The Music That Made Me: 1980

*Yep, I changed the title of this series to something a little less self-aware and cumbersome than “40/4/40: The Albums That Shaped a Life.” And so I give you: The Music That Made Me. Cuz I still loves me some alliteration.

When I decided I’d do little write-ups about my favorite albums from each year of my life, I envisioned grouping them into posts covering five year stretches. Then I started in on 1980, and . . . well, I got a little carried away. (Anyone who knows me won’t be remotely shocked by this occurrence.) It appears I’ve got a lot to say about this, the year that kicked off everyone’s favorite decade. So off we go!

One of the interesting things about rolling through a year of music is the rare instance when what you always believed about said year is confirmed. As for 1980? Well, I didn’t have any ideas at the time, being a toddler and all, but as I grew up I always sensed that this had been an odd, transitional year for popular music. The deaths of the two Johns, Lennon and Bonham, put a definitive end to the defining rock bands of the Sixties and Seventies, respectively. (Imagine all the people who still hoped against hope, even in 1980, that the Beatles would reunite. See what I did there? Imagine all the people? Thanks, I’ll show myself out.) Disco wasn’t dead, but it had jumped the shark and begun its long decline. Punk might have made a lot of arena rock sound laughable, but its inherent attitude was like a virus that burned out once it killed the host. Michael Jackson and Prince were coming on but hadn’t reached their titanic peaks. New Wave was probably the most vital form of music going.

. . . At least, that was my general impression. And hey presto! Scrolling through the list of album releases in 1980, I discovered it was indeed an odd year, one that lacked a single, defining sound. (As for a defining moment? Lennon’s murder, probably. That’s not what anyone is looking for when looking back on a year in music.) That doesn’t mean there weren’t a haul of good albums. Among many other luminous offerings, 1980 brought us a few contenders for the coveted title of Edward’s Favorite Album of the Year. Let’s reel off a few.

AC/DC, Back in Black

In the immortal words of Ron Swanson: “Don’t half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” (Though I prefer the term “full-ass” to “whole-ass,” as described in my novel Now It Gets Interesting.) AC/DC, above all other rock bands, whole-assed one thing. You will never be in any doubt as to what you’re getting when you press play on an AC/DC album. That monolithic style is probably why they’ve never been among my favorite bands. On the other hand, if aliens ever land on Earth and demand to know what rock ‘n’ roll is all about, I will immediately play them Back in Black. It’s just about the most perfectly distilled essence of rock any band ever made, featuring one of my all-time favorite song titles, “Let Me Put My Love Into You.” That right there is rock ‘n’ roll, boys and girls.

Queen, The Game

I love Queen, but their best albums came out prior to 1977 and thus, alas, fall outside of the purview of this little series. Any album featuring “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” cannot be ignored, however. (Not to mention “Play the Game” and “Save Me.”) Especially not for anyone who grew up going to roller skating rinks. And as long as we’re talking about Queen . . .

Queen, Flash Gordon

I cannot possibly sum up the impact Flash Gordon, the movie and soundtrack, had on my life in one paragraph. That deserves its own post—hell, maybe even a full memoir—which I promise to get to one day.

Talking Heads, Remain in Light

In the early aughts, I decided to blindly buy albums by bands I knew only by their singles. Remain in Light was my first Talking Heads record. I chose it because everything I had read indicated it was the most revered of their albums. I understand why in the context of the times; the band’s first three albums had a somewhat unified sound, whereas this one took a deep dive into African polyrhythm. For you younger readers, know this: in the Eighties, every self-respecting musician was delving into African polyrhythm, Caribbean percussion, and anything else Americans and Brits decided to dub “World Music,” culminating with Paul Simon’s Graceland. This was the Eighties equivalent of every Sixties band’s obsession with the sitar.

The Talking Heads had dipped their toes into the World Music waters with “I Zimbra” off Fear of Music, but Remain in Light represented the full realization of that musical direction. As great as it is, though–seriously . . . “Born Under Punches,” man–I like the first three Talking Heads albums and one that came later more than Remain in Light. (We’ll get to that later album by the by.)

Van Halen, Women and Children First

The requisite Van Halen album and mention. I don’t think this one stacks up to either of the first two albums, but hey, I’m in the tank for Van Halen, so they’re going to show up all over this series, even in passing.

The Clash, Sandinista!

