sputnikA 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

26 thoughts on “THE 30-YEAR ITCH

  1. Remarkable post, if only because you managed to cram two grammatical howlers into the last 10 words – quite a challenge fitting a sentence-ending preposition and a split-infinitive into so few words – my inner pedant will sleep easily tonight. (I’m not a pedant really, but an open-goal’s just too tempting sometimes).

    I was far too old to ‘get’ any of the unremarkable 80s music but, whenever I hear any of it, I’m not sure I’d have ‘got’ it even if I’d been 20 years younger at the time. Filling a CD with quality must be quite a challenge – I hope your pal appreciates the taste-sacrifices you made to compile it.

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    1. I have altered the last sentence since reading your observation and do hope my marks improve as a consequence! Stopped paying attention at school around 13 and no university to follow. A broken home too…


  2. I get your drift – but there were diamonds in the shit – albums by New Order, Love and Rockets, Paul Simon, Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, Cocteau Twins, Public Image – and Camper Van Beethoven (I like the name….) (and actually have their music).

    Sidenote. I saw Pop Will Eat Itself at the I-Beam on Haight Street in San Francisco. 1988? 89? I had such a good time – it was a great gig – I broke both my arms. Long story. Don’t ask. Just funny. I still play their stuff now.

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      1. I suspect she’d prefer the precision of a guided or heat-seeking missile to the indiscriminate destruction power of a cannon – but I won’t risk asking, I’ve never let her know that 12″ is an available option, so let’s please keep that between us chaps.

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  3. Isn’t it a bit naff to give someone a present of the pop music that was in vogue in the year when the recipient was born? Speaking for my baby-boomer self I have absolutley no interest in early-1950s crooner-type music. What counts is the music from my adolescent and teenage years, the Sixties, by when I had come to appreciate pop music of the day.


  4. Hardly any of the names you mention meant anything to me. (That might be explained by the fact that in 1986 I was living in Sudan, which wasn’t exactly a happening pop scene.) But the 60s I can relate to!

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  5. “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.”

    It seems extraordinary that house music was in the charts that far back, but yes you’re right. Another one of that vintage (1987 in this case) was House under Arrest by Krush.

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  6. No mind you, not everything from the notorious ‘SAW’ label was tragically bland, this slice of British soul stacks up pretty well 30 years later I think:

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  7. If we are going there… I saw this young man perform a free gig in Venice during Mardi Gras in 1987…. let’s scrape a barrel (the gig was fun, actually… I had met a girl while we were both staying in a hostel and we went to this gig together… she came out to me as gay….weird, that).

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  8. 1956, 1966, 1976 were all years when the music underwent sesmic changes. We expected the same in 1986. Did it happen? Well- it was the start of the era of one-hit wonders and where the producer became more famous than the artistes- who were reduced to just being the image on the baked bean tin that was the Product. It was also the start of the self produced songs- music made and recorded in your bedroom. Anyone with the kit could make a record- and that was as revolutionary as the skiffle boom of the mid 50s. I sound like the big band fan who couldn’t see anything musical in skiffle. It’s OK but it’ll never replace music!

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  9. “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.”

    A bit harsh perhaps, The Sister of Mercy looked like a proper rock band, particularly the line-up with Patricia Morrison:


    1. I remember when I saw Prince at Wembley Arena in 1988. Patricia Morrison was stood outside after the gig as though she was waiting for a taxi. She hadn’t been recruited to the Sisters line-up in 1986; the band were still living in the shadows of the recently-departed Wayne Hussey, and while they looked quite cool, the music didn’t especially excite me, to be honest.


  10. You’re surely not forgetting Spitting Image’s Chicken Song?

    I’m not sure I agree that Sting, U2 and Dire straits kicked their careers back into touch with Live Aid: Dire Straits had dominated the 1986 album charts with Brothers in Arms and (conveniently) were already playing five sold-out nights at Wembley Arena. No, the act of 1986 and runner-up to Queen for best Live Aid performance was Madonna: three British chart toppers from True Blue.


    1. I’ve done my best to forget ‘The Chicken Song’ for the last 30 years! I agree the trio of stadium rockers mentioned already had successful track records, but their approach to pop became the dominant trend in the immediate aftermath of Live Aid, rather than the ‘Second British Invasion’ acts that had ruled the roost up to that point.


      1. Perhaps not Sting or Dire Straits, but I think that it is more or less correct that The U2 resurrected their faltering career on the basis of ‘that’ performance.

        The Unforgettable Fire which at that point was their most recent work was quite an esoteric album and a brave one to release at that point in their career (thanks to Eno). Most of the other tracks on it are not stadium rock Dire Straits/Queen style tracks at all, far from it.

        Bono apparently in the immediate aftermath of Live Aid was not happy with his antics during Live Aid. He felt he’d made an ass of himself and his band.

        Allegedly he then went on a holiday to de-compress in Ireland, and got into the trad scene for a while. The single he recorded with Clannad – “In a Lifetime” – was the creative result of that. Personally, I think it stacks up pretty well:


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