To many, the 1980’s are a nostalgic trip of dodgy clothes and bubblegum music. But as a music decade, it had much more to offer with political and social messages being delivered by real musicians who cut their teeth in the British post punk environment of 1981. Ken Sweeney reprises one of the most important years in popular music and the impact it delivered.

For the last few years we’ve sat in sun baked fields, dressed in silly clothes, reminiscing about times we really don’t remember and listening to songs that our older brothers and sisters actually claim ownership to. That is the modern interpretation of 1980s music: a pick and mix of Stock, Aitken and Waterman and the odd rock anthem, intertwined with an early synth tune from the dressed up dandies of glamour bands. But to pack a decade into a bubblegum homage of fads, silly frocks and overdressed songs is a serious underestimation of a decade that for a brief few years revolutionised pop music by allowing the artists to take control and set new standards that shocked and excited the public. There is debate as to when this exciting era of music started: some say 1978, others 1980, but for me it was 1981 and it started in working class Britain.

Deflated punk

Punk wasn’t the revolution that many thought it was. While it most definitely did bring about fundamental change in the music industry in Europe and the US, by the end of 1978 it had burnt itself out. This was mainly due to the fact that its manifesto was unsustainable. Based on a concept of do-it-yourself, the wheels came off the truck pretty fast, because those involved realised fairly quickly that they couldn’t do it themselves without the help of the big players, mainly the record companies and the radio stations. Mavericks like the Sex Pistols imploded almost immediately, because they were never going to play any sort of game within the system that already existed, and given that there was no alternative setup, they had nowhere to go. Once the group members realised their dream of domination was over, they resorted back to the normal roles of separate bands and record contacts. In particular, Johnny Rotten, the lead singer of the Pistols, was now going by his real name, Lydon, and fronting his experimental act Public Image by signing up with Virgin Records.

Public Image Ltd - Public Image Ltd (1978)

So by 1979 punk was all mainstream, packed to the breaches with young but repetitive acts that were going with the familiar formula set out by the original trailblazers, such as The Dammed, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Adam and the Ants, but softened up by the record executives, afraid of upsetting the TV and radio establishment. As for the aforementioned bands, after numerous line-up changes, they became mainstream acts themselves, even appearing on daytime kids shows such as UK’s Tiswas and the once hated Top of the Pops. But this was not really a crisis for many of them, because they realised long before that they were never going to be able to sustain their momentum, and best practice was to achieve a happy medium, so by the end of the decade their place in pop was there with middle chart success and average crowds in venues across Europe. Punk survived by evolving into Post Punk, or New Wave, as it was coined to keep some respectability.

The music press, some of which absolutely abhorred the ‘trash’ that invaded their once happy world of Prog and Glam rock, was now willing to take the new class under their wing and generate a new form of pop. Teen Titans who would be fierce and angry, but still have teeny bop appeal. They, the survivors of punk, were going to be the new flag bearers of pop, sent on their way to good ol’ US of A, packed with new tracks of fun, and ready to stir the hearts of young girls in places like New York and Los Angeles. They would look angry, but their sting would be all gone by now. Muted hornets on Concorde every week.

But back in Old Blighty a second wave of up and coming acts had found themselves and it felt good.

Switched on, tuned in

By 1981 Britain was in a place of disruptive gloom, temporally filled in with occasional bright moments of nostalgic TV shows in Coronation Street and tabloid gossip. For the young blood there was hardly anything to pass their days apart from the odd TV show in the afternoon, football on the streets, or a bunch of comics that originated in the 1950s. Music was still the pied piper of youth; ever drawing them away from the drama of family life, poor education and no job prospects and into a world of possibilities – stardom, rock and roll excess and devil may care excitement. While the mums and dads watched the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in the summer sun of St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the suburban areas of the big cities across Britain youth was looking at alternatives to punk – and it involved plugging in a synthesiser. Bands like Joy Division in Manchester, The Human League in Sheffield, and Depeche Mode in Basildon terrorised neighbourhoods with their nightmare sounds and near death experience lyrics as they rehearsed long into the night. They had listened to the first wave of electro-gods: Gary Numan and his cohorts in the TubeWay Army, DEVO and Kraftwerk – all armed with certain degrees of success, but now considered old news in the warp speed of school yard arguments over who the kings are. Of course, all of these acts, and many more, still had more time to come, but in the world of cocky schoolboys, they were ancient history. Still, while it was this arrogance that was a benefactor and a burden at the same time, the balance was something that drove these players in the game of modern pop and enabled them to educate themselves in ways that had never been seen before. They used the punk formula of doing it yourself and took it further. Instead of rejecting education as their previous punk disciples did, they embraced it, ending up in art schools, studying history, politics, or more challenging subjects, such as psychology, with the end results turning up in their lyrics, concept art on albums, or even manifestos on long term projects. They sat side by side watching TV with their older brothers and sisters, who had been armed by the Labour and union movements that were fighting against the established Tory government. The young had earned an education in the dark arts of life, politics and love, and now those experiences found their way into the lyrics of their songs, becoming future classics, still quoted today.

