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Rob Sheffield’s Eighties Odyssey

Rolling Stone’s pop culture guru on his new book and the decade’s five essential songs

In his new book Talking to Girls About Duran Duran (out today) Rolling Stone contributing editor Rob Sheffield examines an unbelievably eclectic cross section of songs that came out between 1980 and ’89, explaining how track by the Smiths, L’Trimm, and of course Duran Duran impacted his adolescent mind. We spoke to him about the enduring appeal of Flock of Seagulls and awesome radio jams.

Do you think your new book will appeal to everybody who loved Love Is A Mix Tape, because that was more of a love story.
It’s a different kind of book. The first book was really about the sort of what people go through in their twenties and thirties. It was really an adult book in that way. This one is kind of about becoming that adult — the stuff you go through in adolescence where you’re asking these questions about what it means to be an adult, what it means to be a man.

How did this one come together?
I ended up writing about songs I really wanted to write about and this Eighties timeframe just came out because I was so young and that was the first pop music that really warped my little mind with all sorts of ideas about what adult life was like and what girls were like and how to talk to girls and how to dance with girls. It was originally going to be about the Seventies and Eighties, but the more I wrote the more I was gravitating towards the Eighties because it’s weird how that stuff never goes away. There was this night where I went out to the Music Hall of Williamsburg to see three of my favorite local bands at the same show. It was Yeasayer, Class Actress, and Javelin, and all three of them were basically doing a different kind of 1983 sound and it was really weird how each one of them had their own specific take on it.

How is the book structured?
Each chapter’s a song. It starts in 1980 and ends in 1989. During those years I went from 13 to 23, so the Eighties really overlap with adolescence for me. It begins with hearing David Bowie and the Go-Go’s in 1980 and then it turns into Big Daddy Kane and New Kids on the Block by 1989. Nothing takes you back to a specific moment like a song. Part of it was trying to figure out why these songs are still so resonant for me. Some of the chapters are more about the song or the artist, and some of them end up just like being more about the memories that they evoke, know like listening to Tattoo You makes me think of being on the wrestling team.

Do you think your taste in music is unusually broad? You have equal love for hair metal, New Wave and hip-hop.
I’m kind of a whore when it comes to music, especially that period. In the Eighties everybody was listening to everything, especially in the wake of Thriller. Everybody who liked rock also liked pop and everybody who liked pop also liked rock and there was this weird moment when what was playing on the rock station and what was playing on the disco station would overlap. Prince was trying to sound like Van Halen with all those guitar solos on Purple Rain in 1984. Then you listen to Van Halen’s record from 1984 and they’re just trying to imitate Prince. They’ve got “Jump,” which is blatantly like, Prince’s “Dirty Mind” slowed down a little. They both end up in the Top 10 of the pop charts.

That pretty much sums up the Eighties to me, and I think that’s why people still gravitate towards that period, when people were so open-eared and experimental. It’s a sense that these boundaries had been crashed down by artists like Michael Jackson or Duran Duran or Grandmaster Flash. There was a sense that rock could be influenced by disco and hip-hop could be influenced by pop. There was this really kind of glorious moment where every station that was playing the Human League and the Clash was also playing the Pointer Sisters and Marvin Gaye. I thought that was going to be the future from now on.

The book is called Talking To Girls About Duran Duran. Why is that group so important to you?
Duran Duran were always the obsession of all the cool girls I knew — still are. So it’s like, my entire life, just as a guy, relating to women has been relating to Duran Duran. Funny that every woman in my life seems to have some sort of profound relationship to Duran Duran. And it’s funny now, if you’re in a club or a bar, and the DJ puts on a Duran Duran record, all the cool girls just make a beeline to the dance floor.

Rob Sheffield’s Eighties Playlist

Haysi Fantayzee – “Shiny Shiny”
That is a song that is hard to describe to people who haven’t heard it. If you describe it, they think you’re making it up. Basically it’s a rap about nuclear war by these two kids with absolutely no musical talent whatsoever. It has a square dance fiddle solo. It has lines like, “I’m a hot retard…” It’s pretty much indefensible and hideous and I guess that’s kind of why I like it. It gives me hope that music from that era can still totally creep you out. It’s a pretty creepy song.

Paul McCartney – “No More Lonely Nights”
McCartney in the ’80s was someone who got so much abuse for just trying to figure out what to do with his enormous talent. “Give My Regards to Broad Street” was maybe the dodgiest move he made in the Eighties and that includes “Spies Like Us.” I think when he’s crossing Abbey Road with Chevy Chase and Dan Akroyd in the video; that might be his lowest point of the ’80s.

Ray Parker Jr. – “A Woman Needs Love”
Before “Ghostbusters” he had this huge disco-R&B crossover career. Before that he was Radio spelled RAY, and it was him re-dubbing his music himself. He was always someone who really sounded very friendly and wise giving you advice on how to be an adult dude and how to give your woman the proper love and appreciation. They were kind of like cautionary tales about what would happen if you didn’t treat your woman right. There was a great line in that song where he says, “Sometimes you might come home early from work, open up the door and get your feelings hurt.”

Flock of Seagulls – “Space Age Love Song”
That’s much better than “I Ran.” That was really just kind of like their rock move, but “Space Age Love Song” is their big droopy ballad. It’s this really trance-like, devotional, simple song that really has just like five or six words repeated over and over again. It’s almost like a religious meditation on this sugary, over the top ideal of this perfect girl. But it’s funny because it’s something that the Shirelles or the Shangri-Las or the Ronettes would have done 20 years earlier. This time it was just even bigger hair. I often think of ’80s synth pop as the Eighties version of Fifties doo-wop or Sixties girl group songs. You get a lot of really repetitive, really over the top romantic, rapturous ballads, like about a perfect, idealized girl. Kind of like how the Ronettes used to sing about the boy, that’s how Flock of Seagulls sings about the girl. There are like 60 or something words in the whole song, none of which are “Space Age Love Song.”

L’Trimm – “Cars With the Boom”
In L’Trimm you just had two girls and one’s named Lady Tigra and one’s named Buddy D and the perfect boy is the guy with the perfect car, and the perfect car is just the car with the biggest speakers, with the biggest woofers, making the biggest boom. I love how they’re talking about their wish list for a guy and they make no bones about it. It’s like “Car comes first.” And there is a great part at the end where they’re just repeating the chorus over and over again and they say, “Yo, everybody, if you hear this on the radio turn it up! Turn it up! Honk your horn! Honk them horns!” And you totally get this ridiculous bass feedback and then these honking car horns. You just picture this traffic jam in Miami with all these people honking their horns.


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