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.
Sometimes it seems like Cheap Trick is a parody band, but would a parody band be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Obviously, these guys are pretty tight with their musicianship. They just like to have a bit of fun with the silly tropes of pop music, from new wave to hair metal. This is clearly a wink at all the tacky cock-rock splooge that was all over MTV in the early 80’s. There sure were a lot of guys out there with too much hair and not enough pants screaming about their sexual prowess, and definitely not enough zany nerds to balance it out. For thinking people like the members of Cheap Trick and ourselves, the most offensive thing about the hair bands was the laziness of their entendres, of which this is unquestionably a parody. Oh she’s nice and she’s tight, is she? Tight as in she’s got her head screwed on right, of course.
Sherlock Holmes may seem like an odd choice for a figure of masculine ideal, at least romantically. He was a crime-solving genius, obviously, but he had zero luck with or interest in the ladies, due to being the kind of antisocial that today we call ‘spectrum’. Also he spent a lot of time hanging out in opium dens and mainlining cocaine. Also, he was fictional. But Sparks’ Russell Mael never runs out of imaginative ways of being rejected by women or finding ideals to fall short of. He’s written songs about his fears of being rejected for not being athletic enough, not drunk enough, and not Morrissey-esque enough. Add to that not living up to the Platonic ideal of towering intellect that Sherlock Holmes represents. It is, of course, all in good fun, and completely tongue-in-cheek. The joke is that it wouldn’t really take much to out-sing, out-dance and out-romance Sherlock Holmes.