Did Any Of Rock’s Long-Standing Icons Not Make A Poor Aesthetic Choice During The ’80s?

Aug 14th, 2008 // 50 Comments

whoszoominwho.jpgMy post on James Brown’s “Living In America” reminded me of a sorta-sketched-out theory I have about the evolution, and devolution, of recent years’ musical landscape: There are few musical icons from the glory days of rock and pop who didn’t make at least one indescribably awful career choice during the 1980s. (Some of the artists haven’t even recovered yet.) Evidence for this theory after the jump, along with one striking exception who leads me to believe that the product of an idle mind forced to hear one too many Rod Stewart covers while waiting on line in Walgreens might actually be fact.


Aretha Franklin – Freeway Of Love

This is one of those songs that I think was designed for the pitched-up-a-notch world of mid-’80s top-40 radio. I have heard it in about three different keys; each time, Aretha’s strident belt was kicked further and further up into shrillland.

David Bowie & Mick Jagger – Dancing In The Street

Both men made many unwise choices during this decade, but this takes the cake. That “South Americaaaaaaa….” alone makes me shudder.

Michael Jackson & Paul McCartney – The Girl Is Mine

A song whose awfulness was cemented by the selection of will.i.am to fill in for Macca on this year’s 25th-anniversary Thriller package.

Stevie Wonder – Don’t Drive Drunk

The impulse to get completely shitfaced after hearing this song for purposes of obliterating it from your mind is, however, completely understandable.

Rod Stewart – Downtown Train

Let’s just say that picking just one Rod clip was a tough choice. I mean, do you remember this?

It’s like he’s just off-pitch enough to make this sound completely strange. And that big “whooooo!” at the end! Augh.


Tina Turner.

Even that song that name-drops Thunderdome isn’t awful, especially when you put it next to that Aretha track.


  1. Royfromage

    Downtown Train also counts as Tom Wait’s 80′s mistake.

  2. Al Shipley

    Tom Petty’s not quite as old as most of your examples, but he seemed to be the one kinda crusty 70s trad rocker that really thrived in the early MTV era.

  3. musicquizking

    I disagree with the inclusion of Rod’s take on “Downtown Train.”

  4. Al Shipley

    And you can make the argument for Springsteen’s synthy MTV period being relatively classy.

  5. Clevertrousers

    Au Contraire – I remember this nightmare airing nonstop on MTV throught the summer of ’85. And I still wake up screaming in terror… If you don’t think Tina’s chainmail suit in this video was a questionable aestethic choice, then I don’t know what is…


  6. Clevertrousers

    @Al Shipley: ditto for Dire Straits

  7. Anonymous

    @Clevertrousers: Tina can wear whatever the fuck she wants.

  8. Clevertrousers

    @slowburn: Psssht! Tina can wear Ike Turner’s shoe on her face, but I still won’t be impressed.

  9. brasstax

    This whole concept is screaming out for Elton John, yet he goes unrepresented!

  10. brasstax

    Also, though we see it differently now, Tina Turner was never really an “icon” until Private Dancer and caused critics and fans alike to re-evaluate her past work.

  11. Lucas Jensen

    What about Neil Young, Neil Diamond, and Lou Reed? Oof.

  12. dreamsneverend

    @brasstax: I dunno Elton had so many hits from his string of material in the 80s. I prefer it to the garbage “Lion King” soundtrack material he put out in the 90′s as well!

  13. brasstax

    @rainmkr: Oh yeah, no argument that his worst aesthetic choices were to come in the 90s, but I’d have no trouble at all making a “worst of” Elton disc from his 80s albums (and videos).

  14. Mike P.

    Don’t forget Bob Dylan, particularly in the Empire Burlesque era.

  15. Nelsonic

    Springsteen wrote great songs in this period, but his production should be included. If you want to get geeky specific, the sound of Max’s drums on BITUSA should have its own entry.

  16. noamjamski

    @Big Gray.: If you have seen the guitars that Lou is still slinging on tour, he is a good candidate for the “still hasn’t recovered” category.

    That, and he played Video Violence at the Highline Ballroom earlier this year.

