The Definitive Guide to (What May Be) Pop's Definitive Year

Michaelangelo Matos, "Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year" (2020, 468 pp.)

Michaelangelo Matos has now written two chronologically structured books of popular music history. First came 2015’s The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America, comprising 18 chapters tied to specific dates: “Even Furthur ‘96: (Blue River, Wisconsin—May 24-27, 1996),” like that. And now comes Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, comprising 20 dated chapters with titles like “MANN’S CHINESE THEATRE, HOLLYWOOD: July 26, 1984.” The Underground Is Massive documents a DJ-improvised music with deep roots in one-of-a-kind parties, raves, and pop-up discos with names like Organic, Double Hit Mickey, and UFOs Are Real whose musical details are now lost to history in ways rock concerts and their setlist presets aren’t. So onetime participant-observer Matos’s deep-dive research generated a valuable and impressive document. But for me all this beat- and drug-fueled bacchanalia, which I’d dipped my toe into enjoyably enough without getting anything like hooked, soon seemed too much. I muscled through the book’s last three quarters only after I’d raced to the end of its even more remarkable follow-up.

The second paragraph of said follow-up recalls a formative afternoon in the summer of ‘84, when Twin Cities nine-year-old Michael was ordered to clean up his room and coped by spending hours “toggling between two Top 40 stations, skipping past commercials” without hearing a song he didn’t like. Having once titled my 1984 roundup “The Rise of the Corporate Single,” I know what he’s talking about, but not always in a good way—yes it was breakthrough time for Prince and Bruce and Cyndi Lauper, and to name songs I love by artists I don’t Van Halen’s “Jump” and John Waite’s “Missing You.” But it was also the year of Lionel Richie and Huey Lewis, of Rod and Elton past their prime—not to mention of Run-D.M.C.’s “Sucker M.C.’s” with pop radio two years away or the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü making momentous noise whose thrills scorned pop radio. So I had my doubts.

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As it turned out, these doubts were totally unfounded—even people like me, people who not only lived through 1984 pop but reported on it, are guaranteed to learn plenty from Can’t Slow Down and enjoy themselves doing it. Because the post-disco dance music I’m going to call techno dammit remained a decisively word-of-mouth phenomenon even after it began generating its own print media in the ‘90s, The Underground Is Massive relies heavily on Matos’s superhuman interviewing—its acknowledgments list some 500 names in alphabetical paragraphs that go on for six pages. Matos did plenty of interviewing for Can’t Slow Down too. But its notes section details 71 pages of written sources. It’s a phenomenal piece of research, the kind of immersion academics are granted paid sabbaticals to undertake where Matos had to make do with his advance, which at least left him free to land some laugh lines—the section on Lionel Richie’s “broad, slick, hokey” crossover hits, for instance, snaps shut with the college sweetheart Richie had wedded in a “storybook marriage” hauled off by the cops for assaulting the dancer who’d eventually join him in a tabloid marriage that Wikipedia sez ended in 2004.

Although individual chapters cohere fine, there’s not much thematic continuity in Can’t Slow Down—at its best, hit radio is too variegated for that. Instead there's chronological continuity rooted in a single premonitory chapter set back in August of 1983, when WPLJ—NYC flagship of the stultifying not to say “rockist” AOR that the earth-shaking, world-building U.S./U.K. popular music of the late ‘60s had congealed into—outraged its male demographic by switching its playlist to the hits. Soon follows a rundown of AOR going pop, heavy on Van Halen but touching down on “pop”-metal goons from harmless Quiet Riot to odious Motley Crüe. Then a superb 30-page chapter on Michael Jackson that’ll be matched 80 pages later by another MJ-centered chapter—followed by 20 expert pages about Matos’s homeboy Prince, who we’ve already learned presaged upheavals to come when WPLJ cautiously inserted “Little Red Corvette” into its format way back in February of 1983.

