On Skykicking last week, Tim touched, popwise, on the continuing cultural battle over what the eighties were or are or mean or meant. The story of mainstream rock and politics in the 1990s was among other things the story of a similar battle, that time over the sixties. On the one hand you had the beatification of the Beatles and the shift in popthought from rejecting the past to defining yourself entirely by it. And on the other hand, in the big untrivial real world, you had the same thing in reverse: an attempt by rightwingers across the West to define the sixties’ social legacy in negative terms, and following that to absolutely deny it. “Kill All Hippies” may have been the T-Shirt slogan du jour last year, but it’s also the unshakable raging kernel at the centre of William Hague’s philosophy, or Trent Lott’s or Tom DeLay’s or Anne Widdecombe’s.
The eighties, as arbitary ten-year wedges of time go, was the antitype of the sixties, its silver-and-black negative – which means of course that the eighties has the potential to be as controversial and symbolic as the sixties became. This possibility, on a pop-cultural level, has been anticipated. The sheer ghastly pigheaded selfish crazed uselessness of 80-89 politically led to a kind of popcrit recoil, a desire to lock the whole fucking decade into the deepest possible bunker with great signs all around: “BEWARE – EIGHTIES. DO NOT APPROACH WITHOUT PROTECTION OF IRONY.”
So the decade is either dismissed entirely (it would seemingly be a waste of critical time and dignity for a writer to say why the eighties were bad), or rewritten with some tangent or other – the New Romantics, Kevin Rowland, Def Jam, Creation – squarely at the centre and everything else off at the margins. The messy, hopeful, pompous, fragmented actuality of the eighties, the parts people thought back then might be worth listening to, gets lost in the rush to proclaim this or that the only thing worthwhile in the whole benighted decade.
But it’s all linked. In Nothing, Paul Morley, whose writing says ‘The Eighties’ to me as well as anything else does, talks about how Factory Records boss Tony Wilson had a vision: a vision in which Joy Division would survive and grow wealthy and important, become the stadium band for the next two decades, become in fact what U2 eventually did become. Listening to Foreigner’s enormous planet-eating ballad, with its glassy frozen chord shifts and empty echoey drums, you can hear that imaginary band a hundred more compromises along the line. Or you could imagine that Foreigner listened to Martin Hannett productions and took their name from a mistranslation of a Camus novel. Or you could even imagine that a world where Paul Young ended up covering “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was a sensible one to live in.
“I Want To Know What Love Is” is a doubly hollow song. Hollow because it’s about a shell of a man, unable to make emotional contact with his fellow humans; hollow also because it’s so inhumanly vast and yet so lacking in weight that there really logically couldn’t be anything inside it. That said it is not entirely a bad song: it has a memorable hook and an overstated clumsy yearning which for me is touching. It is also of course a very eighties song, a very eighties thing, with its chest-beating passion and crippling lovelessness.
The real eighties, whatever they were. You would not know it from going to an ‘eighties club’ or reading a fashion magazine article on the ‘eighties revival’, but enough people bought this foolish Foreigner record to suggest that it could articulate something about how they were living and what they were thinking. What something? Well, if they could have told you that they wouldn’t have needed the record. It needn’t have been something very special – it could just have been that slow songs were better to kiss to; it could simply have been that the times were cold and confused and even a clumsy utterance of that was better than none.
So if the eighties become something to be fought over – first in a tiny pop way, then maybe in a wider way – it seems to me that we have a choice. We can pull our Minutemen and our Weather Prophets, our Test Departments and Treacherous Threes a bit closer to our chests and we can say, this was the 80s, the rest was all greed and reaction and the right is welcome to it. Or we can say, no, decades are messier than that, and if you let anyone – journalists or hipsters or politicians – say otherwise, then you are letting down the people who lived in those times. And you are paving the way for something similar to happen to your times, and to you.