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. 31
    Mark M on 1 Feb 2010 #

    Probably should think about the fact that this was one of those times when the notion was certainly circulating that the future was not on its way – not in a apocalyptic 70s or early 80s manner, but more in a kind of ‘this is sort of how it’s going to be from now on’. We’ve discussed lots of this already – the synth thing, the striving for ‘timeless’ fashion. Lots more is well known – the backlash against modernist architecture – London is spotted with horrible faux-Georgian top-end housing estates dating from this time. (Both the fashion and the housing thing connected in that they were associated with a return to natural materials). But also, technology was somewhat out of favour – the PC revolution seemed to have failed to happen. There was some stat we were taught for my MA that I wish I could find about the number of the BBC Micros that were bought but never taken out of their boxes. The PCs that did take off in Britain were Amstrads, which really could do little more than a typewriter that could move paragraphs around. Likewise, we’re in that period between ZX Spectrums and MegaDrives. The most visible advances were mobile phones – jokes that were years away from being either useful or widespread – and CD players, mostly marketed as a way of hearing the past better (the unintended consequences of making music digital lurk over a decade hence…) Now, there are lots of opposing tendencies – not least the fact that electronic music was so far from dead – but this were certainly ideas afoot at the time…

  2. 32
    rosie on 1 Feb 2010 #

    Mark M @ 31: I don’t know that the social changes which undoubtedly happened were quite a as gentle as that. Certainly towards the end of the year – I don’t want to be too previous about this because I’m hoping to delurk from the main strand to talk about the soundtrack to my life a couple of times in this interesting year – there were two events, notionally unlinked but oddly co-resonant, both taking place over the same long weekend, which are still remembered and felt rather apocalyptic if you were there. Another (bunnyable) event seems to me to have done more than anything else to expose the fundamental tackiness of the era.

    And in the spring there was a general election in which I played my small part in changing the way British elections would be run – in the Pembridge ward of the Kensington division I ran what I believe to be the first all-electronic committee room. It ran on my home PC, a Tandy 1000 running Datamaster, hooked up to a primitove Hewlett-Packard laser printer which my upstairs neighbour (a jazz journo called Jan Diakow, who may have been known to some Populistas) had arranged for me to collect from East Ham. Driving from Notting Hill to East Ham and back was itself a mind-fucking experience! The electronic committee room collapsed in the evening under the printer’s inability to generate knocking-up sheets at more than a snail’s pace, but it was the future.

    There’s some quite good pop music ahead, too. As well as some that gives me a headache every time.

  3. 33
    Billy Smart on 1 Feb 2010 #

    I don’t have the equivalent UK data, but here’s the list of each week’s top grossing films at the US box office over 1987;

    Jan 22. Critical Condition (Paramount)1 week
    Jan 29. Platoon (Orion)5
    Mar 5. Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (New Line)1
    Mar 12. Lethal Weapon (Warners)3
    Apr 2. Blind Date (Tristar)1
    Apr 9. Police Academy 4 (Warners)1
    Apr 16. The Secret of My Success (Universal)5
    May 21. Ishtar (Columbia)1
    May 28. Beverly Hills Cop 2 (Paramount)3
    Jun 18. Predator (20th C. Fox)1
    Jun 25. The Witches of Eastwick (Warners)1
    Jul 2. Dragnet (Universal)2
    Jul 16. Revenge of the Nerds 2 (20th C. Fox)1
    Jul 23. Snow White (RE) (Buena Vista)2
    Aug 6. The Living Daylights (MGM/UA)2
    Aug 20. Stakeout (Buena Vista)5
    Sep 24. Fatal Attraction (Paramount)8
    Nov 19. Running Man (Tristar)2
    Dec 3. 3 Men & a Baby (Buena Vista)5
    Dec 17. Throw Momma From the Train (Orion)1
    Dec 24. Eddie Murphy Raw (Paramount)1

