Elton John makes a keen observation. When all hope is gone, it’s the corny West Side Story choreography that gets you through. Even though 1984 was very much not his year, at least he had one song that’s lasted. It’s schmaltzy, which is always a danger with an emotive performer like Sir Elton, but it holds up. Not least because it is, indeed, a good observation. Indeed, sad songs are there for us to lean on, when everything seems most bleak. It’s just basic emotional medication, the blues as cure for the blues. The emotional connection to a good song is like a neon beacon in an otherwise black and white landscape, or at least that’s the literal-minded illustration offered up in the video. It’s a pretty bad video and frankly it’s distracting. Points for trying, though.
What Russians and Americans really needed ‘on the edge of 1984’ was for a Scottish guy to weigh in on their political situation. 1984 was more of an idea than a year, and Al Stewart wasn’t the only one with wells of deep thoughts about it. Everyone was a little on edge. If nothing else it was a good year for sweeping statements and ambitious art and a lot of serious-minded talk about who and where we all are as a global society. We really did need more songs about the existential malaise of the Cold War. Al Stewart’s little song doesn’t really say that much about it, though it’s characteristically earnest. The situation may have been too big and volatile for a mild-mannered folk song to do justice to. But lots and lots of little gold stars for trying and caring. Al Stewart cared and thought about things that politicians and economists are generally paid to care and think about, and he always provided a thinking-person’s alternative to the relentless escapism of nearly all pop music. To paraphrase another poet’s words from a few years later: don’t be playing Wham! records while the nuclear reactors are melting.
Prince at the height of his powers in the 80’s was something to behold. He was a major force, and let this be reminder of it. It’s unfortunate that eventually his personal weirdness began to be more interesting than his work. Growing up in the 90’s, my main impression of Prince was as a tabloid figure. He was mocked for changing his name and finding religion, and for fighting bitterly with record labels instead of making music. Although he never sank to the level of Michael Jackson, he was doing himself serious career damage. It was a long time before anyone cared if he made a new record. The good news is that his last few albums have been very good, and people were paying attention for the right reasons again. The bad news, of course, was the Great Rapture of 2016. But there’s nothing like an untimely death to remember what made someone great in the first place, and any embarrassing missteps will fall to the wayside in the public imagination.
I listened to Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat a lot when I was a kid; it was one of my favorite albums and I listened to it with a straight face. That’s because I had never seen a Sparks performance. Until the invention of YouTube, I was not familiar with their live dynamic. Now, of course, there’s not a straight face in the house. Not that I didn’t grasp or appreciate their sense of humor – if you don’t get the jokes, you’re not going to become a Sparks fan. But it took a long time to dawn on me just how much they were really roasting the pop culture around them. If you thought, just by listening to the song, that Russ sounds quite convincingly the sexy New Romantic, wait until you see his interpretation of the popular ‘big suit’ trend. You can’t unsee it, that’s for sure. Also, be sure to stick around for the interview portion of the video, in which the comical dynamic continues, at the expense of Dick Clark. You may be surprised to find that the brothers are American after all. I knew that they were, but when Ronald opened his mouth I still half expected an English accent to come out. Because you don’t really expect an American to be that clever and funny. But there you go – Sparks may be from California, but their humor is English through and through.
Russell and Ron Mael really, really enjoyed the 1980’s. When mindlessly chipper pop songs composed of nothing but pre-programmed electronic boops became the norm, it was like a goldmine for the brothers’ satire. It also freed them up from pretending that Sparks were ever anything but a duo. Ron was the sardonic mastermind behind the keyboard and Russ was his manic foil. They got so good at doing impressions of the crappy pop stars all around them that at one point Paul McCartney did an impression of them. (See Coming Up video.) The garish design, the bad fashion, the cocaine-fueled optimism, all of the tropes of 80’s pop are so ripe with comic potential. You can hear all of the hot trends of circa 1984 on Sparks’ classic album Pulling Rabbits Out of A Hat. It’s basically a walk through everything neon-colored and stupid on the Top 40, and it’s one of the best albums of the decade.
Tina Turner owns one of the great reinvention stories in rock music. She’s one of the few 60’s rock stars who managed to turn the 80’s into her decade. In the 60’s Turner performed with her husband Ike, who was a brilliant musician but a piece of shit human being. Turner was then mainly known for her raw and sexual performance style. She was way, way sexier than the buttoned-up ladies churned out by the Motown machine and never quite enjoyed the same degree of mainstream success. But it’s the Tina Turner of the 80’s, with the insane feathered wigs and huge-shouldered dresses, that most of us know best; she’s one of the great divas of the era. It doesn’t overshadow the fact that she was already a legend in the 60’s; her preexisting legacy just makes her later success more meaningful. It is obviously a very appealing story arc, as Hollywood didn’t fail to notice; woman leaves an abusive marriage, establishes herself as an artist in her own right and becomes more successful than ever before, while the former husband sinks into obscurity. The vindication of Turner’s success as a solo artist is strongly felt both in her work and her presentation of herself as a strong, street-wise woman. Of course, the context of her life also gives her work a great degree of pathos. Songs like Private Dancer and What’s Love Got to Do With It? are good songs without any context and the emotion of Turner’s performance needs no explanation. But the knowledge that she sang those songs after leaving a husband who beat her, burned her with cigarettes and forced her to perform when she was so sick she’d been hospitalized…well, that gives a whole new meaning to a song about being a whore who dances for money.
The Smiths are one of those groups that take you into their headspace, and you’d better be prepared for it. In Morrissey’s world even innocuous things like going to the beach are heavy with existential malaise. Morrissey has become almost entirely campy now, but he was serious as a tombstone when he first pined his way into the hearts and minds of the alienated and sexually confused. Shockingly enough, not everyone recognizes themselves in the fantasies of the Top 40, and the 80’s were particularly escapist and divorced from reality in that regard. Songs about people whose main priorities are sex and partying may not say anything relevant to you about your life, not when you’re the kind of person who doesn’t get invited to parties and can barely interact with another person for five minutes. If you’re the kind of person who for the life of you can’t understand how other people manage to form and maintain attachments, how they even manage to find, let alone follow, the prescribed path through life, then the Smiths are for you.