The Boomers’ disdain of my generation’s political involvement was a perfect analogue for what they thought about music in the late 70s and early 80s. They’d had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Dylan, Janice, the Who. They dismissed the music I listened to in high school as insubstantial pop fluff—disco and Top 40.
OK, that’s fair. We didn’t have any equivalent to the Beatles. But the Beatles came ashore in very different circumstances than in the 70s. The top artists on mainstream radio prior to the Beatles’ arrival in 1964 included Bobby Vinton and Shelley Fabares. The #1 hit in 1962 (the year I was born) was an easy-listening instrumental tune, “Stranger on the Shore,” by some guy named Acker Bilk. There was a lot of great soul and R&B music happening back in the early 60s, but I’m guessing most of it was never heard by white teenage Boomers. Calling pop music in the early 60s a wasteland would be an overstatement, but not by much.
So, yeah, the Beatles exploded in 1964. They revolutionized pop music, then reinvented it with each album. No argument. But face it, their bar was lower. It’s a lot easier to explode in a vacuum. The music I listened to in the 70s had to work within a new and varied soundscape created by our elders.
The Boomers cast a long musical shadow. A lot of the best music of the 70s was by musicians who made their first mark in the 60s—McCartney, Clapton, Paul Simon, Pink Floyd. But don’t forget, it was also Boomers who inflicted the likes of KC and the Sunshine Band on us in the glitter ball 70s. The narcissistic “me generation” that was hyped in the media was all about Boomers turning 30, not us. I couldn’t get into a disco until 1980 and by then, the party was over.
But the 70s also had Bruce Springsteen. I’d put “Born to Run” up against “Born to be Wild” any day. Hell, I’d even say Bruce’s best holds its own against Dylan. Dylan’s imagery was mythological, steeped in the Old Testament and the western frontier. Springsteen’s turf was more earthly: disintegrating urban landscapes, motorcycles, and the collapse of 60s idealism. His songs spoke to us. Dylan expressed apocalyptic fears of the future, but Springsteen sang about young men and women trying desperately—right now—to find redemption in each others’ arms as the world fell apart around us and darkness loomed on the edge of town. Bruce was a Boomer himself but his music belonged to us.
We had Led Zeppelin, WAR, The Eagles. I think those were ours, but Boomers might try to claim them. Trying to carve up the music of the 70s is like a divorcing couple divvying up their belongings. Is Bowie more ours or yours?
Hey, Boomer, here are some fightin’ words: ”Take it Easy” is a better song than “Marrakesh Express.” If you don’t think so, maybe that’s because you listened to “Marrakesh Express” when you were 13 years old. That’s about how old I was when I first heard “Take It Easy.” It was cool because I was on the threshold of adolescence feeling anxious (“Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy”), but still dreaming about fast cars and getting laid. In 1969, Boomers were on that same threshold feeling hopeful and thinking about pot and getting laid. Both songs have buoyant road-ready melodies and seamless backing harmonies. “Marrakesh Express” is a joy and a delight, but “Take it Easy” balances the sweetness “with a world of trouble on my mind.” It has a little more depth because of that undercurrent.
And then, in the 80s, while Boomers were declaring that greed was good and sex was going to kill us, we created punk, which was all ours, no question. It was music that irritated our parents. Better yet, it offended our older siblings. Bands like the Ramones, The Clash, the Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, X, and Suicidal Tendencies boiled the warm bath in which we’d been innocently marinating during our high school years. Our singers had absurd, sarcastic names like Lux Interior and Jello Biafra. And then the birth of alternative rock sandblasted away the airbrushed sound of corporate rock and pumped life back into rock music.
My generation produced Joe Jackson, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, U2, and Violent Femmes. We had The Police, The English Beat, The Smiths, and The Pretenders. REM declared the self-indulgent guitar solos of the 70s dead and in their place hung ringing guitar hooks behind the vocals like Christmas lights. The Cure somehow made music that was simultaneously danceable and despairing. And then, in the summer of 1984, Prince’s Purple Rain blew my mind. His music was sexually outrageous, melodically irresistible, and rocked like a mother. Prince expressed our kinkiest desires with a leer, then turned and stared into the face of the apocalypse. What’s that? We have enough thermonuclear weapons to kill every man, woman, and child on the planet seven times over? Well then, we might as well “party like it’s 1999.”
The mid-80s were also the Golden Age of Hip Hop. Run-DMC brought a harder sound to rap which had previously been more disco and got airplay on MTV. But in 1988, hip hop legends NWA and Public Enemy scared the bejeesus out of white people, giving voice to the rage in the streets of New York and Compton. Those dudes were punker than punk. Most boomers called it noise.
The music being played on college radio in the 80s was eclectic and idiosyncratic. In my personal experience, “Rock Lobster” was the starting pistol of the 80s. I first heard it at a nightclub my freshman year of college, everyone sinking to the dance floor as Fred Schneider sang, down, down, down, down. I was wide-eyed. I had never heard anything like it—and I never would, because no one else sounded like the B-52s.