One of the gifts of having penned For Those About to Rock for more than eight years is the chance to show how tastes change.
I’ve expanded my palette since starting at the Daily Republic in 2007. A wider swath of metal, electronic and bluegrass is among material I now enjoy.
In October 2010, I wrote a piece about loathing the 1980s, its gaudy fashion sense and its awful taste in pop culture. I called it “the worst decade in music history.”
But with Metallica’s classic thrash metal record “Master of Puppets” turning 30 on Thursday, I have an opportunity to tweak my own record.
While my attitude toward much of popular 1980s material has not changed, “Master of Puppets” is a fine example of one music movement the 1980s got right.
Previously, I railed against hair metal and bad pop songs, but any decade looks like a horror show if measured it by its Freddy Krueger-est moments. For example, the 1990s, which I hold in higher esteem, also gave us boy bands such as New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys, as well as rock abominations such as Creed and Limp Bizkit.
While the ’80s are guilty of over-the-top pop with copious amounts of reverb, little or absent bass and oversaturated synthesizers – Deniece Williams' “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” guilty of all three, sounds like a mewling cat to me – good things happened in the 1980s, too.
At the risk of turning this into a roll call, some 1980s musical movements set up sounds to follow. Underground rock was a patchwork of bands resisting the dominant sounds of bombastic hair metal with groups such as R.E.M. (right), Hüsker Dü, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and more. These groups would water the seeds for the 1990s grunge explosion, particularly Pixies’ penchant for loud-quiet-loud song structure between verses and choruses as applied by Nirvana.
Hip-hop burst into the mainstream and flourished with some of its founding artists such as N.W.A, Beastie Boys, Run D.M.C., LL Cool J, Public Enemy, personal favorites Eric B. and Rakim and many more.
Punk’s mainstream gasp turned into the sort of underground goodness that birthed Minutemen and Berkeley’s brilliant but short lived Operation Ivy, a vehicle for Tim Armstrong prior to Rancid.
Others flourished in the ’80s. Prince, who plays two sold-out shows Sunday at The Paramount Theater in Oakland, produced his best material during the decade.
I haven’t even mentioned so many other great and influential artists who had great ’80s hits such as Talking Heads, U2, Cocteau Twins, The Smiths, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and so many more. This could easily become a roll call.
A point was made in the 2008 film “The Wrestler,” when the characters played by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei lament that Nirvana and grunge sucked all of the fun out of music in the 1990s. Rourke and Tomei’s characters bond over Guns N’ Roses, which showed promise in the 1980s, but was dormant from the early 1990s until the long-delayed, milquetoast "Chinese Democracy" arrived in 2008.
It’s difficult to deny that grunge and alternative rock were more morose, but they also rescued mainstream music from some ’80s material, which lacked self-awareness.
Artists who splintered off from that excess were part of a brackish pool that birthed Metallica (left). The Bay Area legends were at the forefront of a glut of bands that barnstormed into the scene along with Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate as well as Bay Area greats Testament and Exodus.
“Master of Puppets” endures because, like other material from its era, its message still resonates.
There’s a reason people born in the 1990s and after still discover Tom Waits, even though he predates the youngest of them by 26 years or more. They hear his distinct vocals – Waits’ singing voice sounds like he gargles with whiskey and thumbtacks – and his gift for language and think, “I don’t know what I heard, but I’ve never heard anyone else like him.”
So while we should still never “Hear it for the Boy” ever again, it's OK if, strictly musically speaking, the master of puppets continues to pull our strings.