The eighties were filled with two things: hairspray and hearts on sleeves. There were other, less pleasant things (Reagan, a Cold War, inappropriately bulky technology), but what else stands out so dramatically when revisiting some of the most topical pop culture from the decade? The hairstyles alone reached unprecedented heights, it seemed like blow dryers were actually just growth rays in disguise (thankfully drying technology has since been revised to where hair size can be optionally non-cosmic). And, while superficiality was at an all time high, so were the flaring emotions toiling beneath all the polka dots and neon-colored fabrics. In film, John Hughes presented the quintessential glimpse into the psyche of a typical teenager, awkwardness and hopeless romanticism and all. In music, there were countless outlets for all that suppressed angst and despair. Many acts generously shared their own personal misery with their gloomy followers in need of something to relate to.
These are the top 10 gloomy acts from the eighties:
10. Depeche Mode
While this band fits the description of “forlorn post-punk band,” it does so with a little too much studio gimmickry over instrumental prowess. There is little separating the frequent robotic sound of this band from the most discardable New Order tracks. Not enough humanity rises to the surface of these computer-beat-and-synthesizer-enthusiasts’ songs in spite of frequent tortured lyrical content. More than any other member, the bassist actually gets his hands dirty, guiding the computer to the dance floor with some fat slapping, but elsewhere it’s just robots doing most of the work.
9. Soft Cell
Consisting of only two members, singer Marc Almond and multi-instrumentalist David Ball, the material Soft Cell created is pretty impressive, and at the same time a little cheesy. The unsettling harmonies of bass, synth (making for a spooky church organ on “Tainted Love”), and all sorts of conventional jazz instruments were an oddly great compliment to the lyrical content (STD’s, isolation, sexual confrontation)- Almond’s sexuality presented another audible dimension to the idea of non-acceptance. With Soft Cell, post-punk managed to find common ground with Broadway.
This iconic post-punk band was gothic in every sense of the term: sonically, lyrically, and ideologically. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” sums up the band’s concept, performed in a scene from the eighties vampire film The Hunger (Bauhaus appears in the credits as “Disco Band”); Peter Murphy has habit of performing vocal duties for this song upside down at live shows, no heed paid to the blood rushing to his head. Chord progressions are often nefariously arranged in the more conventional songs, while every now and again some avante-garde guitar playing might come to purposefully imitate hospital equipment. Perched above these disconcerting sounds like a gargoyle in lieu of a front man, Murphy howls evocative phrases like “hypodermic” and “undead” in a deadpan vocal style straight out of an old late night monster movie.
7. Joy Division
This band makes the list in lieu of New Order (which is really just the same band with a relatively more cheerful singer) for its exceptional gloominess: it doesn’t get much gloomier than having the lead singer’s suicide provide the reason for disbanding. Ian Curtis had a signature moan that just reeked of untreated clinical depression. The band was very minimalistic and raw-sounding, much in the way of the earliest kind of post-punk, often pairing a snare drum and chugging bassline beneath a simple guitar riff and calling it danceable. When New Order was born, a lot of that rudimentary instrumentation was replaced by programmed computer beats and overriding synth, to the point where the music lacked any ostensible human touch. This was not for the better. The magic in the former was that Ian Curtis left his wounds open for public amusement, like he was performing for the benefit of medical students– providing an authenticity that cannot be artificially replicated to the same effect.
6. Oingo Boingo
There was a lot of tongue-and-cheek material in the eighties. This band, led by Danny Elfman of Tim Burton soundtrack fame, made a wild contribution while pushing boundaries. “Little Girls,” one of the cheekiest songs from the band’s quasi-significant catalogue, attempts to hide lyrical content about pedophilia behind a tone of great levity. Elfman’s lyrics are actually disturbingly dark in several instances, involving animal slaughter and subhuman desires, but seem only less so with the carnival funhouse sound effects and melodramatic melodic structures. The darkest melodic parts appear in the tone-shifting bridges, but really can’t seem to shake that cartooniness that would later infect the score of Nightmare before Christmas.
