There was a time in my life when music from the 1980s, by and large, was something to be avoided. Put aside the torn jeans, the hair, the bangles/Bangles, and the fluorescent colors for the moment. It was the sound itself. The synth bleeps and blips, the electronic drums, the chorused out guitars, all of this sound heavily processed…I couldn’t stand any of this stuff. It made no matter if it was Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver, Guns n’ Roses, Madonna, or Prince. I simply didn’t want to hear it.
Something shifted, though. Whereas before the production on most music of my early years (1981-88 or ’89) felt sterile and boring, over the past few years, those same records have all started to take on aspects which (I hesitate to use the word “nostalgia”) remove me from my immediate/imminent life. I cannot tell if this is due to the distance I have from the ubiquity of that sound, or due to changes in my own psyche and ears, but either way, there is no denying it. My relationship with music from the eighties has blossomed from one based on indifference and vague loathing to one based on emotional attachment.
Through high school and much of college, I focused almost entirely on the 1960s and 70s. The Stooges, The Kinks, The Beatles, The Velvets, MC5, Captain Beefheart, Television, The Ramones: these were the groups in the heaviest rotation. Music fresh off the presses passed me by (electroclash? What?). Music of the immediate past sunk in the mire (get them baggy jeans and flannel shirts out of here). Jazz from the 50s occasionally broke up the steady stream of psych, early metal, and early punk. Music made during my life remained either anathema or unknown.
The album that opened my mind to the fact that there is a great deal of music from the 1980s with power, atmosphere, and emotion (as if it was not obvious that there was then, always has been, and always will be good music being made somewhere) was Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü (1984). Hüsker Dü, that erstwhile hardcore band, made a seventy minute record in 72 hours: twenty-three tracks, all telling the story of a young man trying to escape his typical life. This record came out when I was three years old, and I didn’t hear it until almost twenty years after that, but its effect was immediate. Strapped to the couch, headphones on, record player at extreme volume, sitting in the dark, I felt—this is hard to explain—I felt like it actually was 1984.
Or, more accurately, the images playing in my brain were some kind of dream from 1984. Zen Arcade is a nighttime record; I imagined the purple sky of a cloudy Twin Cities evening, kids in tight torn jeans and Chuck Taylors, driving their 1970s cars around. Characters from Repo Man mingled with the Ramones outside of First Avenue. Trash blew down 7th St as offices went dark in the IDS Tower. Kids drank and fought in the alleys and side streets of Marcy-Holmes. These pictures flashed in the darkness. I don’t know why.
I suspect that it has a lot to do with reverb.
A lot of people are down on Spot’s production of the SST Hüsker Dü records, but I disagree. Thin though the EQ may be, and clicky as the drums are, Spot and the boys managed to use slight reverb on those drums and on Bob Mould’s voice to create a sense of expansiveness. The flatness of his guitar playing, the way his distortion crushes nearly all tone out of the sound, only contributes to the sense I get listening to the record that I am outside, but the subject material and the mechanistic, electronic sound of the production places the music firmly in an urban setting.
All of which boils down to this: Zen Arcade has atmosphere. The sound encourages a sense of place and a sense of time. As months and years marched on, more eighties music began to filter into my consciousness: The Replacements (also drenched with atmosphere), early REM, The Fall, Fugazi, Mission of Burma, the song “Teen Age Riot” off of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, Bad Brains, and finally, early (non-shit) Metallica and Iron Maiden in their prime. The sonic thread that seems to weave through all of this material is that same sense of space, often generated by reverb and a very thin dynamic range.
The more I listened to music released during my youth, the more I got the sense that I had been listening to it all my life. I have no explanation for this feeling. I never listened to any of these bands as a very small child, and nobody in my family did either. I don’t know if the general sort of production zeitgeist of the early and mid 1980s filtered through all types of music that may have been on television or the radio at the time, I don’t know if there really is something about the music itself that tricks my brain into imagining that it’s somewhen else (the old cliché about music “transporting” the listener seems, well, cliché?)
But the fact remains that something odd happens to me when I listen to music from this era, something that doesn’t happen when I listen to music from the 1930s, or the 1990s, or the 2000s. I listen to Somewhere In Time by Iron Maiden, or Master of Puppets by Metallica, though, and I feel like I’m actually six years old. I once listened to the soundtrack of the movie Labyrinth while finishing a term paper, and I broke down and openly wept in my room (but that was real nostalgia; I watched the fuck out of that movie in 1986 and 1987, and the end of college, well, that’s a rough time for folks, no?) The music from that film is similar in production and feel to a lot of 80s pop, which is starting to creep into this territory for me (Ms. Lauper and Mr. Winwood, I’m looking at youz).
Maybe this is all inevitable. I had thought that the spate of 1960s and 1970s remasters and reissues that flooded the record stores in the late 90s had only to do with arbitrary anniversaries, but I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t more to it. Maybe there is something irresistible in the music and sounds (i.e. the production values) of our early childhood, something mystifying and yet totally immediate to that internal landscape. Scientists say that smell triggers the strongest memories, but I’m not entirely sure if that holds true in my case.
Setting aside my personal and long-winded memories of the early 80s, though, there is something to the production of records from that time that is different from now. It is almost as if engineers had all the tools for a full spectrum of audible sound finally at their disposal, and right at that moment, they decided to ignore a full third of that capability and flatten everything out into a musical prairie. Real thick bass more or less fell out of favor for a while, there, and the immediacy of those frequencies was lost.
The relationship of space and time, in a physics sense, has always been slippery to me, but perhaps I just need to listen to more Blade Runner-era Vangelis. 80s music derives its sense of space from a loss of immediacy of sound, which simultaneously (and perhaps paradoxically) seems to make my past immediate or visible in some sense, as a cityscape on the horizon is visible in my memory: definitely there, but shimmering, vague, and just out of my reach.