1984, Pop’s Blockbuster Year: an Interview

I’ve known Michaelangelo Matos for some time and greatly enjoyed his 2015 book, The Underground Is Massive. Today he has a new one out: Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, which I enjoyed even more.

Can’t Slow Down is Matos’ massively-researched, sharply-written, concise, and intelligent history of one of pop music’s biggest years, the year of Purple Rain, Private Dancer, and Born in the USA; of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran, Madonna, Van Halen, Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper and, most of all, the towering presence of Michael Jackson. An era of spectacles, from Stop Making Sense in movie theaters to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” from the Reaganite apotheosis that was the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA to the concluding chapter on Live Aid in 1985. It also covers “underground” scenes on the verge of breaking big—1984 is a golden year for U.S. indie rock, for example (Let It Be, Double Nickels on the Dime, Reckoning, Zen Arcade, etc.), and is also foundational for house and hip-hop.

It’s a year in which seemingly everyone who ever recorded pop music was seen out in public—there’s a wonderful chapter centered on a panel at the New Music Seminar in New York that featured, among others, James Brown, Lou Reed, Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, Madonna, Romeo Void’s Debora Iyall, John Oates, Joe Ely, and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. Yet it’s as often concerned with the doings of music business pros—the A&R scouts, radio programmers, producers, label execs, journalists, TV talent bookers, etc., who made “1984” happen.

Though David Bowie is often a spectral presence in 1984, as Matos says in this interview, he’s still seemingly everywhere that year, as influence and rival, and he does still get a #1 album and Top 10 hit. The pop world of 1984 is one that Bowie both revels in and hides away from—much of his subsequent career is him coming to terms with how popular he’d become then. After all, it was a time when, as Wham!s album was titled, you were supposed to Make It Big.

The following is edited from a talk Matos and I had last week. If you’re interested in the book, please buy it from your local bookstore! (or Indiebound).

Yes, Baby, I Am Indeed a Star: Prince in LA (Michael Ochs)

CO: There’s an anecdote that you open the book with that really rang true to me. You’re nine years old, you’re cleaning your room and listening to Top 40 radio and you realize that you’ve been listening for hours and you don’t hate any of the songs playing. I was 12 and it was the same deal for me. And…that’s not the case for long, even very soon afterward, right? The “1984 moment” feels very brief—when is it over, as early as 1986, 1987?

Michaelangelo Matos: The moment wasn’t just gone but completely formulized. Part of what makes the ‘84 moment is a great deal about professionals being professional. That’s a lot of it. It’s not fair to say it was this great shining moment and it had nothing to do with the business. It had everything to do with the biz. The biz is what made the moment. It just happened to be a high-water mark of a certain way of doing things that quickly became pomp and circumstance. It was a much faster version of the difference between, say, ’65 and ‘74.

But for a while, suddenly, there was this thing that seemed so promising and playful and the people who were doing it really seemed to be enjoying it. There was a real spark of energy. It wasn’t just, “oh we have to calibrate our business plan according to Thriller.” It was more: “wouldn’t it be fun to make hit songs of all these titles? Wouldn’t it be fun to make a whole album of hit singles?” People were pushing themselves to make good hits. It wasn’t just that they were trying to get on the radio, though you can never understate the mercenary nature of the business. There’s a great deal of cold-faced greed there too. The thing I really enjoyed was writing the chapter about AOR. That was fun.What rock history doesn’t treat these guys as demigods? Well, let me be the first.

CO: It’s striking to realize how old, relatively, many of the big 1984 pop stars were. Phil Collins, Bowie, Tina Turner, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Huey Lewis—some of these people had been around for decades at this point.

MM: Purple Rain is Prince’s sixth album. It had been seven years at that point since he’d signed a contract and six years since his debut.

And Phil Collins is not just somebody who’s been doing it for a long time, but someone who’s absolutely comfortable in the pop field. He is completely comfortable making pop music for large audiences. There is no weird divide for him between that and what he’s done since the ‘70s, because Genesis evolves along with it, Genesis turns into a singles band right as AOR is hitting the skids.

