So this whole thing started one night when I was drunk on my couch and invited to somehow make a mixtape for the Burger King Mix Club. If you’ve never heard of it, good. It is not a thing and it is not cool.
Anyway my immediate response was to ask for requirements and whatnot. I then received a brief outline with a definition of “mixtape” that jokingly included Laserdisc as one of the potential formats. So, being drunk and all, I laughed and thought of what would even BE on a Laserdisc mix. 4 hours later I emerged on the far side of a YouTube k-hole of terrible 80’s music videos with a burning urge to wear makeup and tease my hair out.
My love of the early 80’s is a weird one that’s mostly rooted in a nostalgic idea of my childhood in Miami, sitting on a terrazzo floor and listening to my sister’s Duran Duran records. To this day I still think Rio is a perfect album and possibly one of the best pop albums ever made insofar as it perfectly encapsulates a lot of what would shortly thereafter be defined as “80’s music.” At the time though Lebon, Rhodes and company weren’t all that special as far as bands go save for their hair and outfits. There were plenty of young men like them playing clubs and trying to get noticed in a story as old as the record industry: young artist, new gimmick, contract, single, video, album, world tour, decline, industry moves on to newer young artist, newer gimmick, inevitable comeback tours at 10 year intervals and so on. How the cyclical churn of pop began again so unbelievably quickly after disco (Bee Gees? Who’re they?) is beyond my comprehension but luckily also beyond the subject of this post.
The point is that despite appearances, bands and the sound they create don’t get created in a vacuum. Nick and Simon did not emerge from cocoons with ruffles in place, makeup airbrushed on, and hairsprayed mullets already erected on their scalps. The Human League didn’t form and then bang out “Don’t You Want Me Baby” in a week – they had 2 albums under their belt before a disagreement over direction (specifically: staying more electronic/dance focused versus moving towards pop) split the band up. New members were found, radio friendly singles were produced, and the rest as they say is history. A history that, like all history, is unfortunately hard to fully grasp by someone who didn’t themselves live it.
While we have YouTube and an endless array of episodes of Top of the Pops and Old Gray Whistle Tests to help flesh out who and what was famous when, the early 80’s were really a time in which many threads were coming together just as quickly as they were tearing apart. Wire at one point were punk, then postpunk, then arguably somewhere on a spectrum of experimental and electronic. Gang of Four started by yelling danceable songs about social injustice then seemed to become the sort of vacuous pop act they got their start railing against. I recently stumbled across the fact that they have a (terrible) song on the Karate Kid soundtrack, even, but I digress. I could also throw David Bowie’s many arcs into this but now we’ve just got a big old mess on our hands.
Add to all of this some confusion over questions of genre. New Wave meant one thing here and another thing across the pond, the latter location already dealing with New Romantic, Synthpop, the first smatterings of bedroom indie electronic and industrial music. Simultaneously the barriers for entry into electronic music AND video production were quickly being lowered, thus begging some navelgazing in regards to whether a lot of these acts were visual or musical artists, or even whether they were ‘artists’ at all rather than club acts looking for a buck and a good time. A vivid underground was created and charged with the sexual energy of Europe’s club scene only to immediately be overshadowed by homogeneous commercialization. Malcom McLaren, fresh off of shoving The Sex Pistols down everyone’s throats, struck gold again with Bow Wow Wow. MTV went from promoting music to practically owning it in a span of a few years, dragging the most marketable acts across the Atlantic in the process. Sounds changed as more money was pumped into them, bloating them and dumbing everything down. Case in point: Duran Duran’s third album was questionable and their fourth was god awful, but that didn’t stop them from contributing the title song to a James Bond movie that not even Christopher Walken and Grace Jones could save.
So I got curious and dove deep into another k-hole, this one created by Spotify, AllMusic, and Wikipedia. I emerged with bands I’d never heard of and first albums that were in my opinion better than follow ups. Some fun was had, and thanks to an iPad app called Pacemaker, I was able to mine the Spotify catalog to make an actual honest to god mix of all of it.
The goal here was simple: try to get some catchy, danceable songs released roughly between 1978 and 1982. Lots of drum machines, lots of synthesizers, and in many cases lots of hair. Some of it comes from bands that peaked roughly in 1981 and much comes from bands you know from their later platinum singles that also happen to be awful as far as I’m concerned (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, SPANDAU BALLET). Occasionally there’s an older experimental song that hopefully got mixed in well enough to not throw things off too much.
TL;DR: this is a mix of the early 80’s. When everything was day-glo pink and teal and when home computers connected to tube TVs and read programs off cassette tape. I’m incapable of remembering any of this directly, having been born in 1981, and only have other people’s memories and dreams to go on – specifically dreams of riding on the front of a sailboat in the Carribean while Simon LeBon crooned about someone dancing in the sand. 20 years after this was recorded, I would dance around the stage at SoHo lounge to it with friend Nathan riding on my back, a trail of red cocktail straws flying from his hair.
Fun times. Let’s dream of them a bit.
Duran Duran “Planet Earth” – 0:00 – The “night” version, i.e. an extended dance version with sexy sax intro. Released as a dance single separately but was included as the album version on early American pressings of their debut LP (which is where I came across it, originally, maybe 15 years ago now). The lyric “some New Romantic looking for the TV sound” was almost the title of this mix.
