On Facebook, I was recently asked to name my 7 essential 80s songs. I am now publishing all separate articles here in an overview
THE CHURCH – UNDER THE MILKY WAY
Quite a challenge indeed…choosing among your children who helped you to become the person you are now. My first choice (there is no order among my ‘seven’, that is really impossible) is ‘Under The Milky Way’ by the Australian ‘alternative’ rock band The Church. it was released, I think, at the beginning of 1988, and I was already a fan of this group.
‘Under The Milky Way’ is the only entrance The Church ever made into the US and European charts. Although quite popular in their native country, they stayed relatively unknown in Europe. Nowadays, they have a very loyal cult following. Although a hit single, the song embodies what I love about this group: crossing melodic guitar lines, creating a dark but vivid atmosphere. Steve Kilbey is not a born singer, but his low, ‘scrapped” baritone suits the tone of the music very well. His lyrics are as always somewhat vague, if not impenetrable. Sagas, myths, legends, biblical references play a huge role in his lyrics and add an epic layer to their already massive sound.
In later years, The Church moved away from a ‘new wave’ (I do not want to start a semantic discussion on terms and how to describe all the different categories) sound to a more progrock orientation. Obviously, as you will learn from my other choices, I prefer the new wave side of the band, but it is a testimony to their talent as musicians and composers that they were able to take new directions.
‘Under The Milky Way’ is taken from the album Starfish, one of favorite all-time albums. Often, a hit single conveys the wrong impression of what a band is really about, but ‘Under The Milky Way’ simply reigns supreme among a collection of excellent songs. It is indeed, as one said, ‘the most beautiful Australian song ever’.
KILLING JOKE – DARKNESS BEFORE DAWN
We continue with our journey through the 80s songbook. Killing Joke, today’s choice, is often associated with the shattered dreams and gloom some felt was the essence of the 80s. Loud agressive new wave guitars and bombastic tribal rhythms, often pushed forward by a punishing bassline. The manic stage performance and singing of frontman Jaz Coleman added to that feeling, he seemed to announce the end of times. He himself once fled to Iceland, waiting for armageddon to come...
It is just pop music, and I never liked the ‘overacting’ of Mr. Coleman and his use of political themes. For me, music and politics do not go together, at least not in the theatrical style of Coleman. But when he concentrates on his singing and uses his charisma to support the tight rhythm section of the band behind him, he is a very powerful and intriguing vocalist.
I love this band for one particular reason: Kevin ‘Geordie’Walker’s guitar playing. He is by no means a shredder or an even technically proficient guitarist, but his phrasing and use of dissonant power chords are simply unsurpassed. And then his tuning…That high-pitched ‘reverberating’ sound makes me shiver to the bone everytime. In all his simplicity, Geordie is an innovative and completely original guitar player. He might be underrated, but still hugely influential to a very wide range of bands and styles. You hear echoes of his playing in all currents of so-called indie rock and metal.
I could have opted for ‘Love Like Blood’, despite its overexposure a brilliant song. But please listen to this tune, ‘Darkness Before Dawn’, a typical menacing rhythmic Killing Joke piece. Geordie’s fierce riffing and accents take it to an unprecedented intense level.
THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN – HAPPY WHEN IT RAINS
In part three of our 80s tour I indulge myself in real nostalgia. Today’s band, The Jesus And Mary Chain, was for a few years the band of my teenage life. Their debut album, Psychocandy, with ‘surf’ pop melodies hidden behind a wall of noise, has somehow become a landmark record. It was unanimously well received by the British music press, quite an achievement for a band that, in all honesty, could not play.
William Reid, one of the Reid brothers who formed the group, stated that ‘when you can barely play, you use the guitar in often more interesting things than the ones who can actually play it. The crap we heard on the radio, made us decide to form a band and for instance Einstürzende Neubauten showed us how to create sound. The idea of being in a band was more important than actually playing.”
