It Was 20 Years Ago Today...
For a decade often reviled as all glitz and no substance, the 1980s was a remarkably rich one for pop music (and is it the supreme irony of the 80s that even its critics are reduced to thinking about it through simplistic, advertising-derived binaries like "all glitz, no substance"?). New wave, postpunk, synthesized funk and hazily filtered 60s nostalgia all collided to create a landscape rich with possibility for artists imaginative enough to walk through it, instead of just holing up with old copies of Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and lamenting their faded youth.
For me, the two key years are 1984 and 1987. The first saw a number of artists make commercial and/or artistic breakthroughs after years of trying to define or redefine their sounds: R.E.M. released Reckoning, where Michael Stipe's muffled drawl finally came out of the shadows, along with the band's keen postfolk pop writing sensibilities, that odd mixture of Faulkner, James Dean and the Monkees that they'd soon ride to commercial glory; U2 would team up with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to offer The Unforgettable Fire, an album of ambient drift and frustrated longing whose hit single, "Pride (In The Name of Love)" sounds almost nothing like the rest of the record; Minneapolis drunkards The Replacements sobered up enough to realize they had the decade's most underrated songwriter, Paul Westerberg, hiding in their group, and released the stuttering, yelping, beautiful-despite-its-best-efforts Let It Be; Bruce Springsteen was already a star, but Born in the USA would make him a superstar, while introducing the political contradictions to his persona that he's grappling with to this day; and Prince would have the year's biggest triumph, commercially and artistically, with the soundtrack to Purple Rain, confirmation-- if any was needed-- that he was his generation's Paul McCartney, a ridiculously gifted musical genius capable of almost anything (and, like McCartney, just as capable of doing nothing much, sometimes on the same record where he'd knock your socks off).
That's a remarkably fine year, even without all the other important artists (Husker Du, Talking Heads, Madonna, Michael Jackson) and one-hit pleasures I haven't mentioned, which the year provided in spades (the sheer pop bliss of Huey Lewis's Sports, for instance, which was all over the radio that year). That's why it's even more remarkable that all artists mentioned in the paragraph would come back with even stronger efforts three years later.
20 years and three weeks ago, on October 9, 1987, Springsteen released Tunnel of Love, an album of dark, glistening chiaroscuro pop-country whose quiter tone and lyrical intimacy (lyrical nakedness, really) was a shock to many after the stadium-sized anthems of Born in the USA and the E-Street Live boxed set from the previous year. It capped a remarkable 12-month period that saw pop's most interesting artists stretching themselves in every direction to see what their styles could encompass.
I'll admit my own nostalgia for this moment: I was fourteen that year, really just discovering and claiming the pop on the radio as my own, a touchstone of identity instead of just the background noise of parties and car rides. I was listening to a lot of Beatles that fall-- I'd fallen in love with the Meet The Beatles! cassette after hearing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" on the radio on the way to a high school football game-- and much of my perspective on the contemporary sounds of the period was filtered through a retro-sixties nostalgia (or in my case, nostalgia for what I never knew) that was everywhere that year (baby boomers never tired of telling the young'uns what they missed twenty years earlier, in the Summer of Love) (still don't tire, actually, as any given issue of Rolling Stone this past summer will probably confirm: hey guys, it was 40 years ago, but don't worry-- Moby Grape still rules!). Many of the artists listed above were also thinking about 60s pop, rock and soul that year, but they used that fascination to craft new sounds which hold up just as well, I'd argue, as Sgt. Pepper or Blonde on Blonde. Here are six records, in chronological order, that suggest 1987 was a golden age of pop:
1. XTC, Skylarking (released Oct. 21, 1986): Is there a stranger voice in contemporary pop than Andy Partridge's? If one of the Aristocats took LSD, then gurgled ginger ale while mourning his lost love, we might have some approximation of it. That voice has kept some people from diving into XTC's music (I distinctly remember my mom's pained expression when I popped Oranges & Lemons into the car stereo one day, and I've tried in vain to put XTC songs on friend's mix tapes as enablers), but like Dylan's or Billie Holiday's, it's a quirky instrument that's perfectly suited for the songs it performs. XTC's power, in fact, derives from how Partridge's pained yelp rubs up against his melodic genius, as if Spike Jonze and Brian Wilson had a musical love child. Stepping into Skylarking-- part concept album, part sonic grab-bag, but all good--is like drifting through a world where, to paraphrase Peter Fonda's character in The Limey, you've never been there, you don't speak the language, but somehow you get around. The kneejerk critical comparisons when it was released (especially with 'The Summer of Love' on the horizon) were to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, analogies enhanced by the participation of producer Todd Rundgren (with whom Partridge apparently had epic battles). You can certainly hear the Beatles on the record, especially in the way the trio of songs that close out side one-- the glistening "Ballet for a Rainy Day," the mournful "1000 Umbrellas" and the bucolic "Season Cycle"-- blur and lead into one another, like one painting melting on top of another. And the chirping crickets that open the album owe something to George Martin and Geoff Emerick. But nothing Lennon and McCartney wrote had the psychotic stalker edge of "1000 Umbrellas," or the loopy naivete of "That's Really Super, Supergirl," the jazziness of "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul," or the stark 12th century tone of "Sacrificial Bonfire." And whatever door John opened with his "bigger than Jesus" comment in 1966, Andy Partridge kicks down with the scathing "Dear God." As with Elvis Costello on Imperial Bedroom, XTC play with their obvious debts to the Beatles and other 60s icons, not slavishly recreating a past sound but taking it somewhere else, at once more disturbing, but also inviting, funny, moving and deeply (wonderfully) strange.