  4. 34
    swanstep on 1 Feb 2010 #

    1987 was also the low ebb point for Abba in the culture at large. They’d split for good in 1982 and to some extent bands like Human League had tried to model themselves on them, but relative lack of songwriting and harmonizing talent proved a bit of an obstacle! There were very few Abba records around in stores in 1987 and you’d only very rarely hear their tunes played on the radio or out anywhere. Demand then built over the next 5 years until the Gold compilation came out with a bang in 1992 (Erasure tributes and U2 doing Dancing queen in Stockholm with Bjorn and Benny all happened then too). Suddenly it was all on again, Priscilla and Muriel built on that 2 years later and Abba has been a more or less continuous cultural presence ever since.

    @Rosie. 1987 was when I first noticed couples of my acquaintance in tech fields having rows via unix talk (a simple instant message facility). I was very amused by this phenomenon.

  5. 35
    thefatgit on 1 Feb 2010 #

    @ 30 I think I remember that year being the year of the Graphic Novel. “Batman:The Dark Knight Returns”, “Maus” and “Watchmen” all getting into the best seller lists. All of a sudden it was acceptable for grown-ups to read comics. Of course, the grown-ups had been reading them all along, but finally it was safe to emerge from the closet!

  6. 36
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 1 Feb 2010 #

    rosie, i knew jan diakow pretty well, though i lost touch when i left the wire

  7. 37
    Gavin Wright on 1 Feb 2010 #

    I’ve always thought that the latter half of the ’80s was far weaker for pop (in terms of the singles charts at least) compared to ’80-’84 – this is based almost entirely on retrospective and fairly selective listening though so maybe I’m being unfair. I’d never really thought of ’87 as a watershed year but in number one terms there are certainly some really interesting records coming up so I look forward to this.

    Also this was around the time that I started to become aware of pop – I was born in 1981 and many of the records to be discussed soundtracked numerous childhood birthday parties and the like – so this should make for a particularly enjoyable stretch for me.

  8. 38
    rosie on 1 Feb 2010 #

    thefatgit @ 35: This adult, who will be marking her 21st hexadecimal birthday in 1987, wasn’t in the least ashamed to be seen reading When the Wind Blows several years earlier, and also Raymond Briggs’s riposte to the Malvinas/Falklands adventure The Tin-pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman. Maus was – and remains – magnificent. Suffice it to say that Watchmen is not much to my taste so I won’t dwell on it. Of course, the bande dessinée for grown-ups has never been out of acceptability elsewhere in Europe.

  9. 39
    Mark M on 1 Feb 2010 #

    Re 32: Sure, don’t get me wrong on either front – the (practical and theoretical) frontiers of technology were obviously being pushed along the whole time – but not quite in the way that we’d been led to expect (the emergence of that peculiar piece of intermediate tech, the fax machine, indicates as much).
    And, yes, for several weeks that autumn it was possible to walk around the south-east believing the world had ended…

  10. 40
    LondonLee on 1 Feb 2010 #

    I remember Neville Brody saying in an interview that geographic boundaries meant nothing anymore because he had a fax machine and could send ideas to clients all over the world.

  11. 41
    Steve Mannion on 1 Feb 2010 #

    Also hit movie Jumpin’ Jack Flash demonstrated how the thrils of internet dating and cyberspacial espionage were now within tantalising reach.

  12. 42
    MagicFly on 1 Feb 2010 #

    34 – you’re quite right. I remember buying a best of Abba video collection in 1988 and actually removing its cover, so much did I fear mockery. And yet I would show it to a few trusted friends and utterly evangelise the music, which I’d known since childhood but had only just realised was magnificent. It’s strange to think of Abba existing in an almost underground, illicit state, but for a few years they were pop-cultural contraband.

  13. 43
    rosie on 1 Feb 2010 #

    Yet in 1987 my daughter thought Abba were the bees knees!

