GARY STEEL has a rule about nostalgia. The rule is never to indulge in it. Let it be known that in this story he breaks his own rule about the most seminal year in his life and in music.
I can’t process it all, really. That 1980 happened 40 long years ago just doesn’t compute.
In 1980, it still felt like music could change the world. Punk rock had evolved into the wayward adventurism of post-punk and presented what felt like a very real challenge to the mainstream and all its evils.
But what felt like just the start of something great was actually one great heaving, screaming orgasm of creativity preceding a calamitous degradation the very next year into a new era of tinny ‘80s dance-pop with a ‘new romantic’ spin.
I thought that Public Image Ltd, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Joy Division and the Gang Of Four were leading us to a brave new future and that independent and wayward, experimental sounds would soon dominate the charts. Instead, a new generation of foppish men in shiny clothes and too much makeup would soon be gyrating to songs like ‘Girls On Film’.
But let’s not talk about that, because it’s too depressing. The 1980s is really like a whole bunch of decades and scenes joined together and most of them are shit, from the plastic pop coming out of England to the Los Angeles hair metal later in the decade.
Nineteen eighty was a whole other thing. It was XTC’s epochal Black Sea album, The Cure’s moody Seventeen Seconds, Echo & the Bunnymen’s most acclaimed album Crocodiles, Bowie’s flawless Scary Monsters, Talking Heads’ world music-inflected Remain In Light, Young Marble Giants’ refreshingly quiet Colossal Youth, Magazine’s articulate The Correct Use Of Soap, the only good UB40 album (Signing Off), the B52s’ too-much-fun Wild Planet, and The Clash’s sprawling dubbed-up Sandinista! And that’s just a selection of ‘new wave’ masterpieces. A new wave of British heavy metal was revving up with Motorhead’s phenomenal Ace Of Spades, Captain Beefheart returned with the demented desert raunch of Doc At The Radar Station, and… well, I could go on just about forever.
In short, if I had time to go through the perpetually swelling ranks of my CDs/LPs/downloads, 1980 might well prove to be the most populous year.
Which isn’t surprising, really, because it was really my first proper year working as a music journalist. My real job was working as a sub-editor at The Evening Post in Wellington, where I was also filing a weekly album review column as well as live reviews and features/interviews. Somehow, I also found the energy to start up my own rock music magazine, In Touch, which survived in various permutations and name changes through to mid-1985.
Looking back through my clippings file, on the album front I was seen to be raving about Split Enz’s big hit, True Colours, The Specials’ self-titled debut (released with quite a delay in NZ), The Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady, The Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette, The Slits’ Cut, Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage Vols 2 and 3, The Crocodiles’ Tears, the Psychedelic Furs self-titled debut, Gang Of Four’s Entertainment (another delayed NZ release), Robert Fripp’s God Save The Queen/Under Heavy Manners, and the Four Stars collection of Wellington post-punk music, amongst many others.
Live shows I took in and enjoyed included former Miles Davis saxophonist Dave Liebman, Dave Brubeck, Split Enz, Gary Numan, B52s, The Gordons and Roy Orbison, while there were plenty of other ordinary ones. Heck, I even gave Toy Love a bad review.
Interviews conducted included Meatloaf backing vocalist Ellen Foley, Fleetwood Mac’s John McVie, Tim Finn (Split Enz), Marcia Hines, Robert Smith/The Cure, Bob Geldof, Fred Schneider/B52s, Jenny Morris/Crocodiles, Andy Partridge/XTC, The Gordons, Shoes This High, Elton John, The Mockers and The Motels.
I was living literally behind The Evening Post (and under the Terrace) in a crumbling, damp two-story house with a rotten kitchen floor. My bosses at the paper treated me with the contempt I probably deserved. Rumours went around that I was a junkie and shooting up in the toilets at work. In fact, I was just exhausted most of the time, as I had to start work at 7am and work until 2.30pm, at which time I broke off and did my own magazine work. And like most 20/21-year-olds, the nighttime was the right time.
I was a terribly serious young man who took Joy Division’s Closer to heart and played it until I felt like I was right inside Ian Curtis’s suicidal head. The album remained unreleased in New Zealand for many months but I reviewed it anyway, to much consternation from the record companies.
“NZ may miss this essential music”, was the headline of my review. “Closer will be my album choice for 1980, yet it is not available in New Zealand and is unlikely to be available in the near future”, I whined. “The reason? This album, by highly rated British band Joy Division, is on a small label called Factory Records. This means that unless a New Zealand company sees fit to buy the rights to New Zealand release, we will miss the most essential music of the year.”
Blah-blah-blah. But it seemed to work. Back then, people actually read newspapers and one review of an obscure band could “move units” in local stores. I was told that my review got the attention of NZ record companies, and it wasn’t long until RTC released the two Joy Division albums and several 12-inch singles. They proved to be something of a chart phenomenon here, albeit a short-lived one, given that the group had ceased to exist when its singer killed himself.
Is it just because I was young and involved that 1980 still has such resonance to me? I don’t think so. To me, there was a certain zeitgeist about 1979 and 1980 in the same way that there was a certain zeitgeist about 1969 and 1970 = the flowering and maturing of unfettered creativity following a musical and social revolution. We’ve not seen its like again.
* Gary Steel graduated from journalism school in the cretaceous period. He keeps young and lithe by dancing to ‘Wuthering Heights’ and practising his ice powers.