1983: The Last Great Year of Pop
By Mark Simpson
Collages by Erika Simmons
In 1983, the year that McDonald’s introduced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when large NATO exercises were mistaken by an extremely jittery USSR for preparations for a new Barbarossa.
More ominously, compact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first commercial mobile telephone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into existence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born. In other words, while the world itself didn’t end in 1983, all the necessary means were invented for bringing about something much worse: the end of pop music.
Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bittersweet thought to savor, since 1983 was unquestionably the finest year for pop music ever.
1983 was also — perhaps not so coincidentally my final year at high school, and instead of studying for my exams and thinking about what I wanted to actually do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hypnotized by the LED and LCD equalizer displays on the latest sound systems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-7 turntable. There were various reasons for its quasi-sexual appeal: The total surface area was no bigger than an LP sleeve, and the turntable had a really cool linear arm tracking inside the lid that was automatically operated with buttons at the front. It was very futuristic; like a giant, clunky, analog CD player, before anyone I knew had a CD player.
But the real reason for my infatuation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’s “Love Is a Stranger” that its cunning salesman slapped on at full volume. Not only did the otherworldly, drivingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s operatic range superbly showcase the sound dynamics of the product, the lyrics Lennox breathed, seemingly in the back of your mind, were the ultimate hard sell:
“And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”
Pop music in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, gilt-edged, glamorous, sleekly designed car, tempting you in and driving you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’s second single, “This Charming Man,” also released in 1983, featured that same car-driving stranger offering Morrissey a ride. This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and anything seemed possible — because it was. The neck-strainingly rapid developments in music-making technology meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actually done it. Every record was a revelation. A miracle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Invention was king. Eurythmics recorded their sophomore album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fixtures of a professional studio. The title song was recorded in a single take, with Lennox improvising most of the lyrics on the spot and David Stewart tapping on half-filled milk bottles to produce that chiming sound as Lennox sings “Hold your head up / Keep your head up.” In this new landscape, record companies had little choice but to indulge their prodigies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop “Love Is a Stranger” from being yanked off the air during an early transmission on MTV by executives who confused Lennox for a transvestite.)