The 1980s are often derided as the decade style and taste forgot. A decade bathed in kitsch and pastiche, where the annoying phrase “Guilty Pleasure” emanates. As someone that grew up in a small mining town in central England, I can also confirm it was a hotbed of great music and art. Much of it still undiscovered in favour of the more lavish superstars thrust in the spotlight back then.
While Live Aid and its offshoots served a purpose at the time, there were a number of musical revolutions happening elsewhere around the globe. Many in the most unlikely settings such as the coalfields of North Wales, Birmingham’s dank suburbia and the industrial wastelands of Sheffield. Many of them sold very few records yet still left a significant cultural impact that can be seen and heard in many artists of the present.
It’s hard to envisage ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ existence were it not for ‘Script Of The Bridge’ paving the way some twenty years earlier. Or ‘Silent Alarm’ being more than a pipedream had ‘Waiting For A Miracle’ not appeared a quarter of a century beforehand. Even a record like ‘Brutalism’ has its roots in 1989’s ‘Bwrw Cwrw’ while ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ could have turned out totally different had its creators not grown up listening to ‘Will Anything Happen’.
So here are 10 bands from the 1980s you need in your life! 10 bands whose music went largely unrecognised while they were active and at their most creative, yet whose presence has been cited by many as shaping the sounds of today.
The Welsh music scene is finally getting the recognition it so richly deserves yet that wasn’t always the case. Which is a travesty when you think bands like Anhrefn were creating confrontational, energising and ultimately influential music three decades ago. Hailing from Bangor, their politically and socially aware three-chord anthems saw them compared to The Clash and cited as an early influence by the Manic Street Preachers among others. Most of the time they sang in their native Welsh language and could be seen regularly touring with the likes of Mega City Four and the Senseless Things. Attracting a loyal cult following not only in the UK but also parts of mainland Europe, their music was featured on Channel 4 show The Tube and BBC2’s Snub TV yet never really made the commercial or critical breakthrough it warranted. From 1983 onwards, Anrhefn were prolific recording artists, putting out numerous singles, albums and EPs before calling it a day in 1995. They briefly reformed in 2007 and their legacy lives on in their homeland if nowhere else.
Birmingham’s Au Pairs were one of the most original bands to emerge from the first wave of post punk. Not only did their music take its cue from the spiky gnarling of punk. They were also one of the first bands from that era to fuse influences as disparate as funk, soul, dub and jazz. Lyrically, they weren’t averse to questioning gender politics and on debut long player ‘Playing With A Different Sex’, opened the doors for a number of acts to confront and challenge stereotypes both from the context of being in a band and society’s expectations. Staunchly politicised having witnessed the birth of Thatcherism and its ideals at first hand, their lifespan only lasted five years but in that time they released two critically acclaimed albums and have gone onto become one of the era’s most inspirational acts.
Come Again (1981)
Formed in 1979 by two original members (and also two of the first of many to leave) of The Fall, Martin Bramah and Una Baines. It wasn’t until signing to Rough Trade the following year that Blue Orchids eventually found their sound. A spell touring as Nico’s backing band certainly helped and while members came and went at a similar rate to those of the founder members’ former band, usually culminating in a split of sorts which would normally last a year or two, Blue Orchids continued to make interesting music that strayed far away from the beaten track. While the 1980s incarnations only made one album and a handful of singles and EPs, the band has since reformed – Bramah being the only constant – and put out a couple of albums this century, the most recent being 2016’s ‘The Once And Future Thing’. They’re also touring again this summer and we’d urge you to go and see them, while in the meantime checking out your local second hand record store for a copy of those early seven inches that set out their stall in impeccable fashion.
The House That Faded Out (1980)
Speak to any band from the early 1980s onwards and the likelihood is at least one member will cite Cardiacs as an influence. Indeed, their presence can be felt on both sides of the pond, whether in the UK eccentricities of The Cure and Blur, American left fielders Mercury Rev and Pere Ubu, or more recently Wild Beasts and Django Django. Formed by Tim Smith at the back end of the 1970s, Cardiacs existed on the periphery of punk and while their DIY ethos fitted in with that mentality, their musical make up was something else entirely. Flirting with numerous genres throughout their career, while never being afraid to use performance art and literature to convey their abstract messages. With an extensive back catalogue that challenges and confounds throughout the band’s forty years of existence, Cardiacs stand out unashamedly as one of this nation’s true innovators whose legacy will live on well into the future.
Is This The Life (1988)
When talk turns to Manchester’s influence on music throughout the 1980s it rarely tends to go beyond The Smiths, New Order and The Stone Roses. However, another band helped shape the attitude and sound that would stretch far and wide beyond its North Western origins. Interpol, The National and The Killers have cited The Chameleons as playing a major part in their bands’ existence at various times and while those links might be sonically tenuous, particularly where the latter are concerned, there can be little doubting Mark Burgess and co being a distinguished tour de force. While briefly adopted then cast aside by the punks, goths, indie kids respectively, The Chameleons continued to furrow their own path, creating an unmistakeable sound of their own. Despite only being active for six years in their original form before the tragic death of the band’s manager brought about a split in 1987, the band went onto record three critically acclaimed and internationally revered albums. They briefly reformed in 2000 before finally calling it a day three years later while bass player and frontman Mark Burgess still tours his Chameleons Vox line up (who are well worth checking out as it happens). Nevertheless, 1983’s debut LP ‘Script Of The Bridge’ defined their sound, and remains one of that decade’s greatest albums.
