1981

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Feb 18 2010, 19:31

When I think about my love of music and how my taste was shaped it always comes back to one year ... 1981. I was 15 and the chart music of that year turned a passing interest in music into a lifelong obsession.

To understand why you need to look at the upper reaches of the UK chart and in particular at how varied and sometimes brave the music was. Remember these were big hits and chosen by record companies to be singles.

I'm going to pull out some of my favourites from the year that all made the top 3.

We start with In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins - Probably the only decent song he ever did outside of Genesis and still a great song for anyone who can get past the fact that it's Phil Collins. (Number 2)

Next one of the earliest singles I remember raving about -
Vienna by Ultravox. Not only do I remember being obsessed with this epic piece of electronic music, but I remember being devastated that a dire novelty record could deny it the number 1 spot it so richly deserved - the dreadful novelty record was Shaddap You Face by Joe Dolce - Vienna peaked at number 2.

Just with those two tracks we can hear something that is missing from most chart music today (in fact from the late 80s onwards) - atmosphere and songs that have light and shade.

Not only was the nature of the music different, but there was also variety. Rock music is represented by Rainbow with I Surrender and John Lennon was at number 1 with Woman.

And that just covers January 1981.

Adam and the Ants went from Kings of the Wild Frontier in February to Prince Charming in December.

The 80s are always associated most with synthpop and the new romantics. 1981 was a defining year for both - Spandau Ballet number 3 with Chant No. 1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On), Soft Cell broke through on both sides of the Atlantic with a true 80s classic, Tainted Love and The Human League made top 3 twice with tracks from the classic album Dare.

But to really understand how different the UK charts of 1981 were and how that lead me to expect something more than a pretty tune from my music I give three examples:

During a summer of riots and at the peak of Thatcher's reshaping of British society the number one was Ghost Town by The Specials. Rarely does a song capture the political mood as well as this song. Not only that, but how does a song that is so bleak become a huge number 1? 1981 was a bit different!

One of the albums I bought that year and which is still a firm favourite was Architecture And Morality by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The top 3 single from that album was Souvenir which showcased the unique sound of the album - the mix of tape looped choirs, tinkling electronic percussion, mellotrons and synths is a sound that no-one has reproduced and made for a single that had a strange fragile beauty that would undoubtedly label it as an album track today.

In October 1981 - a true artist had a number 2 hit with probably the strangest hit single ever. Laurie Anderson, New York performance artist, released an 8 minute single which by any standards is weird - O Superman was as minimalist as it gets, just a spoken vocal processed through a vocoder over a repeated vocal sample going 'ha ha ha ha'. The other instrumentation used is used sparingly and to excellent effect It's a love or hate track, but for me it was mesmerising.


I'm sure that if I'd been 15 in years other than 1981 there would have been songs that would also have inspired the varied taste and drive to always find something new that I still possess even in my 40s, but I consider myself lucky to have had my taste shaped by the music of the early 80s and of 1981 especially.
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  • A_Kimbo_Slice

    lucky bugger, i'd have loved to have been alive in 1981 :(

    Mar 22 2010, 13:03
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