Sucking in the Eighties

Looking back on their second decade of rock 'n' roll world domination, The Rolling Stones released a 1981 compilation called Sucking in the Seventies. At the time, they were being tongue-in-cheek. From Sticky Fingers in '71 to Some Girls in '78, The Stones rarely sucked. One decade further on, however, the same could not be said. Riddled with mediocre albums, the 1980s was arguably the deepest creative trough in the band's career, as they struggled to remain relevant in an era dominated by neon fashion, synthesizers, and a new filter of cultural relevance aimed squarely at the children of their established fan base: MTV. The Rolling Stones weren't the only iconic superstars to fall victim to the 1980s. Venerable, beloved, and hugely influential artists Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and many of their legendary cohorts spent the better part of that decade releasing the most forgettable and embarrassing albums of their career. Here are the lowlights – the most inessential albums from acts who've had stellar careers, but who were sucking in the eighties.

The Rolling Stones:

Issued in 1983, Undercover isn't actually the worst album The Stones cut in the '80s. That would be 1986's Dirty Work, which offers nothing but routine rock that's been smashed flat by leaden production. 1980's sloppy and haggard-sounding Emotional Rescue didn't offer a promising beginning to the decade, either. Undercover, however, is the most interestingly bad Rolling Stones album of the '80s. It followed on the heels of the band's last truly great album, 1981's Tattoo You, a quadruple-Platinum #1 smash that yielded one of rock's best anthems: "Start Me Up." Having concocted a hit record of pure, lean, punchy rock 'n' roll, it's difficult to imagine why, just two years later, the band felt it was necessary to parrot Duran Duran's entire aesthetic. The wave color schemes on Undercover's artwork feel stolen rather than earned. Meanwhile, the music's post-disco grooves and skittering drum machine beats aren't hip and don't tap into the tropical vibe en vogue at that time. Instead, they're just distracting. With the need to feed the hungry maw of Music Television, more image problems arose for the band. The video for the album's lead single, "Undercover of the Night," tried to paint the Stones as a hot new party band whose raw chemistry could drive a chaste girl to have sex with her boyfriend. Um, guys, that was you...but, like, twenty years ago.

Bob Dylan:

Dylan was still in the middle of his born again Christian phase as the eighties got underway. 1979's Slow Train Coming had succeeded well enough as a crossover LP, lulling his fans into a false sense of security about their hero's new direction. They could not have been prepared for Saved. A huge critical and commercial flop, Dylan's 1980 LP was by far the worst entry from his years schilling for Jesus. Sheathed beneath a garish cover worthy of trailer home decor, the LP revealed none of the songwriter's flair for compelling storytelling or leftfield observations. Instead, it was numbingly straightforward Christian rock, without any of the folksy appeal of, say, Odetta, or even the eclectic flare of Larry Norman. Bob Dylan's soul may have been Saved, but his fans were left stranded. And they wouldn't be rescued by the following year's middling Shot of Love, nor the slick and hollow Empire Burlesque, nor 1986's even slicker and more hollow Knocked Out Loaded. Ditto for that LP's follow-up, Down in the Groove, which should've been titled Stuck in a Rut.

David Bowie:

While his contemporaries started off the '80s on a bum note and kept on sucking, David Bowie's descent into crapdom was more gradual but also the most abysmal. 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – his last LP for RCA – is a great record that feels more like the culmination of his massively influential '70s work. Next was Let's Dance, a pretty good album that's frontloaded with a trio of catchy, enduring hits: "Modern Love," "China Girl," and the sultry title track. The megastar fame that ensued didn't actually "make a man think things over," as Bowie had prophesied. Instead, he coasted through the worst albums of his career - the barely tolerable Tonight, the silly soundtrack to Labyrinth, and 1987's sterile, tuneless, endlessly boring Never Let Me Down, an LP so bad that the artist himself says he "shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it." In addition to truckloads of heavy-handed synths, canned guitar riffs unworthy of Beverly Hills 90210 theme music, a paucity of melodic ideas, and razor-thin vocals, the album's sonic landscape is bowled over by one of the decade's worst production techniques: the thunderous snare. With its cold burst of reverb and blunt insistence, listening to an album plagued by the thunderous snare is like having a coked-up collections agent steadily pounding on your front door for 45 minutes. Our only breather from this beast on Never Let Me Down is the recited intro to "Glass Spider," a Spïnal Tap-like narration beset by vague references to a made-up "eastern province," some conceptually slapdash "altar" made of beads and dew, and abandoned spider babies. As Sarah Palin might say: WTF?