  17. Clevertrousers

    @Big Gray.: The thing with Neil Young is that I can’t decide if Trans was genius or a total clusterfuck…

  18. noamjamski

    @Nelsonic: Blame Phil Collins and the “pioneering” of gated reverb for that!

    Fun fact: Firefox spell checker does not recognize reverb as a word.

  19. Nelsonic

    I’ll stand up for some of the songs on Empire Burlesque. And I’ll stand up for Tom Petty, along with others. But, like Bruce, he’s got some wack drums. The drum sound on Full Moon Fever is just sickening. (Assume that was Jeff Lynne’s doing.) What was it about producing drums in the 80′s that was so god-awful?

  20. brasstax

    d00ds! I love the sound of big…no, HUGE gated drums. You’re all on crack.

  21. Nelsonic

    @noamjamski: Really? And I’d finally moved past blaming Phil Collins for so many things. Oh well.

  22. D.R. Mosby

    Ditching the E Street Band in ’89 was not a good idea, either. It is any accident that Springsteen’s two worst albums followed soon afterwards?

  23. PeterBjorn&Yawn

    I think the Grateful Dead’s choice(s) to get fatter, older, more addicted to Heroin, wear shorts (I’m looking at you, Weir!), drive red Ferraris (fuck you, Lesh!), kill off a couple keyboardists, play effin’ stadiums, and cater to a whole new generation of younger and more trust-funded pathetic drug-addled burnouts while incorporating and branding themselves onto commodities like skis and neckties and low-grade wine, well these choices were all quite poor, aesthetically speaking.

  24. Clevertrousers

    @Nelsonic: I haven’t. Because Collins can run and Collins can hide, but he can never, ever escape responsibility for foisting this abomination on the world:

  25. brasstax

    WAHT Sussudio is awesome.

    @D.R. Mosby: Lucky Town is really quite good, but if you haven’t heard it since 1992 you probably forgot.

  26. NeverEnough

    @Clevertrousers: “Eat the cake, Anna Mae.

  27. La Mareada

    Patti Smith

    and anybody else who went into hiding.

  28. scott pgwp

    Springsteen and Petty weren’t around long enough prior to the 80s to qualify, I don’t think. Most the other examples here are artists who kicked off in the 60s and grew in the 70s.

    However, another (better) exception to the rule: Paul Simon. He was practically reborn in the 80s; Graceland is one of the best moments in his career.

  29. okiedoke

    @noamjamski: Trans was genius. Then I saw him do it live, and it was even better!

  30. natepatrin

    I’d like to think Marvin Gaye’s another exception, but that’s almost cheating — there’s the possibility he might’ve done something as misguided as “Freeway of Love” if he’d lived past ’84.

  31. Lucas Jensen

    @Clevertrousers: Oh, I love Trans, but there are others. I’m talking about Landing on Water and Everybody’s Rocking et al.

    @scott pgwp: The Boss was around for nearly a decade, but I will defend his 80s output until the end.

    @noamjamski: What’s wrong with gates?

  32. rogerniner

    Steve Winwood? Thrived. Robert Plant? (ugh.) I think there is an interesting story in all this. Why did these rock and soul gods sink so damn low? Why is “I only like their stuff from the 70′s” a valid point? Prime example: Elton John. His 80′s stuff was the first I ever heard of him, and I HATED it, hence hated Elton. But then I found his music from the 70′s, and a freakin’ love the songcraft, the lyrics, the production. The dawn of the new conservative corporate drive in music business in the 80′s drove so many artists to commit artistic suicide.

  33. Chris N.

    Peter Gabriel. I can barely believe something this beautiful existed in 1986:

  34. cheesebubble

    I’m going to claim that Jackson and McCartney rebounded from “The Girl Is Mine” abomination with “Say Say Say” (although its video blew goats). As for those who might try to find some redemption for Elton in the ’80s, I submit:

    The 1980s killed off all that was good in the preceding decades. Hardly anyone knew what to properly do with the synthesizers and slick production trends of the day (let alone the god awful “fashion”).

  35. Cam/ron

    80′s-era mistakes made by indie and punk rockers:

    -Gang of Four going dance-pop, and making ironic commentaries about consumerism while doing it.

    -Sonic Youth’s “Master-Dik”

    -Husker Du’s performance on the Joan Rivers Show.

