastime. Jones certainly earned her place as gay icon; her gender-bending, aggressively self-assured take-no-shit persona is emblematic of the free-for-all sexual underground of the 1970’s.

Puff She Puff

Can anyone hazard a guess what this one is about? Black Uhuru have lot of songs of great political and social import, but this isn’t one of them. Sometimes you just have to celebrate the basic stuff, I guess, and if there’s one thing everybody likes about Rasta culture, well, you guessed it.

Pocket Calculator

We are all the operator now. We’ve beamed ourselves into the future with our pocket calculators and home computers. Yet we haven’t become a world of automatons who wear identical uniforms and dance poorly. Kraftwerk certainly set a template for how popular music would be created in the future, and how it would sound, but their ‘we are all robots now’ schtick is generic sci-fi.  That is, the idea that advancing technology would throw man’s soul into an endless feedback loop of alienation has been the scary story we tell ourselves ever since technology began to advance rapidly. So, at least since the Renaissance. More interesting is the idea, always contested and always proved true, that advancing technology actually leads the way to new highs for literature, music and art. New technology doesn’t make us more alienated; it gives us new options to express our ever-existing feelings of angst. If pre-industrial peoples seem to have been less alienated, it’s only because fewer of them were literate enough to write about it.

Planet Earth

These guys were real heartthrobs in their day, weren’t they? This is Duran Duran’s debut single and my, don’t they look yummacious? 1981 was just the mere beginning of the New Romantic movement (which is referenced in the lyrics) and Duran Duran was right on the razor’s edge. Looking pretty was always one of their main selling points, even to this day, but if they’ve managed to age surprisingly well, it’s because their songs still hold up without the frippery. This song is pretty dumb, as are most of their songs, but it’s got the magic of good pop, and it’s not the disposable kind. There are so many 80’s pop songs and acts whose appeal is mainly to allow us to gawk at how strangely different and goddamn long ago the 80’s were. Duran Duran has been one of the most enduring 80’s pop groups because you may gawk at their fashion choices, but their music is actually largely untainted by the worst trends of the time.

Our Lips Are Sealed

Hey, remember The Go-Go’s? That girl group from the 80’s who had all those sleepover-friendly wholesome pop hits and then disappeared like a discarded scrunchy? Well, you’ve heard this song but you’ve never heard this song sound so classy. Call it “How to Rescue a Pop Song from Camp Nostalgia 101” by Nouvelle Vague. The concept of Nouvelle Vague is simple; take famous classics from the New Wave and punk era, and redo them in the style of Jane Birkin. They have had some mixed results with this formula; not every song actually benefits from radically retro re-imagining, just like not every person manages to look chic wearing their grandparents’ clothes.But when it works, it works wonders – who knew that The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen could be so seductive? In this case, there’s definitely rescuing that needed to be done. The Go-Go’s original is emblematic of the lighter, frothier side of 80’s pop; it was all amped-up bubblegum, and sadly, The Go-Go’s didn’t do much to dispel the idea that an all-female pop rock band could be anything more than a fleetingly amusing novelty. Most people remember the tune but likely have no clue what any of the words are besides the title, because why would they. Nouvelle Vague’s decidedly more understated take doesn’t exactly elevate the material into greatness, but it does strip away the tacky memories of Belinda Carlisle’s crimped hair, and unearths the dark soul the original’s sheer catchiness so effectively disguised.

 

Open Your Heart

I may be the only person who doesn’t think of The Human League as typical 80’s one hit wonders (and doesn’t think that their biggest hit is necessarily their best.) They certainly minted what we think of as that classic 80’s synthpop sound (and the visual style.) They had the mannered plastic soul vocals, the layers upon layers of synthesizers, the catchy melodies, the aggravated romantic attitude, and the neo-kabuki eye makeup. In 1981, before all of those things became ubiquitous. And unlike most of the groups that would come to fame flaunting all of the above, Human League had at least one truly great album of amazing material. They never really matched Dare, which is a shame, but that’s still 10 songs that could each have been a hit single.