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1984: A Probing Musical Retrospective

1984: A Probing Musical Retrospective

George Orwell's predictions in his dystopian classic 1984 seem more apt for 2014 than the titular year. The scale and scope of our intelligence agencies suggest that Big Brother is well and truly with us. Our corruption of the English language in social media is more than reminiscent of newspeak (LOL, LMFAO, LOLROTF&ICGU), while the circus surrounding things like Kim Kardashian's ever increasingly bulbous bum keeps many distracted from what their elected officials do in the realms of power.

No, perhaps a more representative prophecy of the actual 1984 can be found in the first lines of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. To quote Boz himself, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity" and so on.

Former B-movie actor, Ronald Reagan told us that it was "morning in America" again, while the number of families living below the poverty line tripled. Carl Lewis took the L.A. Olympics by storm as the Cold War continued, famine thrived in Ethiopia, and a civil war was fought out on the streets of Beirut. Apple released the Macintosh computer three months before the U.S. government belatedly announced recognition of the AIDS virus.

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However, against this backdrop of dichotomies, popular culture thrived. Ghostbusters, The Terminator, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were some of the top movies of the year. Paris, Texas and Repo Man wowed the indie crowd. Tetris, Transformers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were all rolled out in the same year that The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The House on Mango Street, and Glengarry Glen Ross debuted. On TV, The Cosby Show premiered, Madonna rolled around the stage at the MTV Music Awards and Alex Trebek began his stint as Jeopardy! host.

Musically, 1984 seemed to represent the apex of the eighties' style over substance the nineties would later arrogantly sniff at. However, nostalgia does wonders for the memory. Some wonderful things happened in the music world in this year. Here are six of them, in no apparent order.

6. The All Conquering Megastar

There were a handful of '80s megastars that simply dwarf the endlessly tweeting stars and starlets of today. Prince released Purple Rain, often heralded as the greatest soundtrack ever. It cannot be denied that it's a great record, full of velvet-plush love songs, gorgeous guitar wankery and sheer unfettered primal lustiness (though Tipper Gore may disagree).

Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA had the Boss selling out arena shows to 11 million fans, while still chronicling the woes and triumphs of blue collar America (and the Republican Party famously mistook the loud lament of the title track's chorus and tried to use it as a flag-waving campaign anthem for Reagan's re-election campaign).

In November, Madonna stepped into her own with the release of the album Like A Virgin. Though the album continued the dance-pop of her debut,she moved away from the confines of the average pop princess with the lyrical content of the sophomore effort. Madonna asserted a sexuality usually the bastion only of male stars. And from here on, she would shape pop culture more so than any female star before or since, consistently courting controversy along the way.

 

5. Hip-hop Became Legit

1984 was a pivotal year in hip-hop, where the last strains of disco were truly quashed and the genre came into its own, sounding optimistically fresh and aggressively relevant. Run DMC's "Rock Box" became the first rap song played on MTV.

The trio of Jam Master Jay, Darryl McDaniels, and Joseph Simmons went a long way in helping the hip-hop album gain artistic credence. Their eponymous debut took rap out of the disco for good and more accurately reflected the streets from which it was born. Sparse beats and gritty rhymes were replacing the pop-funk words of Grandmaster Flash et al, and no longer would hip-hop merely be regarded an interesting novelty by the mainstream.

But there's more to '84 and hip-hop than this. UFTO released the influential "Roxanne, Roxanne" -- setting a negative trend for misogynistic narratives in rap (which admittedly seems much tamer than stuff that came later). However, the almost immediate response by Roxanne Shante with "Roxanne's Revenge" would open the door for female MCs to gain their own voice in the next few years -- MC Lyte, Salt N Pepa, and Queen Latifah were listening.

