The eighties was a decade defined by contradictions. The neon dawn of a beckoning consumer age shone brightly against a dusty background of industrial decay. Newfound freedoms and lifestyles rubbed shoulders awkwardly with centuries-old social norms, often chafing against them. The gender benders shocked on Top of the Pops, while the bowler hatted city men were overrun by the hungry and street smart barrow boys who’d finally broken into the City’s sacred inner sanctum.
It was a time of both economic expansion and industrial contraction, which somehow managed to co-exist within the space of a single frantic decade.
With a little less wealth but a lot more personal freedom, it was a great time to be growing up, and I would never trade it for today’s paranoid, smoke free and calorie counting childhood.
1980 – Vienna by Ultravox
It seems to be an unwritten rule of the music world that one may like either the John Foxx or the Midge Ure incarnations of this band, but never both. That’s a rather short sighted outlook in my opinion, as this technically advanced offering from Midge and the boys is one of the finest examples of the post punk synth wave. While certainly more commercial than their first three albums, Vienna nonetheless displays a high degree of creative integrity. Indeed, I would argue that New Europeans is the single greatest new wave track ever. Never a band to chase the teen romance demographic, this album’s title track is emblematic of a bygone age when bold, innovative and unconventional music could still attain chart success.
1981 – Rage in Eden by Ultravox
That’s right, two in a row for this highly creative musical quartet, and in fact my single favourite album of all time. Too often overlooked by nostalgia channels and list shows, Rage in Eden is a triumph of dark-tinged electro pop that clearly doesn’t give a damn whether the “inkies” deem it worthy or not. Indeed, so cleverly constructed are the tracks and running order of this album that its lengthening shadows creep imperceptibly across the listener’s consciousness, while masquerading as a high quality synth-pop creation. With a brooding, concrete production style and lashings of dark, quasi monastic backing vocals, Rage in Eden is a neglected jewel of the eighties synth movement. Slide the CD into the player, sit back and experience the hidden depths and darkest corners of this most unlikely of masterpieces.
Indeed, time has vindicated this band’s creative approach as Ultravox are still touring in their own right, as opposed to being rolled up into some last hurrah of a fading revivalist roadshow. In hindsight, whilst their commercial triumph was much smaller than the Spandaus and the Durans of the day it has endured far, far longer. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all in this story.
1982 – A Broken Frame by Depeche Mode
If Ultravox were dark synth with a poppy undertone, then Depeche Mode were their mirror image of poppy synth with a dark undertone. The early eighties marked a distinct societal as well as musical shift, where the groans of that wounded industrial world were processed, digitised and remade in the imagined likeness of the coming computer age. Many bands attempted to balance these opposing cultural currents, more often than not falling off the beam and into day-glo derision or respected obscurity. Somehow Depeche Mode managed to harness these two opposing forces to create something that is both easily accessible yet just a little off key. The video for the popular single See You is a brilliant example of that gravity-defying juggling act. Anyone old enough to remember those dark, frosty and atmospheric BR stations will immediately smell dust, diesel fumes and cigarette smoke in those wonderful opening frames. An album made by young men who were themselves shaped by the greater forces at work during those important years.
1983 – The Golden Section by John Foxx
The third of John Foxx’s post Ultravox projects is less well known than Metamatic or The Garden, and that’s a great shame. The master of the discordant dream and the fleeting shadow finds his strongest abstractionist voice in this glowing, warm and yet distantly chilling production. Perhaps finally trapping the phantom he’d been chasing for over a decade, The Golden Section is a triumph of musical arrangement that takes the listener on a journey to a quiet, melancholy place. This collection of beautifully crafted musical tracks brilliantly succeeds in triggering introspection and a longing for something once known but now forgotten, distilling ideas of shuttered shops and overgrown ruins into a vague longing for past freedoms. The greatest trick this album plays is that it achieves its ends by deception and subterfuge, forswearing any pretentious teen dirge in favour of a far more mature and nuanced musical expression. This album demonstrates an advanced and intuitive understanding of both music and the human condition, where discord somehow gives birth to beauty. An unrivalled triumph of the era.
1984 – Fugazi by Marillion
The second album by the last of the prog rock children is a veritable feast of musicianship and poetic prowess. Fish’s peerless lyrical agility finds a new confidence in this virtuoso display of song-writing and studio production. Steve Rothery shines as the most underrated guitarist of his generation, ably matched by Mark Kelly’s dazzling keyboard skills. Indeed, Steve’s soaring, weeping solo on Jigsaw is my personal favourite.
With major chart success still elusive, Fugazi makes little attempt to chase the then lucrative singles market, as the butchery of Assassing into a short seven inches makes all too plain. Who would buy a single like that?
It’s also worth noting that this is an album that arrived at exactly the right time for music fans like me, providing a vital escape route for those of us who’d spotted the scouts for the Stock, Aitken & Waterman invasion. It’s both an end and a new beginning as the musical mainstream begins its steady and seemingly irreversible decline.
Yes, the eighties are remembered with great fondness, but they also mark an irreparable fracturing of the music scene. By mid-decade the music charts had become increasingly homogenised and predictable, so there was only one thing for it. To misquote a very famous British singer, it’s time to go underground.