2. U2, The Joshua Tree (released March 9, 1987): First things first-- this is not U2's best album. That would come four years later, as band arguments, Berlin and a serious Bowie fixation would produce Achtung Baby, the glorious mixture of screeching guitars, hip-hop loops and filtered vocals that kicked off the band's most productive decade.
The Joshua Tree might be the band's most important record, though, especially if we take the word "record" with a doubled meaning: not only as a cohesive collection of ambient country/pop gems, but as a document that marks a specific moment in the group's history. Working for the second time with fifth Beatle Brian Eno and co-producer Daniel Lanois, the songs were famously the end result of friendly tensions in the band, between Bono's fascination with American musical traditions like gospel and country (and writers like Raymond Carver and Salman Rushdie), and the Edge's desire to throw off blues traditions in favor of more Enoesque sustained chords and the kinds of dreamy landscapes the band had stumbled upon with The Unforgettable Fire.
More records, this time of pop trends, as the album was perfectly timed to capture both the growing nostalgia for the 1960s (the group was quickly dubbed its generation's Beatles, a framework they don't really fit, despite Bono's RIngo-like schnozz) and the growing power of college radio and "alternative" rock (to say nothing of alt-country: it's easy to hear Grant-Lee Phillips, R.E.M. and the Cowboy Junkies in here). The subsequent Time magazine cover, two-year tour and disastrous concert film Rattle & Hum would kick the band's profile into the stratosphere, a mixed legacy they're wrestling with to this day.
This was the first U2 record I ever heard, and it was rather opaque to me at the time: for all the comparisons to the Beatles and Dylan, there's little on here that replicates the jangly joy of those artists (with the possible exception of "Trip Through Your Wires," a blissful, guitar-and-harmonica-driven romp through Irish folk-pop); instead, it sounded as bleak and impenatrable as the moody, dusty landscapes on the cover. I didn't get it, and while I admired the band's politics (precocious fourteen-year-olds are naturally drawn towards Bono's finger-pointing, 80s messiah persona), it wasn't until I went back and fell in love with The Unforgettable Fire (listened to through walkman headphones on long family car trips, the perfect space to let the sounds drift with the passing scenery) that I could return to The Joshua Tree with fresh ears.
It holds up remarkably well, given its slightly inflated reputation. The best songs, as on The Unforgettable Fire. are those that sustain a mood: the slalom-down-the-guitar-strings opening of "Where The Streets Have No Name," the gospel phrasing of "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and the transcendent "With Or Without You," as lovely, ambiguous and frightening a song as ever graced pop radio in the 80s: with its throbbing baseline, it's literally the album's pulse. Its most prescient tune, though, is probably "Running to Stand Still," a dark acoustic gem, full of Bono's harsh whispers, whose thornier, unresolved emotions draw the band a map from the simplistic sloganeering of War-era stadium rock to the more mature problems of the heart that would dominate their work in the 90s.
3. Prince, Sign O' The Times (released March 30, 1987): Call it Paul McCartney Syndrome: when you're easily the most talented musician of your generation, and have already transformed the pop landscape several times over, anything less than revelation might strike your fan base as a disappointment.
