Why I Love the Eighties! The history of a decade in three books.


October 19, 2013 by brettdgale

It’s often said that if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t there.  Perhaps it should also be said that if that if you want to remember the Eighties then you weren’t there.

Parachute pants? Big Hair? Shoulder Pads? The 80’s were the decade that fashion forgot. I’m a child of the Eighties and even I have no desire to visit those fashion travesties again.

But fashion aside, the Eighties are bizarrely cool, and have been so for years. Indeed, the only thing not cool about the 80’s may well be the fashions (or in fact still using the descriptor “cool”).

Almost from the minute 1989 turned into 1990, nightclubs sprang up styling themselves as Retro, playing the music of the decade just ended.

And the Eighties seem to be undergoing a renaissance right now.  From documentaries on Foxtel and Free to Air TV through to nostalgia for the political era of Hawke and Keating (even from their political enemies) – the Eighties are it.

This may be no more than the modern version of the mania for “70s Parties” that was all the rage about 15 years ago – a rose colored glasses view of an age before the current one. After all, sepia toned nostalgia is one of humanity’s most endearing and enduring character traits.

But it may also be something deeper.  As time goes on, every generation reassesses its history. Our current review of what happened three decades ago is resulting in a consent that the Eighties were one of the landmark decades of recent history.  A more positive assessment than one perhaps could have foreseen at the decade’s immediate end.

Indeed the National Geographic channel has gone so far as to proclaim The Eighties: The Decade That Made Us. Is this just a somewhat pretentious title or is there more to back up the claim?

It was a decade of rampant greed and consumerism gone wild (the phrase Shop til Drop has Eighties all over it). Yet a decade tinged with ostentatious and genuine humanitarianism (Do They Know it’s Christmas?, the triumph of Solidarity)

It was a decade of right wing political ascendancy (Thatcher, Reagan) while the politically powerless found a radical and potent voice through a new kind of music (rap)

It was a decade that began in the grip of the fear of nuclear war and ended with the fall of the Iron Curtain.

But was it a decade that made us?

The answer has to be yes.  Consider the evidence.

When we look back through the sweep of history the 80’s will be seen as the most influential decade of the past fifty years.  I mean can anyone actually remember anything that happened in the 90s?

The 2000’s of course will be remembered for many things most of them negative – the rise of mass transcontinental terrorism and the destructive power of the GFC to name two.  Yet, even the negative events of the Naughties had their antecedents in the Eighties.

The end of a bipolar world of two super powers and their clients gave rise to a patchwork of unstable nation states, chaotic failures to achieve democracy, and, rampant and aggrieved non-state actors no longer held in check by their patrons.

The GFC had its origins in the 80’s ‘greed is good’ laissez-faire approach to financial regulation. How’s this for a quote ripped straight from the headlines of 1984 – “the housing finance industry needs a national mortgage exchange that does for mortgages and mortgage backed securities trading ‘what the New York Stock Exchange does for corporate stock trading” said Fannie Mae Chairman David O. Maxwell”. Mmmm, maybe not David.

The way we live now, in every respect, from cultural, through political, to technological, had its geneses in the Eighties.  The things you both love and hate in the modern world, all had their sources in the world of 30 years ago.

Take just one sphere of influence, that of popular culture.

Take the way we listen to music.

That Iphone you’ve downloaded all your songs to. It’s no less than the bastard offspring of the decade’s greatest inventions – the flexibility of the Walkman; the digital compression of music begun with the CD; the stratospheric leap in personal computing by among others Apple Corp.; and, last but not least, the first hand held (although back then somewhat brick like) mobile phones.

Or the way we watch TV.

If you love the Wire, the Sopranos, Game of Thrones etc, etc,  – thank the Eighties.   In particular thank Steven Boccho, who with Hill St Blues created a new form of TV a show where storylines arced over multiple episodes and each episode contained multiple storylines. And let’s not forget that the greatest TV show of all time debuted in 1989.  I talk of course of The Simpsons.

