The Boston Sounds 12th August 2008
Retro active

The Regeneration Tour reheats the ’80s

Daniel Brockman

The ’80s, pop culture’s most tenacious decade, were a mix of greed, technological breakthrough, and hope for a bright future. At least, that’s the story we buy into before pegging our pants and bounding out to one ’80s karaoke night after the next.

“The music from that era is very uplifting — I think it’s the last really creative decade of music,” says Belinda Carlisle, solo artist and still-occasional Go-Go, speaking from a London hotel before embarking upon the 2008 Regeneration Tour, which comes to the Comcast Center this Wednesday with a cavalcade of ’80s recidivists. “A lot of songs from that era are anthemic and uplifting. Sometimes the stuff sounds ’80s due to production, but the decade, songwise, certainly has a certain sound.”

Phil Oakey, of the Human League (also rocking Regeneration), has a somewhat amused perspective about the appeal of ’80s music. “A hell of a lot of it is nostalgia, right? It’s not exactly cutting-edge, but it serves to remind the audience how much they enjoyed something from a formative period in their lives that was, and is, very important to them.”

The Human League began in the late ’70s as a product of and a reaction to the rise of British punk; their career culminated in the worldwide smash of their 1981 Dare album and single “Don’t You Want Me.” “There was a bleak industrial movement going on in Britain, and we sort of liked being a part of it, but at the same time, we really loved pop. I wanted to be Donna Summer or Barry White, you know? And we really wanted chart success. People that we admired, like David Bowie or Bryan Ferry, were often people who’d stepped up their game and said, ‘Right, we’d better do some popular records!’ ”

One defining characteristic of this game-stepping-up was technology — in particular the rise of the synthesizer. Oakey and Mike Score, singer and synth player for A Flock of Seagulls (also on Regeneration), had similar moments of epiphany. “When I was a kid, I was into science fiction,” says Score, “and that’s what I wanted the band to sound like: from outer space, almost. And synthesizers were the newest, latest thing. I think I was the second person in Liverpool to have a synthesizer.”

“We wanted to be evangelists for synthesizers,” adds Oakey. “Our rule early on was that the only thing that could be recorded with a microphone on the album was the voice.” Synths wound up being a polarizing musical element of ’80s pop, making music futuristic while

stoking enough animosity among rock fans to rival the disco-record-burning ’70s. Score: “In 19th-century England, there were these people called the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and they rebelled against the cotton gin [editor’s note: actually against the lowering of wages] — because it’s something new, right? If you’re a guitar player or a drummer, you’re going to say, ‘Oh, what’s this new thing, am I going to lose my job because of this?’ ”

Of course, new-wavers were eventually replaced as well: “America ruined new wave,” says Score, whose band hit it big with the MTV-fueled success of the “I Ran” single, only to come to represent the stylistic excesses of the ’80s decades later. “American bands, one afternoon they were rock bands and the next they were ‘new wave’ bands, crimping their hair — and that’s how it ended.”

“I grew up in a really gray place,” explains Oakey, “and new wave was the last sort of happy flowering of ‘Yay! We’re going to make big splashy records, we’re going to wear really bright clothes and make-up!’ ” Score recounts how when his band started, “the whole thing in Liverpool was very gothic, very dark punk, people wearing dark raincoats. Everyone looked the same, and we wanted to look different. We bleached our hair and put red shirts on. People would look at us and go, ‘What are you guys all about?’ We didn’t realize that it was part of a country-wide thing: people being a little bit happy, not so morbid!”

Eighties stars tend to have a bittersweet view of the ’90s. “I felt, when I moved to France in the early ’90s, that it was a turning point for me, creatively,” says Carlisle. “It was weird: I cut off all my hair, wore it really short, like I wanted to cut myself off from all that was. I went through a kind of identity crisis.” Oakey also laments the moment when, even at the top, he could see the precipice: “It was a pretty unhappy period. We were very aware that we weren’t as good as the chart statistics made us look, and that our producer was a pretty big part of our success. We couldn’t really play too well, and to a certain extent we didn’t even want to play really well; we kept thinking that we didn’t have the talent to justify being there.”

Self-depreciation aside, Oakey understands the cyclical appeal of ’80s music: optimism. “We absolutely loved punk, but we knew it was pretty hypocritical: a lot of pretty middle-class people who had rich parents, who weren’t having a hard time at all, complaining about unemployment, and we were just like, ‘C’mon mate, let’s just admit things are going good for us at the moment!’ "