Fad Gadget “Make Room” – 6:03 – This song is is either about the book Make Room! Make Room!! (on which the movie Soylent Green is based) or else is about trying to get a drink at a club. Technically the latter could be a metaphor for the former. Anyway, Frank Tovey, AKA Fad Gadget, was the first artist to sign to Mute records and you should listen to him because he was fucking awesome and passed away in 2002.
Spandau Ballet “The Freeze” – 9:33 – Google New Romantic and you’ll get Duran Duran, Japan and these guys. You know them for the song True, which plays continuously on every elevator in Hell.
Chrisma (also spelled Krisma) “Gott Gott Electron” – 13:55 – This is one of those bands wherein I said ‘WAIT WHO ARE YOU WHY HAVE I NEVER HEARD THIS,’ hence why they make 2 appearances here. Italian husband and wife duo, not very well known outside of Europe, no idea why they changed how their name was spelled after the second album.
Japan “Life in Tokyo” – 17:37 – Japan had been around (and wearing makeup onstage) since 1974, leading to their not technically being New Romantic and in fact not desiring to be lumped in with such acts. They broke up in 1982, right when these other groups were hitting their peak. If you’ve never given them a listen I highly recommend checking out their entire catalog, especially the album ‘Assemblage’, released in 1981.
The Human League “Things That Dreams Are Made Of” – 20:51 – Recall the discussion above about the lineup change for Human League? This is from the album Dare!, the first they released after that change. It is very good and regarded as a pivotal pop album and won all sorts of awards and you should listen to it in its entirety. BUT you should ALSO listen to their first album Reproduction, the single from which is featured later on, at which point this discussion continues. This song is also notable for a lyric naming each of The Ramones individually, which is sort of awesome.
Tubeway Army “Me! Disconnect From You” – 25:01 – Tubeway Army is the name under which Gary Numan originally recorded. Did I mention I spent all of last July listening to Gary Numan? Because I spent all of last July listening to Gary Numan.
*Flock Of Seagulls “Space Age Love Song”*- 27:58 – This is the most recognizable pop single on this mix and I really don’t have much to say beyond that.
D.A.F. “Der Mussolini” – 31:43 – Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (trans: “German American Friendship”) released this song to some degree of scandal, unsurprising as the lyrics translate to “Dance the Mussolini, move your behind, clap your hands, and now the Adolf Hitler, and now the Jesus Christ.” An early example of “technopunk” and an influence on bands such The Pet Shop Boys and Soft Cell.
Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark “Electricity” – 35:15 – I could have put Enola Gay on here but then I also could have put my pants on backwards and run in front of a bus. This song was OMD’s debut single in 1979.
Soft Cell “Chip On My Shoulder” – 38:30 – I do not have to explain this band or this song to you or anyone. It is the best ever. Shut your mouth, put this on, do the running man in your kitchen.
Visage “The Anvil” – 42:34 – Named after a gay club in NYC, which maybe you could have figured out from the lyrics? Their first single, “Fade To Gray,” is actually a much better song IMO but I was having issues mixing it into anything. RIP “Steve Strange,” who passed just this February and whose “coffin was borne by Boy George and the brothers from Spandau Ballet” at his funeral.
The Human League “Empire State Human” – 46:48 – from the album Reproduction, mentioned above. This was the album’s only single and the standout among songs that otherwise featured elements of industrial and minimalist electronic. What I sought to highlight while making this mix is perfectly encapsulated in the change that occurred in sound between these albums. Additional Trivia 1: Apparently Johnny Rotten panned this album in a review in NME back in the day. Additional Trivia 2: Wikipedia cited the above as a statement from “John Lydon of Public Image Limited” to which I say shut the fuck up you’re Johnny Rotten and PIL is awful.
The Associates “Club Country” – 49:52 – One of those bands that hit their apex and fizzled roughly at 1982 after charting two singles in the UK. Never seemed to have made it across the Atlantic.
ReFlex “The Politics of Dancing” – 54:42 – If Duran Duran is the Van Halen of New Romantic music, ReFlex is the Warrant. That might be a bit harsh but I’m sticking by it.
Thomas Dolby “The Wreck of the Fairchild” – 58:48 – I tried really hard to find a danceable Thomas Dolby song but he’s the sort of artist whose entire catalog can be described as “cinematic.” I still really wanted to include him though, and thus we have a song loosely based on the crash of Flight 571 in the Andes. Yes, the one that the movie Alive is based on.
Cabaret Voltaire “Nag Nag Nag” – 1:01:58 One of those bands that started as a performance art troupe, in case you couldn’t tell. This represents the extreme end of the “experimental” spectrum.
D.A.F. “Als Wars Das Lezte Mal” – 1:06:36 – Translates to “Like It Was The Last Time.” Did you know that D.A.F. cultivated an air of homeroticism in their public appearances, featuring a lot of leather, body hair, and sweat? Well now you do. You’re welcome.
Chrisma “Black Silk Stocking” – 1:09:44 – Confession: there was a time when this mix was just going to be all hypersexualized songs like this, Sex Dwarf, and everything D.A.F. has ever done. But then again there was also a time in which this was going to somehow appear on laserdisc.