This story isn’t about 1985. 1985 wasn’t a good year for me.
1984 had been okay, because even though we’d moved away from Florida, the first school I’d really liked and the first girl I’d ever kissed with full romantic intentions (little more than a quick peck on the lips behind the bushes, with our friends egging us on, but still, unforgettable), we stopped over in Savannah on the way to North Carolina. Savannah was great fun for a kid, and we stayed in this hotel with high ceilings (I love high ceilings, guys) and there was this glorious sense of being between places and weighed down by nothing which to this day is my favorite thing about traveling. Then we moved into an apartment in North Carolina, which was almost as good as the hotel in Savannah for feeling between. I made a friend there, and we watched Dangermouse and Battle of the Planets together, and I tried psychic experiments in the laundry room and read tons of Doctor Who and Tintin books. It was a great little summer.
Then we moved into a house in the suburbs (I have always lived in the suburbs, my whole life, in case it’s not obvious), next door to a kid my age who was a total dick and who cried when I kicked him in the nuts to stop him harassing me. I started fifth grade and hated everyone there, including my friends. I lost a spelling bee because I’d never heard of the word “ramify.” The “gifted” program there was an extracurricular activity involving stupid projects, and I embarrassed myself at the end of one by summarizing the message of the book I’d read as “We are star children.”
Then in 1985 I started sixth grade, which was the beginning of middle school. One of my so-called friends used to give me “titty twisters” that would leave bruises around my nipples matching up with his fingers. Another ratted me out for swearing on the playground and I had to tell my parents my crass and witless Transformers parody names. Yet another kid attacked me with erasers and got chalk dust in my eyes and earned us both detention for some reason. A baby hamster peed in my hand. And the neighbor kid unknowingly got his revenge by going out with the cutest girl in sixth grade, on whom I had a massive glowing crush. I probably hit puberty somewhere in there.
Fuck 1985, is what I’m getting at. The only thing I liked about it was the music, most of which I found out about a few years later. So let’s talk instead about the year I discovered Arcadia.
I don’t remember which year it was, but it had to have been sometime after I discovered the Trouser Press Record Guide, the most valuable and influential book about music in my life. If there was an 80s band I had the slightest interest in, it was in this book. It contained nothing but wall-to-wall discographies and reviews of every major punk, glam, new wave, post-punk, and college rock act worth knowing about. I’ve read the thing cover to cover at least two or three times, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but I’m not a big rereader, and this thing is the size of a phone book. I can’t think how many times I must have checked it out of the library, and eventually I had to own my own copy. Today you kids have Wikipedia, but back then this was my Rosetta stone for filling in all the gaps in my musical knowledge and tracking down all the stuff I didn’t know I absolutely needed to listen to.
This is how I found out that between Seven and the Ragged Tiger and Notorious, 60% of Duran Duran (Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, and Roger Taylor, specifically) had decided that while John and Andy took a break to record some atrocious covers with Robert Palmer, the three of them would keep doing what they did best. They would record what was essentially a Duran Duran album under a different name.
The Trouser Press liked this record. Because I still own a copy of the book (and its sequel, an equally enormous volume covering the 90s), I can quote:
Not surprisingly, with the artistic troublemakers [i.e. John and Andy Taylor] out of the picture, Arcadia’s So Red the Rose (produced by the late Alex Sadkin and featuring guest spots by Sting, Herbie Hancock, David van Tieghem, David Gilmour, Andy Mackay and others) is virtually an old-fashioned Duran Duran album. Not an especially good one, mind you, but it does sound a lot more like Rio than Seven and the Ragged Tiger does.
— Ira A. Robbins, The Fourth Edition of the Trouser Press Record Guide, pp. 207-8
Huh. The praise was a bit fainter than I’d remembered. But in light of what Robbins says about the other Duran records, he’s actually ranking it third best in their catalog (and I can’t deny Duran Duran and Rio are easily the top two).
I loved it. I still love it. That’s partly the music, which is pretty solidly excellent and sounds like it hails from the parallel universe where Duran Duran did all the James Bond themes and not just “A View to a Kill.” But it’s partly because of how I found it.
We were on the way to visit my grandparents, which meant an all-day road trip. My grandparents lived in the Bible Belt and today that’s not my favorite place to visit, but back then I was oblivious to politics (didn’t read the news), religion (didn’t go to church), race relations (grew up in whiteyland and the topic just never arose), and homophobia (still in the closet, even to myself). Instead trips to my grandparents meant lots of time to read books (Escape to Witch Mountain, P.G. Wodehouse, John Bellairs, William Sleator), listen to music, play Commodore 64 games, and watch Doctor Who on their PBS station before bed.
And, one year, it meant a truck stop. At which, shelved incongruously among classic rock and country cassettes, I found Arcadia’s So Red the Rose.
This was pre-iTunes. It was pre-Amazon. It was pre-having a car to go to the mall and pre-having a big enough record store to carry what was a relatively obscure side project for a band that wasn’t as huge as it had been a few years before. This was a frankly astonishing thing to find at a truck stop.
I bought it. I listened. I loved it. It was my soundtrack for that year’s visit. I can’t hear it now without thinking of the luxury of escape, the euphoric limbo of travel, the between place where nobody and nothing bothers me and it’s just me and the music.
It probably wouldn’t do that for you. It wouldn’t have done that for me in 1985. I had to find it when I did, and how I did, by reading between the lines of an ancient sacred text and hunting for the grail amid a tomb of cups, for it to be this magic. 1985 is just a haze of mildewed memories now, but this record still sounds incredible today.
Tears for Fears, Songs From the Big Chair
I had originally planned to write about this album, but realized I didn’t have a story to tell about it. But this is actually how I remember 1985 unless I really think about it: not as the beginning of a long dark night of early adolescence, but as the sunrise of a glorious day, soundtracked by the opening notes of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” That track, plus “The Working Hour” and “Head Over Heels,” add up to the very finest music the 80s had to offer, and that’s saying a lot. I can think of a lot of songs that equal them, but nothing that surpasses them. And I knew about Tears For Fears at the time, heard them on the radio constantly. You’d think that would have made me happier.
Another argument for 1985 as a beautiful year filled with beautiful music. My favorite OMD album, just barely edging out Architecture and Morality for reasons of heart, nostalgia, and, you know, actually containing songs. Even though I didn’t get hold of it until a few years after it came out, I was still young enough to find the line “and then I’m gonna get laid” shockingly explicit.
Scritti Politti, Cupid and Psyche ’85
A feature in one of my rock annuals about record art described this sleeve design as “expensive, glossy, and special. It makes me want to buy this record and I don’t even like Scritti Politti.” I like Scritti Politti. A lot. After hearing Madness cover “The Sweetest Girl” and the Who’s That Girl? soundtrack feature “Best Thing Ever,” I was hooked. Astonishing but true: lead singer Green Gartside? That voice, that hair, those sweaters? Nope. Straight as an arrow.
- The Smiths, Meat Is Murder
- Howard Jones, Dream Into Action
- Sisters of Mercy, First and Last and Always
- Eurythmics, Be Yourself Tonight
- New Order, Low-Life
- a-ha, Hunting High and Low
- REM, Fables of the Reconstruction
- Heart, Heart
- The Cure, The Head on the Door
- Kate Bush, Hounds of Love
- Madness, Mad Not Mad
- Love & Rockets, Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven
- Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Fegmania!
- Dead or Alive, Youthquake