But as happened to so many of us—me, for instance—the young kid who was hooked on pop radio would eventually love many other kinds of popular and semi-popular music, and not just the techno of his first book. A habitue of Minneapolis’s First Avenue as soon as he was old enough for a fake ID, he’d soon enough be catching up with Minneapolis’s own Hüsker Dü as well. So yes, there’s an SST-label Hüsker Dü-Minutemen-Black Flag chapter that though it leads with antipop production totem Steve Albini devotes special attention to R.E.M., who’d be on the hit parade by 1987, and also remembers Slash’s X and “La Bamba”-bound Los Lobos before closing with Twin/Tone’s and Minneapolis’s Replacements—who at the end of 1984 would hit NYC and find themselves on the cover of, what’s this, The Village Voice.

And not only that, because as should any techno expert, Matos feels the need to dig into hip-hop as well. He knows that in 1984 Grandmaster Flash and his cohort are throwing off hits, that Run-D.M.C. are getting their shit together as they march toward their Aerosmith-assisted 1986 “Walk This Way,” and that the Beastie Boys are stirring as well. He also recognizes that 1984 was the year Island Records would release the deceased Bob Marley’s gazillion-selling Legend and a Julio Iglesias/Willie Nelson collab would follow 1983’s Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton collab up the charts. Without taking his eye off the singles chart, that is, he seizes every opportunity to sum up in a simultaneosly well-informed and entertaining way not just pop hits but popular music in its simultaneously profit-taking and world-shaking way. Take MTV, for instance. Launched August 1981, a major sales factor within months, yet in 1984 pressured by Columbia into sticking Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” into its oppressively white playlist and thus rocketing a 1983 album called Thriller toward all-time bestsellerdom. And also in 1984—hmm, Matos sez to himself—MTV launched the VMAs: “RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL, NEW Y0RK CITY, September 14, 1984,” a crucial biz moment that gives him the opportunity to revisit “Jump” and honor Tina-sans-Ike Turner’s breakthrough year and highlight yet another 1984 breakthrough artist: Madonna.

As Can’t Slow Down draws to what would seem an inevitable close—for some 40 pages keyed somewhat arbitrarily to EMI Records New York and then SARM Studios London—it also seems to be running out of steam. The U.S. chapter is particularly depressing, a grab bag cum trash bag of AOR pop such as Foreigner, Journey, the appalling Night Ranger, the presumed-dead Chicago, and the Grateful Dead’s stoned, half posthumous “Touch of Grey”—their only pop hit, which didn’t chart until 1987 but Matos squeezes in here anyway. But then something highly unexpected and by now rather dimly remembered puts a cap on the year. On October 23, ex-journalist Bob Geldof of the no-longer-charting Boomtown Rats and his BBC consort Paula Yates are so dismayed by “a television special about the ongoing African famine” that they provide Matos with the ending he needs.

First comes Geldof's hastily assembled Band Aid fundraiser keyed to the Brit-star December charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”—as Matos suggests without being mean about it, a rather terrible song that as Matos suggests without being gaga about it had good intentions and admirable effects. Most prominent among these was the Stateside response—a much better song called “We Are the World” by much better songwriters Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson and much better singers too, many of aptly African heritage. Boilerplate pop-rock-protest “Do They Know It’s Christmas” meet secular-hymn-to-order “We Are the World.” Matos reports on both with equal gusto, but his tone shifts markedly. The London effort is catch-as-catch-can and gaffe-prone. Geldof wrote the lyrics in a cab on the way to the studio; Boy George hopped on the Concorde to get there on time; grizzled U.K. boogiemen Status Quo opened the neighborhood drugstore; Sting and Bono compelled to sing what they were told even though Sting felt strange intoning “the bitter sting of tears” and Bono found “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” wanting somehow. In contrast, the U.S. effort seems magical at times. Not that it isn’t ego-ridden—Prince is a dick, Dylan can’t sing his part until Stevie Wonder shows him how. But much more typical is the whole gang breaking into applause after Cyndi Lauper’s seventh take or Lindsey Buckingham and Billy Joel standing awestruck as Ray Charles noodles on the piano.

