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June 15, 2010

A Rant in Favor of the Music of the 80’s

E. Martin Pedersen is under attack. Thousands of angry music-lovers have been sending him hate mail including threats on his life. He may go into hiding, but first this note.

The 1840’s & 50’s were a great time in American popular music. Stephen Foster wrote many hit songs that we still sing, Dan Emmett wrote Dixie, Old Dan Tucker and so on. The minstrels appropriated the slaves’ music and melded it into the common idiom, honoring it at the same time they interspersed it with racist jokes and gags. Negro spiritual choirs were performing around the world raising money for the abolitionist movement. The country was struggling in music with the issue that would tear it apart.

The Gay 1890’s were another rich period in song. The barbershop quartets sang the classic songs of Tin Pan Alley. Orchestras of all types were formed (banjo or mandolin orchestras, for instance). Pianos, guitars and autoharps filled parlors. Marching bands played the Sousa hits. Vaudeville variety shows replaced the minstrel shows. Immigrants brought their sounds from around the globe. And ragtime was being invented by Scott Joplin.

In the 1950’s rock and roll, founded by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, swept aside the crooners. But it came to full form in the 60’s and hit its peak in the 70’s. Then what happened?

These things go in cycles. That’s clear. And technology can have an effect. Radio didn’t exist in the first two periods I mentioned above, but songs were extremely popular, sold as sheet music, sung in theaters and around the fireplace. In the 1950’s single 45 rpms could put the A-side in the top 40. Radio was king; TV didn’t come to our house until the 60’s.

In the 1980’s the two new shocking technologies were video commercials and CDs. The walkman also replaced the transistor radio, but that just gave the listener a bit more choice. However, recording technology also changed, meaning that a single person with a computer and keyboard could make records in their basement. See Todd Rundgren, Lindsay Buckingham, Enya and many others. Some of those multi-track recordings could not even be played by a band in public. Even singers could modify their voices unnaturally, better than live. Electronic music swept the world like a wildfire.

I think this made the 80’s the “infancy” of a new musical era with new intricate tools, a reaction against the amplified acoustic sound of the past and an experiment for the future, which is now. Plus, almost for the first time, young people had money, lots of money, to spend on music.

So to judge the results as immature is unfair, to compare to before or after is unfair. The 80’s were essential … and fun as hell. Cyndi Lauper bouncing around was fun!!! Michael Jackson’s Thriller was fun! Devo was a blast! Alice Cooper. Culture Club. We Are the World.

Ignore the copy-cats and parody-artists, anyone who can make others feel good is doing valuable community service. The war is over, let’s dance!

There were plenty of truly great singers in the 80’s: Whitney Houston, Elton John, Lionel Ritchie, Tina Turner, Bobby McFerrin, Sade, Annie Lennox, on and on.

Yet maybe the major contribution of the era is in hard rock: AC/DC, Black Sabbath, The Clash, The Cure, Deep Purple, Def Leppard, Genesis, Guns n' Roses, Iron Maiden, Journey, Judas Priest, KISS, Megadeth, Metallica, Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, The Police, Rush, Sammy Hagar, Scorpions, Thin Lizzy. Not stuff I listen to every day, but high-voltage music that changed the world.

Oh, and rap, sorry, RAP! Hip-hop. And all-girl bands. And boys dancing and harmonizing a cappella. New Wave, New Age, Newgrass … and, my favorite, Funkytown.

A good song is … one that you like, no matter how silly. If you were young, just starting out, when you heard it, it will remain with you for life. A good song lives in your head. If I say Kim Carnes, Betty Davis Eyes, you can hear the opening chords and the electronic drum beat, right? Try this: My my my my …

MY SHARONA! (I see you. You're shaking your head to the beat.)

Things are so bad right now (they aren’t really, but we’re told they are), that everyone on earth is suffering severe depression, impotency, ├╝berangst. We need the good-time music of the 80’s more than all the pills in the medicine factory. Didn’t MTV recently invent MTV Gold a channel of 80’s music (see also VH1 Classic)? Isn’t the biggest Broadway event of the current decade a re-visitation of Abba songs? (Mamma Mia!) Forget raves (way too 60’s), this year adolescents (and former adolescents) are having 80’s parties. Wine coolers and Hall & Oates: what could possibly be wrong with that?

And Cyndi baby, thanks for one of the best songs of all time … Time After Time.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Just covering his ass.
Jeff: Like always.
Mutt: Heard any good jokes lately?
Jeff: Nope, the usual duds. You?
Mutt: Sorry. Did you know the Energizer Bunny got arrested?
Jeff: Really?
Mutt: Charged with battery.
Jeff: You know, Mutt, if you want to practice safe eating, I say use condiments.
Mutt: I agree. Condoms should be used on every conceivable occasion.
Jeff: I used to work in a blanket factory, but it folded.
Mutt: Oh well, I used to have a hangover, the wrath of grapes.
Jeff: And a pessimist’s blood type is b-negative.
Mutt: And a Freudian slip is when you say one thing and mean your mother.
Jeff: I used to work … oh, I said that already. Corduroy pillows are making headlines.
Mutt: Banning the bra was a big flop.
Jeff: Sea captains don’t like crew cuts.
Mutt: Without geometry, life is pointless.
Jeff: A gossip is someone with a sense of rumor.
Mutt: When you dream in color, it’s a pigment of your imagination.
Jeff: Dancing cheek-to-cheek is really a form of floor play.
Mutt: And finally, if electricity comes from electrons, does that mean that morality comes from morons?
Jeff: Maybe, but if ‘pro’ is the opposite of ‘con’, what is the opposite of congress?
Mutt: Ha Ha.
Jeff: Yuck yuck.