  14. 44
    crag on 1 Feb 2010 #

    A few personal thoughts on 1987-i was 13/14 and by this point i had (temporarily)”grown out” of my “classic rock” phase- Bowie, Queen, Beatles etc- and was listening largely to Beefheart, Zappa, Syd and a lot of 60s blues and prog rock. I still followed the charts-partially cos i enjoyed some of it but largely to avoid being the weird kid at school who said things like “The Pet Shop WHO??? Dont you fancy listening to “Starless and Bible Black”by King Crimson?”

    I felt pretty cut off from my pop-pickin’ comtemporaries and the fact i had my first i had MY OWN BEDROOM for the first time probably added to this feeling of isolation. Having (again temporarily as it turned out)left ‘kids stuff’ like comics and Dr Who behind i found the charts the most alienating theyd been in my life(until recently perhaps…) and figured it would be that way for evermore. The whol “things aint what they used to be” vibe prevelant in modern culture at the time- which i already discussed in my post responding to Tom’s Xmas #1s article- certainly didnt help either.

    Basically like everyone else at that age i guess i was a self-obsessed, self-pitying tosspot(yes even more than now…) and by the time i reached 16 the charts “modern pop” spoke to me just as much as stuff recorded before i was born.

    It does seem though i did have the misfortune of being in my early teens at the one period in pop that has never been “reclaimed”,when mainstream chart music was at its lowest ebb. 70s pop, viewed with such disdain at this time (and yes i remember too how much ABBA had been dismissed to the dustbin of history in the mid 80s)was of course brought back in from the cold by the mid 90s, to the extent an appreciation of, say, ELO was de regeur by 1996- completely unimaginable merely 5 years earlier. However, although the first and last thirds of the 80s seem to have become “acceptable” of late, the period covered of late in Popular seems immune to such revision, even after 20+ years. Certainly I cant spot the influence of for example “Invisble Touch”, “Silk and Steel”or “Back in the High Life” in much of the 2010 charts- but maybe i’m wrong you tell me!

    Sorry about the verrry rambling nature of this post btw- as my lack of posts of late should indicate i find this period(in my life and in pop history)very difficult to discuss objectively and since Tom is roughly the same age as me i want to say well done to him for doing so much better (and so much more consisely) than i’ve managed here!

  15. 45
    Mark M on 1 Feb 2010 #

    Re 44: But as you acknowledge, pop history is always in play. Conversation at work today:
    ‘Oh, so Journey are an old band? I thought that song had been written for the show [ie Glee]…’
    [A perfectly valid assumption, of course, seeing as even if you are old enough, Journey meant bleep all in England at the time. (Huge in Mexico, though). Thus Don’t Stop Believin’, a song stuck in a TV show to act as a nostalgia trigger – see also it’s presence in a chamber music arrangement in The Wedding Singer – pops up as something fresh to a different audience. It’s now part of our pop history of 2010, but I suspect may also get retrospectively woven back into pop history of the early 80s as seen from a British perspective.]

    In 1987, I think listened mostly to Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr, Prince, Eric B & Rakim, Tom Waits, Throwing Muses and Pixies – as far as I know (not having cheated by looking ahead), only one of these acts has a tiny cameo in the Popular story of the year.

  16. 46
    swanstep on 2 Feb 2010 #

    @44,crag. I can’t agree with you about 1986-1987, say, having no influence on contemporary charts. Probably *the* record of 1986 was Janet Jackson’s Control. Most of current Rihanna, Beyonce, even Gaga stuff stems fairly directly from that terrific album. And at least 10-15% of the music in the charts in recent years (not just your endless Coldplays and Snow Patrols but lots of Kings of Leon, 40 minutes to mars, or whatever that band with Jared Leto in it is called, and many others)is really just warmed over Joshua Tree – the biggest record of 1987 (which itself was a streamlining of U2’s first record with Eno producing, the Unforgettable Fire).

    By my estimation, then, somewhere between 25-30% of recent chart songs show direct influence of one of those two records.

