Voices of the ’80s

RF_BackstageThe rock music world changed drastically with the explosive introduction of punk music in 1977. Punk was a raw form of popular rock; one that, for a short time, abandoned studied virtuosity in favor of pure aggressive energy, four chords, sneers and volume. For classic and progressive rock bands of the 1970’s, the punk movement threatened to end their time in the spotlight. More importantly, it was the lightening rod to which a great number of new bands drew close, splintering and absorbing the energy into a multitude of unique genre acts.

Suddenly, it seemed that popular music could take nearly any form, go in any direction. A college degree in music theory was not needed. Alongside the punk upstarts, the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, X, The Clash and The Dead Kennedys, there emerged many acts that were difficult to categorize. In the states, the CBGB club crowd included The Talking Heads and Blondie, joined elsewhere by bands like Devo, Oingo Boingo, and the new southern sound out of Georgia from REM and The B-52’s.  Australia/New Zealand produced a few bands, most notably Split Enz, who along with their states-side CBGB peers, paved the way for the kind of quirky music that came out of this era. In England, a major wave of trendy bands, covering both the lighter and darker side of music emerged at light speed. Suddenly, Ska music, originally from Jamaica, sprang forth from bands like The Specials, Madness, and The English Beat. Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow adapted tribal beats and chants as the basis of their unique sound. Gothic music, driven by Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen and a handful of darker, brooding bands emerged from the darkness. Synth pop and new wave music brought new forms of dance music to the fore, most often draped in layers of synthesizer leads, and the then new sound of drum machines. It seemed all barriers were broken.

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What was so different for those of us who transitioned from classic rock to these new bands, was that many, whether punk, ska, new wave, or gothic were not so much bands you listened to but bands you danced to. Many of these groups became the “new disco” – the groups whose music filled clubs and concert halls. In general these bands called you to the floor, with relentless beats, metronomic precision, deep bass tones, and all manner of vocalists who performed the work and connected to fans. And in each market, somewhere on the radio dial, there emerged stations willing to play this new music, to make it their preferred content, constantly introducing audiences to new bands, a flood of which appeared from 1977 to 1985.

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Since the advent of the pop music form, there has always been “one hit wonders” – singers or bands that had brief success in their own time. The 1980’s had a fair share of these acts, which came and went quickly, whose sound was so unique, fitting into the trend of the year, fading shortly after. For a short time this led to the increasing popularity of singles – the ability to obtain a few songs from an artist on a 45rpm vinyl single, or for some, a single cassette tape. While bands like U2, The Pretenders, Simple Minds and Madonna built lifelong careers, many others faded, some of course undeservedly, others predictable.

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Recently, I’ve noticed a number of travelling 1980’s “showcase” concerts, shows which are somewhat akin to small festivals, that present a number of what are today lesser known 80’s acts alongside one or two who held it all together and who are able to continue today to headline shows, even if in smaller theaters and clubs. One of these traveling circuses is Retro Futura, and this was this show I was drawn to in New York this last July.

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I was there principally to see Annabella Lwin, the lead singer from Bow Wow Wow, a surf-punk-meets-tribal-beats group that lived for a short time in the early 80’s. Bow Wow Wow released two albums before the boys in the band fired Annabella, their lead singer, a disaster of epic proportions for fans of the act. Amazingly, considering the level of talent in the original band, Annabella was at the bottom of the roster at this show. She was only allotted time to do three songs, after which she bolted to catch a plane. Still this was the best part of the lineup for me, made greater after I was able to get backstage to meet Ms. Lwin to express my appreciation to this artist, one of my favorite 80’s personalities. Bow Wow Wow will be prominently featured in my upcoming book, Dancing in Fog City (1977-1989).

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The remaining acts on the roster included Limal (Christopher Hamill) from Kajagoogoo, Tony Lewis, the singer/bassist from The Outfield, four-fifths or the original band Modern English, Belinda Carlisle from the Go-Go’s and headliners ABC. Kajagoogoo was allotted time for four songs, none of which stirred this patron, including the too-coy “Too Shy Shy.” Follow up Outfield singer Tony Lewis strained to hit his notes. Modern English were quite acceptable, and at times a bit fun, as personalities shown through and musicianship was a notch above. This was the one band that featured predominantly original members.

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The best part of the show, long after my favorite Annabella left the stage, was to be sets by Belinda Carlisle and ABC. Belinda was radiant, at 60 years old, still looking fab, and hitting all her marks and high notes with seeming ease. She rolled out a string of her own hits alongside expected highlights from the Go-Go’s first few albums, a small collection that has sustained members of this group, particularly Belinda through to today. ABC was the surprising set for me, as their whole presentation was befitting the headlining spot. Adorned in sharp suits and upbeat attitudes, the band began with “Millionaire,” the first of a number of hits most fans clearly remembered from the day, played with aplomb by the talented hired-hands led by charismatic singer Martin Fry.

Coming into the lineup, it was hard not to tag this tour as a collection of also-rans from the 80s. Indeed, every act other than Modern English was really the lead singer from their bands, each having had one or two albums back in the day, peppered with a few singles, and little follow up solo success. Yet, it was heartwarming to hear their voices again, stepping back in time to witness this singles crowd, harkening back to dancing days now so long ago.

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