In 1977, facing first-time parenthood and an absolute lack of enthusiasm for anything like “career,” I found myself dusting off my twelve-year-old’s interest in science fiction. Simultaneously, weird noises were being heard from New York and London. I took Punk to be the detonation of some slow-fused projectile buried deep in society’s flank a decade earlier, and I took it to be, somehow, a sign. And I began, then, to write.
— William Gibson, 2002, http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/source/source.asp
Making playlists on Youtube is as foolish as making sandcastles. It’s an impermanent medium and eventually videos will vanish as the inevitable cold tide of copyright washes in. But all of human life is impermanent, and so far, we have this moment. And so, before the tides rise over all the world…
About five years ago I started idly searching Youtube and stumbled over a treasure: offbeat 1980s New Wave and synthpop songs. Some from bands you’ve heard of. Some that you may never have seen. Some which stirred faint memories. Some which were completely new to me. So I started collecting them, and then I started blogging a few. Meanwhile, I started putting them into playlists.
The thing about me is that I can’t just jumble music together anyhow. I do what I call ‘concept playlists’: highly structured soundtracks to imaginary movies. I need them to have motion and flow, to rise to a peak and subside, to have a theme and feel like they could be backdrops to an entire world. So I started putting a few of the ones I felt flowed best into a soundtrack loosely based on that terrifying, startling sense of falling headfirst into ‘The Future’ we all felt who lived through that decade.
The songs I was finding spanned multiple genres, and were a musical education for me. All I knew was that they were the sound I loved as a kid and then fell heavily out of fashion in the 90s: spacey, beepy, dreamy, heavy on pure tones and themes of science fiction and technological advance. They spanned Italo-Disco, New Wave / New Romantic / Post-Punk, Synthpop avant-garde electronic music, and Progressive Rock. These were really separate musical tribes! But they all still had a go at this new ‘technology’ thing, and sometimes the sound stuck and defined the rest of the decade, and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes a single artist or band would focus right in on this science fictiony feel. More often there’d be one or two songs, maybe even novelty songs, and then the zeitgeist moved on. By 1986 it was almost kind of over and stadium rock and rap were becoming the new things.
I was particularly fascinated by the emergence of the literary genre of Cyberpunk, and its primary author, William Gibson, in the 2002 quote above, points at Punk and what became New Wave as his immediate inspiration to write. And when you look at Gibson’s Neuromancer stories (kind of a clue in the name that New Romantic was a thing right about then), they’re very heavily inflected by both overt and subliminal references to music. This was, after all, an era when crazy kids fresh out of art school (or still in high school) were plugging artistic creativity into computers and jacking it all together with literal jackplugs. The street was finding its own use for technology with a vengeance. There was a sense that anything could go anywhere with this weird new symbiosis of human and machine.
And so there were a LOT of songs about machines. If you were born after the 80s, you might not realise how deeply into computers, digital technology and the future we were, way back then! At least briefly. This stuff is 35 years old but it feels so very now in a way it didn’t even quite then. Plugging your head via a pocket supercomputer uplink into the Planetary Mindweb was (in the 1980s) very transgressive and supermodern and science-fictional and now it’s just ugh political Twitter at breakfast again and take that Oculus Rift off your head right now young man you’ll get quite enough pixels at school.
The midpoint year I found most of this music hovered around was 1982. A year that’s always felt particularly special to me. Not just because I was ten years old through most of that year, but because it seemed like the high water point of a sort of digital futurism – equal parts utopian and scared – that turned out to be decades ahead of its time. The world we’re living through now, in 2017, was prefigured in those early years of the 1980s, when Reagan and Thatcher seemed to be tearing down the civilised world (spoiler: they were, and we stand now in the ruins), Russian KGB gangsters were about to invade (spoiler: they did, hand in hand with Reagan and Thatcher – look, it’s a long story, get in the DeLorean and I’ll explain on the way) and radically scientific New Wave music stood as an uncertain rebellion for good and evil but definitely a force to be reckoned with (spoiler: in fact it didn’t accomplish much of anything at all).
That was a couple years ago. So I had a playlist I liked, structured around the 80s future and the fear of nuclear war.
But I kept finding more 80s music I just had to share. So I started blogging some of my finds, but couldn’t find time to research them all.
Then last year I found myself putting together a second playlist, this time more tightly structured thematically on the twin motif of machine intelligence and nuclear war, and musically on arpeggios and an odd ‘dying keyboard’ riff I found originally in Blue Peter’s ‘Radio Silence’ (THE 80s HAD SO MANY SONGS ABOUT RADIO YOU GUYS, it was like a big huge weird obsession, and also computers and old movies and did I mention nuclear war, I may have mentioned it before) which seemed to repeat in odd places, and which I finally tracked back to Kraftwerk. But something about those bright tones of keyboards – like neon and sunsets and the warm stained-glass glow of arcade phosphors – just does it for me. Hits me right in the Mellotron. So that one is a celebration of that. And it tries to be a bit hopeful because, after all, a miracle occurred and we did survive.