Or take the type of movies that Hollywood thinks we want to watch.

If you hate Fast and Furious 6 or are scared witless at the concept of Night at the Museum 3 – blame the Eighties.  If the Seventies with Jaws and Star Wars spawned the movie blockbuster the Eighties was the decade that truly spawned the so-called blockbuster sequel.  For instance, of the top 10 movies of 1984 – nine became sequels (the one that didn’t was Terms of Endearment and that it can be argued only because one of the main characters died).

The case for the prosecution that the Eighties is the most influential decade of recent times can now rest.

But if more evidence is needed, try this.

Reading through “The Times of the Eighties: The Culture, Politics and Personalities that Shaped the Decade” – a collection of emblematic New York Times articles from the 80s – is to open a snapshot on this greatest of decades.

This coffee table collection is broken down into various sections National (i.e. U.S.), International, Business, Technology, New York, Arts & Entertainment, Fashion, and Sports each of which contains a selection of NYT articles showcasing the highlights and lowlights of the period.

The book is at times poignant, at times revelatory, and, at times simply amusing.  Eighties characters, events, and innovations cram its glossy pages documenting everything from the taking off of the first Space Shuttle to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.   Here we have Bernie Goetz and Bill Buckner, there we have Calvin Klein and Brooke Shields.

News stories chart the obsessive toys that bookended the decade from 1981’s Rubik’s Cube to the Nintendo Gameboy in 1989.

On this page we see the first public discussions over the scourge of AIDS, on the next we trace the last stirrings of the Soviet Union.

Here we have a review calling the Blues Brothers “a gold plated dud” (yes really that’s what it says!), there we have a review of U2’s The Joshua Tree that fails to mention any of the three songs that became the signature tunes of the band.

In fact that might be the most fun part of the entire book, the wry smiles one gets from reading prophecies gone wrong, like a 1983 article on the invention of the “Windows” operating system allowing several tasks to be performed at once on a personal computer, –  “windows may find a niche in business computing”… yes it just may.

It all makes for a sentimental journey down memory lane.

Especially, if like me, the 80’s were your coming of age decade.

And coming of age is exactly what Wade Watts does in Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One – a paean to the author’s own 80’s teenagehood.

A novel set in a dystopian future of 2044, a world so bad that most people spend their days locked in a virtual reality world called the OASIS.  And then the creator of the aforementioned virtual reality world, James Halliday dies.  But not without leaving as his last game, a worldwide competition, the winner of which will inherit his mega fortune and control of the OASIS.  That’s where the fun begins.  To win the competition Wade and his fellow competitors must solve a series of Eighties pop culture themed brainteasers whilst fending off the obligatory evil corporation.

From here the novel takes a turn into celebration of growing up in the Eighties as Wade and his merry band delve deep into the minutae of 80’s music, movies, TV shows and video games.

As my friend Nick Buchan makes clear in his superb review of the book over at the Deadline Zombie blog the beauty of this novel comes when Cline waxes nostalgic on all the best parts of the Eighties.

The parts that still send a wistful shiver down my spine.

Saturday mornings crowded around the one video console in our town playing Frogger, Donkey Kong, Pac man, Time Pilot and my all-time favourite Galaga.

School holidays spent watching the movies of a teenage generation the Blues Brothers, Mad Max 2, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Star Wars 2 and 3 (or v and VI actually), Indiana Jones, Porky’s, Ferris Bueller, The Breakfast Club, Flying High (Airplane!), and the Back to the Future trilogy.

And that might prove exactly how great the decade was – a decade where Michael J Fox is King is one worth remembering.

At times Cline’s references to 80’s cultural icons evoked nostalgia and a wistful longing for my own teen years,  but at others Cline seemed to be (to use an Eighties phrase) “a try hard” in jamming so many insider cultural references into one book (a bit like this article really).

