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Why the 1980s was the greatest pop music decade of them all

I SEEM to have spent most of my life trying to redeem the Eighties.

In fact, I have spent my entire journalistic career trying to redeem them.

To me, the Eighties is not just a great decade, it’s the greatest decade in pop — a time when Duran Duran fought off Wham! for the top spot on the charts, when U2 became the biggest rock group on the planet, and when pop music became more adventurous and more exciting than ever.

Interminable TV programmes still suggest the whole period was nothing but a calamitous mistake, a cultural cul-de-sac full of rotten records by shameful individuals with orange skin and espadrilles.

A decade full of rah-rah skirts and drum machines.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, I believe in the Eighties so much I’ve just made a four-part BBC TV series about them, which starts next Saturday on BBC2.

To bolster my argument I’ve inter-viewed everyone from Nile Rodgers and Mark Ronson to Bananarama and super-producer Trevor Horn — the man who made Frankie Goes To Hollywood famous.

The series features Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, UB40, Iron Maiden, Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp and dozens more stars whose success coincided with the Eighties.

Because they also believe it was the greatest decade of them all.

The Eighties is one of the most inventive periods of pop culture, a kaleidoscopic display of musical experimentation in which genres were born and evolved with dizzying rapidity.

While music continues to fascinate to this day, it will never be as varied as it was back then.

What other decade could deliver Kate Bush, Madness, R.E.M., Cocteau Twins, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Sugarhill Gang, The Smiths, Public Enemy, S’Express and Sade etc?

What other decade could produce the likes of Grace Jones, Prefab Sprout, Tears For Fears, Whitney Houston, Prince, Eurythmics, Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode? Japanese girls dressed up like Boy George.

If you cast your mind back a few decades, you might remember hearing that the Seventies was once labelled the decade that taste forgot.

Whenever anyone tried to say the Seventies was a period of great music ­— glam rock, disco, punk, soul etc — we had Bay City Rollers, Slik and David Cassidy thrown in our face.

According to the cultural arbiters of cool, the Seventies were naff and there was nothing anyone could say that could change their minds.

Then, around the turn of the century, quick as a flash, the Seventies appeared to have been redeemed and suddenly it was the Eighties which had become the decade that taste forgot.

Bonkers, isn’t it?


One minute The Osmonds are the anti-Christ and then, without so much as a by-your-leave, they’ve been replaced by Stock Aitken Waterman.

Well, I don’t believe it, which is why I spent the summer making a TV series that will hopefully go some way toward helping us to fall in love with the Eighties all over again.

I certainly remember them well.

I was there in the Blitz club when Boy George worked in the cloakroom. I was there at the launch of Wham!’s first album, Fantastic, which they were so pleased with they spent the entire evening dancing to it.

I was there at Live Aid when Wembley Stadium became the scene of the biggest charity drive in history and Queen delivered the greatest stadium performance of all time.

And I was there in the recording studio when Jerry Dammers and The Special AKA put the finishing touches to Free Nelson Mandela — one of the most important records not just of the Eighties, but of all time.

Even then, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

The Eighties was the most varied decade in pop and it played host to a wild variety of pop styles.

First you had electropop and the New Romantics, then you had rap and hip-hop, before the decade ended with acid house and Madchester.

The decade also played host to the very biggest stars the pop world had ever seen: George Michael, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Simon Le Bon, Boy George, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Prince.

Fundamentally, there are three reasons why this happened.

Up until the Eighties pop had been completely linear, with one style of music dutifully following another — just like the mods followed the rockers, who were followed by the hippies, and then by the soul boys and glam rockers and finally by punk.

But after the post-punk explosion, all bets were off as artists tried to outdo each other by becoming more extreme, more unusual, more out-rageous and more . . . everything.

Secondly, technology made it easier to buy cheap computers, drum machines and synthesisers, meaning the likes of New Order could go into a recording studio sounding like a bunch of miserable Northern rockers and emerge as a dynamic electronic hybrid.

Mark Ronson says: “The Eighties sound was so vibrant because it was when technology was really hitting its stride.”

Thirdly, the cable channel MTV, which launched as the Eighties began, gave pop a global platform where groups could sell their music, and their look, all over the world.

MTV gave the world Duran Duran on their yacht in Rio, it gave us Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorba-chev slugging it out in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes video, and it gave us David Bowie rolling around in the surf with New Zealand model Geeling Ng in his ridiculously popular China Girl video. It even gave us those hoary old Seventies boogie merchants ZZ Top, who had been reinvented for the video age.

MTV made everyone famous, even people who thought they were famous already.

I remember being backstage at the Milton Keynes Bowl in 1983 just before David Bowie walked on stage.

Here was a man who had spent the Seventies revered as an artist who kept reinventing his job. But by 1983, after the success of Let’s Dance, a record that had been relentlessly promoted by MTV, he was a genuine global superstar, a man as famous as Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson or Boy George.

And he wasn’t quite sure how to cope with it all.

That afternoon, as he turned to walk up the gangplank that would take him to the stage, he turned to me and my friend Cynthia and said: “It’s nice to be surrounded by friends when you’re about to something like this. Who knew the Eighties would be so big?!”

By 1983, British pop was big everywhere.


That year I was in Tokyo, and got taken to a nightclub on the 23rd floor of a skyscraper in the Shinjuku district.

The lift opened right on to the dancefloor, a dancefloor that was full of teenage Japanese girls all dressed like Boy George.

It was not just the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen, it was testament to the fact that British pop was sweeping the globe.

By the end of the decade, however, all that was forgotten as the world moved on.

Grunge became cool, then Britpop, and then the all-encompassing world of EDM (electronic dance music), leaving the Eighties very much in the lurch.
They are now back, however, with something of a vengeance.

Dua Lipa’s records sound like they could have been made in the Eighties, as do Laura Mvula’s.

You only have to briefly listen to Ed Sheeran’s brilliant Bad Habits to recognise the debt it pays to Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, a hit for the openly gay band in 1984.

Today, people recognise that the Eighties was a decade full of talent, full of success and full of style.

It wasn’t the decade that taste forgot at all. Which is why I wanted to make a TV show about it.

Guitar and production genius Nile Rodgers says in my programme: “The Eighties was the pinnacle for a lot of us musicians who had come from the Sixties and the Seventies.

“Reaching that place, you had this great explosion of artistry in the Eighties that ran the gamut.”

Keren Woodward, from Bananarama, says: “You’d hear something and think, ‘Oh, that’s Bananarama, that’s Culture Club, that’s Duran Duran’ — and everyone looked their own way as well.”

I interviewed dozens of stars for the TV series but one of the most profound was Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson.

When I asked him why he thought his band had become so popular in the Eighties, he smiled and said: “It happened because while we were very good at our job, the audience knew that we also had a sense of humour about what we did.

“We were proud of our music but we tried to keep our feet on the ground.”

So many pop stars in the Eighties did the same — although the good ones, the ones you remember, are the ones who also took their jobs incredibly seriously.

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