Whether you’re a fan of ’80s music or not, there’s no denying it was a massive period. Some will assume it was MTV that made it so, elevating the music to greater heights with 24 hours of videos playing back to back. In truth, it did play a major role in the rise of both metal and new wave, the latter of which was considered to be “alternative” by the suits at the record labels at the time.
Alternative, no wave, modern rock, post-punk, power pop, synth pop—what began as disparate underground scenes inspired by punk’s free-spirited DIY ethic and flair for the unexpected was quickly packaged up by the powers that be into a single genre to make it easier to market to the masses. Despite the labeling, artists of all stripes emerged in the wake of this new era, creating a myriad of sounds that would in some ways share a common misfit creed, at least until it all eventually got neutered and went mainstream. Here you’ll find a few recent releases from bands of the time that deserve a second look.
The Skeletal Family
The rise of the ’80s goth movement coalesced with the surge of bands like Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees. A couple years on, the torch would be passed to the likes of Sisters of Mercy and The Cult, which eventually spawned loads of lesser-knowns such the young and scrappy Skeletal Family. The UK band turned a few heads during the early to mid ’80s, in large part due to its dishy front woman Anne-Marie Hurst. Releasing two albums for indie label Red Rhino, the band amassed a decent-sized following but failed to break through in any major way.
In listening to early studio albums Burning Oil and Futile Combat, it’s not hard to see why the Family failed to make the inroads some of their peers had managed. While The Cure had mastered the art of the apocalypse on its early offerings, and Gene Loves Jezebel leveraged its intricate pop leanings, Skeletal Family’s sound was raw and disaffected, sounding like it was created purposefully to be as un-commercial as possible. Even the band’s attempts at pop—like a cover version of the old standard “Stand By Me”—sound off. But that’s part of the band’s charm.
While Hurst’s dry vocals don’t do particularly well in selling a pop song, they are eerily effective when balanced against the driving percussion and dissonant bass riffs that characterized the material. Other members included Roger Nowell (bass), Stan Greenwood (guitar), Martin Henderson (drums) and Karl Heinz (synths). The band’s debut Burning Oil (1984) fared well on the independent charts in large part to its growing following and opening slots for Sisters of Mercy.
The album’s cold, dank feel centers on Hurst’s fixed vocals, and the band’s youth and lack of polish is part of its appeal, highlighted by the driving title track and the tribal dirge of “So Sure.” Futile Combat (1985) marks a distinctive growth spurt for he band. On numbers such as the eerily melodic “Promised Land” and “Streetlite”—with its choppy, angular riffs—Hurst sounds more commanding and the band is heavier and in sync. There are also touches of pop here and there, which are obvious nods to the new wave scene that at that point was tearing up the charts.
The band would go on to get signed to major label Chrysalis and see Hurst exit to join goth also-rans Ghost Dance. In the end, the pop-goth formula would prove unsuccessful for the Skeletal Family and it would soon splinter before resurfacing years later.
This killer comp includes both studio albums, loads of live tracks, BBC sessions, non-LP B-sides, singles and more, all housed in a slick box set with an insightful booklet. For fans of the band or goth completists, this one’s a keeper. (Cherry Red)
During the ’80s, the SF Bay Area was rife with edgy bands paving new roads from underground to mainstream, Faith No More being a prime example. One band that didn’t fare quite as well but made an interesting racket nonetheless was Game Theory. Led by reluctant front man Scott Miller, the band cranked out a jangly form of power pop falling somewhere between Big Star and REM, embellished by Miller’s nasally croon. What made the band special was the rich, textured instrumentation and intricate vocal arrangements filling out the sound.
Released in 1987, double album Lolita Nation was the band’s fourth album, which featured a new lineup and a slightly more adventurous streak. Miller (RIP) had a knack for infusing his pop bits with a strong sense of melancholy, which is most evident on the moody and commanding “The Real Sheila.” A cold, spidery riff—courtesy of Debbie Harry look-a-like Donette Thayer—lays the groundwork for Miller’s bittersweet verse before a full-frontal guitar assault ensues. It’s a masterful moment, one that stands as the band’s crowning achievement.
This mammoth 2-disc reissue features all 27 tracks from the original album, plus 21 more from the period, including alternate mixes and a set of classic covers from the likes of David Bowie, Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, The Smiths, The Stooges, Joy Division and others. (Omnivore)
The Elektra Years 1978-1987
I’m not gonna split hairs over whether or not The Cars are underground enough to be included in this batch. And while some will cite the fact that the band received loads of airplay on mainstream radio and MTV, selling massive amounts of records in the process, that they hardly qualify as “alternative” music. But The Cars were clever—musically, lyrically, image-wise, all of it. And the fact that the mainstream happened to get it right (it does happen, once every decade or so) is no fault of the band’s. Leader Ric Ocasek had a knack for crafting near-perfect power-pop ditties, with equal parts light and shade and more than a few clever turns of phrase. The band’s first two albums, the eponymous debut (1978) and Candy-O (1979) are stone classics, equal parts pop perfection, rock ‘n’ roll abandon (courtesy of ace guitar player Eliot Easton) and oddball quirks, keeping things interesting into the early ‘80s. And early numbers like “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Dangerous Type” still hold up well decades later.