Long story short, now I have a third. This one focuses on the theme of ‘revolution’ with a more analog punk feel but still a lot of that beepy mad science goodness.
And so I have a trilogy. Three playlists. 16 tracks each. About an hour each. 48 tracks and three hours of 80s music goodness. Like I have a couple of big names like Ultravox and Alphaville and Martha and the Muffins but some of these bands did one 45, disbanded and then went on to have productive, useful and happy lives either in the music scene or elsewhere doing wonderful things.
So. many. amazing. 80s. bands! The big ones and the little ones but especially the little ones! I can’t tell all their stories here (though I will try and see how far I get), but if you see a song you like, go check out Discogs.com, which is amazing and seems to have every song ever written right now. These playlists are my own, uniquely geeky selection of course. I’ve picked music that personally resonates with me, and it may be an odd take. But there was definitely a spirit here, a spirit of youth and optimism and rapid instanter-than-now change and fresh takes on the future and above all hope. And that last one is something we need right now.
And here they are. I own none of this, I just found it on Youtube thanks to (asbestos salesman voice) algorithms and they may evaporate at any time at the will of inscrutable AI overlords because that’s how our world works in 2017. So listen while you can I guess. For semi-permanence, here are the song lists in ASCII text, so in case they do finally vanish from Youtube our mutant/robot hybrid punkwave children can maybe search through the radioactive rubble for melted vinyl 45s on which to rebuild a newer, stranger society.
(The country is where I figure the bands are from, not always where the songs were recorded. Canada and Scotland had some great stuff!)
01. The Monitors – Singing in the 80’s (1980, Australia)
02. Martha and the Muffins – Danseparc (Every Day It’s Tomorrow) (1983, Canada)
03. Klaatu – Around The Universe In Eighty Days (1977, Canada)
04. Christian Bruhn – Captain Future Theme (1980, Germany)
05. Experimental Products – Modern Living (1982, USA)
06. Rational Youth – City of Night (1982, Canada)
07. Astral Sounds – Spectra (1982, England)
08. Simple Minds – New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) (1982, Scotland)
09. The Twins – The Time Lords (1985, Germany)
10. The Expression – With Closed Eyes (1982, Australia)
11. XL Capris – World War 3 (1980, Australia)
12. Planning By Numbers – Lightning Strikes (1982, England)
13. Logic System – XY (1981, Japan)
14. Cast of ‘Annie’ – Tomorrow (1981, USA)
15. Alphaville – Forever Young (1984, Germany)
16. Yvonne Elliman – Edge of the World (end titles from ‘Wargames’) (1983, USA)
01. The Sound – All Fall Down (1982, England)
02. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Radio Waves (1983, England)
03. Martha and the Muffins – Echo Beach (1980, Canada)
04. Spoons – Nova Heart (1982, Canada)
05. Heaven 17 – Lets All Make A Bomb (1981, England)
06. Industry – State of the Nation (1983, USA)
07. Dollar – Videotheque (1982, England)
08. The Electronic Circus – Direct Lines (1981, England)
09. Rational Youth – I Want To See The Light (1982, Canada)
10. Blue Peter – Radio Silence (1980, Canada)
11. Kraftwerk – Radioactivity (1975, Germany)
12. New Musik – All You Need Is Love (Non Beatles) (1982, England)
13. Modern English – After The Snow (1982, England)
14. Missing Persons – Destination Unknown (1982, USA)
15. Ultravox – Astradyne (1980, England)
16. Max Carl – Come And Follow Me (end titles from ‘Short Circuit’) (1986, USA)
01. Helicopters – Solid State Logic (1981, New Zealand)
02. Depeche Mode – New Life (1981, England)
03. Propaganda – p:Machinery (1985, Germany)
04. Fay Ray – Different Morning (1982, Wales)
05. Modern English – Someone’s Calling (1982, England)
06. Anthony Moore – World Service (1981, England)
07. Ann Steel, Roberto Cacciapaglia – Media (1980, Italy)
08. Strange Cargo – Have A Nice Day (1982, England)
09. This Final Frame – Take No Prisoners (1985)
10. The Sound – Resistance (1980, England)
11. Drinking Electricity – Breakout (1982, Scotland)
12. Crown of Thorns – World Radio (1984, England)
13. B-Movie – Remembrance Day (1981, England)
14. The Terminals – Chinatown (1982, USA)
15. The Buggles – Elstree (1980, England)
16. Hi-Techs – Pompeii (1979, USA)
Good luck and stay safe out there, in the future.