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Hail to the '80s

Brace yourself. It's coming. Nostalgia for the '80s, that is. And it's barreling full-speed toward music consumers, disco balls bobbing in its wake. I should know, after all. Statistics show that my thirtysomething demographic is the one expending all the expendable income these days. And for what it's worth, history says that we were also the ones who once wore the tattered Flashdance sweatshirts and cheesy spandex, molded and color-treated our hair like obedient Flocks of Seagulls and blared "Meat Is Murder" out of dorm-room windows until the campus police broke down the door.

Besides, with the '70s now plundered of every marketable angle and kitschy collectible, where else but the Me Decade can the industry turn? And the way '90s music is shaping up, the '80s are looking ... umm ... totally awesome at this point. I mean, what have Marilyn Manson, the Prodigy and the Spice Girls done recently that Skinny Puppy, Depeche Mode and Bananarama didn't do better -- and with considerably more class? And as for Alanis Morissette, I'd be willing to wager that Tiffany could kick her triathlete's butt in a mall-rat minute. When you think about it, few decades were more rife with tantalizing contradictions. The '80s were a veritable celebration of polar opposites in popular music: hair metal versus Haircut 100; Madonna versus Debbie Gibson; Bono versus Boy George; synths versus ska; "The Safety Dance" versus "Sunday Bloody Sunday"; the list goes on ad infinitum. It could be argued that the Reagan years, one of the most self-centered eras of governing this country -- and indeed the world -- has ever witnessed, produced some of the most intriguingly self-absorbed rock and roll moments of all time. Here's a decade that nurtured two of the most important acts in the post-punk universe -- U2 and R.E.M. -- and, possibly, two of the worst -- Bow Wow Wow and Twisted Sister. That's got to be saying something ... right?

And so, if the major-label archivists feel they must milk another mound of memories, at least they've begun in the right place. Among the non-American acts recently anthologized are the Psychedelic Furs, the Cure and Midnight Oil, all of which enjoyed cultish pockets of U.S. support before eventually getting a leg up in this country by making what was perhaps some of the finest -- and most brazenly commercial -- music of their careers. That accomplished, it was almost as if each (with the notable exception of the Cure) lost interest in America's hit-making apparatus by the '90s.

Galore, which assembles the Cure's giddy postStanding on a Beach A-sides, is the most shameless greatest-hits collection of the three mentioned. If anything, this single-disc affair proves, once and for all, that bandleader Robert Smith's doughy, ambisexual self-flagellation is most endearing when taken in hummable, few-minute spurts. But then, you probably already knew that the Cure was a singles band anyway.

Conversely, the two-disc Psychedelic Furs retrospective, Should God Forget, is exhaustive almost to a fault. It goes on longer than required to enshrine the British band's brief, early-'80s hold on a post-punk audience whose tastes and perspective hadn't yet jelled. Ahead of its time, the Furs' brooding, guitar-based art-rock ignited, spread and expired in a brilliant, if bleak, three-release spurt. Granted, completists will welcome the inclusion of various alternate studio takes, import-only singles and live tracks, but casual fans are advised to track down 1988's All of This and Nothing, a more efficient best-of collection that has most of the minor hits and modest classics without the filler -- which includes more or less everything the band recorded after 1984.

To its advantage, Midnight Oil's 20,000 Watt R.S.L. is less littered with throwaways. In chiseling down the durable Australian quintet's righteous 18-year career to a potent 18-track manifesto of socioenvironmental protest, Columbia has fashioned a well-paced encapsulation of a band whose politics and communal spirit formed the basis for some of the most powerful post-punk proselytizing ever heard. Perhaps even more so in the '90s, Oil's message carries global implications that simply can't -- and won't -- be snuffed out. Frothing over with epic choruses, pummeling rhythms and lead singer Peter Garrett's cranky, deranged croak of a delivery, tunes such as "Power and the Passion," "Best of Both Worlds" and "Beds Are Burning" sound as larger-than-life today as they did ten years ago.

Shifting the focus back to our part of the globe, new compilations from the Replacements, X and the Pixies provide a less than heartening glimpse into the business of three of America's leading underground crusaders. Doted on by music writers everywhere, each of the groups was at one time or another hailed as the most relevant remedy to everything from AOR to MTV. And all three had a whiff of mainstream acceptance, soaking up a few perks before coming unglued, their more commercial intentions rudely dismissed by the same people who once sang their praises.

 

The Replacements made their way to the majors in 1985, a year after their indie-label swan song, Let It Be, sent critics scrambling for superlatives. Let It Be was heralded as the decade's most authentic coupling of punk's shit-faced insolence and pop's more ingratiating hooksmanship. But all the attention seemed to hurt more than it helped: The Minneapolis foursome's subsequent signing to Reprise set in motion a pesky self-conscious streak that led to the group's 1990 breakup.

Taken from that perspective, the two-CD All for Nothing, Nothing for All could be seen as a death watch of sorts, a chronicle of a band that had nowhere to go but down, even as they began to sober up and get better. The double-disc set consolidates crucial moments -- both extraordinary and average -- in the Mats' sorry flirtation with success (the group's only Top 40 hit, "I'll Be You," is included here). Compounding the grief, however, is the label's decision to pad what would have been a tight, satisfying single-disc eulogy with an unrevelatory second CD of studio outtakes and various other Mats ephemera. It's an unseemly curiosity, at best.

