Smashing Hits! The 80s pop map of Britain and Ireland – BBC 4

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The music of the 1980s is the soundtrack to my life.  Well, to be strictly accurate, the music of the late 1980s and the early 1990s was the soundtrack to my formative years, but, however you put it, 1980s music is “my” music.  I’ve only got to hear the few first bars of a hit song from the second half of the 1980s and I am right back there: I can tell you exactly when it was from, and exactly what was going on both in my life and in the world in general at that time.  Take this morning.  I was in the gym (I go before work during Wimbledon), and on came Sweet Child O’ Mine.  I only needed to hear a few notes of it and I was back in 1989, listening to our form teacher read us the Riot Act over a load of graffiti having appeared in the locker area.  I don’t think the culprit was ever actually unmasked, but I do know that the lyrics to Sweet Child O’Mine were part of the offending artwork.

Life isn’t like that any more.  I haven’t got a clue what’s number one in the charts.  I assume people do still use the terms “the charts” and “the top 40” (and I remember when it was the “the top 30”), incidentally?  My sister and I used to find it hilarious that Mum and Dad referred to the charts as “the hit parade”, and that our late grandad, bless him, insisted on referring to a record player as a “gramophone”!    It’s rather depressing to think that I’m now just as out of touch as we thought they were back then.  Do millennials even know what a record player or a tape/cassette player is?  Do they ever go into a shop and buy a piece of physical media with music on it, or is it all downloads these days?  It’s a different world these days.  So it’s very nice that BBC 4 are allowing me to step back into my world for a little while, with this three-part series about the music of the 1980s.  Because it was the best music ever, right?!  Yep.  That’s what old people say.  It’s what Mum and Dad used to say, in the 1980s and 1990s, about the music of the 1950s and 1960s!

Do little kids still have playground versions of popular songs, by the way?  Like we used to have in the early 1980s?  “Relax, don’t do it.  Pick your nose and chew it.”  “Uptown Wally.  She’s been living in a Tesco trolley.  She had it off with the Action Man.  She left her knickers in an ice cream van.”  Maybe we were just weird at our primary school.  And that was actually rather rude for primary school kids to have been singing, come to think of it.  Er, moving swiftly on …

This is a different take on music history, because it’s about the way in which different British cities produced different music.  We hear a lot about “diversity” these days, but, it many ways, everything seems so uniform, so samey.  You go on holiday, and you’re in France or Germany or Italy or Spain and there are billboards everywhere showing adverts in English.  The same with slogans in shops or bars.  What??  What is wrong with the language of the country you’re in?  And there are branches of McDonald’s and Starbuck’s everywhere.  It’s all the same.  I tell you, three cheers for Greggs, who make a big effort to stock cakes and pastries that are relevant to the part of the country that each particular branch is in.  The National Trust do as well, to be fair.  I love it when I see bara brith in the tea room at Chirk Castle, or Scouse in the tea room at Speke Hall.  Uniformity is boring!

Towards the end of the 1980s, things did get rather uniform, thanks to Stock Aitken Waterman.  Whether it was Rick Astley from Newton-le-Willows and Sonia from Liverpool, Kylie and Jason from Down Under, or Big Fun who were a mixture of Mancunians, Midlanders and Londoners (what???), it all sounded the same.  Don’t get me wrong – I love SAW songs.  I would never have admitted that, back in the day, because only really uncool people admitted to liking SAW, but, come on, everyone likes those songs, don’t they?  But it was all artificial, and manufactured, and samey.

And then came the “Madchester” era.  Hooray!   I remember going on a school trip to the British Museum in London in 1990.  No school uniform on school trips.  Presumably so that, if anyone did anything terrible, no-one would be able to tell what school they came from!  Practically every single kid turned up in a hooded top – bought from places like Stolen from Ivor – and a pair of jeans by Joe Bloggs of Cheetham Hill.  We thought we were the coolest thing ever, strutting round That London in all our Manchester gear.  “You’re twisting my melon, man.”   It was a local thing.  Like Merseybeat’d been in the ’60s.  There was a lot of local stuff going on in the ’80s and early ’90s.  Music meant something: it came from places and times and cultures.

“Madchester”, coming at the end of the 1980s, is going to be covered in the final episode of the three.  Next week’s Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  I’ve just booked to see The Proclaimers in November: I’m very excited about that.  I’d be even more excited if it was Wet Wet Wet, but I did get to see them a couple of years back.  Anyway, the first episode was about London, Coventry and Sheffield.  And it took us right back to the early 1980s – which was before my musical time, so it was quite educational, because I don’t really remember the “scenes” of that time.

