A few weeks ago in this space, I located the origin of my personal anglophilia in the syndicated radio show Rock Over London, which introduced Americans to â€˜80s-era British acts both major (Tears for Fears) and minor (that Boy George imitator, Marilyn). For me, the visual equivalent of Rock Over London was the Rock Yearbook series, which was published (in the U.S. at least) by St. Martinâ€™s Press each autumn between 1980 and 1988. Many were the early-December days during college when I would blow off studying for finals to stalk the local bookstores for the latest edition, then immerse myself in the intimate details of Prefab Sprout or the Blow Monkeysâ€™ chart positions instead of re-reading Dostoevsky or sifting through histories of the Boer War.
My grades tended to reflect these priorities, but no matter: The education found in the Yearbooksâ€™ glossy pages eventually proved at least as valuable as the one for which my parents staved off retirement and depleted their bank accounts. For the Rock Yearbooks were a trove of both information and attitude, generously ladled by critics from the British rock rags Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Record Mirror and Smash Hits. These Brits were uniformly snarky, self-indulgent and pleased with themselves, in contrast with an American crit-corps who (for the most part) took themselves and the music way too seriously to revel in the trinket-like gaudiness of â€™80s pop.
The thrills of the Rock Yearbooks were manyfold: the Acts of the Year and Quotes of the Year reviews, the Best and Worst Album Covers, the â€œThanksâ€¦but No Thanksâ€ section (from 1985: â€œthanksâ€ to the Who â€œfor finally calling it a day,â€ and â€œno thanksâ€ to Everything But the Girl â€“ â€œWhy did they always have to look so miserable?â€).
But for me, the motherâ€™s milk were the yearâ€™s worth of top-20 singles and albums charts â€“ from Billboard in the U.S. and Music Week in the U.K. â€“ and the collected snippets of album reviews culled from the aforementioned British music mags. With the charts, the fun was in the cross-cultural comparisons â€“ how much time passed between a songâ€™s appearance in one country and its debut in the other, for example, or how the U.S. and U.K. charts could be at times quite similar (â€œI Want to Know What Love Isâ€ dominated both countries simultaneously), at others wildly divergent. Take, for example, these Top 5â€™s from June 1984:
1. â€œThe Reflex,â€ Duran Duran
2. â€œTime After Time,â€ Cyndi Lauper
3. â€œLetâ€™s Hear It for the Boy,â€ Deniece Williams
4. â€œDancing in the Dark,â€ Bruce Springsteen
5. â€œSelf Control,â€ Laura Branigan
1. â€œTwo Tribes,â€ Frankie Goes to Hollywood
2. â€œWake Me Up Before You Go-Go,â€ Wham!
3. â€œSmalltown Boy,â€ Bronski Beat
4. â€œI Wonâ€™t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,â€ Nik Kershaw
5. â€œRelax,â€ Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Nirvana (not the band) was also to be found in the album reviews, which were â€“ and remain, 20 years later â€“ hours worth of side-splitting fun, either as semi-serious research or as toilet reading. But donâ€™t take my word for it. Here is a small sample of review snippets from some of the decadeâ€™s major British albums â€“ the good, the bad and the ugly, as judged by the British music press (with one American knee-slapper thrown in) â€“ offered in vague chronological/alphabetical order.
ABCâ€™s The Lexicon of Love: â€œOne of the greatest albums ever madeâ€¦will be played to the point of nausea by everyone who buys it.â€ â€“ New Musical Express
The Cureâ€™s Pornography: â€œItâ€™s downhill all the way, into ever-darkening shadowsâ€¦passing through chilly marbled archways to the final rendezvous with the cold comfort of the slab.â€ â€“ Melody Maker
The Human Leagueâ€™s Dare: â€œNobody could buy this because they found the music thrilling or exciting: itâ€™s absolutely anemic. But, finally, thatâ€™s its strength.â€ â€“ Sounds
New Orderâ€™s Movement: â€œFitting for an afternoon when youâ€™re bed-ridden, depressed, philosophical and everyoneâ€™s gone out. All the emotion, direction and strength here has to be provided â€“ not interpreted â€“ by the listener.â€ â€“ NME
Roxy Musicâ€™s Avalon: â€œWhat does it all mean? I havenâ€™t the faintest fucking idea.â€ â€“ NME
Spandau Balletâ€™s Diamond: â€œFloydswillâ€¦awful, sub-Haircut by about eighteen good fathomsâ€¦the worst tune I have ever clapped oversized ears onâ€¦like a Hoover doing an impersonation of Shirley Basseyâ€¦a puke in every groove. Not so much pretentious as unlistenable. At least we can all stop pretending to hate Spandaus and start really hating them.â€ â€“ Sounds
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Scritti Polittiâ€™s Songs to Remember: â€œMusic for intelligent, sensitive and confused middle-class youth living in very small rooms.â€ — NME
Simple Mindsâ€™ New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84): â€œCluttered, constipated, formulated fear straining for an arty fart.â€ â€“ NME
Tears for Fearsâ€™ The Hurting: â€œThe perfect group for all those fucked up, â€˜what are we going to do with our livesâ€™ student types who spend every moment wrapped up in their tiny problems and pathetic existence.â€ â€“ NME
The Alarmâ€™s Declaration: â€œAn album of slogans, power and promises â€“ but promises that mean nothing. Behind the groupâ€™s revolutionary stance, the thoughts are about as radical as the conversation at a Tupperware party.â€ â€“ Record Mirror
Howard Jonesâ€™ Humans Lib: â€œI can think only of a kid whoâ€™s been given a Rolf Harris Stylophone for Christmas and thinks heâ€™s Gandhi.â€ â€“ Melody Maker
The Thompson Twinsâ€™ Into the Gap: â€œAll they need now is the dog and I do believe theyâ€™d turn into the Archies.â€ â€“ Melody Maker
Frankie Goes to Hollywoodâ€™s Welcome to the Pleasuredome: â€œItâ€™s a put-on and a con, a flim-flam scam of a sham, a hip hype calculated solely to separate as much money as possible from as many people as possible as fast as possible before all the young rubes wake up and realize theyâ€™ve been fleeced.â€ â€“ Creem
The Power Stationâ€™s The Power Station: â€œThe album which proves that John â€˜Duranâ€™ Taylor is every micrometer the nouveau riche, styleless, vain young shitball he always hinted at.â€ — NME
The Smithsâ€™ Meat is Murder: â€œHeâ€™ll never convince me that one manâ€™s nut loaf isnâ€™t another manâ€™s baked nosepickings.â€ â€“ Sounds
Falcoâ€™s Falco3: â€œIf this is album number three, itâ€™s already given me nightmares that the postman will turn up on my doorstep tomorrow morning and present me with the first two.â€ â€“ Melody Maker
The Jesus and Mary Chainâ€™s Psycho Candy: â€œSounded exactly like they were coming through the wall with a Black & Decker. Bloody frightening.â€ â€“ Melody Maker
Sigue Sigue Sputnikâ€™s Flaunt It: â€œThey arenâ€™t really in it for the music, so they wonâ€™t mind me pointing out that itâ€™s the biggest heap of garbage since the last heap of garbage.â€ â€“ NME
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A-haâ€™s Scoundrel Days: â€œThe hotbed of talent that is A-ha continues to go unrecognized. The critics, the unbelievers, the philistines who see only the glossy posters and the fancy haircuts, will persist in sneering at these Scandinavian saucepots with all the insight and perception of a tree.â€ â€“ Sounds
Curiosity Killed the Catâ€™s Keep Your Distanceâ€¦: â€œWeâ€™re dealing with the shallow meaningfulness and subdued bounciness of semi-clever pop. No doubt these are experiences drawn from real life, delivered straight from the soul â€“ the problem is that these are lives and souls that are fundamentally mediocre.â€ â€“ Melody Maker
The Human Leagueâ€™s Crash: â€œIâ€™ve tried it all ways, morning, noon and night, drunk and sober, alone and in company, searching for that wink of wit, that cheeky chortle, that look that says they know what theyâ€™re doing and everythingâ€™s OK and on line, but still Crash sounds crap.â€ â€“ Melody Maker
Alison Moyetâ€™s Raindancing: â€œThis great white anserine blob called Alison â€“ surname designed to suggest champagne, a nuance of upward mobility (if youâ€™ve got a crane handy) but never forgetting the common touch (she talks like an oik and her lyrics admit that men and women sometimes get into the same bed) â€“ doesnâ€™t she just remind you of a belch?â€ â€“ Melody Maker
New Orderâ€™s Brotherhood: â€œI canâ€™t decide.â€ â€“ Melody Maker
I don’t mean to be rude, but…You may now stop wondering where Simon Cowellâ€™s snappy takedowns came from.