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20 October 2021

How the Eighties reinvented pop music

Dylan Jones's new book is a fascinating and frustrating account of a bombastic decade.

By Kate Mossman

One unexpected fixture of the pandemic was the Friday night reruns of Top of the Pops on BBC Four. This mechanical spooling out of the old show in real time, week after week, has been going on for a while – but the national lockdown just happened to coincide with shows from the most forgettable year in music: 1989. Once a week, an imprisoned nation would revisit this strange cultural bald patch from the tail end of pop’s poppiest decade – a top 40 dominated by Stock Aitken Waterman, Jive Bunny, Timmy Mallett, tunes from David Lynch movies and songs sung by actors from Neighbours. The music was poor, but one thing was refreshing: unlike most modern music programmes, there was no earnest commentary, no cultural criticism yoking the most throwaway pop to some wider political moment. There was no footage of the Brixton riots set to a soundtrack of the Specials, or Thatcher intercut with Billy Bragg.

 Dylan Jones’s 21st book – in 2012 alone, he wrote three – is an attempt to rehabilitate the era they called “the decade that taste forgot” by taking ten famous songs from the Eighties and exploring the deeper cultural significance of each. He covers post-punk and ska, the Smiths and New Order; “Sign o’ the Times”, “Like a Virgin” and “Born in the USA”.

Jones, who left GQ magazinelast year, may be one of the most successful editors of this century, an old Cameroon and chair of the British Fashion Council, but he is also a geek. Shiny and New, at its best, has the feel of a man in his sixties strolling around his extensive vinyl stock, pulling favourite records off the shelves and pulling you down the twisty sinkholes of his knowledge. When the door to the man-cave is thrown wide and the enthusiasm pours out, Jones achieves a pleasant combination of memoir, oral history and eccentric footnotes with an avuncular tone.

But when he attempts, as he frequently does, to bolt social history on to his chosen songs, his writing acquires a naive, almost elementary quality. His chapter on the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” attempts to consider the tune within the bleak setting of New York’s most dangerous era. “The city was like one big red-light district,” he writes. “Prostitutes openly walked the streets, movie theatres screened porn around the clock… There were endless potholes in the roads, the trains didn’t run on time, and subway cars were filthy.” Jones was 15 years old and living in Ely during the birth of rap. Elsewhere he talks, BBC Four-style, about the grey breezeblock Seventies transitioning into the Technicolor Eighties. And some of his metaphors leave you confused: with the death of John Lennon in 1980, he says, “the pop continuum” broke. Then he points out it had also broken with the death of Elvis Presley in 1977.

 The role of music in our lives is personal and emotional, its cultural significance an abstract concept. A beloved song pulls you backwards to youth – to a time in life when you had more time, when your sense of the future was blank with possibility. Jones’s chapter on 1982, entitled “Men in Hats”, is one of the most original sections of his book, focusing on the genre known as “new pop” via the Sheffield band ABC.

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[See also: Abba are back – with the old magic intact]

There is a real attempt, born of fandom, passion, love, to understand and explain the philosophy behind the lead singer Martin Fry’s retro-futuristic glamour and his iconic gold lamé suit. Not only were pop stars suddenly dressing like it was the 1940s; Dylan Jones and his art school pals were too. “We were appropriating the styles of the stockbroker, the crooner, the spiv and the politician. By using childish gimmicks – dressing up, inexpertly – we were attempting to be adults by very carefully looking to the past.”

I’d never read someone deconstruct a 1980s sense of irony so sincerely. Jones sounds like the young bands who in those days wrote out their manifestos and really believed they were going to change the world. But he spoils it all with a 33-line diversion into the Falklands War, explaining exactly what it was, and where the islands were – and making a bizarre link between the conflict and what the left-wing music press, such as the NME, thought of the sharp-suited new pop bands.

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“If you were a pop star,” he writes, “who had enjoyed the trappings of success via the pages of Smash Hits… you were probably somehow complicit in the aggression.”

Jones describes the great variety of music in the 1980s charts as the “atomisation” of pop – a kaleidoscope of genres existing side by side, putting the Stone Roses next to Jason Donovan in the top ten. His book includes many lists: on one page, he reels off 34 great albums of the Eighties, ending his point with “and so on, and so on”. He explores the decade’s smart reinventions of old styles – “material that was both a celebration of the genre, and a meta attempt to contextualise” – and he likes to make musical mash-ups, finding Kraftwerk in the DNA of rap, and painting New Order, the heroes of post-punk, as gloomy Mancunians making euphoric music. He asks how the bombastic Eighties affected established rock stars: who knew that Bruce Springsteen felt his MTV videos were damaging his image? Or that he didn’t play Live Aid because he was too tired?

But despite its ambitious proposal, Shiny and New can be frustratingly simplistic. Jones is at his best when his cultural criticism is confined to characters, rather than movements. His chapter on Madonna is so vivid you wish he’d written a book on her instead – though he’s probably working on one now.

Just a year and a half older than Jones, she seems to have been a constant presence in his life – from his time at the Observer, when he sent Martin Amis to interview her, only for her team to decide Amis was too famous; to the GQ awards ceremony when, horror, she turned up early and the show started late. Jones ignores the reductive press she has had in the last ten years and considers her with reverence: “The difference with Madonna was that she had total self-possession,” he says. “She wasn’t anyone’s adjunct, she wasn’t a plus one.” He captures her self-awareness, her humour (“crucifixes are sexy,” she once said, “because there’s a naked man on them”) and he affords her belly button the space it is due.

But most importantly – unlike so much else in this book – Madonna seems to blend effortlessly with a broader sense of what the 1980s were all about. She is a “committed professional” whose “ascent just happened to coincide with a shift in culture that had started to celebrate ambition for its own sake”. Clearly a subject of fascination for Dylan Jones, she was made by the Eighties, as indeed he was.

Shiny and New: Ten Moments of Pop Genius that Defined the ’80s
Dylan Jones
White Rabbit, 320pp, £20

[See also: Jarvis Cocker interview: At the end of 1996, I had “a nervous breakdown”]

This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West