Jan 10

1987: What The F___ Is Going On?

FT + Popular73 comments • 4,571 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. 1
    Steve Mannion on 29 Jan 2010 #

    Bring the noise!

  2. 2
    nickpeters on 29 Jan 2010 #

    Really looking forward to how the next couple of years go down here. I lost a lot of interest in the top end of the charts after 1984 and started working in an independent record shop in 1987 which didn’t stock Top 40. Still, I’d grown up loving pop and the charts and that’s not something you abandon easily.

    Maybe it was because of my then age but most people seemed much more genre partisan in those pre-internet days – the emergence of such divisive genres as hip hop, house and PWL certainly added to that. Maybe it was just that the 80s were very divisive anyway.

  3. 3
    Tom on 29 Jan 2010 #

    (NB: I know we’re not actually in 1987 yet! The last #1 of 86 lingered long into the new year though, and that’s what I associate it with)

  4. 4
    taDOW on 29 Jan 2010 #

    my first knowledge/impressions of the british charts comes at this time (via five minute segment w/ ray cokes on mtv’s video countdown) and the impressions were: 1) songs so incredibly cool you can’t even imagine them getting much airplay at all here topped the charts there 2) songs so incredibly ‘naff’ you can’t even imagine them getting any airplay at all here topped the charts there 3) any song put in a jeans ad there will top the charts. to be honest these impressions, w/ some minor adjustments, hold up for me today.

  5. 5
    punctum on 29 Jan 2010 #

    I’m relishing going through this period; a great time for me personally and some of my favourite number ones are coming up. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond in particular to 1987, the year when so many pop pickers I knew Got Off The Bus.

    I also note that Dale featured Jan ’87 on POTP last week – with one of those definitive “Get Off The Bus” records at number one. Wonder how that went down with the Radio 2 faithful? Not a bad chart at all with only Lionel Richie’s ew-inducing and thankfully unplayed “Ballerina Girl” really lowering the tone.

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 29 Jan 2010 #

    Had you started buying singles by this stage, Tom?

  7. 7
    Tom on 29 Jan 2010 #

    #6 I didn’t really start buying singles until 89, 90 and those were mostly cassingles. I was 14-16 in the late 80s and I’m sorry to say had fairly typical 14-16 year old boy opinions on a lot of the records we’ll be covering. I was still taping stuff off the radio tho – my favourite single of 1987 at the time was “True Faith” I’d guess. But if I didn’t quite Get Off The Bus I certainly hung about on the footplate trying to work out whether this was my stop or not.

  8. 8
    Lex on 29 Jan 2010 #

    #4 – the same is pretty much true now, except replace “jeans ads” with “car ads or ipod ads”, and scrap category 1) altogether :(

  9. 9
    Alan on 29 Jan 2010 #

    #5, i listened to that POTP too, and was reminded of the playground incomprehension caused by that #1. It took me some time to come round to it myself. We should be discussing that soon tho.

  10. 10
    LondonLee on 29 Jan 2010 #

    I try very hard not to check out EveryHit to see what’s coming up but I might have to now as this era is a blur to me now, I was spending most of my money on club music a lot of which actually made the charts which I’m not sure what I made of at the time. Some kind of victory I guess.

  11. 11
    Kat but logged out innit on 29 Jan 2010 #

    1987 is probably my favourite year for #1s ever – only one dreadful one out of the lot, at least 75% of them I would immediately go and listen to right now if I didn’t have this spreadsheet to sort out. Very much looking forward to the forthcoming entries!

  12. 12
    swanstep on 29 Jan 2010 #

    Not sure that I resonate with Tom’s basic idea that music was especially troubled or chaotic or whatever it might be starting in 1987. I was in Australia for most of 1987 and 1988 and it was a mind-bogglingly great time for music there with Crowded House, Go-Betweens, Triffids, Nick Cave&Bad Seeds, Hunter and Collectors all making world-beating records (not that the world, especially not the UK, wanted to listen that much). Late Smiths, early morrissey, pogues, and billy bragg and new order ruled too if you were in Uni.

    And on a world scale, proficient pop seemed pretty proficient across the board. One question: U2 went nuclear with Joshua Tree in 1987 and George Michael was super-huge shortly after that IIRC. How is that supposed to be compatible with the “Band Aid generation abdicating”? ‘Coronation’ (of the fittest) seems more appropriate than ‘abdication’.

  13. 13
    Tom on 29 Jan 2010 #

    I think a lot of the confusion would have been averted if I’d said “singles charts” not “pop charts”: Michael straddled both singles and LPs of course and is definitely an exception, though he wasn’t marketing himself as the kind of teen star he had been.

