If 1984 and 1985 were the years that the wave of awesome that was the 80’s crested, then 1986 might be mostly remembered as the year the tide of cool began its retreat back into the depths of the murky, musical abyss from whence it came. Mostly.
Oh sure, there were still high points. Some socially important one’s too. The 80’s were a time when segregation was still very much in effect on the radio dial and on MTV, and 1986 in particular was a year in which more artists than ever fought, and won, the battle to bring people together, regardless of their skin color, sex or nationality. The Beastie Boys released their classic debut Licensed To Ill, with its break out mega hit (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!), and in doing so were the first hip-hop act in history to reach #1 on the Billboard Charts. Likewise, RUN-D.M.C. didn’t just blur the boundaries between rap and rock when they recorded “Walk This Way” with 70’s stalwarts Aerosmith; they blew those distinctions up and paved the way for an entirely new genre of music. Paul Simon’s Graceland took afro-pop sounds and caressed them into a folky mold, producing not only one of the biggest hits of his career, but arguably one of the most important albums in history. And Janet Jackson’s Control, with its hit’s “Nasty,” “Control” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately” not only established the gloved ones younger sibling as an important artist in her own right, but her domination of the charts sent a shot across the industry’s male dominated bow saying that women were here NOW, and they were likely about to take over.
It wasn’t all important work though. As the 80’s began its descent into its golden years, artist both old and new were still found to be tweaking a formula that had seemingly run its course. Classic rock artists like Steve Winwood and The Rolling Stone –both had been absent for a good stretch of the 80’s – returned to the highlife with albums seemingly made for the times, yet sounded like nothing they had done before. The fact that Winwood’s “Back In The High Life” was a huge pop hit is no surprise – it’s a great song. But that the same man who penned it also gave the world “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is something that leaves some scratching their heads to this day. But the oldsters weren’t the only ones making the hits.
The John Hughes-ification of music – that is, every song has to have its own cinematic moment - was in full swing in 1986 and much like two years prior, the soundtrack was king. Kenny Loggins took the world to the “danger zone” on the soundtrack for Top Gun. Then Berlin took everyone’s breath away and scored one of the biggest hits of the year from the same album. AC/DC turned in their rock cards (sort of) when they contributed their back catalog to the soundtrack of Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive, a film that featured, I shit you not, killer coke machines and bell bent lawnmowers to the tune of “Hells Bells.” The soundtrack to the soft-porn Kim Bassinger/Micky Rourke vehicle 9/12 Weeks yielded a Joe Cocker classic “You Can Leave Your Hat On” – a song that now is best found in places with names that end in “Juggs” or “Rendezvous” – but for the most part was the dumping ground of every bad 80’s idea ever. In fact probably the only time anyone got it right on the soundtrack front was for the film Pretty In Pink, which was, unsurprisingly, a John Hughes film. To this day, that album holds up and I’m unashamed to say was how this music fan got into BOTH Echo and The Bunnymen and The Smiths, even though thanks to a misprint on my copy of the CD I didn’t know which was which for a few months.
And then The Smith’s broke up. And so did Black Flag. And so did the Boomtown Rats. Culture Club, ELO, WHAM and the Dead Kennedys called it day. Flock of Seagulls? Noooooooo. The Clash too? THE F@#@ING CLASH BROKE UP?!!
It was all true, but maybe they knew something other bands didn’t. Even as the very foundation of what made the 80’s so cool was disintegrating, bands like Van Halen pushed on with new singer Sammy Hagar, leaving poor David Lee Roth to Eat Em And Smile, while Talking Heads made films and told some less than thrilling True Stories, and super group GTR just…I don’t even know what was going on with GTR really. Go “The Hunter?”
All this going on and we still had the rise of Wang Chung (“Everybody Have Fun Tonight”) and Glass Tiger (“Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone”) to keep us busy while Billy Joel disavowed any knowledge of any blaze, anywhere, anytime and Bruce Hornsby quietly stepped onto the stage and told an entire nation about “The Way It Is.” The wreckage of Split Enz, brought us not only one of the best pop bands of all time, but one of the most enduring hits of all time in Crowded House’s debut and song “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and Lionel Richie shot and missed at his attempt to conquer all decades with Dancing On The Ceiling. It’s not that the sight of Richie and friends ACTUALLY dancing on the ceiling came as any surprise to anyone, but in hindsight, there’s nothing the legendary singer could do that could top the bust-tacular unintended creepiness of the video/song “Hello.”
So there was a lot of good, and a lot of bad. But lest you think it was all ripped jeans and a Big League Chew in every pocket though consider this: In 1986 the top single of the year was “Rock Me Amadeaus.” Nobody saw fit to stop the New Kids On The Block from making a record, so that happened – time travelers reading this, please, have mercy. Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet saw the light of day, and, as great an album as it was, set the stage for the ruination of metal as we knew it. Then, to make matters neither worse or better – just confusing - Genesis, or something resembling Genesis returned to the airwaves with Invisible Touch, and album that nobody could escape, that nobody asked for, and that nobody, curiously enough was able to avoid falling under its spell.
And speaking of Genesis…
Prior 1986, Peter Gabriel had released five solo albums that, while they had garnered widespread critical acclaim, hadn’t seen much life outside of the traditional prog-rock/new wave/anglophile circles that one would expect. He had had minor hits with “Games Without Frontiers,” “Shock The Monkey” and “Solsbury Hill,” but had yet to make a real mark on the pop zeitgeist of the biggest, gawdiest generation yet. That would forever change in May of 1996 when Gabriel released is seminal album So, and more importantly, the videos that came along with it. With So, Gabriel, like so many of his peers, sought to expand the worldview of his listeners by bringing in sounds from all over the globe. It wasn’t the first time that Gabriel had plumbed these waters, but So was the point where he found the perfect balance between tradition and pop, funk and rock, soul and basic, primal heart.
Now, 25 years later, the influence of the 80’s is still draped heavily over So’s gigantic shoulders, but there’s also a timeless quality to songs like “Red Rain”, “Don’t Give Up,” “Mercy Street” and they sound as fresh today as when they were recorded – and those weren’t even the hits. “Sledgehammer, the first single for the record is best known for it’s tripped out, weirdly sexualized game changer of a video, which to this day is the most played video OF ALL TIME on MTV.
That video along with a similarly trippy take on the song “Big Time” earned Gabriel the label of innovator, and it’s one that to this day he has continued to live up to. If his early albums were experimental, as they were often classified, then So was the solution to all those sonic theorems and a landmark for not just Gabriel, but the 80’s as a whole. Everything good and bad about the decade all rolled into one beautifully palatable, yet endearingly challenging, package, proving that even as the 80’s was beginning it’s slow burnout, there was still much more work to be done.
Throw in the very first induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, the opening of Dollywood, and the fact that, whether you like it or not, “The Final Countdown,” a song by a band that was BY DEFAULT the best band in all of Europe, happened and it’s safe to say that 1986 was year that fulfilled the glitzy promises of the decade even is it saw many of its tropes fall by the wayside. The world, as always, was evolving, and musicians were both keeping pace and jumping light years ahead as the decade began its collapse into a time when the music world would change forever once again.
PS. It must be noted that on September 23rd, the album to end all albums, Boston’s Third Stage took people by surprise and made them realize that everything that came before was a farce, a sham and an affront to all things rock. It has inspired, enlightened, more than any artistic work ever. Here's the proof.