Saturday night at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney – a party to celebrate the opening of The 80s Are Back.
1. 24 hours ago, I was DJing at the messier end of the ABC staff christmas party – I played Icehouse’s ‘Electric Blue’, and twenty people screamed and ran onto the dancefloor. Now, Iva Davies, the man who sang that song, is standing on stage in front of me. He tells a very funny story about his daughter, who’s 15 years old. She came home from school one day, dropped her bag, and made an announcement. “I love the 80s!”
Davies stared at her, baffled.
“What do you love about the 80s?”
“Everything” she replied, spreading her arms wide – a gesture which indicated her willingness to take the decade lock, stock and barrel. A gesture expansive enough to take in the 800 objects in the exhibition upstairs – Atari game consoles, Betamax video players, a Sony Watchman, Jenny Kee, Madonna, Princess Diana, Neighbours, Dynasty, John Hughes, Barbie and The Rockers, He-Man, Boy George, Bob Hawke, the AIDS quilt, a RAT party or two, Expo 88, the fall of the Berlin Wall…
2. I’m talking to a woman who works at the museum, when a colleague of hers joins us and compliments her on her 80s outfit. It hadn’t occurred to me at all that she was in fancy dress. I realise that everyone at the party is dressed for the 80s – but that their reasons for doing so fall into three categories. There are people like us, who have dressed up in an ironically exaggerated 80s way. We are more or less indistinguishable from the people who’ve just worn whatever it’s currently fashionable to wear on a saturday night out in Sydney. And if it weren’t for the obvious age difference, members of both groups could easily pass as belonging to the third – musicians, designers and scenesters who had their heyday in the 80s, and have pulled their vintage items out of the closet for the night (or maybe never stopped wearing them.) I feel as though I’m in one of those scenes from 24 Hour Party People, where young actors made up to look like Hacienda-goers of the late 80s mingle with the people they’re portraying – sometimes playing themselves, sometimes playing the bouncer who kicked their younger self out of the club 20 years ago.
“Somewhere in the past the timeline skewed into this tangent, creating a new, alternate 1985…” Guests photographed at The 80s Are Back opening night party.
3. Two years ago, the midnight juggernauts told Vijay Khurana that they liked using synthesisers because they sounded futuristic – but no longer believed in the utopia they evoked. “It’s almost like a retro-future”, Vincent mused.
Here, at the exhibition opening, I meet a musician who played in an Australian synth-pop band of the 80s. When he started playing synths in pubs, there was nothing retro about it. Retro was pub rock, playing the blues, paying your dues. He played synthesisers because they sounded like the future.
Today, he’s not particularly nostalgic for the 80s, and has none of that “things-were-better-back-then” attitude toward today’s music that so many people who grew up in the 60s or 70s seem to have. But he does tell me that he thinks the 80s might have been the last time that new music was really new, as opposed to a re-cycling of old styles. A lot of my friends say the same thing about the 90s. But will future people say this of the 00’s?
Over the past 6 months, I’ve been collecting artefacts from the 80s revival. The ones which looked good are all in the Powerhouse Museum’s The 80s are Back exhibition, which opens next week. The ones which sounded good, but didn’t look like anything (songs, noises, interviews), are all here, for your listening pleasure. It’s a mixtape – although I suppose in the 80s they would have called it a Megamix. It’s 40% vintage synth-pop, 30% 21st century robot rock, 20% seldom-heard voices from the vaults, and 10% stuff I taped off the TV. My friend called it ‘cultural theory you can dance to’, which is the best I could hope for, really. Enjoy!
Perhaps art was in this respect like science; each new original writer seemed to have advanced beyond the stage of his predecessor, and who was to say whether in twenty years time, when I should be able to accompany without strain the newcomer of today, another might not emerge in the face of whom the present one would go the way of Bergotte?
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way
I don’t what I’m gonna be singin’ twenty thirty years from now… I don’t know what we’ll be dressing like. It won’t be like anything we’re familiar with, I know that.
David Lee Roth, 1986
I’ve always assumed that it’s foolish to speculate about the future of music and fashion, because the chances are that the music and fashion of the future will be weirder than I can possibly imagine. Now, after watching this interview, I can see that I was wrong – or that I was right, but for the wrong reasons. It’s foolish to speculate about the future of music, because the chances are that the music of the future will be a lot like the music of today, but with louder drums.
In 1986, David Lee Roth suggests that the music and fashion of the future “won’t be like anything we’re familiar with”. Now, we live in his future – and for many it’s disappointing precisely because it looks so much like 1986. But not exactly like 1986.
Doc: You go around the corner into the Cafe 80s.
Marty: Cafe 80s?
Doc: One of those nostalgia places, but not done very well.
In Back to The Future Part 2, the idea of an ’80s’ cafe is a wry joke. This morning, I ate breakfast there. The Pretty in Pink soundtrack was on the stereo, a girl sitting across from me had a quiff bigger than Duckie’s, and the waitress wore a white studded leather belt, a slimmed down glam-rock haircut and a Motley Crue T-Shirt. This last was the tell-tale sign that I was not in the real 1986, but in an 80s nostalgia cafe in the future. In the real 80s, Motley Crue shirts were only worn by Motley Crue fans – and Motley Crue fans did not work at hip inner-city cafes where they have posters advertising fringe electronica festivals on the walls.
