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, Black Sabbath throwing their weight around, Queen regal, Joan Baez sententious, 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.