Depeche Mode - New Life (1981)

At the beginning of the 80s, cities across the UK were buzzing with bands and individuals who had not only taken the best parts of punk and mixed them with their new found approach to seeking more, but also wanted to portray it within their music and imagery. The music itself was vibrant, mixed and taking inspiration from the past as all good projects should. It embraced the sounds of the previous decade in disco, reggae, funk, punk and electronic – not in a retro sense like the mostly false soundings we are exposed to today, but rather as part of an original set of patterns and styles that melded together to form a raw, but rich vibe that circulated across the airways and quickly became mainstream pop music – intelligent and confident.

Wide boys and heroes

There are so many acts to document and all with degrees of success, which you could say are subject to scrutiny, but some just stood out in 1981 because they had either launched themselves or had released something so significant that year that it completely kick started a new musical scene. I could cut a list of hundreds – all equally qualified to be worth a mention here, so forgive me if I am showing some favouritism, but in my defence, I tried to maintain a bit of balance in terms of geography and style, though it is difficult.

The acts of London led the way in an audio and visual tidal wave: acts which stood out like Spandau Ballet – five young guys who were lost in salsa, funk and pirate punk; Animal Nightlife – a mix of soul and after dawn jazz, and the crown prince of the London scene Steve Strange and his super group Visage – a combo of ultra-electro dance, fuelled by Ultravox’s Midge Ure with his unique song writing, and now on the crest of a wave of dance floor anthems, were leading the way in music that was both intelligent and desirable.

Spandau Ballet - To Cut A Long Story Short (1981)

Indeed, under the tutorship of Ure, once on the verge of implosion, Ultravox was now totally revitalised, having recently released the album ‘Vienna’ and the single of the same name which famously got to number two, having been headed off at the pass by a joke song called ‘Shaddap You Face’. Despite this hiccup, Ultravox would go to have string of top twenty hits for over a decade, and set the pace as the ultimate ‘Boy’s Own’ act of the 1980s.

Ultravox - Vienna (1981)

The four piece Depeche Mode hurt the big labels like no other act could in 1981, when they stole chart success via the independent record label, Mute Records. Emerging with their first major release ‘Speak and Spell’, they hit gold with the bubble gum pop tune, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, before taking a long road into dark foreboding synth rock following the departure of their lead songwriter, Vince Clarke at the end of the same year. Depeche Mode never looked back despite fears that they would implode, and today continue to be one of the most influential acts in modern music. Move north in 1981, and it was the same quality. Sheffield gave us a reimagined Human League, now fronted by its lead singer Phil Oakley, armed with two local girls and producing the album ‘Dare’, probably the most important pop album of the entire decade. Oakley had been left high and dry by the other two members of the Human League, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware, who had teamed up with Glenn Gregory, the tall blonde front man with a smile of the Cheshire cat and the voice of a soul star. Heaven 17 would go to have great success in later years, but they secured their place in the field in 81.

The Human League - The Sound Of The Crowd (1981)

Birmingham had one prominent act, but what an act to account for. They may be dammed for eternity as teeny bop band, but despite the public image Duran Duran set out on the path to pop with a confidence and intelligent plan that would put modern acts to shame. Never has there been a band who thoroughly understood what they wanted more than Duran Duran and their music was a total reflection of their influences. They had the absolute knack of tapping into the opposite sides of music inspirations in the form of soul and punk, and blending it together to create forever classics that have long outlived the fads that they were associated with. 1981 was the year we first saw the five guys from Birmingham in our lives with their self-titled album ‘Duran Duran’. The images and sounds of that album were the first in a long line of stylised pinpoints in the path of an act that would go on to match the Beatles for sheer success – and the significance of it was that they did by themselves, and continue to do so today.

Manchester was always going to have some say in a wave of new thought on pop, and, as suspected, it would do it with an outcome both shocking and defining. With Joy Division, intelligent pop had a set of heroes who championed the world that many of their fellow listeners lived in. They saw the unemployment, the hardship, the health problems and lack of social development, but unlike many other counterparts, they didn’t hide behind glamour. In vocalist Ian Curtis, Joy Division had its hero, but he was a man in pain and under the darkness of the images that he wrote and sang about. Ian’s depression impacted severely, and on 18 May 1980, he took his life. Devastated, in 1981 the remaining members, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Steven Morris re-formed as New Order, with Sumner on vocals, and went on to become one of the most prominent electronic acts of the 1980s, with their classic track ‘Blue Monday’.