Such is the fate of Prince Rogers Nelson, ne Symbol/Glyph, ne Hermaphrodite, ne The Artist Formerly Known As Relevant (as a roommate put it in college). He's produced a lot of spectacular music in the last twenty years-- from the soul/pop Freudian struggle of Graffiti Bridge to the sharp craftsmanship of Diamonds and Pearls and The Gold Experience to the sprawling, fascinating mess of Emancipation and Crystal Ball. Even his more recent, mannered work like Musicology and 3121 always contains a few moments of brilliance amidst the grand old man gestures and blues cliches.
Still, for many people, the 1980s will always be his strongest period, and when you drop a flat-out masterpiece like Sign O'' The Times, it's hard to argue the point.
Let me be clear: this is not only the best album of 1987, or the best album of the decade, but I think it's one of the five greatest pop records of all time. It would top my "Desert Island Disc" list, and it sounds every bit as fresh as it did 20 years ago. It was the culmination of a remarkably rich period for Prince, stretching from the new wave funk of Dirty Mind to the robotic soul apocalypse of 1999, through the commercial triumph of Purple Rain and the esoteric Beatles pastiche of Around The World In A Day. The previous year, Prince had a #1 single with "Kiss" (and another top ten hit, "Manic Monday," which he wrote for the Bangles), and also dropped a huge cinematic bomb called Under The Cherry Moon.
I will defend the latter as a loopy, tongue-in-cheek, midnite movie delight (it's got lush cinematography and two oddly sincere performances from Steven Berkoff and Kristen Scott Thomas), but what's indisputable was the quality of its soundtrack: Parade was another slice of avant-pop bliss that confirmed Prince as the great musical gambler of his generation. Pitched somewhere between Sam Cooke, The Beatles and Phllip Glass, it was rock-pop bouncing like ping-pong balls through a glass cathedral; its taut guitars and tighter drum machines richocheted around sonic structures that were less songs than brilliant sketches. And it worked: "Girls and Boys," "Mountains," "Anotherloverholeinyohead" and the hooky "Kiss" sounded utterly modern and catchy, and like nothing else on the radio. Maybe that's why the album, despite the single's success, was a relative commercial failure. That lack of success caused Warner Brothers to ask Prince to transform his triple-disc project, Crystal Ball, into a more manageable two-disc set.
Prince balked, grumbled, and did it, and for once the record company was right: Sign O' The Times is both Prince's most musically ambitious and his most focused. From the opening chords of the socially conscious "Sign O' The Times" (Prince's constant insistence on the primacy of the groove deployed to devastating effect-- dance to this, he seems to be saying) to the closing sighs of "Adore," every track unfolds with the assurance, the bliss, the utter rightness that signals a genius at the top of his game.
There are so many great songs here, from the Sly and Family Stone jam of "Play In the Sunshine" to the ironic dance beats of "Housequake" ("Shut up, already-- damn!") to the wonderully trippy, deeply cinematic chamber pop of "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker." And that's just side one of disc one! I haven't even mentioned the steam that rises from "Hot Thing," the neuotic, self-critical lyrics of "Strange Relationship," the drum machine attack of "U Got The Look," the surrealism of "Starfish and Coffee," the oh-wee-ooh of "Gonna Be A Beautiful Night," or the pop perfection (and emotional generosity) of "I Could Never Take the Place Of Your Man." Good lord, even the b-sides ("Shockadelica," "La La Hee Hee") and bootlegs ("Power Fantastic") would make lesser artists' careers. If any album belies the myth that 80s rock was devoid of soul, it's this record from Minneapolis's favorite, prodigal son.
4. The Replacements, Pleased To Meet Me (released July 7, 1987): Of course, it's not like Prince was the only one working hard that year in Minneapolis.
If Prince is the prodigal son, Paul Westerberg is-- what? Its drunken layabout? Big disappointment? Beautiful loser?
I like to think of him as a man born out of time.
In an interview in 1989 with Musician magazine, around the time of Don't Tell A Soul, Westerberg quietly pondered what it would've been like to have been a pop musician in the 1960s, "when being big was the goal all the groups strove for." He dismissed the idea, but I think it's a revealing moment: like Kurt Cobain a few years later, Westerberg was (and is) a man of tremendous pop songwriting gifts with the bad luck to be born in a time when misguided ethos about "authentcity" caused those gifts to appear suspect.
