And so we arrive at the first entry in this project that discusses music I’m certain I heard in the year it was actually released.
I picked you out, I shook you up and turned you around
Turned you into someone new
I wasn’t working as a waitress in a cocktail bar: that much is true. I was blissing out, a six-year-old barreling into the 80s, a decade I’ve often thought was made to fit me, though surely it’s the other way around. Surely if I’d turned six at the end of 1970 I would instead have keyed into whatever passed for youth culture in that decade, which I’ve never bothered to investigate but which in my head is all big-wale brown corduroy bell-bottoms and H.R. Pufnstuf. I do love me some corduroy and earth tones, probably more now than I did then; at the time, that stuff belonged to my older cousins. For me it was bright primary colors and all the post-Star Wars escapism on offer: ninjas, GI Joe, Transformers, He-Man, the A-Team, V, Manimal, the Hulk, Spider-man, Saturday morning cartoons, Dungeons and Dragons, that damn Rubik’s Cube, friendship pins, sticker albums, mini golf courses blasting Joan Jett, Chuck E. Cheese back when it was dark and full of alcoves and blacklights and strobes and the best video games in the world. I wasn’t the happiest kid ever — even then, I was super shitty at making friends, and it didn’t help that my family moved states a few times before we settled down — but I wasn’t the saddest. You’d think all those toys and cartoons and stupid shiny things would seem vapid looking back, but they don’t. Individually, yes, a lot of them are laughable, cheap, and bad. Collectively, they were the trivia of the simplest, happiest time in my life.
I had two best friends at this age: the boy who lived behind us and the girl next door. The boy and I used to play in the sand with our GI Joes. The girl and I used to play with her Barbies. I never wanted any Barbies of my own, and I wasn’t as into the stuff Barbies did, but they’re really not all that different when you think about it. We were just telling stories with props.
The boy and I never listened to music together, as far as I can recall. The girl and I usually didn’t either, unless we did and this is the only song I can remember.
Don’t you want me, baby?
Don’t you want me, Bo, oh-oh-oh?
Don’t you want me, baby?
Don’t you want me, Bo, oh-oh-oh?
— “Don’t You Want Me?” as my six-year-old Dukes of Hazzard-watching brain heard it
I don’t think I seriously thought Phil Oakey was addressing Luke Duke’s blonder, hotter brother. Lyrics just had a tendency to enter my head exactly as I thought I heard them, and I didn’t have Google to find out what they were really saying. I just took it as read that pop songs were often nonsensical.
I’d like to say that song hit me like a bolt from the blue, that I was instantly transformed into a new wave / synthpop junkie, that my tastes were formed in an instant, that I turned to that girl in a moment of crisis and planted one on her surprised lips. (I did the last one, a few times, but that’s another story.)
But no: it was just a song. I liked it. I remembered it. The next few songs I liked were probably “Pac-Man Fever” and “Mr. Roboto,” nerdy stuff like that. But “Don’t You Want Me?” was the first contemporary pop song — not from my parents’ records, not some dorky thing from school or a musical — that penetrated my toy-commercial-sedated brain and stayed there, and was welcome.
Years later I got the whole album. Whoever edited the Wikipedia article on the band has contributed detailed notes on each song, containing such helpful tidbits as “it is an electropop anthem” (“The Sound of the Crowd”), “a chorus-heavy song about a troublesome girlfriend” (“Do or Die”), and “inspired by the character Judge Dredd” (“I Am the Law”). This is generally not subtle music. “Anthem” is actually a pretty good word for a lot of these tracks, given how it would be just as easy to shout most of them as sing them.
Let’s be honest: all three of the “Also” picks for 1981 are far better albums. But I didn’t hear anything from them in 1981. Instead I heard “Don’t You Want Me?”, which is far better than anything else on Dare!, and probably a better single than anything on those Alsos, for that matter. I also like “Love Action (I Believe In Love),” which is kind of a rough draft of “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”; “Seconds,” a surprisingly strong piece about the Kennedy assassination; and “Get Carter,” which is a cover of the, what, 15-note? musical theme from the Michael Caine movie of the same name.
But as clunky as this is, as childish as some of the melodies and lyrics are, it’s endearing stuff. I’m happy to have started my favorite musical decade with it.
New Order, Movement
One of my favorites these days, possibly because it’s such a chimera: somehow both the last Joy Division album and the first New Order album. It was a time of grief and confusion for the band, but the shapes they made finding their feet were still beautiful.
OMD, Architecture and Morality
Like Movement, an almost ambient record most of the time. I think of it as a sort of Nordic seascape, which every so often throws up a jagged iceberg (“The New Stone Age”), a gorgeous flock of birds (“She’s Leaving”), or a majestic Viking ship (“Joan of Arc,” “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)”). Sitting incongruously but not unhappily on a rock is “Souvenir,” a song whose synth riff I used to try endlessly to learn to play on the keyboard.
Depeche Mode, Speak and Spell
Their first album, before Vince Clarke left to form Yazoo and Erasure, and Martin Gore took over the songwriting. Most of it is very silly, but irresistible, two of the songs (“Boys Say Go!” and “What’s Your Name?”) are so homo-suggestive I found it impossible to believe that all of the current or former members of the band (including Vince Clarke) were straight. The 80s, man! Even if you weren’t gay, you kinda were.
- Prince, Controversy
- The Cure, Faith
- Siouxsie and the Banshees, Juju
- Duran Duran, Duran Duran
- Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Black Snake Diamond Role