By 1984 it was clear that this decade was going to be…different. Every single corner of pop culture had been pumped to the max with gaudy and glitz, gagged with a spoon, and otherwise left to die in a roadside ditch along Route Bad Taste. And music wasn’t excluded from this. In fact, along with the rise of MTV, it was in a large part responsible. As that network celebrated the very first Video Music Awards, multi-colored, gelled up fauxhawks roamed the wastelands in search of a synth fix; eager to celebrate anything that wasn’t disco, to ride that New Wave into a hypercolor sunset. Yes, the world as we knew it then was in need of a savin’, and in 1984 that savin’ would come in a very deep, dark shade of purple.
Before we get to that though, a little perspective. 1984 was the first year that the Compact Disc was mass manufactured in the USA, blowing open the doors on a “digital” revolution that has now, almost thirty years later, run its course. Appropriately – or not if you consider the content – the first such CD to roll off of the assembly line here was Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, and it was but the first in a long string of albums by artists that either made their mark, or summited the peak of fame that year.
Consider that Bryan Adams, who followed up his minor hit Cuts Like A Knife, with Reckless, an album that spawned not just one, two , three ,four, five, but SIX hits on both the radio and MTV with one of those, “Summer of 69” ending up being one of THE defining songs of not just the 80’s, but an entire generation. And speaking of Tina Turner – she sang on Adams hit “It’s Only Love” – she had her own river deep to cross in 1984. Private Dancer was Turner’s return to the public after a messy and well documented split with husband Ike. Featuring a veritable encyclopedia of legendary artists, including Jeff Beck and a title track written by Dire Straits Mark Knopfler, it charted no three top 10 hits for the singer and put her, and her legs back on top of the world where she belonged. But she wasn’t alone up there. No, there was in fact fierce, or at least perfectly groomed, competition.
If there was one act that was unstoppable in 1984 it was the duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgley, collectively known as Wham! To date, Make It Big has gone platinum six times over and with the hits “Everything She Wants,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and the monstrous – in every sense of the word – single that was “Careless Whisper.” Recorded in Muscle Shoals, the home of Stax, of all places, “Whisper” topped the US charts for the better part of the year. More importantly though, it gave the world one of the most recognizable sax solos of ALL time which, depending on your perspective either ultimately made the 80’s wicked cool, or ruined it for the rest of time.
1984 wasn’t all about Wham though. Hardly. Maddona let us all know what it was like to be Like A Virgin;, The Cars took a trip to Heartbeat City and produced memorable radio/video hits “Magic,” “You Might Think” and “Drive,” one of the best ballads to come out of the 80’s period; Steve Perry professed his love very, uh, Steve Perry like to “Oh Sherrie”; Van Halen named a damn ALBUM after the year and then broke up after cementing their legacy with hits like “Jump, “Panama,” and “Hot For Teacher”; Twisted Sister decided that “We’re Not Gonna Take It” anymore, giving the flashy cross-dressing “metal lords” their biggest hit to date; Foreigner wanted to “Know What Love Is” and probably found it in their hot blooded groupies, and a band named RATT crawled out of the cellar and into hits-ville with “Round and Round” leading the charge on the avalanche of hair metal that would follow in the coming years.
Oh yea…and then there was that whole “Boys of Summer Thing.” Thanks for that Don Henley.
There were also some smaller releases happening that would go on to shape the modern musical landscape that we know as “indie-rock” today. Echo and The Bunnymen sang about a “Killing Moon” on Ocean Rain; R.E.M. released Reckoning, one of the greatest indie rock records of all time; Black Flag returned with My War; RUN D.M.C. released their first record, as did The Smiths; The Replacements released Let It Be, yet another record considered to be one of the best of all time; Metallica rode the lighting; Husker Du released Zen Arcade and a little English band named Depeche Mode had their first hit “People Are People” and taught the world that it could never be more black.
And speaking of none more black, This Is Spinal Tap was released in 1984. This classic mocumentary took everything that we knew and celebrated about the declining stadium rock of the 70’s, and turned it into a hilariously spot on statement on the state of the music industry of the day. More importantly though there was a soundtrack, and in 1984, for seemingly the first time ever, the motion picture soundtrack was where you went to find ALL of the hits.
Films like Against All Odds with its Phil Collins title track, Ghostbusters – who could escape that – and even Beverly Hills Cop with the “it’s too late to unheard it now” “Axel F” and the swarmy Glen Frey hit “The Heat Is On” all made a run of it. And while Talking Heads Stop Making Sense managed to avoid all this because – we don’t have to say it – films like Footloose, Beat Street, Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Give My Regards to Broadway starring Paul McCartney, Rick Springfield’s Hard To Hold, and Streets of Fire all changed the game because they were all movies BUILT around music rather than just featuring a song here, there or in the credits. These films, for the most part, were marketing tools mean to do one thing and one thing only: SELL MUSIC. Oh sure, Footloose probably launched the career of Kevin Bacon, but have you ever actually stopped to consider the plot of the movie? More to the point, when was the last time you sat down and watched the thing? Full disclosure, for me it was last week, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that these films were at best crass exercises in commercialism. Despite it all though one soundtrack would rise above everything to make history and define a career – and it was purple.
Purple Rain, the soundtrack/film was released in June/July of 1984. Before that time Prince had enjoyed a decent level of success thanks to hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “1999,” but his music still wasn’t something that you’d hear on the radio on a nightly basis. So imagine the surprise of just about EVERYONE when a song about self loathing and emotional distance featuring sparse instrumentation and no bass whatsoever found its way into the nightly Top 20 Countdowns of radio stations across the country – and then shot to NUMBER ONE. Consider this then twelve year old’s mind BALOWWWWN.
Music at the time simply didn’t sound like this. There was sophistication, a precision on display on Purple Rain that was so perfectly executed that one didn’t so much HEAR the album as FEEL it deep down in possibly uncomfortable ways. What was laid down on record, never mind Lake Minnetonka, was a history of all of the greatest parts of rock and soul in a language that was universal. It spoke to everyone, white, black, old, young, parachute pants wearing or not. Tracks like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me With You,” and “Baby I’m A Star” melded pop, funk and glam rock into a sexed up stew while “Computer Blue” and “The Beautiful Ones” took a more jazzy, soulful look at the way they rocked. And that title track? “Purple Rain” the song contains one of, if not the greatest guitar codas this side of Derek and the Dominos “Layla.” This was not supposed to happen. Ever. And most certainly not in a year where one of the top hits was a track by a bunch of leather-bound Brits asking everyone to “Relax.”
But then a lot of things weren’t supposed to happen. Michael Jackson wasn’t supposed to burst into flames on the set of a Pepsi commercial. Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen wasn’t supposed to lose his arm in an automobile accident – or was he? Either way, one thing for sure is that Marvin Gaye wasn’t supposed to be shot and killed by his own father in April of that year, robbing the world of one of the greatest voices it will ever know.
The point is in 1984, despite tragedies both musical - Bon Jovi and Yngwie Malmsteen did both make their debuts this year after all – and actual, the world, and more importantly musicians, kept on moving forward. Some reached back far into the past for inspiration and some just made shit up as they went along. And in the case of Band Aid, some even came together to record the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” which, whatever you think about its logical fallacies and presumptions, not only raised a metric shit ton of money, it paved the way for more charitable work in the form of Live Aid. Beyond even the genre defying,world shattering efforts of Prince and his Revolution, that’s really the story of 1984 - a year when people came together to get up, get down, and in the end come together to help out their fellow man. Not a bad claim to fame if you ask me. Not bad at all.
Now when is the soundtrack coming out?