Still, while Reader Player One might be a computer gamers’ wet dream and a love letter to geekdom, it’s more than that, it’s a good old fashioned hero’s quest, a well written adventure yarn and a righteous celebration of the TV shows, games, movies and music of a generation.

Music too plays the central part in Dylan Jones’ biography of the 80’s – The Eighties: One Day, One Decade.

That’s as it should be.  The extended Eighties (to about 1994) was very much a decade whose story can be told through its music in a way that can’t be said about any decade since.

Indeed, Don Mclean may have been wrong when he termed the day of Buddy Holly’s death The Day the Music Died if he had termed the day of Kurt Cobain’s death the day the music died he might well have been on to something.

As his title makes clear, Dylan Jones tells the story of the Eighties through the story of one day – a day that stood virtually at the midway point of the entire decade – Saturday 17 July 1985.

The day of Live Aid.

What a day that was, a roll call of music’s famous and finest, the likes of which had never been seen together before, all playing for a cause.  Bowie, Jagger, McCartney, Clapton, Dylan, Neil Young, Dire Straits, Queen, Sting, U2, The Who, Led Zepplin, Elvis Costello, The Beach Boys, Black Sabbath, Run-DMC, Madonna, Duran Duran and of course Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats.

Those of us who were teens during the Eighties have been dubbed the MTV Generation as we became addicted to music via video clip.  Yet, four years after the launch of 24 hour music television, Live Aid reminded us all of just how powerful live music could actually be.

At a distance of almost 30 years I remember clearly everything about the day of Live Aid. I camped out on my lounge room floor – the blue green glow of the Rank Arena blazing for 16 hours (plus the pre-show Australian concert), a stack of 3 hour VHS tapes ready to be inserted into the  VCR one after another.

Like Dylan Jones (and almost everyone else who saw the show) I reckon the day’s honours went to Queen (do yourself a favour, get the DVD of the concert or watch Queens’ performance on YouTube – that my friends is how to perform a stadium gig).

Dylan Jones was there, at Wembley, that day – but I’m truly not sure that there was the place to be; or was in fact any better than a Canley Heights lounge room – this was a TV event.

Today we get blasé about such events, the big multi-group concert, the made for TV spectacular, the latest humanitarian cause espoused by an annoying celebrity (Bono I’m talking about you).

Yet, Live Aid begat them all (even in fact that bloody Bono!) – one more example of the ever lasting impact of the Eighties. As Jones says, Live Aid was “one of the most extraordinary days in postwar history, the first cultural event that attempted to involve the whole world”.

But Jones’ book is not just the story of a concert, its performances and backstage shenanigans, as interesting as they are.  This is a first rate cultural biography of the decade spanning fashion, music, society and politics.  Jones uses the day as a springboard to travel backwards and forwards through time telling the story of the Eighties and its ever lasting impact.  It is history at its most fascinating – a landmark book to mark a landmark day and a landmark decade.

The Eighties will always be with us.  Just this week I saw a poster pole advertising a Nik Kershaw concert.  Nik Kershaw!! Words fail me.  Perhaps I’ll leave it to Dylan Jones “Live Aid was a different kind of Year Zero, a different kind of level playing field.  Here there were denim-clad boogie boys, dodgy New Romantics, old school pop entertainers, ersatz soul stars, rock royalty, Top of the Pops stalwarts….and Nik Kershaw”.

The 80’s lives for me because it was the decade I came of age

The 80s should live for us all because it was the decade where most of the things we take for granted today also came of age.


2 thoughts on “Why I Love the Eighties! The history of a decade in three books.

  1. Marcus James says:

    Another great blog, sometimes I think they are too good – I feel I don’t need to read them !!

    It does make you wonder, when the so much of the 80’s can be seen to make us what we are now , how did fashion escape this – maybe there is a universal law of taste – all I can say is thank got for that !


    Sent from my iPhone

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