Why the 80s still matter

Welcome back to the great misunderstood decade - it's the only way to get to grips with the 1990s
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It's the little things. In Coronation Street last week, you could see Danny Hargreaves hand Sally Webster a gift as part of his convoluted courtship: she inspects it - a compilation of Eighties classics - and gushes: "The Eurythmics, U2. I love those bands." Nobody expects Sally to be hip, of course (hipness is hardly ever an issue in the Street) and so the 1980s are positioned as a time of thirtysomething, populist nostalgia: naff, but a birrofalaff.

This is functional for Soapworld, but look through the rest of the media and you will find little to amplify or deepen this view. The 1980s might be finally acquiring some retro allure in deep corners of today's pop culture, but as far as every one else is concerned, they're like the 1970s were 10 years ago: almost no one is interested. You won't easily find people wearing the clothes and you won't find anybody - except for a few Tory fundamentalists - praising the politics either. If the decade crops up at all, it is usually to be mocked: look at those frocks, look at those mullets.

Yet it has also become a truism that the 1980s have continued into the 1990s: the acceptance of global free-market dominance (not the least, as The Mayfair Set, Adam Curtis's recent BBC2 series, illustrated, over national governments) and its consequences - rampant materialism, frayed social cohesion, the emergence and acceptance (from the top down) of a permanent underclass. In this it's important to recognise just how successful the New Right putsch - which began in 1975 and only ran out of steam in the mid-1990s - has been in restructuring the country, with 1979 a petit- bourgeois Year Zero to replace Punk's anarchistic attempt two years before.

Mrs Thatcher's eventual fall from power in November 1990 presented a definite ending to the decade which she had dominated. It was gratefully received, as many people wanted to forget the previous 10 years: the promoted fashion of 1990 was for white clothes, supposedly a symbol of purity and rebirth. Yet cultural processes do not magically change direction as one decade passes into another. Beneath the extraordinary energy of the early 1990s - epitomised in white rock by Nirvana's Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless - the changes instituted by 11 years of Conservatism contined to pass through Britain's social, cultural and political life.

New Labour might well have replaced the New Right's drive to exclusion with a feelgood consensus - inclusion, at a price - but in many policies and attitudes it embodies a profound, and still little-discussed sea- change: the centre's shift from the Left/ Liberal tendency of the late 1970s to the centre Right. Politics is no longer personal - as it was in the 1960s and the 1970s - but once more the preserve of professionals and parliament. The cultural evidence is ubiquitous: "dumbing down"; the reactionary, Fifties sexual politics of the lad mags; the near-total lack of sexual or social critique in today's pop; the amnesia stimulated by the West's terminal 20th-century spin-cycle.

Well, it is now 79 seasons since the 1980s began: time to acquire some historical perspective. Commentators have been surprisingly slow to broaden any understanding of the decade. What accounts there have been tend to concentrate on the purely political - biographies like One of Us, Hugo Young's magisterial survey of Mrs Thatcher's rise to power - or the culturally specific - books like The Rap Attack, David Toop's history of rap, Julian Cope's Head On, or Altered State, Matthew Collin's history of ecstasy culture and acid house.

The collective memory-bank is no help either. Put your coin in the slot marked "the 1980s" and what do you get? Ker-ching! The New Romantics and Mrs Thatcher: frilly shirts and brutal politics. This is true but slightly simplistic. What I want to do is to amplify this shorthand and examine the interface of power politics and some areas of culture during the 1980s: notes - in Dick Hebdige's phrase - "towards a cartography" of that decade. This will not be a definite survey but a partial analysis: if you're not satisfied with the examples I quote, then feel free to substitute your own. It's not as though they're not plentiful.

Thatcherism - both a cult of personality based on an autocratic leader and an economic, moral and social philosophy - can now be seen to dominate the 1980s, though at the time it was by no means inevitable that this would occur. Contrary to its current attribution as a bland, depoliticised decade, the 1980s was a time of bitter, prolonged social struggle: the Toxteth/ Moss Side/Brixton riots of summer 1981; the miners' strike of 1984-85; the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986; the Wapping dispute of 1986-87. It was only with their third term in 1987 that the Conservatives became much like New Labour are today: seemingly a party of permanent government with a leader cult.

