You don’t have to look much farther than the title of the recent Rhino box set dedicated to the 1980s to be reminded that it’s one of the more vilified decades of the 20th century, or at least the latter half of the century. If the ’50s saw the birth of rock and roll, the ’60s brought protest music into the picture and established rock as a serious, adult form of artistic expression, and the ’70s witnessed a rebirth of sorts in the form of punk, well, the best thing most people can find to say about the ’80s is that it laid the groundwork for the alternative-rock revolution of the ’90s. In other words, the ’80s was such a bad time that it inspired an angst-fueled revolt that came to be known as alternative rock.
Like, Omigod!: The ’80s Pop Culture Box (Totally) doesn’t even try to build a case for the decade. For the most part, the essays by former Spy editor Jamie Molanowski and writer Dan Epstein that accompany the seven-CD set (in a booklet peppered with pictures of cultural embarrassments like a Bosom Buddies videotape, a Mr. T doll, the Miami Vice dudes, Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie, and Martha Quinn) drag the ’80s through the same old mud. And the inclusion of novelty dreck like Meco’s "Empire Strikes Back (Medley)" (a 1980 abomination that I guess I’m too young to remember), Dolly Parton’s "9 to 5," Buckner & Garcia’s "Pac-Man Fever," and the Don Johnson (yes, the Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame) disaster "Heartbeat" next to genuinely good tunes like Devo’s "Whip It," Gary Numan’s "Cars," the Cars’ "Shake It Up," the Pretenders’ "Back on the Chain Gang," the Gap Band’s "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," and the B-52s’ "Roam" doesn’t help. I might not be crazy about the Thompson Twins’ "Lies," .38 Special’s "Hold On Loosely," or even Joe Jackson’s "Steppin’ Out," but they’re not out-and-out bad songs. And they’re not ridiculous or embarrassing. "Pac-Man Fever," for all its novelty value, is one of those things that’s either best forgotten or stuck on some Dr. Demento comedy box set. I mean, shouldn’t we give the ’80s a fighting chance?
Okay, maybe not. The ’80s is when I grew up and made the leap from Top 40 radio to buying my own music and developing my own sensibility. And I can list dozens of reasons why that period sucked: Reagan and Bush; synth-pop; junk bonds; MTV (even though in those days it was so much edgier than radio that you could discover great new bands by watching in the wee hours of the night/morning); Miami Vice; tabloid television; no Sopranos; hair metal; Huey Lewis and the News; Live Aid; Band Aid; Farm Aid; the PMRC — and I’m just getting warmed up. Who would want to come of age in such a culturally shallow, artistically barren, politically backward, and socially just plain nasty era?
Looking back to the ’60s, when music had really meant something — man! — and the ’70s, when punk had also really meant something — man! — I found it hard not to feel I’d been born too damn late. Of course, we all rarely appreciate what we’ve got until after the fact. The birth of rock and roll in the ’50s, the punk explosion of the ’70s, and Nirvana’s nihilistic call to arms were all born of frustration and alienation — the very same emotions I shared with those of my generation who grew up hating the ’80s. "We’re desperate" was how John Doe and Exene Cervenka screamed it in a song of the same name from their 1981 sophomore album, Wild Gift (Slash). And it was Paul Westerberg who, on the Replacements’ 1985 major-label debut, Tim (Sire), called us "Bastards of Young" in a song that captured that unpleasant in-between-ness we all felt in simple lyrics like "They’ve got no wars to name us."
There are enough decent tunes on Rhino’s ’80s box to make the case that there was good music to be had then, even if there was always more than enough of the bad stuff to go around. And it’s hard not to notice just how diverse the one-hit-wonders of the era were (artists like U2 and R.E.M. don’t license their material to Rhino because, well, they don’t have to). Any decade that could accommodate both Devo and Run-DMC in its Top 40 would have to seem exotic when you’re looking back from an era of niche marketing and demographic fragmentation.
But the ’80s had more going for it than that. And though the idea merits only a footnote in Dan Epstein’s essay, the music that we all used to call "college rock" and that X presciently labeled, in one song title, "The Unheard Music" was being heard. Beneath the surface clutter of greed and bad taste, the ’80s was a vital era of fermentation — in places just off the mainstream radar screen like college radio stations, truly independent record labels, and cramped little beer-stained rock clubs.
If you were part of that scene, you probably spent more than your share of time complaining that X and the Replacements, not to mention dozens of other groups on labels like SST, Homestead, Slash, and Twin/Tone, couldn’t get on the radio or even on MTV. It wasn’t until late in the decade, when X and the Replacements had signed major-label deals and opted to take a shot at breaking through to Top 40 radio, that we realized that they and similar artists were giving up the very thing that made them different and better in order to sound mainstream. That was the real tragedy of the ’80s, and it wasn’t until Nirvana had spearheaded the alternative-rock breakthrough of the ’90s that Beck and Liz Phair and Guided by Voices and Sonic Youth could sign to a major label without jettisoning what it was that made them special.
But the ’80s had more than enough great underground bands to go around. And because it was some years before the major labels came hunting for them, these bands had a chance to make some groundbreaking music before they hit the cultural mainstream. Rhino spent the first half of 2002 reissuing all six of the albums that X recorded: the two they put out on Slash, the independent label that was later picked up by Warner Bros., and the four they released after signing to Elektra.
Each of these deluxe reissues includes a handful of previously unreleased demos, live tracks, and alternative mixes, but those don’t add much to the story the albums tell. And though Los Angeles and Wild Gift aren’t the only good ones, they are the two best, because from 1982’s Under the Big Black Sun up through 1987’s See How We Are you can hear X trying to refine their sound, sanding off the rough edges, and opting for slicker and slicker mixes until they hardly sounded like X at all. I was hoping that the bonus tracks on See How We Are would reveal that their demos for the disc are much better than the polished finished product, but the demos turn out to be just pared-down versions of what ended up on the studio album.
The Replacements have already had one retrospective thrown together for them by Reprise, the label they signed to in 1985. All for Nothing/Nothing for All (Reprise, 1987) features a best-of disc and a full disc of outtakes and B-sides, and you’ll find there the Replacements that most people remember from the ’80s — the Replacements who occasionally got some airplay with polished pop tunes like "I’ll Be You" or "Merry Go Round." But the real Replacements — or at least the Replacements who inspired the devotion of rabid cult following — were all but a memory by the time those songs were recorded. Indeed, by the time the band signed to Reprise, they only had one great album left in them, 1985’s Tim — after which founding guitarist Bob Stinson was fired and they became a much tamer if still unpredictable beast.
Fortunately, remastered versions of the four discs the Replacements recorded for Twin/Tone — Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash, the Replacements Stink EP, Hootenanny, and Let It Be — have all just been reissued by Restless, and they paint a very different picture. For starters, you can hear them making the transition from a hardcore punk band (Sorry Ma and Stink are full of the kind of fast and furious tunes they would drop from their set list after signing to Reprise) to a great if messy rock band, and Paul Westerberg evolving from a guy who was happy to scream "Fuck my school" to one of the better songwriters of his generation. The band hit their peak on 1984’s Let It Be, which showcased Westerberg’s mellower side in aching tunes like "Unsatisfied" and "Sixteen Blue" without jettisoning the playful irreverence that was so inspiring (the album covered Kiss’s "Black Diamond" and included a song called "Gary’s Got a Boner"). The best thing about Let It Be, however, is that it reminds us the ’80s weren’t so bad after all.