1983: The Last Great Year of Pop
By Mark Simpson
Bowie (pictured above) had, in many ways, made the glamour and swish of synthpop possible; he was certainly the stylistic inspiration for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, however, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), famously bestowing his benediction on Steve Strange and assorted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes,” dressed in a Pierrot costume, being followed by a bulldozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside success he had longed for throughout the ’70s with his “Serious Moonlight” tour, becoming part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.
The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost certainly the last — was more successful than the first, changing the American aesthetic as well as musical landscapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were masterful at drawing attention to themselves onscreen and got saturation exposure on the newly founded MTV. Although their hit single “Girls on Film” was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly “day version” was reissued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the channel, along with “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “The Reflex.”
The synthpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hallmark of ’80s MTV, and eventually made its way into the classic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was especially popular on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s KROQ station — and continued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British synthpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)
It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit synthpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very handsome, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet certainly were, with the possible exception of their lead singers. In the promo for “Everything Counts,” the seemingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in a Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.
For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago), who I always thought sang like a boy crying in his bedroom with the window left deliberately open. Also Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, who was preposterously pretty, even with those mini pigtails. There was something about the boyish vulnerability and sensuality of synthpop that went with their kind of looks — there was definitely a sexual ambiguity in the sequenced air.
Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hopelessly in love with. It was a requited but unconsummated affair — which meant, of course, that it was endlessly orgasmic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, particularly the heartfelt yearnings of “Pale Shelter” — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thanking them for daring to write such openly homoerotic lyrics — and received a diplomatic letter of acknowledgement back from a PR agent informing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”