CO: MTV is obviously a big part of the 1984 story, but has it been overstated over the years?

MM: One thing to keep in mind is that MTV is not the be-all and end-all. MTV has a great deal to do with ’81 to ’83, but by ’84, MTV wasn’t the whole story by any means. By ’84, radio has really come back into its own. Top 40 is making hits on its own, in a way it hasn’t been in a long time.

The other thing that is relevant here: when we’re talking about video, we’re not just talking about MTV and not only talking about television, but also talking about clubs. In the early ‘80s every club got a fucking video screen and started playing videos. That was new. And a lot of the big club hits that wound up becoming ‘80s standards first got played as videos in clubs. That’s very important to the whole thing.

Square America at last meets some of the “New Romantics,” Jan. 1984

CO: One thing you note is that by 1984 the “Second British Invasion” of America is already falling apart, not long after it begins. Duran Duran is falling apart, Culture Club is a mess.

MM: I was looking through some ’89 magazine issues and this was the point when they were “Duranduran”: one word. It’s so funny—the ‘80s get glossed over so much in rock history. The impulse is to glorify these people and it’s often their least glorious era. People overlook all the crazy shit that happened in this period. Like “Duranduran”—what, are you some kind of arthouse thing now? What the fuck! Did Wong Kar-Wai film you? No, Wong Kar-Wai wouldn’t fucking do that with your name—that is a bad manager decision. It’s a glorious era for terrible ideas and decisions on the part of these people. It’s not like all I want to do is point and laugh, but there is some element of that to it. There has to be, it can be so fucking absurd.

CO: One of the last times you could be ridiculous in an unironic way.

MM: All of late ‘80s culture in some ways seems to be leading up to and is almost redeemed by Road House. It’s like, this should suck but it’s so rich and funny and entertaining and you know they knew this, even if they’re doing it totally straight-faced. They know how ridiculous this is. And you get that but in a sadder way when watching a Jefferson Airplane video from 1989.

CO: “Planes?” I love the “Planes” video.

MM: That’s what I’m thinking of. It’s not like I sat down and watched more than that. I didn’t go “hmm, what else?” I’m happy to let certain lost worlds stay lost.

CO: In your country music chapter, I was taken by one quote [by MCA Nashville’s Jimmy Bowen], that in the early ‘80s “pop music became very stale, the albums were not that good…and country music filled those slots…now pop music got its act back together…[and] they simply pushed us back off of those slots.” You can see this swing back sometime in the ‘90s.

MM: I think he’s really talking about the crossover market. That’s a fairly distinct sector. One thing about that chapter is that it’s kind of an outlier for the subject matter. I think I treat it well and I think it’s a decent overview, I’m not trying to minimize what I’ve done there. But it’s an outlier for me in terms of when I wrote it—it was a Pop Conference presentation that I added a few things to. Most of that was done in a very contained period. I went to Nashville and that’s when I did the research for it. I had things of my own before that and from books from the library here and I sort of melded it all back together. I have a strong memory of that chapter of being a very self-contained unit of time and writing, whereas some others sprawled along and I rewrote things and overhauled things.

CO: I got the sense that you read scads of Billboards, Gavin Reports, Radio & Records for this era, is that fair to say?

MM: Absolutely. There’s a website, World Radio History, that has scans of incredible numbers of trade magazines, music magazines, regular coverage music magazines, sometimes stuff that’s completely offline, completely gone—publications that ended decades ago. This incredible resource. I started working on this book essentially in September 2015, and I moved back to the Twin Cities in February of 2016. So I’d been working on it pretty diligently for six months when I got here and then I discovered that website. I realized I’d been working with very incomplete data with regard to Billboard because I was using Google’s archive.

CO: Yeah, there are pretty big holes in that collection.

