Late to the Party: Sophisto-Pop

When it comes to music, I have never been current. I’m consistently behind the times. I mean, my whole life. With rare exceptions, I’ve always been reaching back into the past to find more music to love. Even with contemporary artists, I’m always late to the party, getting acquainted with my favorite albums two, three, ten, twenty years after they were released and catching up with jazz artists or classical performers, artists, and composers decades, even centuries after their deaths.

I’ve written about how the dark pleasures of Black Sabbath have eluded me for more decades than I care to mention but finally became obvious during lockdown. Again, here I am hopelessly out of sync — but it’s not like great music has an expiration date. The enjoyment of music is experiential. It occurs in the moment and reoccurs every time in a new moment with each listen. And while the time and place where a recording was released into the world can be pin-pointed, music is not fixed in the past. It’s alive, moving us over and over again in the ever-shifting present.

The great “alternative vs. classic rock” schism is now decades old, as are the groundbreaking iconoclastic indie albums that broke the whole crusty notion of a sacred “canon” of rock albums. Also decades old are the first, second, and even third wave of rap albums that successfully tore down the white music power structure, and while no punk artists are yet dying of old age, they’re drawing Social Security. The sacred cows have all been ground down to hamburger — it’s becoming increasingly pointless to think of music that came before as “old” when the “new” stuff that succeeded in providing a vital alternative is seemingly old now too.

And yet, with everything now so available these days through streaming, with old recordings remixed, remastered, and uniformly scrubbed and polished for our modern day consumption, with any song from any point in history equally accessible with the same single click, why do we still insist on mentally date-stamping our favorite songs, tying them to past eras and lost trends, and thinking about music in terms of what is current and what is passé? How does that serve us? What is this stubborn obsession we have with old vs. new?

Human beings are generally small, scared, and challenged critters, with a ruthless biological compulsion to bring order to an increasingly chaotic universe. It is our nature, something we can’t seem to evolve past. We are constantly categorizing and defining the world around us in a clumsy attempt to gain even the smallest measure of psychological self-protection. We are not comfortable with non-linearity. We need the reassurance of a fixed timeline even though memories exist in our minds alongside current knowledge in a jumbled pile. Still, we are strongly compelled to train our minds to at least try to make these separations even though the whole practice is sadly limiting and surely injurious to our evolution as a species. Why?

Not to get too bookish, but there’s a lot of insight into this general mystery of why people manage to act against their own self-interest in the books of two intellectual darlings on either side of the center-left vs. center-right political divide. What’s interesting is that while Thomas Frank is an economic leftist and Thomas Friedman is a free market capitalist, the political analysis in Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? and the look at the limits of globalism in Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree come to the same essential conclusion about the persistence of tribalism and the dominance of cultural identity over personal self-interest. It seems that these social needs, these human frailties cannot be reasoned away, no matter how airtight the arguments. No matter how obvious the benefit may be to throwing off bad ideas, the tribal impulse is stubborn and experience shows that, as if drowning, the human individual holds onto its sense of identity for dear life.

But back to music. It’s a truism that for good or bad, people are forever attached to and strongly identify with the music of their youth, especially from the particular time when they entered adulthood and came of age. And no matter how committed we are to exploring and embracing each year’s new music, we still measure it against the old stuff we know and love. An anthropologist would probably say that this is how cultural identity persists and why it’s necessary. Without it, we are cast adrift into the vastness with no intellectual or emotional map. With music, sometimes getting lost is just what the doctor ordered, but most new advancements don’t require us to renounce our bearings. And besides, one of the most enjoyable aspects of new music is how it moves forward without cutting ties to the past. 

But probably even more critical than the navigational help that music and culture provides is the stubborn persistence of tribalism and the reliance on these sorts of markers to define ourselves. Plainly stated, we declare our cultural allegiances, our music, because it helps us to identify our own tribe, maybe more importantly, in contrast to all of the others. These vestiges of our evolutionary lineage are deeply ingrained and affect our psychology, our behavior, and dictate how we think, even about music.

The last reason I can think of that it’s so hard to shake off this “old vs. new” paradigm is just the deep-set effects of marketing. Chronological time is a major component of selling with “new and improved” taking on almost religious significance in the culture. Marketing also seeks to stigmatize what is outdated and it’s inevitable that it rubs off on the way we actually think. Meanwhile, old ideas are resold as “vintage” and “retro,” and the great works in music are repackaged and marketed as 20, 25, 40, and 50-year anniversary archive releases of relics of the past. No one trying to sell you anything wants you to embrace non-linear time. Corporate America, much like the manipulators in our politics, wants to heighten contrasts, create wedges and other means to differentiate everything so that we feel dissatisfaction and end up buying what they are selling. And it’s not enlightenment.

