I Love 1981

Saturday, January 20, 2001 by

The year 1981 will be remembered for some of the greatest and most visually striking pop music ever to have ascended to the highest peak of the charts. It was entirely appropriate that a key exponent of this – Adam Ant – should have fronted this show; like Marc Bolan a decade earlier, he was a teen idol from the unlikeliest origins, the leading subculture at the end of the previous decade (hippy for Bolan, punk for Adam).

The segment devoted to Antmania which headed up this show – a reflection of their 9 weeks in ’81 with the number one single and 10 weeks with the number one album – showed them to be more influential than some of us imagined. Dave Hill was spot on to point out that they were one of the first (possibly the first) band to build their success around their videos as much as their songs, at a time when the video medium was still very new. Although Adam’s time in the spotlight was brief, the Ants’ stress on image and contrivance was a key factor in forming what became known as the “designer decade”, and did much to further pop’s shift to become a high-concept multimedia project, away from its comparatively low-rent, utilitarian ’70s incarnation, where visual image and appearance counted for much less (compare Top of the Pops in 1984 with Pops in 1978, and see the effect of these changes). It was also noticeable just how good the Ants’ records still sound, 20 years later; the combination of proto-New Romantic poise and punk gang mentality and rhythmic intensity has survived two decades better than any of us could have imagined back then.

The rest of the pop coverage in this programme was uniformly excellent, like the music itself; Kim Wilde’s early singles still sound pretty good, and it’s a classic turn-of-decade pop trick; the image is very 1981 indeed but the actual sound of the records is thrusting, airy ’70s glam-rock (it was a masterstroke to have Mickie Most pointing this out, since most people seem to have forgotten that he produced Kim’s early singles, and that they were released on his ultra-’70s RAK label). A feature on the New Romantics not only evoked the scene’s image and aesthetic, but the introduction of a slightly bemused middle-aged presenter “explaining” the movement to his audience conveyed a real sense of how pop and youth culture used to be filtered through the adult, middle-class establishment, where now they are presented as though most of the audience will instantly recognise them (it’s significant that the broadcasting outlet which has done most to bring about this transition – Channel 4 – began the following year).

Various adverts and features (especially on executive toys) and records in the background like Landscape’s Einstein A Go-Go, Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough and the Human League’s Love Action (I Believe In Love) confirmed our consensual memory of the early ’80s as a time of rather naïve interest in synthesizers, early computers, and the mystique of “new technology”, but thankfully viewed it with affection and respect. The section on Gregory’s Girl - fusing into clips of Altered Images’ magnificent Happy Birthday and I Could Be Happy – was a genuinely well-meant and affecting tribute to the film and to Clare Grogan herself. Even Shakin’ Stevens deserved acknowledgement, not only for his seven weeks out in front with two number one singles in ’81, but as a representative of the ’50s nostalgia boom that was arguably even bigger in 1981 than, say, ’60s nostalgia in 1995/96, kick started by Grease and Happy Days in the late ’70s, and given its low-rent, down-at-heel British equivalent in 1981 with Hi-De-Hi!(which remained unmentioned throughout this programme). Ekow Eshun nailed him good and proper as “mums’ music” (the songs This Ole House and Green Door may be 1950s hits, but they aren’t exactly rock’n'roll), but I felt slightly uneasy about the attitude taken – Stevens in 1981 was a symbol of populist, shared nostalgia being sold to a new generation, the very phenomenon to which this programme owes its existence; one might therefore argue that no contributor to I Love 1981 has any right to sneer at Shaky.

The segment on Dangermouse was probably the most entertaining part of the whole programme; David Jason “in character”, Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall themselves, and writer Brian Trueman, combined with clips from the series, showed just how intelligent, well-made and fantastic a programme it was, playing about with the clichés and conventions of virtually every genre extant like virtually no other cartoon series ever. Top marks for the research in the section on Bullseye (which correctly prefigured the titles of the programme with the ATV ident – shortly before ATV became Central) and the brief mass popularity of darts as a TV sport in the early ’80s. The segment really did make 1981 feel like a foreign country; the lumpen-proletarian working-class culture embodied by darts seems to have been largely superceded, as British life and culture generally have become more metropolitan and sophisticated, and it’s hard to imagine that world getting that amount of TV promotion today.

The scenes of the crowds in London on the day of Charles and Diana’s wedding were tantalisingly brief; I’d been vaguely hoping for people recalling how distant that week of hysterical national fervour now seems, and how it could more or less have been happening in a different country from the inner-city riots that were going on pretty much the same week. Nevertheless, the sections that bored me, those for which “you had to be there” (the tedious sex comedy movie Porky‘s, huge Valentine’s Day cards, smelling rubbers) were easily outnumbered by those which fascinated and intrigued me. A necessary corrective to the slightly rose-tinted nostalgia elsewhere was a superb sequence on nuclear paranoia. Only a pedant would object to the clips from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes video and the BBC film Threads, which both date from 1984, because the sequence chilled and terrified me, even all these years on, totally destroying any suspicions that the early ’80s were lovely, innocent times. Far from it; it was absolutely necessary for the series to acknowledge that the entire “1981 generation” lived in fear of a nuclear attack, that the desperate nerves and unease of the time had a huge psychological impact on the programme’s core audience, and that this still resonates and disturbs today; for a 20-year-old like me, it is a necessary corrective to 2001′s rather empty hedonism that, within my lifetime and less than 20 years ago, it genuinely did feel like we were all going to die. Superb.

Really, a thoroughly entertaining programme all round; the series has been improved considerably by the extended length (were it still an hour, I suspect that the nuclear section would have been excluded, and therefore the picture of the era would have been far narrower and far less representative). It seems to me that the series really has found its form, perhaps more than it ever did while the ’70s were the decade in hand – and it will be fascinating to see the pop-cultural aesthetic gradually evolving and moving on as we go through the 1980s. We can be thankful that I Love the Eighties has a long, long way still to travel.


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