Age of the Hits

The 1980’s was undeniably a weird decade for music. It was marked by the music video era, when MTV became the dominate force in what (America at least) was listening to. Video created the radio star. There has been plenty of thoughtful insights surrounding how much looks of certain artists may have contributed to their success (or lack thereof). One might speculate about the likelihood of Duran Duran achieving the same level of success they did without their video presence and good looks, for example. Since no one asked, the me of today has a lot of respect for Duran Duran. They were solid musicians and wrote memorable hits. Mid-eighties me, however, dismissed them as pretty boys.

I am of the age where my musical tastes were being formed during that decade. I was 8 years old at the start and 18 by the end of the 1980s. I started the decade listening to whatever my older brother did, mostly rock music and hair metal, then started listening to the radio and through a series of toppling dominoes (most noticably started by my best friend, Ian’s older brother, Kris) discovered glam, new wave, funk, rap, metal, and punk. There’s a real “them versus us” philosophy in the punk world. It’s very insular. As such, I was trained to have nothing but disdain for the world of MTV driven pop music. Still, I watched when I could. We didn’t have cable for most of that time, so MTV was something I only watched at other people’s houses. Luckily, we had access to the USA network, which had shows like Radio 1990 and Night Flight to fill in the gaps of mainstream music video culture (and the latter of which introduced me to many counter culture influences).

There was one thing about that decade that I still find fascinating: the mainstream success of bands that had previously enjoyed careers of niche or “underground” notoriety. I’m not talking about those artists who were “one hit wonders”, but folks that had full fledged careers, a notoriety that included envious fan bases and a certain respect that comes from not “selling out”. Until, of course, they did. In the 1980s.

One of the stranger stories that seems made exclusively by and for the MTV generation was Toni Basil’s top ten hit, “Mickey”. Basil had been (and continues to be into her own 80s) a successful dancer and choreographer. Her resume is insane, having worked on the unbelievable T.A.M.I. Show, danced in movies by the Monkees and Elvis (Head & Viva Las Vegas, respectively) and choreographed films as diverse as American Graffiti and The Rose. She had also worked as choreographer for music tours and videos by Talking Heads and David Bowie. She had a hit song in 1976 that lead to appearances on Saturday Night Live and the Merv Griffith show. She also acted in many films, including Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider and was a regular character (named “Mickie”, no less) on TV’s Lavern and Shirley. This is a level of success that many people would murder someone for. However, it was a cover of the song “Kitty” by British band, Racey, that propelled Basil into “household name” status. She ran in an artistic crowd and the art form that would eventually become “music videos” were then “visual art”. Basil not only adapted the song, adding the memorable chanting bits, but conceived of and directed the music video for “Mickey”, using her experience as a cheerleader while in high school as a thematic hook. The result was a goddamn earworm that was propelled to a #1 hit in 1982. What a world.

Similarly, Eddy Grant had a hit with his song, “Electric Avenue” in 1983, but the song came from his sixth album and midway through a more-than-decent career. Hell, the guy had a number one hit in 1968 with the band The Equals (“Baby Come Back“). OK, maybe this example feels more like a classic “one hit wonder” (if it weren’t for his other hits), so let’s talk about one of the coolest bands of all time who became a certified hit machine (and iconic cartoon versions of themselves thanks to music videos…) ZZ Top.

For the uninitiated, it might have seemed like ZZ Top were created by MTV. Two dudes with giant beards and one guy who’s last name is Beard with spinning, fuzzy guitars and the keys to a sleek 1933 Ford Coupe, itself with a cool-ass name: “Eliminator”. However, these guys had been around since 1969 and had a reputation for boogie blues with a Texas twinge and smoking guitar licks. In fact, they had put out seven albums before exploding into pop music success with the albums Eliminator (1983) and Afterburner (1985), largely due to the iconic look of videos for the songs, “Gimmie all Your Lovin'”, “Legs”, “Sharp Dressed Man”, and “Sleeping Bag”. The generation may be forever remembered as one of style over substance, but ZZ Top was pure substance with enough style to attract a broad audience. It doesn’t hurt that Billy Gibbs is one of the best guitar players of all time. Go listen to Tres Hombres. I’ll wait.

