I just finished reading Peter Dogget's exhaustive analysis of David Bowie's work from 1969 to 1980, a period he calls "the long Seventies." Ending in 1980 is obvious in Bowie's case, since he output since Scary Monsters has a few bright spots, but none of it is as good or as innovative as what he did in his prime. That reminded me that in the 80s there were a lot of artists from the sixties and seventies that kept right on making music well past their expiration date. The audience goodwill they had amassed in their primes remained, and people would buy the records and go to the concerts to remember their own glory days. Since I grew up in the 80s I was unaware of their pasts, and didn't get why their videos were on MTV. I remember seeing the one for "We Are the World" and when Dylan sang I wondered who the hell that old weirdo with the awful voice was. (My opinions on the Bobfather have changed, obviously.)
It's strange to think that the forgettable stuff they produced in the 80s is now longer ago than the glory days these artists were still cashing in on back then. Here's some of the good, bad, and plain ugly of 1980s geezer rock.
The Rolling Stones
In the early 1980s the Rolling Stones had one last flash of brilliance, mostly because the Tattoo You album was made up of songs first essayed during the 70s. "Start Me Up" is one of their greatest grooves, and "Waiting On a Friend" perhaps their best ballad. After that, things went downhill fast. "Undercover of Night" tried to sound relevant with its New Wavey guitar and failed. That song's album of the same name and Dirty Work were are awful as the pastel suits worn by the band on the cover. When Steel Wheels came out at the end of the decade everyone acted like it was a return to form when it was in fact a boring piece of crap. That record was positively brilliant compared to Jagger's self-parodic solo work of the time.
Young put together an amazing run during the sixties and seventies with his solo work, as well as with CSNY and Buffalo Springfield. Then came the 80s. He made albums so odd and trading in so many styles (electronica on Trans, rockabilly on Everybody's Rocking, and country on Old Ways) that his record company sued him for not making Neil Young albums. Somehow Young broke out of his funk and managed to release the all-time great "Keep On Rockin' In the Free World" in 1989 and go on to put out some quality records in the early and mid-1990s.
Oh boy did Dylan fall off in the 80s. The album titles themselves betrayed a lack of vision: Knocked Out Loaded, Down In The Groove, Empire Burlesque, etc. He began the decade still in his evangelical Christian phase before being mired in a holding pattern in the mid-80s. He famously did not release the best songs he recorded in the era, like "Foot of Pride" and "Blind Willie McTell," as if he didn't want people to hear what he could really do. Finally, in 1989, he put out Oh Mercy, an inspired album that he says in his own memoir saved his interest in making music. "Ring Them Bells" never gets old.
As I mentioned above, Bowie started the decade with a bang, and then suddenly decided that he'd rather be a pop star than an art rocker. While "Let's Dance" is a great slice of 80s dance pop, his approach led to much diminishing returns, to the point that Never Let Me Down was the album I saw most often in used CD stores in the 1990s. On the Glass Spider Tour for that album he began each show by being lowered, you guessed it, out of a giant glass spider, which is as tacky as things got in the 1980s.
Rod the Mod has been the punchline to a joke for more most people my age, but his early 70s solo output and work with the Faces was truly fantastic, and if you don't agree I'll fight you. By the late seventies, however, he was cashing in with the endlessly silly "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy." His 80s output continued that trend, with utter dreck like "Love Touch." However, in the early 80s Stewart did manage to do a little good with the edgy pop of "Young Turks," which borrowed the New Wave sound without being derivative. It was the exception to prove the rule.
Of all the geezer bands, The Kinks probably produced the best music in the hairspray decade. They began in the mid-1960s with some rip-roaring proto-hard rock, and then from Face to Face in 1966 to Muswell Hillbillies in 1972, the Kinks had an amazing run of albums that did not fit any of the prevailing styles of the time. After that they got lost in a wilderness of lame concept albums before returning with some decent hard rock albums in the late 70s. In the early 80s they scored their biggest American hit with the fun nostalgia of "Come Dancing." "Don't Forget to Dance" and "Living on a Thin Line" are great songs. They ran out of gas afterwards, but it's always good to see a great band squeeze out one last hurrah.
Macca's solo work is easy to malign as treacly and silly, but he put out a lot of good tunes in the seventies amidst the dross. In the 80s, however, he became a complete and utter cheeseball. The only misstep on Michael Jackson's Thriller album is his duet with McCartney on the ridiculously frivolous "The Girl Is Mine." With Give My Regards to Broad Street he managed to produce a film even less inspired than The Magical Mystery Tour. The soundtrack album contained "No More Lonely Nights," one of the eightiesist songs that ever eightesed. That's not a compliment. Through much of the decade he was sporting perhaps the most ridiculous mullet of the era, and that's saying something.