NEWS

Tom Martin: Pop music jumped the shark in '85, and I helped

Tom Martin

Once you're "knee deep in the hoopla," it's hard to climb out, even after 22 years.

The news of the rock band Starship playing locally sent me reeling back to a ghastly time in music, 1985. That's when Starship released the pinnacle of rock music's 1980s badness with the single, "We Built This City." The song was No. 1 on the Billboard charts for two weeks in November 1985, a testament to a distracted and misguided people.

"We Built This City" is simply hard to forgive. And instead of unleashing all my pent up aggressions that I dedicate to this song, I will simply say San Francisco, the city referenced in the song, was founded in 1776, nearly two centuries before Grace Slick and company "built" it on rock 'n' roll.

The truth is, the mid-'80s were dark times and Starship did not act unilaterally.

In fact, I have a couple of horror stories from that era. A musical performer then, I hooked up with a traveling pop band for a time. The moment branded into my mind is of me standing on a stage in Lancaster, Penn., wearing a white Lionel Richie (Nicole's dad) jacket with shoulder pads, shaking maracas and singing "Boys will be boys ... bad boys. Bad boys." Yeah, that's right. I sang backing vocals in a band covering Miami Sound Machine. It still stings, even more than that Billy Ray Cyrus song I once sang at a wedding reception.

My point is, it was easy to lose your way because, as they say, everyone was doin' it.

Pop music jumped the shark in 1985, and it didn't land until the 1990s. Jumping the shark is a reference to when Fonzie skied over a shark during a "Happy Days" episode that marked the point at which the show turned sour. It has become a metaphor for when something of quality goes south.

And while it's easy to prove pop music began its stinkfest in 1985 (Mr. Mister had a No. 1 hit as did Phil Collins with "Sussudio"), the more telling sign is what 1985 did to bands that were once good.

Heart, the rocking band fronted by the Wilson sisters who broke ground in the '70s with songs like "Crazy On You" and "Barracuda," made a comeback in 1985 with "What About Love." The sisters suddenly looked like Victorian hookers and offered a slick sound with trite lyrics.

And here's the thing about lyrics. In the 1970s you couldn't tell what rock bands were singing. Take Aerosmith, for example. I don't know what they were singing about in the 1970s rock classics "Sweet Emotion" and "Walk This Way," and it didn't matter. Those songs were cool.

Then in 1985, they released "Dude Looks Like a Lady," in which every word was delivered on a shiny platter. All of a sudden I'm wondering, "Hey, when did these guys get stupid?"

Even the Queen of Soul fell into the 1985 abyss with "Freeway of Love." Something's amiss when Aretha Franklin is singing "jump right in, ain't no sin, take a ride in my machine." Let Steppenwolf and Bruce Springsteen sing about their machines; the words fall out of Aretha's mouth like an anvil.

And finally, Stevie Wonder, one of my all-time favorites, after giving us "Superstition" and "Living For the City" in the 1970s, bestowed upon us in 1985 "Part-time Lover."

Of course, these performers had much success in the mid-'80s, but history will be clear on this point: Sharks were jumped, often by people in shoulder pads, some shaking maracas.

But just as I wouldn't want to be judged by that one moment in Pennsylvania, Starship, Aretha and the others deserve a break. It's time to wipe the hoopla from our knees.

Tom Martin is editor of The Register-Mail. Contact him at tmartin@register-mail or 343-7181 Ext. 250.