Creem, January 1981

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1980 Flashback!

Letter From Britain

Penny Valentine

"Enjoy yourself" the Specials sing, part ironic, part mourning on their second album of 1980. "It's later than you think"...

The year came to an end with the music of the white boys showing strange signs of lyrical impotence. 1980 in British music was the year of tribes and tendencies. Over there the mods, next to them the skins, the ska revival and the soul boys, the electronic experimentalists... The mainstream jolted on, disjointed by a record company slump. Down at the Bandwagon my friend Gerry said the first visible signs of true rock 'n' roll impotence was to watch the HM freaks miming every thrust and lick of their musical heroes on cut out guitars.

It was no accident that in late September Birmingham's young UB40 took their first album to the top of the chart after two weeks. Reggae was the one music that spent 1980 overtly fighting and winning the ground slowly vacated by the tribes who burst out to show their colors, became labeled and visible through the competitive cut and thrust of the music press: UB40's album cover was an unemployment form from the labour exchange. By the time the album came out we were climbing towards three million unemployed.

Along with Linton Kwesi Johnson and Bob Marley's return to the fray after the contradictions of success, UB40 followed Eddie Grant's original cry of confusion whit:

"I'm a British subject not proud of it / While I carry the burden of shame / As a nation we're following blindly / No one stops to question why / Our money supporting an army / And a boy in Soweto dies."

On his 1980 album Peter Gabriel looked to the Third World too for "Biko" and inward to growing State control at home. Elsewhere the vision was often less defined. Social upheaval found its reflection in music gangs. Down at the soul clubs it was white racists who plugged into original Stax sounds. The black boys stuck to jazz funk—revolving rhythms and repeated riffs. Dancing became a question of male gangs mimicking street aggression, cock-fighting dance rituals, winners and losers in a charade.

After two years of solid street work Rock Against Racism spent 1980 almost invisible and ended the year by putting out their own "Greatest Hits" volume. Rock Against Sexism, fighting on a more complex issue, were rewarded by Thin Lizzy's nasty predatory hero worship of Jack The Ripper "Killer On The Loose" which, if you want to take a positive view, just underlines the facetious popular press argument that with Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry around there is now no reason for the girls to get in a tizz.

The new David Bowie album Scary Monsters (And Supercreeps) (a more opposite title than he might have meant!) didn't exactly point the way forward either. While he's still the grand master of the British experimentalists of 1980 it revisited his past collections from Hunky Dory on. Just drawing breath.

It was the year Joy Division's bleak vision was almost comforting. This year the influence of Jim Morrison's prowling anguish found strange reflection in the experimentalists work, so that Echo And The Bunnymen's Villiers Street apart from re-interating the Doors original mournful tones, pinpointed a people in retreat. 1960 rears its head in 1980 but the days are no longer innocent:

"I've been in a daze for days / There's people rolling around on the carpet, biting wool and pulling strings... / I'm jumbled up, maybe I'm losing touch... / Nowhere for us to run... / The man at the back has a question, his tongue wriggling round with solutions / But one monkey on my back he won't stop laughing... / Do you want to know what's wrong with this world?"

And Major Tom turned out to be a junkie too. Bowie cruelly marks the end of a dream that came up in the 70's, the optimism of space. Ashes To Ashes is a sardonic wave kid that...

The Sex Pistols didn't just want complete control, they had it Now the Specials "Do Nothing": "Try to find a future, nothing ever change / Living a life without meaning / I talk and talk, saying nothing / I walk, I talk, do nothing." Against the sparse echoey sound of a music that now relies less on the ground swell of ska, more on the distant paces of electronics and an undertow of British music hall three decades ago. At the beginning of the year Secret Affair demanded action of their gang, against everything. Now "Live For Today" at the end of 1980 rings a fake clarion call into emptyness:

"We need a reaction," Ian Page sings listlessly "we need it tonight." At the start of the year he wouldn't have considered why. Now the end of the track seeks a motive: "But how I wish I knew / What we were running from."

Youth culture. "Because you're young" Bowie sings paternally removing himself from identification. It was the year the Specials and Secret Affair, were feted as the leaders of some kind of musical tendencies: Mods and rude boys. Glory boys starting their labels. To both groups the end of 1980 saw a switch of more positions, leading who where? As planes crash and love affairs flounder More Specials reflects a sense of futility. The man in C&A fears the imminence of nuclear attack, the feeling emphasizes his own feelings of insignificance, specifically his lack of control over his own fate. Secret Affairs heroes find themselves off-center, caught in their own environment:

"This is not a prison, this is my world/I can scream to my heart's content never to be heard/I can feel the taste of life slipping away/And striking a lost chord."

Secret Affair's kind of alienation is not exactly a new emotion for rock. The difference is that in moving form some kind of leadership of the Mods they have clearly more pretentions musically. Indebted to the point of mimicry to Springsteen's flamboyant structures, such musical collisions don't work. "Press your nose against my pain, stick your fingers in my brain... / I'm the greasy romantic, trapped by insanity," fails exactly in its struggle for effect by using the soaring dramatic sheets of Springsteen's "Jungleland."

Feeling the crunch, no longer seeing themselves as the kids and alright, both groups found success brought them to the end of the year prematurely grey. The Specials' "Pearl's Cafe" reflects a strange—for them compassion for age. "She tried to keep her looks," Dammers sings his paen to the violet-rinsed drunk woman "But she lost her mind." No longer kicking the wall, the Specials observe and reflect life with a certain comprehension for its inhabitants. The woman is not the figure of fun she might have been at the start of the year but "somebody else's mother."

Such observations have never been part of music's youth culture. Ian Page's personal obsessions with age and the future is more familiar. Self-pity has been a remourselessly repeated rock emotion:

"But when I'm older with dust on my shoulder / Who will see me, who will need me / I'll look through my scrapbook again."

At the Rainbow Elvis Costello comes on stage at the end of 1980 to celebrate 50 years of that venue's working life. Costello may be mean-spirited but his bitter vision has edge. At the end of 1980 only he and Clash seem really unbowed. Going into 1981 with a new Costello album with tracks like "Shot With His Own Gun" and "Clubland" won't provide the answers but it will prove anger's more potent than depression any day.

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Creem, January 1981

Penny Valentine's Letter From Britain includes a report on the Rainbow Theatre 50th Anniversary concert, Monday, September 29, 1980, London, England.


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Page scan.

Photo by Ebet Roberts.
1981-01-00 Creem photo 01 er.jpg

1981-01-00 Creem cover.jpg


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