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Jan 10

1987: What The F___ Is Going On?

FT + Popular73 comments • 4,268 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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    If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)

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