UK National Album Day 2020 Reader: The excess of the 80s produced monster pop albums that many artists still aspire to today, but times have changed

By Mick Clarke

I was just up in Dundee, Scotland, where I found myself stopping off for a few moments at a record shop (Assai Records, 33 and 1/3rd Union Street, nice address). Browsing vinyl (even in the age of COVID19) is still one of the best experiences in music, and most of what you hear is in your head. One of the records that tempted me was Invisible Touch by Genesis. It was released in 1986 — it came right from the core of the decade that really changed pop. I hadn’t appreciated this, but side one of Invisible Touch contains just four songs: the title track; Tonight, Tonight, Tonight; Land Of Confusion and In Too Deep. Every one of those songs was a hit single. That’s being modest, since the album made Genesis become the first band to have five singles from one album reach the top five (US Billboard Hot 100). Even Kate Bush scored only 4 out of 5 hits on side one of Hounds Of Love. Invisible Touch is a monster album. And the 80s brought hundreds more like it.

The UK National Album Day on Saturday 10th October 2020 celebrates the classic albums of the 80s. After a year in which nostalgia has peaked thanks to a global pandemic (making us in need of home comforts) it seems like good timing. But for music fans that came of age in the decade, anytime is a good time to celebrate 80s albums. You could be forgiven for not listening to anything else, such was the abundance of quality music made then — much of it created for the album format and, because of the album format.

The act of putting on a favourite 80s album is the very definition of luxury: quality time well spent with something crafted to make you feel much better about yourself. If that sounds smug, it isn’t meant to be. You don’t have to have been in your formative years during the 80s to enjoy the music — but it does help. To put on an 80s classic album of choice is to wallow in nostalgia but also to hear something that sounds so bright, clean, crisp, sharp and new. It does mean you really could listen to nothing else — and that isn’t an insult to artists making music today, but it is a challenge.

The 80s is notorious for being the decade of excess. First the cassette, then the CD had injected oodles of ‘format cash’ into the record business. For the music buyer, it wasn’t unusual to own a copy of your favourite record in two or even three formats (try explaining this to the streaming generation). The 80s was the decade when the album’s relevance began to peak, and when stardom did too, thanks in part to MTV making glamorous, expensive videos part of the package. Because of all this, the resources that went into making albums were all cranked up to 11: time, money, people and creative thought. Artists in the ascendent could and often did, spend months (sometimes years) in recording studios labouring over albums. Label executives were often shut out of the process but didn’t complain because the last one had made so much money. Not everything that came out of these situations worked, but albums that did included Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden and Tears For Fears’ The Seeds Of Love.

The 80s became a breeding ground for epic pop albums with ambition. It was ushered in by albums like Blondie’s Autoamerican (possibly the most eclectic album made by a superstar band), Dire Straits Making Movies (a warm-up for another monster in the form of Brothers In Arms), Bruce Springsteen’s The River and U2’s debut, Boy. Of that shortlist, only Blondie failed to go on as one of those all-conquering 80s pop/rock artists after the failure of their next album The Hunter. But the 80s superstars club was joined by George Michael, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Ferry, Madonna, The Police, Simply Red, The Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, INXS, Aha and many others.

But, for every time you’ll hear songs from George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice, it’s easy to forget numerous other adult pop classics like Lisa Stansfield’s Affection, Paul Young’s No Parlez, Alison Moyet’s Alf or Sade’s Promise. Yet to put them on is to wallow in 80s pop sophistication, and damn good it is too. While we hear radio stations still blast ‘Every Breath You Take’ weekly, it’s easy to forget that The Police made their 1983 monster album, Synchronicity, under threat of competition from Australia’s Men At Work, whose debut Business As Usual had become a worldwide smash hit. The Police were inspired by their touring mates XTC, who’s ‘big drum’ sound was created first on their pre-80s breakthrough Drums and Wires but really kicked up a notch on their first 1980s release Black Sea. For those albums, the band had hired Steve Lillywhite (working alongside engineer Hugh Padgham) specifically to find a drum sound that would “knock your head off”. Those drums established one of the signature sounds of the 80s that would be in high demand from all of the decade’s major artists, including Phil Collins, who made Face Value (and its massive single ‘In The Air Tonight’) with Padgham at the helm, who had by now, mastered his ‘gated reverb’ technique.

Producers loomed large over these 80s masterpieces, the age of excess had brought with it more studio effects and some truly ground-breaking new machines including the Fairlight Programmer (on which Kate Bush first created The Dreaming and then her masterpiece, Hounds Of Love) and the Linn Drum machine, Peter Gabriel’s studio ‘weapon of choice’ for So (made with another 80s super-producer, Daniel Lanois). Many of my favourite sounding albums come from this era: Aha Scoundrel Days (produced by Alan Tarney). Their sophomore LP had the characteristic poppy sheen of much of the 80s sound, but also packed one hell of a punch. Then Duran Duran’s Notorious, one of Nile Rogers’ own favourites, which is saying something. And Prefab Sprout Steve McQueen — their cult classic debut, produced with the magic and utterly unique touch of Thomas Dolby. Play any on vinyl and be blown away. But we all have our own favourites.

Despite the 80s influence enduring to today, it remains almost impossible to recreate the way these records sounded, something discovered first-hand in 2012 by rock band Def Leppard, when they did their best to re-record Hysteria after a fall out with their label. The exercise was pure folly of course, for Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange’s production work was again, a distinct touch, uniquely of its time (Lange had already produced the world’s best-sounding vinyl record in ACDC’s 1980 monster Back In Black).

It’s impossible to cover off the 80s with anything near to completeness. One can only cover 80s albums from a personal perspective, or get lost in the matrix of the numerous ‘best of’ lists, which look more irrelevant as time goes on. The 80s wasn’t just all pop though: it did metal, R&B, rap and even the last days of disco (and the early era of indie) pretty well too.

But mostly, the 80s albums I know best are those that I parted hard earned pocket cash with, along with those that every household had a copy of: Thriller of course, Brothers in Arms, Born in the U.S.A. And there are a fair few classics that I came to know way after the 80s was over: Deacon Blue Raintown, The Go-Betweens 16 Lovers Lane and a very recent discovery: The Church Starfish. All of them sound so of the 80s — a sound that irrigates so many modern records that as a result, refuses to date in the same way as anything before, or since. I wonder how many more there are to still discover.

An accompanying playlist to this article can be found on the Decades pages of The Song Sommelier.

Afterword:

Invisible Touch was album 13 for Genesis. They released two more albums, in 1991 and 1997. That number must look very ambitious for any modern music artist. I mentioned side one is all hits but the interesting thing is that on side two, the band doesn’t shy away from the experimental. The huge hit singles of the 80s freed bands up to experiment elsewhere on their LPs and more often than not, an 80s classic album will contain an instrumental track. The last track on Invisible Touch is The Brazilian, which is positively avante garde progressive rock. That freedom isn’t there today, and those instrumentals are largely gone as well. I’ll revisit this instrumental era in a future Song Sommelier post.

Invisible Touch has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. It was produced by Hugh Padgham.

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