I seriously doubt whether an ‘intellectual’ group like Einstürzende Neubauten came to mind of a band which signed its record deal in a McDonald’s restaurant, as the Reid brothers later claimed. Whatever their motivation, Psychocandy did sett off new trends like shoegazing and noise and in that sense they significantly contributed to pop music history. And they never really learned to play anyway!
But JAMC was a holy group to me and some of my finest teenage memories are linked to their songs. Darklands was their second album and it was a very conventional record: the noise was gone and what remained, were Beach Boys influenced pop songs with distorted guitars. I guess, to my searching teenage mind, they were the perfect thing to happen: it was loud and melodic and their dark blurred videos suggested that they were really different. So, nothing wrong with it.
Nowadays, I could not tell you where the Reid brothers are. Do they still exist at all? Probably their lack of instrumental prowess finally caught up with them and ended their career. On the other hand, they might have made a whole string of brilliant records, it is possible, they were very talented songwriters.
What is important here, whenever I hear ‘Happy When It Rains’ or ‘Under The April Skies’, it puts a big smile on my face and I feel very happy. And that is what music is all about: emotions and sweet memories. Happy When It Rains’ is my third choice, I just slightly prefer it over ‘Under The April Skies’.
THE CURE – THE DROWNING MAN
In part four of the 80s songbook we turn to a group which put a lot of us on to new wave and alternative music. And I am no exception. At that time they seemed to me as they were coming from another planet, especially at high school parties, where you had to explain again and again who they were. I did not grow up in a school environment where new wave and indie rock (it had another name then) were particular popular. I remember listening to a radio broadcast in which celebrities were asked to play a list of their favorite songs.
In this broadcast, Marcel van Dam, of all people, played a song by the Cure. He explained to the listener that this group was the favorite band of his son. That song was, naturally, ‘A Forest’. It sounds so weird when you are listening to Level 42, UB 40, Duran Duran (had their moments though…) and Spandau Ballet, to name a few….
Who would thought that Marcel van Dam would introduce me to a new world of music…I became a big fan of the Cure. Three records in particular were my favorites: Seventeen Seconds, Faith and Pornography, the ‘holy trinity’ for most fans I would say. And all three I still love until this day. There were long intervals in which I did not listen to them at all, but The Cure is a ‘home’ to which you always return and where you always find comfort.
Robert Smith is without a doubt one of the greatest songwriters in British pop history and his vocals are unique. He is not a brilliant guitar player, but he has produced some of the finest and most memorable guitar lines ever. You immediately recognize the ‘fluid’ chord progression of his playing. Besides, I believe he plays at least 4 different instruments, the man is a huge musical talent. I do not like the later overemphasis on synthesizers and the songs getting longer and ”epic”. In more recent years, they have made a number of decent albums again.
It is hard to pick one song from their large discography, but my choice today is ‘The Drowning Man’. It is a Robert Smith composition par excellence. Around a small musical invention or idea, in this case the rhythm, he builds up a brilliant pop song with a intriguing and wonderful melodic guitar line. It is a slow but very intense song in which his vocal style comes to full blossom. A giant of a song! Just one of the many outstanding tunes he has written.
METALLICA – DAMAGE INC
In part five of our 80s tour it is time to turn to the ‘stronger stuff’ (some would say: childish or even ridiculous stuff). As I recall, at first glance there was very little in my teenage consciousness to indicate that I would ever become a fan of metal music. But unconsciously the seeds were sown at my parent’s home.
Love for guitar music and instrumental virtuosity, and metal often combines the two, was instilled in me by my dad: he listens to jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and Barney Kessel. Although I found it often boring, later on I realized that these brilliant and technically very accomplished guitar players were real pioneers who revolutionized the world of music with their use of electric guitars. Naturally, their playing is a far cry from the riff-based and speed-driven style of thrash metal, but the idea of electric guitars playing a pivotal role in arrangements and composition was introduced to me through the music collection of my dad.
