The 70s and the 80s are both extremely cheesy, but the 70s was a more ecclectic period. It was the era of disco but also prog and arena rock. But the 80s? With the novelty of the new wave of synethesizers and samplers and drum machines and triggers, everything started to sound like video games. Where this started to get surreal was when the subjectmatter of a song was serious. At the time it might not have seemed wrong, but in retrospect, some of these attempts to be serious or touching are compromised by the new wavey or beat-boxy stylings of the 80s.
For instance, when this song came out, I was 15 years old. I didn’t have a very strong relationship to the Vietnam war and this song didn’t change things. What it did do was make me walk around afterwards saying “n-n-n-n-n-nineteen”, just like so many today who find it on Youtube.
How cold-war was still raging in the 80s. The threat of nuclear war was still there, although more muted than the 50s and 60s. Movies like Wargames still flogged the idea that some screwup could touch off armageddon. The decade produced two songs that referenced nuclear war. Red Skies from The Fixx and 99 red balloons from Nena. Red Skies managed to blend new wavism in a way that seemed to create an angsty vibe. 99 red balloons, however, had some of the fartiest farty keyboards that was laughter-inducing even when it came out.
Cheese doesn’t necessarily mean bad, though. Men at Work produced the marvelously satircal video about war to its syncopating reggae-like rhythms.
One way or another, things often seemed to take on a comical tinge in the 80s thanks to the music video medium and its original inspiration being The Monkees.
This song from Genesis continues what Men at Work started:
Let’s put aside nuclear war for a moment and imagine attempts to make ‘serious artistic statements’. How about Tim Rice? You know, Jesus Christ: Superstar? Well, in the 80s, you wind up with this cheezy nugget from his musical “Chess”.
Serious artists who “went cheese” in the 80s are a whole subject in and of itself. In lieu of a dedicated blog post, I’ll present a few notable examples.
Lindsay Buckingham, once the pop-rock guitar-god, transformed into David Lynch’s Eraserhead and delivered a song laced with cheezy synths and Cars-like video-FX:
Steve Miller, another guitar God, went “cheese” with Abracadabra:
A great example of a once-heavy band that succumbed to the sins of 80s cheese while still trying to do some sort of “concept album” was Styx with Kilroy was here. Whatever point they were trying to make, the best they were able to do was have a hit on the basis of the catchiness of the hook of “Domo arigato Mr. Roboto” and a mask that seemed inspired by a Doctor Who episode.
Look a little closer and it’s ironic how they sing:’
The problem’s plain to see
too much technology
Queen at one time put a disclaimer on its records that no synthesizers on their albums, only to embrace it later. How crazy that they chose to write a song criticizing music for killing the radio star (so to speak) while embracing the medium (and the synth cheese) at the same time.
That was the 80s in a nutshell. New technology ushered in an era of curious experimentation. That experimentation led to overuse. Some bands were seriously crippled by the lure of technology. Rush is the real poster-child of that phenomenon. Most of its early 80s work, in retrospect, is not that bad. But by the latter half of the 80s their music became buried in a wall of reverb and synth-pads. This song in particular demonstrates how Rush had devolved into almost a mild adult-contermporary outfit. You could almost imagine it on the Spirit soundtrack along-side Bryan Adams.
Another power-trio known for musicianship, The Police, ended not with a bang but a whimper of techno-excess with Don’t Stand So Close to me 86 version. This song’s turntable-scanner visuals symbolize the same sort of emotional strangulation of the music on its road to overproduced techno-purity.
How about Robert Plant’s lowest point of chasing modern commercial relevance circa 1988? Sample your own music and then make a commercial for Coke!
Looking back, the lesson of the 80s is that it just took time to find the proper role for technology in music. You can say that we’re still trying to find the happy medium now, considering how much of pop music now features auto-tuned and vocoded vocals.
Rather than ending on a somber note, there are two artists who have come the closest at reconciling the digital with the analog. I’ll be covering them in future blog posts!