  14. 14
    LondonLee on 29 Jan 2010 #

    I just had a peek at EveryHit and it’s a bit more conventional than I was expecting. When you get to my age you don’t have total recall and have to do the math in your head (1987 = 25 years old = I was doing x) You can see certain future trends appear but I think there’s still a few more years to go before we get to the point I was thinking of.

  15. 15
    Alfred on 29 Jan 2010 #

    1987: the Imperial Phase of the Pet Shop Boys begins.

  16. 16
    Tom on 29 Jan 2010 #

    Yeah, we might have stuff to say about that ;)

  17. 17
    thefatgit on 29 Jan 2010 #

    Will we see our 1st 10 since FGTH in 1987?

  18. 18
    Alan on 29 Jan 2010 #

    can has 86 poll?

  19. 19
    Tom on 29 Jan 2010 #

    At the weekend – still one track to go (I’m working on it)

    (The poll, not the 10!)

  20. 20
    anto on 29 Jan 2010 #

    Good post.
    The middle of 1987 was the time when I started taking a proper interest in the charts and by proxy the charts so in an odd way
    I regard it (in terms of being a fan)almost as a musical year zero.
    Well we all have to start somewhere.

    Swanstep mentioned that 87 was the year U2 got really massive
    but they got short shrift from my Mum who had recalled them a few years earlier playing at the Baggot Inn on Baggot St in Dublin and was of the opinion that they weren’t much cop. Even the success of
    The Joshua Tree wouldn’t convince her. ” All U2 songs sound the same ”
    she said.
    Its coloured my view of U2 ever since.

  21. 21
    JJ on 29 Jan 2010 #

    1987 was the icing on the cake of death that was pop music. Maybe it was my age (15) but following the dross we had been subjected to (Every Loser Wins for God’s sake) it was the year that many teenagers were forced to discover the past, delving into their parents’/older siblings’ record collections, what with “proper” guitar music being dead (except for true Indie offerings eg Creation label).

    At least with the plethora of media channels available to us today we can be a bit more open-minded and explore the full gamut.

  22. 22
    swanstep on 30 Jan 2010 #

    @anto, 20. Lots of people had always thought U2 were horrible…but at least where I was (Sydney), at least for 9-10 months or so they pretty much won *everyone* over. I tried to ignore ’em, but vividly remember two semi-bizarre things: (a) it being an actual topic of conversation at parties; dishy girls would ask you whether you’d heard the new U2 album, and (b) the big alternative/trendy station, JJJ playing *b-sides* of the singles from the Joshua tree on their morning show, which were, surprise surprise, frickin’ great, e.g., the original version of Sweetest Thing, which was the song that finally got my ass down to the record store. It felt like quite a coup: as it were, U2 really captured all the masses, but also boosted their cred significantly with more trendy types. Sneering at U2 resumed shortly thereafter…

    @JJ,21. I’m not sure why you say pop music was dead in 1987. Things like Cameo and Janet Jackson were massive and great. Prince’s Sign of Times double album was not quite as massive as it should have been, but was pretty big and clearly a work of genius and as good as it gets for pop music. Stuff that directly continued early ’80s vibes from both New Order and Depeche Mode was pretty damned nifty. (Siouxsie would get a big hit a year later with one of the best Singles I’ve ever heard: Peek-a-boo – so that early ’80s crowd definitely wren’t dead and buried just yet.) Late Smiths and Billy Bragg in his prime weren’t massive but they were v. poppy and much loved. What more do ya want out of pop music?

    As Tom sort of alludes to there *were* lots of micro-scenes flourishing that unless you were in a band or scene you’d never hear: REM and Husker Du were influencing a lot of people behind the scenes, and the fast development in cheap samplers was clearly about to blow up – *someone* was going to do something interesting with that tech.. Again, if you were in a band/scene templates for the future arrived big time in 1988 from public enemy, nwa, pixies, Janes addict….

  23. 23
    loomer on 30 Jan 2010 #

    I think the real change happened though in 1988. Some of the glitz and glamour of 80s pop was still present in ’87 via the likes of The Pet Shop Boys and even SAW made many of their best records then, still proper dance influenced before they truly became a hit factory, churning everything out with the same backing track – by 1989 the strangehold they had over the charts was terrifying.

    Everything was shook up in 88 when you had Kylie, Bros and acid house. Things would never be the same again and the 80s kinda died, at least in terms of the charts. On the post-Smiths indie scene though, 1988 was a banner year giving us some revolutionary stuff like Pixies, MBV etc and the seeds of Britpop were sewn by the decade’s close with Madchester.