And then 1984 reaches its apotheosis in 1985 as Geldof—a musician of limited talent whose passion, energy, and commitment Matos never faults—celebrates Christmas in July: the televised July 13 all-day U.K.-to-U.S. Live Aid megaconcert featuring dozens of major stars from both nations generating donations to fight famine in Africa that all including Geldof know will barely palliate it. Having myself spent that July 13 flying from New York to Honduras to rejoin my wife and our month-old daughter, I glimpsed a few minutes on an airport TV screen and never gave it much thought again. So conceivably I’m a sucker for accepting Matos’s roughly chronological account at face value. Status Quo reuniting like Led Zep and the Who, Joan Baez sententious, Black Sabbath throwing their weight around, Queen regal, Run-D.M.C. representing, Bowie and Jagger essaying an unprecedented trans-Atlantic duet, Teddy Pendergrass giving his tragically diminished all, youngsters U2 and Madonna tearing down the virtual house, Stones arrogant, Dylan out of sync, Geldof quite heroic, and Bill Graham rather monstrous sounds about right to me.

But for Matos the megaevent also puts the quietus on his touchstone year. Was this when “the sixties had finally come true,” as Live Aid’s BBC producer claimed in retrospect? Not by Matos: “The new era Live Aid portended, though, had more to do with its many visible corporate sponsorships than any world saving, per se. It sealed pop stardom as another facet of modern celebrity—turned it, officially, into a kind of landed gentry.” To me what happened there was less neat and closed off. I just think Matos can’t get over the brute historical fact that his perfect year had to not just end but evolve into something else.

Xgau Sez: February, 2021

On writing (or not) a history of popular music, consumer guiding (or not) the '60s (and Aretha) (and James Brown) (and the Dead), and Drake (or not). Plus organizing CDs and vinyl.

You were once planning on writing a book on the history of popular music, going back to ancient Egypt, I think. Why didn’t you write it? The pieces that were informed by that research are among my favorites of yours: the first section of Is It Still Good to Ya? And “In Search of Jim Crow” in Book Reports, the best thing I’ve ever read about minstrelsy. — Chuck, Upstate New York

The reason I didn’t write the book you describe—to research which I faithfully pursued immensely enlarging 1988 Guggenheim and 2002 National Arts Journalism Fellowships—is that it was too ambitious by a factor of I’ll never know how much. Were I to have devoted my entire life to it I might have come up with something but also never heard most of the A albums I’ve scouted out for so long. As it stands, however, what I did come up with was the essays and lectures you reference—plus, less obviously, the 1992 Details piece “B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll,” the Book Reports review of Bernard Gendron’s Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club for Bookforum, and many other book reviews; much of my writing on “world music,” African music especially; the introductory class of my NYU course, which went back to Egypt via Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo; somewhere there’s the unfinished 6000 or something words on Greece that I put together for the NAJP; and I have to be forgetting stuff.

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How do you organize your huge CD collection? Do you file everything together in alphabetical order or do you have separate sections for various-artists albums and genres like African, jazz, blues, reggae, etc.? If you file everything together, isn't it difficult to identify all your ambient albums, say, or locate your favorite various-artists CDs, or to find an assortment of jazz artists to load up your CD changer with jazz? For example, can you confidently say what your favorite various-artists CDs are without looking at your site? — Jim, Fairfax, California

