Henley-on-Thames, that bastion of prosperous Oxfordshire respectability, has been overrun by men in leather caps, chaps and black vests. All look as though they’ve emerged not from Henley’s august rowing clubs but from a gay S&M club. They are dressed in the style of the video to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1984 hit “Relax”. No one bats an eyelid.
The Frankie clones are on their way to the Rewind festival, a 1980s pop extravaganza in a riverside meadow. Now in its third year, it is a sell-out event, attracting 40,000 over two August days. A Scottish Rewind took place in Perth last month.
The line-up at Henley reads like the contents of a vintage copy of Smash Hits magazine: Bananarama, The Human League, ABC, Billy Ocean, Go West and Toyah Willcox are among the acts appearing, with former Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer Holly Johnson topping the bill as Saturday’s headliner. It is he who has inspired the influx of Frankie clones.
Rewind, it turns out, is an enormous 1980s dressing-up party. The site heaves with Wonder Women, Madonnas and Adam Ants. There are obscurer throwbacks too: Jo, a 35-year-old local, has come as Olivia Newton-John’s character from the 1980 film Xanadu: a muse called Kira who comes to life from a picture. She’s standing next to two men with the slicked-back hair and stripey shirts of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko. Mullet hairstyles and colourful wigs glint in the afternoon sun. Two men stroll past rocking the Miami Vice look in jackets with rolled-up sleeves. There are several blacked-up Mr T’s from The A-Team.
I spy a Freddie Mercury impersonator thrusting a vacuum cleaner to the strains of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. Mark, 49, from Croydon, is channelling the video to Queen’s 1984 hit “I Want to Break Free”, in which a moustachioed Mercury drags up as a housewife. He removes a set of Freddie-esque false teeth. “I’m a massive fan of ’80s pop. Love it. My era. It’s these songs that are going to last forever,” he says. People approach, wanting to take his photo. “Can’t you see I’m doing an interview, darling?” he says. Somewhere in the distance Bros’s perky 1987 single “When Will I Be Famous” strikes up.
Most of the revellers are in their thirties and forties, split evenly between the sexes. But there are young people too – or at least the not-so-old. “Lucinda Jellybottom”, 29, (not, I suspect, her real name), is here with her mother and aunt. “You won’t get much sense from us when Billy Ocean comes on,” she announces. Hayley, also 29, is looking forward to seeing Bananarama. “I’ve got lots of memories of making my two younger brothers be my backing dancers to Bananarama tracks when I was a child, and I was the lead singer,” she says.
A child of the decade myself, I confess I looked down on breezy 1980s pop, preferring instead to follow dismal indie no-hopers approved by NME magazine. At Rewind I feel like a penitent non-believer. Billy Ocean’s voice, smoothly soulful in his 62nd year, is a marvel. And ABC’s Martin Fry can still nail “Look of Love”. Bananarama’s hits come across as bubblegum pop classics.
Backstage, T’Pau singer Carol Decker gloats that “This was the music that people used to slag off”. She then turns to chat with Haircut 100’s Nick Heyward, who frets about being unable to hear himself play during his set. Nearby Bucks Fizz are holding court. “The sound of the 1980s was a very optimistic sound,” says singer Cheryl Baker, resplendent in bustier and tartan miniskirt. “It was skippy happy hoppy.”
For some, the 1980s never went away – and events such as Rewind are where they get to relive them. But why is this music so popular? What keeps these crowds – and millions more listening to 1980s pop at home – returning to the decade?
The words “fun” and “innocent” recur when I ask Rewinders what they like about 1980s pop. Ms “Jellybottom” laments the sexual explicitness of today’s chart music. “Madonna in her time was edgy but now is considered tame. We’ve moved on and on and on and I’m not sure where we should have stopped.” The 1980s was the decade when MTV launched (in 1981) and people still brought records: “Relax” sold 1.9m copies. “Looking back,” says Fry of ABC, “people liked the big choruses and the sense of absurdity, which you see in all those brilliant videos from the early 1980s, before it got very professional.”
