JAIMIE VERNON – RADIO KILLED THE VIDEO STAR

I know it’s out of fashion and a trifle uncool but the 1980s are back. Not only was I not notified in advance, but no one asked my permission; After all, I am the Ambassador of Alphabet Town…the White Wedding Crasher…the Duke of Stratosphear. Its return was subtle and subversive but it was inevitable.

There was a window of about five years at the end of the 1990s/early 2000s where the 1970s returned in full force – Classic Rock became the clarion call of adults whose kids were old enough to wipe their own asses/noses and allowed disenfranchised parents of 1980s children to finally leave the nest, hit a night club and get their Frampton on.

It’s been almost 20 years since that revival and thus, another musical decade now swings back into action reminding us all that we’re aging faster than Mel Gibson in the movie ‘Forever Young’ and that no matter how bright the future is – we’ve gotta wear shades…rose-coloured, nostalgic ones.

I was born in the 1960s (my God, I’ll be 49 in a week!)…I was weaned in the 1970s…but the 1980s informed my musical proclivities. My first original music band formed in 1980 – fist-pumped by punk’s evolution into new wave – and my last original music band which self destructed in 1991 as corporate rock committed Hair-kari and grunge proceeded to eat the world’s pop sensibilities. I wasn’t prepared to keep up with the Jesus Jones’s after spending ten years keeping up with The Smiths. A decade is a long time to chase after the brass ring never mind “Brass In Pocket”. Until I released my first solo album in 2002, my entire songwriting/performance career had been book-ended by the 1980s. Needless to say, I have strong emotional ties to the era.

The 1980s was a period of firsts: I made my first record. I lost my virginity. I learned to drive a car. I graduated high school. I got my first job. I bought my first car. I rented my first apartment. I got married. I formed a record label. I published a magazine. I traveled the USA. It was unprecedented personal growth for me and it’s now in my DNA. This also seems to be true for others as well. And the corporate world can smell it. Nostalgia excretes a pheromone called ‘money’. And big corporations have caught your scent. It’s why companies and the media will now spend the remainder of the next three or four years re-exploiting the 1980s through mechanisms that will separate you from your hard earned cash. After all – who doesn’t want to wear PVC waist-coats, poodle hair, zebra-striped spandex and leg-warmers with stiletto fetish shoes again? And that’s just the men.

But here’s why nostalgia ultimately fails – it has no contemporary analogue. It relies heavily on the imagination of the nostalgee. You can re-issue the clothing and the music but you can’t synthesize (pun intended) the events, mood and youth of the participants. The best you can hope for is a Technicolor simulation because the true magic was the experiences of the original participants in their own past. And, of course, you will be corralled into reliving only the good parts of that time and place. My father once noted that he found movies like ‘American Graffiti’ and TV shows like ‘Happy Days’ optimistically romanticized versions of what actually happened in the 1950s. It lacked 360° context by failing to address the poverty, the crime and the general sense of desperation of a generation that had been beaten down by the Second World War. It wasn’t quite the giddy, playful, fun-loving sock-hops 24/7.
Our view of the 1980s is skewed by the processional TV re-runs of John Hughes teen ‘Coming of Age’ movies, re-issues of 8-byte video games on iPhones, and the arbiter of all that is unholy about nostalgia: radio. Without the 1980s MTV interpretive video bedfellows – found only in your cable package as premium content (which was free the first time around) – most 1980s pop music sounds pretty flaccid on its own. Why? Because unlike all the other eras, save the 1930s and 1940s Big Band decades, most 1980s music lacked one thing that has driven pop music before and since – a chiming guitar. Nothing says ‘dated’ like the mechanical, arpeggios of a one-fingered monophonic keyboard line. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, “Don’t You Want Me” and “Tainted Love” are but a few examples of this 1980s hallmark. Modern acts have attempted to replicate it with samples, but if you’re not in possession of a vintage CMI Fairlight, Juno 108, DX-7, EMU or similar keyboard from the period, you’re a fraudulent impersonator. It is both the charm of that era and its failing. Only the best of the synth-pop tracks hold up – with or without an accompanying video.

