I very much enjoyed reading Brad’s post about the 1980’s. It made me feel a bit nostalgic, and got me thinking about my music-related experiences of that decade. He and I both (and perhaps a few other Progarchists) came of age in the 80’s. I’m a few years older than him, me being born in June 1964, but this difference in age is minor, not generational. Despite this, our experiences of the 1980’s – both musically and otherwise – were significantly different. I’ll spend the next few paragraphs elaborating on the latter before proceeding to the former.
The picture above is of the USS Olympia (SSN 717) – my home for much of the 1980’s – at anchor in the Gulf of Thailand, July 1988. It represents what might be the single most consequential decision of my entire life entering the US Navy. At the time I graduated high school in 1982, I knew two things – that I wanted to go to college, and that I was nowhere near ready to do so. My high school years occurred in a rather permissive environment. I needed discipline, so I decided the military was the vehicle for that objective. After doing well on my entrance exams, I was offered both submarines and training in advanced electronics (sonar in particular) in exchange for six years of my life, namely 1982-1988. For me, these six years would define the decade.
In relation to the larger culture, submarine life can be defined almost as much by what you miss as what you witness. Among the things I missed while at sea were Michael Jackson’s hair catching on fire. I missed four straight Super Bowls, beginning with Super Bowl XVIII (18 for you non-Romans). In missing Super Bowl XVIII, I missed the most iconic TV commercial of the decade – the 1984 ad introducing the Apple Macintosh. I missed the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger – returning to port one day later. I missed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the theaters, but saw it underway months after it came out (I still remember, vividly, exploding with laughter at Cameron’s reaction from seeing the odometer). And for one, agonizing week in 1987, I awaited the results of the much-anticipated fight between Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard – knowing from the calendar the fight had taken place, but having no idea who had won.
A few weeks before I entered the Navy (in November of 1982), I purchased my last vinyl album – Signals, by Rush, from Grapevine Records in Charlotte, NC. Just about six years later, a few weeks prior to separating from the Navy I purchased my first CD, Going for the One, by Yes, at Jelly Records and Tapes in Honolulu. In between those times, I bought a few hundred cassette tapes, and more than one Sony Walkman, in places ranging from Groton, Connecticut to Bangkok, Thailand.
What I’ve described above provides much of the explanation for the difference in my 1980’s relative to Brad’s. Because of the circumstances of life, my exposure to radio – and MTV, which exploded during the 1980’s – was limited. So too was my ability to become fully immersed in the 1980’s zeitgeist.
Musically, some of the bands that defined the decade for us are in common – U2, REM, and the Eurythmics, among others. Others I had heard, such as Tears for Fears, The Cure, Big Country, Midnight Oil, and Oingo Boingo (most notably, for me, in the 1980’s lowbrow classic, Back to School, starring Rodney Dangerfield). We are of like minds on Wang Chung, loving their soundtrack from To Live and Die in LA, while utterly rejecting the rest of their output. Other well-known artists from that time that affect my perception of the 1980’s include The Police (and later, Sting), Peter Gabriel, and Steve Winwood. The latter two moved in a pop-oriented direction relative to their previous works, but it was high quality pop.
My last concert before entering the Navy was a Jethro Tull show in 1982. The opening act was Saga, touring in support of their album Worlds Apart. I loved this album, and while some debate whether it qualifies at prog, it was definitely an album a progger could love. They had a minor hit with the song On The Loose, which received a reasonable amount of rotation on MTV. The remainder of their 1980’s output fell short of this album, but later they produced the excellent concept album, Generation 13 (in 1995). And to this day, Germans love Saga – if not as much as David Hasselhoff ;).
In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, heavy metal for me largely meant Black Sabbath. But while undergoing training in San Diego in 1983, I was introduced to Iron Maiden. First I was dragged to their concert at San Diego Sport Arena by a roommate. I wish I could remember his name now, because I forgot to thank him. Piece of Mind, and later, Powerslave, spent a significant amount of time in my Walkman during the decade. Not just content to write songs dwelling on typical heavy metal subject matter, Maiden covered the gamut of topics, from Greek mythology to the Battle of Britain, Alexander the Great, and the Napoleonic Wars. They even found time to honor us submariners, with Run Silent, Run Deep. I didn’t follow Maiden much after the 1980’s, but recently they returned strongly to my radar with their excellent new album, Book of Souls.