    But there are lots of other subtler influences from this period on today’s charts: Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love crops up a couple of times a year on some record with chart action. And while you have to strain a bit to hear it, Crowded House’s ‘Don’t dream it’s over’, and Sugarcube’s ‘Birthday’ as some of the best and most distinctive pop songs ever made are v.v. influential. And you don’t have to press too hard to hear traces of New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle and True Faith around these days either.

    And all of *that’s* setting aside all the metal stuff like Master of Puppets and Reign in Blood from 1986 that’s as influential, and in some sense unimprovable-on in its own realm as Joshua Tree has proved in the mainstream (for better or for worse).

    Of course lots of stuff like Invisible Touch, not to mention most of the recent Popular #1s, had relatively little to recommend it at the time and understandably is largely ignored now.

  17. 47
    wichita lineman on 2 Feb 2010 #

    Re 45: “It’s now part of our pop history of 2010, but I suspect may also get retrospectively woven back into pop history of the early 80s as seen from a British perspective”

    I keep hearing Journey referred to as if everyone loved them in 1981/82, it’s bizarre. Maybe the modern way of digesting pop is creating a collective false memory syndrome.

    As for the sounds of 86/87 influencing today’s pop, the soft/poodle rock talked about in the Final Countdown thread is surely due a revival. Maybe Journey’s AOR is the foot in the door for a Precious Metal revival.

  18. 48
    swanstep on 2 Feb 2010 #

    45,46. Yep, the journey of *that* Journey song is an interesting one: the revival appears to have begun with Sandra Bernhard singing it with a pianist accompanying her it in her mid 90s revue: I’m still here damn it! It was a very inner city, lower east side, semi-avant garde thing. It then gradually built, being used to v. dramatic effect in the excellent Charlize Theron movie Monster, then it was used on the Sopranos (at the climactic scene), then it was covered on Glee. Before this long reveival began, even in the US where it had orivginally been some sort of hit, Journey were as likely to be faetured on MTV for the video for ‘Separate Ways’ which is one of the most hilariously horrible of all time and was rightly mocked as such by Beavis and Butthead.

    Anyhow, there’s a similar path back to the light for Abba. Bjorn Again start up around 1988 in a certain sense selling Abba to hipsters in a quasi-avant garde arts festivally way. I guess Bjorn Again have continued, but really they became fairly redundant once Abba’s own stuff was back in increasing near-perennial high rotation after 1992.

  19. 49
    Mark M on 2 Feb 2010 #

    Re 48: “Some sort of hit” – let’s be clear, in the Americas, it was a big hit at the time. It reached No 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the album went to No1. Along with Journey’s Separate Ways and Open Arms, it was an instant AOR standard. I’m sure long before either Sandra B or Adam Sandler’s intervention, it was an American karaoke favourite. In the US, then, whether you like the song or not, it has a proper place* in the history of the 1980s pop. The fictitious part, which the Lineman tells us is already in process, is it’s positioning in British music history of that same era, when no one had a Trans-Am to drive around in while listening to it.

  20. 50
    swanstep on 2 Feb 2010 #

    @Mark M., 49. I think we agree. I said ‘some sort of hit’ just because Popular is very #1-(or close to #1)-centered, and I knew that ‘Don’t stop believin’ had never reached those heights. Beyond that, I lived in the US from 1989-2000s and don’t remember hearing it much until its profile started to rise via hipsters. But of course all hipster-revivalists were depending on everyone knowing/recognizing the song so it *was* in some general way in the air in the US before then. That indeed doesn’t seem to true most other places, e.g., I just checked and in New Zealand Journey got no singles chart action and their only album presence in the ’80s was a pitiful one week at #49. And yet Steve Perry got to #8 with Oh Sherrie, which is similar to DSB, and fellow-travellers like Loverboy, and Boston and Styx and Heart got plenty of chart action, so it’s a bit of a mystery why Journey ‘travelled’ so poorly.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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)

  25. 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.

  26. 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?

  27. 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)

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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