I file everything by individual artists together. Organizationally, there are two classes of CDs (and vinyl too)—the hallway and, I don’t know, the permanent collection. Permanent collection albums by individual artists are filed alphabetically by artist in the living room, the part of the hall that leads from the living room to my office, and my office. How many? At a guesstimate put the CDs at 10,000, the Honorable Mention stuff mostly in skinny flexible vinyl sleeves sans slug line for space, which is fast disappearing though the ever-increasing paucity of physical promos has opened up shelving that after weeks of shifting stuff around should solve my space problems for a while; in addition I’ve recently invested in two sets of wire CD shelves that I believe will get pending physicals off the floor where I’ve lined them up since I was young enough not to worry about bending for them or tripping over them, concerns I’d better take seriously as I near 80, now just 14 months away. (Wow, was it surreal to write and then read that final clause.) Then there are the multiple-artist CDs, every one catalogued and marked by genre in my computer. The good ones are crammed into shelves in my office alphabetized by title, with B stuff out of reach sans ladder on top of the industrial shelves that hold both vinyl and CDs. I can name the titles of many multiple-artist CDs off the top of my head—Indestructible Beat of SowetoTea in MarrakechAmerican Graffiti, on and on—but some titles are hard to remember, like that great hard bop comp, so I search JA (jazz, get it?) and in a minute I find it (Roots of Jazz Funk, dumb name). And then there are . . . box sets.

I’ve been subscribing to And It Don’t Stop since its inception and I have two requests. Is there any chance we’ll see another essay covering one of the pre-Consumer-Guide years, similar to one you and David Fricke wrote for Rolling Stone about the best albums of 1967? Also, I’ve seen mention on robertchristgau.com of playlists you created for the Rhapsody streaming service. For those of us who don’t subscribe to Rhapsody, would you consider publishing those song lists in another venue (e.g. Substack or Spotify)? — Chris Peters, Tacoma, Washington

Doubt it. To deal with the Rhapsody playlists first, I no longer subscribe to Rhapsody-now-Napster and can locate no trace of the playlists in my computer, which is too bad because I found them so labor-intensive I’m curious and also hate to throw that work away. My man at Rhapsody—which paid me quite decently for several years to use Consumer Guide reviews on its site before it hired its own editorial peons—thought it would be a nice gesture for me to toss off a playlist periodically, but I found the work taxing: you have to listen to what you recommend so you can check out how it holds up and flows, or anyway I do, and that’s very time-consuming.  Those 1967 reviews were also time-consuming, though more fun—I did the first one during the year-plus when I was on salary at Rolling Stone, the second because the editor was a good friend who offered me a decent stipend. But to tackle any other ‘60s year would be major task, especially since the CD reissues often add diluting “bonus tracks” or simply don’t exist at all and the vinyl would be much harder to do without the changer I retired many years ago. To a similar query from Indiana’s Sidney C-W, I’d say that individual artist rundowns might be doable as well as more fun, although let me say right now that sorting out Aretha’s Columbia box would be madness and ‘60s James Brown literally impossible. To a similar query from David Bjordemmen of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, I’ll say that sorting out the Grateful Dead’s ‘70s output would involve frustrating-to-bewildering immersion in their endless live Deadhead catalogue, plus the regular-release albums weren’t so hot. Maybe the ‘60s albums would be worth a shot, though, and there’s also a box I’ve never had the gumption to address. The live one we play around here is Europe ’72 more than the early A+ Live/Dead. Which of the three discs I don’t recall.

Any thoughts on Perfume Genius’s latest album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately? I remember you enjoyed No Shape. — James, Liverpool, UK

I’ve streamed it three-four-five times by now. Haven’t deleted it from my ever-lengthening  Spotify one-more-time list, some of which I’ll eventually if not soon shitcan without further notice. But I definitely haven’t grasped it, and when I replayed No Shape for context I began to wonder whether I admired that one more than I enjoyed it. In related news, I hadn’t thought about Sophie for years preceding her death by poetic misadventure. No new product, for one thing. So I pulled her two albums out. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides in particular sounded great.