Up The Down Escalator (1983)
THE COMSAT ANGELS
Hailing from Sheffield, a city once known as one of the UK’s industrial heartlands until Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government dismantled its mines and mills one by one, destroying communities in the process. Around the time Thatcher came into power The Comsat Angels were just coming together. Taking their name from one of JG Ballard’s many short stories, the band’s first single ‘Red Planet’ came out in the spring of 1979. Its release being the first of many until the band’s eventual dissolution in 1995. However, it’s their early output that stands the test of time, particularly debut album ‘Waiting For A Miracle’ which came out eighteen months after that aforementioned 45. Listen to ‘Home Is The Range’ off that record and it’s the sound of Bloc Party shaping their ‘Silent Alarm’, or ‘Map Of The World’ which predates Franz Ferdinand’s energetic funkpunk by two decades. Changing their sound (and even their name, briefly, for one record) dramatically as time went on, their lack of commercial success remains something of a mystery to this day. They reformed briefly in 2009 for a handful of shows that saw them turn the clock back in timeless fashion. However, with no new material on the horizon, signs of them reuniting once more seem highly unlikely.
Independence Day (1980)
As cult heroes go, the enigmatic Lawrence Hayward is probably among the most revered. As the singer and songwriter with Birmingham’s Felt, he was responsible for crafting some of the decade’s most exquisite pieces of music. Throughout their ten years of existence, Felt would go onto release ten albums alongside a pantheon of classic singles and EPs. Band members came and went over the years including future Primal Scream keyboard player Martin Duffy, Hayward being the only constant. Although initially signed to Cherry Red, it was their move to Creation in 1986 that coincided with Felt gaining more widespread recognition, particularly the band’s sixth LP ‘Forever Breathes The Lonely Word’ released later that year. An album still widely regarded as the band’s defining opus. By 1989 it was all over, the reclusive Hayward continuing to make music first as Denim then more recently under the Go Kart Mozart guise, whose fourth long player ‘Mozart’s Mini-Mart’ came out in February of this year. He was also the subject of a documentary entitled ‘Lawrence Of Belgravia’, which we implore you to check out along with Felt’s extensive back catalogue.
Primitive Painters (1985)
Some bands don’t stick around long enough to become tiresome, bloated or boring. Galaxie 500 were a band that falls into that category. Formed in 1987 by three friends who’d met at Harvard University some six years earlier, Galaxie 500 are widely regarded for starting the movement that’s since gone on to be known as slow core. Taking their inspiration from bands like The Velvet Underground and The Byrds along with the attitude of punk and sonic experimentation of kindred spirits Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur (the ‘Jr’ would come later), Galaxie 500 still managed to put out three critically acclaimed albums during their short lifespan and have been cited as an influence by a multitude of artists since. After the band split in the early party of 1991, each of its members carried on making music. Singer/guitarist Dean Wareham forming Luna while also playing as Dean & Britta with his spouse Britta Phillips. Rhythm section Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang continuing as Damon & Naomi. While each has been responsible for putting out a number of records since the demise of Galaxie 500, it’s probably fair to say those three albums are largely responsible for their legacy. Indeed, both Dean & Britta and Damon & Naomi’s live sets are regularly punctuated with Galaxie 500 material yet to this day, despite numerous offers, they’re yet to bite the bullet and reform.
THE SHOP ASSISTANTS
Scotland was a hotbed of innovative, left field talent throughout the 1980s and this short lived four-piece were briefly at its centre. Hailing from Edinburgh, The Shop Assistants emerged from the same scene as The Pastels, Primal Scream and The Jesus & Mary Chain and while not quite maintaining the longevity or attaining the commercial success of their peers, they made a significant impact during their three years of existence. Third single ‘Safety Net’ looked set to catapult them into the mainstream and for a while they were both press darlings and John Peel regulars. Courted by major labels at this point, they eventually signed to Chrysalis offshoot Blue Guitar who put out their one and only long player ‘Will Anything Happen’ at the tail end of 1986. Sadly that was to be the band’s swansong and by the following spring The Shop Assistants were no more. They got back together in 1989 without original singer Alex Taylor and put out a couple of singles but never really picked up where they left off. Since the band split they’ve been cited as a major influence by the likes of Belle & Sebastian, Alvvays and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and although hard to find these days, we’d wholeheartedly recommend hunting down a copy of ‘Will Anything Happen’. It’s well worth the time and effort!
Safety Net (1986)
The 1980s were littered with influential bands that for whatever reason never made a commercial breakthrough yet whose music is held in high esteem by many musicians far and wide. The Sound – and particularly Adrian Borland, their main creative force – are a band who’ve been named by any number of renowned artists from REM, U2 and more recently Interpol. Formed in 1979 after a brief flirtation with punk in another guise, The Sound went on to characterise what’s since become the template for guitar driven post-punk. They put out five albums between 1980 and 1987, 1981’s second ‘From The Lions Mouth’ being a particular favourite of both critics and fellow artists alike. Initially considered to be the band that would take up the mantle from Joy Division after Ian Curtis’ tragic passing, even the involvement of a major label (WEA) for album number three ‘All Fall Down’ failed to translate into sales, and despite returning to independent labels for their next two releases, The Sound were effectively over by 1988. Borland went onto have a prolific solo career where more critical praise was bestowed upon him. Having suffered from mental health problems for a number of years, Borland took his own life in 1999 leaving behind a treasure trove of largely undiscovered gems both with The Sound and his other projects.
Sense Of Purpose (1981)