Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Don't Worry, Be Happy

At millennium's end, the '80s are making one last grasp at respectability.

By Mark Jordan

AUGUST 23, 1999:  In recent weeks Memphis music venues have hosted the likes of Hall & Oates, Pat Benatar, the Outfield, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. This week in Tunica, you can check out back-to-back shows by Duran Duran and Men At Work. And in the coming months we'll be visited by the likes of Huey Lewis & the News and Morris Day & the Time.

And now Congress has passed a massive, Republican-backed, ill-advised tax cut. If I could only squeeze into my parachute pants, I'd swear it was 1982.

The truth, however, is that while baby busters' salad days are gone for good, the trappings of the decade of our youth, the '80s, are making a comeback. The Have A Nice Day Cafe is passe -- again. While blacksploitation flicks, bell bottoms, and disco may be all the rage right now, the canny trendspotters are already looking ahead to the '80s for the next cultural revival.

Just look on the tube: One of the fall's more eagerly anticipated new shows, NBC's Freaks & Geeks, looks at high school through a circa-1980 prism.

Or turn on your radio: The most-talked about new radio station in town, the Phantom 96.1, mixes in '80s bands from ABC to Yaz with the contemporary alternative rock they inspired.

But leading the new '80s wave are the bands that set the decade's beat. In recent months, Blondie, XTC, Rick Springfield, and the Pretenders have all released new albums and joined the likes of Missing Persons, Culture Club, and the Go-Gos on the road.

"Some of these acts never really went away," says Gary Bongiovani, editor of the concert trade magazine Pollstar. "Some took time off but others have been out there all along trying to make a living. It's just that now there are suddenly a lot more of them."

That may be, but if you're looking for original members in these reprised bands, you'll actually find a lot fewer of them. Duran Duran and Men At Work both come into town with only two original members each. Men At Work can boast principal singer and songwriter Colin Hay and Greg Ham, who contributed the distinctive woodwinds to tracks such as "Down Under." Duran Duran has its equally distinctive singer Simon Le Bon and keyboardist Nick Rhodes, though guitarist Warren Caccurullo has been with the group since 1986.

In the most outrageous example of trading on a name, however, the reformed Frankie Goes To Hollywood, which recently played Newby's, has no original members, just lead singer Holly Johnson's brother. Currently the band is being threatened with litigation from the original members for unfair use of the group's name.

What has led to such egregious carpetbagging is a thirst among young twenty- and thirtysomethings for a sip of their past.

"It's just a natural tendency for people to have these feelings of nostalgia every few years," says University of Memphis sociology professor James Preston. "It happens with books, movies, fashion, but music is one of the best ways of expressing these emotions. It gets the juices flowing and the synapses firing, retrieving all these past memories and feelings."

But Bongiovani sees the trend as the symptom of a music industry that values making a fast buck with a trendy flash in the pan over developing art that lasts, sadly the most lasting legacy of the "Me" decade that also produced junk bonds and corporate takeovers.

"The problem we seem to be having is we're not building careers of any longstanding any more," he says. "It'd be nice if we were turning out acts today that could still be creatively vital 10 years from now. I'm just afraid five years from now we'll be talking about all the '90s bands who are getting back on the road. I'm not looking forward to that."

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