Oh god. Middle school. Why is it such a weird time? You move to a small town in upstate New York. You start getting chunky. You have to wear deodorant and shower in gym class. You grow, and later block out the memory of having grown, a spiky mullet. You wear terrible clothes. You’re embarrassed by everything except the things you should be embarrassed about. And you start listening to pop metal.
I mean, partly you do this because it’s 1987, and that’s what’s going on. But also this is what guys your age listen to, and it’s middle school, and it’s a small town in upstate New York, and it’s 1987, and you’re a giant nerd who just moved to town, and you need to fit in. It’s impossible, and it’s a waste of time to try, but you’re in middle school, so you don’t know that. All you know is that there is a certain kind of music you’re supposed to listen to, and anything outside of that genre marks you as a pussy, and so years later, you’ll still be surprised when guys you think of as super butch and straight listen to anything other than hard rock and heavy metal. Aren’t they afraid someone will think they’re gay? Isn’t that the worst thing in the world?
But also…the truth is, you like it. You get the appeal. Led Zeppelin really are pretty fucking great and deserve to have their name scribbled on notebooks and carved into desks. Pink Floyd, you won’t fully check them out till later, but you’ll like them too eventually. And it’s 1987, and pop metal is suddenly huge, and everywhere. Poison and Bon Jovi are kind of lame, but Van Halen are all right, and you like that new Aerosmith album, the one with “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”. Speaking of which, next year you’re going to buy a guitar magazine with a picture of Tom Keifer from Cinderella, because you want to play songs from Long Cold Winter, and he’ll have long dark hair and eye makeup and his blousy shirt is going to be open, showing off his sweaty pasty white chest, and it’s going to raise a few awkward questions in your mind. Middle school. It’s a weird time.
You buy the cassette single of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” because it’s wicked cool. (Too late to be rad. To early to be just awesome.) You’ll eventually buy the whole album, but you’ll do it on a class trip to Quebec, because you don’t want your parents to know you’ve bought it, because to be honest, it’s pretty crass, even compared to the rest of this stuff. But as much of a jerk as Axl Rose is, Slash is an amazing guitarist.
Oh yeah — because you’re taking guitar lessons. You were thinking maybe drums, but your cousin’s now ex-husband, the one who’s a professional musician, he lets you try out his drum set and lets you know, as politely as possible, that you suck at it. But guitar is fun, and your guitar teacher is patient enough with a nerdy kid who can barely plunk out “Tom Dooley,” and he shows you some Steve Vai riffs and Randy Rhoads licks. You’re not going to practice enough, but you’re going to have fun buying tablature and half-figuring out songs, including “Stairway.” Obviously.
There’s one album you especially love, though. There’s one you’ll still love years later, way after this metal phase has come and gone both in the charts and in your music collection.
Maybe you love it because it’s more closely tied to glam than the stuff the other bands play:
Jack Flash, Rocket Man
Sergeant Pepper and the band
Ziggy, Benny and the Jets
Take a rocket
Jet black Johnny B
Jean Genie, Killer Queen
Dizzy, Lizzy, Major Tom
— Def Leppard, “Rocket”
Maybe it’s just more tasteful. “Women” is the very picture of objectification, but it’s so plainspoken, so affably celebratory that it’s hard to imagine taking offense, even if you were educated enough at this point in your life to believe that you’re supposed to. “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Animal,” same deal, lusty without being mean-spirited or nasty. The political stuff is pretty silly, what with the Reagan soundbites and all, but its heart’s in the right place. It’s so produced, so enhanced, so slick, yet not in the least robotic.
You won’t ever get that into any other Def Leppard album, but this one…you carry it around with you. You listen to it over and over. It never makes you cool. But you were never going to be anyway, and after a while, that’s just not what it’s about.
There’s a lot of other music in 1987. It’s a good year. You’re still listening to all the other stuff…you just don’t admit to it as readily. But middle school won’t last forever, even though some of the damage it does might. But that’s okay. You’ve got music.
The Cure, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
Some friends were reading the lyric sheet to this on the bus. I was scandalized. Not only did the word F U C K appear in all caps a couple of times, but several of the songs were quite plainly hate songs. Did people listen to this sort of thing for fun? Turns out I could. You could make a case for this as the definitive Cure album — it’s got a little of everything: interminable instrumental intros, psychedelic bad-trip freakouts, unbearable angst, cutesy ditties about loopy girls, and at least one of the sweetest love songs you’ve ever heard.
The Smiths, The World Won’t Listen, Louder Than Bombs, Strangeways Here We Come
Three Smiths albums in one year — their stunning last studio album, pointing the way to a more musically diverse and ambitious future that never happened because Morrissey broke up the band, plus two B-sides and rarities compilations containing some of their very best songs. My favorites, along with The Queen Is Dead — any one of them would be with me on a desert island, no question. They’re so good they made me break my 3-album rule for the Also section. And just look at all the amazing stuff that got pushed into And for 1987. It was a hell of a year.
- Exposé, Exposure
- Siouxsie and the Banshees, Through the Looking Glass
- Prince, Sign “O” the Times
- Heart, Bad Animals
- Men Without Hats, Pop Goes the World
- Terence Trent D’Arby, Introducing the Hardline According to…
- Guns ‘n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction
- Dead Can Dance, Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
- REM, Document
- Pet Shop Boys, Actually
- Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses
- Squeeze, Babylon and On
- INXS, Kick
- George Michael, Faith
- Bryan Ferry, Bete Noire
- Sinéad O’Connor, The Lion and the Cobra
- Eurythmics, Savage
- Sisters of Mercy, Floodland
- Julian Cope, Saint Julian