You can hear it on 1983's Hootenany, as the shimmer of "Color Me Impressed" struggles to escape its speed-thrash arrangement; on 1984's Let It Be, with the lolloping country-rock of "I Will Dare"; and all over Tim, their major label breakthrough-that-never-quite-was. The mixed commercial response to that album colors a lot of Pleased To Meet Me, which drunkenly stumbles on the line between punk WTF and pop genius. But that tension also makes it the band's best record, because it holds all the band's possibilities in it; as Eric Rohmer once wrote of Rossellini's later work, "Everything in it is instructive, even the errors."
Aside from the overwrought teen angst of "The Ledge", there aren't a lot of errors here, just scorching postpunk speed and drunken humor ("I.O.U.", "I Don't Know," "Nightclub Jitters") bumping up aginst pop shimmer: "Alex Chilton," "Skyway," "Never Mind," and "Can't Hardly Wait," whose chunky horns point the way to the ghostly surf-pop of "I'll Be You" and Westerberg's solo work.
That last song would someday become the title of a Jennifer Love Hewitt film, which suggests a lot of people listened to this record, even if it only sold a fraction of anything else mentioned in this post. The Replacements would make one more album as a group, Don't Tell A Soul, and Westerberg would release a mostly-solo disc, the excellent All Shook Down under the band's name in 1990. By 1991, they were a memory, and Westerberg would find some success as a solo artist and producer. They'd never again find the kind of balance they had here, but does longevity really matter, when the burst of brilliance is as bright as this one?
5. R.E.M., Document (released Sept. 1, 1987): Cars doors click-click, open and shut. Were there fall leaves? (There must have been fall leaves, it was fall after all). I'm pretty sure there was some kind of fall street festival going on downtown, but that might just be my Fellini-fueled imagination. We were shooting a student film downtown, for a high school film festival, and I was with new friends that I barely knew, a naive young freshman amidst the ostensibly more mature juniors and seniors. What I mostly remember is the sense of ritual, a kind of indoctrination into inside jokes, arcane movie references and the independent record stores around the college campus. There's a big brown bag on Derek's lap, and he eagerly removes its contents, R.E.M.'s new albun, Document. Shamefully, I have no idea who R.E.M. is (hey, I was fourteen), although I later discover I've been hearing their new single on the radio a lot without knowing who played it. Derek, however, is psyched. No, geeked-- geeked is definitely a better word, his eyes lit up and his face a rapturous smile, as if he's Indiana Jones stumbling on the Ark of the Covenant. I think he even sang a jittle jingle: "I got the album, I got the album!," he repeats to us all. Like me, he's in choir, and sings at least as well as Michael Stipe.
Like everything else about this mysterious band, the album cover is an invitation into a more adult world, both welcoming and intimidating in its use of collage, and mixture of color and black and white. Is that a band member on the cover?, I wonder. And why does the "R.E.M. 5" scratching look so much like a Guess jeans label, with the "5" in a triangle? The music on Document is superb, of course-- one of the nice things about a lot of work this year is that bands achieve commercial breakthroughs with some of their strongest material (and the music R.E.M. makes in this period is so good they're still releasing it-- recent single "Bad Day" was first written and demo'ed for this record). But as I enter high school (itself a big ritual), I am already looking forward to college, and college rock, and the joy of listening to R.E.M., XTC, The Replacements, Robyn Hitchcock and so many others that friends, local college rock radio, and various music magazines turn me onto is the thrill of feeling like part of a cool subculture, one very different than the more "popular" stuff then dominating radio. Of course, it was not a ritual unique to me, but was in fact one repeated by probably every teenager with one piece of pop culture or another. R.E.M.'s popularity continued to grow, culminating in two albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People-- the former released a month before i graduate from high school, the latter my sophomore year of college, an album that more than any other sounds like college in the fall to me (and there are no prettier leaves than those that fall in autumn in Brown County, IN). This might seem disappointing-- is there anything less cool than finding out others like your own personal cult item?-- but it ends up being an affirmation of the very qualities R.E.M. always embodied: their music, through all its play with subcultural codes, reminded you that you were not alone, that there was a larger world of mystery and wonder out there, and that the purpose was not to fetishize your eccentricity, but to build community around it, while maintaing that uncanny thrill of a crisp fall day.
"The lights go out and it's just the three of us/Yeah-- you, me and all that stuff we're so scared of..."
Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love, (released Oct. 9, 1987): It's been read as a document of Springsteen's first, failing marriage; as an allegory for the temporary dissolution of the E Street Band; as a response to the overwhelming success of Born In The U.S.A.
How about reading it this way: as the best record of Bruce Springsteen's career? That's certainly how I hear it.
"It's a sad funny endin', when you end up pretendin/A rich man in a poor man's shirt," Springsteen would sing five years later on his most joyous single, "Better Days." I always loved that line, a witty rebuke to critics who wondered why he wasn't still writing the same songs about cars, girls, and gettin'-out-this-place, as well as an affirmation of what music critic Bill Flanagan once called the John Lennon, "songs about me" tradition with which Springsteen has always done an ambivalent dance. "I cannot be the punk in Hamburg anymore," Lennon pleaded just before his death, in order to justify the sappy (but wonderful) love songs on Double Fantasy. In that sense, although it's much darker, musically complex and, well, better than Lennon's last record, Tunnel of Love can be heard as his Double Fantasy, a declaration of the deeply personal as filtered through the hugely popular, an autobiography in disguise as a country-rock genre exercise, the richest example of what Shamus has brilliantly mapped out as Springsteen's cinephiliac impulses.
And, finally, it was a release from expectations: the huge, post-USA commercial expectations (I recall with a shudder that goes deeper than the Ohio chill an episode of Growing Pains from 1985, where Mike and his dad bond at a Springsteen concert, so you can understand what Bruce was trying to get out from under); the longstanding, "voice of his generation" expectations that weighed on him since Jon Landau declared him "the future of rock" in the mid-1970s; from the expectations that he'd always write about characters and generations and issues instead of his own heart. Critics at the time noted the album cover's allusions to Elvis, with the big white caddy and the country gentleman black suit (he looks like he's standing on the set of every video Chris Issak will ever make); I see it more as the final reply to "Thunder Road": Springsteen's narrator finally figured out how to make his one last chance real, to trade in his wings for some wheels, and to drive from an extended adolscence into a difficult maturity.
None of this, of course, tells you anything about the music, and it's important not to let autobiography or authorial intention overwhelm their extremely delicate beauty. As I type this, "Cautious Man" has just come up on my I-Tunes, the verse that references Night of the Hunter: "On his right hand, Billy tatooed the word 'lovin',' on the left hand, the word 'fear'...", then goes on to describe the house Billy builds for his lover that summer. It's a surreal, haunting lyric, all the moreso for being set to a quivering acoustic guitar, the strings finger-picked and shaking, until muted banks of keyboards come in as a kind of musical and emotional ballast for the character's broken lives. Or consider the way the hopscotch guitar of "One Step Up" dances up and down chord progressions as if not so much providing musical support for Springsteen's voice as embodying the song's title (the lyric itself covers the same emotional entropy as "Dancing In The Dark," but it's the quiet hangover to the earlier single's joyful buzz). Note how the bright keyboards and higher vocal registers of "All That Heaven Will Allow" bump up against the cynical, rockabilly glee of "Spare Parts," the latter song utterly undoing all the domestic bliss of the former. Has there been tauter drumming on a Springsteen single than that on "Brilliant Disguise," the neat smack! of the beat irreversibly pushing the narrator toward an unwanted revelation of the self, fueling his paranoia and doubt? What about the daring silence that opens "Tunnel of Love," several seconds of quiet that makes you think your stereo is broken before the hurdy -gurdy kicks in to hurl you into musical vertigo? Or ending the album with the lolling country of "Valentine's Day," which sounds like some great, lost Elvis Costello song from King of America, its narrator balanced between hope and hopelessness, searching through the cliches that litter his heart, that give him absolute certainty and make him completely clueless? He "misses his home," but he sure ain't returning to it.
For many of Springsteen's longtime fans, Tunnel of Love marked a similar demarcation, a similar point of no return. Springsteen would spend the next fifteen years ratcheting down expectations. He followed up Tunnel with an EP for Amnesty International, crafted two smart, adult-oriented pop discs (Lucky Town and Human Touch) that still don't get the attention they deserve, released a greatest hits disc with a great new song ("Secret Garden"), and tried to channel Woody Guthrie on 1995's frankly misguided Ghost of Tom Joad (I think the Tex-Mex of 2005's Devils and Dust covers this territory far more fruitfully). But for those willing to hop in Springsteen's Cadillac ("all the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood..."), Tunnel of Love is a remarkably brave and bracing ride.