If I’d grown up a decade earlier, I imagine I’d probably have had more achievable dreams as a kid. But my childhood, probably not unlike that of most American kids growing up in the 20th century, was filled with superheroes. So all I really wanted in life was to discover I was really an invulnerable orphan from space, or to achieve super strength through overexposure to gamma radiation, or to be bitten by a mutant spider, or what have you. Even now, halfway through my life, there’s probably still a little corner of my subconscious that’s insulated enough from my customary skepticism that it still expects my secret origin story to begin any day now. Everything else I do is just to pass the time.
In my day there were four heroes on television pretty regularly, and I’m told I was imitating them on and off the playground earlier than I can even remember. The Incredible Hulk, of course, as played by Lou Ferrigno, who has fixed things so I cannot take a CGI Hulk seriously, and Bill Bixby, really selling the heartache of a temper you can’t control, whose onset is pain and whose aftermath is losing everyone you care about and just moving on. Why would you want to be that? you might have asked. RARRRRRRR, I would have replied, and maybe knocked down a stack of boxes or something. Then Spider-man, the yin to the Hulk’s yang, still able to punch the crap out of a stack of boxes but also able to climb and swing and spring around as though he were weightless. I was a skinny kid, who probably made a better Spider-man than Hulk, but at least I had both the wisecracks and the temper. Batman, naturally, but we’re talking Adam West, so generally a little more goofy than brooding. Again, lots of swinging around on invisible Bat-ropes, and some punching with visible sound effects.
And then there was the fourth superhero I always wanted to be. The one with bullet-deflecting bracelets who transformed by spinning around in place until a blinding flash changed her clothes. Yeah: Wonder Woman.
She was doubly badass in that she was a superhero, capable of all the important stuff like punching a stack of boxes, but also she was not really part of our world. She was born on Paradise Island — Paradise, people — and was just sort of playing at being a totally gorgeous secretary with glasses and perfect dark hair in a perfect bun. All those other heroes had tragic circumstances that rooted them to our world — Banner’s search for a cure, Parker’s family/school/romantic life, Wayne’s drive to avenge his parents — but for Diana, this was her vacation from being basically a goddess. These qualities — superpowers plus the sense of being in the world by choice but belonging to some other, better place — were what I secretly always wanted for myself. They were far more important than the fact that I had one Y chromosome too many to be an Amazon.
I can’t remember a time when I ever wanted to be a girl instead of a boy, but I also — especially before I hit puberty — never thought that it wasn’t OK for me to want to be Wonder Woman. Even if I also wanted to date her, because I started liking girls in first grade and have never stopped (liking boys came later). There was nothing confusing about it at all. Women could be both beautiful and powerful. Steve Trevor might have thought he was Diana Prince’s boss, but just because she let him. In truth, he was her sidekick, and that state of affairs was perfectly okay. …for him. Playing with my friends, there was no way I was going to be the sidekick. So I put rubber bands on my wrists to deflect bullets and I taught myself to run like Lynda Carter, which probably helps explain why I didn’t amount to much as an athlete.
The point I’m coming to is that I was perfectly tuned to be enchanted by Xanadu. I haven’t watched it in its entirety since I was a kid, but the snippets I’ve seen here and there confirm my suspicion that it wasn’t the lengthy plot about (from what I recall) some schmoe’s quest to be proprietor of a roller rink or something. It was the opening sequence, where all the Muses are coming to life bathed in luminous haloes, then resolving themselves into beautiful women on roller skates. Otherworldly origin, check. Unusual superpower, check (dude, they could GLOW. Do you know how cool it was to be able to glow in the 80s?). Beautiful, check, powerful, check. No real responsibilities in life, except to inspire an entrepreneur and chew gum and sing the best music, the best.
Have to believe, we are magic
Nothing can stand in our way
Look, I hated musicals as a kid, I would groan whenever a character in a cartoon started singing, but I loved this music so much. “Magic” still gives me chills. “Xanadu” sounds exactly like going to heaven would sound, if there were such a place. I don’t think I’d ever asked my parents to buy me a full record album before, but I saw this in the store, saw the songs from the movie plus several more I’d heard of, saw the cover photo — I don’t remember how much of an effect it had at the time, but it must have, look at it! — and had to have it. Not the soundtrack to the movie, mind you, but just the two best songs plus stuff like “Heart Attack” and “Physical,” two songs from Grease (which I only saw for the first time a few years ago), and some awesome stuff like “Make a Move on Me” and “A Little More Love” to round it out. The only song I never liked and still don’t was actually from the movie, syrupy old “Suddenly” (with Rik’s hero, Cliff Richard!), and one of the songs, “Tied Up,” has only grown on me over the years. It’s pure pop, don’t get me wrong, nothing I could defend in any objective way as being musically significant, but un. Believably. Fabulous.
I don’t own any other Olivia Newton-John albums. I don’t know that I need to. If a Muse is doing her job — if she’s beautiful and powerful enough — she only needs to visit you once.
Duran Duran, Rio
If I had an 80s album top ten list, this would almost certainly be on it. What James Bond is to movies, Duran Duran are to music; what Goldfinger is to James Bond movies, Rio is to Duran Duran albums. Or maybe From Russia With Love, which I like better. Every song on this is fantastic, and yes, I did hear it and love it back in the day. It would be headlining this year if I hadn’t had so much more to say about Olivia.
Bauhaus, The Sky’s Gone Out
The first time I listened to this, it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Peter Murphy had me convinced he was as scary as he was trying to sound, particularly on the homicidal “Three Shadows” mini-opera. I don’t think I’ve ever been as unsettled by any other album, apart from Plague Mass by Diamanda Galas and Murder Ballads by Nick Cave. Which might not have been embarrassing if I’d been 7 at the time, but alas, I was at least twice that. Look, it’s creepy, okay? And awesome. If I ever do a podcast, “In the Night” is going to provide the theme music.
Once again I’m kind of powerless to describe how amazing a Prince album is. I’m pretty sure I heard the title track around the time it was out, but that and “When Doves Cry” were pretty much all I knew of Prince until 1987 or so. In my head this is what most of the very early 80s were — until new wave hit properly it was all skeletal nocturnal funk punctuated with flashing purple lights. Utterly adult and awesome, in other words. I’d venture to say Prince in the 80s was even better than Bowie in the 70s, though I confess he left me behind after Emancipation and I was left panting in his dust, watching him sprinting farther and farther ahead.
- Roxy Music, Avalon
- XTC, English Settlement
- Siouxsie and the Banshees, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse
- Simple Minds, New Gold Dream
- Devo, Oh No! It’s Devo
- The Cure, Pornography
- Robyn Hitchcock, Groovy Decay
- Thomas Dolby, The Golden Age of Wireless