Constantly referenced, the 1980s is a strange decade in retrospect. The period was one of economic turbulence and change all over Europe, hosting all sorts of tumultuous cultural and societal shifts and great dollops of anger to boot. It’s still confusing and fascinating. A professor mate calls it a black hole in terms of historical evaluation and I think he’s right. Maybe because of all this it’s a fascinating time in terms of pop music; possibly the most interesting era (until the digital revolution really kicked in) for marginal pop, or pop with an independent attitude. Acts were fuelled by punk’s year zero antics, and exploited technological developments such as drum machines and synths. Sensing that things were changing (for better or for worse), many wannabes sprung up out of nowhere determined to express themselves; only to disappear without trace a couple of years later. Sadly, many of the decade’s more exotic blooms still get overlooked or dismissed more than they should. I’ve picked three acts that certainly need some proper investigation.



Dundee’s finest! Fired by Bowie, glam, punk, ridiculous lyrics, hyperventilating musical conceits and best of all, Billy MacKenzie’s brilliant voice. Billy Mac looked and acted like any Apollonian vision should. This was a working class lad who loved man and woman alike, bred whippets on sardines and laughed and sparkled his way through many a TV mime. Musically Associates are one of the oddest pop bands of the era and one of the most appealing, able to slide effortlessly between the high gloss camp of Top of the Pops, thumping soul-disco and blazing post-punk workouts. I find it difficult to choose a favourite as I like pretty much all of Associates (maybe not the mid 80s pop, which hasn’t aged that well IMHO) but the ‘Wild and Lonely’ LP from 1991 is a fabulous release. And everyone’s collection should have ‘Sulk’, ‘The Affectionate Punch’ and ‘Fourth Drawer Down’, records where Alan Rankine’s chilly Baroque-pop vision met MacKenzie’s voice full-on; coming into a train station near you, on all tracks, sideways. Billy Mackenzie tragically succumbed to depression in 1997 shortly after recording a typically louche track for Barry Adamson’s ‘Oedipus Schmoedipus’ LP.

I’ve picked two tracks: ‘White Car in Germany’ from ‘FDD’ is suitably Cold War and

And the classic hit, ‘Party Fears Two’ (a great typically 80’s live TV appearance conceit from French TV)


One of pop music’s true eccentrics, Lawrence Hayward (aka Lawrence) is also the leader of one of the greatest acts of the era, Felt. The band made beautiful guitar music that gave the best alternative bands of the 1960s a run for their money. In some ways that approach only added to Felt’s essential outsider otherness (they were also on a very weird but brilliant label obsessed with 60s arcana, Cherry Red). You see, back in the get-ahead 80s the 1960s was a forgotten, sometimes despised decade musically, and artists like Neil Young, Syd Barrett and Joni Mitchell were often dismissed out of hand as past-it, smelly longhairs. Maybe because of this I never really knew what Felt were “on about”. However poppy and full of all the things you should immediately love their music sounded from another place. Not that that really mattered. Felt were all about mood, staring out of the window, dreaming through an afternoon skived off college. Lawrence’s enigmatic lyrics and original guitarist Maurice Deebank’s brilliant guitar lines were a blueprint for many aspiring late 80s band. Lawrence’s many phobias and (ahem) alleged substance issues led him to being celebrated as a permanent outsider, better known for his eccentric behaviour (as seen in the very entertaining film Lawrence of Belgravia than his band’s chiming, timeless music. Lawrence’s other bands Denim and Go Kart Mozart are very much worth your time, too.

Two Deebank numbers: First a total classic dreamy Felt song: ‘Dismantled King Is Off the Throne’, listen to that guitar run!



And this which trails clouds of glory for me: ‘Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow’



It would be remiss not to add the glorious ‘Primitive Painters’ with the Cocteau Twin’s Liz Frazer

Neneh Cherry / Rip Pig Panic

Probably best known for the three monster hits ‘Buffalo Stance’ ( ‘Manchild’ and ‘7 Seconds’ with Youssou N’Dour, Neneh Cherry should really also be known for her fabulous post-punk band, Rip Pig and Panic. A sparkling and immensely listenable mix of jazz, punk, funk and soul, Rip Pig and Panic were formed from what was left of the brilliant Bristol funk-punk band The Pop Group in the very early 80s. Harnessing the razor sharp rhythms of that band with Neneh’s brilliant vocals and a predilection for jazz and funk experiment (Neneh’s step-dad was Don Cherry) they made itchy, difficult but often brilliant alternative pop that acquired a glamorous sheen as the decade wore on. Still an inspiring artist today, Cherry’s last LP, 2009’s ‘Blank Project’ is well worth your time.

The brilliant single ‘Storm the Reality Asylum’ is as good an intro as any, a great track from their supremely laid back, jazzy second LP, 1982’s ‘I Am Cold’

‘Constant Drudgery Is Harmful To Soul, Spirit’ is a tremendous sub-Clinton mash-up is from the first LP, 1981’s ‘God’, and (along with the crazy Peel Session from the same year, hunt that down if you’ve time) gives an idea of the boundaries the band were exploring early on.

RICHARD FOSTER – Follow Richard on @incendiarymagazine