Here in the Cafe 80s, The Motley Crue shirt no longer says what it used to say (‘I love Motley Crue’). It’s become what Peter Conrad describes as ‘a sign with its symbols crossed, form devoid of content’. But it does tell a story, which goes something like this –
1. David Lee Roth – Just Like Paradise (1988)
The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil tennant once observed that all succesful pop artists go through an ‘imperial phase’. This was Diamond Dave’s.
2. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
I remember reading a story (in David Konow’s Bang Your Head) about a Hair-metal band signed to Geffen in the late 80s. They were well-liked enough at the label to have a block-mount of one of their posters proudly displayed over the reception desk at the company’s office. One day in 1991, the band’s singer walked into Geffen HQ and saw his poster being taken down, and a new one being put up in its place – a photo of a baby in a swimming pool chasing a dollar bill. “Uh-oh”, he said to himself…
3. Bon Jovi – Keep The Faith (1992)
Barbara Walters interviewed Jon Bon Jovi in 1998.
BW: Let’s talk about your hair.
BW: Do you feel that the hair gets more attention than the music and the acting?
JBJ: It did! But I don’t think it’s such a big deal anymore. I do remember, though, six years ago when I cut it short it was on CNN. I couldn’t believe it!!!
4. Pavement – Cut Your Hair (1994)
“No big hair!”
5. Wilco – Heavy Metal Drummer (2002)
“I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands…” Jeff Tweedy’s love-letter to the metal monsters of his adolescence. His yearning for ‘shiny shiny pants’ is all the more poignant because we know that he knows it is no longer possible to wear them without irony. But then, maybe, just maybe…
6. The Darkness – I Believe in a Thing Called Love (2003).
Triple J played this a bit when it came out, and when the band came to Australia the following year, they appeared as guests on a show I was producing – Today Today with Chris Taylor and Craig Reucassel. I remember sitting around with Chris and Craig trying to come up with interview questions for the band – most of which were variations on, ‘are you serious?’. They insisted that they were, of course – that they sincerely loved those heavy metal bands, that there was no irony in their mission to bring hair-metal back to the masses. But then, they would.
In the 90s, Hair-Metal was seen as a failure, which is why its eventual rehabilitation had to be done under the auspices of camp.
23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.
24. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish.
Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp
[Camp] tries to outflank all the other stereotyped views of failure which are morbid or moralistic, and substitute a sort of cheerful openmindedness.
Charles Jencks, 1971
Camp begins in ‘small urban cliques’ (Sontag again). But if the timing is right, it can set off large-scale shifts in popular taste (think of the re-appraisal of The Carpenters that took place in the 90s, or recent rehabilitation of yacht-rock singers like Hall and Oates andMichael McDonald). 80s hair-metal became a short-lived high fashion trend in 2004-2005, and eventually made its way from the catwalk to the mall, and eventually, to the cafe 80s.
In 2008, Calvin Harris paid a visit to triple j. The occasion was Zan Rowe’s weekly co-host, the brief was for Harris to play ‘Five songs that would have been acceptable in the 80s’. By his own admission, he did a terrible job. “I know hardly anything about 80s music”, Harris confessed. “I know Prince and David Bowie, and that’s about it”. So his list of five songs that would have been acceptable in the 80s became a list of five songs that would have been acceptable in any era because they were good songs – which meant that it was just a list of five songs.
I don’t blame Harris – he was born in 1984, which means he doesn’t really remember the decade that well. But something about his failure to answer Zan’s brief got me wondering if I could. If I had to pick five songs from today that would have been acceptable in the 80s, what would they be? What was acceptable in the 80s, and what was not? I sat down and started writing a list. That was 18 months ago – I’m still writing it.
Six months ago, my work on this list gained a new sense of purpose and momentum. Peter Cox from The Powerhouse Museum approached me about an exhibition he was planning – The 80s Are Back – and asked if I’d be interested in curating a room documenting the current 80s revival.
I said yes, but worried privately if the timing was wrong. Would there still be an 80s revival in December when the show opened? Surely the fad would have exhausted itself by then. Everybody I knew seemed convinced that it would.
I needn’t have worried. The 80s revival has, if anything, moved into a higher gear over the last 6 months. It used to be something you had to look for – now it finds you wherever you are. As 2009 ticks over into 2010, we will celebrate not only the start of a new decade but, ten years of ever-more ambitious attempts to re-create an old one. Ten years! The original 80s didn’t really get going until 1981, and barely made it to 1989 – the 80s revival seems to be a more durable idea.
Acceptable in the 80s (abbreviated)
2000: Peaches – The Teaches of Peaches
2001: Fischerspooner – ‘Emerge’
2002: Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights
2003: Spod – Taste the Radness
2004: Cut Copy – Bright Like Neon Love
2005: Mylo – ‘In My Arms’, The Bravery – ‘An Honest Mistake’
2006: The Killers – ‘Read my Mind’
2007: Calvin Harris – ‘Acceptable in the 80s’
2008: Midnight Juggernauts – ‘Into the Galaxy’
2009: TZU, ‘Computer Love’, La Roux – ‘Bulletproof”