New Order - Ceremony (1981)

Glasgow had Simple Minds, who, although had emerged from the punk embryo in 1977, by 1981 had become a truly international sounding act, influenced by the sounds of Euro disco and funk, while managing to blend it together with the stylised hard back line that its drummer Brian McGee and bass player Derek Forbes had developed during the early years of their work. By 1981 Simple Minds had metamorphosed into a new form of sound which had become a modern hi-fi wave that could only be best appreciated with the use of headphones or massive live sound systems. Simple Minds’ 1981 albums, ‘Sons and Fascination’ and ‘Sister Feelings Call’ were staging posts in sound to later releases that would gain more mainstream success, but reveal less clarity and pure quality of their earlier work.

A special mention has to go to a band that was formed in a living room in London in 1974 as a glam rock act, but would go on to set a musical and style standard that would be fleeting yet highly influential. Japan, the brainchild of five young guys from Catford, South London, emerged from the 1970’s with a timeless album ‘Quiet Life’ and its title single of the same name. Produced by the backroom team behind Roxy Music, Japan went from being a New York Dolls impersonation act to becoming leaders in New Wave. Two albums followed: firstly in the form of the rich sounding ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, and then culminating in the outstanding ‘Tin Drum’ which was to be their last studio album before lead singer David Sylvian decided to call time and head off into the world of ambient alternative rock and folk music. While the Polaroid album was a logical step from ‘Quiet Life’, ‘Tin Drum’ was a leap into an uncharted music soundscape. Heavily influenced by Asian melody and rhythm, ‘Tin Drum’, with tracks like the dizzy ‘Art of Parties’, and the eerie but invasive ‘Ghosts’, set up Japan as potentially the band of the decade, but, alas, it wasn’t to be.

Japan - Ghosts (1981)

Art and style steps in

It wasn’t just music that evolved from such an energetic wave. The imagery that was connected through the album and singles covers was just as significant as were those behind the designs and creation. One person who was a design giant at this moment was a young man originally from Northwich in England, but who would eventually find himself in Manchester and who would go on to be a designer of iconic album covers for the next two decades. Malcolm Garrett had started out working with local bands in Manchester by the late 1970s, most notably the Buzzcocks, but it was with acts like Simple Minds and Duran Duran via his own company Assorted iMaGes, that he became almost as famous as those he worked with. Garrett captured the essence of the time by blending in geometrical shapes and sharp colour scopes and encompassing new wave thinking on fonts and logos. He preferred to use the name of the band as the main point of interest in the presentation rather than any major photos or icons. The result was the ultimate snapshot of 1981. The Trinitron of colour, pre-HD, but still packing a visual impact.

Garrett was the packaging, but when it came to photography, Fin Costello shot through the lens of the 1981. He saw the new decade as pursuant dreamscape of glamour, bathed in soft tones of lush colour and grey. Irishman Costello had a knack for capturing movements of his subjects and the results were classics. Acts like Japan and Duran Duran were caught in a timeless shot of his style.

1981 was the kick start of a new form of artistic energy that would spread across the world, influencing others and changing how pop music was portrayed. They had guts, style and a sense of nonchalance which worked positively and without an intolerable amount of arrogance. As a result by the end of the decade the door was open for further self-starting movements in rave and Brit pop. Both dominated the 1990s and could arguably have never arisen, had it not been for the previous decades’ pioneers.

The empire strikes back

But by 1988, bad seeds were creeping into pop music and they continue to dominate the mainstream today. SAW, or Stock, Aitken and Waterman, influenced by 70s disco, and tapping into the high energy gloss of the emerging gay scene in the UK, began to portray themselves as hit makers and pop music moguls – that dreaded term that takes the individuality away from the acts, and puts it firmly in the hands of people who pull the strings from the side of the stage. SAW set the path for the likes of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh, who both started out in A&R management, but ended up adopting the titles of pop kings, determining the fate of young hopefuls who were willing to take a one-way ticket to instant but fleeting stardom. They shine brightly for a short time, impersonating previous incarnations of last year’s hero and never gaining anything like the fame and success of their mentors. It is this recurring scenario, fuelled by big hit TV shows like the X-Factor that has almost destroyed pop music. They reduced pop music to nothing more than a music version of a McDonald’s happy meal when it once boasted the quality of a Harrods lunch.

But despite the current music malaise, we still have a wonderful and rich catalogue of sounds and vision from one of the most vibrant periods in modern music. Yes, many of us continue to end up in those summer fields at nostalgic festivals, but as a positive, we see many of the acts from that time still playing live, still showing off and still producing fresh new music for their eternal fandoms.

Will we see the acts of today do the same as the kids from 81 in forty years’ time? My advice is not to bet on it. 

Ken Sweeney
Committed to idea of supporting aspiring writers and journalists. Serial podcaster.

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