“Owner of a Lonely Heart” became a ubiquitous music video in 1983, with its stark black & white vision of a mysterious authoritarian society and Kafka-esque goons pulling the protagonist off the streets for no reason. The album the song was from (titled “90125”) was the band Yes’ eleventh. They had a large following and were considered the crème de la crème of Prog Rock, or Progressive Rock, a genre that was differentiated by a move to more free-formed jazz style technicalities and improvisation. It was a musician’s style of cool that could be detached and difficult to listen to, but had die-hard fans of cooler-than-thou devotees. To see Yes being celebrated by the plastic-dipped “VJs” at MTV would have been particularly strange to their fans.

Genesis had been around for nearly 20 years before they released “Invisible Touch” and a torrent of hits in 1986: “Throwing It All Away“, “Land of Confusion“, “In Too Deep“, and “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight“. Formed in 1967, the early form of the group was also more progressive and… strange. Then front man, Peter Gabriel, himself a niche artist turned massive mainstream success in the 80s, often wore outlandish outfits and the band’s musical style swung wildly throughout their recording career. They were difficult to pin down and in stark contrast to the group that emerged in the mid-eighties, fronted by drummer Phil Collins and making some of the most accessible mainstream hits of the times. Personal side note: When I was in college, my roommate told me I couldn’t play any DEVO or Slayer in our room and I, in turn, demanded that he could not play anything from or related to Genesis (except the Peter Gabriel years).

Like Thee Midnighters before them, Los Lobos were an East LA rock band who slayed at every performance. They had been together and building to local legend status (and mostly ignored by record companies) for over ten years before rocketing to stardom with their cover of Richie Valen’s “La Bamba” (used in the biopic movie by the same name) in 1987. Seemingly overnight they went from playing backyard weddings to opening for the biggest acts in the world: U2, Bob Dylan, and the Grateful Dead. Even getting screwed over by Paul Simon on his seminal Graceland record.

Pink Floyd had been one of those blues inspired (indeed, the name came from combining the names of two blues men- Pink Anderson and Floyd “Dipper Boy” Council) British bands that formed, merged, recombined, and reinvented themselves several times before finding mainstream success. It’s almost unfair to list them here just because they did sell so many records. Dark Side of the Moon is one of the biggest selling albums of all time and The Wall was (and continues to be) an art-house rite or passage, inspiring generations of young people looking for their identity via midnight screenings. Despite those successes, Pink Floyd were an underground phenomena, a prog rock jam band that the cool stoner kids had in common with the laser show crowd. While they hadn’t changed their sounds to accommodate eighties success in the same way that ZZ Top, Genesis, and even Yes had, it was nonetheless a paradigm shift to see “Learning to Fly” (coming off their thirteenth album!) airing in non-stop rotation and making the band a household name in 1987.

Perhaps the strangest emergent hit of the eighties was seeing the goddamn Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey”, also in 1987. The group was well known as the epitome of counter-culture, forming in the bay area in the mid-sixties (as the Warlocks) and playing legendary tour circuits followed by Deadhead fans for decades. They’d been around for a quarter century already and front man Jerry Garcia was already declining in health when they had this, their only top 40 hit. The song was from their nineteenth album, many more than most bands could ever hope to make.

Looking back on this period, I’m not even clear what to make of it. Something in the zeitgeist was propelling these underground groups into mainstream channels? Or maybe it was the logical connection of video makers seeking out their favorite bands to make compelling visuals for their sounds? Or perhaps the simplest explanation- record labels using their dollars to push already popular groups’ hit-worthy songs into the limelight. Whatever the case, we will probably never see something like this again. It would be like turning on KROQ (the aging alternative radio station in Los Angeles) and hearing Russian Circles on repeat (instead of the goddamn Red Hot Chili Peppers), but then again, who listens to the radio anymore? MTV was the one source of popular music that everyone in this country was watching while we now live in a world of the internet and people seeking what they want more than a mouthpiece curating outward. I’m certainly not saying one was any better than the other, just different. Speculation aside, I suppose I should just be happy that these groups made money from the machine while they could. Good for them.