MM: Most of 1984 is gone. The gap was something like April 1983 to September 1984. So I was using a little bit of ‘83 and I thought, well I’ll find other things to fill in those gaps, and then I discovered Radio History and they have all the Billboards. That meant putting them all on my iPad and reading them everywhere. Get on the bus, read Billboard. At the same time I discovered [an archive of] all the Smash Hits from 1984 and read them. What was happening was that Radio History was expanding as I worked. I’d check it again after a month and, oh my God, there’s all the Cash Boxes. This was constant. This happened for a good two years until I finally couldn’t do it anymore. There’s a point at which you just have to stop doing research.

CO: When did you have the structure of the book in place?

MM: It’s funny: I’ve had more or less the same chapter list going back eleven years. I started working on this book in 2009. I wrote a proposal, and it wasn’t a good proposal, because I didn’t know how to write a book. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to manifest that, so I was hedging a lot. So I thought, “I’ve got to downscale.” The proposal I wrote had twelve chapters, one for each of these major artists, and I thought, that’ll be okay, it’ll be like a book of essays. But I didn’t want to write a book of essays. I wanted to write a real history but I had no idea how to do it, because at that point most of my living was still in writing record reviews. That was most of my work. Over the next two years, it became almost none of my work because there stopped being a market for record reviews, for the most part. I had to re-orientate myself to writing features, and as soon as I did, I thought, my God, this is so much more fun, you know?

I remember I’d see things that I’d written about a year or two earlier or six months earlier [in a review] being discussed in a feature and see people linking to it and talking about it, and I’d be like, “I talked about that. I said that very fucking thing.” And nobody had read it because nobody read record reviews anymore. It was a reality check. I realized this is not sustainable, I can’t keep doing this because I’m going to starve to death.

Also, I had come up writing in late ‘90s alternative weeklies, where ideas on the page were expected. You were expected to be thinking about shit in a real way. That’s gone. That left. Suddenly it was like nobody took it seriously anymore. There was no market for it, and I had all these ideas that really needed to be explored at length. That was a frustration, too. That was manifesting in wanting to write a book that wasn’t a book of essays.

Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards: the centerpiece of one chapter in Can’t Slow Down

CO: There’s a cinematic quality to how you introduce characters in the book—you’ll have a central location, say an awards show, and then you “pull back the camera” when someone appears on stage and give a couple pages of backstory.

MM: That was very deliberate. What I had to do is write the other book. I had to write The Underground Is Massive in order to write this one. It took me a long time to generate the edifice of it. What happened was that I kept a Tumblr page and I would just put shit on it—this is funny, here’s an interesting photo, here’s a song I’m thinking about. With [TUIM], I knew the structure immediately and I knew what the structure of this book would be as well, but I had no idea until I’d written it how one might fill those structures out. What about this, what about that? With [TUIM] I had the lineups of everything, so I knew where the holes were. There isn’t that much drum ‘n’ bass in that book, but I knew where the drum ‘n’ bass piece would lie.

It’s a process—you have to learn as you go. There’s no map to write a book, every fucking book is different. So where I did all those interviews [for TUIM], I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do as many for this one, and I didn’t want to. Because I’d already known, just by looking through the material I already had, that I hadn’t seen anyone talking about any of the shit that I’m reading about from that period. The interesting stuff, the things that I was finding where I was like, “I didn’t know that.”

I set out to write a book about stuff that surprised me. And that was pretty easy to do, because a lot of it surprised me.

When I had my back against the wall and realized okay, I’ve got to put up or shut up and write this goddamned proposal. And what I realized, I looked at the Tumblr and said, wait a minute, why don’t I just use this stuff? I have all this stuff that I already thought was interesting enough to show people—why don’t I just put it all in order? That’s how I wound up writing the outline of the proposal. It was like, you’ve done the work, you just haven’t put the work in order. Once I put all of those things into chapters, it was a matter of connecting the dots.

CO: Was Live Aid always intended to be the last chapter, the close of the book?

