A friend of mine celebrated his 30th birthday this week. Stuck for what to give him, I opted for compiling a CD of the best music to have been released during the year of his birth. But this was no easy task; as someone who was there (18 at the time), I remember 1986 as the lowest musical ebb of the entire 80s. My eighteenth year was an immense disappointment; just as I was expecting to participate in the Next Big Thing – the next Psychedelia or Punk – I was confronted by a scene that seemed to be on its last legs. The Bright Young Things that had illuminated the pop landscape of the early 80s had utterly run out of steam.
Boy George was in the depths of heroin addiction; Duran Duran had been stripped down to a threesome and appeared to have lost their mojo in the process; The Human League had sold their soul to the soulless Jam & Lewis production line in the US; Tears for Fears, like The Eurythmics, had swamped their synths in thundering drums that reflected their American popularity and rendered their sound indistinguishable from the likes of Pat Benatar; The Style Council still had the attitude, but the good tunes that had always been Paul Weller’s secret weapon had dried up; Dexys Midnight Runners’ eagerly-awaited comeback album ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ (released in the autumn of ’85) had bombed; George Michael had swapped his exuberant brand of pop for the pompous persona of a ‘serious artist’; Spandau Ballet had similarly attempted to ‘grow up’ with songs supposedly about Northern Ireland, but failed to convince; and others who had once seemed destined for lengthy careers such as Adam Ant, Toyah, ABC and Nick Heyward couldn’t get arrested.
The year that followed the game-changer that was Live Aid presented those who had been the big guns of the decade’s first half with something of a dilemma. Their raison d’être was the antithesis of the ‘message’ in pop, and suddenly acts whose tongues had never ventured in the direction of their cheeks, such as Sting, Dire Straits and U2, were selling bucket-loads of albums on the back of their performances at 1985’s Wembley showcase. Short-lived teen idols like King, Then Jericho and A-ha occupied the void for a while, but they were recycling a style of pop that now sounded stale and worn-out. Only Prince and Madonna were making pop music that sparkled with individual personality, even if the latter’s records were lapsing into formula as the brand seemed increasingly more important than the product.
With the album charts boosted by the newfangled CD and the wine-bar MOR Muzak it seemed especially suited for, the singles charts lacked focus and imagination. One alternative was the Goth subculture, but its chronic lack of humour seemed curious for a genre that specialised in the ridiculous, and its key acts like The Cult and The Sisters of Mercy offered little but archaic rock clichés. The music press desperately searched for something and grouped together a series of unrelated young bands under the C86 banner, but none bar Fuzzbox and Pop Will Eat Itself made any chart impact, and both much later than 1986 at that.
Some of the best hits of 1986 were one-off reminders of what pop could still offer – ‘E=mc²’ by Big Audio Dynamite, ‘Life’s what you Make it’ by Talk Talk, ‘Word Up’ by Cameo – but everyone seemed to be waiting for something to come along that would shake things up ala Punk Rock, vainly hoping for any remote Sex Pistols resemblance in a band like The Jesus and Mary Chain. They were looking in the wrong place.
The Smiths remained the outsiders’ choice, releasing one of ‘86’s seminal singles in ‘Panic’ as well as their most critically-acclaimed album, ‘The Queen is Dead’; but the No.1 hits never materialised as the gap between rock and pop continued to widen. Ten years later, Blur and Oasis could sit at the pinnacle of both singles and album charts, but such a feat was unimaginable in 1986 for a band like The Smiths. What was needed was an act to come along who could unite the great divide and scare mum and dad in the process. What we pop kids got was Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
When compiling the CD that was intended to assemble 1986’s major musical moments onto one piece of plastic, I reacquainted myself with ‘Love Missile F1-11’, the debut single by the Sputniks, and their only proper hit. Produced by none other than Giorgio Moroder and laden with clumsy samples from movies like ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘Terminator’, it sounds incredibly tinny by today’s production standards – an ancient Eddie Cochran riff played on a synth, interspersed with the occasional axe ejaculation. It wasn’t exactly ‘Anarchy in the UK’, though the hype that accompanied its release suggested otherwise. An NME front cover of the time featured Sputnik frontman Martin Degville with the tagline ‘Would you pay £1 million for this crap?’ – a reference to the amount EMI had allegedly signed the band for. The Sputniks had a lot to prove, but they were incapable of doing so because they were no more ‘real’ than The Monkees had been twenty years previously.
The only two members of Sigue Sigue Sputnik who anyone can remember are Degville and guitarist Tony James; neither were exactly hungry teenagers. James had been a member of pop-punksters Generation X, alongside Billy Idol, whereas Degville had been part of Boy George’s Blitz Kid circle back in the New Romantic era. Their embrace of that period’s visual excesses was the last glorious hurrah of mainstream pop stars as peacocks, and it all seemed a bit gimmicky even next to the rest of 1986’s sartorial mishaps; but then the whole enterprise was based on gimmickry and hyperbole sourced from the Malcolm McLaren manual, a cartoon band designed to shock without the tunes to support the shock factor. Music almost seemed secondary to the event, but few could get away with that for long in 1986.
By the end of the year, the bigging-up of Sigue Sigue Sputnik as the future of rock ‘n’ roll already felt like a bad joke; but it was the last time such an audacious scam was hatched by those that promoted it in person. The production team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman were beginning to make inroads into the charts by cherry picking boys and girls-next-door whose contributions to the factory format were minimal in comparison to the clout that the three-headed duo at the mixing desk carried. The dull ordinariness of the S/A/W stable was crucial to its success; ‘image’, the byword for 80s pop for so long, was out. The commercial breakthrough of Run DMC via their collaboration with veteran US hard rockers Aerosmith reset the style template; the future would be clad in sportswear and sneakers.
A further blow to the pop star as outré alien came with the underground dance scene, which broke over-ground at the back-end of 1986 with Farley Jackmaster Funk’s ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’, the first acknowledged House hit. House and Techno reduced the concept of The Star to an all-time low; with their often sampled vocals, the records that constituted the chart dominance of Dance as the 80s drew to a close were largely the work of DJs, remixers and producers who revelled in their anonymity; and the audience weren’t bothered as long as they could dance to them.
1986, then – a crossroads between where we were and where we are; not a vintage year by any stretch of the imagination, and not one I’m in a great hurry to revisit again; but equally, a year it was undoubtedly fascinating to view from the kind of distance that enables its long-term consequences to be discerned.
© The Editor