Pop Culture

Reliving the '80s

The music and spirit of the ‘Greed Is Good’ decade are back with a vengeance

Andrew Clark November 15 1999
Pop Culture

Reliving the '80s

The music and spirit of the ‘Greed Is Good’ decade are back with a vengeance

Andrew Clark November 15 1999

Reliving the '80s

Pop Culture

The music and spirit of the ‘Greed Is Good’ decade are back with a vengeance

Andrew Clark

Five hundred young men and women are dancing, drinking, smoking and, in some cases, making out. British pop band Duran Durans 1981 hit Girls on Film pulsates through the sweaty atmosphere. Sounding sexually agonized, lead singer Simon Lebon whines out his tribute to pornography. Welcome to Retro ’80s Night at the popular Toronto nightclub Whiskey Saigon, an evening dedicated to the nostalgic worship of the “Greed Is Good” decade. Every Sunday night, the Toronto radio station Edge 102.1 broadcasts live from the bar, playing such 1980s bands as Depeche Mode, Visage, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Canadas the Spoons for an audience the broadcaster says numbers 85,500. To 27-year-old retro night patron Matthew Canz, the allure is simple. “I’m so sick of the ’60s and the ’70s,” he yells gleefully. “The ’80s was the best decade ever. I mean, it was sooooo one-dimensional. Rich was good. Poor was bad. Cocaine was the drug of choice. Simon

Lebon was on top of the charts. How can you ask for more?”

Edge 102.1 DJ and retro night host Martin Streek, 35, looks down from his booth high above the dance floor and recalls that the event started as “a new concept for a broadcast. The response was unbelievable. We still turn away around 600 people a night.”

Call it laughable. Call it proof positive of the decay ofWestern civilization. But, like it or not, the 1980s are back, bigtime. Look around. Joe Clark is leading the Conservatives. Donald Trump is again in the limelight (running for U.S. president yet) and more obnoxious than ever. Almost every week, a new 1980s greatest-hits CD is released. Recent offerings include Seven Year Itch by the Canadian glam-rock group Platinum Blonde (page 126). Brian Ferry, ZZTop, ABC and the Pet Shop Boys are back on tour. This week, a newly reunited Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart of Eurythmies, which has just released the new album Peace, headline Madi-

‘In the ’80s,’ says one enthusiast, ‘we all had jobs and money. It was carefree.’

son Square Garden in New York City.

Many American cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, have all-’80s radio stations.

A host of 1980s-themed movies, such as 200 Cigarettes, The Wedding Singer and the current romantic comedy The Suburbans, threaten to usher in another round of big, gel-stifT hair and Flashdance sweatshirts. The new hit U.S. TV show Freaks and Geeks focuses on ’80s teenagers, while ’80s standbys such as Cheers, The Golden Girls, Simon and Simon and Miami Vice are in constant rerun. MuchMusic airs its biannual All-Eighties Weekend, reaching an average of 700,000 viewers. At the grassroots level, clubs all across North America are selling out by going ’80s.

“We made the switch from the ’70s when we noticed people started having an interest in the ’80s,” says Blaine Fraser, a manager of the Winnipeg club Scandals. “It’s one of our most successful nights.”

The crowd at Whiskey Saigon is a perfect case study in 1980s nostalgia. All the major varieties of’80s revivalists are accounted for. Roughly 80 per cent of the crowd are people in their early 20s. To them, retro night is a chance to discover the music that their older brothers and sisters grew up on. Then there are those who lived through the days of Miami Vice and Rubiks Cube. For these 30and 40-year-olds it is a chance to relive their youth. Overall, 65 per cent of those present are female. “Women are the driving force behind the ’80s revival,” says 37-year-old Alan Cross, an Edge 102.1 DJ who has produced 10 retro CD collections. “Eighties pop is very danceable. The chicks dig it, and whenever you have women liking something, the guys follow.”

Friends Kit Monteith, 27, and Peter Albert, 40, listen to the Sunday night retro broadcast religiously. For them, a trip to an ’80s night is almost a sacred pilgrimage. On Halloween, the pair dressed up as the 1980s Saturday Night Live characters Hans and Frans. “In the ’80s, we all had jobs and money,” Albert says. “It was carefree and happy.”

The craze started in the early-1990s as a way for disenchanted Generation Xers—people in their mid-20s who had grown up amid the 1980s boom and then found themselves broke and jobless in this decade—to mock ’80s materialism. In London, club-goers greased back their hair and wore power suits, and awards were given for the widest red suspenders (the stereotype of the 1980s stockbroker). “The Gen Xers were left holding the bag for the ’80s,” observes Cross, who started one of the first retro nights in the country in 1993. “They were cynical and that found an expression in grunge and industrial music. But they got tired of the angry sound. The ’80s pop

music ended up being the antidote to all that.”

