What Killed 80’s Rock?
If you’re old enough to remember VH1 Classic, or have Axis TV on your channel grid, you may know Eddie Trunk. If you’re from the East Coast you may have heard him on terrestrial FM rock radio back in the day. Or if you subscribe to Sirius XM Radio you may know his program, “Trunk Nation.” If none of the above apply, then you’ve probably never heard of him.
Long story short, Eddie’s a radio personality, author, and music industry lifer. He’s 10 years older than me, so his favorite era/genre of rock is the same as my older brothers. Though he’s pretty well-versed in rock music from all eras, the bulk of his show’s content and interviews relate to rock music and artists from the 80’s and late 70’s.
The Youtube video below was posted on May 2, 2020. In this extremely interesting short piece, Trunk is interviewed by a gentleman named Daniel Sarkissian. Though I am unfamiliar with Mr. Sarkissian, his Youtube page has nearly 13 thousand subscribers (now including me), so clearly there are many who are familiar with him. Additionally, he has a documentary entitled, Rock is Dead? that I’m looking forward to watching. One of my very first posts (back in the victorlovisa.com blogging days) was “Is Rock N’ Roll Dead?” The topic has been on my mind for years, and I’m curious to view his take.
Sarkissian’s interview with Trunk focuses on how Nirvana and other bands of their era basically wiped out the ’80’s rock scene overnight. Additionally, he asks Eddie for answers to why 90’s era rockers (such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam) and even 70’s rockers for that matter, are still popular in rock radio song rotations, but the majority of 80’s era rock music is overlooked, ignored, and even marginalized. Rather than rehash what Truck said, I’d encourage you to simply watch the clip. He makes some interesting and convincing points.
That said, I’d like to indulge you with my take on why 80’s rock disappeared overnight, why 90’s rock exploded in popularity back then, and why that popularity still holds up on radio today.
For starters, I have no interest in touching the debate over which era produced better music. If you know me, or read any of my stuff, you probably know which side of the fence I’m on. However, it makes no difference to me. A completely subjective debate. I assure you there’s no way in hell you could ever convince my brothers that Pearl Jam made better music than Def Leppard and I’m just fine with that. Likewise I assure you there are people older than them who think Kiss made better rock than Leppard and PJ. Hey, your era is your era. To each their own.
Rather than focus on what’s better, I’d rather look at what’s different. One of Trunk’s arguments in the above video is that 80’s style marginalized the substance of their music. In other words, history only remembers the hair spray, the clothes, etc., while overlooking the musicianship.
Though he may have a point, there’s no denying the formulaic construct of so many 80’s rock bands.
Ok, in fairness I know that image isn’t even fair. I have no idea who that band was and yes, that’s a very extreme example. Point being however, the formula is well-represented. Find a bleach blonde lead singer in an attempt to mimic Joe Elliott, David Lee Roth, or Vince Neil. Have a brown or black haired guitarist who attempts to imitate Eddie Van Halen’s look and playing style. Big blown up hair for all. Bright, outlandish costumes. As the the decade wore on, more and more popped up. The formula didn’t just apply to their look, but in most cases the sound as well.
Even today, I can tell you a Van Halen song from a Motley Crue song, to a Def Leppard or Bon Jovi. But I honestly need a minute or so to often decipher a Cinderella from a Tesla, let alone Europe, Steelheart, Bullet Boys, Slaughter, White Lion, Great White, Dokken, LA Guns, Winger, Warrant, or Firehouse. Honestly, how many of those bands had an Eddie Van Halen rip off in them? Just about all of ’em.
Heading into the early 90’s I think we were ripe for a change. The popularity of 80’s rock created so many imitators, the whole scene became massively saturated. In a way, this made perfect sense for the times. The 1980’s are often referred to as the decade of excess. The formula of the 80’s rock band was certainly reproduced to excess.
When these guys broke on to the mainstream scene in ’91, it symbolized something different. A change. It was still Rock N’ Roll, but it sounded and looked different. Additionally, and maybe this is the important point, they looked and sounded different from one and other as well. If all the bands that broke out of Seattle sounded like Nirvana, it would have been the 80’s all over again. Different sound, but still formula-driven. You see, that’s what I think actually helped the 90’s bands, and why many of them have held up well to this day. There was no formula and no real way to copy a band or artist. Sure, there were some attempts. The biggest culprits were the bands whose lead singers tried to sound like Eddie Vedder (think Candlebox and Creed). Yet by and large there just weren’t imitators in the 90’s like we saw in the 80’s.
To understand why, we must once again revisit the point of style. In the 80’s you could copy the look of a band. This approach wasn’t applicable in the 90’s because the biggest bands didn’t have a “look.” See Pearl Jam one time and all five guys have long hair. See them six months later and only three have long hair. Hey, let’s create a band that looks like Soundgarden, and their bare-chested, long-black-haired singer Chris Cornell. Well that might work until the next time you see Soundgarden, and Cornell’s cut off his long hair and now wears a shirt on stage. There just wasn’t any style or look to copy from these acts. I think this, and perhaps industry lessons learned from the 80’s, is why we never saw the copycatting of acts in the 1990’s that came anywhere close to what the 80’s experienced.
Though I do hear more songs on classic rock radio from bands of the 70’s and 90’s than I do the 80’s, I think ultimately the cream rises to the top and the dreg sinks to the bottom. What I mean is, regardless of Sarkissian’s statistics in the above video, I still hear plenty of Crue, Leppard, Halen, and Jovi on rock radio. In other words, the best bands the decade had to offer. It’s the imitators, and rightfully so, who disappeared. In this sense, it’s no different than any other decade of rock…..it’s just the 80’s had a hell of a lotta imitators!
Thanks for reading,
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