Toyah Willcox thinks it’s about “personality music”. “Everyone in the 1980s had huge personalities and I think that came across in the writing and the performing,” she says. Willcox, 1981 winner of Smash Hits’ “most fanciable female” award, first noticed signs of a 1980s revival about a decade ago. “The 1990s were quite tough doing gigs. Then around 2000 it got really serious. The gigs got bigger.”
Fry remembers going on tour in 1998 with Culture Club and The Human League. “In the audience you could see the whole hierarchy of 1980s pop; they’d come to the show to see if it would fail.” At the time Boy George told an interviewer: “If we speak again next year, and I’m doing another ’80s tour, then you can punch me in the teeth.” But there he was this year on Here and Now’s 10th anniversary tour with Belinda Carlisle and Jason Donovan.
It’s easy to dismiss Rewind’s line-up as superannuated pop stars clinging on to the remnants of their careers – and, in a sense, that’s exactly what they are. “It’s all hits. We don’t play anything self-indulgent at all,” Willcox says. “I’m old enough to realise that these hits are what have given me longevity.” But there’s more to 1980s revivalism than that, too. There’s something about the decade that speaks directly to us about life in the present day.
There was a time when the 1980s – decade of mullets and pixie boots, big hair and shoulder pads, sax solos and stadium rock, the zenith of Charlie Sheen’s movie career – were seen as flashy and meretricious. It was supposedly the “me decade”, the “greed decade”, a time when pop culture was at its brashest and most overproduced.
“Now that we’re in the ’90s, everyone agrees: Greed is out. We’re ashamed of what went on in the ’80s,” a contrite Chicago Tribune declared in 1990. The following year Bret Easton Ellis signalled the depths of depravity to which Patrick Bateman, anti-hero of his splatter novel American Psycho, had sunk by having him listen to Phil Collins and Huey Lewis while roaming New York chopping people up. Early-1990s hipsters struggled to work out which was the greater crime.
Twenty years later, we have come full-circle. The 1980s haunt the present age to an extraordinary degree, not just through uncanny historical echoes – riots in English cities, soaring youth unemployment, stock market booms and busts – but also culturally. There are 1980s-themed films, nightclubs, fashions, even restaurants where diners can play Pac-Man and admire Rubik Cube-inspired décor.
But it’s with pop that our 1980s infatuation has reached its dizziest heights. “I was sitting here patiently waiting for it to finish, thinking to myself I’ll do something when all this is over, this terrible fuss over a decade,” Holly Johnson, 51, says in a playful Liverpudlian tone. He has spent the past 10 years turning down “anything that had ’80s in the title, really.” But now, in the face of a revival that grows ever more intense, he has finally capitulated, lured out of what he describes as “semi-retirement” to appear at Rewind. When I catch up with him backstage, the man who scandalised middle England with “Relax” – a dance-floor ode to gay sex, banned by the BBC – confesses to mixed feelings about Rewind. He has chosen to appear following a recent reissue of Frankie albums and of his 1989 solo album Blast. “There’s a certain amount of stigma attached in the music industry to these things,” he says. “And I expected it to be a bit stuck-up, it being Henley, a bit jolly hockey sticks and polo shirts.”
Johnson is not the first performer to succumb to the nostalgia circuit. Every age echoes with pop from previous generations. In the 1960s touring bands played “Let’s All Go Down the Strand” for the grandparents of Beatles fans nostalgic for their music hall youth. A while ago the 1970s, cast as “the decade that taste forgot”, were the guilty pleasure that the 1980s have now become. Is that all there is to 1980s revivalism: history repeated, not as farce but as kitsch?
At the Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End, billboards have gone up for Rock of Ages, which begins previews next week. Set in a rock club in LA’s Sunset Strip in 1987, the soundtrack features hits by the likes of Whitesnake, Poison and Mötley Crüe, Spandex-clad rockers whose tumbling manes of hair and unbridled appetite for excess transplanted the spirit of Restoration libertinage to 1980s California.
The show has tapped a groundswell of sentiment for these bombastic peacocks. It opened modestly in a Los Angeles bar in 2006 before graduating to Broadway and then turning into a globetrotting franchise. Next year will see a big-budget Hollywood adaptation starring that quintessential 1980s leading man, Tom Cruise.
In a rehearsal studio near the theatre, a pair of dancers practise their moves and an acoustic guitarist strums chords. A single wig sits on a mannequin’s head on a shelf. “Hair is a major character in this show,” says its director Kristin Hanggi.
Sitting at one of the musical’s props, a battered bar-room table covered in graffiti, is Shayne Ward, 2005 winner of The X Factor, who plays the show’s romantic lead. Born in 1984, Ward was a toddler when “hair bands” such as Poison and Mötley Crüe were at their peak. He smiles as he describes the show’s outfits and the big blonde wig he has to wear, modelled on Poison’s Bret Michaels. “Wrong on so many levels but right for the ’80s,” he chuckles. “Leather. Lots of leather.” It’s a world away from the teen-pop of The X Factor. He illustrates the difference by breaking into song, initially in the sweet, breathy voice of his normal style, then shifting into the manly roar of his Rock of Ages role. He makes a convincing rock vocalist.
Ward is of a generation that barely knew the 1980s, yet finds itself oddly at home in that decade. Listening to today’s charts it’s as if we’re in a 1980s bubble. On her new album 4, Beyoncé (born 1981) combines ultra-modern production with the splashy synth-driven sound of mid-1980s funk. Meanwhile Lady Gaga (born 1986) uses her latest album Born This Way to pay homage to the decade of her birth, complete with Pat Benatar-style anthems and cameos from Queen guitarist Brian May and Bruce Springsteen’s (sadly recently deceased) sax sideman Clarence Clemons.
The borders between ironic rediscovery, earnest homage and unconscious assimilation are blurred. The 1980s were a decade when technology infiltrated ordinary life to an unprecedented degree: personal stereos, computer games, mobile phones – and pop music too. “In the 1980s the rise of the synthesiser and sequencing technology changed the way records were made,” Johnson says. “Now any child with a laptop can make a record in their bedroom with the sort of technology that filled a whole room in the 1980s.” The process has sped up – but it began back then.
Rock of Ages director Hanggi finds it “ironic” that the show took off on Broadway when the US was in depths of recession two years ago. But the timing seems more suggestive than ironic: the roots of modern politics lie in the 1980s, decade of Thatcher, Reagan and free-market triumphalism. The 1980s are a true Big Bang, the year zero of an epoch that may have ended with the financial crisis. Or has it? The 1980s haunt the present day because we don’t yet know if they have finished. Are we dealing with their legacy or living them again at turbo-charged pace?
Holly Johnson has a simpler explanation: “At the end of the day people want to dance”. That’s exactly what the Rewind revellers do when he plays his hits. As he finishes and fireworks light up the night sky, the singer who until now has resisted the 1980s nostalgia circuit beams at the assembled thousands. “Hope to see you next time,” he calls out.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic
Timeline of a decade: Solid gold hits – year after year
“Imagine”, originally released as a single in 1975, is re-released after John Lennon’s death in December 1980, and goes on to sell almost 700,000 copies in the UK.
August: Launch of MTV. Its first track is “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles.
The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?”, the UK’s Christmas 1981 number one, became a huge US hit the following summer, and one of the biggest-selling singles of the decade.
September: Culture Club’s first number one is “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?”
Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the best-selling album of the year in both the UK and US. It went on to become the best-selling album of all time.
The three bestselling UK singles of the decade are released. Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” sold more than 3.5m copies. In second place is Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”, then Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You”.
In the same year The Smiths release their two most successful albums, The Smiths and Hatful of Hollow.
July 13, 1985
Some 72,000 people attend Live Aid, a star-studded charity concert at Wembley Stadium organised by Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof. It raised £30m. The same month sees Madonna’s first number one hit single “Into the Groove”.
In July Guns ‘n’ Roses release their debut album Appetite for Destruction, which goes on to sell 28m copies by 2008.
August: The soundtrack to the film Dirty Dancing spends the first of 18 weeks at the top of the US Billboard 200 album charts.
Whitney Houston sets a new record with seven successive number one hits, including “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.
The Rolling Stones’ US tour is the highest-grossing ever – but loses that title in 1990 to newcomers New Kids on the Block.
By Jessica Abrahams