This antidote has not gone unnoticed by record executives. In the mid-1990s, companies began re-releasing 1980s CDs, and there are now hundreds of compilations and greatest-hits collections on offer. The classic compilation is Rhino Records’ 17-volume collection Just Cant Get Enough. Recent Canadian releases include greatest-hit CDs by Martha and the Muffins, Rough Trade, the Spoons, Strange Advance and Grapes of Wrath. EMI Music Canada has issued a six-volume series of 1980s CDs from ska to punk to one-hit wonders. On average, 1980s CDs sell between 8,000 and 40,000 copies, according to EMI marketing manager Warren Stewart. Bands that were cult favourites 15 years ago can sell more than they did in the 1980s. Mainstream radio shunned new-wave bands during that decade, but now it is eager to capitalize on the nostalgia. “There wasn’t the radio play that there is now,” says Streek. “Bands could only go so far because you couldn’t get new wave played on mainstream radio.” Retro CDs are also cheap to produce. “We own all the rights,” says Stewart. “We mine the vaults, and the artists get the royalties.” Luckily, not all 1980s phenomena are being resurrected. So far, no one appears to be pushing big shoulder pads and big earrings for women, or no socks and pastel jackets for men. And the 1980s revival is not even a revival of the entire decade. The retro trend is restricted to music and pop culture that emerged between 1980 and 1985. After 1985, ’80s lovers agree, the decade took a wrong turn. Music became bland, and bands such as Huey Lewis and the News defiled airwaves. Streek notes, however, that even the candy-pop bands are getting a second look. “It’s hysterical,” he says. “You’ll get guys coming up to the booth and saying, ‘My girlfriend wants to hear Ah-ha [a Norwegian pop-band]’ or

‘OMD [Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark].’ It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, your girlfriend wants to hear it, eh?’ ”

More than just music is resuscitating the 1980s. At its core, the revival is no different than the nostalgia felt for the 1970s and the 1960s. To youngsters who did not experience the ’80s, it is a chance to lament the passing of a golden age—one in which 20-year-olds were free to engage in a blissful binge of drugs and recreational sex—AIDs may have been a big story throughout the decade, but it wasn’t recognized as a serious threat to heterosexuals until the second half. “It was a pretty hedonistic time,” observes Cross.

It is a time that the 1980s crowd at Whiskey Saigon does a good job of re-creating. As songs such as New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle swirl through the club, patrons gyrate in a sweaty frenzy. They happily mouth the words. A club manager hands out copies of Platinum Blonde’s greatest-hits CD.

Walter Scattolon, 27, dressed up for Halloween as the group’s lead singer, says “they kick ass.” His friend Heidi Wallace, 27, pines for “the hair, the big hair. Everything about the ’80s was so cheesy.” A couple of women bare their breasts and bottoms to cheering onlookers. Twentytwo-year-old Lisa leads her pal Jodie, 26, around on a leash.

Occasionally, the two stop to down a round of shooters. “This is a party crowd and the ’80s was a party decade,” Lisa says. “There wasn’t any political correctness. People didn’t appreciate it back then.”

The party will last only so long. Like that quintessentially ’80s drug cocaine, nostalgia for the decade is getting used up quickly and proving tough to replace. But the club owners and DJs are already working on the next comeback. Streek is starting to insert the odd late-1980s or early-1990s song into his retro nights. The house music scene of early1990s Manchester is back in vogue. It may take even less effort to pull the 1990s from the ash bin.

In the midst of retro night chaos, Terry Tsianos surveys the crowd and smiles. He and his partners bought Whiskey Saigon in September. “We’re now playing ’80s music every night on the second floor,” he says. “I think people like hearing music that they are familiar with and that has memories.” Tsianos stops a moment; he seems to be having an epiphany. The club owner can see the future. “Retro ’90s,” he proclaims, “now that, that will be huge.” El

BLONDE AMBITION

Mark Holmes loses his concentration, again. Another beautiful woman is walking by, and he gazes wistfully at her. Once upon a time, tens of thousands of women returned his gaze with adoring eyes. But that was 15 years ago, and Holmes, the lead singer and bassist of 1980s’ glam-rock band Platinum Blonde, has since fallen from the public eye. “Money came and money went,” the 34-year-old says over a stir-fry in a Toronto restaurant. “I didn’t make the most wise business decisions. It was, ‘Where’s the party? Where are the girls?’ Everything people thought we did, we did, and more. I did things that would make James Bond blush.”

Holmes, who has pursued a solo career since the band’s 1989 demise, may once again have a chance to indulge in rock ’n roll decadence. Platinum Blonde’s new greatest-hit CD, Seven Year Ltch—featuring such songs as Not in Love and Crying over You— is now on Billboard Canarias Top 10 Compilation CDs chart. The group is planning a national tour in December. A new CD,

Number 9, is due in January.

A winning combination of rocker rogues playing songs melding rock and new wave put Platinum Blonde near the top of the heap for much of the 1980s, with sales of 200,000 and 500,000 for its first two albums. The group caused hysteria wherever it performed: in 1984, 30,000 fans—mostly hormone-crazy girls—turned up for a concert at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square and eventually rioted. To Holmes, who moved to Toronto from England in 1980, it was a dream come true. Fans scaled hotel walls and snuck into recording studios. After shows, females would slip into Holmes’s backstage shower. “They’d start lathering, and I’d say, ‘Could you scmb my back?’ ” As the 1980s marched on,

however, Platinum Blonde veered off course musically. Its third and last album, 1987 s Contact, failed to meet expectations. Drugs also played a role in the atrophy. “It was the ’80s,” recalls Holmes. “Drugs were everywhere. I mean, business deals were made while doing drugs.” Today’s Platinum Blonde features a new guitarist, Dave Barrett, and drummer, Sascha, who joined the band in 1987. Former guitarist Sergio Galli is now a Toronto architect, drummer Chris Steffler is a restaurateur and bassist Kenny MacLean is working on his own musical projects.

Holmes has no regrets about the past, crazy as it was. “Grandparents always make their grandkids feel like they had it hard,” he says. “I want to make mine envious. I’ll say, ‘Kid, when I was your age I used to have sex without wearing a condom.’ ”

Andrew Clark