What do you think of Taylor Swift re-recording her old stuff? I know she’s mad at that Scooter guy, but it seems like a waste of time for a still-vital artist in her prime. Sinatra re-recorded some of his Capitol songs for Reprise, but never quite captured the magic of the originals. — Jessica

Without actually going back and checking, my guess would be that Sinatra’s rerecordings suffered when he ditched Nelson Riddle to work with Don Costa, a capable but relatively anonymous schlockmeister, and Billy May, whose blaring brass renders him just about unlistenable by me. But in general this kind of rerecording is not a good idea—Lucinda Williams tried it with Sweet Old World to little if any positive effect. That said, Swift’s voice retains a great deal of freshness, which can’t be said of Williams or even the nonetheless masterful early Reprise-era Sinatra, who proved on many occasions there that he didn’t need it (he was freshest in his twenties, but was drowned regularly by his Columbia arrangements, though not by Dorsey’s RCAs earlier than that). And Swift is also very shrewd. Can’t imagine even so that I’d lay out money for the re-recordings unless Rob Sheffield convinced me.

Hi Mr. Christgau, thanks once again for the truly singular role you play in the pop media landscape. You’ve expressed disappointment that Drake, despite his talent, is ultimately a pretty dull pop star. My question is what, to your ears, makes Taylor Swift more than gifted and slightly uninteresting? — Andrew Judd, Los Angeles

Melody. Also gender.

Oh? OK Then.

A reissue of the liner notes to a reissue

As Rob Sheffield and I discussed on the Auriculum podcast that went up yesterday, Oh-OK’s minuscule catalogue is commercially available again—though also going fast and also, to be sure, streamable—as The Complete Reissue. It comprises 17 songs where the long out-of-print 2002 CD dubbed The Complete Recordings somehow comprises 23. The CD was sequenced so the Athens band’s two legendary EPs occupy the first 10 tracks that lead into 13 live tracks; on the vinyl, four EP tracks are followed by five of the same live tracks before six EP tracks are followed by another two. There’s a sense in which this is a good idea, because the EPs are so legendary that the CD’s live stuff is experienced as a dropoff that’s less pronounced on the vinyl, in part because the material the compilers single out tends more finished and a closer match sonically—no male voices, for one thing. As a result the vinyl homes in more on the distinctly girlish voices of Lynda Stipe and Linda Hopper, who were in fact 19 and 22 when they convened in Athens G-A in 1981 but, crucially, sounded much younger. For further elucidation, I recommend the CD’s liner notes, written by Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell, our most auspicious collaboration primarily on the strength of Carola’s insights. Details get misty 20 years on, but figure I provide the biz context, which does the job, and Carola most of the many aesthetic apercus, which both sparkle and giggle. Here those liner notes are.

The legacy of Oh-OK is tiny in every way. In a “career” that lasted from 1981 to 1984 they released all of two long-lost EPs, one a seven-inch—10 songs that totaled under 22 minutes. Essentially they comprised two members, writer-bassist Lynda Stipe and singer Linda Hopper; not only is it hard to remember the names of their two (quiet, male) drummers (David Pierce, David McNair), it’s hard to remember that on their second record they were joined by guitarist Matthew Sweet, who later became something like a star. Oh-OK liked toy instruments, small topics, rudimentary tunes. Yet after spending the CD era up on the shelf, their music doesn’t just sound utterly original, as it always did. It sounds momentous.

Before you get the wrong idea, let’s clear up a few things that Oh-OK were not. They weren’t punk, they weren’t camp, and even with Sweet strumming along they weren’t jangle-pop. Rather, in a world where all of these modes were creating much musical hubbub—Athens, Georgia, already home of the B-52’s and Lynda’s brother’s band, R.E.M.—they related recognizably to all three categories yet didn’t come near to fitting any of them. If they owed any Athens band, it was Pylon, who presaged Stipe's supple, angular, hooky bass. But alone with a simple drum kit and two blatantly feminine voices, the effect was both more awkward and more bold, like a crayon drawing.

