1981: The Unguarded Moment

In doing some recent research for Walk in Silence, it dawned on me that the debut singles (or at least their first important singles after a the first few misses) of some major alternative bands–bands that would become historical in the genre–all came out within six months or so of each other in 1981. I’m sure this is common knowledge for some music journalists, but I’m fascinated by this idea nonetheless, especially in the context of the book I’m writing. This could very well be the moment in time where college radio in the US started to gel into what would later become the “college rock” sound. The late 70s and early 80s alt.rock were an interesting mix of UK synthpop, American hardcore, German krautrock (itself the inspiration for synthpop), and postpunk, but it must have been around 1980 or 1981 when it all came together and started making sense.

To wit:

(date unknown) February: Hüsker Dü, “Statues”
In the cold and snowy midwest of Minneapolis MN, while a diminutive funk singer named Prince Rogers Nelson grooved to his own brand of sexy soul, a trio of guys–one college student, one record store employee and one hanger-on–got together and started playing a fierce brand of postpunk that was nothing like anyone else had heard. It wasn’t the sloppy, breakneck speed of hardcore, and it wasn’t the regular rock and roll you’d hear anywhere else. It was a hybrid of everything–it was Ramones meets Velvet Underground meets Byrds. “Statues” was a hastily-recorded track that didn’t do too much of anything, considering it was recorded at the very start of their career, but by the following year and the years beyond, they’d record some of the best postpunk out there.

2 February: Duran Duran, “Planet Earth”
Come on, who doesn’t know Duran Duran now? They’re ridiculously famous, and they’re currently on tour supporting their All You Need Is Now album. But back then, these dandy-looking Brits had lucked out by being one of the original handful of videos playing on the fledgling music channel MTV. They were a part of the New Romantic scene in London, which mixed the surge of synthpop sound with Bowiesque glam fashion. Their debut single was an instant hit in the UK, and thanks to its rotation on MTV, they picked up a sizable fanbase here in the states. They may not exactly be the true “alternative” some fans think of, but they certainly played their part in its evolution.

20 February: Depeche Mode, “Dreaming of Me”
Basildon is a postwar hamlet very much similar to an American Leavittown in its planned creation as a “new town” for British citizens wanting to leave London, and four local guys with a love for Krautrock and owning cheap synthesizers were bored and in need of excitement. Vince Clarke rounded up his friends Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher, snagged local hanger-on Dave Gahan, and started writing music and playing local community centers. After a stretch of tightening their chops, writing poppy, danceable songs, and playing an endless run of shows, Daniel Miller, head of Mute Records, fell in love and signed them right away. The infectiously simple “Dreaming of Me” was their first single, and the rest is history.

(date unknown) February: Thomas Dolby, “Urges”
We all know him from 1982’s “She Blinded Me with Science”, but he had quite the background before that. He’d been a session musician for all kinds of bands and performers including Lene Lovich and Foreigner. This track was his first single, released a good year or so before his hit solo album The Golden Age of Wireless. Though his solo recording history is sparse, he continued to be an in-demand session musician. He just released his first solo album in nearly two decades just last year.

6 March: New Order, “Ceremony”
Joy Division was no more when their lead singer Ian Curtis took his own life in May of 1980. However, the three remaining members of the band soldiered on, adding drummer Stephen Morris’ girlfriend (later wife) Gillian Gilbert, and changing their name to New Order. Their debut single contained two songs that had originally been songs written as Joy Division tracks: “Ceremony” and “In a Lonely Place”. Both tracks hold traces of their previous incarnations (especially the low rumbling of “Lonely Place”), but also contained a much richer, more positive vibe that would become their trademark.

14 March: The Church, “The Unguarded Moment”
Well before their genre-defining hit “Under the Milky Way”, this Australian band had a small but dedicated following since the early 80s. After one single that went nowhere, this track became their first minor hit and a fan favorite. This track is indicative of their poppier origins as part of the Australian Neo-Psychedelia scene, which would be their sound until a few albums in, when after an aborted session (which became the Sing-Songs EP), they embraced their now-trademark sound of acoustics, jangly guitars and heavy reverb.

27 March: U2, “I Will Follow”
U2 had been around for a good few years, and had an album and a number of singles out in the UK, but they never quite made it stateside…that is, until a fateful run of shows at the Paradise in Boston MA, a big push by various radio stations (and an especially frenetic push by one DJ, Carter Alan), and the debut American single of “I Will Follow”. The rest is history.

(date unknown) June: Mission of Burma, Signals, Calls and Marches EP
Speaking of Boston…the collegiate town has quite the history of indie bands since the 60s, thanks to the rabid fanbase and the large number of places to play. Three guys got together and formed one of the loudest postpunk bands in the city, and in a surprisingly short amount of time (and with only one album, one EP, and a few singles in their first incarnation), became one of the most important postpunk bands in the genre. This EP contains their seminal hit “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” (the link above goes to that track) as the first track, introducing the band to even more fans outside the Metro Boston area. They broke up soon after due to guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus, but have since reunited and released new albums, including one last month, Unsound.

8 July: REM, “Radio Free Europe”
Meanwhile, four guys with a love for jangly guitars and the collegiate sound of Athens GA’s nightlife (including Pylon and The B-52s), got together and started playing their own unique brand of folk rock with intellectual, perhaps even philosophical lyrics. REM released the original version of “Radio Free Europe” on local label Hib-Tone in summer of 1981, while still perfecting their chops. It would be nearly a year later when they’d drop their next release, the Chronic Town EP, and you can definitely tell they’d improved by then. The band would become critics’ darlings and have an extremely loyal fanbase well until their breakup in 2011.

7 August: The Replacements, “I’m in Trouble”
Meanwhile, on the other side of Minneapolis, four losers dropped out of school and started playing in their parents’ basements, hoping something would come out of it. Some people loved it, some people hated it–it really depended, honestly, on how much the band had to drink beforehand. But all that aside, their debut single, released around the same time as their debut album (fittingly entitled Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash), was a sloppy yet catchy piece of postpunk that would become their stock in trade. They’d last almost ten years before breaking up, but during their tenure they’d release a startlingly large number of genre-defining songs and albums.

Each of these bands have a decidedly different and unique sound and you would not be able to confuse one with another, which makes this bit of history all that much more fascinating–each band was traveling their own road without the influence of one another (even if they had known each other in passing or from hearing them on the radio), and yet each of the above became bands that defined the alternative rock genre, especially during the “college rock” years.

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