Friday, January 30, 2009

Album: The Age of Plastic

Every day my metal friend
Shakes my bed at 6am
Then the shiny serving clones
Run in with my telephones

Talking fast I make a deal
Buy the fake and sell what's real
What's this pain here in my chest?
Maybe I should take a rest

They send the heart police to put you under,
Cardiac arrest
And as they drag you to the door
They tell you that you've failed the test

Let's say you were driving down the street in 1979, listening to some tunes and wondering if you should get rid of your 8-track player and replace it with a new cassette deck when suddenly "Y.M.C.A." comes on the radio. Your girlfriend left the radio on some $#@! disco station last night. You hastily hit a preset button, but it always shifts the tuner a little to the left so you have to fiddle with the fine tune to get the station to come in. You settle back to the sound of Tommy Shaw's voice crooning oh mamma I'm in fear from my life from the long arm of the law... Yeah, this rocks! You reach under your dash to punch the button on your 40-watt Radio Shack power booster that you keep in reserve for the most rockin' songs. Unfortunately you have been distracted long enough that you have wandered into the opposing lane and you collide with an oncoming car. The resulting crash puts you in a coma for 11 years. You awaken in 1990 and the first thing you hear on the hospital's radio is "We Didn't Start the Fire" and you wonder what the heck happened to Billy Joel. You recover and, upon being released from the hospital, make your way to the nearest record store to try and catch up on the current music. Except there are no more record stores. Now they're all "music" stores and they sell these tiny, shiny, plastic-encased "compact discs." How can these play music, you think, there aren't any grooves! On the radio you hear nothing but whiny female vocalists singing through their noses and bouncy, catchy tunes played mostly on the synthesizer. You assume that aliens--or possibly Europeans--have taken over the music business and you are determined to discover where it all began.

This is where it all began.

The Age of Plastic is the quintessential 80s album. Make all the arguments you want, but I am decided and nothing will shift this immutable fact from my mind. If you think you have a music collection that definitively covers the history and development of pop and rock music, and this album isn't part of it, you have a gaping hole in your collection. When Rolling Stone released their bloated boxed set 25 Years of Essential Rockand didn't include "Video Killed the Radio Star" they totally dropped the ball. They invalidated the entire set by the omission of that one song. Okay, maybe that last statement was a little over-the-top. But only a little.

Rock trivialists always like to point out that "Video" was the first ever video to be shown on MTV. Ever. But like all things 80s, the video eventually became passé; it didn't really kill the radio star, it was only an annoying pimple on his butt for a few years.

There is more than one good reason to own this album. This is where 80s music began. This is it. I'm not kidding. From here it spider-webbed into Euro-pop, electro-pop, American and Canadian imitators of Euro-pop and electro-pop, the punk backlash, the post-punk New Wave sidelash, the post-post punk bubblegum-girl eyelash, post-New Wave irony bands, the metal whiplash, bands named after obscure science fiction movies, duos who were more artificial than the Monkees ever dreamed of being, and mindless legions of Madonna-drones.

The Age of Plastic is more than an album; it is a nexus in the space-time continuum. Countless albums came before it, countless more have come and will continue to come after. But it stands alone atop its silicon and plastic tower, smirking in ironic and slightly neurotic detachment at all who pretend to its significance. Sure, the music sounds a little goofy, but the synthesizers are cool, and the songs are catchy. It has a good beat and you, don't do that. Just listen. Throw in some sci-fi themes with vaguely dystopic undertones and yeah, it's not that bad. Elvis is dead; the best the Stones can do is "Emotional Rescue," Styx is falling apart, your little sister is keeping your new REO tape, Boston has vanished from the face of the Earth, and this is as good as it's gonna get for a while, brother.

Also the music is pretty good, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. It's also an essential album for you if you are interested in the interweaving of Yes Musicians and Associated Artists (The Buggles, Yes and Asia).

Some might dismiss the Buggles as a one-hit wonder. This would be a mistake. The album is very consistent throughout. At times nostalgic, wistful, frenetic or bleak lyrics are disguised by catchy synthesizer-based dance beats, because they knew that the world would not be able to swallow such a musical vision of the future without a heavy sugar coating. A few years later William Gibson dispensed with any pretense and gave us the unadulterated truth. He showed us in stark digital clarity the future at which the Buggles could only hint. What could not be accepted in pop tunes could be hammered home in fiction. So we read his books, and we looked at each other with quiet understanding. No one said it aloud, but we were all thinking the same thing: the Buggles were right.

So go buy it. Put the CD in your car stereo and pay close attention. Pretend you're listening to your old cassette deck with the Radio Shack 40-watt power booster. Remember that gas was less than a dollar a gallon, and it would be years before the world is even aware of Mariah Carey. Pretend, but don't get too comfortable. Because in your mind and in your car, you can't rewind, you've gone too far. And don't forget that once upon a time a new decade was coming at you. A decade that couldn't be avoided, and it wouldn't be happy until you had a MIDI cable hard-wired into the base of your skull.

But you still survived. And eventually, a new Boston album did come out.


  1. Do you recall a musician by the name of Christopher Cross? Of course you do if you are "of a certain age." "Sailing", "Ride Like the Wind", and "Between the Moon and New York City (Theme from Arthur)", all HUGE pop music hits that came out one after the other in the early 80's. All shortly before MTV debuted. Then everybody got a look at him. His career promptly ended as all the Duran Duran pretty boys came parading out via video. The age of the ugly yet talented singer ended. THAT is what I think Trevor Horn meant by Video killing the radio star. It's not a hard and fast law but by and large it is true!

  2. Good point, but I must point out that the video boom of the 80s did not appear to affect Billy Joel.

    I had the first Christopher Cross tape. Wore it out.

  3. I was not as coherent as I would have liked at five o'clock this morning when I made that other comment. So I want to expand upon it.

    I don't want to read too much into a mere pop album, but I don't think the Buggles were being that specific. I think they were referring more to the phenomenon of how the masses are always caught up by shiny new gee-whiz technology and ignore the lack of substance that the presentation disguises.

    "It's shiny, new and looks cool!"

    "But does it tell you anything? Does it help you to learn anything or see something in a new way?"

    It's shiny, new and looks really cool!"

    I think that's what they were getting at.

    Now, on the subject of Christopher Cross, his career didn't tank because he wasn't telegenic. It tanked because he hit his limits immediately. He and his band made their living as an America cover band, and that first album was all the original songs they had worked up over several years. It had so many hits because they had worked hard on it and poured everything into it. However, that first album was ALL the original stuff they had. They couldn't put on a decent concert because all their original material could be performed in 40 minutes and after that they could do nothing but covers. The first album was a great pop album, but its strength was also its weakness: it was good because they didn't hold anything back; it was bad because they had nothing left to follow it with.

    The only hit from the second album was the theme from Arthur, and that was only because it was the theme from a popular movie. Does anyone remember any other song from that album? I don't.

  4. All good points (particularly true regarding Billy Joel). I never knew that about Christopher Cross, but that makes sense. Call him a three hit wonder!