"The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound." George Orwell. 1984.
Popular music has been written by committees since time immemorial and so it's easy to imagine a world of mind-numbing, simplistic songs comprising of nothing more than a formulaic order of meaningless motifs and couplets rearranged in increasingly derivative fashion by a machine. It could even be argued that popular music in the 21st Century is rife with such nonsense and all those years ago in the actual as opposed to the fictional 1984, it was happening then too!
In the summer of 2019 that seemed especially true when that odious advocate of Orwellian newspeak and doublethink The Sun announced that a new survey amongst ‘Brits’ had voted 1984 the best year for music. Apparently the year that counted Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’, Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Hello’, ‘Black Lace’s ‘Agadoo’, Ray Parker Jr’s ‘Ghostbusters’ and McCartney’s ‘We All Stand Together’ amongst its biggest sellers was our favourite of all time, although listening to that excretable lot it’s hard to believe that a ‘versificator’ type machine wasn’t involved in their creation!
Somewhat ironically, while most years of my twenties are a bit of a blur, I can remember 1984 in all its grubby detail because it was the year I finally went fulltime running my own independent record label from a tiny office on the Fulham Road. Living the dream, I spent 1984 having the time of my life, the streets of South West Six coming as an intoxicating thrill after the suffocating feel of my provincial hometown during the day while every night I could be found checking out a group of defiantly noisy upstarts in poky spit’n’sawdust dives from Hammersmith to Hampstead and beyond. And yet, despite being almost overcome with the excitement of it all, by the autumn of 1984 even I was aware that the causes and conditions that had created the Post Punk outfits I was seeing live and signing to my label were coming to an end.
Of course out in the real world none of this mattered a jot, the grim state of the independent music scene paling into insignificance alongside the rise of AIDS, the first warnings about the Greenhouse Effect, the Ethiopian famine, the very real threat of Nuclear War or Thatcher paying her cunty boys in blue double time to beat the crap out of the striking miners and clear the women’s peace camps from the American Air base at Greenham Common. Exacerbated by the fact that the Orwellian year of 1984 had finally arrived, emotions were running so high that when the IRA failed to blow up the entire Conservative Party in Brighton, like most ‘proles’ I was majorly disappointed.
There’s no getting away from it, politically, economically and environmentally 1984 was a shit storm of a year when everything appeared to be in a state of flux and music culture, both alternative and mainstream, was no different, the slow death of Post Punk leading to ‘indie’, the New Pop Dream and it’s modernist ambition ultimately leading to the return of rock, Band Aid and a new class of decadent popsters with absolutely no connection to punk.
In fact, as 1984 progressed it became harder and harder to find the occasional shard of genius amongst the dross. The twelve songs here, one from each month of the year, are those that I did manage to find, songs that are not only the polar opposite of ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’, ‘Agadoo’ and all that, but songs that in their own particular and often peculiar way are representative of 1984 as one of those unforeseen, critical periods between the end of one era and the start of the next.
JANUARY > ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN ‘The Killing Moon’ (Single A Side)
Whether you loved them or not, Echo & The Bunnymen’s finest moment was impossible to ignore. An Eastern tinged, orchestral epic inspired by a divine missive, ‘Space Oddity’ played backwards and a trip to Russia, the songs mountainous peaks and doomy troughs somehow became something far grander than the sum of its parts and one of the biggest and boldest singles of its time.
FEBRUARY > FAD GADGET ‘Collapsing New People’ (Gag LP)
If there were any justice in this world Frank Tovey, aka the artist otherwise known as Fad Gadget, would have become one of those superstars of the eighties trotting out his hits forty years later at a Rewind Festival near you. Instead he had to make do with inspiring teenage acolytes like Depeche Mode, making gloriously wonky pop songs like ‘Collapsing New People’ and dying of a heart attack at the relatively youthful age of forty five.
MARCH > COLOURBOX ‘Fast Dump’ (Single B Side)
Steve and Martyn Young’s Colourbox were a peculiarly eighties group whose influence has only become apparent in hindsight. Drawing on everything from old school R&B, roots reggae and spaghetti western soundtracks, in 1984 when Hip Hop was called Electro and sampling was still in its infancy, ‘Fast Dump’ sounded like the future we’d dared to imagine.
APRIL > NEW ORDER ‘Lonesome Tonight’ (12” Single B Side)
Most New Order records left me cold but ‘Lonesome Tonight’, one of the many records I would never have heard were it not for John Peel, is one of those glorious, majestic songs that through its combination of sad yet soaring soundscapes and emotional lyrics affected me in a way I hadn’t been expecting.
MAY > THE CULT ‘Spiritwalker’ (Single A Side)
Given their subsequent, shameless slide into long haired, hard rock parody and their rejection of every punk principle known to man, it’s impossible now to imagine how vital and thrilling early Cult records and Goth as a major Post Punk subgenre really were, ‘Spiritwalker’s palpable sense of adventure promising their legion of disaffected and directionless followers the escape route of ritual, ceremony, magic and mystery they were seeking.
