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.
David Byrne’s American Utopia
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Star: David Byrne
Director: Spike Lee
Streaming on HBO. Reviewed at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival
Is there any music video that screams “1980s” more loudly than Talking Heads’ primal “Once in a Lifetime?” There’s bespectacled, bow-tied frontman David Byrne, circa 1980, a cross between Clark Kent and Pee Wee Herman, stiffly spazzing to the song’s complex rhythms, singing of America’s macabre pursuit of material comforts, making a hatchet of his left hand while whacking away at his right forearm wailing, “This is not my beautiful house!”
Forty years later, here is Byrne again, standing on the stage of Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, his eyes still piercing but a tad more haunted; not quite as willowy but, despite approaching 70, still remarkably bendy.
And he’s still singing about what’s important to us — while reminding us what should be important — performing nonstop with a troupe of 11 singer/dancer/musicians with enough energy to power all those garish electrical advertisements that line New York’s Great White Way, just outside the theater’s doors.
Talking Heads broke up about 30 years ago, and Byrne went on to remain an influential singer/songwriter. His most recent album, American Utopia, became the basis of this 2019 stage show, which also incorporated several classic songs from his Talking Heads days. Filmmaker Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) was so blown away by the show’s minimalist staging, elaborate choreography, and driving rhythms, he approached Byrne about bringing it to the screen — not as a straight-on filmed stage show but as an extended music video that commented on the music even while documenting it.
The result is a film with so many layers of brilliance — musical, dramatic, and cinematic — that it’s difficult, in a delightful way, to focus on any one element at any one time.
Barefoot and exhaustingly intense, Byrne is a force of nature, his face set like flint on exploring the secret corners of the human psyche. For “Here,” the opening song, he literally holds a plastic model brain in his hand, singing about its unfathomable intricacies (“Here is a region,” he sings, “that is seldom used.”)
The live audience (filmed, of course, before COVID-19 emptied New York’s theaters) is predictably ecstatic, but this filmed version creates an uncanny sense of intimacy, despite the public venue. Lee, who’s dabbled in music documentaries before, has created one of the most immersive concert films since — well, since Jonathan Demme captured the ethereal essence of Talking Heads in 1984’s Stop Making Sense. At times Lee pushes disturbingly close to Byrne’s evocative face; at others he pulls back to encompass the large cast dancing, marching, writhing, playing instruments and, most powerfully, standing absolutely still. He even lifts his camera to the theater’s fly space, focusing down on the performers like a latter-day Busby Berkeley.
Most powerfully, filmmaker Lee takes essential moments to break through the walls of the Hudson Theatre to the troubled world outside. Although American Utopia was filmed in late 2019, Lee cuts away from Byrne’s urgent performance of the protest song “Hell You Talmbout” to confront us with the ghosts of 2020: photos of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
At those moments, the title of American Utopia seems distressingly ironic. But happily, Byrne insists, all is not lost. There is still uplifting music. There are still those synapses of compassion that fire through our brains. And there is still that spark of hope that we can, despite ourselves, make a better world.
Same as it ever was.
Featured image: David Byrne’s American Utopia (Courtesy of TIFF)