One more untimely death came last week, albeit one that rather slipped under the mainstream radar – that of 53-year-old Colin Vearncombe, who used the stage-name Black; best remembered for his 1987 international hit, ‘Wonderful Life’, Vearncombe was one of many 1980s musicians who had cut their musical teeth via the DIY ethic of Punk, yet eschewed a three-chord straitjacket to embrace an eclectic (and occasionally esoteric) potpourri of sounds. At the beginning of the 80s, a generation emerged that blended the visceral energy of Punk with an appreciation of classic melodious pop and an appetite for experimentation.
Enduring characters such as Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch, Billy MacKenzie, Kevin Rowland, Robert Smith, Roddy Frame, Edwyn Collins and Morrissey were promoted as an alternative to the synthesizer-based New Pop that rose to chart prominence in 1981/82, yet were all part of the same fresh wave of talent that characterised the opening three or four years of the decade. Nobody can deny that the likes of The Human League or Depeche Mode were just as adept at producing pop the milkman could whistle as their guitar-slinging opponents; they merely utilised hi-tech technology as the vehicle for their melodies and found themselves becoming part of the ‘Top of the Pops’ wallpaper in the process.
Although heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, Bowie and Roxy Music, the Synth Pop acts were very much in the here and now in terms of sound and vision, whereas the guitar alternative favoured floppy-haired 60s chic and the jangly aural trademark of The Byrds. At the same time, that in itself is a too-neat summary of their differences.
Both strands of early 80s pop shared a yearning to boldly go where no pop stars had gone before – if top 10 records as contrasting in style as ‘Ghosts’ by Japan, ‘Reward’ by The Teardrop Explodes, ‘Party Fears Two’ by The Associates, ‘Torch’ by Soft Cell, ‘The Cutter’ by Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘Living on The Ceiling’ by Blancmange, ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ by Adam and the Ants, ‘Rip it Up’ by Orange Juice, ‘Mad World’ by Tears for Fears and ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners had anything in common, it was their determined aim to sound unlike anything that had preceded them and to sound unlike anything else alongside them in the charts. In this, they succeeded. They may have had one eye on their formative influences, but the other was firmly looking forward.
The refreshing willingness of this generation to follow their adventurous instincts could lead to an album as strange and original as ‘Sulk’ by The Associates or one as grandiosely romantic as ‘The Lexicon of Love’ by ABC; it could produce a hit single as bizarre as ‘John Wayne is Big Leggy’ by Haysi Fantayzee or a pop star as weird and wonderful as Boy George.
During this creatively fruitful era, ‘Smash Hits’ was as important to the moment as the NME had been to the moment of ten years earlier; glossy, colourful and yet simultaneously possessing a richness of witty, incisive writing, the fortnightly magazine launched in 1978 is retrospectively branded as an archetypal all style/no substance product of the so-called shallow 80s, but it was a good as anything promoting music on the newsstands in 1981-84 and forced the old ‘inkies’ to reluctantly up their game when their circulations began to plummet.
When the most commercially ambitious representatives of the crop found their innovative utilisation of the promo video gained them a foothold in America thanks to the arrival of MTV, the Second British Invasion of the USA was underway, resulting in a now-unimaginable situation such as that which occurred one week in 1983 when 20 of the Billboard top 40 singles were by British acts, including 7 of the top 10; this even exceeded the American chart domination by British acts in the mid-60s. The impact of UK pop upon US culture wasn’t lost on a trio of American artists who were busily taking notes – Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson – all of whom capitalised on the craze and sold a few coals to Newcastle as they did so.
Ironically, it was this generation’s eagerness to keep up with technology that would prove to be their undoing; the clunky samples on mid-80s hits such as ‘Wood Beez’ by Scritti Politti and ‘A View to a Kill’ by Duran Duran reflect the move away from melody-based fare which was then prevalent in early Hip Hop. Within a couple of years, one isolated vocal lifted from an old soul record, trimmed down to a solitary sampled phrase and repeated over and over again would be enough to pass for melody when welded to an electronic beat; equally, the backlash behemoth of stadium rock, either from the likes of U2 or the American Glam Metal bands, left pure pop in the hands of production team Stock, Aitken & Waterman and their interchangeable boys and girls next-door. Mainstream melody had been reduced to the level of nursery rhymes and synths had been reduced to the level of deliberately monotonous repetition
Don’t get me wrong; I certainly enjoyed the Rave scene when it happened and even that eventually spawned some radically energetic chart-toppers from The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers; but as I look back now on the first half of the 80s, currently sprouting anew on BBC4’s rerun through 1981 ‘Top of the Pops’, I can see (and hear) how variety really was the spice of life and nobody sounded like anyone else. These were pop stars on their own terms, bereft of stylists and Svengalis and allergic to the crassness of the TV talent show; their genesis in the shadow of Punk instilled a passion for taking risks and rejecting the kind of uniform careerism that now passes for pop. We didn’t know how lucky we were.
© The Editor