On November 30th at the Revival Club in Toronto, Burlington synth-pop kings known as SPOONS will hit the stage with 3/4s of its original line-up to re-enact their career defining smash album ‘Arias & Symphonies’ in a celebration of its 30th Anniversary. Yes. THIRTY years. On Facebook this week former keyboardist Rob Preuss posted the RPM Magazine music chart for the week in 1982 when their debut single for Ready Records, “Nova Heart”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtqIlvg3wsw had squeaked its way into the Top50. It, of course, would go on to peak at No.15 on the CHUM Chart and make these barely-out-of-high school teens Canadian pop sensations in no small part because of the low-budget video that accompanied the song pre-dating Much Music by nearly two years.

Spoons would eventually give the synth-pop shtick up for electro-dance music and Album Oriented Rock as the decade progressed, but it was that initial Preuss keyboard line on “Nova Heart” that trumpeted Canada’s entry into European-styled pop music. Martha & The Muffins had initially danced around it with their quirky post-punk hit “Echo Beach” in 1980 but SPOONS would lead the charge for what would follow – Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance”, Images In Vogue’s “Call It Love” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9PbqPKQGDA and Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses At Night” among others.

Alas, this is as deep as the current BOOM radio playlists are willing to go. Just the hits, Ma’am. Just the hits. My 1980s record collection was a lot deeper than Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” [sue me, it’s still a great, well-crafted ditty]. I’m not hearing Pat Wilson’s “Bop Girl” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gY-QSGaW9NQ or Jona Lewie’s “You’ll Always Find Me In the Kitchen At Parties” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTns_N9NcMg except when I torn on David Marsden’s weekend show on 94.9 The Rock out of Oshawa, Ontario.

The biggest omission to radio’s 1980s recall, in my not-so-humble opinion, is the lack of recognition for Liverpool’s second coming (again, pun intended) Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Over-exposed (in every sense of the word) and in your face for the better part of three years on the back of their monster double debut album ‘Welcome To the Pleasure Dome’,  FGTH have apparently been erased from the 1980s lexicon. What the Sex Pistols had been to decency and corporate rock, FGTH were to just about everything else. Riding a wave of free expression that included fashion and sexuality, you could not turn the TV on without vocalist Holly Johnson screaming “RELAX” at you. They were a musical and visual assault on global Conservatism mixing political commentary (“Two Tribes”) with state-of-the-art musicianship and production courtesy of Trevor Horn – who originally flipped the MTV switch with a little tune called “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. Frankie got short shrift. Many have never heard anything beyond the three North American hits which also included one of the greatest power ballads pre-“Purple Rain” called “The Power of Love”. But do yourself a favour…if nothing else, download side 3 of ‘Pleasure Dome’ where they pay homage to several great songwriters with covers of “Ferry Cross the Mersey”, “Do You Know the Way To San Jose” and one of the best interpretations of Springsteen’s “Born To Run” ever recorded if only because Johnson’s homo-erotic reading of the lyrics gives the song an entirely new gravitas – and the bass solo in the middle is worthy of Geddy Lee: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMfE2Se4r9w

Of course, the downside of this revival is that the bands don’t have the support mechanism they need from major labels to launch full blown reunion tours. Platinum Blonde – probably the greatest single ‘pop image’ band to ever come out of Canada http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4SOnBDe7qs and the Canadian rivals to Duran Duran – has been attempting to re-establish themselves as a modern continuation of their former selves. It’s a mixed bag affair. They’re no longer cute and hunky and the death of bassist/keyboard player Kenny MacLean several years back has left a massive hole in both their sound and their authenticity. But the fans still attend the shows if only to hang on to a piece of that nostalgic time machine.  Only time will tell whether pop culture itself steps up to the plate and gives us another round of incredible video dancing http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRdxUFDoQe0 or bad Thunderdome fashion. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FG1NrQYXjLU

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com

One Response to “JAIMIE VERNON – RADIO KILLED THE VIDEO STAR”

  1. Platinum Blonde were never given the chance to prove themselves south of the boarder because they had a corrupt management team and a corrupt record label whom Mark Holmes had to go after because of some sort of “payola” scandal. His lawsuit was successful and he retained the name Platinum Blonde and all of the royalties from the music.

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