Friday 27 April 2018

Why 1984 rocked...

Madonna in the 1980s
Madonna in the 1980s
Bruce Springsteen on his Born in the USA tour in 1984
Prince in the film Purple Rain

Joe O'Shea

Rolling Stone magazine has declared 1984 to be pop's greatest year. But is the music mag looking at rock's past through rose-tinted Ray-Bans?

If you were a teenager getting into music in 1984, consider yourself blessed. You were lucky enough to be around for pop's greatest year.

That, at least, is the opinion of rock music bible Rolling Stone. The legendary US music mag has just named 1984 as the year in which popular music reached the top of the mountain. And then began the long descent.

In a lengthy love letter to the year George Orwell famously believed would mark an annus horribilis for human civilisation, Rolling Stone lists all the reasons why '84 rocked.

Declaring that '84 was "the year pop stood tallest", the magazine points to the breakthrough of self-invented stars like Prince and Madonna, the seismic impact of Michael Jackson's video for 'Thriller' (released in December '83 but on heavy rotation throughout '84).

Bruce Springsteen (who turned 65 this week) released 'Born in the USA' in June of '84. And sold 27 million copies. MTV brought 24-hour music videos into teenage bedrooms across the US, Europe and beyond.

Hip-hop came out of the ghetto and broke into the mainstream, with a sound that would (through many mutations) dominate music for the three decades that followed.

The internet was just a tool used by a handful of scientists and the music industry still had the perfect, billion-dollar business model.

Surveying the radically changed industry and pop culture of today, as U2 are paid $100m by Apple to give their latest album away for free, Rolling Stone has chosen to celebrate a more innocent time, before downloading and piracy.

But was it really the golden age that Rolling Stone would have us believe?

RTÉ radio presenter and music obsessive John Creedon believes the rock magazine may be viewing the past through rose-tinted Ray-Bans.

"In terms of the people who read Rolling Stone and write for it, then yes, 1984 would probably have been their big year," says John.

"If you were a young teenager, just getting into music, you had a lot of amazing artists bringing out huge albums. The likes of Prince, Madonna, Queen, Springsteen. And you had MTV, which had a huge impact, changing how people got their music. But if I asked my older brother, I know he'd say the big year was '71 with the likes of Neil Young. And if you asked me, it was 1977 or '78, punk, ska, two-tone, The Boomtown Rats and Rory Gallagher, the first time that Ireland really had a music youth culture. It's all about the year you first get into music. The year when you hit 14 and fall in love with it."

DJ Dave Moore, one half of Today FM's new midday music show, gives a guarded agreement to Rolling Stone's coronation of 1984.

"I went back and had a look at the Now That's What I Call Music albums from the time, and it is remarkable, the quality of pop music that was coming out in that era," says Dave. "You had the likes of Queen with 'Radio Ga Ga', Eurythmics, Prince, Madonna, David Bowie was even going through his pop phase with songs like 'Modern Love'. All huge artists.

The Today FM DJ - who also writes and produces music - also points to the sheer variety of genres that could be found in the charts.

"I was huge into metal at the time, so I would have been listening to Metallica, Slayer, and they were in the charts, next to one-hit wonders like Nena's '99 Red Balloons', next to Cyndi Lauper, Springsteen, Depeche Mode and rap music. The charts were a mad mix."

"Today, it's much more niche. And the industry has changed so much since 1984. You still have great songwriters and producers, but the way it is manufactured and marketed, and the way people access it through downloads or whatever, it has become very throwaway, very instant.

"I don't think artists will get the chance to grow and endure, or invent themselves. The first single has to be a smash. If you don't get your song on to an ad for a clothes chain, or on to the TV show that everybody is talking about, you won't get that huge marketing push from the labels."

There is, of course, the danger that older music fans will look back to their golden youth and decide that they are just not making music like they used to. But John Creedon believes the times that music fans live in can also amplify the effects of the sounds they listen to. And in '84, even novelty songs like '99 Red Balloons' were about nuclear war.

'Back in the mid-80s, you still had the Cold War, you had this threat of nuclear conflict. And that was reflected in the music, Frankie Goes To Hollywood had a huge hit with 'Two Tribes' in 1984, even Culture Club had 'The War Song'.

"In England, there was the miners' strike and mainstream music movements like Red Wedge trying to get kids into left-wing politics. So it all felt very real and very important and pop music was right at the heart of it."

It may be, as John Creedon suggests, that for each generation, the year you turn 14 and start getting serious about music is Year Zero, the year that music really matters.

And even if you are still keeping up with the music being made today, nothing ever has quite the impact of that first love.

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