Back to the Future – Craig Schuftan on the neo-80s revival
‘The 80s revival has almost exhausted itself’ warned the editors of an Australian fashion magazine in 2004, ‘get ready for the 90s revival’. We know now that this advice was a little premature. The 80s revival has turned out to be very much like an unstoppable robot assassin in an 80s sci-fi blockbuster – every time you think it’s dead, it comes back, looking weirder and scarier.
Last year, Australian hip hop crew TZU released an 80s electro-styled single called ‘Computer Love’. over a loping breakbeat and vocoderised chants, MC Joelistics made his way through neon game-grids ‘like a modern day blade runner’. in the video, Joelistics was unexpectedly ‘scanned’ into the hard drive of a 1980s portable computer. We saw him having lo-res adventures on spaceships, visiting alien planets, and trading rhymes with ET.
But while they were happy to enthuse over Michael J Fox’s hoverboard in interviews, the members of TZU were also at pains to point out that they were no nostalgia act. ‘It’s not a retro record’ Joelistics told Triple J. ‘It’s not even an 80s record, it’s just we all grew up in the 80s’. It might seem like a fine distinction, but it’s one worth making. Having grown up with Spielberg movies, Mattell toys and Commodore 64 computers, the members of TZU are as little able to avoid their cultural heritage as Dali was the Catalan coastline or Kurt Cobain the 70s soft-rock he grew up hearing on the radio. But their music is much more than the sum of its influences. listen again to ‘Computer Love’, try to pick one artist or track from the 80s it resembles, and you’ll soon find that you can’t. It seems to refer to something, but the original is impossible to locate.
This is the case with a great deal of music in the charts and on the radio today. Like their labelmates Cut Copy and The Midnight Juggernauts, The Presets are often described as an 80s-influenced group. But try to imagine them playing at a blue-light cisco in 1985. No doubt, some moments on their 2008 album Apocalypso might go down well. But others – the heavy 90s rave sounds, the unsettling mix of pub-rock dynamics with distorted synth-pop textures – would clear the dancefloor in a flash. We can imagine the motionless crowd staring open-mouthed at Julian Hamilton as he mumbles, apologetically – like Marty McFly in Back To The Future – ‘I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet…’
In Back To The Future Part II, Marty and Doc Brown travel from 1985 to the 21st century. Marty walks into a themed restaurant – the café 80s. ‘one of those nostalgia places’ explains the Doc, ‘but not done very well’. we see what he means – everything in the Café 80s looks familiar, but none of it looks quite right. Marty is terrified. He’s suffering the vertigo of having aged 30 years in a day – of finding that the stuff of his childhood is now old enough to be considered retro-chic. But far worse is the feeling he gets, looking at this mismatched assortment of 80s
paraphernalia – that his memories have been tampered with.
For those who lived through the decade as adults, the 80s revival inspires exactly this sense of temporal panic. They watch 21-year olds dancing to synth pop in high-waisted jeans, feeling that they have been teleported back to a parallel 1985 which – despite some familiar reference points – is nothing like their memories. That’s because the 80s revival is not really a revival at all. It’s a giant junk-sculpture made from the fragments of a lost civilisation, undertaken by artists and musicians who are old enough to have had the music and films of the 80s form part of their upbringing, but young enough to treat this heritage with a healthy combination of disrespect and curiosity.
But why should it be necessary to look to the past at all? Some critics believe that the existence of the neo-80s – and of pop revivals in general – proves there are no new ideas in rock and roll today. They forget that some of the most important and moving works of art in history have come to us from artists who wanted to turn back the clock. The Gothic revival was retro. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was retro. Tolkein, Star Wars and Phil Spector were all retro. Even punk was retro. It began with Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy, and their mission to destroy the bombast and boredom of the 70s by drawing on the power of an earlier, simpler era of rock and roll.
in many cases, the neo-80s begins from exactly this premise. Australian synth-rockers The Galvatrons named themselves after a character in Transformers: The Movie – which came out in 1987, when singer Johnny Galvatron was four years old. When he saw it again a few years ago, Johnny realised that this film contained an antidote to the crippling illness which threatened the life of rock and roll in 2007. He saw that everything 21st century pop lacked – ambition, imagination, synth-pads and shoulder pads – could be found in the music and movies of the 80s.
UK singer Elly Jackson – who blends Vince Clarke-style electro-pop with spooky Siouxsie vocals on her group La Roux’s self- titled debut – feels the same way. ‘There’s too much normality at the moment’, she said, speaking of the present state of pop. That’s why she looks beyond the ordinary stars of today, to the extraordinary stars of the 80s – Annie Lennox, Grace Jones, Prince, Bowie. Here, the past is a stick to beat the present with – to correct its excesses and make it admit to its failings.
For La Roux, as for Cut Copy, The Killers, Daft Punk, The Midnight Juggernauts, Ladyhawke and many more of the artists featured in the Powerhouse Museum’s The 80s are back exhibition, history is exactly what it has been for artists through the centuries. it’s a yardstick by which we can measure our own achievements, and a reminder of what we may have left behind in our hurry to get to the next big thing. artists today understand – as Doc and Marty did back in the real 1985 – that sometimes you have to go back to the past in order to save the future.
Originally published in Powerline, Summer 2009