I say ‘metal’ as if I know anything about that genre, but nothing could be further from the truth. Metal is a very big music family and there are as many currents as there are bands in this line of music. My love for metal is limited to what has become known as ‘thrash metal’. It combines what I seek in metal: speed and riffs. I never got into Iron Maiden or Judas Priest or other ‘heavy metal’ bands of that time. Now I know how important and even crucial these two bands were to many of the thrash bands I listen to.
My teenage mind was hooked to the gloom and dark atmosphere of new wave, but the search for more extreme things continued. And metal looked to me as forbidden fruit. Moreover, thrash metal happened in the 80s and I am a child of that time. It simply had to cross my path…
Metallica I heard the first time, I think, in a television broadcast. The journalist had an item in which he explained ‘that the youth of America is currently obsessed with ”extreme metal”’. And footage of Metallica playing, supported his item. I had never heard anything like it before and started listening to it right away. As a student I came across people who were listening to this kind of music and that helped me as well to be ‘seduced’ by metal.
The story about Metallica has been told many times and they are truly one of the greatest and most innovative bands of all time. As I had very little knowledge of the origins and forefathers of metal, I was really convinced they played a new kind of music. Love this ignorant state of mind as teenager when all new experiences have such a huge impact on you!
The first three records of Metallica are classics and I love them with all my heart. I did not like the direction they took with The Black Album, but that tells you more about my selfish mind. It is to their eternal credit that they were able to break out such a conservative and in many ways intolerant (towards other music) genre as metal. Of course, the money was good too…
As said, speed and riffs is what I want and among all the classic songs Metallica has written, for me a prime example of that is ‘Damage, Inc’. Nobody can beat a Hetfield/Ulrich arrangement and the main riff, in both the fast and slow version, fills my heart with joy. The genius riff writing of Hetfield shines here like never before. And he downpicks his way through it with the same excellence. That galloping riff explains why I love metal. Death and destruction are everywhere, but this song makes me very happy.
My stories get longer all the time, sorry!
SLAYER – SPILL THE BLOOD
In part six of the 80s song challenge I am confessing to my ‘greatest sin’, when it comes to music.
There are a few essentials in life. One of them is Slayer.
Yesterday I described how my love for metal came into being. I am a man and men like to compare and make up lists with their favorite items. And now I will be comparing two of the biggest metal bands of the 80s.
Metallica was the band that made me love in with this line of music. And when I quietly and rationally think about it, I know that Metallica is a better band than Slayer. They are true innovators, probably also better musicians and composers, with the sole exception of Lars Ulrich vs Dave Lombardo. But then again, Lars Ulrich played a huge role in arranging and writing the classic Metallica tunes we all love and admire.
But music is emotion and when asked which band do you prefer, I will answer you with all my heart: Slayer! Or, as is custom to shout when they play or even when other bands are playing: Slayerrrrrrrr!!! I simply love them. Deep down it satisfies dark and secret wishes inside of me, On my blog I have written on that subject as well, in my piece about Jeff Hanneman. The shy and reserved man wrote some of the sickest and most evil riffs in metal ever.
You can easily ridicule Slayer for their style, attitude and disgustingly ugly record sleeves. Yes, their ‘atonal’ solos stink and their lyrics, especially in the old days, are really over the top. But when it comes to heavy music, they are the bar. They are the seminal metal band.
Slayer’s masterpiece is Reign In Blood, 28 minutes of glorious insanity. It is probably the most intense half hour of music ever dedicated to vinyl. Mutilation, sexual aberrations, Nazi death camp killers, you name it, it is very graphically described on this record. But you feel more love of life in you than ever after listening to it. The adrenalin keeps on pumping through your veins.
But my favorite Slayer album is South Of Heaven. They slowed down a bit, Dave Lombardo got more room to excel and Tom Araya’s handling of the lyrics led to a more realistic approach. And Mr. Hanneman cranks out some of the heaviest and ingenious riffs ever. He was in control of the artistic process on this record and his immense writing talents make it another masterpiece, in my humble opinion.