Old doesn’t even mean what it used to. It might be my bias asking, but can anyone hear the 50+ year-old music of Hendrix, Zeppelin, or Black Sabbath and think that it sounds corny? That used to be what kept me from listening to oldies radio, something which has been largely replaced by the classic rock format. Not that I was right or anything — in retrospect, there’s so much from that early rock era that I now revere, but to a naive kid into rock music, having an oldies station on my radio dial had all of the relevance of Sha Na Na appearing at Woodstock.

It seems that the inevitable association of older music with corniness is a thing of the past, that is with the exception of a lot of 80s music. Now, that IS my bias speaking. For the most part, commercial 80s music across several genres is marked by a garish, intrusive production style and the use of some pretty obnoxious sounds that catch your ear immediately. Loud, attention-seeking snare drums, a mechanical feel, gated reverb effects on everything, and “signature” synth sounds that often featured stock patches shipped with the DX7, D50, and the other ubiquitous early MIDI keyboards that flooded the scene from about 1983 onward. Not only did that highly stylized production ethic make a lot of the music of the 80s sound immediately dated within just a few years, but from the perspective of decades of hindsight, maybe just a little corny too. And despite the continuing popularity of 80s music, if you’re familiar with both of these things, I think we can say that the gated reverb is the plunger mute of its day.

Can anyone hear the 50+ year-old music of Hendrix, Zeppelin, or Black Sabbath and think that it sounds corny?

Unlike the more naturalistic production styles of the decades that precede and follow it, 80s music is identified by its sonic artifacts and an obsession with “ear candy.” And while advancing technology has always pushed rock and other music forward, with 80s music, new tech became not just an obsession, but its most salient feature. Talk about a double-edged sword.

“Bonny” (Prefab Sprout)

But that obsession with ear candy did yield some real treasures, a lot of them I’m just marveling at now, late to the party again. One of my favorite shiny objects from the heart of this era is Two Wheels Good , the 1985 album out of Newcastle in northern England by songwriter Paddy McAloon and his band Prefab Sprout, (released in the U.K. as Steve McQueen, but retitled in the U.S. out of caution against a lawsuit from the American actor). Produced by Thomas Dolby and showcasing his favorite expensive toy, the $80,000 Fairlight CMI sampling synthesizer, Two Wheels Good positively sparkles with the breathy vocal pads that are a hallmark of the era as well as the strange low-midrange moans and warbles that Dolby coaxes out his Fairlight, all made profound and moving by a poignant set of songs by McAloon and a palpable sense of space maintained by the expert producer.

In fact, it’s this sort of minimalism and this maintenance of uncrowded space that I think is the real contribution to record production offered by this bedazzled era in pop music, the 1980s. That may seem ironic given the “overproduced” vibe, but the decorative sound of 80s music is almost always achieved via a minimalist approach — a tightly arranged bass and drums construction with a stingy allowance of sonic counterpoint around the heavily featured vocals. This is not the earlier lush, heavily orchestrated kind of pop music opulence. It’s a much leaner style with an intentional spaciousness that lets the listener hear every aspect of those featured synth sounds, hyped-up rhythms, and vocal layers. Nothing has to fight to be heard because of all of the space afforded around each sound in the mix. Listen to one of my favorite recordings from the mid-80s:

“Appetite” (Prefab Sprout)

Yes, the shimmery appeal of Prefab Sprout glides dangerously close to mid-80s hitmakers Spandau Ballet (“True”) and Johnny Hates Jazz (“Shattered Dreams”), but what a difference in terms of restraint, taste and emotional impact. After some research, I’ve discovered that these three groups and about 20 others comprise what is referred to as “Sophisto-Pop,” a horrendously titled but often rewarding jazz-aware subgenre of 80s music out of Britain that I’ve been finally getting around to.

What Is Sophisto-Pop?

I’ve long been onto Prefab Sprout and Thomas Dolby (especially his elegant 2nd album, The Flat Earth), but some of these bands, like Paul Weller’s Style Council, have been seemingly well-known to everyone but me, (apart from the single, “My Ever Changing Moods”). The sublime quality of Sade’s first few mid-80s records somehow eluded my ears during what I refer to as “that cruel decade,” and on the recommendations of friends, I’ve come to truly love a few sublime pop albums from the era that may have flown under your radar too.

