The Finest Year – My Favourite Year (pt 3, the Finale)

1980-Album-Reviews

PART ONE
PART TWO

Right, so I kinda let this one get backlogged for a long while, but I’m up early, and it’s either this or I go early to clean my mother’s house (I’ve decided to wait a bit and go to the writer’s group first). Anyway, a quick reminder: the magic year was 1980. that’s when everything in music changed big time, and I include 1979 and 1981 as transitional years as well, to give the full spectrum of just what happened there. I don’t discuss the politics or the social mores (much). Just the music.

So, I left off at The Cars, which means it’s time for…

The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys (1979)/Boys Don’t Cry (1980)/Seventeen Seconds (1980)/Faith (1981): Yes, I’ve listed four albums, and they’re not even my favourites, but they are Important albums, because you get to hear how fast The Cure developed from a three piece punk rock outfit to the prototypical Goth band, pretty much from album to album, and even from track to track. It’s a fascinating evolution, and it’s a journey that Robert Smith keeps finding ways to revisit, even though most of his fans figure he peaked with 1989’s Disintegration.

The Eagles – The Long Run (1979): Brilliant closing statement or last gasp of a 70s dinosaur? Neither view is accurate, given that a form of Eagles reunion (these days minus the mercurial and brilliant Don Felder) is touring to this day. But it was a kind of send off to all of the notorious excesses of the 70s (to soon be replaced by the equally outrageous 80s, of course), and many of the tunes stand in sharp contrast to the rest of their back catalogue, given that they’d become so much more jaded and worldly by this time. Even throwaway tracks like Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks, a nod to much of the New Romantic sound of Blondie and Elvis Costello (amongst many others), is a picture post card of the times that resonates in the darkest corners of European sports bars of today. But you can pretty much write whatever you like when you have tunes like Joe Walsh’s masterpiece, In The City, on there.

The Kinks – Low Budget (1979)/Give The People What They Want (1981): Here are two albums that mark a sea change in sonic heft and cynical bite. Ray Davies has always been a hard bitten skeptic, but these albums were big and brash and scathing. They also cover the gamut of sonic styles of the time, including (Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman (a very topical subject, given the Christopher Reeves movies), which is a fun house mirror disco tune about a guy who is in terrible shape, and the title track Low Budget, which describes the terrible conditions of late 70s England, but pretty much applied to everywhere at that point. Then on the flip side, you have Destroyer, the ultimate paranoid meltdown tune, perfect for the snowblind 80s of Reagan and Thatcher. Ray would go on to pen pop gems like Come Dancing and the master class crafted Do It Again, but here at the crossroads of 1980, Ray was rarely ever more relevant.

The Moody Blues – Long Distance Voyager (1981): Here’s an album that sees the band fully embracing the sounds of the early 80s, opening with The Voice, the first really solid hit pop song Justin had written since Question (in 1970!), and a perfect presage to what his work would be like throughout the 80s and early 90s, when he’d pen monster hits like Your Wildest Dreams, I Know You’re Out there Somewhere, and No More Lies. Truly a reinvigorated band, after years of coasting softly on the scent of pot and hashish and kaftans and Persian rugs and all the trappings they’d become festooned with in the late 60s and early 70s.

The Police – Zenyatta Mondata (1980)/Ghost In The Machine (1981): What trip to 1980 would be complete without stopping in to look at The Police? I included two albums here because of the sea change between them. The previous two albums had stuff like Roxanne, Message In a Bottle, and Walking On The Moon, but 1980 gave us Don’t Stand So Close To Me, and there was no turning back. They were growing, straining against the soft shell of the Ska/white reggae sound they had adopted after introducing themselves as a punk rock band to limited success. Don’t Stand so Close To Me didn’t break the mould (and neither did De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da) but it hinted at the break to come. That wouldn’t happen until 1981, with Spirits In the Material World, Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, The Invisible Sun, Too Much Information, Rehumanize Yourself and Omegaman. I mention these last two because they outline perfectly that Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers weren’t going to be hiding in Sting’s shadow for much longer. The former presented us with Copeland’s road map for his upcoming solo career; the latter was practically the template for their swansong, the brilliant Synchronicity album. Both are brilliant, and neither were written by Gordon Sumner. This was a band of equals, which it took Sting the better part of 25 years to remember and admit properly.

The Who – Face Dances (1981): Now here’s a band that were forced to make a change, simply because their superstar drummer, the inexhaustible Keith Moon, had died in 1978. Other bands might have packed it in, but The Who were an institution, and Pete Townshend wasn’t quite ready to go it solo yet. So they hired on a new, less manic drummer, and wrote a new album, featuring the hit song You Better You Bet. I have to admit, I haven’t spent much time with this album, but no one listening to the song can argue that it wasn’t another sea change in the sound and the life of the band.

Todd Rundgren – Healing (1981): This is a bright, relatively happy album. Todd’s albums are always good for a few happy little earworms, but much of his work in the 70s was fairly progressive and fraught with cynicism. By 1981, his vision was changing, and he started writing what can only be called uplifting pop music. It’s a good album, but I’ve only played it once in recent memory, so it’s a little difficult for me to say more about it.

