This article first appeared in Gallery Magazine Issue 95

80s culture – the decade that keeps on giving

Written by Grant Runyon. Illustrations by Matthew le Maistre Smith

Are you obsessed with Michael J Fox?  Perhaps you’re addicted to hairspray and shoulder pads?  Do you dream about the Ninja Turtles? Chances are you’re caught in a neon timewarp to the decade we can’t forget.

I was raised by hippies, so by the time I was old enough to think for myself I was thoroughly bored of hearing about the sixties. Aside from the fact that ‘free love’ is the last thing you want to hear your parents talking about, to a child born in 1979 the sixties sounded both distant and a bit crap, like Portsmouth.  I don’t have kids, but when I look around I see a lot of tiny brains who can’t wait to learn to speak just so they can tell their parents to shut up about the eighties.

There are some decades that nobody gets nostalgic about, like the 1940s, unless you like the idea of dressing entirely in brown and rebuilding Europe from a pile of smoking rubble. We remember the 1980s as much more glamorous, and so there’s been periodic eighties revivals happening for longer than the eighties themselves actually existed.  The eighties are so popular that I worry that by the time my generation are old enough to run the world laws will be passed making all other decades illegal.  Maybe this came about because the children of the eighties have been blessed with an unprecedented expansion in the means of communication, giving us more opportunities to talk/blog/text about the things we half-remember from our VHS childhoods.  The children of the 1940s grew up thinking that three TV channels was the height of technological achievment, so it was unlikely that the BBC would have ever themed Saturday night around a retrospective of The Goon Show, but by now there’s probably a digital TV channel up in the 300s that only runs documentaries about Boy George’s hats.  David Hasselhof still has work, Garbage Pail Kids are going for crazy money on eBay and I’ve even seen a website devoted exclusively to writing about vintage crisps.
The crisps thing is a good example of something slightly weird about all this, in that it’s impossible to be objective or even informative about something that hasn’t physically existed since you were ten.  You can remember how Crispy Tubes made you feel, not how they really tasted.  I watched those ‘I love the Eighties’ TV clipshows and am convinced that the minor celebs taking part hadn’t bothered to review most of the stuff they were wittering on about.  Vernon Kaye does not care enough about his audience to actually spend time watching DangerMouse on Youtube, whereas I researched this article by travelling back in time on a Raleigh Chopper covered in LEDs and silver foil.  Great Scott!

Eighties Telly

We were barely out of the 80s before people started getting teary-eyed about the TV of their childhoods, and since then there’s been a thriving industry selling Roland Rat bumbags and Cabbage Patch Kids dolls to people who miss the days when Doctor Who had wobbly sets and there was nothing weird about Jimmy Savile introducing Gary Glitter on Top Of The Pops.  Those were innocent times.
Most of the nostalgia tends to be directed towards cartoons, probably because few people have memories wooly enough that they remember Grange Hill as anything other than a grim, grey launchpad for people who’d end up wrestling a Mitchell in Eastenders.  Sadly you’re in for a bit of a shock if you actually go back and watch Thundercats or Dogtanian in the age of Pixar.  Whilst stop-motion stuff like The Wombles, Morph and Button Moon has retained a certain shonky charm, the likes of He Man has not aged well – you’ll find smoother animation on an advert for confused.com, but minus Skeletor’s camp magic.  Noble exceptions are the unexpectedly gory Legendary Cities Of Gold and the animated Transformers movie, which has matured like a fine, robotic wine.  The entire thing is on Youtube – you’re in for a treat.

Eighties Cinema

The blockbuster movies of the 1980s cast a long shadow, so much so that they are still being recycled three decades on, though even quadrupling the budget cannot capture the wooden-faced magic of Ahhhnold Schwarzenegger gurning against blue-screen explosions.  If you revisit Predator you are soon aware that you could do a better job of the ‘predator camo’ SFX with iMovie, but the film remains outstanding despite these limitations. Perhaps it’s because the cast have done so many steroids that they think the Predator is real, or maybe it’s that they know they’re working in the golden age of the action blockbuster.  Aliens, Die Hard, The Running Man, Indiana Jones; what they lacked in convincing bad guy accents they made up for with cheesy enthusiasm, snappy one-liners and copious supporting roles for Gary ‘tombstone teeth’ Busey.

The eighties was also the golden age of slasher and horror movies, the pop star vanity project (Purple Rain; Desperately Seeking Susan), and films with Eddie Murphy in them.  Even films pitched towards families, teenagers and young children are an eighties goldmine.  I’ve watched the three Gs (Goonies, Gremlins and Ghostbusters) every six months since the day I learned to copy VHS tapes, and love them right down to their implausible plot holes and occasionally crude racial stereotyping.  I have friends that feel the same way about The Breakfast Club and Heathers, although if anybody is still rooting for The Lost Boys they’re too polite to tell me.

Eighties Music

At the time, many people expected eighties music to vanish in a synthesised puff of dry ice on the cusp of the 1990s.  Oh, how wrong we were.  From the overblown power ballad to the hyper-produced saccharine pop act, eighties music has out-lived many of its detractors, the sixties and seventies musos who were appalled by drum machines and records that didn’t contain enough single guitar solos.  Eighties music is the ultimate artistic expression of the decade, combining a goofy love affair with the bleeps and bloops of new technology and an oddball approach to fashion preserved perfectly in its pioneering music videos, even if nobody has subsequently managed to look good in legwarmers or a ruffly shirt.
Eighties music is also incredibly diverse, from the brash explosion of hip hop, the urban rhythms of early house and techno to the drunken excesses of hair metal.  Pub bores in Clash T shirts always go on about the influence of punk, but the sonic and lyrical experimentation of eighties post-punk artists like Talking Heads, New Order and The Smiths has had a far greater influence on today’s musicians than anything the Sex Pistols coughed up.
The eighties was also the sunset era of the vinyl record and the cassette tape.  Vinyl clings to life in the dusty cupboards of ageing DJs and dedicated audiophiles, whereas the humble C90 lives on only in spirit, the inspiration for a billion iTunes playlists and a generation of audio pirates raised on high-speed dubbing and Dolby Noise Reduction. Now that’s what I call music.