MM: I’ve had some version of the twenty-chapter list since 2009. The minute I thought of the idea, [Live Aid] was the logical, obvious, you-can’t-have-a-different-ending ending. There was no second choice: that’s where it ends.

CO: Could something like Live Aid happen now? Obviously, there could be a big charity concert with lots of celebrities, but could there be an equivalent to what “Live Aid” was in 1985?

MM: The culture has lost a lot of the innocence that fueled it. We do not have an innocent culture in any way now. Not that anyone thought anything was innocent then, either. Music culture has become more purely mercenary and is more outward about it, and I don’t think that’s altogether a terrible thing (laughs)—the devil you know. But I don’t know enough about the business as it stands today frankly to make an assessment. I have a very partial overview of current music and it’s been that way for a while and it’s going to stay that way for a while. I don’t want to cover pop—I gave that up a while ago. Not because I dislike pop as an idea but just because my specialties are elsewhere, when it comes to current music. And I think that the question I know how to answer is whether I’d want to watch such a thing, and I think the answer is no.

CO: One thing that struck me in the book was just the colossal sales of physical media. People bought so many records, tapes, CDs in 1984. It’s crazy to think about now.

MM: It’s only crazy to think of it now because physical media doesn’t exist. The very idea that there would be no physical media sales sounded lunatic for a really long time.

CO: You have that quote from Quincy Jones in the intro where he’s basically predicting Spotify in a trade magazine interview in 1984. [Jones: “It could be possible…for you to have no inventory in your house. No books, tapes, anything, if you had access to a satellite, a code book/catalog and a television set…”]

MM: That threw me for a loop. It was one of those things that when I found it I thought, “this is too good not to show people, but I shouldn’t be showing people this.” But I also realized it’s social media and everyone forgets. People put up the same stuff that they wrote every few months and not only will you get a different audience for it every time, you will get the same audience that’s forgotten about it.

CO: I recently did a joke on Twitter and apologized that I’d done a variation on it five years ago, and then realized nobody would remember that or care.

MM: Nobody fucking remembers anything anymore. Nobody retains anything anymore. I have a very old man complaint about it that I’ll spare you.

CO: We finally should talk about Bowie a bit, I suppose. [Matos: I was just gonna say!] He’s somewhat of a marginal presence in the book, although he releases a #1 album in the UK that year—he’s both there and not there in 1984, which is kind of where you’d expect him to be.

MM: He is big in ’83—the book about ’83 would be a whole different thing. And in a sense it is a book about ’83, because so much of what happens in ’84 germinates in ’83. Bowie was too big a presence to ignore. There’s no way to write this book without including some Bowie, and he’s fun to write about, as you know. But I also knew I wasn’t going to be writing a ton about him. He’s not at the Grammys, he’s only on the VMAs because he recorded something earlier. He’s spectral that year. He takes most of the year off, aside from releasing Tonight. Doesn’t go on tour behind it. He does like one interview, and it’s with Charles Shaar Murray and Murray puts it out to three different publications with different stuff in it. That’s that. And Kurt Loder or somebody goes and watches him film the Blue Jean video. He doesn’t do any press. He’s absenting himself. He’s basically like, I’m going to make this record to give me some money, to give Jim [Iggy Pop] some money, and he’s going to take it easy. He’s moved to the Alps and he likes his life.

CO: Tonight is this outlier in the context of top-charting 1984 albums. It’s a bad record but a strange bad record.

MM: Is it an outlier, or a harbinger of things to come? It’s completely half-assed: of course it’s a strange record, it’s scraps.

CO: It’s bizarre, the idea he thought someone would appreciate his take on an obscure Chuck Jackson single, or his take on “God Only Knows.”

MM: [In the book], it’s all just a lead-up to Live Aid, where he slays. I hadn’t watched the Live Aid performance in full—I remembered it well—until I read you, you were talking about it was one of the great performances of his career, and it was, wasn’t it? I didn’t think I was ready to understand that, because it took me a long time to get to Bowie. Bowie was such a has-been at the time [the late ‘80s & early ‘90s].

