Saturday, 18 February 2012

80s Cool

Pronunciation: /eɪtis kuːl/
In reference to something fashionably attractive or impressive within the decade beginning 1st January 1980 and ending 31st December 1989 inclusively, or that which exists in a different time but bares many of the same attributes. Commonly judged with a lower expectation of ‘cool’ than that which appears in other decades, however definitely brilliant in its own way.
i.e.           Wow, doesn’t Boy George look so cool in that long t-shirt and waistcoat combo?

I speak about 80s cool in this manner, because it certainly is a thing. Its own thing. A brilliant thing, but a very different thing to the central idea of cool that one draws upon when discussing say, Grace Slick, Nico, Jim Morrison or Brett Anderson. Primarily because they exist outside of the realms of that magical anomaly of a decade.

The brilliant thing about 80s cool is that it had the ability to absorb and overcome even those incredibly cool characters that strutted confidently out of the 70s, calm and unsuspecting of the reinvention that this decade would involuntarily be causing them. I call upon David Bowie as exhibit a) in this argument.

Perhaps the coolest man to ever walk the planet, a pioneer. A man who, by 1979, had securely held the world in his hands for over seven years… whatever he wore, however he cut his hair, whichever style he chose to adopt into his music, the rest would eagerly follow. Sure, it is worth acknowledging that in holding out until 1983, Bowie did stay strong for longer than most, but once the 80s cool had penetrated his Godlike mind, there was simply no turning back.

1983’s Let’s Dance album is great. The title track is incredible, and there are no words to describe how brilliant and fresh it sounds when one has the rare pleasure of hearing it on a night out. However, what makes the album so brilliant as an example of 80s cool is that from the very opening chords of the first track; Modern Love one can initially tell that we are a world (and a decade) away from the effortlessly cool albums such as Station to Station or Low. The Serious Moonlight tour which followed in a whirlwind of inflatable globes and egos, Blues Brothers-esque dancers, confetti and dry ice served as further evidence in the trial of Bowie’s subjection to this powerful disease, and while he certainly was not alone; the effects for the King of Cool were devastating. By 1988 after two disappointing albums and typically 80s style stadium tours, he decided it was a good idea to front a hard rock band called Tin Machine who need no further explanation than what can be deducted from this photograph;

Fortunately for Bowie, once enough time had passed for the 80s to become a shadowy memory, he was once again restored to his pedestal and those who love him dearly began to aggressively repress the knowledge and memories which stem from this dark period.

Meanwhile, the curse affected others in different ways. While some, like Bowie, had already proved themselves and were thus able to easily shake off the virus by the mid-1990s, others owed their entire career and success to riding this wave, and are subsequently doomed to be associated with this phenomenon for as long as the human race survives. Rick Astley, Phil Collins, Adam Ant, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Nik Kershaw, Dire Straits, Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Sade, Huey Lewis and The News, Culture Club. I’m looking at you.

It is no coincidence that the majority of the aforementioned crusaders of 80s cool performed at the Live Aid concerts on 13th July 1985, as this happened in the midst of the decade and as a result, documents all of our favourite 80s cool offenders at the absolute peak of their crimes. A sea of mullets, hoards of backstage cocaine, synthesisers everywhere you look, shoulder pads, back combed hair, bright make-up and a generous helping of Princess Diana – this was 80s excess at its best. With his bid to raise money for Ethiopian famine, Bob Geldof not only managed to raise £150 million, but he also facilitated the most accurate and detailed documentary proof of the 80s cool epidemic that was sweeping mercilessly across western culture.

In reeling off a list of those characters who I consider innately woven into the fabric of the 80s cool phenomenon, I in no way mean to imply that this is necessarily a bad thing. For example; Duran Duran, Dire Straits and Spandau Ballet are all brilliant and still heavily featured and loved over twenty years since the end of the decade to which they owe so much. I say owe, because while these three bands in particular are amazing, they are undeniably a product of their time, and would have certainly never reached the dizzying heights that they did were it not for the 80s backdrop – a time when the parameters of what is considered cool were very much off kilter.

By the very nature of this decade, even arguably the coolest band of the time were by all other standards, pretty uncool. Their frontman - a tee-total, celibate, vegetarian – hardly evokes images of a tortured soul of rock n’ roll excess, which had previously provided the blueprint for what is deemed cool within the music industry. How typical of this decade that it’s coolest musical output should be so far removed from what every other generation has considered the height of cool. The genius of The Smith’s music however, is certainly not capped by the potential of its inhabited decade, as it still stands as incredible and defiant over much of the music made before or since. Not only that, but in causing people to completely rethink the guitar as an instrument for understated yet beautiful expression, Johnny Marr successfully paved the way for the Britpop explosion of 1990s (an entire movement dedicated to cool Britannia) and provided the guidelines for what we now know as indie music.

The Smiths ability to stand out from the rest of the 80s offerings as something other was no coincidence. Their deviation away from pomp and excess, both in terms of music, behaviour and image, was all part of Morrissey’s plan from the get-go. The name The Smiths was intentionally as far removed from the likes of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark or Spandau Ballet as conceivably possible, both of which the frontman considered insanely pretentious. Meanwhile, the plain clothes and signature quiff haircut offered a stark visual contrast to the extravagant high-fashion of the new romantics that they so desperately wanted to distance themselves from.

While 80s nostalgia lives on and fond glances are cast back to a time when bright colours and excess became the new beige, one cannot help but be thankful that decades and the trends which define them are confined to the obligatory ten years. Eventually we found ourselves out the other side, riding the wave of The Stone Roses’ 1989 release into an era where the style/substance balance would be re-established and affordable pills and stripped-down music brought satisfaction to youth culture in a way that high-priced cocaine and shoulder pads never could.

The 80s provided lots of great music; that is undeniable. I would hate not to mention The Cure, or indeed to overlook the entire fascinating movement of dark synth and gothic to which we owe so much wonderful music. The very nature of the outlandish decade meant that extremes never seemed that extreme, and the ability to shock with appearance was greatly reduced. The Cure are yet another band that greatly owe the success of their image to the time in which they lived; for in what other decade would a chubby goth in big white trainers be placed at the height of cool? A justified question, yet in it’s very asking, serves to demonstrate exactly what made the 80s such a fantastic decade.

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