Let’s play a musical parlor game. Take a decade and name the band that comes to mind first. Maybe you say the Beatles for the ’60s or the Bee Gees for the ’70s. Maybe you also have completely different answers. When it comes to the ’80s, it gets more complicated. With expanded musical delivery options like college radio and MTV, and a widening variety of genres — like hip-hop, heavy metal, and the burgeoning alternative field — getting more popular, it’s harder to pin down which band most epitomizes the decade.
However, one band checks many of boxes in terms of what the culture chooses to remember about the ’80s, and their debut album dropped 40 years ago this week. That band is A Flock of Seagulls.
“Tellecommunication” (Uploaded to YouTube by A Flock of Seagulls)
Alister (Ali) Score was born in Beverly, Yorkshire, England in 1952. Five years later, his brother Mike made his debut. By 1978, Mike was making a living as a hairdresser in Liverpool while he assembled Tontrix, a post-punk band, with himself on bass. The band was gone a year later (Mike has said he was thrown out), but Mike put together a new outfit; he took lead vocals and keyboards while Ali joined on drums. After some line-up shuffling put Paul Reynolds on guitar and Frank Maudsley on bass, the classic line-up of A Flock of Seagulls was set.
Mike attributed the group’s unusual name to two sources of inspiration; one was the 1970’s bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, and the other was the lyric “A flock of seagulls!” from the 1978 song “Toiler on the Sea” by British punk royalty The Stranglers.
Despite the punk inspiration, A Flock of Seagulls took aim at a different musical direction. Their sound combined Mike’s up-front keyboards and Reynolds’s guitar textures in a way that stood out from their contemporaries. Duran Duran had both guitars and keys, but frequently featured Andy Taylor’s fret work in a more traditional rock context. On the other end of the spectrum, Reynolds’s playing separated them from acts like Depeche Mode, who didn’t use guitars at all. While Mike Score has said that their sound was “somewhere between Pink Floyd and punk Floyd,” their closest spiritual cousin was probably New Order, who came together in 1980 from the ashes of Joy Division. However, for all of frontman Bernard Sumner’s emotive sincerity, New Order wasn’t deploying the same kind of conceptual dramatics that Seagulls were attempting.
“Space Age Love Song” (Uploaded to YouTube by A Flock of Seagulls)
For one thing, the various songs and singles that A Flock of Seagulls wrote and recorded at the time coalesced into what would become a concept album about alien invasion. And then there was the look. For early promotional footage, New Order wore, well, normal clothes. A Flock of Seagulls embraced elements of the New Wave fashion of the time, including shirts and jackets with sharp edges, Reynolds’s oversized shades, Maudsley’s tailored leather jacket, and, yes, Mike Score’s hair. Rarely has one musician’s hair generated that much attention, but Mike Score put his hairdressing background to work on himself and created something akin to sculpture. His various coifs on stage and in the group’s videos cut memorable, instantly recognizable images into the minds of Generation X. One look at the band let you know that this was going to sound different.
The sound was best described by the second track on the debut album. Mike Score came up with the tune by noodling on a Casio keyboard, and took it to the band for Reynolds to develop a guitar part. When discussing what they might call it, Maudsley said, “It just sounds like a space age love song.” The band wrote the description on the chalkboard in their rehearsal space, and “Space Age Love Song” became the title. While it might not be the most famous song on the album, it would be the band’s second Top 40 hit in America and equally emblematic of their sonic architecture.
“I Ran (So Far Away)” (Uploaded to YouTube by A Flock of Seagulls)
Their most famous song is, of course, “I Ran (So Far Away).” With the combination of keyboards, judicious use of the guitar’s delay pedal, and the percussion sound achieved with Ali Score’s electronic drum pads, the song was both immediately identifiable and instantly modern. It went to No. 9 in the U.S. and was Top Ten in other countries, but, strangely, not back home in the U.K. (where it failed to make the Top 40). It remains the most well-known of the band’s songs, owed in part to the video’s pervasiveness in the early days of MTV. It’s been used extensively in media; when it was including in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, it was the song selected to play in advertisements in part to invoke the game’s overall 1980s aesthetic.
By the time the A Flock of Seagulls album was released on April 30, 1982, the band was already a radio presence with the release of two lead-up singles from the record, “Telecommunication” and “Modern Love Is Automatic.” But “I Ran (So Far Away)” pushed the group to another level. Soon enough, they were touring America and earning press coverage as being part of the developing synth-pop and New Wave scenes. They were also counted among the Second British Invasion, which included acts like Duran Duran, Soft Cell, and Human League. With the music video already a long-established form in Britain, the English bands arrived with clips that were ready-made for MTV. The charts in the summer of 1982 welcomed the groups with open arms. In a “float all boats” cultural moment, established acts like David Bowie got a bump from the new influx of bands, and an additional dimension was added by NWOBHM, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which featured acts like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.
“Who’s That Girl (She’s Got It)” (Uploaded to YouTube by A Flock of Seagulls)
Despite a reputation in America as a one-hit wonder, based primarily on the enormous popularity of “I Ran,” A Flock of Seagulls had hits around the world through two more albums and into 1984. “Who’s That Girl (She’s Got It)” from 1985’s Dreams Come True made it to No. 66 in the U.K., but failed to chart elsewhere. After that, the band broke up until 1988.