CO: People still forget that.

MM: I was also overly reliant on [Robert] Christgau’s record grades, and there are so many B-pluses and Bs in there—I was just trying to hear the A-minuses, so I missed a lot of good things that way. I didn’t realize for a long time just how fucking indebted Prince was to Bowie. So that took a while.

One reason for Bowie’s spectral presence in other parts of the book is that you can’t just introduce him at Live Aid. It doesn’t make sense in the narrative, and it also would be false. Whereas you can introduce Queen there.

CO: You told me a while back that MTV in the U.S. cut away from Queen’s Live Aid performance midway through, which seems bizarre now, given the rep of that performance.

MM: Cut away from Queen’s performance to an interview with Marilyn McCoo. Who was then the co-host of Solid Gold.

CO: Yeah, it was like “wait, we’ve got McCoo on camera three? Cut away!”

MM: It really does tell you just how little Queen were cared for at that point in the States.

CO: Is the prominence of Queen’s Live Aid performance now something that grew over time, a product of YouTube and the movie?

MM: In Britain then it was obvious they’d stolen the show. That was the triumph of all triumphs, and the close of the book tells that story pretty well. This Melody Maker guy is just like fulminating. It’s against his code of conduct to be saying he liked it. You can sense, oh yes you’ve been indoctrinated by punk and you’ve internalized all the rules but [Freddie Mercury] got to you. Because I was the same way—I hated Queen growing up, I hated them! I didn’t like them all! I still don’t really like them much—I will never ever voluntarily put on a Queen recording. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, it’s just not my taste in the least. But I will watch that fucking performance any time because it’s glorious. It’s everything you could possibly want from that band in 22 minutes.

The internet has really shown us how wide and also narrow a canon can be. One of the things I wrote about for an upcoming issue of the Wire was on “what kept you sane in 2020.” And I wrote about Don Giller’s YouTube David Letterman archives. The Tom Waits collection is like 2 ½ hours, it’s every Tom Waits appearance on Letterman from 1983 to 2015. Every one of them is a song followed by banter, and he’s Tom Waits, he’s funny as hell. I was watching this thinking that you cannot have a better introduction to him. This is genuinely the best way to learn about this guy.

CO: The Queen performance is even more striking when, as you write, so many other of the “legend” performances at Live Aid were under-rehearsed and sloppy, like Led Zeppelin. I recall as a kid waiting for this big Bob Dylan/Keith Richards climactic performance and then they stumble out and look like winos.

MM: Not just look.

CO: Did you wind up cutting any chapters?

MM: The book is 40% what I wrote, but no chapter ideas were abandoned. What got cut were profiles of groups, profiles of artists. I left a number on the cutting room floor—Sonic Youth, Depeche Mode, Janet Jackson. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco. I wrote [the latter two] together because ’84 is when they make their duets album that gets released in ’85 in the U.S. as Omona Wapi. I really wanted that in the book because those are the two biggest African acts at the time—those guys were way bigger than Fela [who made the cut for the book]. But I couldn’t include them.

I didn’t get around to writing about Billy Idol. I kept pushing him back, thinking “he’s not going to be in this chapter, he’ll be in the later chapters.” And then I got to the MTV Awards chapter where he performed and I said, “I just can’t do it—this is already overstuffed and I cannot include anything more.” I’ve already got three times as much as what this thing will allow, it’s the Madonna chapter and that’s really the fucking point of it.

I had to cut a long DeBarge thing which actually dovetailed with the Janet Jackson piece, because that’s when she marries James DeBarge. I had a treatment of all of that and then realized, this is not going to work, I have too much here and I have to cut. It became obvious when I did Underground Is Massive that these books are not about my tastes. That [earlier] book would be entirely different if were about what I liked, and so is this.

CO: How do you edit?