Initially, the Replacements made it hard to dis their leap to the majors. While Let It Be may be the definitive Mats release, the Reprise era was, nonetheless, the period in which bandleader Paul Westerberg delivered the goods as a songwriter, refining his craft by leaps and bounds. For a while, it was just as interesting to hear Westerberg battle back his garage-band urges for the sake of a well-crafted melody as it had been listening to him trying to stifle his self-destructive streak long enough to find his way to a mike without slipping in a puddle of his own puke.

Tim, the group's major-label debut, and its even grander 1987 follow-up, Pleased to Meet Me, were remarkably consistent. Indeed, the best tracks on both -- represented on All for Nothing by tuneful back-door anthems such as "Alex Chilton" and "Bastards of Young" and the brutally reflective, intermittently tender ballads "Here Comes a Regular" and "Skyway" -- add up to an utterly convincing statement of artistic evolution under the duress of (among other factors) commercial expectations. But by 1989's sonically overburdened Don't Tell a Soul, rock's next great poet was beginning to believe his own hype -- and sounding less interesting for it. Come 1990's All Shook Down, Westerberg had stockpiled enough glib acoustic sentimentality to put James Taylor to shame. Still, it was (mostly) fun while it lasted.

Ditto for X, the defiantly artsy Los Angeles phenomenon whose revved-up rockabilly assault -- combined with the ramshackle poetry and ill-mannered harmonizing of leaders Exene Cervenka and John Doe -- both redefined punk rock and presaged the L.A. hard-core movement. Its mission largely accomplished by the mid-'80s, the group floundered a bit from there on out. Their decision to hire a heavy metal producer for 1985's Ain't Love Grand allegedly led to the departure of original lead guitarist Billy Zoom, setting off a series of personnel changes that diluted the band's potency just as they had a shot at a wider audience.

Elektra's double-disc Beyond and Back anthology concedes the fact that X was the unique byproduct of an often impenetrable cultural landscape; as any Angeleno will tell you, L.A. is a world unto itself. While Paul Westerberg's troubled narratives could, with a few exceptions, be superimposed on almost any region of the country, X's most virulent tales of dysfunction ("Los Angeles," "In This House That I Call Home" and "Motel Room in My Bed" are a few of the classics on Beyond and Back) are emblazoned with a presence so lucid you can almost smell the fumes of the Ventura Freeway. The desperation is palpable, the emotions sharpened to a deadly point, as if every little detail was the product of some life-sustaining creative catharsis.

For sure, there's plenty of life on Beyond and Back, which thoughtfully foregoes the routine retrospective route by offering more unheard material than already released tracks (although some of the best of the latter is included as well). Rather than lumping all the unreleased stuff on a single disc, Beyond and Back disperses a generous number of rehearsal bits, alternate takes and live cuts throughout the other material, giving the listener a sense of how it all fits into the scheme of X's legacy. Maybe even more important, the strategy strengthens the notion that X was far more than just another brainy SoCal punk band, as it repeatedly highlights the band's grasp of everything from hippie folk to urban jazz and hillbilly blues. All of which makes this excellent compilation a must-have for loyal fans and initiates alike.

 

Undoubtedly, Elektra would like to believe that its Death to the Pixies serves the same dual function as that of the X collection. But alas, the Pixies -- Black Francis (now Frank Black), Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering -- possessed neither the lively historical anecdotes nor the wacky stylistic range to pull it off. Bluntly put, the Boston quartet spread what was, in essence, a CD's worth of crafty ideas over five years and as many releases. Still, there's little doubt that the Pixies were somewhat ahead of their time, hinting at the flaky alternative climate to come.

Though Death to the Pixies is a double set, the live disc, taken from a ho-hum 1990 performance in Holland, won't be of much interest to anyone outside the band's diehard fan base. What really matters are the 17 studio tracks on the first disc, which were culled from the group's five releases. They aren't in chronological order, but given that the Pixies didn't so much evolve as progress in fits and starts, the random approach works as a collage of defining moments.

Few will challenge the notion that the Pixies' third release, 1989's Doolittle, is their masterpiece. Its greatness thrives on a meticulously produced balance of exacting potency and livid urgency, ersatz ear candy and sonic rotgut, heavenly harmony and untold chaos. It's as if everything the Pixies did before Doolittle laid the groundwork for that album's existence, and everything after it was doomed to languish in its shadow. Doolittle's barbed beauty is well represented on Death with "Here Comes Your Man," "Debaser," "Wave of Mutilation," "Gouge Away" and "This Monkey's Gone to Heaven." On the last, the Pixies pretty much mustered all the ill feelings they could manage without sounding completely toxic, sugar-coating it all with a gorgeous sing-along chorus perfect for the radio.

Seeing as the five songs from Doolittle comprise almost a third of Death's first disc, newcomers might wonder if the rest of Death to the Pixies is worth mulling over. That will depend on whether you prefer spending another 12 songs listening in as the group struggled to find new and different ways to feed its devotion to surf music and power pop through punk's hard-core melody shredder. And remember: You'll also have to endure more of the discomfiting juxtaposition of Deal's little-girl vocals and Black's head-splitting screams. Certainly, though, there are less interesting ways to spend your time.

Whatever your ultimate take on the bands above, their best music proves that the '80s had more to say than most Billy Idol videos let on. Still, as label archivists begin to dig up far lamer links in the nostalgia chain, even the best memories won't guard against exposure to the inevitable Paul Young anthology. Don't say we didn't warn you.


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