Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Greighties

I love the 1980s.

Not ironically, either.

To me, the 1980s were full of all sorts of great things. Video games, D&D, great music, awesome movies, and all manner of pop culture phenomena. Though full of personal trials and tribulations (my father died, and I became a teenager, in the 1980s), I still look back on the 80s with fondness. Lofted multi-colored hair, too much oddly colored make-up, leg warmers over colored tights, and the layered look still turn me on. I was forged in the fires of the 1980s -- the fake-fur-lined, lopsided-haired, candy-colored fires, that is.

People with any sense whatsoever consider the 1980s to be the pinnacle of pop music. Synthpop, New Wave, Punk, Industrial, Goth, Glam Metal, and Rap were all ascendant in the 1980s. It was a glorious mess of new sounds, new looks, and new technology in music. Many of my absolute favorite bands -- Kraftwerk, Front 242, Ministry, Big Black / Rapeman / Shellac, Foetus, Skinny Puppy, Public Image Limited, Joy Division / New Order, Laibach, Einstuerzende Neubauten, Cabaret Voltaire, Devo, Severed Heads, Frontline Assembly, KMFDM, Depeche Mode, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Swans, Sonic Youth, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Subhumans, False Prophets, Misfits, Black Flag, The Adicts, Adolescents, Rudimentary Peni, Youth of Today, Warzone, Les Garcons Bouchers, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, The Beastie Boys, TKK, a;Grumh, Borghesia, Le Syndicat, The Haters, Merzbow, M.B., etc. (the list could go on and on) -- were in their heydays during the 1980s. Nothing about contemporary pop, punk, goth, industrial or hip hop is as compelling as the 1980s and early 90s apex of these genres. In part, it was that the cold war gave the arts more of a sense of urgency, and in part it was that people hadn't yet become so jaded by overexposure to the slick, soulless product of continually expanding global media empires.

I have quite fond memories of even the most commercial New Wave pop music of the day -- Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, The Cars, Human League, O.M.D., A Flock Of Seagulls, The Eurythmics, Yaz, etc. -- even the one-hit wonders like Animotion, Wang Chung, and A-ha were enjoyable. Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson -- three of the biggest names in pop music of the 20th century -- were all defined by their 1980s music, all of which at least dabbled with New Wave (Madonna emerged entirely from that movement). The 1980s were the last hurrah for pop music before, in the 1990s, the major labels consumed the last vestiges of punk and new wave (the "alternative and college" labels) and all music became product. It was also a time when the suits were confused about the market, and a lot of strange music came out of even the majors that wouldn't have at any other time. It was as chaotic as the 1960s, but it smelled a little better, and it wasn't as monocultural (there was more going on that was weird than just the Hippies, so there was more diversity of odd music). I'm far from the only person who conisders the 1980s to be the most active, creative time in the history of popular music.

While the 1970s are often remembered as a great era of film, the 1980s get downplayed. This does the decade a huge disservice. A number of my all-time favorite films are films of the 1980s. Some of the greats of the era include The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Amadeus, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tootsie, Raging Bull, Platoon, E.T., and the incomparable Blade Runner (which I happen to think should be #3 on the AFI top 100 list, after Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia -- yes, above Casablanca and The Godfather, in my opinion). But there are many other classics that don't necessarily make the film snob lists.

Sci-fi and Horror were booming in the 80s. The Empire Strikes Back, in my opinion the best of the six films (so far) in the Star Wars franchise, came out in 1980, and 1982's The Wrath of Khan is the most unequivocably enjoyable of the many Star Trek films. But John Carpenter's 80s output alone is enough to enshrine the decade: Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble In Little China, and They Live are all true classics of their era. As is the Davids' output, Cronenberg with Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers, and Lynch with The Elephant Man, Dune and Blue Velvet. James Cameron's fabulous, franchise-building classics Aliens and The Terminator are true 80s gems, as is Paul Verhoeven's inspired Robocop. W.D. Richter's peculiar The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai is a wonderful bit of craziness that is often overlooked or underrated, as is Tron, a famous film that seems quaint to some because of its graphics and primitive computing technology, but which was not equalled in terms of a unique vision of a digital future until the first Matrix film. Halloween sequels were in full-swing (most sucked, though), but George Romero's Day of the Dead follow-up to 78's Dawn of the Dead, and the first Friday the 13th, are the 80s stand-outs for the three big horror franchises. And Japanese mindbenders Akira (animated) and Tetsuo: The Iron Man (live action) remain alongside Eraserhead as some of the most original, bizarre films of all time.

Punk broke into film in the 80s, as well. Alex Cox made the two most important punk films of all time during the 80s: Sid & Nancy and Repo Man, and even Penelope Spheeris' lesser punk fare The Decline of Western Civilization and Suburbia are still worth a viewing. Postpunk auteur Jim Jarmusch emerged in the 80s, with Permanent Vacation, Coffee and Cigarettes, Mystery Train, and the pure genius of Down By Law, as did Gus Van Sant, with Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy.