While it was the 1983 album War by which U2 first grabbed my attention, it was a live album released later that year – Under a Blood Red Sky – which cemented my fandom. This is one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard, capturing the band at their intense best. Even better, it was also captured on video, and clips appeared MTV enough that even in the limited opportunities to watch, I saw a number of them. I still listen to this album on occasion, and every once in a while search YouTube for a clip of the concert.
For 1984, one new album that slipped under many radars was Rodger Hodgson’s In The Eye of the Storm. His first solo effort after leaving Supertramp was a good one, and makes one wonder what would have transpired had he remained with his former band. In many ways, it sounded like a Supertramp album anyway, and it’s illustrative of the outsized influence he had in that band.
One of the most memorable albums for your truly came in late 1985, Once Upon a Time from Simple Minds. They had started making noise in the U.S. earlier that year with their hit from The Breakfast Club soundtrack, Don’t You (Forget About Me). I liked the song, but hearing it on the radio was enough. On the other hand, after hearing a few songs from Once Upon a Time, I had to get this album. This album exemplifies the phrase “lush melodies.” It is simply fantastic from start to finish, every note is pitch perfect. It was in heavy rotation in the spring of 1986, as my boat made a home port change from Norfolk, VA (ugh), to Pearl Harbor, HI (oh yeah). As such, it never fails to bring back fond memories of those first few months in Hawaii. If you see me with an irrepressible smile while listening to this album, now you know why.
Another one of my favorite 1985 albums was by a band that no longer exists and didn’t make much of a dent in the universe – Lone Justice. The star attraction for these guys was lead singer Maria McKee. In addition to being quite nice to look at, McKee had an incredible voice and was a stellar vocalist. Their style was described as “cowpunk”, having some twangy country influences with an 80’s flair. This band didn’t last long, they only released two albums before disintegrating. I’ve always felt they were just a little ahead of their time. With the emergence of the alt-country movement and slight resurgence of southern rock in the 1990’s (most notably from Son Volt and the Drive-By Truckers), I think they would have fit that scene rather well. McKee did go on to have a moderately successful solo career. And notably, she wrote and sang what was by far the best song from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
An honorable mention from 1985 was John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow. I’m a bit “meh” on most of his stuff. This particular album, though, had a lot of well written songs.
I purchased my first REM album in 1986, Life’s Rich Pageant. To this day, it remains my favorite work of theirs. I bought albums both preceding and following this effort, and have liked many of them at the time. But, like Brad, they didn’t stick with me, and I began to tire of Michael Stipe’s impenetrable, pretentious lyrics which either seemed to have no discernable meaning or were too clever by half. While this scene from the movie Walk Hard was lampooning Bob Dylan, it was Michael Stipe of whom I thought when I heard these hilariously pretentious (and meaningless) lyrics. Stuffed cabbage is the darling of the laundromat, indeed.
The year 1987 saw two significant releases that helped define my 1980’s. One of those was Electric, by The Cult, the other being Appetite for Destruction, by Guns N’ Roses. When I think of the prevailing musical trends of the 1980’s up until that time, I think of adjectives such as “dimensionally sparse” (to use Tony Kaye’s words). Much of it was highly melodic, but little of it had that wall of sound quality. To use a food analogy, much of popular music of the 1980’s was like a fine meal in a five-star French restaurant – gorgeous presentation and delightfully tasteful … but maybe it left you a bit hungry. In contrast, the raw, heavy, hard rock guitars of Electric and Appetite for Destruction were pure red meat, a sizzling 20 oz. ribeye. Electric has certainly aged better with me than Appetite, as has The Cult over Guns N’ Roses. The latter gave us not much more than an extremely dark nihilism, and the non-musical headlines made by meathead Axl Rose became tiresome very quickly. Still, they have a few entries on my iPhone, in particular within a playlist appropriately entitled Nietzsche’s Nihilism. The music of The Cult has, in my opinion, stood up much better to the test of time. And to round out the 1980’s they finished strongly with 1989’s Sonic Temple, which spent the better part of the 1990’s in heavy rotation for me.