Over the years, Mike Score has fronted the constantly touring band in various combinations with other musicians, sometimes with Ali on board. The classic line-up of the Score brothers, Reynolds, and Maudsley has reunited several times; in 2018 and 2021, the four recorded albums with the Prague Symphony Orchestra that included new takes on classic tunes.
“Space Age Love Song” with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (Uploaded to YouTube by A Flock of Seagulls)
Forty years later, A Flock of Seagulls persists as both a band and an idea of what the sound of the early ’80s was like. References to the band abound in films like Pulp Fiction and The Wedding Singer, and songs like “Space Age Love Song” get new life by being featured in movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming. Early positive reviews for the band’s debut by the likes of legendary music critic Robert Christgau in The Village Voice understood that the group was trying something different. They were of their time, but foresaw a future when nearly every aspect of pop music is touched by the electronic. Vital acts like The Weeknd immerse themselves in a Reagan Era aesthetic that was pioneered by the Seagulls and their contemporaries. A Flock of Seagulls weren’t the biggest band of the ’80s, but they are the band that was the most Eighties, and those space age love songs will continue to resonate into the future.
Most people know Jon Stewart as the former host of The Daily Show, a program that made him the king of news satire. The Daily Show was a cultural phenomenon; at one point, Pew Research reported that 12% of Americans claimed to get their news from Stewart and the The Daily Show.
But Jon Stewart wasn’t always the master of late night. Twenty-five years earlier, he was a young comedian who caught a break hosting a talk show on MTV, becoming part of a movement that would shape film and television comedy for the next two decades and beyond.
In the 1980s, Stewart rose through the ranks as a comedian, eventually becoming co-host of Short Attention Span Theater on The Comedy Channel in 1990. While Stewart would co-host SAST with Patty Rosborough until 1993, he also began hosting a show on MTV called You Wrote It, You Watch It. This early stab at crowdsourced comedy featured skits submitted by viewers that would then be performed by the cast. Among the cast were all 11 members of the comedy troupe The State, including comedians Michael Ian Black and Joe Lo Truglio.
By 1993, MTV began developing its first talk show. Created by Stewart, The Jon Stewart Show arrived when MTV was the dynamic center of youth culture. The network had been instrumental in the spread of hip-hop to white audiences and the subsequent alternative music explosion of 1991 and 1992. According to Forbes, MTV made $400 million in revenue in 1992 alone while reaching more than 112 million homes around the world. A talk show on the network would have a huge reach and provide a playing venue for of-the-moment musical acts that frequently struggled to get booked on more mainstream outlets like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Jon Stewart interviewed Conan O’Brien on the show in 1994.
Stewart’s 30-minute daily show followed a fairly traditional talk format. It featured a monologue, interaction with an announcer/sidekick (actor and comedian Howard Feller), skits, interviews with celebrities, and musical performances. The primary difference was Stewart himself; the then-30-year-old had a freewheeling style and readily connected with the teen and college audiences that MTV courted. As a viewer, you could believe that he actually listened to the musicians that appeared on the show, which included Marilyn Manson, Slayer, Guided by Voices, Notorious B.I.G., Body Count, Bad Religion, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The show quickly became the network’s second-highest rated series behind another 1993 debut, Beavis and Butt-Head.
That success led to Paramount Domestic Television, a corporate partner of MTV at the time, converting the show to a full hour and using it to replace the recently cancelled The Arsenio Hall Show in syndication for the 1994-1995 season. For the final half-hour episode on MTV, Stewart’s former Wrote/Watch castmates, the entirety of The State, appeared and destroyed the old set. This was in part a stunt to launch The State, a sketch series featuring the troupe that began airing on MTV in 1994.
The State debuted to decent ratings, but MTV saw the ratings increase as reruns of the original six episodes ran. The series capitalized on some initial negative reviews by incorporating them into ads for the show; the ironic approach drove further increases in viewership. By 1995, The State would make a deal to transition their series to CBS late nights.
Great Moments In . . . was a sketch typical of The State’s idea of turning a humorous premise on its head.
Unfortunately, neither the one-hour version of The Jon Stewart Show nor the CBS incarnation of The State succeeded. What worked for the ratings needs of a network like MTV did not equate to success in the mainstream broadcast market. On the final episode of Stewart, the guest was Stewart’s hero David Letterman, making a rare talk show appearance of his own. Letterman praised Stewart’s work and pointed out that being cancelled was not the same thing as failing.
Letterman’s appearance on the final episode of The Jon Stewart Show in 1995.
In the aftermath of the cancellations, a funny thing happened. Stewart continued working steadily in comedy and film until he was tapped to replace the departing Craig Kilborn on The Daily Show in 1999. Stewart’s arrival sparked a creative rebirth for the show, which is produced by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants company. Stewart hosted the show until 2015, after which he stepped down to pursue other projects.
As for The State, their members spread out into a number of television and film projects. Sometimes acting, sometimes writing and directing, and sometimes producing, the members in various combinations have created or contributed to programs and films like Viva Variety, Reno 911!, Wet Hot American Summer, and the Night at the Museum franchise. As actors, the 11 members of The State remain consistent presences in television, film, and voice acting.
Looking back, Stewart and friends captured a moment when the style of television comedy was changing. They proved it could be absurdist and topical at the same time, occasionally taking on serious subjects in the silliest ways. Like Letterman was to Stewart, they’ve become the mentors of next generation talents like John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Trevor Noah. Their stories remain a solid reminder that even if one attempt fails, somebody else will probably get the joke.