Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mopey Mid-80s Pop Music

In lieu of a track of the week this week, I thought I'd write a little something about a very strange subgenre: mopey mid-80s pop. The music hitting the charts in the 1984-1986 period rarely sounds timeless to our ears today, considering how it incorporated production techniques that have aged poorly. Pop music today is produced within an inch of its life, but it sounds like a Ferrari.  Pop tunes like "All About That Bass" are the aural equivalent of the CGI cities being destroyed at the end of superhero movies: able to be enjoyed purely on technical merits, even if they're pretty soulless. By comparison, those mid-80s songs sound like a 1985 Datsun hatchback with a loose muffler. But the gauzy layers of nostalgia allow me to enjoy them, regardless.

In the midst of the bold, over the top productions of the mid-80s that reflected the Reagan era's confidence and materialism, there were sour notes. Many of them come from British artists, which might say something about the popular response to Reagan as opposed to Thatcher.  Here are some of those songs, overproduced and shiny in many cases, but nowhere near "Walking on Sunshine."

Mike + The Mechanics "Silent Running"

This song is the inspiration for this list. I heard it mentioned on the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast last week, and remembered the uncanny feelings this song would give me as I heard it coming out of the radio on a dark 80s night. As you would expect from a band including one of the members of Genesis, there's a strange prog rock shaggy dog story about some kind of dystopic future involving space travel. It's amazing that anything so obscure made it so high on the charts, but the synths and effects-laden guitar fit right in with 1985.

Simply Red, "Holding Back The Years"
Man, this has got to be one of the biggest downers to make it big in the days of hairspray and spandex, the 80s equivalent of "What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted." Despite the overly smooth accompaniment and soprano sax, I actually really like this song. It reminds me of rainy spring afternoons and having to stay inside during recess. On those days I would feel a kind of wistful sadness. Yes, I was a strange kid.

Wham! "Careless Whisper"

Speaking of sax, this song has perhaps the most iconic sax riff of its era, and that's saying something. Coming at the end of the Make It Big album, it throws cold water on an affair that began with the Big Brother Reagan Loves Me opener "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go." Now George Michael is telling us in a distraught voice that "I'm never gonna dance again." Just 40 minutes before he had yelled out "take me dancing tonight!" Perhaps the whole transition is a bigger metaphor for the exuberance of neoliberalism souring in later years.

Human League, "Human"

Even in 1986 I thought it was silly that a group called Human League would put out a song called "Human."  It's a far cry from their breakout music of the early 80s, which delights in the uptempo fun of synth pop even when telling the tale of heartbreak that is "Don't You Want Me." Nope, this song is just mopetastic. So much so that I think it was created in a lab for songs to be played in the waiting rooms of dentists' offices.

Mr Mister "Broken Wings"

If there's anything sillier than the Human League putting a song out called "Human," it's a band calling itself Mr Mister. It's easy for me to laugh now, but I loved this song when it came out. "Broken Wings" coincided with the earliest stirrings of my adolescence and all the emotional volatility that it implied. Perhaps that's why all this mopey music appealed to me.

The Cars "Drive"

The Cars had managed a wonderful alchemy where they combined the sounds of the new wave and power pop underground with mainstream rock. Their late-70s debut was all killer and no filler. By the mid-80s the Cars had adapted their sound to the times and had a bunch of hits. Unlike the sunny fun of "Magic," "Drive" was deadly serious. Sung by Benjamin Orr instead of Ric Ocasek, it featured shimmery synths and little in the way of guitar. It's a song about seeing your former lover cracking up after they've pushed you away, a mopey topic indeed. Despite all that, this song has a soft spot in my heart because it was an early point of discussion with my wife and I when I first met her. (Two people that hung up on 80s pop culture were meant to be.)


Oblio said...

Heh... really good overview of mopey 80's music! I met my second (and current) wife in 1982 and we love hearing tunes from that seminal period... Motels 'Only The Lonely'... The Cure 'Love Cats'... Culture Club 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me'... all of them are just period pieces now. Great tunes nonetheless. Your tune evals are good stuff, please keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Dude, (that's my 80s greeting),

How can you forget Spandau Ballet's "True?"

Talk about a mopetastic song?

Confession, this is a serious guilty pleasure.

Great blog. Keep it up!

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I actually thought about that song, which I love, but decided it wasn't truly mopey. There's a kind of 80s "standing tall" vibe to it. I do want to write a blog of the whole plethora of 80s personal affirmation songs, which "True" fits into.