The return of harder (non-metal) rock was also confirmed that year as Aerosmith returned to prominence with Permanent Vacation. A better part of the decade had been spent in the wilderness, due in part to the shifting lineups with the departure of guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, and their eventual return. Add to that the continued proclivities of The Toxic Twins, Perry and Steven Tyler, and a an eventual band-wide stint in rehab. At the end, they came out of it pretty well, as Permanent Vacation was a pretty good album.
1988? I mention Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden below, but I missed it at the time. For the rest of that year, there wasn’t much that grabbed my attention. Maybe it’s because my focus was elsewhere knowing of the impending transition back to civilian life. But when I look through the releases that year … there just isn’t much that jumps out at me. I did enjoy several songs off Copperhead Road by Southern/country rocker Steve Earle. I somewhat liked Living Colour’s debut album, Vivid (they would put on a great show the next year, opening up for the Rolling Stones in Raleigh, NC). And I thought Robert Plant’s Now and Zen was decent, although there are better albums in his solo catalog. The Smithereen’s Green Thoughts was a decent enough album, and it was in semi-heavy rotation in my car’s cassette player as I drove across the country in the fall of that year after separating from the Navy. But overall, I struggle to remember much about that year in a musical sense.
The final year of the 1980’s found me readjusting to civilian life and starting college. The previously mentioned Sonic Temple by The Cult was a favorite of mine that year. Trevor Rabin’s solo effort, Can’t Look Away was another one of my favorites of 1989.
Of course, I cannot mention the 1980’s without mentioning the prog of that decade, both what I heard and what I missed. For the latter, I missed the entire neo-prog movement which occurred on the other side of the Atlantic and which received little exposure in the U.S. It would be in the late 1990’s and the release of Edward Macan’s Rocking The Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture before I started catching up in earnest – beginning with Fish-era Marillion. I really missed the boat on Talk Talk’s latter day masterpiece, Spirit of Eden. I was on deployment in the Western Pacific when that album came out, and mentally getting prepared for my post-Navy life. And besides, to me (at that time), Talk Talk was just a synth-pop band, and thus I would have dismissed the album without a listen had I known of its release. It would not be until our current decade that I realized how utterly wrong my judgment was.
On the other hand, I missed no Rush release during the decade, snapping up every one of them at the first opportunity. I was also lucky enough to see my second Rush concert on the Grace Under Pressure Tour, in Hampton, Virginia. I was elated in the late summer of 1983, when in a barracks rec room in San Diego I read that Yes was coming back with a new album. And despite a significant change in musical direction, I was thrilled with 90125 when my eager ears finally got their first (of many) listens. I wasn’t as keen on Big Generator, but was pleasantly surprised with Jethro Tull’s Crest of a Knave which was released in the same year. And while Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason wasn’t as good as their classic 70’s output, it was still pretty good nonetheless. Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe put out a decent album in 1989, which later led to the Union album (which underwhelmed), but also to the Union Tour (which was incredible). The eponymous Emerson, Lake and Powell from 1986 wasn’t half bad, and I loved their interpretation of Holst’s Mars, The Bringer of War.
Among the other artists that made headlines during the decade were Van Halen, who ceased to be interesting to me when they became Van Hagar. Sammy Hagar produced some decent pop rock on his own during the early part of the decade, but his union with Van Halen was a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. Bruce Springsteen shot to superstardom during the 1980’s, but never did much for me. I never really bought his over-emoting when he sang, it just seemed too forced. Metallica emerged, but to this day I have never really “got” them. One star I was thankful to miss during the 80’s was Madonna, who spent the decade (and subsequent ones) setting a bad example for young girls everywhere.
Obviously, Brad’s list of 1980’s music is quite different from my own. I’m wondering how much different mine would have been had I not taken a huge detour on the way to college. I probably would have delved more into some of those acts, to be sure, if not as deeply as he did. There is one other factor – the prog factor. The 1970’s had less than six months left when the switch was flipped to activate the prog gene in my DNA. Thus, I spent a lot of time catching up, often times listening to stuff that was popular 10 years earlier. And as the decade ended, I was lamenting the fact that prog appeared almost, if not completely dead, as this was (and remains) my favorite of all types of music. Little did I know that the prog flame hadn’t quite died out. Within a few short years, a project by the U.S. Dept. of Defense, ARPANet, would be made available for public access and become known as the internet. Although not obvious at the time, this provided much needed fuel for the prog movement. And the rest, they say, is history.