Elevating the ‘80s at the Risk of Ridicule

On A Flock of Seagulls with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra

A Flock of Seagulls’ debut LP, released in 1982 on Jive

The ‘80s were a fanciful time for rock and roll. Stuck in the mire between disco and grunge, punk and pop, the music was feeling its way forward, seeking out new directions that would take it into varied areas of interest and intrigue, while still keeping audiences primed with anticipation.

Although edgier auteurs — U2, the Police, Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, Bruce Springsteen, Def Leppard, AC/DC, Rush, Iron Maiden, Prince, Pat Benatar and Heart, among them — still held sway with their anthemic inclinations, others, like Michael Jackson, Billy Joel and Phil Collins made their mark through commercial credibility, dominating mainstream radio and selling zillions of records in the process.

Other outfits attempted to attract attention through glitz, glam and impulsive rhythms, a decided holdover from the days of disco and all its attendant affectations. That’s where bands like Flock of Seagulls, the Thompson Twins, Adam Ant, the Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, Culture Club,  the Cure, Wham!, and the Eurythmics come to mind, replete with their gobs of make-up, harrowing hair styles, kooky costumes and melodies so infectious that even pop purists were forced to concede they were guilty pleasures worthy of recognition.

Looking back in retrospect, especially when provided with all the evidence offered on MTV and those all-too-familiar classic pop compilations  that litter many a public television fundraiser (“Hey kids, remember the ‘80s?!”), it’s tempting to turn up our collective noses and wonder how these mascara-wearing, garishly-groomed, clownish-looking characters held our attention, even for the sake of a song.

Nevertheless, certain artists of that era refuse to give up the ghost. Having become a staple of classic rock radio — which, by the way, originated with hits of the ‘50s, transitioned to the ‘60s and now finds itself focusing on the relatively recent ‘90s! — many are hitting the profitable oldies circuit or offering up new records in hopes of rekindling interest with their former fans.

In keeping with current times, others are reinventing themselves as prime provocateurs or simply looking at reshaping their sound with additional additives. Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins has a new album coming after a prolonged absence and it will be interesting to witness the tack he takes some 30 years on. Or not. Regardless, who’s to deny him — or anyone else — any attempt to reclaim of fame?

We all deserve another chance, right?

Consequently, credit A Flock of Seagulls for simply going back to their earlier catalog and opting to replay their hits — “I Ran,” “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You),” “Space Age Love Song” et. al. — with strings in tow, in this case no less a prestigious ensemble than the Prague Symphony Orchestra.  One has to wonder if its classically trained musicians didn’t scratch their collective heads and wonder, “Did I really practice hours a day only to offer my instrumental acumen in support of these pop poseurs?” Still, there’s something to be said for any avenue that allows a means of reaching the masses, and in this case it works relatively well. A Flock of Seagulls may have had a limited stash of hits, but given the flourish and finesse imbued by an orchestra, these songs take on a gravitas that elevates them in ways never imagined the first time around.

So is orchestrating the ‘80s the way to go? Perhaps. After all, when classic compositions are provided with the pomp and prestige that Broadway brings, suddenly they achieve standards status. Granted, symphonic treatments of songs by the Beatles or the Stones amounted only to so much muzak, but when “Yesterday” and “As Tears Go By” were supported by strings, it was viewed as an innovation int he rock world. Likewise, the Moody Blues, the Beach Boys and others have shared stages with string sections, so why not allow the Seagulls to soar as well?

Ultimately then, we’re forced to concede then that provided with some essential additives, even the ‘80s can portend the possibility of becoming intriguing yet again.

Lee Zimmerman
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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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