From this record I have chosen ‘Spill The Blood’. it is a slow piece and Slayer is known for its speed, but it is my favorite Slayer tune. Somehow Hanneman captures the essence of heavy music in that riff. I love the bone crushing tritone in it! As long as I am able to listen to music, some of Jeff Hanneman’s riffs will stay with me forever.
NEW ORDER – LEAVE ME ALONE
In my final part of the 80s songbook tour I will write about the band which has really been an important part of my life. I am talking about New Order, the pop group with the dark past. They appeared as a seemingly unhappy and for failure destined rebirth after the tragic suicide of Ian Curtis. His death ended the short but legendary story of Joydivision. Bernard ‘Barney’ Sumner, guitarist of Joydivision, reluctantly stepped in and took over as vocalist. He was facing a giant if not insurmountable challenge.
New Order’s first album, Movement, shows the dilemma: desperately they try to create the same sinister and alienating doom of Joydivision and Sumner tries frantically to write the same kind of introspective lyrics Ian Curtis wrote. They fail on both accounts, but the album does have strong and original parts.
Remarkable is the orchestration between synthesizers and other ”traditional” instruments. With Joydivison, effects, created by their legendary producer Martin Hannett, were used for creating shock and filling up the scarce instrumentation. Now the synthesizers and sound effects are actually part of the arrangements and melodies. Sumner’s singing is weak and unsure, but his musical ideas are glimpsing through already.
With their second album, Power, Corruption and Lies, New Order found its own and definitive style. This record is one of my all-time favorites. Sumner sings with great confidence and the doom and gloom of Joydivision have disappeared. The interplay between synthesizers and other instruments is seamless. And ‘Hooky’s’ monumental, melodic and distinctively rhythmic high baselines cut through you like a knife. What a shame the man left the band, that was a big blow for me as a fan. But Sumner is the heart and soul of them, he created the framework in which Hooky could excel.
These are the words of a fan of course, but it explains why New Order is still around. Sequencing and other techniques have been revolutionized and much synth pop has for that reason disappeared, but the style New Order arranged and developed will never become outdated.
Sumner is neither a great vocalist nor an accomplished guitar player. Yet he has given us classic guitar lines in both Joydivision and New Order. In the words of Johnny Marr: Bernard is a simple player, but it takes me hours to figure out what he does, since his ideas are unique and for that reason difficult to understand.’
Bernard Sumner does not even have an ounce of the charisma of his mythical predecessor. And he is certainly not a magician with words like Ian Curtis. But the music and lyrics he writes are from empty or superficial. The music of New Order is often dance-oriented, but conveys a deep melancholic and authentic emotion. Especially on PCL, beneath the happy and danceable melodies, there is a rich undercurrent of tension and anguish. His lyrics seem straightforward, but confuse the listener and are ambiguous. ‘Blue Monday’ is certainly not the only example of that. Even great hits like ‘The Perfect Kiss’ and True Faith’ are not your happy danceable pop songs. They deal with serious and dark issues.
Initially overshadowed by a legend, New Order now themselves have gained that status. Bernard Sumner was and is part of two seminal innovative bands, how many artists can say that? Groundbreaking singles like ‘Everything’s Gone Green’, ‘Temptation’, ‘Confusion’ and of course ‘Blue Monday’ have changed the course of British pop music and have been exerting lasting influence since then. Not charismatic and flamboyant, but a true innovator and outstanding composer he certainly is. Like his legendary predecessor he belongs to the truly greats of British pop music.
My last song for our challenge is ‘Leave Me Alone’. I should not have chosen this song, since it is quite a ‘conventional’ song: base, drums, guitars and no synthesizers, so not a ‘signature’New Order song. But it proves that New Order is neither a synth nor a rock group; artistic borders do not exist in their music. It is just a beautiful song with meaningful lyrics and I am deeply moved by it each and every time I listen to it.