If you don’t know the story behind Sandinista!, it goes like this: the Clash’s record label hadn’t wanted to release the double album London Calling. (Proving, once and for all, that record label execs are idiots.) So the band went in and made a triple—that’s right: triple!—album. That is trolling of the highest order, friends.

How did the Clash generate enough songs for a triple album? Well, to put it charitably, they, um, threw in a lot of, um, “experimental compositions.” Or, in the argot of our times, filler.

If you took the twelve best songs off Sandinista!, you have an album that tops every other release in 1980. But this list is about celebrating cohesive, beautiful works of sonic art—all killer, no filler, if you please. So I can’t reward the Clash for saddling an album’s worth of genius with an epic troll job aimed at their record label. Which leads us (finally) to Edward’s Favorite Album of 1980 . . .

The Police, Zenyatta Mondatta

I guess the picture up top spoiled the surprise, huh?

Here we have my favorite Police album. (Though it pains me a little not to crown Regatta de Blanc, which features my favorite Police song, “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.”) Basically, I love every single song on this record except for the first—which just happens to be its biggest hit and one of the most famous songs from the entire decade.

That would be “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”

. . . Which isn’t to say I think it’s a bad song. More than anything else, pure overexposure is probably what soured me on it. (That, and the absolute abomination that is “Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86.”) But that track always bugged me for some reason I couldn’t quite define—at least until I heard a quote from Steward Copeland insisting that Sting threw in the line Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov to sound intellectual. Copeland claimed Sting had never even read Lolita. (That’s some nice shade you’re throwing, Stew!) And . . . yep, I think that’s it. That line always irritated me, even as a kid who hadn’t heard of, much less read, Lolita. Its generic phrasing gives it away: here’s a dude trying to sound smart.

OK, enough about a song I don’t particularly like. Let’s talk about the rest of the album.

I discovered Zenyatta Mondatta (and the Police’s penchant for goofy yet pretentious album titles) during my high school years while working a summer job bagging newspapers. I had inherited a hand-me-down 90-minute cassette my older brother had made by copying tapes he checked out from our local library. (That’s right, we Cowans are pirates! Don’t @ me, RIAA.) Zenyatta was on one side, Synchronicity the other.

Here’s the thing about Zenyatta: I have an intense fondness for songs combining light or jaunty music with grim lyrical content. (Or the other way ‘round, though I can’t think of any examples of that off the top of my head. Did Slayer ever do a song extolling kittens and rainbows?) From an early age, I found this juxtaposition hilarious. The uber-example of this phenomenon is probably “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which details the depredations of a serial killer to a tune you can teach kindergarteners to sing. (And I have, in fact, heard kindergarteners singing it.) Come to think of it, the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” is a pretty upbeat number, too, what with all the fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fas. And hell, “Life During Wartime.” Damn, I love the Talking Heads.

I don’t think any band made more of these songs than the Police, though; few things tickle me more than finding out someone played “Every Breath You Take” at their wedding. And Zenyatta is loaded with tracks that scratch this extremely specific musical itch o’ mine. You’ve got “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around,” a bouncy little number about the crushing depression of poverty and the sameness of every day; “Bombs Away,” the subject of which you can surely imagine; “Man In A Suitcase,” which describes the transient, empty life of a man perpetually on the road; and above all, “Canary In a Coalmine,” which has to be the happiest song about hypochondria ever written. Add all that up, and you’ve got an album custom made for the misanthrope in all of us!

HONORABLE MENTION: The Clash, Sandinista! See above.

FUN FACTS:

  • In the Year of Our Ed 1980, a compilation album entitled Metal For Muthas was released in England. It’s most famous for including two of Iron Maiden’s earliest recordings. (Which is why I cared in the first place.) While perusing the track listing for the album, my heart seized up—for not only did Iron Maiden appear on Metal For Muthas, but also . . . TOAD THE WET SPROCKET?!!! WTF?!
  • Alas, this is not the same Toad the Wet Sprocket we all know and love, but an unrelated English metal band. For one sweet moment, though, the idea of a compilation featuring both “Wrathchild” and “Walk On the Ocean” made my heart flutter with happiness.
  • 1980 also saw the release of Chipmunk Punk. If you’re wondering whether a musical genre is dead, kids, always look for the release of a Chipmunks album on that topic.

Coming soon(ish): 1981-1984.