THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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When I first toured America with my band, Katrina and The Waves in 1985, I never expected I’d still be performing there 35 years later. In the last few years I’ve toured America (three times since 2013), Australia and Europe. And last month I was one of the 80s artists playing on the annual 80s Cruise which departs from Miami.
I feel very fortunate that even though I may not be Tina Turner, I still get to travel to the far-flung corners of the world and perform. There is something about the 80s live music revival that has transcended the divides (almost!) of its music genres of new wave, post-punk, synth pop, new romantic, gothic rock and many more and brought us together on the same stage for 80s festivals and tours. Eighties music has almost become a genre in itself. We ignored each other in the 80s. We were sulky and introverted. We hadn’t grown up together through stage schools or X Factor or engaged in confident self-promotion on social media. But we’re still here and now we're sharing hairspray, 'remember when' stories and the bar tab at the end of the night.
The people that grew up with our music were the first generation to turn their kids onto their music. The impact of MTV on pop music was massive, it was everywhere, and we were on it. Everyone wanted to watch pop videos of pretty boys and girls with big hair. But by the beginning of the 90s it was replaced by sports channels in the US and the Premier League in the UK. In the UK in the 80s many people were suffering from the harsh effects of Thatcherism and then came Black Monday, AIDS, The Falklands War, the first fatwa in the UK and a hole in the ozone layer. If we were going to hell in a handbag we may as well have a bloody good party. And that is what our audiences still want now.
Along with the music, came the fashion. The unique 80s look has been revived on the catwalk more times than Madonna’s had Top Ten hits. Not because the fashion industry was running out of ideas, but because 80s fashion was as diverse as the bands and the music. In other words, it provided rich pickings. From frilly shirts, pirate jackets and eyeliner, to black leather and tutus, fetish clothing, ripped t-shirts and more eyeliner. And that was just the men.
The 80s signaled a new era for women in music. Since the trailblazing Sister Rosetta Tharp there were few women, up until the 80s, who fronted a pop band playing electric guitar. So, it was immensely liberating for me to be taken seriously as the front woman singer and guitarist in Katrina and The Waves.
A whole generation could experiment with their look. I was allowed my ‘comfort zone’ red high-top trainers which were uncool at the time but became a trademark of the Walking on Sunshine video. Not since the hedonism of the 1920s, when women had recently got the vote and a newfound independence following WWI, were women in the music business given some freedom to express themselves through their look and their music. As a result, we all sounded so distinctly different and identifiable. Held back by the sexism and stereotypical conformity of the 50s, 60s and 70s (with the exception of punk which opened a door for women musicians), women in the music business weren’t encouraged to express themselves until the punk bands showed us we could change all that. Sex, drugs and rock and roll, which used to be a men only club, was there for the taking. MTV, VH1 and the new 80s TV shows – The Tube and The Chart Show showed videos of women in positions of power. As much as Madonna looked like a little girl flirting with the viewer, she was definitely in charge. Chrissie Hynde - the tough guitar-playing rock chick that nobody was going to mess with and Annie Lennox who played with sexuality in an androgynous way. These were women of the 80s playing music for themselves – it was a powerful message of the 80s and empowering for women everywhere. We sounded different and looked different and made press headlines just by what we were wearing. We reached into everyone’s bedroom through the tabloids and music magazines, radio, video and TV – you could listen to the music and watch what we were wearing and how we expressed ourselves which became the Zeitgeist of the time.
80s music still resonates today because of the angst and emotion in the voices and the music, its prolific creativity and its visual excitement, whether it was unashamedly fun, hedonistic, politically meaningful or an anthem of liberation. Simple rhythms and great melodies became associated with party music, from the effervescence of Walking on Sunshine to Bronski Beat's Small Town Boy which addressed issues of bullying and homophobia.
But we weren’t just pretty young things posturing for all it’s worth. We could also deliver solid live performances, because that’s how most of us were discovered. There was a thriving live music scene in the 80s. We played at pubs and clubs up and down the country. Without YouTube, the only way people were going to hear our music was by playing to them. Whereas now, due to gentrification of our cities and the new ways in which people can access music via SoundCloud, Spotify and YouTube, many of the music pubs and clubs have closed. When we were signed with Capitol Records, we were on the road constantly. For the first three years of touring, I used to dream about opening my own refrigerator door and making myself a sandwich. But the hard work of touring and performing paid off and bands became very good at giving live performances.
With the new millennium and 80s music safely 20 years away, it could be marketed as ‘retro’, and that’s when the 80s tours and festivals began. Now those festival bills read like a top 20 pop chart from the decade. Many bands reformed and 80s artists started making music again.
We’ve grown up with our audience, who now come with their children to ‘meet and greets’, and then you hear how your songs have become the soundtrack to people’s lives; it was playing when they met their partner, they played it at their wedding, or it was in their favorite movie. They remember what you were wearing in the video and tell you they went out and got the same shoes and they still have them. It’s a shared moment when the audience not only sing along to your songs and listen to your new ones but also connect with you on an individual level.
It’s these connections that keep 80s music live and meaningful and for this reason when the world emerges from COVID-19, bruised and battered, having suffered loss and deprivation, we will once again come together and celebrate like there is no tomorrow. Because now we know the world and our lives are a bit more fragile than we thought, and the importance of our family and friends and coming together to celebrate the good times.