If the music scene of the mid to late eighties could be summed up in a single word it would be “fragmentation.” With new genres and sub-cultures spurning mainstream success in search of something authentic, the stranglehold of the big labels began to loosen on parts of the public consciousness. As the charts stagnated into sugary electro mush, the musically minded struck out on their own in ever increasing numbers. What they found was some of the best and perhaps some of the most unjustly sidelined music ever produced. Here are my favourites from this period.
1985 – Hounds of Love by Kate Bush
Kate Bush’s fifth studio album is arguably her most polished and accomplished offering, balancing a step change in production quality with retaining much of the innate quirkiness which has made her such a cult figure over the years.
She was 27 years old when this album was released and she’s never sounded better, having lost a lot of the adolescent squeak which had been a detriment to some of her earlier work. Here she is at the peak of her vocal powers, which are at last unleashed upon a hitherto unsuspecting world through tracks like And Dream of Sheep, and the hugely underrated Hello Earth. Hounds of Love finally reveals the darkness hiding behind Bush’s idiosyncratic exterior, and this oblique and melancholy style accounts in large part for Hounds of Love’s enduring appeal.
Not exactly an album for family celebrations, this is an album that captures a timeless and out of focus longing that sleeps somewhere inside us all.
1986 – Medusa by Clan of Xymox
If this isn’t the greatest gothic album ever released, it’s surely got to be in the top three! A bona fide alternative classic, hailing from a bygone era before subculture identities were available off the peg. Like good alternative clothing stores of the time, the joy of going underground was the discovery of a forbidden world, effortlessly surpassing the mainstream in its cold, creative beauty.
Like any true alternative album, Medusa makes no compromises and does not seek peer approval. That creative integrity has been vindicated by the birth of an age-defying and beautifully balanced album. Indeed, classic tracks like Back Door and Louise can still sometimes be heard in the more discerning underground clubs as new generations continue to defy the spoon-feeding corporate music machine.
Pass me a Gauloises immediately!
Light the candles, singe an incense stick and pop the cork on that good bottle of red because Dead Can Dance are here! No other band could possibly support such galactic levels of pretentiousness without imploding under the weight of their own gravitas, but then no other band revolves around the ludicrously talented fulcrum of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. Perry’s wonderful, chocolaty smooth voice conjures the shadow of Sinatra, while Lisa Gerrard is easily the most famous vocalist you’ve never heard of. Her numerous movie credits are a testament to her most unusual talent.
Almost defying musical description, Dead can Dance are beloved by world music aficionados and goth shufflers alike for their sweeping, epic and ludicrously large symphonic sound. No other band could arrange tracks entitled Dawn of the Iconoclast and Summoning of the Muse on an album and expect to be taken seriously, but that’s just another day at the office for Dead can Dance.
Anyone for chess?
1988 – Operation Mindcrime by Queensryche
When Queensryche released their epic third studio album in May 1988, it soon became apparent that they’d created a serious problem for themselves. Having set the bar so ridiculously high with such a stupendous musical assault on the senses, Operation Mindcrime seems destined to hound them like a ghost for the rest of their careers. Indeed, although they’ve achieved commercial success since then, nothing has come close to the conceptual brilliance, stunning execution and sheer overpowering energy of this legendary album.
It was one hell of a gamble to release a concept album in the late eighties, but Queensryche pulled off a masterstroke with this dark tale of an idealistic yet troubled young man, exploited by political forces he naively thinks he understands. Only when he’s used up and discarded does he learn the bitter truth that he was always an expendable foot soldier and never the respected field commander. A cautionary tale which has attained a new and urgent relevance in recent years.
The stunning rock arrangements and relentless energy of Mindcrime are lifted higher still by Geoff Tate’s crystal pure, glass shattering vocals. Tate surely has a shot at the title of greatest rock singer ever, and his relative obscurity shouldn’t disqualify him for consideration.
Set headphones to stun, and learn something useful they’ll never teach you at school.
1989 – Sonic Temple by The Cult
What better way to round off a dazzling musical decade than with a rip roaring, scotch slugging, straight shooting hard rock extravaganza from one of the art’s legendary lineups. Sonic Temple isn’t grand, or highbrow, and it’s certainly not a concept album. It doesn’t need any of those whistles and bells as it blasts right into the listener’s life. It is what it is, an unapologetic orgy of sheer, unadulterated rock n roll brilliance!
Billy Duffy leads this guitar charged assault on the senses, ably abetted by Ian Astbury on vocals, one of the few men cool enough to wear flares in the eighties and get away with it. By the time they’re done, it’s obvious the guys have assembled The Cult’s tightest and most energetic album, and that’s saying something. Reeking of bourbon and Marlboro smoke, Sonic Temple bursts into the atmosphere with joyous, wanton abandon, defying even the squarest of critics not to tap their feet as a seemingly endless list of hard rock anthems escapes into the atmosphere.
More than anything, this is an album that was born when everything was just going right. You can hear the guys were having a blast laying down these tracks, and that enthusiasm was captured and bottled for us all to share.
As the eighties faded and the nineties dawned, many music fans felt an ill-defined uneasiness. Corporate pop was all but dead and the Nu Metal assault was just getting under way. What would this new and as yet unknown decade have in store for the music scene?
That’s for the next post in this series.