Paul McCartney, Neil Young & Lou Reed:

The Stones, Dylan, and Bowie were not alone in this artistic morass. Sucking in the eighties didn't afflict just a few Baby Boomer rockers; it was an epidemic. After serving up a steady diet of catchy rock hits throughout the '70s, Paul McCartney spent most of the '80s churning out tepid and cloying pap. Worst of the worse was 1984's terribly titled Give My Regards to Broad Street, a bland batch of tunes tied to Macca's flop film of the same name. Neil Young was also far from immune. His string of '80s albums is one misstep after another, but he never stumbled harder than with 1986's Landing on Water. Why? In a word: synthpop. Yes, the Godfather of Grunge spent an entire year laboring under the delusion that he was Wang Chung. Lou Reed's provocative 1975 album of howling guitar feedback, Metal Machine Music, is his most divisive and derided LP, but 1980's Growing Up in Public is far more embarrassing and way less intriguing. Overly earnest and hammy, it's like listening to a friend's journal set to lite rock opera tunes performed by a community theater.

And They Shall Rise Again:

The point of all this is not to elucidate how a bunch of great artists lost their mojo and never got it back. That would be depressing. No, instead, this is a tale of redemption, with the happy Hollywood ending scored by the musicians themselves. Yes, these acts all spent most of the eighties sucking, but they all narrowly escaped the era with their reputations intact, thanks to the middle-aged musician's year of rebirth: 1989.

After the miserable Dirty Work, The Rolling Stones got back on track with 1989's Steel Wheels, a vibrant, rockin' record that could have been issued ten years prior. Meanwhile, Bob Dylan's Daniel Lanois-produced 1989 album Oh Mercy received high marks from the press and yielded his first Gold album since 1983's Infidels. David Bowie's turnaround was less triumphal, but, remember, he'd dug himself a deeper hole. Desperate for rejuvenation, he formed an alternative rock band, Tin Machine, whose self-titled 1989 debut was...eh, pretty good. Still, that's better than sucking. Paul McCartney, too, won back critical favor with Flowers in the Dirt, his very strong 1989 LP that featured co-writes with Elvis Costello. That same year, Neil Young rebounded with Freedom, a return to form that earned five stars from Rolling Stone and a spot in Billboard's Top 20. Another major success story from 1989 was Lou Reed's New York LP. Not only is it a rebound after the miserable Mistrial, the gritty yet charming album is among the very best of his solo career.

Over the last two decades, these artists have continued to have their ups and downs, but most have nurtured good late careers. Moreover, in the 2000s, Dylan, Bowie, and Young issued some of the best albums in their storied discographies. Happily, the eighties didn't end the career of these great acts. They rolled with punches and discovered once more what made them great. Now, that meddlesome decade seems like nothing more than a bump in the road. Like the old proverb says, everybody's gotta suck sometimes.

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Comments

Adam called it. Am I really that predictable?

I'm actually a pretty big fan of Lou's '80s output, but I can't really defend a lot of it. I recognize that there's a lot of embarrassing stuff there, but I still dig the little nuances and uniquely Lou-ish touches that color all of those LPs.

Even though I love the hell out of "Growing Up in Public," I can see why others wouldn't. A lyric like "They're quasi-effeminate characters in love with oral gratification / They edify your integrities so they can play on your fears" is either going to make you groan or grin. I'm the latter. Also, no one will ever convince me that "The Power of Positive Drinking" is anything but awesome.

Elsewhere in the '80s, "The Blue Mask" contains some of Lou's finest moments, notably "Waves of Fear." "Legendary Hearts" is kind of like "Growing Up in Public" redux, but with the pretension slightly scaled back. "New Sensations" starts slow, but the second half is flat-out great. And "Mistrial" is actually... well, it isn't quite as bad as... I mean, if you're in just the right mood it...

OK, "Mistrial" sucks. You got me there.

I'll also admit to an odd fondness for Neil Young's "Landing On Water," but I won't even try to make excuses for that one.

Sound the Ira Alarm - Lou Reed has been mentioned.

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