The band’s main catalog has just been reissued in a plush new set from catalog gurus Rhino Records. The Elektra Years 1978-1987 has the band’s six studio albums, all in bright remastered sound overseen by Ocasek himself. Each album comes in a cardboard sleeve that replicates the original artwork. (Rhino)
Goth elder statesmen Daniel Ash returns to the scene with Stripped, an album’s worth of covers culled from his previous bands Bauhaus, Love and Rockets and Tones on Tail. For the uninitiated, Ash was one of the key members of Bauhuas, the archetypal goth band of the early ’80s. Toward the end of the highly influential band’s reign, Ash formed the side project Tones on Tail taking Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskins with him. When Bauhaus was officially dead, former bass player/vocalist David J joined Ash and Haskins to form the massively underappreciated Love and Rockets, balancing their deathly roots with heaping doses of psychedelia, glam rock and pop for one of the goth’s more successful runs.
Stripped features re-imagined takes on some of Ash’s back catalog, infusing the tracks with dub-step and ambient elements. While nowhere as good as the originals, Love and Rockets tracks such as “So Alive” and “No Big Deal” sound dark and brooding with a high-tech makeover. Bauhaus number “Slice of Life” is heavier than before, rattling my speakers with its bass-heavy thump. Tones on Tail standard “Christian Says” plods along to a throbbing dub-step groove that works well in this modernized take.
While it would’ve been nice to have gotten some new bits out of the elusive Ash, it’s still great to see the pioneering guitarist so alive on this new record. (MVD)
A Step In the Right Direction
The Truth was a UK band formed in the early ‘80s by singer/axe man Dennis Greaves. Thought by some to be the heir apparent to The Jam’s mod/punk throne after its split, The Truth were slightly more solitary and pop-oriented, which would serve them well for a spell, especially on the excellent 1985 LP Playground. A heady mix of ‘60s rock, R&B and spirited pop-punk, the combination worked a charm during the mid ’80s, but a couple more albums down the road and the band’s creative streak—and fortunes—dried up.
A Step In the Right Direction collects the band’s early singles, before it found its footing and wider success. The sound is more mod/R&B than what the band would later become known for and the remastered sound makes for some fine listening. Also included are two discs of live sets from 1983-84, plus a booklet. And the packaging is top notch—each disc comes complete in a glossy sleeve, all housed in a full-color wallet. While The Truth remains a footnote in the mod/punk scene of the ’80s, its early output is a worthy addition to any ’80s collection. (Cherry Red)
Orders Of Magnitude
Information Society is best known for its foray into dance music and its one mega-hit, 1988’s “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy).” And while that massive hit will forever define the band, if you look deeper you’ll find music that runs the gamut from synth pop to industrial and even a tad experimental at times.
Orders Of Magnitude sees the band—now once again helmed by mastermind Kurt Harland—tackling a batch of cover songs, the standout being “Heffalumps and Woozles” from Winnie the Pooh. Dark, offbeat and completely insane, the track meanders with stream-of-consciousness approach to the Disney standard. Other covers include oddball versions of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” “Beautiful World” by Devo and “Dominion” by Sisters of Mercy, which does the epic track due justice, making for some interesting listening. (MVD)
The Lone Ranger
As the ska-revival of the mid ’90s hit full steam in these parts with the likes of Sublime and No Doubt, original UK players Madness were no longer top of mind. But front man Suggs soldiered on, cranking out one of the better albums of the period, his first solo effort, The Lone Ranger (1995).
The album kicks off with an eerie, ska-ish version of the Beatles classic “I’m Only Sleeping,” which put a strange new spin on the original, while “The Tune” and “Camden Town” encompass the early ’80s spirit that helped his former band find fame. While the album was never properly released in the States, a few stray copies would land in the import section and be quickly snatched up by those who caught the buzz. Although there’s some great hooks to be had, Suggs lacked the mainstream appeal of ska’s new guard as well as the pretention and affectations of the ’90s alternative movement, and thus didn’t catch on much in these parts.
Now, some 20 years later, The Lone Ranger gets a prime reissue, including remastered sound and a second disc of bonus material—b-sides, alternate takes and more—making it a fitting tribute to a lost classic. (Cherry Red)
I Am Thor Soundtrack
While the larger-than-life Jon Mikl Thor is probably best known for his onstage antics bending steel and slaying baddies, his offbeat appeal straddled the boundaries between punk and hard rock for several decades. A hit on the college radio scene, Thor’s sound was a little too strange and idiosyncratic for the metal masses, thus making him a bit of a hero to punk orphans in search of a new god.
I Am Thor features the music from the recently released rock documentary by the same name. The raucous set features the rock god’s best-know ditties “Keep The Dogs Away” and “Let the Blood Run Red,” along with some previously unreleased nuggets from some of his more punk-inspired side projects. For fans of the reluctant rock star, you’d be hard-pressed to find all of this Thor material on one disc, making I Am Thor a must-have for fans. (Cleopatra)
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. JK