In 1982 several prominent critics wrote obituaries for rock and roll. Robert Christgau, the music and cultural commentator for the Village Voice, stated: “Teen rebellion and electric guitars aren’t looking particularly eternal these days.” Newsweek music critic Jim Miller concluded, “Rock ‘n’ roll has a future all right. But whether it can ever recapture its cutting edge and resume a leading role in defining the frontiers of America’s popular culture is another matter entirely.”
Several developments fueled the laments of the critics. While punk remained popular in Great Britain, the outrageous and angry music had stunningly failed to incite a musical revolution in the United States. Album-oriented radio, which promoted slick, produced pop rock acts like Boston, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Seger, remained extremely popular among America’s teenagers. Another major challenge to cutting-edge rock rebellion could be traced to the introduction of synthesizers and computer-programmed drum machines during the disco era, which changed the sound of rock music. The rough, jangly, distorted electric guitars and slightly off-kilter drums of earlier times were replaced by efficient—and some would say soulless—sounds of electronic-generated beats.
I Want My MTV
Synthesizers and drum machines shaped the sounds of a number of British new-wave bands in the early 1980s, including Culture Club, Duran Duran, and Adam and the Ants. The look and sound of these groups was a reaction to, and rejection of, punk fashions and music. The British groups combined colorful, flamboyant fashions with the danceable sounds of disco, R&B, rock, and electronic pop. The music was labeled new romanticism, synth pop, techno pop, or electro pop.
New romanticism began as an underground movement in England. To attract attention to new romantic music and fashions, bands produced short promotional videos that showed members lip-synching, or mouthing the words to their songs. Typical videos were theatrical and cinematic
Spinal Tap Mocks Heavy Metal
In 1984 comedians Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer wrote and starred in This Is Spinal Tap, a Grammy-nominated movie that mercilessly ridiculed the new-wave British heavy metal rock scene. Dubbed a “mockumentary” because it was a mock documentary, the movie portrayed the comeback American tour of the fictional has-been band Spinal Tap. With silly long-hair wigs and pasted-on facial hair, Spinal Tap played ridiculous, over-the-top heavy metal songs such as “Smell the Glove,” “Gimme Some Money,” “Big Bottom,” and “Sex Farm” from their album This Is Spinal Tap. Band members were utterly clueless as to their politically incorrect behavior, and drummers tended to burst into flames for no reason. With the success of their movie, Spinal Tap continued with the joke for decades, releasing the album Break Like the Wind in 1992 and playing concerts on the Back From the Dead tour in 2000. And like all great rock bands, real or imagined, Spinal Tap was featured on an episode of the TV show The Simpsons.
with rapidly changing scenes, camera angles sweeping left to right, and zoom shots moving in and out. Jump cuts—very short clips of scenes shot from different angles—were spliced together to add excitement to visuals that often included high-fashion models and musicians with weird haircuts and glittery suits.
New romanticism quickly moved out of the musical underground and into mainstream listening thanks to a historic development in the United States. On August 1, 1981, a new station called Music Television, or MTV, went on the air, backed by a relatively minor $20 million commitment from Warner Cable. Industry critics at first doubted that people would want to “listen” to music on their televisions. but they were quickly proved wrong. By 1983 MTV was seen in 17 million homes. During this era, the station played music videos twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Shows were hosted by on-air personalities known as VJs, or video jockeys.
In Great Britain bands had been producing music videos, called song films or promotional clips, since the 1960s. These promotional clips helped sell records when shown on British television programs while the bands were busy touring and could not play live. Because of the popularity of song films in Great Britain, new romantic acts like Billy Idol, Duran Duran, the Thompson Twins, and Flock of Seagulls had TV-ready music videos long before American groups. With its need to play music all day, MTV put their videos in heavy rotation and, in the process, made huge stars of these previously unknown British acts. Robert Christgau was extremely critical of this new trend:
Thrilling Video Viewers
The public largely ignored the critical analysis of MTV. The station continued to attract viewers, and even earned the praise of rock critics in later years when it introduced new styles of rock music to the world, like alternative and grunge. For most of the 1980s, however, MTV’s greatest success came from promoting pop rockers. The music channel spawned a new generation of stars whose looks and styles received as much attention as their music. Multitalented singer Michael Jackson proved to be perfectly suited to this new medium.
Jackson was a child prodigy who had recorded with his brothers in the hugely popular group the Jackson 5 on the Motown label during the 1970s. When Jackson released his sixth solo album, Thriller, in early 1983, the album entered the Billboard Top 10 chart at number one. With a variety of musical styles, the album appealed to a wide mainstream audience. Thriller contained slick funk disco, hard rock,
middle-of-the-road ballads, and sweet soul. In 1987 cultural critic Greg Tate described the album:
Everything on that record manages a savvy balance between machine language and human intervention, between palpitating [fluttering] heart and precision tuning. Thriller is a record that doesn’t know how to stop giving pleasure. Every note on the [album] sings and breathes masterful pop instincts: the drumbeats, the bass lines, [and] the guitar chicken scratches.43
Jackson’s videos for Thriller were expensive, theatrical masterpieces, musical minimovies that received constant airplay on MTV. Jackson showed off his fashion sense and skillful dance moves on “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller.” This helped Thriller remain on the album charts for seventy-eight weeks—thirty-seven weeks at number one. Before the decade was over, Thriller sold more than 40 million copies and became the best-selling record in history. At one point the record was selling a million copies a week.
