If you were a teenager in the ‘80s (as I was), you could be forgiven for thinking the ‘60s were lame. Between yuppies dancing around to Motown milestones in The Big Chill to classic rock radio’s ossification of a couple dozen hippie-era hits (whose ubiquity proved that familiarity does indeed breed contempt), any right-thinking young person was bound to eschew the Aquarian age in search of greener pastures. Most likely, you gravitated toward the bright, gleaming light beckoning from the New Wave/post-punk realm, where everything seemed fresh and vibrant.
But as I discovered pretty quickly into my obsession with college radio—and contemporary chronicles like Trouser Press, New York Rocker, and Creem—punk’s tabula rasa/year zero ideal didn’t hold much ground when you got into the nitty-gritty of what followed it. The flood of ‘80s acts who arrived in punk’s wake, for all their bold new moves, still sported a slew of influences from the ‘60s—sometimes overtly in the form of cover tunes, and sometimes more subtly in the influences they’d assimilated.
The more I viewed the music of the ‘60s through the filter of ‘80s bands who were breathing new life into the airwaves and record stores again, the more attractive that bygone era seemed. Sometimes a cover version could put you on a direct route to the original artist’s oeuvre: For instance, ‘60s L.A. psych underdogs Love, who would be posthumously deified a couple of decades later, were more popular than ever as an underground phenomenon in the ‘80s. The Damned’s cover of their “Alone Again Or” made it easy to find your way to the seminal Forever Changes; and once you were there, the spelunking was endlessly rewarding.
Even on the less obvious end of the spectrum, it didn’t take a cultural anthropologist to trace the links from, say, the power chords of The Jam and Secret Affair to mod OGs like The Who and Small Faces. Nor was it too tough to determine that the chiming guitar riffs of R.E.M. and The Cleaners From Venus led straight back to first-gen jangle kings The Byrds.
It wasn’t just ‘60s rock that revealed itself to me in this manner. The ‘80s synth-pop bands may not have had much of a musical investment in psychedelia and such, but the pop, R&B, and girl group sounds of the ’60s were another story. It was easy to follow the paths of the likes of Naked Eyes to the glittering legacy of singers like Dionne Warwick, who previously might have seemed like a middle-of-the-road musician from another generation to my amateurish ears. And while New Orleans R&B wasn’t especially accessible to an ‘80s kid growing up in The Bronx, Devo’s mechanized take on the Allen Toussaint-penned Lee Dorsey classic “Working In the Coal Mine” illuminated a whole new world to be explored.
Of course, in a pre-Internet world, these explorations of the past were far more difficult than they are for teens, or anybody else, today. But the thrill of the chase was as much a part of the fun as the end result.