JUNE > NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS ‘Saint Huck’ (From Her To Eternity LP)
Calling time on The Birthday Party, somehow Nick Cave came up with something completely different to his old group’s unholy force of evil noise while retaining the same dark energy. In desperate need of originality and authenticity, From Her To Eternity captured my imagination as one of the most intelligent, literate and unhinged records I’d ever heard. Walking a troubled line between the weird Americana of the Deep South and the Old Testament, ‘Saint Huck’ was the greatest song on it, a remarkable reimagining of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as a devilish ne’er-do-well wading through the stinking, sinful swamp, much like Ol’ Nick himself.
JULY > THE MEMBRANES ‘Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder’ (Single A Side)
In 1984 The Membranes dominated my listening so absolutely, what with live shows, demo’s, test pressings and the final release, I’m surprised I found time to listen to anything else. Indicative of thousands of like-minded, Post Punk inspired groups up and down the country, they travelled ceaselessly playing every stinking flea pit that would have them for little or no reward. My first long term signing to Criminal Damage, over the course of the year I worked on three of their records, the most successful being the defiantly noisy and rather great minor classic ‘Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder’.
AUGUST > SCRAPING FOETUS OFF THE WHEEL ‘Lust For Death’ (Hole LP)
The mid-eighties was an extraordinary time for experimental music. Even more extraordinary is how a record like Hole and Jim Thirlwell’s other Foetus projects (Foetus Art Terrorism, Phillip & His Foetus Vibrations, You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath, Foetus Over Frisco) mix and match of swing, industrial hardcore, electronic weirdness and a random acapella death march ever got made in the first place.
SEPTEMBER > CABARET VOLTAIRE ‘Sensoria’ (Single A Side)
As Post Punk, New Pop and one of the greatest flurries of energy, creativity and adventure in music history began its inevitable slide into oblivion, Sheffield’s notoriously self-sufficient experimentalists Cabaret Voltaire belatedly adopted the strategy of subversion from within, signed a major record deal with Virgin and opted for an oddly dysfunctional kind of industrial dance music with its roots in Post Punk and New York Electro. It didn’t always work but when it did, as on the buffed up, ultra-modern sheen of ‘Sensoria’, the result was astonishing.
OCTOBER > THE FALL ‘No Bulbs 3’ (Call For Escape Route 12”EP Free 7”)
No matter what else was happening, Mark E. Smith and The Fall could always be relied upon to deliver their annual brace of singles and new album of cult music like ‘No Bulbs 3’, in essence a typically mighty Fall tune about the kind of squalor we all used to live in without giving it a second thought.
NOVEMBER > THE PASTELS ‘Baby Honey’ (12” Single B Side)
In November 1984 The Smiths released their Hatful Of Hollow compilation of singles, B Sides and Radio One sessions, so highlighting Morrissey and Marr’s obsession with the music and imagery of the sixties as opposed to the spirit of futurism that had been driving Post Punk and New Pop forward. Nothing from that record features here because quite frankly, who in their right mind can bear to listen to Morrissey these days, but in effect The Smiths signalled the shift from independent to ‘indie’ and an alternative music scene strangled by its fascination with the past.
While The Smiths weren’t explicitly retro, there were plenty of other minor players following a similarly nostalgic, if significantly less proficient, route. I for one just didn’t get it. But having said that, I still found it impossible not to love the genius noise of The Jesus and Mary Chains ‘Upside Down’ or The Pastels ‘Baby Honey’ (B Side to the painfully twee ‘Million Tears’), partly because they were mates of The Membranes and I’d seen them live earlier in the year, but mainly because the song itself was the greatest tribute to the Velvet Underground I’d ever heard and still is.
DECEMBER > TIME ZONE FEAT. JOHN LYDON & AFRIKA BAMBAATA ‘World Destruction’ [Industrial Remix aka ‘Hard Cell’ Edit] (12” Single A Side)
While The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pastels and the C86 generation found a ready-made solution to the post Post Punk quandary of ‘What next?’ by going back to the sixties and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s fatally flawed Welcome To The Pleasuredome proved to be New Pops undoing, as 1985 reared its ugly head the nation was forced to suffer Band Aid’s ‘Do You Know It’s Christmas’ (a song built by a ‘versificator’ if ever there was one), the repercussions of which would go on to change the face of British pop forever.
Hoping beyond hope for a new ‘fuck off’ movement or another foolish gesture like Frankie, not for the first time I turned to permanent dissenter Jesus Johnny, not to his woeful, 1984, Public Image album This Is What You Want, but to his collaboration with Afrika Bambaata as Time Zone. With Hip Hop not quite the dominant force it would soon become, the audacious, forward thinking ‘World Destruction’ displayed Lydon’s keen ear for the zeitgeist, while his vitriolic ‘the human race is becoming a disgrace’ sounded very much like Post Punk’s last gasp and the most appropriate way to end one of music cultures more pivotal years.