Jan 01

I Want To Know What Love Is – Eighties Revisionism

FT/7 comments • 7,492 views

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.


  1. 1
    Marcello Carlin on 31 Mar 2008 #

    “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” in contrast, is a hidden corner of 1981 magic with its Fripp/Eno drone all the way through – no doubt connected with keyboardist Ian McDonald (no relation) who used to be in King Crimson and also blew his brains out on sax on a regular basis on Bolan’s hits. It felt in tandem with New Pop.

    Whereas it’s telling that Trevor Horn did the preproduction work on the Foreigner album from which “I Want To Know What Love Is” was taken – complete with unlikely Thompson Twins involvement – and perhaps this represents the other bookend; the ultimate failure of New Pop to change much of anything other than surface.

  2. 2
    wichita lineman on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Waiting For A Girl Like You gets more astonishing with the passing years. Hard to believe it was such a huge hit (I think eight weeks stuck at no.2 in the US behind Physical) when the melody is (the title aside) little more than synth washes and the semi-detached reverb left when I’m Not In Love comes out of the tumble dryer.

    Their later, bigger, hit also had that classic eighties move, the gospel choir; The Fall succinctly nailed that crass behaviour in the opening lines of The Classical.

    The failure of New Pop – all down to over-adventurous sequel albums that splintered the balsa wood bridge linking ABC, Dexys and OMD? I think as a notion it was more than surface. Much as I love Public Image by Public Image, it was kind of a relief when the post-punks decided to reclaim melody from Lena Martell, Kenny Rogers, and the other duffers topping the charts in 79/80.

  3. 3
    DJ Punctum on 18 Jul 2008 #

    No it fucking wasn’t. It was a collective failure on the part of a cowardly and mostly stupid audience who just wanted the glitz and the bright colours and weren’t bothered about subtexts or changing anything (as the 1983 General Election results proved). No wonder certain prominent New Pop writers – notably a Mr Morley and a Mr Tennant – decided they needed to take matters into their own hands.

  4. 4
    Tom on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Weird re-reading this and remembering that in 2001 an eighties revival didn’t seem as sure-thing a thing as it obviously turned out to be.

  5. 5
    DJ Punctum on 18 Jul 2008 #

    It’s a pity that the wrong eighties were revived.

  6. 6
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 18 Jul 2008 #

    i’ve argued elsewhere — and continue absolutely to believe — that part of the fear, of expansion in two simultaneous directions, towards the dark and arty and thoughtful on one side, in combo with the bright and funny and energised on the other, was the result, very directly, of ian curtis’s suicide, a signal emotional calamity that froze a key element in the key PoPu constituency in their steps; and ensured the advance was all on one side (which is to say, after a while no advance at all)

    the ur-text re all revivals ever: the monkey’s paw by w.w.jacobs

  7. 7
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 18 Jul 2008 #

    what a lot of commas

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