“The Downtown Lights” (The Blue Nile)

The Blue Nile is a Scottish electro-folk trio out of Glasgow with a unique minimalist approach. Whereas their early-80s counterparts relied on big studio budgets, the Fairlight CMI and other expensive toys, The Blue Nile eschewed that sort of flash in favor of a simplified synth-pop musical palette and a passionate rawness in their vocal performances. With their plaintive lyrics, plus the baritone shouts of vocalist-songwriter Paul Buchannon set against monochromatic pads and drum-machine textured backdrops, almost every Blue Nile song is an emotional pot that threatens to boil over. Famously uneducated in music, the group brings a different sort of sophistication to their songs. Their 1984 debut album, A Walk Across Rooftops caused a stir at the time, but the one that endures for me is the 1989 followup, Hats (they were never prolific).

“Pale Shelter” (Tears for Fears)

More on the pop side than The Blue Nile but still representing the emotional rawness and blunt musical edge is the duo of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith’s first Tears for Fears album, The Hurting. With songs based on the psychologically scarring childhood memories of both principals, it’s a deeply personal, committed manifesto of a work and a jumping off point for the group who would veer away from this musical brutalist territory into more sophisticated pop realms in their two ambitious follow-ups, Songs from the Big Chair and the Beatlesque Sowing the Seeds of Love. They would score bigger hits in their career but never release an album as affecting as The Hurting.

“Happiness Is Easy” (Talk Talk)

Covering a similar emotional terrain but achieved with mostly acoustic instruments is the third Talk Talk album, The Colour of Spring. After two releases of catchy but anodyne 80s synth pop, frontman Mark Hollis and his cohorts in Talk Talk took a big left turn into the more daring and rewarding realm of spacious meditations – long, suspenseful musical ruminations that often take dark turns into distant minor keys mid-song. It’s a world of fascination that the band would further explore with their next two and final releases, the prolonged, textural Spirit of Eden and the largely orchestral Laughing Stock. With this trilogy of emotionally high-stakes albums, Talk Talk transformed itself into a high-wire act, influenced by ambient music but compositionally packed and spring-loaded with intention and an avid willingness to challenge and transform the listener. Incredibly sophisticated, unique pop music that represents a bold peak in the sub-genre, The Colour of Spring provides an accessible entry point but all three albums are essential.

“Dance Away” (Roxy Music)

Noticeable all through this burgeoning era of early 80s British synth pop and its various sub-genres is the heavy influence of Bryan Ferry. Roxy Music, a group who started as a bold, angular art rock band through the early and mid-70s, after taking a four-year extended hiatus after their fifth album (an eternity back then) returned in 1979 with Manifesto, retooled as a glossy proto-80s dance pop outfit. Always influential but way ahead of their time, here the echoes of the new Ferry-dominated version of Roxy Music can be heard almost immediately in the “new romantic movement” pop groups like Duran Duran, Human League, Spandau Ballet and ABC that comprised what was known as the second British Invasion, as well the more refined U.K. artists already mentioned here.

At the time, I missed the boat with this less ironic version of Roxy Music but I’ve lately come to appreciate the sumptuous, highly stylized timbres and textures that these three final albums have to offer. I also now get how the deflated, ennui-drenched lyrics and new post-rock sound fit into the band’s historical context. Having started out as one of rock’s true firebrands, Roxy Music stayed on the sidelines through the late mid-70s as the punk movement tore up the countryside as a frontal attack on the establishment bands that represented the bloated excesses of rock and roll. Emerging from the ruins of what was a seismic shakeup of rock’s status quo, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music embraced their glamorous image but the rock star swagger was now replaced with a sense of resignation and a palpable boredom with wealth and status. It’s a band strategy that culminates in 1982 with their masterpiece swan song album, Avalon, and a sound and vibe that continues on in the solo albums that follow, Boys and Girls (1985) and Bete Noire (1987), proving that this late model version of Roxy Music was not much more than a backing band for Bryan Ferry.

Like all explorations into genres and sub-genres, the point is not the argument over how to categorize music, but the adventure of possibly adding more music to love to your collection. What qualifies as Sophisto-Pop is not important, but here are some jumping off points for further exploration of the more refined recesses of “that cruel decade.”

Music is not fixed in the past. It’s alive, moving us over and over again in the ever-shifting present

Since I’m habitually late to the party with bands, artists, and full genres in music, I’ve decided that this is the first in what will be an ongoing series of articles I’ll be writing here in the pages of Esthetic Lens. I hope it will be to my advantage to now write about what once was current in providing some retrospective context, insight into the subsequent influence on other bands and artists, and discussing the enduring importance of the music. But mostly it’s just another opportunity to talk about my favorite subject, the music I love. As ever, your comments and shares are appreciated to keep the conversation going.

Image Credits:

Wine and Cheese photo by Laker from Pexels
Human Evolution image ​​by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay
Scale photo by Janine Bolon from Pixabay
Corn photo by Doris Dorfmeister from Pixabay