Tom Cochrane and Red Rider – Don’t Fight It (1979)/As Far As Siam (1981): Red Rider’s first album is littered with clever rock songs that defy easy categorization. It’s rock, yes, but littered with synths and occasionally very funky rhythms, and some of the coolest slide guitar heard in a radio-friendly format. Tom was a master songwriter even at this stage, and the band at this stage were a perfect foil for his work. And of course, their second album opens with Lunatic Fringe, one of their signature hits. Their music at this stage has a signature sound that they wouldn’t lose until their name was expanded to include Tom’s full name, presaging his eventual solo career. But for my money, his music was never cooler than when it was performed by Ken Greer and Jeff Jones. Thankfully, they’ve been reunited for the last decade. Sadly, this has not translated to a new album.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Damn The Torpedoes (1979): Damn fine rock album. A shift in production values and sound, and a quantum leap in songwriting, as Tom started banging out whole albums of memorable tunes from this point forward. An absolute classic.

Tony Banks – A Curious Feeling (1979): Genesis keyboardist Banks’ first solo album is loaded with the sort of instrumental meditations and progressive-tinged songs that Genesis’ music had started to strip away at this point. But the revelation here is that, for the first time, you can really hear just how heavy Tony’s influence on Genesis music in the 70s really was. Sonically, it doesn’t tell you much about where he would go with his next solo album in 1983 (The Fugitive), or where Genesis’ music was going after that point, either, but as it and Mike Rutherford’s Smallcreep’s Day were recorded between And Then There Were Three and the watershed album, Duke, it certainly presents a convincing companion work to the quartet of albums. A very important album that most folks haven’t heard.

UK – Danger Money (1979): The swansong of the short-lived progressive rock super group–perhaps the finest such example of post-progressive mastery in the age of Disco and Punk Rock–contains some truly evocative pieces and a solid display of prog rock drumming from new member Terry Bozzio (of Frank Zappa and later Missing Persons fame). By this time, John Wetton and Eddie Jobson were doing all of the heavy lifting, compositionally, having dispensed with the services of Bill Bruford and Alan Holdsworth, and though John’s penchant for ballads would not really present itself until the second and third Asia albums, you do at least get a sense on this album that, despite the progressive trappings, it’s an effort to create commercially-viable prog music without writing singles, an exercise John wouldn’t repeat for many years after UK’s eventual break-up. In recent years, John, Eddie and Terry have reunited, using other drummers when Terry was unavailable, and using the guitar services of the immensely talented Alex Macachek to perform the Alan Holdsworth parts. I’m not holding my breath, but I’m rather hoping they’ll record an album together, as John’s return to Asia has been interesting, but the songwriting there is very much in the classic Asia songwriting formula, and I’d like to hear what he can do with a (Wetton-penned) prog composition again.

Van Halen – Women and Children First (1980): Yes, even Van Halen started shifting focus a bit in 1980. Their first two albums were loaded with solid hard rock diamonds, including the obligatory Kinks cover tunes, but by this time, the songwriting was starting to mature, and the lyrical themes were starting to get more poignant. Sure, there were also numbers like Everybody Wants Some–an indicator of where things like Panama and Hot For Teacher would come from a few years later–but in the main, though the songs are a little less infectious, the album as a whole is a much more shaded effort, lurking in the shadows where before the lyrics and tunes were designed for strutting in the limelight.

XTC – Drums and Wires (1979)/Black Sea (1980): The band hadn’t yet transformed into the studio-only unit of their later career, and as such, were still a fully-integrated post-punk band at this point. But that said, things were already changing. For one thing, the songwriting on the part of both Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge was starting to really set in. The opening track to Drums and Wires, perennial favourite Making Plans For Nigel, pretty much cemented their career; if they’d never recorded another hit, they’d still be remembered for this one. But though the album isn’t a wall-to-wall hit factory, it’s sonically a step above their previous efforts, and every tune is memorable, in a bratty punk pop sort of way. And of course, 1980’s Black Sea built on from there, giving us Respectable Street, Generals and Majors, Towers of London, Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me), and the strange experimental sound of Travels in Nihilon, an indicator of how far they had come from the days of Statue of Liberty.

And that brings us to the last album on my list of 1980…

Yes – Drama (1980): Here was an incredibly important album, as it was the first yes album to feature a vocalist other than Jon Anderson, and it’s a significant change, even if Trevor Horn did his very best to maintain a similar sonic quality to Jon’s voice. The really telling thing about this album is, though it had some muscular progressive numbers like Machine Messiah, it also contained Does It Really Happen and the classic Yes mostly-instrumental, Tempus Fugit, two of the most radio-friendly Yes tunes since Roundabout. This album is often overshadowed by the pop and rock sensibilities of Trevor Rabin’s era in Yes throughout the 80s and early 90s, but it is a watershed moment for the band; a real sonic shift, and a first taster of what Yes would be like without Jon Anderson at the tiller.
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Well, there you have it, the third and final instalment of my thesis on why 1980 was such an important year in rock music. I left out a few other bands that I feel were really just treading water at this point, or were, for lack of a better way to put it, just a little too wilfully weird to be considered standard-bearers for the time period. I fully acknowledge that this is not a definitive collection of albums from this period. I don’t own everything every recorded in and around 1980. I don’t even consider this to be a 100 Best list or some such thing. It’s just what it says it is: an analysis of music from 1980 that shaped and changed what had come before into what was to come. While many of these bands would go on to greater hits in the later 80s, this was where a great many of them discovered radio accessibility for the first time, and that first taste of popular acceptance would colour much of what pop music would present from that point forward.

Anyway, I have to get back to designing graphics, Thank you for joining me on this strange little romp.

Lee.

[ETA: There are some fine acts that got their start around this time, but were not included in this list because I didn’t possess their inaugural albums (even after all of this time). I’ve since corrected some of those oversights in my collection, and so I may write a denouement piece to address those groups soon. ~Ed. 2016 01 04]

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