Decade Profile: The 1980s

Changes in music came thick and fast during the 1980s, and they were so diverse, original and at times controversial it is often difficult to realise the scale. It opened with the deaths of two highly influential musical figures: John Lennon in 1980 and Bob Marley in 1981. These seemed to set the scene for a turbulent decade.

Many think of the 80s as a revolutionary time because of the social and political changes which inspired much of the music produced in this era. It was certainly a politically charged decade: unemployment, riots and the miners’ strike overshadowed the majority of it, defiantly opposing the glamorous side of music. Many artists – particularly those of the ‘New Romantics’ genre – used music as a form of escapism or, like the hip hop artists of today, to show particular points of view through this art form.

In 1981 MTV launched with the first music video, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by The Bugles. The industry began to invest in increasingly more extravagant videos, with the 80s producing classics such as Thriller. The introduction of the CD in 1982 brought portability and accessibility to music, increasing its part in everyday life. Up to 2007, 200 billion CDs have been sold, confirming their pivotal role in the industry. Technological advances not only changed how people listened to and viewed music, it also gave way to a great innovative style that was introduced in the late 70s by German band Kraftwerk. Many characterise the 80s for its use of synthesisers, drum machines and samplers producing a very different sound to, say, the pop of earlier bands such as The Beatles.

Live Aid was probably the most watched event of the decade. Taking place in 1985, it highlighted famine-stricken Ethiopia and sent a political message using diverse genres of music, such as Queen, Status Quo, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, U2 and The Beach Boys. The event was recorded by MTV, and was a direct result of the successful Band Aid single ‘Do They Know Its Christmas Time’ which had been the Christmas Number 1 of 1984. It would be repeated 20 years later, and has also spawned countless charity singles.

Of course with such revolutionary music styles there was bound to be some controversy along the way. Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’, released in 1984, portrayed religious symbolism and virginal wedding attire in a sexual context, sending shockwaves reverberating throughout a decade in which the boundaries of social acceptability were pushed to the limits. Likewise, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ utilised an ad campaign featuring the phrase ‘All the nice boys love sea men’, following which the single was banned by the BBC for its sexual content despite being a critical success.

In the pop world Michael Jackson broke away from the Jackson Five and proved himself as a solo artist. The 1982 album ‘Thriller’ went on to be the best selling album of all time, gaining him the title of ‘The King of Pop’. At the other end of the spectrum, Kraftwerk set the foundations for synthpop using electronic, minimalistic yet memorable melodies with instruments such as the electric keyboard and synths. They particularly influenced bands such as Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Joy Division, who created a moody, melodramatic atmosphere which would propel new wave as the cult genre of the decade. They have also been compared to the music of The Smiths and Interpol. Today we see a return to the use of synths in groups such as Shy Child, MGMT, La Roux and Vampire Weekend, suggesting that 80s music still influences modern music. As in all trends, fashions come and go with a few adaptations to give them a more modern feel. Just as Lady GaGa is a fashion icon today, teenagers in the 80s also adored their musical icons, with the dawn of the ‘New Romantics’ introducing bands such as Duran Duran and Human League making fashion go hand in hand with music.

Mancunian bands The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays found major successes in the UK charts mixing acid house beats with indie rhythms that paved the way for 90s Brit Pop bands such as Oasis and The Verve. The Smiths mixed Morrissey’s poetic vocals with Jonny Marr’s punk undertones to reach out to a generation of lovelorn teens alienated amongst youth culture and bored by the ubiquitous synthesizer-pop bands of the early 1980s. All of these bands gained critical and commercial success; the Stone Roses self-titled debut album and The Smiths ‘The Queen Is Dead’ are regarded as two of the most influential British albums of all time.

Building on the foundations of Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, Hip-Hop in the 80s blended poetry with looped beats to demonstrate creativity alongside a distinctive voice. Along with Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, commercial successes came from bands such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Beastie Boys, whose 1986 album ‘Licensed to Ill’ was the first Hip-Hop album to reach number 1 in the Billboard charts. This is why the late 80s is considered the ‘Golden Age of Hip-Hop’, with classics such as Public Enemy’s politically charged 1988 album ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’.

Thanks to MTV the United States also saw a revival of Rock music, with bands such as Guns and Roses gaining popularity mixing rebellious punk like attributes with heavy riffs. They bridged the gap between rock and metal, and in 1986 played at ‘Monsters of Rock’ in Castle Donning. Now known as ‘Download’, this festival has featured bands such as Kiss, Iron Maiden and Metallica and remains one of the best places for heavy rock music in the world.

The rise of college rock was also apparent in the US though groups like the Talking Heads, Pixies, Sonic Youth and R.E.M. They gained cult status around the world and are influencing alternative rock bands of today more than ever. In addition, little known bands by the name of My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Ride started out and would produce something so mesmerising they gained a cult following, producing a genre described as Shoegaze – or Dream-pop – for its ethereal quality. Modern day bands such as Beach House, Sigur Ros, Deerhunter, and Low still keep the genre alive with their own interpretations.

The 1980s was a time of constant change, with the birth of many genres that still influence the way music is made. The evolution of music television heralded a new direction for the industry. New sounds, new images and new expressionism were the aims of most 80s musicians, and they were so successful in their aims that 80s music still sounds fresh and has an influence today.

Charlotte Gelipter

2 Comments on this post.
  • Salvdor Martinez
    15 May 2017 at 22:40
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    My name is Salvador Martinez and i approve this message.

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