Who cares about 80s music? You should! It wasn’t just U2, R.E.M. and Cyndi Lauper. When I went to college—I went to college!—I was a DJ at the campus radio station, KCSB 91.9 FM, for three years. I played alternative 60s music with a show called “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out”, but it felt restrictive to limit myself to that decade, even if I managed to unearth gems like The Travel Agency and Vanilla Fudge. I always volunteered to fill in for any other DJ’s time slot and play the progressive music of the day, which left an indelible impression on me.
Some of these songs had a blip of popularity, some were under the radar even at the time. To appreciate these songs I have suggested the best time to listen. You have to be in the right mood to give these a chanc, though in a lot of cases, they lose something when you watch the videos. This was the early days of MTV and bands were, let’s say politely, finding their way with uneven results. No matter. Let’s do this!
Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls – “Before Too Long“
Why don’t we start in Australia? “Before Too Long” is a simple, pop masterpiece with a decent video which makes it stand out from all the dreck of the time. Whenever Paul Kelly toured America, he had to change the band name as “coloured girls” was too inflammatory. I don’t know if anything has changed since.
Best time to listen: after you’ve thrown that god-awful vegemite in the trash, when you need a simple pick-me-up.
If you are into this you might like: Hoodoo Gurus – “I Want You Back“, Ratcat – “That Ain’t Bad“ (though there’s a loooot of antipathy for Ratcat among Australians, which I’ve never understood. Maybe the singer is too pretty boy), and Hunters and Collectors – “Do You See What I See?“.
Let’s Active – “Every Word Means No“
When I drove around the country watching baseball games with my college roommate we showed up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to see the singer Mitch Easter and his famous Drive-in Studio where R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” was recorded. We met his father who let us poke our head in. Socially, the 80s were like communist Eastern Europe: in an era without cell phones, it wasn’t such a big deal to show up at someone’s house unannounced and uninvited.
Best time to listen: during those fleeting moments when you aren’t put off by guys wearing eyeliner, when you can’t get enough of puppies in videos.
If you are into this you might like: Matthew Sweet – “I’ve Been Waiting“, another infectious, pure pop song. (If you haven’t guessed yet, the secret to any good song is backing vocals) Translator – “Everywhere That I’m Not“ (but a painfully bad video, I’m warning you. Major cringe.), The Bluebells – “Cath“, though I don’t feel too strongly about it, and The Alarm – “The Stand“.
Gang of Four – “I Love a Man in a Uniform“
‘Twas tough to decide between this and “A Man with a Good Car“. Gang of Four had a moment in the sun, but they have fallen off the map, lamentably. Great band name, too. (What are horrible band names? The Cars, The Police, Backstreet Boys.) The British were miles ahead of the Americans in many respects, musically. It seemed they were always pushing the envelope more than us.
Best time to listen: When you have an appreciation for grainy videos, when you want to have an impromptu dance-off with the fun-loving guards on Tiananmen Square.
If you are into this you might like: Human League – “The Lebanon“, Gene Loves Jezebel – “Desire“ and Bow Wow Wow – “Do You Wanna Hold Me?“ (It’s amazing to think that the singer was a 13-year-old Burmese kid discovered while working in a dry cleaners in London.)
Toy Dolls – “Dig That Groove Baby“.
Why is it that usually I can’t hear the accent when British people sing? In this frenetic song it is inescapable. Who are the Toy Dolls of 2014? How does anyone hear new music these days in such a disjointed musical world? Who are the tastemakers? Why so many questions when all you came here for was to listen to some songs?
Best time to listen: when you’re out of Red Bull, when in need of an alarm clock tone, when you don’t mind misunderstanding most of a song.
If you are into this you might like: Paleface “Burn and Rob“, The Dickies – “Banana Splits“, D.O.A. – “Whatcha Gonna Do?“, and Agent Orange – “Somebody to Love“.
Spike in Vain – “e.k.g.“
Another DJ at the radio station, Eric Stone, turned me on to this obscure Ohio band. It seemed impossibly heavy at the time, though feels almost pop-ish now.
Best time to listen: when your wife leaves you, during prostate exams, while being waterboarded.
It might be a stretch, but if you are into this you might like: Minutemen – “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love“, Superchunk – “Slack Motherfucker“, and maybe Dinosaur Jr. – “Just Like Heaven” .
Wasted Youth – “Buckethead”
What do you call this? Thrash? Speedcore? Lullaby? I don’t know, but it was way ahead of its time by a band that had suddenly changed its sound.
Best time to listen: before doing crimes, on overnight buses in India, while having bamboo splints shoved up your fingernails.
If you are into this you might like: Black Flag – “Wound Up“ with the redoubtable Henry Rollins, this video shows the guy’s bottomless energy, Onslaught – “Power From Hell“, and Husker Du – “Eight Miles High“
Game Theory – “24”
Straight out of Davis, California, home of one of the many schools I was going to transfer to but got cold feet at the last moment. Everyone finds this song too flimsy or lightweight but never in an ethereal sense. It’s just important to hear it at the right time.
Best time to listen: A rainy, lazy Sunday morning. Do not listen when preoccupied, in hot weather, or in a good mood.
If you are into this you might like: Pylon – “Crazy“, Billy Bragg – “The Milkman of Human Kindness“, and The Church – “Under The Milky Way“.
The Basics – “Run By You“
This was the band of my college roommate, Marc Taub, but don’t dismiss this out of hand. The Basics went on tour with General Public whom you might know from their big hit, “Tenderness” or more likely know from their previous, seminal band, English Beat. The Basics were a mainstay at UCSB college parties. I didn’t know how good I had it. It’s amusing that a business called Puke N Vomit sells the record.
Best time to listen: in a nostalgic mood, when I realize the $75 I paid for Marc’s Fender acoustic when he was broke was money well spent (though I am the worst guitarist for someone who owns six guitars.)
If you are into this you might like: Bad Manners – “Lip Up Fatty“, The Selecter – “Three Minute Hero“. and Fishbone – “Ugly“
Now that I think about it, there is a lot of forgotten, fantastic, unappreciated 90’s music, too…
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