A recent 80s-centric post got me on a bit of an 80s kick, and in listening to a bunch of that music I noticed a pervasive theme that had previously escaped me: a general sense of things not connecting, getting lost, breaking down (interesting that this ran side-by-side with the shiny sense of newness reflected in the previous post). A lot of songs express this in the form of transportation metaphors: cars crashing, planes not arriving, and so on.
Hence, this podcasty nugget of transmissions from the Golden Olden Days. Most of the artists represented here are English, I’m not sure why. Perhaps because their national decay was slightly more advanced than ours at the time; where things stand in 2010, I don’t feel qualified to say.
To lighten things up a bit I’ve included a couple of clips from the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Though not a career highlight for anyone involved, this 1987 John Hughes film fits the theme and has a phenomenal cast, including Steve Martin, John Candy, Michael McKean, Ben Stein, and the chronically undervalued Edie McClurg. If nothing else, it connected all these people to Kevin Bacon, who has a cameo as the guy who steals Steve’s cab.
Playlist and notes after the jump.
Intro: Weather in Chicago > Ben Stein
1. Lost Planes > The Fixx: The Fixx tend to get short shrift, in part because of the stupid name, and in part because they were fixtures on early-era MTV, peddling a very 80s sound with very 80s hair. Still, they wrote a bunch of great songs and don’t deserve to get lumped in with one-hit rejects like Kajagoogoo and Re-Flex. Exhibit A: “Lost Planes,” a nice combination of rippling surface and underlying anxiety.
2. Night Train > Visage: Visage was quite literally a vanity project built around Steve Strange, who had previously been known as the promoter of an ultra-exclusive London nightclub, not a musician. Nonetheless Visage, which featured members of Ultravox and Magazine, made a couple of very good albums and had one huge hit. This is not it.
3. All Roads Lead to Rome > The Stranglers: One of the true sui generis bands of this or any era, the Stranglers cultivated an image as swaggering, chauvinistic thugs but their music was sophisticated, even delicate, and loaded with sonic detail. There’s some sort of social commentary in this song’s evocation of Roman decadance, but I’ll leave it to you to tease out what it might be.
4. All Stood Still > Ultravox: Along with Gary Numan, Ultravox for a couple of years there mixed electronics and vibrating instruments in a way not heard before or since. This formula seems to have been lost somewhere around 1984 in the rush to total digitalization; a shame, that.
5. No One Driving > John Foxx: I had a dream once where I was riding in the back seat of a car with no one driving. It was scary at first but everything seemed to go along fine and after awhile I got used to it.
6. Warm Leatherette > The Normal: This is what happens in the real world when there’s no one driving: “Hear the crashing steel/feel the steering wheel.” Inspired by J.G. Ballard’s Crash, this is a very early technopop single. It may even be from the 70s – I’m not going to look it up so I have plausible deniability – but it is quintessentially 80s regardless.
Interlude: Rock It a Bit > John Candy and Steve Martin
7. Warm Leatherette > Grace Jones: Grace’s version of this song makes the car crash sound downright sexy; in a strange way it may be more Ballardian than the Normal’s frosty, mechanized original. I believe that’s Sly and Robbie providing the burbling groove.
8. Crosseyed and Painless > Talking Heads: This is the Talking Enos at their peak, doing a sort of trapezoidal funk that’s all out of phase but still satisfying. The lyrics could accurately be described as pre-Colbertian:
Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
9. Bristol and Miami (excerpt) > The Selecter: This is really just the outro to the Celebrate the Bullet album, a haunting snippet of rhythm and chant.
10. Why Me? > Planet P: I bought this album on vinyl back in the day, found it disappointing, sold it. A couple years ago I noticed you could get it on CD real cheap, and figured it had to be worth it; “Why Me?” is such a great song, could the album really have been that bad? Alas, I was disappointed all over again, ripped this song, and sold the CD.
11. Major Tom > Peter Schilling: What made Peter Schilling think he could appropriate Major Tom from David Bowie and get away with it, I don’t know. But he did, and this song was a huge hit. How does Peter Schilling sleep at night? Probably, like his countryman Rainier Wolfcastle, on a big pile of money with many beautiful ladies.
12. Ashes to Ashes > David Bowie: The genuine item. This is where the 80s started, and where we’re going to end for now. There’s nowhere to go from here anyway.