Quite apart from its social cost, the eventual failure of this concerted opposition left many of the left to dissolve in factionalism or abandon politics altogether. For many fellow-travellers, it resulted in a premature bitterness and cynicism, an attitude which still affects that one-time bastion of left/liberal values, the media. This is Raoul Vaneigem's man (or woman) of ressentiment: "a man bereft of awareness of the possibility of transcendence". The wish to explain, report and inform has all too often been replaced by a barely disguised egotism, or contempt and frustration at having to service a PR agenda set by the voracious media industries.

It wasn't enough for the Conservatives to govern with a large majority: they had

to stifle dissent (which is why the abolition of the GLC remains such a scandal). Accurately detecting a hostile media, Mrs Thatcher set about restructuring - some would say dismantling - this source of dissidence, instituting a process of increased competition - keyword: choice - and deregulation which began in the early decade. For a few years it was a great time to be a journalist or a broadcaster, if you were within the golden square mile of Swinging Soho. The pay-off came with Wapping, when the velvet glove came off the iron fist.

The demonising line taken by the Sun during the Aids crisis from 1984 on was nothing short of revolting: "an outburst of human unkindness", as Richard Davenport-Hines states in his book Sex Death and Punishment. It was matched by further outrages, like the Sun's coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. The Wapping dispute itself was vicious and merciless, and remains a major industrial relations disaster. When the Sky satellite network was launched in 1988, the true beneficiary of this brave new media world became apparent. Rupert Murdoch continues to have an influence on British affairs disproportionate to his ethics - viz, his high-profile backing of the right horse in 1997: New Labour.

A perfect product for this new global landscape was the pop video, a form which encouraged the horizontal integration of the television, music, advertising, publishing and film industries - a form very typical of the 1980s in its confluence of art with advertising, with the latter pre-eminent. By the end of the decade, deregulation had done its work. It was becoming plain that more media choice in reality meant less: a closed loop of cheap, shoddy, self-referential material, as revenue failed to expand to meet an almost exponential increase in outlets. (This process has continued ever since: it's now called "dumbing down" and is the source of much ahistorical hand-wringing).

In another example of cross-media integration, newspapers began to pursue pop like never before. Stars like Boy George courted the tabloids and were rewarded with massive, mainstream media coverage. The Faustian nature of this contract became apparent when, in the summer of 1986, George was hounded close to death by a sequence of drug scandals - the former golden boy turned into a leper. With their hysterical coverage of Aids now fuelled by the Tories' wish to redraw the moral map, the tabloids injected a new level of homophobia into this supposed parable of fame and excess: a situation only reversed by Elton John's famous libel victory against the Sun in December 1988.

How could Boy George be such a threat? Because of what he symbolised. The early 1980s were an incredibly fertile time for white pop/rock. Southern New Romantics like Duran Duran, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet might have got all the mass- media attention, but their high profile served to obscure what had become a nationwide phenomenon. The early 1980s saw an extraordinary wealth of talent from the North of England and Scotland, many of whom, like the Human League, Orange Juice (featuring the still popular maverick Edwyn Collins), New Order and Soft Cell had huge hits in a wave of synthetic androgyny - a Disco redux which counterpointed the equally synthetic machismo of a country at war with Argentina.

This joyous Futurism (to take one of the alternate names given at the time to the New Romantics) reached its mainstream zenith with Frankie Goes To Hollywood's three No 1s in 1984. It was killed off in 1984-85 by Live Aid - a good cause but an aesthetic disaster. Authenticity replaced plasticity as pervy synth pop groups like the Eurythmics added black female singers and "real" instrumentation. The tide had turned against the Gender Benders: in white music, a rock revanchism - similar to Britrock in the late 1980s - reasserted traditional masculine qualities, while gay culture hived off into the temporary cul-de-sac of Hi Energy, or the nihilistic, ecstasy-driven Taboo world.

Emblematic of the changed climate is what happened to one of the fiercest groups of the early 1980s, Scotland's Associates. In 1981, they released six great singles in a row, which still read like a diary of the era's underlying tensions: take "A Girl Named Property", on which Billy MacKenzie's crooner-on-helium vocals give total conviction to phrases like "a monetary game", "no more property world", "Tell me: what shape is your cell?" The Associates rode this wave into one Top 10 single in 1982 (the queasy "Party Fears Two"), after which the group slowly slipped into obscurity. Billy MacKenzie committed suicide in January 1997, and his best work from this period has still not been digitalised.

Perhaps more importantly, the 1980s was a fantastic time for black American music, from the first stirrings of hip-hop, rap and electro in 1981-3 through the beginnings of house in 1986 and techno in 1987 into acid house and rave by the late decade. Some of these records - Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" (1981), Grandmaster Flash's "On the Wheels Of Steel" (1981), Cybotron's "Techno City" (1984), Double Dee and Steinski's "Lesson One" (1984) - prefigured the sampling culture which began fully in 1986-7 and which is still the driving techno-pop aesthetic.

While London was locked into the slower Seventies funk sounds of rare groove during 1986 and 1987, clubs in the north of Britain were playing a new, fast, four-on-the-floor form from Chicago, marketed - with stunning success, as Steve "Silk" Hurley's "Jack Your Body" went to No 1 in February 1987 - as house music. Originating in Chicago gay clubs, its orientation was glossed over in this initial, feverish period of acceptance: as sampling records - like M/A/R/R/S's "Pump Up the Volume" - came onstream together with the very first Techno compilations, they fused with

house to create modern dance music.

Yet there was content there, in those early house records, if you chose to listen. "Freedom" by the Children is an impassioned underdog rant, with particular bite at the height of the Aids crisis: "I see hatred, no acceptance of those who are different. We need to come together, I'm sure it can be done, divided as individuals, united as one." This utopian inclusiveness was amplified by 1987's "Can You Feel It?" by Fingers Inc, with its famous rap by Chuck Roberts: "I am the creator and this is my house. And in my house there is only house music. But I am not so selfish, because once you enter my house it then becomes OUR house and our house music. And you see, no one then owns house, because house music is a universal name spoken and understood by all."

This was a powerful message, at the exact time when Mrs Thatcher was talking about there being no such thing as society: as such, it helped to expose a faultline of the New Right's socio-cultural programme. People wanted there to be a society; they wanted community. If they couldn't do what they wanted, or see what they wanted represented through politics and the media, they'd do it another way. Throughout the 1980s, the New Right had attacked the 1960s at every opportunity possible: not only for its political and social opportunities, but for its cultural freedoms. Everything was the the fault of "the Sixties": unemployment, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, Aids.

Yet, 20 years after that decade's heyday, thousands of young Britons voted, with their feet, to return to Sixties ideals of community, transcendence and aggressive assertion of youth space as acid house became a national obsession during 1988. With its stirring bass line and shimmering synthesiser melodies, "Can You Feel It?" became an early staple of acid house, that moment which fused new drugs, lifestyle, music and dancing into a semi- permanent youth pleasure ritual - whatever you want to call it: rave, ecstasy culture - that continues to dominate British Pop (see Ibiza, passim). The principal British youth culture of the 1990s was already up and running by 1988.

Ecstasy culture was solidly bound to New Right ideals like individual entrepreneurialism, yet it was also considered socially alarming enough for John Major's government to legislate, in 1994's Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, against "repetitive beats" - a notable example of legislative aesthetics. With its random yet definite Sixties references - just take a look at the classic rave flyer art of 1989-1993 - ecstasy culture began the refashioning of that decade that continues today. The 1960s are, correctly, such a pop-culture totem that each age refashions them in its own image, the often tepid mod-isms of Britpop reflecting today's woozily nostalgic consensus.

The pop 1980s were bookended by the suicide of Ian Curtis and Black Box's monster Euro-techno hit, "Ride on Time" - six weeks at No 1 during September/ October 1989. In 1980, the cutting edge magazines were The Face and ZG - the latter an extraordinary broadsheet fusion with articles by Dick Hebdige, Raymond Durgnat, David Widgery, and the gay philosopher Guy Hocquenhem. By 1988-89 the new mood was summed up by the fanzine Boy's Own, a cheeky recasting of the outsider as acid hooligan, with greater verve and glee than the lad magazines which adopted some of this tone years later. Boy's Own saw the 1980s dying and danced on the grave: "The Yuppie became the Pumpie (Previously Upwardly Mobile Prat) and no sensible person shed a tear for them."

The 1980s: ecstatic or exclusive?

The point is not that they were either, but that they were both. So far, most of the comment on the decade has been from the triumphalist, victors' point of view: an important part of the Zeitgeist, but one that has been well covered. You could go further and say that to attempt a record of the 1980s without including the stories of those who were demonised, victimised and excluded is to misrepresent a crucial period in Britain's history. Indeed, depoliticising such a divisive decade only serves to reinforce Britain's current, no doubt therapeutic consensus - a brief moment of apparent stasis which will not last much longer.

`Time Travel: from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana, 1977-96', Jon Savage's collection of Eighties journalism, is published by Vintage (pounds 7.99)