First up, the New Romantics.  Definitely before my time – although I remember my older cousin being obsessed with Duran Duran.  I love Spandau Ballet’s music, but Through the Barricades is the only one of their hit songs that I was really into at the time at which it was out.  Incredible song!  True, To Cut A Long Story Short and Gold are incredible songs too.  Is there anything around now that can come even close to matching music like that?   And Karma Chameleon was one of the first records I owned: Boy George was such an icon, even to younger kids.  The programme, presented by Kim Appleby – and I well remember the sadness when Kim’s sister Mel died so tragically young, and the admiration for Kim as she bravely went on with her music career as a solo artist – and Midge Ure (“Oh, Vienna … ) explored the Soho scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how that gave rise to Adam and the Ants, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club.

Duran Duran are from Birmingham, obviously, just before I offend anyone by seeming to count them in with the Londoners!   In fact, I thought Birmingham should have been given more credit here, because it was just as much of a New Romantic centre as London was.  And a lot of the talk was about the success of British bands in America.  “The second British invasion.”  British music was big.  It was so big!

A lot of this was put down to MTV and the influence of videos.  We didn’t have MTV, until the advent of satellite TV in the late 1980s.  We only got to see the much-discussed videos on Top of the Pops and The Roxy, about an hour a week in total.  But what a big deal the videos became!   I remember the first time that the video for Madonna’s Like A Prayer was shown in the UK.  There’d been a huge fuss about it, because it’d offended the Vatican!   That evening, I went round to my then best friend’s house for tea, and she and I and her brother were sat there, waiting for the video to be shown, like it was some world-changing moment!

And Smash Hits, the music magazine, was also given a lot of credit for the rise of the New Romantics.  Ah, Smash Hits!  Both it and Just Seventeen used to come out on a Wednesday.  In the third year of secondary school, we used to have double physics on a Wednesday afternoon.  I’m sure the teacher was a really nice woman who was much loved by her family and friends, but a) she couldn’t hold the class’s attention and b) she never seemed to notice what any of us were doing.  So we’d all sit there reading Smash Hits and Just Seventeen!  I never did learn very much about physics, but ask me anything about pop music in 1987 or 1988 and I’ll probably be able to tell you!

Sadly, the New Romantics movement didn’t last.  The programme put its demise down to Adam and the Ants miming on The Children’s Royal Variety Performance, during which they were apparently on in between The Krankies and Rod Hull and Emu.  I don’t remember that, so I’ll have to take Midge and Mel’s words for it.  But the music lives on.  ’80s music lives on!!

Next up came Coventry and ska, and, with this, much more of a sense of a particular city’s history and culture.  Sorry, London, but you don’t do regional identity in the same way as other cities do!  I was only thinking about The Specials last week.  “Free Nelson Mandela”.  Ghost Town is the other Specials song that everyone knows – and, as Mel and Midge pointed out, that (again, before my musical time, really) said so much about 1981, the year of the riots in Toxteth and Brixton and elsewhere.  Music then was so much more about time and place than it seems to be now.  And a big element of ska was the influence of Jamaican culture on Coventry.  Funny, we’re hearing so much about immigration at the moment, but I’m not really getting a sense of Eastern European influence on music.  Or am I just too old and out of touch to know what’s going on?!

I’ve never really been into ska, TBH.  But this was Coventry’s thing.  A smaller city having such a big influence on music.  And then it was on to electronic scene, in Sheffield.  Again, its heyday was a bit early for me, but I love some of these songs.  “Don’t you want me, baby?”  “Shoot that poison arrow to my hah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-heart!”  And, again, it was about a time and a place – deindustrialisation in a Northern city in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.  The Human League, Temptation and ABC were the groups discussed.  “All I’m saying. It takes a lot to love you.”   Wonderful stuff.  And all rooted in Sheffield, a city badly hit by the economic problems of the era.

The synthesiser!   That led on – although the programme didn’t go into this – to the later electro-pop music, and that really was my era.  A-ha.  The Pet Shop Boys.  Erasure.  There was even a group called Electronic – a collaboration between the wonderful, wonderful Pet Shop Boys and Manchester’s very own New Order.  “However I look, it’s clear to see, that I love you more than you love me.”  Sorry, that’s way off the point.  Sheffield!  Early 1980s!  The banning of Heaven 17’s “We don’t need this fascist groove thang” by the BBC, in case it offended the president of the United States.  Maybe that song needs a bit of a revival?!

And that was Sheffield.  London.  Coventry.  Sheffield.  Music that grew organically out of the culture of a particular city, at a particular time.  All a bit mad, in its way.  But natural.  Not manufactured.  Not artificial.  Not uniform.  And all so very gloriously 1980s!   There will never be another musical decade like the 1980s, and the music of the 1980s will never die!