Miami's own 2 Live Crew released their It's Gotta Be Fresh EP late in 1984, laying a template for the Miami Bass sound, amplifying the voices of Liberty City and Overtown. Meanwhile, hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa collaborated with James Brown for the single "Unity" -- an acknowledgement of the genre's debt to the Godfather of Funk, and a relationship that would showcase Brown's "Funky Drummer" as the most sampled rhythmic break in the history of hip-hop.

4. Pop Music Was Awesome

Nostalgia. It's not what it used to be. However, over time, it has become clear how much pop rocked in 1984. A list of some of the standout Billboard hits from '84 include "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun", "The Reflex" by Duran Duran, Lionel Riche's "Hello" (nod to fantastic video too), and Wham's "Wake Me up Before You Go-Go." If pop is supposed to provide melodic escapism from the hum-drum of the ordinary then '84 was a vintage year.

Perhaps the most evocative pop track of the year was Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax." Frankie was a Molotov cocktail of Liverpudlian sarcasm, hedonism and politics that briefly set the charts alight on both sides of the Atlantic, causing significant waves along the way.

Before the original release of "Relax" in Britain, ads appeared in the music press that featured images of openly gay band members Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford dressed in sailor hats, leather vests, and rubber gloves. A caption under the image read "All the Nice Boys Love Sea Men," followed by "Frankie Goes to Hollywood are coming... making Duran Duran lick the shit off their shoes... Nineteen inches that must be taken always."

Further controversy occurred when the song's sexually suggestive lyrics got the BBC in a tizzy and they banned it from its playlist. That did little to deter "Relax" from rising to the top of the charts. In the United States, the single gradually reached the Billboard Top 10, causing a brief stint of "Frankie-Mania" Stateside, perhaps best epitomized by the "Frankie Says Relax" slogan T-shirts of the day.

 

3. Alternative Music Was Blossoming.

While Duran Duran, Wham!, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood courted the pop crowd, alternative music flourished in 1984. The Smiths released their self-titled debut, and the world was introduced to Morrissey's emotive, literate, sardonic yodel backed by Johnny Marr's lushly textured guitars. From the first line of the opening track "Reel Around The Fountain," "I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice," it was clear we were getting a sober, yet wonderful antidote to MTV emptiness.

R.E.M.'s sophomore effort Reckoning contains the spark and energy of a band just realizing how brilliant they could be. Echo and the Bunneymen's Ocean Rain wasn't the best album ever made, as lead singer Ian McCulloch declared at the time, but it is very good indeed. Depeche Mode were wallowing in their dark, industrial bleakness with absolute aplomb with 1984's Some Great Reward. Public Image Ltd, the Replacements, Husker Du, the Cure, even Simple Minds, all released great records that year. Moreover, America was finally cottoning on to how great Australian music was with INXS, Nick Cave, and Midnight Oil all getting their first footholds in the American market.

2. Chicago House Music Was Building.

By '84, Chicago House was the most exciting thing happening in the clubs of America, and Jesse Saunders' 1984 classic On and On is probably the first proper house record. On and On laid a blueprint for the early house sound; its distinctive bass synthesizers, minimal vocals, and hypnotic beat over cult disco gems encouraged a slew of others to try their hand at it. The sadly, recently departed Frankie Knuckles would take it further and than the Europeans in England and the Balearics would launch it to a mass audience -- but 1984 remains a pivotal year in house music's evolution.

 

1. Music in Movies Excelled

The '80s heralded some stellar blockbusters movies, and in 1984, a lot of them were anchored by killer soundtrack accompaniments. Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Footloose, and The Karate Kid all yielded choice pop cuts that are just as memorable as the films themselves.

Moreover, there were great films purely about music during '84. This Is Spinal Tap turned the rock mockumentary to 11 leaving rock behemoth Ozzy Osbourne thinking it was real, and movie lovers laughing hysterically to this day. Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense remains perhaps the best concert film ever. Oscar laden Amadeus gave us a howling, giggling, party animal version of Mozart, able to compose history changing symphonies seemingly at whim. Wonderful stuff.

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