    -Black Flag’s decent into heavy-metal sludge

    -Big Black’s “Jordan, Minnesota.” Not every listener can understand an “ironic” protest song about alleged satanists who molest kids.

  36. Anonymous

    @Cam/ron: Two more punk missteps: TSOL’s “Beneath the Shadows” and Bad Religion’s “Into the Unknown.” Both used keyboards, which were verboten among the hardcore set. I always liked “Beneath the Shadows.” It does sort of fit their Damned-style trajectory. I never heard “Into the Unknown,” but I’ve never been a Bad Religion fan. And for the record, I had a hard time with Black Flag’s shift to metal, but over the years I have come to appreciate it more. It’s pretty uncompromising, awkward, ugly stuff,if a bit boring at times. I give them credit for not giving a shit about alienating the skinheads.

  37. Cam/ron

    @Halfwit: Speaking of plastic fantastic pop, I’ve grown to enjoy Jam & Lewis’s production work for Janet Jackson’s first record as well as the overproductions of New Order and Dead Can Dance. Who knows, maybe the years of listening to so much Autechre and other post-techno laptop artists have warmed me up to “overproduction.”

  38. Halfwit

    @musicquizking: Agreed.

    Maybe it’s because I’m an 80s baby (as opposed to official child/teenager of the 80s), but I like Rod’s “Downtown Train”. I also appreciate “Sussudio,” and dig on a lot of the big, overproduced drum sound that came out of the decade. In general, while I definitely recognize the hollow, faceless, “plastic fantastic” nature of much of 80s music (especially after 1986), I’ve just never seen it as the musical wasteland that most other serious music fans tend to.

  39. Halfwit

    Quick follow-up (as I am wont to do): Rod aside, the examples in this piece are, as a whole, absolutely abhorrent. And I would definitely agree that “survivor” groups from earlier decades definitely lost their way big-time in the 80s. See also: survivor bands of the 80s who slipped into pseudo-electronic MOR in the 90s (Tears for Fears, INXS, The Cure).

  40. Ned Raggett

    Oh the memories this all brings back. The…bad memories. The memories I want to suppress.

  41. Eugene Langley

    @rogerniner: The Steve Winwood reference is apt. “Higher Love” inexplicably came on in a bar a while back and, desperately trying to remember who sang it, my friends and I could only come up with “the bass player from Genesis”, who incidentally, I just found out, was Mike from Mike and the Mechanics. In any case, “Higher Love” is as good a distillation of what was wrong with the 80s as anything else.

  42. Anonymous

    Tom Waits! Tom Waits, Tom Waits, Tom Waits. Pure gold in the 80s.

  43. Anonymous


  44. noamjamski

    @Big Gray.: Nothing is wrong with the idea of gating in and of itself, it is a very necessary music production tool. The abomination that Collins helped pioneer was the effect known as “gated reverb” where the toms and snare are reverbed to holy hell, and then cut with a quick gate. That is that huge boomy sound heard on everything from “in the air tonight” to “pour some sugar on me” as well as everything in between. That sound is very 80s, and a large reason why so much commercial music from that era sounds dated, even if the songs are intrinsically good.

  45. jody

    i’d forgotten that “don’t drive drunk” existed, but it sounds okay to my adult ears — ignoring the lyrics, it could pass for something on cupid & psyche 85!

  46. Lucas Jensen

    @noamjamski: I love that drum sound. Hahaha. I’d never use it, but I love it.

  47. sparkletone

    @Royfromage: I suppose it’s theoretically possible that Tom Waits has made a mistake at some point.

    But if he has, if he has, Downtown Train is most certainly not it.

    (Not that it’s his finest work either, but come on.)

    PS: Seconding the Elton John thing.

    PPS: Wow. I’d never seen that Bowie + Mick thing. Painful.

  48. Kate Richardson

    Jimmy Buffett produced some inexcusable music in the ’80s. And let’s not get into a debate about whether his stuff in the ’70s was good to begin with because it definitely was.

  49. cheesebubble

    @kurtck: thank you.

  50. Chris N.

    Gated reverb was awesome, it was the subsequent digital approximations of it that were so awful.

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