Kevin Walker looks back on the 1980s, his relationship to the music and how those times were more influential than he first realised.
Aaa yes the 1980s . The decade that gave us Samantha Fox, Ronald Reagan, Crack and AIDS – but was it all bad? I used to think so and I should know having lived through it. About five years ago I had one of those Marcel Proust moments, except I wasn’t eating biscuits and I didn’t write seven fucking huge books about it. More like a leaflet. I was off my head for most of the decade and my memories of those years would look something like a badly made Prodigy video. No, my little trigger was the soundtrack to the movie To Live And Die in L.A by Wang Chung. As soon as I heard those first bars all the little hairs on my neck stood up. “What’s happening to my noggin…” I wondered, as thoughts of dancing and working on my tan raced around my cranium. Then it hit me…My God, It’s The Eighties.
thoughts of dancing and working on my tan raced around my cranium. Then it hit me…My God, It’s The Eighties.
I was born in suburban south Dublin in 1965 and there I stayed for the next 18 years until I was legally allowed to bottle under my own steam. And bottle we did. In droves. In Ireland this is called `The flight from the land´. It began hundreds of years ago when there were 11 million Irish and times were considerably more shit than anything I had to endure in the 1970s.
Number three of five boys, the musical score to my life story began very quickly. My earliest musical memory is of my mother humming `Hey Jude´while bathing me. She liked music, everything from post war Jazz and the Swing music of her youth to Irish traditional acts like The Dubliners and The Fury Brothers. She liked The Beatles because she was from Liverpool. My elder brothers laid down solid and unsurprising foundations: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream, Simon & Garfunkel, oh yeah… and Elvis. All pretty much as you would expect. Then in 1977 everything changed forever.
Punk rock entered my life via our ancient black and white television set. I remember the moment so clearly. It was a revelation. A revolution. A slap in the face with a wet fish. This shock therapy was none other than The Damned performing `Neat neat neat´ on English TV. I sat gobsmacked with my eldest brother. We were mesmerized. Both of us could sense that everything would be different from then on. We were right. To this day I can see my life as before and after that first exposure. This ‘New Wave’ was instantly popular, reflecting a dissent that is genetic amongst the Irish. The establishment however, was another matter. There was a pirate radio DJ named Dave Fanning and John Peel on BBC radio, and one shop called Advanced Records. That was it.
To this day I can see my life as before and after that first exposure. This ‘New Wave’ was instantly popular, reflecting a dissent that is genetic amongst the Irish.
The rules changed. Cool was redefined. It was exciting and fresh. It belonged to us. By the end of the 70’s my brother and I had a comprehensive cross section of Punk and New Wave music including all our recently discovered American favourites: Television, Talking Heads, Devo, The Ramones, The Modern Lovers. All this was constantly evolving and we really felt spoilt for choice. We were. Some of the LPs from this period are still amongst my very favourites and some of them were years ahead of their time. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne is still astonishing more than thirty years on.
So we pogoed into the 1980s with spiky hair and combat jackets, going to see U2 for free, wondering if they would make it. Watching Morrissey heaving baskets of flowers into the audience, proclaiming “ This is great but it can’t last…” The Smiths were huge in Ireland at a time when their career in England was only beginning. A year and a half after seeing them for free, U2 were headlining at home, ending a day that included Zebra, Big Country, Simple Minds, and the Eurythmics. I fell in love with Simple Minds instantly. This was 1980 and they were still all arty and proud, no glitter and dazzle just stark white lights, Bowie pleats and white shirts. They were touring their New Gold Dream album. I´ve gone through three copies to date.
So we pogoed into the 1980s with spiky hair and combat jackets, going to see U2 for free, wondering if they would make it. Watching Morrissey heaving baskets of flowers into the audience, proclaiming “ This is great but it can’t last..”
Secondary school finished for me in 1982, the next two years were spent working crap jobs and studying electronics for a while. By the time I fucked off to London in late 83, it was all Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure and New Order. David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed were really all that was left of the seventies for me. They seemed to make sense still, somehow. London was my stomping ground for the next six years, I was introduced to the dark side by black clad Italians: Bauhaus, Xmal Deutschland, Christian Death, that kind of stuff. The Australians I came across had their own twist on things, not just Nick Cave. Same with the Swedes I met at this time. They got me into the early American punk music highlighted by the Nuggets compilations.
As the 1980s progressed I became less interested in what was current and more so in where it all came from. Back to the 1960s and 1970s I went, digging for treasure and finding it everywhere. I found blues music and became a John Lee Hooker fan after seeing him in a beautiful old theatre, this was 1987/88 and he was electrifying. Living through it, I was convinced the 80s had gone to shit. Big hair and padded shoulders. Anything good passed me by. One big exception was The Waterboys. I was blown away by Mike Scott, he could do no wrong and his lyrics were scripture to me. Then he went all folky and trad and I was disgusted by what I perceived at the time to be dross.
I left London and moved to Finland in 1989, I was oblivious to all but my personal investigations into 60s and 70s music. Jazz had begun to interest me, my brother was giving me lots of CDs at the time and one track The Sidewinder by trumpeter Lee Morgan really got me hooked. I began to see and hear things in context. Music was becoming a fabulous vista, the neverending story, the secret history – and I was slowly finding my own place in it.
I began to see and hear things in context. Music was becoming a fabulous vista, the neverending story, the secret history – and I was slowly finding my own place in it.
It’s all about context really. To understand the true weight of something you need to be informed of its genus, the space it occupies in that vista I mentioned. Liking something is just a way in, a door opening, a reaction, that’s all. We do things for many different reasons. Why do I like this and not that? Why do I like now that which left me cold before? So now I get to the point, why did I rediscover the 80s? Because over 20 years on I began to notice much of what I had been blind to. The penny always drops in the end. I can see now that the culture spawned by that decade reflects the world it came from in a very real way. Look closely at that part of the fabulous vista that is the 80s. Can you see that lanky, hormone filled youth flailing around, making little or no sense? Thats me.