    On the youtubes of TOTP chart rundown videos, I actually thought 1987 was about the best year. This is probably just nostalgia, but look at the amount of classic pop records and radio staples here for instance – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fd1HtNFT12I

  24. 24
    Conrad on 30 Jan 2010 #

    your Mum had good taste Anto

  25. 25
    swanstep on 31 Jan 2010 #

    One thing to vaguely keep in mind about 1987 was that it was one of those rare years when mainstream Hollywood entertainment was really on its game: almost every week there was something genuinely fun, often quite trashy but interesting too that it was great to see with a big audience. Raising Arizona, Robocop, Blue Velvet, Fatal Attraction, Princess Bride, Broadcast News, Untouchables, Lost Boys (‘god-damned blood-sucking Brady Bunch’), Dirty Dancing, Near Dark, Withnail and I, Predator, Angel Heart, Evil Dead 2, Wall Street, Moonstruck, La Bamba, Wings of Desire, Witches of Eastwick, Throw Mama from the Train (a great film, seriously!), and House of Games. There are probably others too but those are things I remember (with a bit of prodding now from imdb) thinking were a real hoot at the time. Several I saw a couple of times each with different friends, and several others I was going with someone who’d already seen the thing once before. Something about this crop of movies made even the lesser of them incredibly quotable,and rewatchable with groups. Near as I can remember, only 1999 (rushmore, matrix, fight club, being john malk, etc.) and 2007 (no country, zodiac, there will be blood, sunshine, tell no one, etc.) have zinged as much movie-wise for me since then (I’ve probably become more boringly discerning too I’m sure!).

    Anyhow… if you weren’t there in 1987 you might think it was a non-entity of a year movie-wise because there wasn’t a single overwhelming massive hit/cultural phenom. going down (Avatar, Dark Knight, ET, LOTR, etc.). But that would be a mistake. There was a really high popular culture energy level in movies right then, which might chime with what Tom was suggesting preemptively about music going vigorously in lots of direction at once in 1987.

  26. 26
    Mark M on 31 Jan 2010 #

    Re 24: Let’s not rob the British film industry of rare moments of connecting with the audience by crediting Hollywood with Withnail and I. But, yes, there seemed to be plenty to see and it also seemed relatively possible to find interesting stuff, at least in the Greater London area: I saw Blue Velvet in Purley, and She’s Gotta Have It (can’t find a UK release date, but it was presumably either very late 86 or early 87) at the old cinema at the end of Queensway that later became a TGI Fridays and is now empty.

  27. 27
    swanstep on 31 Jan 2010 #

    @Mark M., 25. Quite right – Wings of Desire isn’t strictly hollywood either of course… so I really meant ‘Hollywood’ loosely, i.e., to cover all of popular film (neither Wings nor Withnail were Fatal Attraction-level hits, but they were v. popular esp. with students, played for months around Sydney, etc.). There was quite a bit of Brit film activity at the time now I think about it, e.g., the excellent Mona Lisa and High Hopes (the beginning of Mike Leigh’s imperial period!), but Withnail was the biggie if you were a student. ‘Twas the Trainspotting of the time I suppose.

  28. 28
    rosie on 31 Jan 2010 #

    Mark @ 25: Now now – don’t run down the British film industry just because it doesn’t specialise in Hollywood-type lowest common denominator tosh (like “Thrown Momma From The Train”, for heaven’s sake!

    There were a few British goodies that year. Wish You Were Here is one. The Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears for another (although I will always remember the Gate Cinema displaying it slightly differently). Then there was an undeservedly forgotten gem – The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Not as puerile as Withnail but nothing at all for a national film industry to be ashamed of.

    Blue Velvet is a fabulous film by the way.

  29. 29
    swanstep on 31 Jan 2010 #

    @Rosie, 28. Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about Prick Up your Ears (I didn’t see it at the time, but I remember it running for absolutely ages). Another 1987 indie flick I didn’t see (coz’ it got bad reviews) was Salvation (a comedy about televangelism), but it had a New Order song on its soundtrack ‘Touched by the hand of God’ which had a hysterical hair metal parody vid. According to wiki, that vid. was directed by Kathryn Bigelow of Hurt Locker fame now (but she had the great vamp. flick Near Dark in 1987, and reached pop trash critical mass a few years later with the mighty Keanu/Swayze-fest Point Break.)

  30. 30
    lonepilgrim on 1 Feb 2010 #

    perhaps also worth mentioning that Alan Moore and Dave Gibson were producing ‘Watchmen’ between 1986 and ’87

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