Old Romantics

Music 2003 – William Cook recalls the era of miners’ strikes, hair mousse and great pop music.

Gatecrash any office party this Christmas and the chances are that much of the music will be at least a generation out of date. Nothing evokes lost youth so vividly as the music of our teenage years, and as the proportion of teenagers buying records shrinks, the middle-aged market is expanding. In five years’ time, more than half the albums sold in Britain will be bought by the over-forties, and a lot of those will be compilations. No wonder one of this month’s hottest tickets features ten acts that had their biggest hits way back in the 1980s. The retro line-up of the Here And Now Greatest Hits Tour boasts 1980s pin-ups including Kim Wilde, Paul Young and Nick Heyward – stars who first stormed the charts before Tony Blair became an MP. Throw in ABC, China Crisis and Heaven 17 and you have a bill that recalls those halcyon days of leg warmers and imminent nuclear Armageddon. They’re not playing little local clubs, either, but huge barns such as Wembley Arena. So, after a dozen years of downright derision, why are the 1980s back in vogue? For all its rebellious posturing, pop music is an intrinsically conservative affair that always harks back, like the Tory party, to a nostalgically imagined past. Although the 1980s are habitually mocked as the decade that taste forgot, for anyone who lost their virginity under Margaret Thatcher (so to speak) they were the golden age of pop. Every generation thinks that it discovered sexual intercourse and all its attendant complications, but no other generation has written such droll songs about it. From Heaven 17 (“I was 37/You were 17/You were half my age/The youth I’d never seen”) to ABC (“Everything is temporary, written on that sand/Looking for the girl that meets supply with demand”), the music’s camp, self-deprecating couplets recall Noel Coward. The cold war gave its frothy melodies an apocalyptic grandeur, and mass unemployment made the narcissistic romance of the dance floor seem heroic – love on the dole beneath a glitterball in gold lame suits. It is apt that Curiosity Killed the Cat made a pop video with Andy Warhol. Just as Busby Berkeley wrote escapist musicals that proved so popular during the Depression, the smartest artists in the troubled 1980s celebrated luxury and excess. In the 1970s, “serious” groups such as Led Zeppelin didn’t even release singles; 1980s pop was far more democratic – practising what punk preached, but with infinitely better dress sense. Smart, subtly subversive bands such as Soft Cell and Culture Club were feted by students and schoolgirls alike. Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant started out as a journalist on the teenage pop weekly Smash Hits. When Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware left the Human League to form Heaven 17, Philip Oakey found their replacements at a local disco. Never pompous or po-faced, 1980s pop turned hedonism into a form of protest. Sure, there was Red Wedge and Band Aid, but the main message, if there was one, was personal not political. Unemployment black spots such as Liverpool produced euphoric anthems such as “Relax”, by the upbeat band Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The miners’ strike was important, but so was styling mousse. “I may not have a job, but I have a good time,” rapped George Michael, cocking a joyous snook at the Thatcherite work ethic and the paternalistic doom and gloom of old Labour. Like most creative subcultures, this music had a strong gay aesthetic, echoed in films such as Prick Up Your Ears[!] and [!]My Beautiful Launderette. Marc Almond carried on where Joe Orton left off, but this new homosexual chic transcended sex, becoming a fertile metaphor for difference of every sort. When Boy George said he’d actually prefer a nice cup of tea to having sex, his disarming insouciance recalled the heyday of Oscar Wilde. Although they are no longer chart- toppers, these witty pop stars never went away. ABC has supported Robbie Williams and Taboo, the Boy George musical, has transferred from the West End to Broadway. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to play the big arenas again,” says Howard Jones. He is sanguine about stardom’s short shelf-life (“once you’ve had your time, it becomes very difficult then to really have any sort of big media profile”) but his career proves that there’s life after the Top 20. Lately, he’s been working with the girl group Sugababes and releasing new records on the internet. “I really thought I was never going to sing ‘Kids In America’ again,” says Kim Wilde. But touring makes a nice change from some of parenthood’s daily chores (“it is really nice to wake up without a soggy nappy on my shoulder”) and she has also been pleasantly surprised by the warm audience response. “When it was all first kicking off, I was aware I was a bit of a teenage heart-throb,” she says. “I didn’t think that people would hold me in their hearts for so long.” Yet what we are also holding on to is a fading memory of the way we were – and the way we’d still like to be, if only adult life hadn’t so rudely intervened. As Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot, the front man of Curiosity Killed the Cat, reminded me, youth really is wasted on the young (the lucky bastards). “When you’re hot, you’re hot – and when you’re not, you’re not,” says Volpeliere-Pierrot philosophically. And after a decade out in the cold, the 1980s are cooking again.