There’s not much that could make me feel misty-eyed on the last day of the decade. Roxy Music does the trick of pulling out the sentimental feelings, if only because they make me wish that I had lived the past months with more grace, glamour and panache. Yesterday I spent the entire day wearing pajamas – not the sexy kind, the cat hair covered kind – and that is not being panache-ful. I wish I still had the motivation and the wherewithal to burn the town, but I may be irrevocably too old. I wish I’d done more stupid shit, but also, at my age stupid shit stops being cute and starts to look sad-ish. I wish I had better star-crossed romances, and not just the kind that fizzle out from indifference. No regrets, though. Grace, glamour and panache for the new year, then.
When Prince wrote 1999 in 1982 he had no way of knowing what 1999 would actually look like. Unlike a lot of futurists, he seemed to think that it would be a pretty fun party. The idea that in 1999 we would all be partying in celebration turned out wrong; in 1999 everyone was too busy worrying about a hypothetical apocalyptic computer crash, making it a low-key bust. Prince saw a future 1999 where technology was secondary to his usual concerns about ladies in Corvettes. He must have been bummed that reality turned out less sexy and bright.
Everyone needs to discover the early work of UB40. It’s so much more edgy than their later stuff. Which what every fan of every band ever has said at one time or another. Because everyone needs to know that you knew about the thing before the thing was popular. In this case, I can’t claim that I knew about the thing before the thing was popular, because I hadn’t been born yet. UB40 actually became popular the year I was born, which makes me the same age as Red Red Wine. Everything before that is like a mysterious window into the lost ages of the past. Or, in this case, what 80’s music sounded like before it became the sound that became known as “80’s music”.
Nina Hagen was the soundtrack of my entire 9th grade year. Her weirdness did a lot to transport me out of the petty misery of high school. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t have access to the visuals – it might have ruined me for real life even more than it did. Nina looks damn good as a man though, and her face shows the same flexible range as her voice. This kind of aesthetic excess belies Nina’s D.A.R.E.- approved message. “Smack ist Dreck” indeed, but clearly people don’t become like this by prudishly saying no to things. Apparently the song was written by Nina Hagen’s babydaddy, who was himself a heroin addict and eventually died of AIDS, so there’s an element of tragic irony at play. The real message impressionable little minds are likely to absorb is that being a wildly weird and interesting person requires the rejection of conventional mores of behavior aka doing dumb shit that might put you in the ground but at least you died interesting.
No conversation about 80’s music is complete without The Cars. They really were one of the best of the era. Like The Police and Cheap Trick, The Cars may be associated with the sound of 80’s music, but they actually formed years before and honed their chops during the punk years, which makes for an edgier sound and sets them apart from bands that sprang from the ether armed with keytars and massive bouffants. It’s that sweet spot where the bounciness of synthpop meets the messiness of rock. It makes breakups and misery sound like an absolute party.
If a ‘simple man’ constituted something that resembles Klaus Nomi, maybe I would want one too. I wonder what Klaus Nomi’s idea of a simple kind of life would be. At home making pastries, probably. As it happened, though, Nomi was anything but anyone’s idea of simple. As a gay, classically trained vocalist and recent German immigrant trying to make it in Punk Vs. Disco New York, he was an outsider in a land of outsiders, and as an eternal outsider he both suffered for it and used it to fuel his greatness. In the end, tragically, the unrepentant outsider’s lifestyle became a death sentence, in a somber reminder of just how little society cares for anyone who slips outside the generally accepted status quo. Things have changed a lot, though probably not enough, but the big surprise is how deathless Klaus Nomi’s aesthetic has proved to be. It’s still an acquired taste, of course, but the discerning eye can see Nomi-ness all around. In fashion and in pop music, the images Nomi created keep reappearing. Klaus Nomi is one elder statesman I would have loved to see, probably hosting an all-drag cooking competition on Bravo! or something despicably cute like that, but it’s his eternal destiny to remain an unsung icon.
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.