(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
The 1980s are given short shrift in the annals of pop music for many reasons, few of which have to do with the sounds that actually bounded from the speakers in one’s car or home, or boombox, or via the headphones of one’s WalkMan or WalkMan clone. There’s good, bad and mediocre music released every decade, after all, but as most folks who came of age during the decade will tell you, we had the hooks. The look? Aside from Sheena Easton, perhaps not – though, as the cool RetroWaste website details, the stereotypical shoulder pads and feathered hair didn’t really come into play until the middle part of the decade.
Fashion fads come and go, of course. Think of the bouffant and beehive hairstyles favored by many women from the ‘50s through the ‘60s, the collarless suits that bedecked the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, or the Day-Glo threads worn by the hippies at Monterey Pop and Woodstock just a few years later. They look out of place in today’s world, just as the flapper fashions of the 1920s did by the time the boys came marching home from World War II. Some may roll their eyes and snicker, if not laugh, but that’s the way of the world.
Likewise, music styles come and go, with some songs, albums and artists forever relegated to the eras in which they first made their mark. But unlike skinny ties and overblown locks, or A Flock of Seagulls, great songs, albums and artists both reflect and transcend their time. We may sometimes turn to the music to reminisce, but as often we turn to it to accent the present. Love, lust, and life’s ups and downs, even silly dance crazes, aren’t the domain of any one generation, but all generations.
I thought of that Wednesday evening, when I stumbled upon a YouTube video of the Bangles on the May 10th, 1986, edition of American Bandstand. Here, in two performances split by an interview with Dick Clark, they convey not just the spirit of ‘80s music, but of good music of every era.
They’re songs most folks of a certain age, whether or not they were fans, know like the back of their hands, of course. “Manic Monday” topped out at No. 2, kept from No. 1 only by the legend who penned it, Prince, whose “Kiss” proved infectious. “If She Knew What She Wants” didn’t do quite as well – it peaked at No. 29 – but has gone onto become one of their signature tunes. You can’t listen to either without being put into an instant good mood.
I hasten to add that they’re on Bandstand not just promoting the two singles, but their second album, Different Light, which was released on January 2, 1986. I bought it that same week from a Listening Booth in the Willow Grove Mall, though it could well have been City Lights Records in State College, depending on when winter break ended. (How’s that for narrowing it down?) I was a college junior attending the Penn State mothership, and either home – and working, working, working as much as I could at one of the mall’s department stores – or already back at University Park. I’ve written about that time before, and even chronicled my top albums of the year here – but to save you the click, here it is in a nutshell: I was (and still am) a fan of new wave, old rock, heady pop, country, bluegrass and urban folk, and plenty of additional genres, including R&B, soul and what would come to be known as Americana. I thought nothing of playing the Three O’Clock and Hank Jr. back-to-back, though I’m sure fans of each would have objected to the other’s presence on my turntable or cassette deck.
At school, I didn’t watch MTV. Hell, I didn’t watch much TV, period, and the only time I generally heard Top 40 radio was when I was selling my plasma for pocket money. And when not with a needle in my arm, or out having a good time with that pocket money, I was in my dorm room doing school work – and since my pre-law roommate preferred studying at the library, I listened to what I wanted – and, as now, often listened to things again and again and again. The result: By semester’s end, my Different Light cassette became so worn that the songs from the flip side bled through whenever I played it. (Yes, I bought it again.)
To be precise: Different Light glimmers and glistens. The production is polished, but not too polished. The melodies captivate; the beats are sure and precise; the guitars echo those of the British Invasion, and are always in service to the song; and the harmonies flow through the soul like few others.
One highlight: The album’s third single, the delightfully goofy “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which closed out 1986 at No. 1.
Another: “Return Post,” which ruminates about a long-distance relationship. One thing I love about it: The harmonies pay homage to Revolver-era Beatles. Another thing I love: whether intentional or not, the nod toward Them’s “Gloria” in the coda.
And another highlight: “Following,” a tale of obsessive love, which was penned by bassist Michael Steele.
And, finally, what turned to be the final U.S. single from the album: “Walking Down Your Street,” which reached No. 11 on the pop charts in April 1987. As I mentioned above, I rarely watched MTV in those days – so it was news to me when, a year or two ago, I discovered the video. It’s cute.
Anyway, some fans aren’t keen on Different Light, and usually cite All Over the Place as the band’s definitive work. I think the world of both, myself, and hear Different Light as an evolution of their sound. As Vicki Peterson says to Dick Clark of their music, “I think it’s always changing. It’s always growing and changing, and we’re happy with what we’re doing.”
I’ll conclude with this: At the end of ’86, I jotted down my top picks for the year. Paul Simon’s Graceland was my No. 1; Different Light was my No. 2. But through the decades that have followed, the album I’ve listened to more often isn’t Graceland, but Different Light. It makes me think. Makes me smile. And puts me into a good mood.
It’s be in my theoretical Top 10 Albums of All Time list (sharing space with about 99 other entries), easy.
- Manic Monday
- In a Different Light
- Walking Down Your Street
- Walk Like an Egyptian
- Standing in the Hallway
- Return Post
- If She Knew What She Wants
- Let It Go
- September Gurls
- Angels Don’t Fall in Love
- Not Like You