Sunday, May 21, 2017

80s My Way (Intro)

[This is a post relating to my series about music mixes.  It’s not a proper post in the series, because there’s no actual mix featured.  However, it provides some background for some (hopefully) upcoming posts which will be part of the series.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

While our musical tastes tend to evolve over time, there’s something to be said for the axiom that the music of our youth will always hold a prominent place—perhaps even the primary place—in our hearts.  In particular, I have a theory (unproven, true) that your favorite type of music is most often going to be the one that you first discovered when you diverged from what was handed down to you by your family.  You grow up listening to what they listen to, and you appreciate it, and maybe even come to love it.  But there always comes a time when you need to branch out on your own and find music that is uniquely yours.  When you need to prove that your musical taste is not just a reflection of someone else’s, but its own beast, capable of discernment and culture.  Whatever music it is that you latch onto at that point ... that’s your music, forever and always.  Even if you don’t listen to it all the time, even after a few decades have passed and your tastes have matured, it will always have the capacity to transport you and transform you.  First loves have power.

For me, the time of my musical discovery was the 80s.  I turned 13 just two months before the decade rolled over, and that was right around the time I began wondering if there was more music than the 50s early rock-n-roll and rockabilly that formed the majority of my father’s record collection.  Oh, sure: I loved all that stuff—Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley, and Roy Orbison, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Del Shannon.  But I was starting to discover another side to pop music: a stranger side, infused with synthesizers and riddled with surrealistic lyrics.  You see, I was witnessing the birth of what would eventually come to be called “alternative” music.  It was, back then, a giddy mix of post-punk, new wave, and synthpop, with vestiges of punk and psychedelia, and influences from reggae, swing, and even some of that rockabilly my data was so fond of.  And, jammed sideways into all of that, a second burgeoning musical movement that was cross-pollinating with alternative, each infusing the other with their style and techniques: hip-hop.  This was not my father’s rock and roll.

Now, the 80s means different things to different people.  For some, it’s stadium rock: “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, and “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, and “Juke Box Hero” by Foreigner.  For others, it’s glam metal (Bon Jovi and Def Leppard and Quiet Riot), or rap (Kurtis Blow and Run D.M.C. and Beastie Boys).  I listened to all that at the time, and still listen to much of it today.  But that is not my 80s (although my 80s will touch on all of them).  My 80s is strictly alternative, in all of its amorphous, broad-ranging and far-reaching, over-inclusive-to-the-point-of-making-a-single-name-meaningless glory.  And, when I started making the current crop of mixes, back in the mid-2000s, I knew that one of those mixes had to be 80s My Way.

And the name was obvious too.  Even though I love Journey and Foreigner and Styx and Queen and all the rest, and even though some of those songs are ultra-classic and just as emblematic of the 80s as any I would want to hear, I wasn’t going to include them.  I would include way too many mega-hits to satisfy any discerning musicologist looking for hidden gems of the period, but I would also include way too many totally obscure songs that never charted anywhere to keep the attention of casual fans looking for an injection of nostalgia.  It really is going to be a mix (a mix with many many volumes) that will probably only satisfy me.  Although I hope it has some redeeming value to others, and I certainly won’t refrain from putting it up in this blog series.

I also made what would come to be a fateful decision on how I would organize the mix: chronologically.  Now, on the one hand, rough chronological order is a fairly reasonable choice for a retrospective on a decade.  But it also presents significant challenges.  My first, crazy idea was to arrange the volumes like so:

  • volume I: 1979 – 1981
  • volume II: 1982 – 1983
  • volume III: 1984
  • volume IV: 1985
  • volume V: 1986 – 1987
  • volume VI: 1988 – 1990

(We’ll talk about the decision to include ‘79 and ‘90 in just a moment.)  I liked the symmetry of telescoping in on the middle years, where the true heart of the 80s would no doubt lie.  Also note that I graduated from high school in 1984, so this also has a good deal of personal relevance for me.  But the first problem is, the music itself just isn’t going to cooperate.  I ended up with nearly 3 hours of tracks in 1982, for instance—1982 was just a powerful year, for whatever reason.  And, unlike with other mixes, I can’t just cut songs, or defer them for a later mix: with the chronological scheme, they either have to go where they go, or they have to get gone.  And most of the songs I picked weren’t really optional: it wouldn’t be my 80s without them.  So I had to lob symmetry out the window and just let things expand to fit what they would fit.

