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The Kickback Redux: Totally tubular ’80s

| Monday, November 16, 2015

The Kickback Redux - 80s_WEBSusan Zhu | The Observer

I’m a film and television person. So when I hear “the ’80s” I think of terrible movies like “Red Dawn,” pat tales of quarter-life crises like “The Breakfast Club,” and sitcoms like “Full House,” which feel facile when compared to current comedies like “Transparent.” And while it’s not fair to characterize an entire decade of audiovisual media as glib — we’re talking about the decade that gave us “Caddyshack,” after all — I do think the ’80s suffer in comparison to its bookends. The ’70s saw the rise to prominence of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, whose ’80s work is arguably less significant than that from the ’70s. In the ’90s, indie filmmakers like Wes and Paul Thomas Anderson broke onto the scene, and the Coen brothers became The Coen Brothers. The ’90s also claims the earliest television show I love, “Seinfeld” (which, yes, technically premiered in the ’80s. But that first season is practically unrecognizable. “Seinfeld” became “Seinfeld” in the 90s). One aspect of ’80s culture, however, that is every bit as good as that of the ’70s and ’90s, is the music.

The 1980s birthed the glorious alternative rock movement. Piercing, syncopated guitar chords contribute to a sound whose best analog is that moment when your headphones become partially unplugged but crackly music is still making its way into your ears. The movement was also characterized by defiantly realist lyrics delivered in an almost deadpan tone. This was an era when dancing and jumping up and down meant the same thing.

The reason I love The Jesus and Mary Chain, particularly their 1985 album “Psychocandy,” is because they use this strange, alt-rock aesthetic to deliver an emotional punch — a seemingly contradictory feat. You and your friends can be jumping up and down to the wall of sound that is “The Hardest Walk,” when the band pulls the rug out from under you, as Jim Reid sings, “Oh, and it’s plain to see that it’s dead / The thing swims in blood and it’s cold stony dead.” There’s a certain cognitive dissonance that comes with dancing to a song about a stillbirth.

“My Little Underground,” the best track on “Psychocandy,” is more baroque than the sensory assault of tracks like “In a Hole,” which mimics tinnitus with its discernable melody. It’s the melody that allows childlike, innocent lyrics like “I’m gonna run and find / A place where I can hide / Somewhere that no one knows / Someplace that no one goes” to work. And yet, Reid sings in an exasperated run-on sentence, suggesting he doesn’t really believe what he’s singing. It’s an ironic mix of youthful naiveté and adult ennui, and is reminiscent (or prescient) of the works of Wes Anderson.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the album’s most famous track, “Just Like Honey.” The lyrics don’t particularly make sense (“I’ll be your plastic toy”), but that’s not exactly a necessity. “Just Like Honey” — perhaps by virtue of being so closely associated with one of my all-time favorite films, “Lost in Translation” — delivers pure, ineffable emotion. It’s everything I love about “The Jesus and Mary Chain,” and music in general: it makes me feel.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Sean King

    Nick, right on with The Jesus And Mary Chain, although there wouldn’t have been 80s “alternative” without mid-70s punk which had already begun morphing into post-punk via the likes of Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” by the late 70s. Speaking of “Just Like Honey” on ‘Lost In Translation’, Kevin Shields, from fellow Creation Records legends My Bloody Valentine, contributed five or six songs to that soundtrack. And of course, MBV helped lay the groundwork for 90s shoegaze. Oh, how one decade bleeds into another.

    • Nick Laureano

      You’re absolutely right! Decades are nice round numbers, so it’s convenient (and fun!) to characterize a certain decade’s art/culture, but at the end of the day it’s just some arbitrary demarcation. Especially when you consider MANY bands (including TJAMC) worked across multiple decades. (Actually, if I remember correctly the Beatles recorded Let it Be in 69, so they were pretty much a single decade affair! Drawing a blank on other notable bands confined to a single decade…)