A Brief(ish) History of Awesome American Music Pt. 5: It Was Hard to Be Cool in the 80s

I’ve never understood 1980s nostalgia, despite the fact that I am a child of that decade and VH1 thinks I should love it to death. With the benefit of hindsight and some education, I’m puzzled as to why we impeached Bill Clinton over a blowjob in the 1990s but didn’t really do much to Reagan for Iran/Contra, wherein his administration sold weapons to one group of brutal assholes with the goal of funding some other brutal assholes. And I don’t get why fiscal conservatives love Ronnie so much when he tripled – tripled! – our national debt in the name of defense (at the risk of ranting, why is it that some people want to spend tons of your tax dollars killing foreigners but don’t want to spend any of it giving you healthcare or education? Talk amongst yourselves). Also also, there was a lot of shitty music in the 1980s. A lot.

However, there was also some awesome music in the 80s. Like the Jim Carroll Band, urged into creation by none other than Patti Smith. Poet Jim Carroll started a band that influenced, among other bands, my beloved Hold Steady. In 1980, Carroll released Catholic Boy, which is an underrated punk treasure. Carroll was something of a one-hit wonder for the song “People Who Died,” but the whole album is utterly awesome, combining classic rock and punk riffs with Carroll’s literary observations on addiction, love, and death. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, Mr. Carroll is now himself among the people who died, having shuffled loose this mortal coil last year from some heart-related bad news. From what I’ve read and heard, Carroll was cool as hell, which was really hard to do in the 80s.

R.E.M. was also cool in the 80s. Somewhat paradoxically, they were actually cooler then than they are now (Accelerate was okay, but it’s no Life’s Rich Pageant. Or Fables of the Reconstruction. Or Document. I could go on). Formed in Athens, Georgia, around a shared love of Patti Smith, Television, and the Velvet Underground, R.E.M. was indie/alternative before that was even a thing. Mixing Peter Buck’s jangly guitars with Michael Stipe’s mumbly vocals, Bill Berry’s subtle-yet-raucous drumming, and Mike Mills’s mutli-instrumental abilities (not to mention the fact that Mills is the quintessential backing vocalist. How many great R.E.M. songs would be great without backing vocals from Mike Mills? Only “Nightswimming,” which features a badass piano part written and played by Mills), R.E.M. crafted some awesome, melodic pop in the 80s (“Pretty Persuasion,” “Sitting Still,” and “Perfect Circle” come to mind) as well as some scathing social commentary (“Exhuming McCarthy” is one of my all-time favorite musical middle fingers to fly at the right wingers. And once again, it’s improved by Mills’s bouncy “Meet me at the book burning” in the outro) where it was needed. They got kinda huge in the late 80s and early 90s and a lot of people don’t like their later stuff, but for my money, R.E.M. is just an awesome band. Sure, some of their albums are worse than others, but their live shows are always (even now, perhaps especially now) worth it. I’ve seen them twice and been left slack-jawed both times.

The punk movement of the 1970s gave rise to hardcore in the United States. I’m not well-versed enough to discuss the hardcore movement at length, but the bands to know (based on my limited knowledge) are Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, and Black Flag. Black Flag released Damaged in 1981, featuring a young Henry Rollins on vocals (their previous vocalist, Dez Cadena, opted to switch to guitar after shredding his voice on Black Flag’s rigorous touring schedule). Damaged seemed to split the difference between punk and hardcore, and Rollins was lyrically adept at lampooning some of the apathy and nihilism of certain punks while using their style of music to antagonize the cops and various other authority figures. Along with Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and Minor Threat, Damaged is probably the best listening experience you can have of hardcore without going back in time to a show and getting the shit kicked out of you.

Aggressive touring (not to mention smoking like a furnace and drinking like an Irish stereotype) shredded Tom Waits‘s voice in the late 1970s, when he started out as a barroom piano/songwriter in Los Angeles. I didn’t mention him in the 1970s post because it was in the 1980s that Waits really rose to greatness, shedding his jazz-bum image (well, sort of), marring Kathleen Brennan (who turned out to be an excellent songwriting partner) and turning American folk, Kurt Weill-style  cabaret, Captain Beefheart, and gospel inside out on three monumental records: Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Frank’s Wild Years. The 1980s are, in other words, the decade in which Tom Waits got really, beautifully, blissfully weird and cemented his place as America’s greatest songwriter. Waits not only figured out how to be awesome in the 80s, he’s continued being awesome right up to the present day. Waits is so cool that he’s the only guy to have been covered by the Ramones and covered one of their songs himself.

Nirvana was so big in the 1990s and seemed to change so much that you could fool yourself into thinking everything they did was original (if you were high). But Kurt Cobain himself once admitted that he was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. Formed in Boston (home of the vastly inferior Aerosmith) in 1986, the Pixies (Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering) released not one but two entirely essential albums back to back: 1988’s super badass Surfer Rosa and 1989’s even better Doolittle. The Pixies excelled at the loud/quiet/loud dynamic (there is actually a documentary about them called loudQUIETloud) and made great music out of the interplay between Black Francis’s voice and Kim Deal’s voice. You probably know “Where is My Mind” from Fight Club, but if you haven’t heard “Debaser,” “Gigantic,” “Wave of Mutilation,” “Hey,” and – who am I kidding? – most of the rest of their stuff, you don’t know shit about the Pixies and I feel a great sadness for you.

There were not one but two really awesome women named Kim making great music (they were both bassists too!) in the 1980s. The first is the aforementioned Kim Deal and the second is Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth, like Pavement, is one of those bands that is simultaneously why a lot of so-called indie kids like indie and why a lot of other people are terrified of the word “indie.” Love ’em or hate ’em, Sonic Youth’s Gordon and Thurston Moore are often looked at as the godparents of alternative rock, although Sonic Youth is also saddled with tags like “noise-rock” and “art-rock.” In 1988, Sonic Youth released an album that I fucking love called Daydream Nation (I was eight at the time and too busy listening to cock-rock, but at least a little wisdom has come with age – I started listening to Sonic Youth in college and haven’t stopped since) that went on to become more than slightly iconic, and with good reason.

Hip-hop also exploded in the 80s, and I’m not talking about the M.C. Hammer shit either. I’m talking about Public Enemy, who released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back the same year Sonic Youth dropped Daydream Nation. The highlight of any given Public Enemy tune is Chuck D’s totally aggressive flow – the dude knew how to drop rhymes like bombs. The lowlight was, let’s face it, Flava Flav, who is credited with inventing the role of the hype man in hip-hop. According to hip-hop experts, Chuck D found Flava Flav on the streets of Los Angeles, begging for change, and took pity on him. Not that Flava doesn’t lend a certain level of comic relief to Public Enemy’s work, but I’m just saying that I wouldn’t like their stuff less if he wasn’t there.

That should do it for the 1980s. Some bands from Seattle did some stuff in the 1990s and I’ll probably talk about some of that tomorrow and we’ll probably have to talk about Tom Waits some more. And the 1990s is a good decade to talk about some bands you might not have heard of that you should, by all means, be listening to. Stay tuned.


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One thought on “A Brief(ish) History of Awesome American Music Pt. 5: It Was Hard to Be Cool in the 80s

  1. Pingback: I Didn’t Know I Was Worth Stealing From « Bollocks!

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