MM: I write long and cut. What happens is that I take forever to write the damn thing because I chase every fucking lead down, I try to find everything I’m curious about within that framework and I go to work. I do the whole thing and it takes forever, but when it comes to cutting it I’m emotionless. All that matters is if it works. I’m looking at it completely coldly. I don’t have to think about it because I did it. I wrote what I set out to write, so if it doesn’t work that means it wasn’t good enough or there wasn’t space for it. I cut Underground Is Massive to size in about two weeks and I did the same thing with this.

Every book has a wordcount—it’s math. I spend the whole day doing math and what I spend the day doing is figuring out how many words I want each chapter to be, and how many words there are in total, and how much I’ll need to cut. If I’m cutting each chapter down to one-third of its [original] size, it has to be this many words. I do that for the whole book and it makes it really easy. Again, you’re taking your ego completely out of it. Now you’re just doing math. Or say you’ve read through one section and think, “this is rock solid, I can’t do anything.” That means you have to cut the other section out. It clarifies things.

CO: This might be off the mark but one book that yours seems to be in conversation with is Dave Marsh’s Heart of Rock & Soul, from 1989 [a list of Marsh’s 1001 top-ever singles, which included, somewhat controversially at the time, lots of Madonna and even a Billy Ocean track].

MM: Very much so. I’d say even more [Marsh’s] First Rock and Roll Confidential Report ..it’s both. Another section that I had to cut was about the proliferation of rock books in ’84.

CO: The Book of Rock Lists, things like that?

MM: If you remember the bibliography of the First Rock and Roll Confidential Report, it’s like 200 books—this is when those books all came out. There were pieces about this—there were pieces about the proliferation of rock books. Marsh had like a book out every six months it seemed; Born to Run had been a best seller.

CO: Yeah the mid-‘80s is when the first wave of serious Bowie biographies all appear, I recall. There wasn’t much before then.

MM: I really enjoyed the photo book about the Serious Moonlight Tour. With Dennis O’Regan. I had so much in there at one point about the making of that tour…that was a lot of what I cut. I quoted the fuck out of that book and then I realized there was no space for it. Chet Flippo wrote it—I was like, oh, you got a real writer. It’s a perfect example of Bowie’s extremely good taste. Bowie had very good taste in music writing. Greg Tate once wrote for MTV News that he went to interview some startup that Iman was working on and apparently they were sitting there talking, she was behind her desk, and she gets a call and “it’s for you, it’s my husband.” And Bowie is lavishing Tate with praise. And of course, Mystery Train is in his 100 favorite books.

Thanks, Matos! Again, if you’re interested in this period of pop history, I think you’ll enjoy the book.

5 Responses to 1984, Pop’s Blockbuster Year: an Interview

  1. K Olsen says:

    Mystery Train, the Greil Marcus book?

  2. What a great interview – I loved the discussion of the writing process. Oh, and the swearing was poetic (thanks for not editing out).

    Congratulations to the MM – ordering a copy now!
    Kevin @ roxymusicsongs.com

  3. John Smith says:

    Duran Duran were never Duranduran, in 1984 or at any other time in their career to the present day. That was a journalist’s mistake when looking at the print ads for the album which had, in caps and with spacing, DURANDURANNOTORIOUS. The front of the album has DURANNOTORIOUS. So perhaps they should have then been called Duran? I’m old enough to remember the band’s first single, Planet Earth, being introduced in 1981 on Radio 1’s Sunday evening Top 40 countdown by Tony Blackburn as by Durren Durren.

    As for “what, are you some kind of arthouse thing”? Nick Rhodes has always been under the possibly mistaken impression that his band is a Warhol-inspired performance art project.

  4. LP says:

    I am interviewing Michaelangelo over Zoom for a “live” podcast taping on January 15. If you would like to attend, here is the RSVP: https://lyte.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJAod–tqzssHtFL3OwuOhnOLYLVa5c74VPa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: