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.
Formed in Birmingham, England in 1978, Duran Duran exploded into popularity alongside the Video Age. Powered by a fervent fanbase and regular rotation on MTV, the band stormed the charts around the world, beginning with their self-titled debut album. Duran Duran hit stores 40 years ago this week and helped to drive what observers called the Second British Invasion. Here’s how five lads combined pop music and high style to create an audio-visual legacy that’s lasted for four decades and counting.
The story begins at Birmingham club Rum Runner. Nick Rhodes and John Taylor, both still in their teens at the time, worked at the club and assembled a group to serve as the house band. The dominant styles at the time were the New Romantic movement (characterized by an embrace of a pop-oriented, synthy sound and fashion inspired in equal measure by ’70s Glam Rock and the Romantic period of the early 1800s) and British punk (typified by the anti-authoritarian bent of The Clash and The Sex Pistols). The reigning punk club was called Barbarella’s; in a bit of nod, Nick and John decided to name their band after a character from the film, Dr. Durand Durand, minus the title and the extra Ds.
The line-up of the band went through a few configurations in the early days. The most substantial contributor who didn’t stick around was guitarist Andy Wickett; he co-wrote “Girls on Film” and the song that would become “Rio” before leaving to join The Xpertz (his later band, World Service, would open for his old mates in the ’90s). The final “original” line-up would coalesce into John Taylor (bass), Nick Rhodes (keyboards), Roger Taylor (no relation, drums), Andy Taylor (also no relation, guitar) and Simon Le Bon (vocals). From the beginning, the band was conscious of showmanship and image; stylist Perry Haines and other designers collaborated with the group on their look.
Eventually, the group signed with EMI in December of 1980 and hit the studio soon after. Their first album, Duran Duran, arrived in June of 1981. One of the earliest impressions that the band made in the U.S. was via its sexually charged video for “Girls on Film,” which underwent serious editing to be shown on MTV. The band began to generate more attention for both their songs and their looks; they also earned many new fans when they toured in support of Blondie. By the time that Rio dropped in the U.K. in March of 1982, they were on their way to being superstars.
However, Rio stiffed in the U.S., except for some dance remixes that were popular in the clubs. The band convinced their American label, Capitol, to allow them to remix and re-release the entire album. The new Rio dropped in late 1982, with the group repositioned as a dance band. And it exploded. The album went to #6 in the States in 1983, and a fusillade of hit singles saw major success, including “Hungry Like the Wolf” (#3), “Save A Prayer” (#16), and “Rio” (#14). As popular as the songs were, the videos were even bigger; driven by constant rotation on MTV, album sales soared. Buoyed by this success, the band re-released their first album in the States with an added single, “Is There Something I Should Know?,” which went to #4.
Members of the band have compared this period to Beatlemania, and they weren’t wrong. Throngs of people filled the streets at signings. Shows sold out. Public appearances produced screaming mobs of fans. Before 1983 was out, the band had recorded and released their third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger. “Union of the Snake” hit #3 before the year was over, giving the band the distinction of having hit the U.S. Top Twenty five times with songs from three albums in one year. Subsequent single “New Moon on Monday” went to #10, but “The Reflex” was their first song to go all the way to #1 in America. 1984 saw a worldwide tour that was captured on the live Arena album; a new single on the collection, “The Wild Boys,” went to #2. The band would also win two Grammys that year (for long and short-form video) and get featured on the cover of Rolling Stone.
After a rapid ascent and amazing success, there was desire in the ranks to stretch. This resulted in two side projects occurring at what appeared to be the band’s peak. John and Andy leaned into a more rock-oriented direction, forming The Power Station with singer Robert Palmer and Chic drummer Tony Thompson. Simon, Nick, and Roger formed Arcadia, a band with similar sensibilities to the regular group. The Power Station took two singles (“Some Like It Hot” and a cover T-Rex’s of “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” to the Top Ten, while Arcadia landed “Election Day” at #6 and sent “Goodbye Is Forever” into the Top 40.
The five members of Duran Duran reconvened to record “A View to A Kill,” the eponymous theme for the fourteenth James Bond film. The song went #1 in the U.S., the only Bond theme to do so. The band played Live-Aid at the Philadelphia location on July 13, 1985, while “View” sat atop the charts in America. The band didn’t know it at the time, but “View” was the last single that the five of them would record together for almost two decades.
In 1986, Roger Taylor left and went into semi-retirement, citing exhaustion. Andy Taylor signed a solo deal and split after playing on a few songs for the next record; he had a solo hit with “Take It Easy” and co-wrote and produced “Lost in You,” “Forever Young,” and “My Heart Can’t Tell You No” on Rod Stewart’s hugely successful Out of Order. Simon, John, and Nick moved on as Duran Duran, recruiting guitarist Warren Cuccurullo of Missing Persons; Sterling Campbell would eventually become the session, then live, drummer. The group took “Notorious” to #6 in 1986 with a slightly more mature, funk-inflected sound (driven in part by producer Nile Rodgers). However, the band found themselves in a not-uncommon spot in music. Once viewed as teen idols to a degree, they had a hard time shaking that image. They were still recording hit songs (like “I Don’t Want Your Love” and “All She Wants Is”), but it was fairly clear that the peak of the band had likely passed. Campbell would leave for other projects in 1991.
Then, the improbable happened. In a 1993 landscape filled with alternative rock and rising hip-hop acts, Duran Duran released a second self-titled record (aka The Wedding Album). Lead single “Ordinary World” went to #3, and “Come Undone” hit #7. The band again toured the world, and put together a hit collection of covers called Thank You. Critics loathed Thank You, but several of the covered artists, like members of Led Zeppelin, praised the versions of their songs; Lou Reed went so far as to say that the band’s cover of his “Perfect Day” was the best cover ever done of his work.
Duran Duran carried on for the next few years, but without many highs. John left the band for other projects, reducing the group to Simon, Nick, and Cuccurullo. The band departed Capitol/EMI and released a single unsuccessful album, Pop Trash, for Hollywood Records. Simon pitched John on a reunion of the classic group in 2000; after the Pop Trash tour, Cuccurullo exited to rejoin Missing Persons. Throughout 2001 through 2003, the reunited quintet worked on a new album, but couldn’t find a record deal to their liking. Instead, they hit the road.
The reception surprised the band, as fans emerged to cause instant sell-outs, starting in Tokyo. A veritable Duran Duran lovefest happened across a series of awards shows, as the MTV Music Video Awards, Q Magazine, and the Brit Awards all presented the group with variations of lifetime achievement honors. The band signed with Epic Records, and the first single from 2004’s Astronaut, “(Reach Up for The) Sunrise” was another worldwide hit, going #1 Dance and #13 Adult Top 40 in the States and #5 in the U.K. Near the end of 2006, Andy Taylor departed again.
In the ensuing years, the band has never stopped working. Whether doing covers for charity albums or mounting concerts that were filmed and directed by David Lynch, Duran Duran continues to challenge expectations. On May 18, the band announced that their new album, Future Past, will arrive on October 22. The next day, they dropped a new single, “Invisible,” which promptly shot to #3 on the U.K. iTunes chart and #29 in the U.S. Through 15 albums and 40 years of world tours, the boys from Birmingham managed to survive naysayers that insisted they were all fashion and little substance. With tunes that remain alive in the popular consciousness and a recurring groundswell of excitement whenever they announce their return, there IS something you should know about Duran Duran: wild boys always shine.
Featured Image: Las Vegas- Pop band Duran Duran perform onstage during Day 2 of the 2015 Life is Beautiful Festival on September 26, 2015 in Las Vegas Nevada (Shutterstock)
Bruce Springsteen’s The River is an album obsessed with the idea of legacy. Released in 1980, the two-record set was a grand ode to the sound of classic 1950s and 60s rock, landing on store shelves in the midst of an economic recession that made the optimism of yesterday seem more and more distant. Beyond aesthetics, the album’s lyrics explore the effects that family and birthplace can have on someone’s life, a personal legacy of sorts that is passed on from generation to generation. So while 2020 is a year full of E Street fanfare (including the upcoming release of Springsteen’s 20th studio album Letter to You later this month), looking back at The River and its own legacy is perhaps the most quintessential Bruce experience possible during our current moment of quarantine.
1980 was a crossroads of sorts in Springsteen’s early career. 1975’s Born to Run was a breakout success (landing Springsteen on the cover of both Newsweek and Time in the same week), but a series of contract disputes prevented the release of any new music in the wake of the album’s release. So although ‘the Boss’ would eventually reach ridiculous levels of stardom with 1984’s Born in the USA, the years after Born to Run’s release were permeated by a feeling of unfulfilled potential. The promise of escape offered in the lyrics of Thunder Road (“It’s a town full of losers, and we’re pulling out of her to win”) now rung hollow.
Yet Springsteen was not devoid of purpose during this transitionary period. In the time between album releases, the E Street Band secured its reputation as a prolific live act, consistently touring around the country at a litany of small venues and college campuses. This led to the widespread recording and distribution of album bootlegs (many of which have since been officially released), which kept the band relevant as they continued to perfect their potent mixture of garageband and operatic rock. It was also a period of great lyrical productivity, as Springsteen continued to write songs even though he was unable to release any. After three years of contract dispute, the album drought finally ended in 1978 with the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Yet even though the album was met with both critical and commercial success, it came nowhere close to generating the same amount of buzz as Born to Run three years prior. It also came nowhere close to releasing all of the songs that Springsteen had written. A follow up to Darkness on the Edge of Town (titled The Ties that Bind) was finished and delivered to the record company, but Bruce scrapped the project right before its release. Instead, he set his sights on an album that could do justice to the vast catalogue of songs he had on reserve and capture the live sound that the E Street Band had been honing throughout the decade. And so, the idea for a two-record set was born.
The River was finally released on October 17, 1980, with a robust 20-song tracklist to back up Springsteen’s grand ambitions. The first track, The Ties that Bind, is a bold reintroduction to the E Street Band, filled to the brim with glorious 12-string guitars and a triumphant saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons. Yet despite the self-assured rock and roll of the E Street Band, the frustration of the past five years is almost immediately evident in Springsteen’s lyrics. He sings, “You been hurt and you’re all cried out you say. You walk down the street pushing people out of your way.” Throughout many of the uptempo songs on the album — Sherry Darling, Jackson Cage, Two Hearts, Out in the Street — these same themes of hurt and frustration are present, forming a sharp juxtaposition with the mostly pop sound of the band’s arrangements.
Springsteen, however, was not the only artist grappling with such themes at the start of the new decade. Acts like The Clash and The Ramones were popularizing the pop-punk sound throughout the later half of the 70s, articulating a general sentiment of discontent with both the culture and sound of mainstream music. The River was released in the midst of this larger moment and is certainly worth viewing as a part of it, but while Springsteen took on many of the same themes as these new acts, he did so by dressing them in the garments of yesteryear. The E Street Band’s sound on The River is an amalgamation of the styles that defined rock’s past, jumping between the Beatles, Chuck Berry, and even some Pete Seeger for good measure. It is an album that explores the 1950s, 60s, and 70s from the position of someone living in 1980, using music as a way to trace back to the root cause of their personal and political problems.
A 1950’s, B-Movie aesthetic is present in many aspects of The River’s design, ranging from the bold font on the album’s cover to the marquee-ready titles of certain songs (Point Blank screams low-budget crime flick). It was not the first time that Springsteen had tapped into this certain breed of nostalgia — the titles for Thunder Road and Born to Run were both themselves derived from forgotten B-pictures — yet the songs on The River carried with them a new sense of dread. In the aforementioned Point Blank, the romance narratives of Hollywood are subverted, giving way to a practical melancholy that was more suitable for the Carter recession. Springsteen sings, “I was gonna be your Romeo, you were gonna be my Juliet. These days you don’t wait on Romeos, you wait on that welfare check.” Similarly, Hungry Heart (the only hit off the album, which impressively broke the top 10) is a comedic take on 1950’s pop music, setting the story of a deadbeat dad to the happy-go-lucky beat of classic doowop. Adding even further to the irony of the song, Springsteen had originally written it for The Ramones, one of the pop-punk bands that The River was a response to.
Throughout The River, the Peter Pan fantasy of rock and roll is forced to grow up and face the economic realities of 1980, a painful yet inevitable process that is most clearly seen in the album’s title track. This theme of inevitability is clear from the song’s first line: “I come from down in the valley, where Mister when you’re young, they bring you up to do, like your daddy done.” What ensues is a haunting tale about an unplanned pregnancy, a dead end job, and an unhappy couple that is unable to reconcile their happy memories with the grave nature of their current situation. At the song’s climax, the narrator asks, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” It is a question that was applicable to many people’s lives in 1980, including Springsteen’s. While the cover of Born to Run had an optimistic, leather-jacket wearing Bruce looking towards the future, the cover of The River has him staring blankly forward, coming to terms with the broken promises of music, movies, and politics.
The River — both the album and the song — is not only about cultural legacies though, but also the personal legacies that family and relationships create. Bruce Springsteen’s fraught relationship with his father is a topic present across his discography, yet in his more recent work (including his memoir, broadway show, and 2019’s fantastic Western Stars) he has acknowledged that an undiagnosed mental illness was at the root of this issue. Although such illness is never directly confronted, tracks like I Wanna Marry You, Fade Away, and Stolen Car all explore how the spectre of Springsteen’s father hangs heavy over the other relationships in his life (a theme that is also at the heart of 1987’s Tunnel of Love). However, the effect of this relationship is most explored on the heartbreaking track Independence Day. Gently driven forward by organist Danny Federici’s beautiful melody, the song plays out as a lullabye of sorts, framed around a late night conversation between a father and a son. However, the roles are reversed, and now the son is telling the father to go to sleep. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that the son is ready to leave town and start his own life, but he knows that his father will both resent him and be proud of him for leading the life that he was never able to. The narrator is forced to compromise his own dreams for the future with the reality of what those dreams will cost, a theme that rings true throughout the album. Springsteen sings, “So say goodbye it’s Independence Day. Papa I know the things you wanted that you could not say. But won’t you just say goodbye it’s independence day. I swear I never meant to take those things away.”
Across its expansive run time, the characters on The River are all forced to make similar compromises, balancing their hope for the future with an understanding of the legacies that they are subject to. However, this compromise is not always hopeless. On the penultimate track of the album, Drive All Night, Springsteen tells the tale of a loving man who is selflessly dedicated to buying his love a pair of shoes in the middle of the night, despite the snow, wind, rain, and strangers on the edge of town who might impede his journey. Coming in at a whopping 8 minutes and 27 seconds, it is the album’s longest track by far, featuring solos from almost every member of the E Street Band, all recorded live during a single take. It has the grandeur and scope of a perfect finale.
Yet even still, the haunting quality of The River persists. The album’s final track, Wreck on the Highway, is the story of a man who could very well be the same character from Drive All Night. While driving on a dark road, the man comes across the wreckage of another car and helps bring the other driver to safety. When the man returns home to the safety of his family, he is still restless, knowing that on any other night he could have been the one in that accident. The song slowly fades out, leaving both the character and the listener anxious as to what the next day holds, walking a fine line between hard earned happiness and the randomness of tragedy.
Although The River landed Springsteen a hit with Hungry Heart, it still was not the star-making moment he and the E Street Band had been waiting for (for that, they only had to wait until the ridiculous success release of Born in the USA four years later). The two-record set also only made a small dent into the vast catalogue of songs that Springsteen had written during his contract disputes (the box set version of The River released in 2015 included an additional 22 songs, all of which were already written by the time of the album’s original release). Yet even though the album did not quite meet Springsteen’s own grand ambitions, it is still a remarkable work whose expansive scope and sharp criticism act as a wonderful document of the cultural, political, and personal circumstances that surrounded its release. 40 years down the road, The River continues to excite and inspire, exploring the legacies that informed its own creation in a way that still feels insightful in 2020. It offers a nuanced message that delicately balances between hope and realism, which — along with its 83 minute run time — makes it the perfect Springsteen album to play on repeat throughout the long days of quarantine.
Featured image: Anthony Correia / Shutterstock