Jan 10

1987: What The F___ Is Going On?

FT + Popular72 comments • 3,530 views

This post is an introduction, I suppose, to the next few years of Popular. It was going to be part of a regular post but it grew into its own thing, so I’m putting it up as its own thing.

The late 80s are strange times for the British pop charts. They’re one of those exciting periods – like the mid-50s, like the late-70s – where different musics and different audiences seem to be at war, where the very question of what pop is – the role it plays in peoples’ lives – is up in the air. But unlike those there’s no settled consensus on who to back. You might still find people who aver that faceless dance records ruined the charts – certainly the people who marketed pop and pop radio seemed to have a horror of them at the time. You will also still find people who snarl at reissues in the Top 40 on a kind of principle. You will find some with a kind word to say about the brazenly cheap pop of the time and others who think Pete Waterman is one of British pop culture’s great monsters.

And seen from our perspective – from the top of the charts – what we have is something close to chaos, time breaking down so that a record from the fifties and a cover of a record from the fifties, and a record purpose-built for obsolescence before the nineties, and a record that sounded like it was from the next century, all these could tumble into one another at number one. Past, present and future in collision – and plenty of people despaired of all three.

While others jumped right in: Bill Drummond deciding to make a hip-hop record, spending the first months of the year on the aptly named 1987: What The Fuck Is Going On?, getting sued by ABBA and then resurfacing the next year with a number one of his own before telling everyone else how to do it. The story’s not exactly typical of the times but it’s illustrative. Looking back the industry seems at its most cynical and its most gameable, both at the same time.

The ferment of the late 80s happened for a bunch of reasons. The stars of the Band Aid generation had abdicated, split, imploded or disgraced themselves and there was a stardom void ready for canny operators to exploit. There was a massive opportunity for the record business to repackage its long-neglected back catalogues, and singles could play a part in that. And there was house music, the touch paper for one of the great realignments in British pop culture. What all these had in common, I’d speculate, was the cheap money sloshing around during the Lawson boom: “dosh dosh dosh” as Harry Enfield said, and just as in the late 50s consumer boom some of that dosh went into pop. Trading up your old records for CDs; shopping for jeans and wondering about the music from the advert; queueing up for Bros calendars; buying a cut-price package trip to the Balearics – different audiences, spending their money in different ways but it all added up to a tacky, fast, strange time for pop.

(And a good time? Some of it was remarkable. Some of it was unspeakable. I can’t wait to find out what you all think…)


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  1. 51
    thefatgit on 2 Feb 2010 #

    Nostalgia as a highly addictive narcotic, would be class A if you could deal in it. It’s even more seductive to the masses during recession times. It’s very tempting to don those rose-tinted specs, but the view is of course skewed. If the Journey song triggers an AOR revival of sorts, then only the youth who weren’t around back then could possibly buy into it. We’ve seen it all before of course. Music, like fashion is cyclical. Last year, La Roux revived New Romanticism (albeit fed through a kind of cheap, battery-operated, video-game music-filter). We expect this kind of re-invention and nods to the past as par for the course. What seems odd with “Don’t Stop Believin'” is that it was far from popular in the UK the 1st time around, yet we can identify it as part of the current nostalgia boom, but it’s importing United States Of America’s nostalgia.

    Something that happened a lot in ’86-’87: Levi 501’s, leather biker jackets, Marlon Brando, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe (Athena top-sellers) all get referenced, copied or re-hashed around this time. Rock ‘n’ Roll deaths of the ’50s get re-examined. There’s a demand for ’50s americana everywhere, even in the movies.
    Then in ’88-’89, the psychedelic era gets similar treatment…but that’s for a later discussion.

  2. 52
    pink champale on 2 Feb 2010 #

    if it’s any help, i’ve STILL never heard bloody “don’t stop believin'”. i’d also like to offer up the non ‘ardkore early nineties as a pop era impervious to being revived or fondly remembered. though no doubt we’ll see if that’s true when we get there.

  3. 53
    Mark M on 2 Feb 2010 #

    Re 51: more faux nostalgia, of course, came in the form of those I Heart the 80s shows (and their ilk), in which the pundits pretended to have fond memories of many things they had never heard of before being shown the clips.

  4. 54
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 2 Feb 2010 #

    isn’t nostalgia faux by definition? the non-faux stuff is called memory (or documentation) (or history)…

    (and i totally doubt we are the first generation to experience this rejigging of history to include stuff that’s only become a value since: on the contrary, i think we’re a generation so over-saturated with the documentation of trivia* that we’re unusually aware of this process as a falsification)

  5. 55
    lonepilgrim on 2 Feb 2010 #

    1986 also saw the launch of Q magazine in the UK which marked a change of emphasis for music journalism compared to the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds. Because it didn’t reflect weekly music ‘news’ Q concentrated more on career profiles and consumer reviews of new and reissued music. This served to favour a more nostalgic/historicised version of pop and rock that inevitably led to the likes of Mojo and Uncut and the sense that there was a ‘canon’ of music which you ‘had’ to own.

