If 1980 was a rich harvest, 1981 was the year the rains failed. Plague and pestilence writ large across the landscape, hand-tilled fields salted in the dead of night. And whilst I’m letting my apocalyptic medieval metaphor run away with itself, it’s certainly true that in terms of significant albums, you have to dig that wee bit deeper for ’81-forged treasure.
There’s no single reason for this; it’s not as if every single artist from the 1980 piece was locked in a cupboard for the duration, a force-fed diet of Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing or the weary, bloated seismology underpinning Tattoo You by The Rolling Stones – both of which topped critics’ lists in this year.
It would be easy to let this series become dominated by notions of vogue, theme and scene. Those compartmentalised, easy-to-assimilate packages; output lazily categorised under this genre or that subset of non-mainstream sonic adventure. As much as possible I’ll be veering away from that trap (if for no other reason that it implies that zeitgeist – a horrible word when employed in English – is the predominate force in popular music. Labels often invented by a complacent and essentially conservative music press, falsely hinting at a specific and communal inspirational matrix, acts of collusion between a cabal of songwriters).
That said, it difficult to avoid any argument that the patterns behind new wave and post-punk – however loosely defined – were in a divergent state by 1981; guitar-focused sound growing fuller and more melodic, synth-orientated cadences either nudging toward introspection or bolting directly to the gold-paved streets of pop stardom. It’s as if 1981 was a transitional year. One in which the acts who’ll dominate the mid-’80’s segment of this series were still formulating their sound, whilst other acts were hitting the downturn of conventional career trajectory. Red Mecca by Cabaret Voltaire. Kraftwerk’s Computer World. Solid Gold, the second LP from Gang Of Four. Heaven Up Here, the second LP from Echo And The Bunnymen. File those albums in whichever of the two categories above you see fit.
I don’t want to labour the point, but it should be noted that evolution of production techniques – a facet of later ’70’s / early 80’s pop/rock – were in part responsible for these broad canvas changes in sound; particularly the rise of the big name producer and the appropriation by the mainstream of a more experimental inflexion.
Dare By The Human League would be an oft-mentioned example of this, an overtly populist record shaped on Martin Rushent’s mixing desk (even if I do have a soft spot for it; opening track ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’ nicely bridges the gap between the experimentation of Human League mark 1 and the mass market pop sentiments of Human League mark 2). That in the space of a year their dynamic changed so dramatically is due to the defection of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who as two-thirds of Heaven 17 released début Penthouse And Pavement in 1981. This too is a synth-pop record, but one with a wider remit than Dare – darker in subject matter and more ambitious in terms of musical direction.
Another synth-pop album of note went even further in recycling the dark experimentation of underground electronica for the Top Of The Pops audience. Ignore ‘Tainted Love’; the black Weimar Republik of Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret drips with sleaze, a soundtrack for dubious basements, velvet-scented peepshows, neon-lit rainscapes. It’s a record that perhaps sounds a little contrived to our modern, sophisticated ear – Marc Almond’s torch-singer-gone-to-seed posturings backlit by Dave Ball’s broad synth brush strokes – but I’ve always admired the glint in this disc’s eyes, that sense of strut and flicker.
Elsewhere, if musical angularity was indeed dropping out of fashion by ’81 – and if it wasn’t, the excellent …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It by Television Personalities would have shifted far more copies – then it is the less mainstream records that catch the eye – even if the concept of a David Byrne / Brian Eno collaboration (My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was released in this year) is slightly more enchanting than the execution. Hence well worth a listen: In God We Trust, Inc by The Dead Kennedys. The eponymous album by Suicide’s Alan Vega. The strange and brutal beauty of the début album by Klaus Nomi.
I can’t write about 1981 without mentioning Japan’s Tin Drum. Not so much a complete reinvention from their pretty boy rock as an overt attempt to appeal to the Maoist audience. I genuinely don’t think this works as a concept; the composition is clunky, the metrics rather forced – but David Sylvian’s voice leaves me quivering every single time.
Finally, there are several albums released in 1980 that – had they been delayed by a few months – would have challenged for my favourite album of 1981. That the stars were aligned in medieval patterns dictate that – although not my favourite Cure LP – Faith would be the one disc from this year I couldn’t do without. I’ve written about this band before on LGM, plus such is their presence in the ’80’s firmament that further mentions can’t be discounted; therefore I won’t launch into waves of prose here. Suffice to say that this is an astonishingly poised and brooding piece of work, auguring specifically well for 1982.
Soft Cell / Chips On My Shoulder
Television Personalities / This Angry Silence
Klaus Nomi / The Cold Song
The Cure / The Drowning Man