Meanwhile, John Hughes was busy reinventing the teen comedy genre, steering it away from Gidget-type dreck and creating classics like The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Savage Steve Holland kicked in with Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer, and Cameron Crowe with Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Say Anything. Teen Angst films of the 80s included such classics as River's Edge, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Tex, and the underrated The Legend of Billie Jean.

Even some of Hughes' mainstream 80s comedies, like Vacation, Planes, Trains & Automobiles and Uncle Buck, are genius. Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder had a career defining moment with Stir Crazy, while Caddyshack and The Blues Brothers created new stars. Eddie Murphy was actually funny in films like 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, and Coming To America, and the mockumentary was born with the hilarious This Is Spinal Tap -- but the real comic gems of the 80s come in the form of three of the best comedies of all time: Airplane!, Ghostbusters and The Princess Bride (in my opinion, a strong contender for best comedy of all time).

Genre-redifining action films, in particular Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and The Road Warrior (which got more attention than its predecessor, 79's Mad Max) also appeared in the 80s. Across the Pacific, John Woo was making equally important action films like A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. Tim Burton's first Batman film brought postmodern comics to cinema, replacing the feel-good camp of the Christopher Reeves Superman films (Superman II being another good 80s film) with darker, somewhat more character-driven fare.

In Japan Miyazaki was helping bring anime to the world at large with beautiful films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle In The Sky, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. However, I feel the most brilliant Japanese animated film of all time also came out in the 80s: Takahata's bittersweet drama, Grave of the Fireflies. And on TV, the Robotech / Macross saga brought the Japanese space-soap-opera to a generation of Americans. It remains one of the best animated TV series of all time, with much more sophisticated writing than the more popular Transformers, which also spawned its first feature film in the 80s.

Role playing gaming also came into its own in the 80s. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's Dungeons and Dragons (most gamers actually played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons -- the two systems are not fully compatible) was the most well known, but there were many other great 80s RPGs. Twilight 2000 was the best WWIII game ever made, and sci-fi titles Cyberpunk and Shadowrun helped break the Cyberpunk and Steampunk genres as legitimate subcategories of Sci-Fi amongst the nerderati (neither system was perfect, so some gamers like the two groups I played with in high school and college just merged the two games despite their being from different publishers and having very different systems). The true Steampunk game, Space 1889, was fun but not sufficiently popular. Traveller / 2300 AD was the best of the Sci-Fi systems (although lamented by some as too complex, its skills system redefined gaming rules, and I say for the better), and had many fun modules. The hilarious Paranoia Sci-Fi parody is hands-down the best humorous RPG, and though Teenagers From Outer Space was a close second, both are overshadowed by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (a good game, but the other two are much better). Strategy / board games whose worlds led to hybridization with role playing (often borrowing or creating a new system to fill in the gaps) included SJG's Car Wars and FASA's Battletech. RPG playing really helped hone my writing and storytelling skills, and led me to become a better writer, game developer, and storyteller in general. The social aspect of RPG playing is something I dearly miss. Video gaming is just not the same, even LAN parties, because human-machine, and not human-human, interaction is the core element of the gaming equation. Also, video games rarely allow the players to truly influence the design and outcome of the narrative adventure. Still, video games were a key part of my 80s childhood.

August 1982 changed the world forever. Few moments in popular history can compare with the release of the Commodore 64, which began a 12-year run unequalled in the history of computing. The machine racked-up over 30 million sold, and did at least as much to bring video games into the mainstream as the Atari 2600 (which also sold about 30 million units, but since you couldn't program it, did not do nearly as much to create a new generation of game developers). During this time, games were the brainchildren of dedicated gamers, not marketing teams. The market hadn't solidified into four genres (sports, fps, rpg and rts) with each running off one or two popular gaming engines. Since computing in general was just breaking big, games still had much more variety. While the graphics and sound were primitive, in some cases the gameplay has yet to be surpassed.

Fun, unusual games abounded in the 80s. Crush Crumble and Chomp, Mail Order Monsters and Rampage were great monster games, a dead genre. Geopolitique 1990 was a political strategy game, another dead genre. Pirates was a fun tall ship game, another dead genre. Racing Destruction Set let you create your own cars and tracks and destroy them, which is far more fun than driving around some pre-built world. Qix, Bubble Bobble, Dig Dug, Lode Runner, Warriors of Zypar, Archon, Archon II, Marble Madness, Night Shift, Pinball Construction Set, and Hovver Bovver (a lawnmowing game!) were all odd, but fun (puzzle, maze and action hybrids mostly). Simple, odd, but fun is just barely coming back with the likes of Geometry Wars (really an updated Asteroids more than an OBF). Karateka and Bruce Lee paved the way for the likes of Street Fighter which broke-big the once-popular martial arts genre, and Donkey Kong and Jumpman invented the platformer. Beachhead and Beachhead II were very primitive, but fun, predecessors to the likes of Battlefield 2. Zeppelin, a combined side-top scroller, seems simple but is one of the most fun games ever, and other great shooters/scrollers abounded, like Killerwatt and Defender. Tron was one of the best of the multiple technique games.