5. Tears for Fears
This band was a sort of hit machine, mixing a penchant for swollen love-sick-themed songs like “Head over Heels,” which suggest a new-wavy Beatles in the attention to melodic craft with darker hemispheres of sound and subject matter. “Shout” presents an ominous grey cloud of synth and percussion while desperate chants cry out in agony, and “Mad World” discusses alienation and the sweet release of death over a deep-cutting melody that enhances the morbid atmosphere of dark contemplations and self-loathing. While this band may revel in pretentious studio tricks, it certainly doesn’t hide behind them- just listen to their live album or arguable most popular album Songs from the Big Chair which unashamedly fuses a live segment to the end of “Head over Heels.”
4. The Church
Really the darkest thing about this band is the post-punk imagery and superficial motifs it adorns itself with: the apathetic vocals, the spiritual paraphernalia, album titles like “Séance,” etc. Instrumentally, for the most part, this band is very buoyant in a psychedelic kind of way, much akin to R.E.M. and the Smiths and their heavy Byrds influence. Jangly guitars and cloistering choruses spell the period’s poppiest material, but the disaffected vocalist and occasional discordant flourishes do a good job of keeping the sunshine on a leash.
3. Echo and the Bunnymen
This band has such a full sound and is truly the sum of its parts, the result of great musicianship. While acts like Depeche Mode used computers and samples as cloaking devices, this band crafted rich post-punk that was less stripped down than its contemporaries and not lacking in the way of emotional release. Listen to the song “Cutter,” which is propelled by an entirely manmade backbeat and bass stomp that prods the momentum forth- bones overstretched by grandiose orchestral arrangements and delinquent guitar jabs. “Killing Moon” is another example of great instrumentation and precise, yet slightly melted song structure, odd twists, and melodic skewing provided by cleverly manipulated strings. The vocals, detached and sullen as they are, aren’t so much so that they are devoid of tonality.
2. The Smiths
While Morrissey’s lyrics often reveal dissent, and frequent narcissism, this band really was pit against many of the concurrent synth-heavy UK New Wavers that seemed to be birthed more often than Mormon children in Utah. In fact, every aspect of what they did defied popular conventions to the point where their virtuosity was practically antagonistic. The head songwriting team for this extremely dynamic group was Morrissey and jangle-heavy guitarist Johnny Marr. Bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce helped to ensure the momentum of each song allowed not a single moments’ rest. Marr’s busy, nuanced guitar arrangements fit so much material and fervor into each song, providing a level of emotional tension Morrissey seemed incapable of matching. Morrissey’s voice often sounded bored or at least very complacent, the attitude of a privileged, educated class able to afford the luxury of petty dissatisfaction as well as the freedom to be aware of his surroundings. His neurosis, as such, stemmed as much from laziness (“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable”) as cruel world practices like animal cruelty (“Meat is Murder”) and crimes against humanity (“Suffer Little Children”). That said, Morrissey’s enjoyability is strictly limited to his involvement with the Smiths; his solo material lacks everything that made his self-involvement forgivable.
1. The Cure
You can’t pout properly without the help of Robert Smith, the so-called “poster child of gloom and doom.” Any Goth traditionalist will point to Pornography or Seventeen Seconds, with signature tracks like “A Hundred Years” (opening line: “it doesn’t matter if we all die”) or “Hanging Garden” for a good fix of bleakness. Those tribal drums and guitar atmospherics carry the mood perfectly, while Smith’s echoing, hopeless lyrics make the perfect icing.
The difference between the Cure and a lot of transient post-punk bands of the day was that the Cure, which consisted almost entirely of Robert Smith’s musical brilliance and countless short-lived “spotters”, wasn’t afraid to explore new territory while in the search for its own voice. The Cure as a result has crafted a unique and timeless sound. Such a sound- notably the lush, warbling strings- has transcended and resisted genre-pigeonholing, surviving the eighties well and consistently up to 2008 when they released their latest album 4:13 Dream.