Another big problem is that music isn’t always so easily pinned to a particular year.  There’s the year it was recorded, the year it was released, and the year it charted, and those aren’t always the same year.  And picking one of the three doesn’t help: does “release” mean when it was released as a single, or released on its album, ’cause those can be different, and can be in either order.  Or what if it’s a song by a British or Australian group, but it was released in its home country before it was released in the US, which would be when I would have heard it?  If you choose charting, do you use the date it entered the charts, or when it peaked?  Which charts do you use?  Each country has its own charts, and the US has several (the “Modern Rock” Billboard list is probably the most relevant, but that doesn’t even show up until 1988).  For many songs, it doesn’t matter which marker you choose: the year ends up being the same.  But there were several songs where I ended up with my choice of two years to pick from, and a couple of wacky cases where I had three.  In all those cases, I just stuck it where it felt right to me ... it’s the 80s my way, after all.

But the biggest problem, of course, is that doing things in chronological order like this means I pretty much have to plan out the whole thing before I can really start finalizing any of the individual volumes.  Which sucks, and it explains why I’ve been “working” on this mix for many years without making any real progress.  But lately I’ve decided to get serious about finally producing something, and the one of the first things I realized is that I have to set some ground rules.  This mix is not going to be like any of my other mixes for many reasons, and it’s going to have its own set of rules which are different from the rules I usually use.  So I thought I’d do a separate post on what those rules were so I can refer back to it when I eventually get around to start posting volumes of this mix.

Without further ado, then, the Rules of My Eighties Mix Volumes:

It’s okay for the 80s to bleed out of its boundaries a little.  Like any decade-based cultural trend, 80s music does not magically spring into existence on January 1st, 1980, and cease to exist with a small pop on midnight of December 31st, 1989.  One of the first things I realized when I started compiling songs was there were some really important “80s” songs which were released in 1979, in particular “My Sharona,” which is so utterly archetypal of 80s music that it would be criminal to omit it for the sin of being ahead of its time.  Likewise, there are a few tracks released in 1990 that were still pretty 80s, although nothing so important as “My Sharona.”  Of course, I could go back to 1978, or forward to 1991, or even further in either direction.  But I had to draw the line somewhere, so the 80s is “officially” 1979 – 1990.  At least for my purposes.

One song per artist.  This is a much more controversial decision, and I struggled with it for a long time.  But there’s just too much damn music otherwise.  Even restricting myself to one song per artist, I’ve already amassed over 12 hours of music, and I think I’m probably going to end up closer to 15.  If I started bending the rules, even if only for some of the truly prolific 80s greats such as the Cure, Depeche Mode, INXS, R.E.M., etc, this mix would rapidly get so out of control that listening to it would be a chore instead of a joy.  Which sort of defeats the purpose.  So I’m going to end up leaving out some favorite songs because I wanted to choose a different song by that artist, and people are just going to have to deal with it.

What counts as “the same artist” is entirely up to me.  Adam and the Ants is not different from Adam Ant, but the (English) Beat is different from General Public.  It’s just whatever feels right to me.

The “No Reuse Rule” is out the window.  It’s just too hard otherwise.  I tried following it for a while, but a lot of the truly great songs were immediately ruled out because I was already using them on another mix.  And that’s not what I want my 80s mix to be: a collection of 80s songs not good enough to show up on other mixes.  Still, my decision to choose a lot of the bigger hits, which I tend to avoid on the other mixes because they’re too obvious, means that I won’t be breaking the No Reuse Rule as much as you might think.  But I will break it sometimes, and I’ll just have to be okay with that.

I’m okay with going over 80 minutes.  Normally I like to keep my volumes under 80 minutes, and I very rarely break that rule.  On the one hand, 80 minutes is a bit arbitrary—it’s how many minutes you can fit onto a standard recordable CD without overburning—but, on the other hand, it’s also turned out to be a pretty unit of time for how long I can listen to one thing (or one style of thing, or one theme of things) before I start to get bored.  But I’m not going to cut a really cool 80s song just because it would cause me to blow an arbitrary time limit.

There are no mix starters.  It’s just not that kind of mix.

I’m more flexible on transitions.  Transitions are a pain in the ass for this mix.  Songs which are close together in time often start and end the same way, and the lack of variety can make it hard to find tracks which butt up against each other well.  And there are no bridges at all.  I’ve just done the best I can, and that’s the best I can do.

So those are the rules.  There will still be volumes, even if they run a bit long, and there will still be volume namers.  (In fact, the first two volumes are already named, and their names were insanely obvious once I started picking songs.  I’m hoping the others have such happy accidents as well.)  I will still order the songs within each volume by whatever order I think makes that volume work best—similar songs may go together, or I may want to choose interesting tempo variations (slow songs leading to mid-tempo leading to fast songs, etc).  The volumes themselves will be in chronological order (given the caveats above), but the songs on a particular volume will not.  And, as always, every song will be something I consider a good song.  That means that your favorite 80s artist—even the alternative ones!—may not show up, just because I never liked them as much as everyone else.  But that just because, this is the 80s ... my way.

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