Trapped in the 80s!

I find myself talking more and more these days about things that happened 40 years ago. In an effort to move towards the present, today we look at music that was recorded 30+ years ago. It’s a small step but… hey, get off my lawn!

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Synthesizers became commercially available in the 1960s, and one can hear them pop up on Abbey Road and other late 60s gems. But it wasn’t really until new wave arose that synths became a common tool of the trade. Bands such as the Cars and B-52’s used synthesizers as a lead instrument, filling in for or working in tandem with lead guitar. Eurythmics, not thought of primarily as a synth pop band, permeated their music with keyboards. Recommended cuts: Candy-O, the first song I ever sang in public, from the Cars’ 6-album compilation The Elektra Years; 52 Girls off of B-52’s Time Capsule, a raucous dance tune punctuated by screams of, “Tina Louise!”; and Would I Lie To You?, another confirmation of Annie Lennox’s complete domination of all earthlings, from the Eurythmics’ Ultimate Collection.

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Other groups relied primarily or entirely on synthesizers to create their music. Kraftwerk, formed in 1970, gives us an early example of electronic rock. Their music was often cold and spare (referred to as robot pop by the band), a mechanical dream (or nightmare!) of precision. Recommended cut: Pocket Calculator from Computer World, a machine-driven paean to that earliest of hand-held computers, the pocket calculator.

Human League hit it big in 1981 with the single Don’t You Want Me, which spawned the first video I ever saw on MTV. This song came off the brilliant album Dare, but their previous album, Travelogue, was also a big hit in the UK. With a dazzling array of sounds ranging from synthetic drums to sweet strings to buzzsaw explosions, Human League delivers catchy, infectious grooves to your ear sacs. Recommended cut: Empire State Human from The Very Best of the Human League, a quirky, swirling circus of calliope surrounding the lyrics, “Tall, tall, tall, I wanna be tall, tall, tall…”

In a similar vein, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark uses synths for all aspects of their music. Their style is a bit more toward the techno sides of things, although many synth pop gems adorn their catalogue. Recommended cut: Enola Gay off of The Best of OMD, a catchy synth pop look at the bombing of Hiroshima.

NewOrder

Rising from the ashes of post-punk poster children Joy Division in 1980, New Order did not immediately bring an unrelenting dance beat to their music. However, by 1983 they had created the best-selling 12-inch single of all-time, Blue Monday, a favorite dance club number. Eventually, the band transitioned into pure pop dance music filled with synthesizers as well as typical rock band instrumentation. Recommended cut: Age of Consent off of The Best of New Order, a toe-tapping, happy little tune filled to the brim with gorgeous electronic sounds.

So, there you have everything that is known about synthesizers. Perhaps print a copy for your own reference or to give to a friend. Oh, and be sure to check out these and other albums to see what someone clever can do with electricity and a keyboard.

I Used to Be Cool

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It’s official. I’m no longer cool. Admittedly, my coolness peaked a long time ago (we are talking the late 80s to early 90s) and it is true that my coolness may have been just in my head. That hasn’t kept me from clinging to the illusion of coolness for decades, however. The latest example of my extreme distance for all that is hip and happening (see I don’t even know what term to use) recently came in an unexpected area. The Dewey 780s range to be exact.

This year I’ve been ordering the musician and band biographies. As the year has progressed, I’ve been excited to be able to order books about bands, artists, and musical movements that I’ve always thought of as cool. Sadly as these books have come in, I’ve begun to realize that many are retrospectives with an emphasis on how great the band/artist/movement used to be and their importance to music history. Clearly I can no longer think I’m hip because I like New Order.

Even so, all of these books are a lot of fun and well worth your reading time, no matter what your position on the coolness spectrum.

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Mellencamp: American Troubadour by David Masciotra
Even if you aren’t from the Midwest and grew up in a big town, John Mellencamp’s music and career is worth looking into. Sure he had that whole weird name change thing as he was starting out, but that was the music company’s fault, man. This biography sets out to reassess and appreciate a musical talent that is often overlooked.

New Order by Kevin Cummins
This collection of over a hundred photographs of the band, from their formation in 1980 to their initial breakup in 1993, is a fun and admittedly nostalgic trip. Come for the cool haircuts and skinny ties, stay for the really great music.

The History of Canadian Rock ‘n’ Roll by Bob Mersereau
I know Canada doesn’t scream cool for many, but when I was growing up in Northern Wisconsin their music was definitely an influence. This book will give you all the details on the rock history of our brothers to the north. Not to make you jealous, but back in the day I saw Corey Hart live in Kaukauna. Wait, that doesn’t sound impressive…

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Let’s go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain by Alan Light
A film, an album, and a cultural phenomenon, Purple Rain continues to cast a long shadow on the cultural landscape. This book will tell you how the diminutive legend from Minneapolis got his unique sound and vision to the masses.

Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists by Lori Majewski
A collection of recent interviews with member of the more influential New Wave bands including The Smiths, Tears for Fears, Adam Ant, Echo and the Bunnymen, Devo, New Order, The Thompson Twins, INXS and many more. Sounds like a great retro MTV music video mix list as well.

The Big Book of Hair Metal by Martin Popoff
I’ll admit I tended to look down at ‘hair bands’ back in the day. But does that mean I can’t hum along with several Motley Crue, Ratt, Bon Jovi and even Poison songs? Absolutely not. This well researched and entertaining look at a colorful and well moussed musical phenomenon just might increase my appreciation.

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Dancing with Myself by Billy Idol
I lot of factors make Billy Idol who he is: The snarl, the fist pump, the spiky blond hair, the amazing fact that he is still alive. This autobiography tells of his life’s highs and lows with a characteristically unapologetic and in your face attitude. Would you expect anything else? Would you?!

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
This memoir from Kim Gordon, a founding member of Sonic Youth, is more than a simple history of the band she was a part of for so many years. Instead it is a memoir of her upbringing in Southern California, the gritty 1980s New York music scene, her marriage, motherhood and everything in between. A good read even if you aren’t into their music. Though, why wouldn’t you be?

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello
You will have to wait until the fall to get your hands on this memoir from Mr. Costello but it is sure to be worth the wait. Always unconventional and ever-changing, it should be a kick to get his thoughts on all the great music he has created over the years. To prepare for the book’s release and to better appreciate the man and his music, check out fellow blogger Ron’s appropriately titled post The One and Only Elvis.

While my musical tastes are clearly no longer cool, there is one silver lining. As all these great books point out, the music created in my heyday has clearly influenced the new music coming out today. Luckily I can follow Lisa’s excellent new music blog posts to find out which new bands might appeal to me. Viet Cong, the band not the political movement, rocks! Now if they would only put on some skinny ties and a little eyeliner.