But, on the C64, what put things over the top was adventure (and related) games. Not all was swords and sorcery with C64 adventure and strategy gaming, such as great space strategy games like the Psi-5 Trading Company, M.U.L.E., Argos Expedition, Galactic Empire, Andromeda Conquest, Reach for the Stars, Starflight, and Impeirum Galacticum. (Now all we have is Starcraft sequels, but fortunately also emerging franchises like Galactic Civilizations / Sins of a Solar Empire, Ferion and Horizon). And some of the best games had no graphics at all, those being the classic Infocom text adventures like the Zork trilogy, Enchanter trilogy, Plantefall and Stationfall, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Deadline, Starcross, Suspended, Infidel, Wishbringer, Suspect, Jourey, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, and the still popular Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.

The big daddies of adventure and strategy games were once Origin Systems, Inc., Sierra On-Line, and Strategic Simulations, Inc. (who I had the pleasure to work for briefly during the period of acquisitions that led to the imprint's unfortunate demise). Richard Garriott and OSI dedicated most of the 80s to the Ultima series, perhaps the greatest adventure game series of all time. Ogre, Autoduel and Omega also managed to come out during the 80s and redefine their own genres. Ken and Roberta Williams' Sierra had the very popular Kings' Quest and Leisure Suit Larry franchises. Lucasfilm Games, considered by many to be most directly competitive with Sierra, squeezed out Maniac Mansion and Zak Mccracken and the Alien Mindbenders, both good fun. However, SSI was really a force to be reckoned with once. SSI produced both great adventure games like Phantasie, Wizard's Crown, Questron, Pool of Radiance, and several official AD&D games, as well as classic turn-based strategy games like Kampfgruppe, Germany 1985, Mech Brigade, Roadwar, Gettysburg, and Storm Across Europe. Electronic Arts, still under Trip Hawkins and not yet considered greedy industry villains, chimed in with Seven Cities of Gold and the brilliant, genre redefining, franchise-spawning The Bard's Tale. Really, there are too many good games from this era to list them all. Maybe someday I'll try, but let this abbreviated list suffice for now.

The first comic book done on a computer also came out in the 80s: Saenz and Gillis' Shatter, a well done cyberpunk story that was steeped in the emerging digital culture. But that wasn't the most exciting thing going on in comics in the 80s. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke brought back Batman as a conflicted vigilante. Moore's The Watchmen and Art Spiegelman's Maus turned once lowly comics into genuine literature. And in 89, Neil Gaiman's seminal The Sandman arrived on the scene.

Philip K. Dick's last novels also came out in the 80s: Radio Free Albemuth, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, The Divine Invasion, and the brilliant VALIS, as did Stanislaw Lem's Fiasco. William Gibson burst onto the scene with his best works: Burning Chrome, Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Salman Rushdie published Midnight's Children and the fatwa-inspiring Satanic Verses, Gabriel García Márquez published the brilliant Love in the Time of Cholera, Milan Kundera published The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Gore Vidal published Empire, J.G. Ballard published The Empire of the Sun, and Don DeLillo broke out with White Noise (and Rudy Rucker arrived on the fiction scene with White Light).

I am a child of the 1980s. I was 6 going into 1980, so most of my formative years were spent absorbing the wonders of the 1980s. Computers and science, video games, music, movies, art, and books were my whole life. There are great films, music, games, art and books of the 90s and beyond, but the debt they owe to the 80s is often overlooked, downplayed, or scoffed-at. Before people laugh at the 80s, they ought to look at the impact of the 80s on today's culture. New Wave fashion (the most canonically derided element of the 80s) looks a lot like contemporary hip hop fashion. Both synth-and-sampler laden genres like hip hop and future pop, and guitar-laden ones like Modern Rock, owe at least as huge a debt to the 80s as to the 70s and 90s. This often forgotten, or mocked, decade really produced some of the best popular culture of all time.


Seth said...

I have very distinct memories of being in grade school and predicting that the 1980's would come back as hipster nostalgia (though I am pretty sure I didn't ise the word "hipster").

I am totally, one-hundred-percent in agreement with you on this one. I was also a child of the 80's, and as a decade I don't think it really gets the props it is most rightfully due.

Eric Layne said...

I just happened to stumble upon this blog post while doing a search for the Buckaroo Bonzai 'Obey' pic. Everything written here is spot on and stirs wonderful memories. I can't tell you how much I miss playing games and watching movies during the 80's! There was so much originality mixed into blossoming ideas and technology.

Your extensive list of all things 'Greight' excludes the notable Back to the Future, Gamma World (rpg) and Below the Root (c64 game), among others.

Thanks for stirring up the memories!