Fashions are fascinating. When you are living in the moment, everything seems totally normal – the clothes you wear, the hair styles people have, the music being listened to, even the prevailing zeitgeist within politics and society generally. And yet, when one looks back on a particular time, even the relatively recent past, there are so often hooks and links which are defining of that period.
I have been listening to two albums by Black for this post – Wonderful Life (1987) and Are We Having Fun Yet? (1993). Although released only six years apart, it is striking how different they are. The first is redolent of the eighties; the second seems to struggle for an identity. It is easy to impose contexts on things with hindsight. But these two albums are for me good examples of musical fashions changing.
My memory of music in the eighties was very much around synthesisers and slapped bass rhythms. Wonderful Life has plenty of these, with hints of groups such as Level 42 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. A couple of tracks stand out – my favourite is the admittedly rather gloomy Sweetest Smile – I really like its dark mystery. There were plenty of other types of music too, of course, but when I hear this album, I think ‘yes, definitely eighties’.
Are We Having Fun Yet? feels almost like a concept album. Colin Vearncombe, ‘Black’ himself, released this on an independent label because he had had enough of dealing with large record companies. It seems exploratory to me and consequently hard to warm to. It doesn’t say ‘nineties’ to me. But then, come to think of it, I’m not sure what would in particular. So does that blow a hole in my opening theory? I don’t think so. I think we start to see the emergence in the nineties and ‘naughties’ of an ever wider variety of choice being available to people in all aspects of society. This potentially dilutes the sticking power of any prevailing trends.
Or are we simply too close to these time periods to judge? What do you think?
ps – we’ll get to Madonna in due course (but sneak preview just for you – I really like Vogue)