Blatantly, but not conventionally—their small vocals were less what is called pretty than direct, savvy, fun-loving, and self-possessed. As their greatest song put it, in terms that spoke just as loudly to two-year-olds as to forty-year-olds (we checked): “I am a person, and that is enough.” At a time when every female who walked on stage signified some wonderful solution, Oh-OK signified walking on stage—unanorexic and giggly, wearing dresses, ribbons, and fluffy hairdos rather than costumes or tomboy rock and roll uniforms. It seemed as if they were so inexperienced they hadn’t had time to harden. Yet their voices weren’t as small as all that—they projected. More important, what the voices projected was a realized, if brief and suitably DIY, body of work.

The standard view among the small cadre of Oh-OK scholars is that the four songs on the seven-minute seven-inch, Wow Mini Album, are classic in their minimalist purity, while the six songs on the fourteen-minute twelve-inch, Furthermore What, were somehow compromised by that old rock and roll inevitability, maturity, not to mention Sweet’s incipient mastery of the power pop palette. But two decades later, put together on a CD that admittedly sounds bigger at track five, all ten songs—plus the 1982 live track “Random,” released in 1990 on DB Records’ Georgia comp Squares Blot Out the Sun—are of a piece. The melodies are hauntingly simple, their straightforwardly appositional two-part structures often tricked up with funny little sounds; the guileless voices skip through lyrics that make a point of delivering reassuringly familiar language or details, a touch of the everyday. But for all their sturdiness and fun, the songs are also contemplative, dreamy, a little spooky, the tunes like nightmare sequences from ‘50s movies, or ancient rounds, or the two-note chants a kid might make up to explain the puzzling rules of life.

Once again we don’t want to give the wrong impression, because we don’t think Oh-OK were really cute either. But for sure they mined the childlike. It isn’t just the direct quotes from “One Two Buckle My Shoe” and “Red Rover” and the imagery copied off kiddie wallpaper (“The old west really looked like that,” claims “Giddy Up”). It isn’t just the voices, or the way the band’s particular incomprehensibilities (“had I not gone I would have never . . . known? met? meant?” or “he is for an expandy [huh?] . . . hole? home? hoe? can’t be ‘ho”) evoke the drawl parents everywhere know means nap time. It’s the whole way these youngsters, who were 16 and 18 when they began, related to the Athens scene, which in its own beginnings was uncommonly idyllic—into play, not dark. But it wasn’t shallow. As their name announced, R.E.M.’s depth move was the dream song, which Lynda dabbled in on “Choukoutien.” But in general she approached the secrets of the subconscious by the more direct, literal route of childhood memories and polymorphic childhood consciousness. Beneath the simplicity was mystery, full of delight and touched with dread. Oh-OK were happy even though they knew there were scary things in the big woods. They found the world more interesting that way. They said why and it sounded like wow.

Auriculum (Ep. 4): Xgau & Sheffield Trade Year-End Lists

  
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On the long-awaited/-delayed fourth edition of my occasional Auriculum podcast, eidetic wonder Rob Sheffield returns to talk year-end lists with me and moderator Joe Levy, who gets words in both edgewise and full-on. I enthuse about my long-shot Dean’s List one and three picks Hanging Tree Guitars and Dakhla Sahara Sessions, both of which evoke racial conflict: the unsung heroes of Hanging Tree Guitars more explicit about slavery than their Delta blues forefathers could be, Saharan guitar heroes Group Doueh and Parisian rockers Cheveu convening less affably than hoped. Then Rob describes how funny sad girl Lomelda can be before enthusing about Phoebe Bridgers’s “Kyoto.” Later Jarvis Cocker, Black Thought, Chloe x Halle, Rina Sawayama and Sad13 come up. I’ve been listening to Oh-OK and their secret sharers Kaito; Liliput is adduced. Meanwhile, Rob is all up in a James Brown cassette he just reacquired. Right, we both stream because how can we not but love physical product. It is revealed that Rob owns many Walkmen, and that I own some too. All in (barely) under an hour.

Thanks to Wussy for granting permission to use their song “Teenage Wasteland” as the theme song for Auriculum, and to producer Sandy Smallens and Audiation.

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