  6. 56
    CarsmileSteve on 2 Feb 2010 #

    47 et al, but isn’t this exactly what happened to Teenage Kicks? 31 with not quite a bullet, but now lauded as a song everyone loved (i mean, i love it, but it seems weird that it wasn’t that big a hit given its subsequent ubiquity…)

    and 55 i think there was a canon loooooooong before Q came along, NME and MM had been myth making and list making for *years* surely?

  7. 57
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 2 Feb 2010 #

    but i think the weeklies deployed “the necessary past” primarily as a counterweight to the overbearing rush and pressure of the shifting present — ftb the sense of losing your bearings because you had to change direction and tastes EVERY WEEK; part of the Q sensibility was that you collected the magazine, for starters!

    (obv *i* collected nmes and sounds and etc, but i was a writer, and mad)

  8. 58
    pink champale on 2 Feb 2010 #

    i’d be suprised if you were the only one here who collected mm and nme, lord s! *mutters darkly about father recently throwing them out for petty house-moving reasons* but yes, q was big on selling back issues, and you could buy a special folder to put them in.

    it seems to me that a big difference with q was not so much that it evented a historicised view of pop, i.e. rock (the q canon seemed to be taken pretty much wholesale from those slightly earlier paul gambo ’100 greatest album’ coffee table books, for a start) but that it had a very calm, ironised, tone of voice that was very different from the more factionalist mne and mm of the late eighties and much more like the i heart the eighties tone you get everywhere now. this sort of thing had crept into the nme by the time i was reading it in the early nineties – hence the jibes about men sitting around in smoking jackets making jokes about pop.

  9. 59
    thefatgit on 2 Feb 2010 #

    I have a tendency to regard Q as an organ that operates from the outskirts of Hipsterville, while NME and MM were around the centre of Downtown Hipsterville.

    The Face, also a monthly, but not entirely devoted to music also seemed to be at the absolute centre of Hipsterville.

  10. 60
    Mark M on 2 Feb 2010 #

    Re 54: I was going to include that qualification about nostalgia, but checked the dictionary says ‘wistful longing for the past’, which is not necessarily fake.

    On the broader point, obviously nations are built on constructing shared pasts that never were.

  11. 61
    Billy Smart on 2 Feb 2010 #

    The absolutely pivotal moment is about issue 8 of Q – the one with The Beatles making of Sgt Pepper on the cover. Astonishingly, this was seen as something of a risk at the time, but sold out almost immediately, copies being impossible to find for years, etc.

    And 23 years on, this publication is the template for every other issue of Mojo and Uncut…

    I have some affection for old-school Q, looking back, though I saw it as the enemy of what I stood for as an MM/ John Peel teenager. I can see now that it was clearly written by a lot of droll and literate middle-aged fellows, with a range of interests that went beyond pop, in features like the Q charts or Tom Hibbert interviews, which were always really funny. This strand of journalism has long since disappeared from Q, but lives on in The Word, a much more pleasurable read than Mojo or Uncut.

  12. 62
    LondonLee on 2 Feb 2010 #

    #51. but it’s importing United States Of America’s nostalgia.

    Journey are bad enough, just hope the same thing doesn’t happen with Kiss.

    The power of US cultural hegemony is rewriting our cultural history: Halloween takes over Guy Fawkes and now apparently we were always Journey fans.

  13. 63
    thefatgit on 2 Feb 2010 #

    And the irony there is 4 lads from Dublin mentioned upthread take the US by storm with The Joshua Tree, and what is essentially an open love-letter to America (or what is essentially an ideal, or sense of what the USA SHOULD be), after The Unforgettable Fire’s unabashed critique of the United States of America! Or if you prefer…let’s sell America back to the Americans!

    Further down the line, we have Bono attempting phone the President night after night from underneath a GIANT LEMON!?! But again, I am getting a little too far ahead.

  14. 64
    AndyPandy on 2 Feb 2010 #

    48:I’ve mentioned on here before that surely it’s a myth that Abba had to wait until the early 90s and Bjorn Again etc to gain critical kudos. In the 90s they just gained a lot of annoying ironic/camp approval that they’s been better of without.

    Throughout the early 80s New Pop period they were continually lauded by various artists/New Pop sympathetic writers and on multiple occasions by Phil Oakey.It seemed the consensus back then by the anti-rockists that they were the pop masters.
    Blancmange covered “The Day Before You Came” and had a hit with it before the original had hardly left the charts.
    And not exactly hip but showing they even had muso like old rock type props for their sound/production Genesis and Phil Collins used their studios/worked with them.

    44: and didn’t “Valerie” from “Back in the Highlife” era Steve Winwood provide a large part of Eric Prydz’s massive club and possibly embargoed at the moment pop hit from a couple of years ago?

    Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” seemingly did have a sort of underground (metal) following in the UK however as at the start of the millennium (2001/02) I found myself on more than one occasion at a rock disco in Sheffield owing to my then girlfriend being from a rock background (and the place had a nice atmosphere too!). Every week they would play the Journey track in the main/classic metal room and all these rockers loved and obviously knew it and so it seems that it had already become a bit of a cult classic in those circles in this country at least as early as then.

    and that’s bang on by whoever mentioned those annoying “I love the 80s” type programmes and those same “celebs” who would pretend to “remember” things when you just knew they were the kind of people who obviously didn’t have a clue about any of the stuff they were pretending to be nostalgic.

  15. 65
    swanstep on 2 Feb 2010 #

    @64, Andypandy. ‘Valerie’ is from Winwood’s 1982 follow-up to the Arc of a Diver album. 1986’s Back in the High Life was a nifty record but seemed to quickly squander fond-memory points by being very extensively used in beer commercials for Michelob (which combined undrinkable, watery, but quite chemically and hangover-inducing beer with obnoxious, yuppie-/status-seeking packaging/marketing. Ghastly.).

    Also, I agree with you that Oakey etc. name-dropped Abba a fair bit in the early ’80s, but that did seem to fade away. By 1987-1988 one hardly ever heard Abba anywhere, and I vividly remember spending one afternoon in particular looking for some Abba cds and the only ones I could find after trekking around a few stores were expensive yet dodgy Japanese pressings of individual Abba albums. And this was in frickin’ Sydney, city of brides, Abba-central! It really was a quite remarkable state of affairs, perhaps especially for a singles-oriented band whose biggest seller *originally* was a compilation (called ‘The Best of Abba’ down under and something else in UK). I certainly wasn’t alone in being cheesed off about this state of affairs, hence the explosion that Gold represented in 1992. On a personal level, I doubt whether any single cd purchase has ever made me happier – I’d been in a state of Abba deprivation for a few years in a way that now seems quite unbelievable or even impossible.

  16. 66
    crag on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Fair points above about the influence of the mid-80s on much contemporary pop-maybe i’m just too attached to the period(or too detached to whats happening in todays charts?)to subjective about it. Perhaps folks who were around in the 60s couldnt hear that era’s influence on Britpop in the 90s for the same reason?

    Having said that, i still think the period of approx 84-87 still seems largely dismissed by todays tastemakers. I’d imagine stating what a great record, say, “You Wear it Well” or “Crazy Horses” was in the mid 80s would be greeted with howls of derision in “hipsterville” circles yet ten years later after the dust had settled such comments wouldnt have raised an eyebrow but i cant imagine many of todays young dudes claiming a love of Sly Fox or Spagna for example to gain “cool” points.

    Not that any of this affects the quality or otherwise of the actual music of course. Merely an observation…

  17. 67
    rosie on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Crag @ 66: The first time I heard Oasis I thought I was hearing Beatles outtakes. And wasn’t She’s Electric a direct rip of the Kinks’ Wonder Boy?

  18. 68
    crag on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Sorry Rosie i had meant to type “Perhaps SOME folks who were around in the 60s”in my previous post but unfortunately the “some”seems to have got lost in the edit- no offence meant!!
    Also just out of interest can anyone tell me why the last few posts have been dated 3 Feburary-as i type this its still only 11.50pm on the 2nd?Just curious…

  19. 69
    swanstep on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Looking at forthcoming popular #1s has reminded me that, of course, while the film Stand by Me was a 1986 release in the US, for the rest of us it was another one of those fantastically watchable 1987 films.

  20. 70
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 3 Feb 2010 #

    i watched “stand by me” with tony blackburn! (ok he was in the row in front of me)

  21. 71
    LondonLee on 3 Feb 2010 #

    #66: I’d imagine stating what a great record, say, “You Wear it Well” or “Crazy Horses” was in the mid 80s would be greeted with howls of derision in “hipsterville” circles

    I vividly remember being at an art school party circa 1984 and my mate put The Osmonds’ “Let Me In” on the stereo and a couple of us got up and sang along to it very loudly — perfectly seriously with no hint of being ironic (I swear I was a bit teary-eyed by the end. Yes, I was drunk but it’s a lovely song!), but I’m sure most of the people in the room thought we were joking. Next he put on ‘Sweet Talkin’ Woman’ by ELO by which time everyone realized we were being perfectly serious and started to have serious doubts about our taste.

    I think even back then I resented the cloud of kitsch that had quickly enveloped the pre-punk 70s – this was my childhood and was trying to reclaim it.

  22. 72
    anto on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Re: Abba Influence. Aside from Phil Oakey Elvis Costello admitted to nabbing the Rachmaninov-esque piano flourishes of Dancing Queen and putting them in the capable hands of Steve Nieve on Olivers
    Also the perpetually under-rated Associates were Abba fans.
    Alan Rankine claimed them as his favourite group while Billy McKenzie referred to the Sulk lp as ” Abba on acid “.
    Lastly Neil Tennant has admitted that Abba were as much a reference for the songs on Actually as anything on the House/Electro scenes.

    I’m not denying Abba were being mis-used as a punchline by 1986-87
    it’s just interesting that some of the smarter musicians of the decade still revered their records even before it became trendy again.

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