The ’80s were a busy era for artists dusting off vintage tunes. This shouldn’t come as any surprise seeing as how those years were rampant with nostalgia. As Simon Reynolds charts in his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, the decade coughed up numerous revivals, whether we’re talking rockabilly, traditional country, or Tin Pan Alley pop. Even politics turned nostalgic, with Ronald Reagan riding a wave of longing for the innocence and simplicity of the good, old days (whatever that meant) into the White House. (In fact, Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan was none other than “Let’s Make America Great Again.”) Margaret Thatcher tapped near-identical sentiments during her overlapping run as prime minister. As for music, though, the Brits were less obsessed with the past, though they did launch several trends heavily indebted to older styles such as ska, Northern soul, and musty psychedelia. Moreover, there was a deep fascination with the fashion and culture of England circa World War II, something that inspired numerous musicians, including Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
But despite these cultural developments, nostalgia can’t totally account for the existence of a track like the Pet Shop Boys’ earworm “Always on My Mind,” a transatlantic smash in 1987 and arguably the synth-pop duo’s most enduring recording. There’s something more complex at play here than the kind of retromania baked into, say, Phil Collins’ slavish tribute to Motown, “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Coming of age in the era of new wave, a movement that could be both deeply nostalgic and boldly modernist almost ot the point of self-contradiction, The Pet Shop Boys fully conflate looking back with leaping forward. If the song’s syrupy strings, horn stabs, and crooning vocals channel the dramatic flair of Elvis Presley’s version, a schmaltzy, adult contemporary ballad that snuck into the Top 40 in 1972, its metronomic pulse, Italo disco-flavored gloss, and automated percussion all ooze robotic futurism.
Perhaps this is too rich of a comparison, but a fitting analog is the luxurious art deco portraits of Tamara de Lempicka. By collapsing the Renaissance’s naturalism into early modernism’s geometric abstraction, the Polish painter, active in ’20s and ’30s, produced a strangely alluring vision that erased the hundreds of years separating 14th-century Florence and the city of the future as depicted in director Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s in this setting that “Always on My Mind” finds a fitting home.
The Pet Shop Boys weren’t the only synth-pop act to achieve this uncanny union. In fact, they were working from a template established earlier in the ’80s. Marc Almond and Soft Cell deserve bigtime credit for their transformation of “Tainted Love,” a then obscure ’60s soul hit for belter Gloria Jones, into a marching anthem of heartache riddled with the kind of bleeps and blops more associated with Atari games than pop hits. Naked Eyes’ re-imagining of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David-penned “Always Something There to Remind Me,” arriving two years later, in 1983, is significantly more naturalistic sounding, yet the video blew up on MTV and served as further proof that the proliferation of affordable synthesizers and drum machines was swiftly making over pop. After all, even a thoroughly DIY outfit like Denial could acquire the technology needed to morph The Mamas & The Papas’ folk-rock gem “California Dreaming” into a bleak dirge reflective of synth-pop’s dystopian side.
We should now circle back around to new wave, from which synth-pop emerged (though post-punk, David Bowie, and Roxy Music definitely shaped it, too). New wave churned out a wealth of novel covers in the ’80s. Admittedly, they’re not as sublime in their blend of past with future; that’s because new wave, thanks to its pronounced rock feel, leans towards the naturistic. Nevertheless, there are a handful of cuts that are relevant to the discussion at hand. Devo, of course, nailed the concept of computerized rock with 1977’s landmark take on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” but the quirky brainiacs also tackled a wonderfully bopping rendition of the New Orleans R&B nugget “Working in a Coal Mine” that sounds as though its sheet music would consist of nothing but ones and zeroes. And then there’s Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” Not a synthesizer is to be found on it; however, by swapping the original’s stomping, Bo Diddley beat for a frenetic, African groove nicked from the ritualistic music of Burundi and the Zulus, they achieved a singular sound that, while looking back to ancient sounds of indigenous African culture, charges full steam ahead into a future where pop takes on a global, post-everything dimension. In this sense, “I Want Candy” very much warrants a spot among its synth-pop cousins.