Reflections On . . . 1980s Culture in the Digital Age

By Dave Lordan

Updated / Wednesday, 27 July 2022 12:24


It is hard to overstate the gulf between the cultural experience of teens of my generation – the 1980s and 90s – and those of the digital era. Instantaneity is at the heart of it. Take books. Books were often slow to arrive in the days before the internet. When I began my reading journey, for example, some of the books I wanted to read had to be ordered through a system called inter-library loans, taking three or four weeks to arrive from a larger library. Now books on any subject are accessible at the speed of light. And much of the subject matter and the function of books has been largely taken over by digital media – how-to videos, for example, and all those encyclopaedic historical podcasts. Teens are also far more likely to engage with digital forms of storytelling – everything from one-minute Tik-Toks to Netflix series to immersive video games – than they are to read books. All the same, the triumph of the digital realm means the world’s great literature is available for free for anyone who might choose to explore it.

Our youthful encounters with music were likewise vastly different in terms of medium and style of consumption. My first album was a cassette of Queen’s Greatest Hits, a Xmas present from my parents in 1985 to accompany my fancy new a-la-mode cassette player! Few teenagers now know what a cassette is, cassette players are all part of the long-submerged 1980s layer in your local landfill, and young people have swapped albums for playlists – though Queen at least have lasted into the digital era. After the success of the smash hit Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody a few years ago many teens became overnight Queen fans.

Something similar has now happened for alt.80s icon Kate Bush by way of the inclusion of Running Up That Hill in the Netflix megahit Stranger Things (see Kate Bush being ahead of her time on The Late Late Show c. 1978). As a youth workshop leader this summer it’s been a pleasure and a bonus to at long last have some musical taste in common with my students! Some have even asked me for recommendations – what other artists were fans of Kate Bush likely to be into back in the day?

Since the 80s were such a rich period for alternative popular music, every alt.80’s veteran and crusty old bohemian like myself would probably give you a slightly or even completely different list, so without any claim to be definitive, here’s my top five Gen X music recommendations for Gen Z Kate Bush Fans:

The Cocteau Twins : As with Kate Bush, lead singer Elizabeth Fraser, who later teamed up with Massive Attack, is no mere bearer of lyrics but an ethereal additional instrument whose virtuoso vocals are an essential part of all the Cocteau Twins complex and enchanting song melodies. Fraser’s lyrics are some of the most poetic around but what she is singing is of secondary importance to how beautifully she sings it – her voice creates a dream world in which it is possible to escape from this one for hours at a time – and boy did we need such dreamplaces to escape into in 1980s Ireland!

The Cure: Many, including myself, regard The Cure as the pinnacle of post-punk musical achievement and one of the greatest bands of all time. Their back catalogue is so huge and diverse it can be hard to know where to start – there are as many ways to enter the realm of The Cure as there are to enter a forest. In the spirit of the alt.80s then, why not start as far away from the singalong hit singles as possible and check out these fantastic B-sides The Exploding Boy & The Big Hand and take it from there. P.S if you don’t know what a B-side is, google it!

Aphex Twin:  The Mozart of Techno, who introduced youth culture to the kind of electronic music that makes one as likely to have visions as dance. Each tune on Selected Ambient Works volumes 1 and 2 is as unexpected and as uniquely perfect as the last, and they all sound today as fresh and as brilliant as on the day they were minted alone on improvised tech in a caravan in rural Wales.

New Model Army: The alt.80s were a melting pot of musical fusion and political tumult and New Model Army, a kind of English Pogues, were masters at creating anthems and ballads in an uplifting, fast-paced, melodic mix of punk, pop, and folk styles, inspiring resistance and alternative community throughout the 80s. Their fans were so committed to alternative lifestyles that they took to the road in large convoys to follow them around the UK on tour – a major part of the brief but colourful and inspiring  New Age Traveller movement of the time. Best sampled through 1992’s classic Raw Melody Men

The Pixies:  Thirty-five years on from its release The Pixies 1987 single Monkey Gone To Heaven remains the most devastating of environmentalist anthems. If you want proof that our alternative youth culture foresaw today’s environmental catastrophe and also screamed in raw despair, here it is. Fan favourites such as Heh, Gigantic, and Cactus took the lovesong for the longest, strangest walk it had been on since Nico & The Velvet Underground and band leaders Kim Deal & Frank Black pursued many other musical projects beside and beyond The Pixies that are all worth checking out….

….and as the fella says, if you like any of these, there’s plenty more where they came from, the alt.80s is a musical Odyssey that can go on and on and on as long as you like – and you have it all at your fingertips! Enjoy.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Dave Lordan is an Irish poet, memoirist, and experienced youth educator working in a variety of mediums. Check out his audiomemoir The Dead Friends on Spotify, where you’ll also find The Only Real Irish Poet in Dublin and Snowflakes, and Christy Moore’s version of Dave’s Lost Tribe of The Wicklow Mountains. While on youtube you can hear him being the famous Fearless, lecturing on Liam O Flaherty’s Skerrett , creatively campaigning against bullying, and interviewing fellow alt.80s head Sara R Philips on her punky rare badge collection!

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