“Where Dance Clubs and Malls Meet”
By featuring the clean-cut Michael Jackson and British “haircut” bands, MTV avoided controversy in the early years. That changed in 1984 when Madonna released her second album Like a Virgin, which featured intense dance rock, robotic funk, and soul.
Madonna appeared in videos from Like a Virgin as a sultry sex symbol, dancing suggestively in revealing outfits. Her performances generated unwanted attention from conservative family values organizations, which accused the singer of promoting materialism and sex before marriage. Conservative social critic Pam Howar said Madonna was teaching young girls “how to be a porn queen in heat.”44
As is often the case, controversy helped sell records, and during the Christmas season of 1984, teenage girls lined up outside record stores to purchase Like a Virgin. Many fans were already following Madonna’s street smart and
inventive fashion sensibilities. With her arms dripping in bracelets and her funky secondhand-clothing-store fashions, Madonna changed the way young women dressed virtually overnight.
After the success of Like a Virgin, Madonna became a movie star and international sensation. In 1990 LA Weekly music journalist Danny “Shredder” Weizmann praised Madonna and Like a Virgin, describing the album’s ongoing cultural influence:
On this album, dedicated to “the virgins of the world,” Madonna finds the fifth-dimensional spaces where dance clubs and malls meet. … [The song “Like a Virgin”] matches erotic and innocent impulses in a single shot. … [Back] in 1984 the lusty positivity of songs like “Dress You Up” was so forward it was almost embarrassing. From that embarrassment a whole generation of girls and boys found a way to be.45
Using sex to sell music, Madonna became the highest-paid pop star in history after signing a $60 million record deal with Time/Warner in 1992. In addition to making her wealthy, Madonna’s success opened doors for female musicians in the male-dominated world of rock and roll. A new generation of female artists, including Liz Phair, Gwen Stefani, and Courtney Love, showed Madonna’s influences in later years. This pushed MTV to be more receptive to female rockers, which later extended to thoughtful, mellow musicians like Sarah McLachlan and Shawn Colvin.
Prince Generates Controversy
If Madonna was the queen of oversexed, controversial music, Prince was the king. Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1958. He mastered recording techniques by the time he was eighteen and wrote, produced, and played every instrument on a demo record that got him signed by Warner Bros.
In 1979, even before MTV made him a star, Prince generated great controversy with his third album, Dirty Mind. He appeared on the cover wearing nothing but underwear and a raincoat, and the album’s songs were full of sexually
explicit lyrics. Radio programmers refused to play the album, but critics were smitten with Prince’s unique “techno funk” sound that combined synthesizers with funk grooves and screaming lead guitar licks.
In 1981 Prince hit the big time with the album Controversy. In 1982, Prince’s 1999 album produced a number of hits, including “1999,” “Delirious,” and “Little Red Corvette.” Videos of these songs were in heavy MTV rotation in 1984 when Prince’s movie Purple Rain premiered. Purple Rain was a fictionalized account of Prince’s teenage years growing up in Minneapolis. The sound track from the movie sold 13 million copies in one year, while the score won Prince an Academy Award.
Prince remained incredibly popular throughout the eighties and nineties, while releasing critically acclaimed albums. Although he generated more controversy when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in 1993, Prince’s single-minded dedication to music allowed him to keep his reigning position among rock royalty for years.
Bruce Springsteen’s Social Consciousness
With the popularity of Prince and Madonna, it seemed to many rock fans as if sex, controversy, and glamour had taken precedence over substance. Many yearned for a return to rock’s roots, which promised listeners that they could find love, heal the world, or achieve their greatest ideals. Music with such promise was seriously lacking during the economic recessions of the 1980s, when many were downsizing their dreams due to hard economic times that shut down factories and small businesses. One of the few voices that offered hope on MTV came from rocker Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen, who spoke of the promise of rock and roll, or “the promise of possibilities; the promise that the search and struggle matter, that they affirm your life. That was the original spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. And that’s what I hope we carry on, a message that no one, nothing has the right to tell you you gotta forfeit your hopes and your dreams.”46
Springsteen’s music synthesized the finest elements of fifties and sixties rock, combining the lonesome, blue feel
of fifties rocker Roy Orbison, the discerning lyrics of Bob Dylan, and a “Wall of Sound” production that layered dozens of instruments atop one another.
The Boss was known for his high-energy stage shows. He appeared wearing simple blue jeans and T-shirts to prove he did not need glitter and glamour to mesmerize an audience. Backed by the hard-rocking E Street Band, Springsteen’s marathon shows often lasted three hours and featured the Boss jumping around the stage like an acrobat. When Springsteen’s videos of his live concert performances appeared
on MTV, it was a breath of fresh air for many rock-and-roll fans.
Springsteen’s songs, such as “Hungry Heart” and “Born in the U.S.A.,” told the stories of society’s outcasts, the down-hearted, the disaffected, and the disenfranchised. Although he was one of the top-selling acts of the 1980s, Springsteen donated much of his time to raising funds for homeless Vietnam veterans, food shelters, the nuclear disarmament movement, Amnesty International, and various environmental causes. In an era of rock-and-roll excess, Springsteen reminded his fans that rock and roll can be about more than ostentatious living and accumulating wealth.
U2′s Unforgettable Fire
If Bruce Springsteen was the American social consciousness of the 1980s, the band U2 broadened that perspective by giving an international view of the world situation. U2 was born in Ireland in 1978 when singer Bono teamed with guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. The group achieved international acclaim with the release of their third album, War, in 1983.
War was more openly political than anything released by Springsteen. The song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” driven by a militaristic drumbeat, is about a violent episode that took place in Northern Ireland in January 1972. During a peaceful protest, the British army opened fire on a crowd of thousands, killing thirteen. In 1983 U2 released a video of the band performing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” at the beautiful Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. While performing the anti-violence anthem, Bono waves a white flag of peace that is seen by the cameras through a heavy crimson mist created by wet weather and hot lights. In 2004 Rolling Stone magazine said the “Sunday Bloody Sunday” video performance was one of the fifty moments that changed rock history by making U2 one of the biggest bands in history.
War sold more than a million copies in the United States, giving U2 their first platinum album. The record sold 3 million copies in England and remains the best-selling concert
album in British history. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior music editor for the online AllMusic guide, explains U2′s appeal:
U2 were rock & roll crusaders during an era of synthesized pop. … The Edge provided the group with a signature sound by creating sweeping sonic landscapes with his heavily processed, echoed guitars. … And their lead singer, Bono, was a frontman with a knack of grand gestures that played better in stadiums than small clubs. It’s no accident that footage of Bono parading with a white flag with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” blaring in the background became the defining moment of U2′s early career—there rarely was a band that believed so deeply in rock’s potential for revolution as U2, and there rarely was a band that didn’t care if they appeared foolish in the process.47
While U2 was big, they did not become one of the best-selling rock acts in history until they released the album The Joshua Tree in 1987. Inspiration for the album came from Bono’s 1985 travels to Nicaragua, which was in the midst
of a bloody civil war. While in Nicaragua, Bono dodged bullets and bombs and witnessed war crimes. His grim experiences in Central America inspired the lyrics on “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Bono sings about airplanes strafing peasant villages, while The Edge imitates bombs whistling with his shrieking guitar. Two other songs on The Joshua Tree, “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” gave U2 their first number-one singles in the United States. The group was featured on the cover of Time magazine with a headline that labeled them “Rock’s Hottest Ticket.”
The New Wave of Heavy Metal
U2 was hailed by the press and public for reviving the idealism of the 1960s, while injecting spirituality and compassion into their music. Not everyone embraced these ideals in the late 1980s. Some bands refused to give up their angry punk attitudes, fusing them instead with a new brand of heavy metal.
Like the new romantic movement, the new sound had foundations in Britain, where the hard-core punk attitude was very much alive. Bands that played a no-holds-barred version of heavy metal were labeled the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM), or simply thrash metal. The blues-based music was loud and theatrical, with lyrics drawing inspiration from the dark mythology of witchcraft, demons, black magic, and death. The fast-tempo sound was based on screaming guitar solos and lead singers who delivered vocals in a high-pitch falsetto scream.
Like hard-core punks, thrash metal musicians were generally from the poorer classes and were well acquainted with issues like unemployment, domestic violence, drugs, alcohol, and social alienation. And as with the earlier era of punk rock, there was no wall between the fans and the musician. People at thrash metal concerts pumped their fists in the air, moshed, and jumped headlong from the stage, hoping the crowd would catch them.
With little support from record companies, thrash metal was an underground movement. While MTV and many
radio stations initially ignored the music, thrash metal bands toured relentlessly, filling arenas and generating record sales. In this era before the Internet, NWOBHM fans stayed informed through cheap paper magazines called fanzines, which carried information about upcoming concerts, their favorite bands, thrash fashion, and other news.
Thrash metal took off in London, England, during the early 1980s with bands such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead. Around the same time, Australian metal rockers AC/DC hit the British top ten with the album Highway to Hell. AC/DC continued its success in the United States, hitting the U.S. top ten with its next albums, Back in Black and For Those About to Rock (We Salute You). Music journalist Chris Smith explains the appeal of AC/DC to American rock fans in the early 1980s: