When the history of rock music finally begins to sort out the detritus of the bad from the good, it will become clear that the 1980s was just as rich a period for the art as the prior three decades. This is already happening – after all even the 1980s are a long time ago now. The decade is important in that it was the first to begin the true multi-faceted synthesis that has characterized the best rock ever since then. Rock began to lose its strict stratification as pioneering artists began to seamlessly integrate rock forms. Hardly surprising, considering most of then had grown up listening to the diverse forms of the music from the 1950s to the late 1970s, all of which are characterized by the relative facility by which they can be distinguished. Easy stuff to categorize “School Of Rock”-style on a blackboard.
This all changed in the 1980s. Although there were ‘synthesizer’ groups, ‘guitar’ groups, ‘dance’ artists, the divisions between them were blurring fast. Even bands with as distinctive as sound as U2, The Smiths or R.E.M., rapidly augmented their music with a host of external influences (in some cases more successfully than others) so that their latter output gained a complexity that was barely hinted at in their beginnings. One could say that this is the ultimate and most important result of the over-arching influence of The Beatles, but in the case of that band many of their latter genre-sampling experiments are not fully realised (I am referring primarily to the band’s output from The Beatles to Abbey Road here – in many ways their earlier music is much more accomplished). It took until the 1980s for young musicians to fully and completely internalize the myriad influences such that their music has no trace whatsoever of artifice. (David Bowie is another example of an early integrative musician whose music still carries traces of conscious artifice, albeit with more success than that latter Beatles’ recordings – it is striking how much difficulty Bowie had in sustaining high quality output during the 1980s, a time that, on its face, would seem most accepting of his earlier experimentation).
The The, basically a vehicle for singer/songwriter Matt Johnson, emerged in 1986 with “Soul Mining” as an absolute master of this integrative style. All of the songs on that album are triumphs of amalgamation. Containing guitar, synthesizer and dance elements, and stylistic borrowings from pop, rock, soul, funk, country – in essence every popular form that was in currrency particularly from the 1960s to 1970s – the record is a true potpourri. But in no sense is their any feeling of borrowing; all these elements are integral to the music. Thus “Soul Mining” is an extraordinarily successful record that is a treat to listen to over and over again. Add to this Johnson’s acid lyrical commentary on the decline of modern Britain into a culture of vapid materialism, and you have a record that is a true masterpiece.
It is instructive to compare “Soul Mining” with many of the more celebrated albums made during the first true synthetic flowering of rock, the period 1966-1969. Records such as “Sgt. Pepper”, Love’s “Forever Changes” The Kinks’ “Something Else” and “The Who Sell Out” are all remarkably inventive and successful albums. But the feel of these records, even allowing for a similarly detached and cynical lyrical bias in the writing of John Lennon, Arthur Lee, Ray Davies and Pete Townshend, is quite different. The element of experimentation is foremost, generating wildly exciting and interesting but not necessarily well-integrated music. The experimentation is what stands out first, the songcraft follows.
In contrast, by the time of “Soul Mining”, the element of experimentation is so seemlessly melded into the songcraft, that you don’t even notice much of the extraordinary invention until you have fully assimilated the songs.