Maybe the '80s Weren't as Bad as We Remember

'80s Hits Stripped

Robin Hilton, the producer of All Songs Considered, has this highlight of a CD, that I must say, I'm going to have to buy. Even though it doesn't include Aztec Camera's version of Van Halen's "Jump."

What was the worst decade for popular music? This is a question I've argued with friends and coworkers over for years. Some say the '70s, if only for disco; others say it's the current decade with its monotone noise trash. But for me, this distinct title belongs to one decade and one only: the 1980s.

By popular music, I simply mean what's being played on any top-40 radio station. It's not that there wasn't great music being made in the '80s. I'm thinking of Peter Gabriel, R.E.M. and Talking Heads for starters. But I never heard any of it on the radio. What I heard was a gut-churning mix of Wham, Boy George, Loverboy, White Snake, Air Supply, Debbie Gibson, and similar dreck.

The biggest problem with '80s popular music was the production. It was the first time synthesizers came into widespread use and we really didn't know what we were doing. We hadn't learned to finesse the instrument. So everything was over the top. They were brash and tinny and mixed in front of everything else. They were used for back-up rhythm chord progressions, leads, solos and drums. It was nearly impossible to hear the real music, if any existed, behind all the gaudy, hyper-synth garbage.

A new album from Sidewinder Music, due out this month, is making me rethink everything. It's a collection of acoustic versions of popular music from the 1980s called '80s Hits Stripped. It's got the worst of the worst... or best of the best, depending on your point of view: Rick Springfield, Tommy Tutone ("867-5309"), Billy Squier and so on, all performing their biggest hits on acoustic guitar or piano.

I've heard acoustic versions of '80s hits before and have to admit there have been a handful I've secretly liked. Hearing tamed versions of songs that otherwise made me more or less want to vomit is always illuminating. It makes me think maybe the music wasn't that bad. Minimalist production allows you to hear the heart of the song — the words, the melody — and bares the singer's voice.

The first I ever heard was jazz singer Patti Cathcart's version of "Time After Time" (audio) by Cyndi Lauper. The original version, with Lauper's whiney, nasally voice and synths, was the stuff of musical nightmares. But hearing it sung with Cathcart's voice and a simple guitar made me realize the song was actually very sweet and beautiful, in both melody and words. (In retrospect, Cathcart's version is admittedly a little cheezy).

A while back I stumbled upon an amazing version of the 1986 Beastie Boys hit "Fight For Your Right," a song I originally remember cringing over. The version I found on the Web is by Andrew Paul Woodworth (audio). I don't know a thing about him, except that he turned "Fight For Your Right" into a beautiful, melancholy meditation on youth that, for me anyway, really works.

The new '80s Hits Stripped album has a number of standouts. By that, I mean songs that take on an entirely new life as acoustic tunes. There's Naked Eyes doing "Promises Promises" (audio). Billy Squier offers a bluesy version of "The Stroke" (audio). (Hey, the guy can sing!) Berlin's naked version of "Riding on the Metro" (audio) is worth checking out, too.

Check out what Some Velvet Blog says about this CD.

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