The early Eighties - what went wrong?

Published September 11, 2013

One of my hobbies is putting together my own compilations or even multi-disc “box sets” of a certain artist/band or along a certain theme. It might be everything from a single-disc compilation of the songs of Brill Building era song writers Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (which turned out to be my favourite CD of 2006) or my 21-disc (whew!) box set of vintage disco tracks.

Lately I’ve devoted some time to putting together the perfect (for me) multi-disc compilation of early Eighties tracks. It’s been quite an emotional project. If you follow my admittedly intermittent blog posts, you already know that the Eighties is not my favourite decade in popular music, but that mostly applies to the mid-to-late Eighties. When the decade started I was 15 years old and really excited about all the new music that was coming out. It all seemed so futuristic and forward-looking, not to mention fun after a decade (the Seventies) that was often a bit drab – or at least seemed to be less colourful than the decade ahead of us.

But as the decade wore on, it turned out to be a disappointment, in so many ways. Not the least of my disappointments were all the bands that promised so much when the decade started and then just failed to live up to all that. Remember, I grew up in the Seventies, when most of the acts released an album EVERY year (a minor distraction such as a world tour sometimes got in the way, forcing them to skip a year). My favourite band, Wings, were among them as, indeed, were ABBA

But look at some of my favourite acts that broke through in the early Eighties. The Human League took three years to follow up their amazing Dare album, and by then much of the momentum was gone. Soft Cell had hardly achieved a breakthrough before they split up. ABC released their fantastic The Lexicon Of Love album – and then destroyed their career by deciding to go “rock” on their next album. Yawn. I could go on. The point is: most of these acts failed to follow up on their initial excitement. Then, of course, as 1984 rolled around, it was all over. Everyone grew a mullet. Everyone started wearing looong coats. Everyone became histrionic, if not always in sound then at least in attitude. Production values (if values is even an applicable concept) turned to (avert your gaze, sensitive readers) overblown shit.

But those first few years of the decade were magic. Which brings me back to my Early Eighties box set. Compiling this thing got me thinking about some of the artist featured heavily in it, and I ended up researching their fates on the Internet. Many of the results made me kind of sad. Take Midge Ure, for instance. Although I loved ‘Vienna’ and liked several other Ultravox hits, I always felt they were, well, a little pretentious, what with Mr Ure’s silly moustache, his somewhat affected/mannered singing style, and the slightly over-blown lyrics. But now, 30 years later, I find myself obsessing on the career of Midge Ure. The sheer ambition of the man, the wanting-to-try-all-kinds-of-things, just impresses me so much. Consider this, from just the first few years of the Eighties: he co-wrote Yellow Pearl for Phil Lynott, joined Ultravox and sang on ‘Vienna’ and all their other hits, was a driving force in Visage, recorded a single with Mick Karn of Japan – and I’m sure several other things I’m forgetting now. And what was his fate? Because of financial mismanagement and a bit of bad luck, he ended up bankrupt. He is also a recovering alcoholic. How unfair is that?

It seems to be the fate of few acts from that era, at least the ones I cared about, to have ended up wealthy and content. None of the acts mentioned in this blog so far are particularly well off financially, as far as I’m aware. And what about bands such as The Thompson Twins? Never a critics favourite, and not exactly my favourite either, I do quite like some of their songs. I looked up this clip on Youtube in which their leader Tom Bailey says that, “We didn’t really deserve to be that successful.” Can you imagine any other star with a string of hit singles and platinum album sales to his credit saying that? It made me feel kind of sad.

But back to Midge Ure and Ultravox (I said I was obsessed, didn’t I?). I never bought their albums back in the day, nor most of their singles, and so this track somehow passed me by. Now it’s something I keep returning to on what seems like a daily basis. Why? I don’t know. I'm not even sure it's such a good song, but for some reason it hits a nerve in me. Probably something about being a teenager in the early Eighties. I’ll save that analysis for another blog. (Note: The video is kind of crap, so ignore the visuals, and just listen to the music.)