Legwarmers with miniskirts. Neon colors. Sports bands with psychotic-looking sunglasses.
This is how people often remember The 80s fashion fads as can be evidenced if you ever attend an 80s Party or happen to glimpse one going on in a night club or hotel. You can’t miss them; scores of women in spandex, stiletto heels, mini shirts and off-the-shoulder dance tees, sporting a high pony tail anchored on the side of their heads, dancing to The Culture Club. Off to the side you might see a handful of men lounging around looking rather awkward in Day-Glo tee shirts, neon-splashed patterned pants and jackets that, curiously enough, look like retro ski and sportswear. That’s because it is.
This never happened.
Yet this is the most recollected visual stereotype people have of The 80s in spite of it being completely false. Sure, a few pop stars adopted a small part of the style once or twice in a video for MTV or a Benetton ad, a fashion line that experimented with neon briefly in 1985. However, outside of children’s clothes, no one rocked neon as much as people want to believe.
Neon in The 80s was mostly used in surf, motocross and ski wear but it wasn’t until 1990 that it came off the waves of Venice Beach and the slopes of Aspen to surface on the streets of Miami, Los Angeles and Denver becoming somewhat of a joke on anyone who wore it. The fad didn’t last long. In fact, neon was one of the shortest living fads in the 80s and also the least profitable. #1 reason for that is it added visual pounds to your frame; read weight. Recently it’s enjoyed a resurgence among hipster teens who can be seen wearing neon-colored shoes and tee shirt graphics today. And Motocross….well, they’ll never let it go. It’s actually needed.
The biggest 80s fads are ones you rarely hear about; fashions, ephemera and social phenomena that somehow miss being mentioned. That The 80s had a lot of fads is a huge understatement. The 80s were all about fads, with each year of the decade rolling out new ones over the top of others as if they were being painted over with a roller again and again. That the “splatter paint” prints and graphics became so popular is rather ironic, really. Nothing popular held its ground for long. New ideas and ways of expression superseded the other every year. 1981 looks entirely different from 1982, just as 1982 differs vastly from 1984, and by1985, it appeared as if a whole new era had started mid-decade.
But I remember certain fads and trends that were so huge that, even though they faded just as quickly as they sprung up, they stand out in history as being some of the most important moments to happen in The 80s, meaning, they actually had a cultural affect.
Syd Brak Posters
Long Distance Kiss, by Syd Brak for Athena poster shops, may not have had the longevity the iconic symbol of Pac-Man had –and still has– but in 1982 it was the highest grossing poster sold in the entire world, adorning the bedroom walls of an estimated 10 million teenage girls in just America alone.
Inspired by the English punk street style of brightly colored hair and garish makeup, Brak replaced the rebellious sneers of punk with a brooding, sad-eyed gaze of a sophisticated teenager, and gave her a cleaner, more high fashion eloquence that instantly tapped into the pathos of an entire generation of girls on the brink of growing up.
That teenage girls often go through a period of deep emotional apathy and preoccupation with the melancholic, Brak’s posters spoke directly to those emotions of erotic isolation, confusion over self-image and impatience at becoming a woman who has complete control over her life. The Athena girls were glamorous, moody, mysterious, but most all, dominate.
Although the look of The Athena Girls was not attainable anywhere off a runway or a stage, the message they sent via fantasy of defiant femininity was both sensual and empowering; one Athena Girl pines for a lost love as tears well in her eyes above a pair of blood red lips that are on the brink of a wry smile, giving the impression she’s already getting close to forgetting about him; another leans in ecstasy against a power generator marked, “Live Wire”, her headphones plugged into it as if to suggest she is the current and the world is her ground. The Athena posters didn’t send a message as much as they validated an already growing movement of teen girls exploring feminism for the first time. And for that, Brak was universally rewarded. The posters made him famous…and Athena rich.
Those of us who were drawn to and inspired by these images, have held onto the original posters, stashing them away in tubes or framing them on their walls, as mine are. I saved every one. Live Wire hangs above my desk. I get where she is coming from. I’ve always understood that one. Plug into your own power source. Screw “adapters”.
The original posters are rare and seldom seen for sale. Astonishingly enough, out of millions of them made and distributed worldwide, few remain intact. Strange, because their influence was unmistakable. Their style so boldly imitated.
In fact, a slew of pop musician style icons, in 1982, were directly influenced by them.
Those who mimicked the Athena Girls were a spectacular sight never to be duplicated again. They became iconic images locked in time along with their paper predecessors. Not only did Syd Brak usher in a strange new confidante for teenage girls struggling with fashion identity and newfound feminist frustrations, but he also inspired a sudden burst of visual energy in both 1981 and 1982 pop stars, all of whom were undoubtedly inspired by, or at least identified with, The Athena Look. (Dale Bozzio, Missing Persons, third from left, did it best)
One woman in Chicago received over 20,000 phone calls in one week.
Another person, a business owner, had to momentarily disable his company’s call center due to incoming calls crippling his order department -not once but four times in one week before changing the number.
“Hello….is Jenny there?”
Oddly coinciding with the 1982 American craze for Syd Brak’s Long Distance Kiss, the band. Tommy Tutone released the song, “867-5309/Jenny”, creating a mob rush of callers dialing the number, looking for the lascivious young woman named, Jenny. The song peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts in 1982 and maintained position #16 for the Top Tracks of 1982.
According to the lyrics, a man spies the answer to his loneliness in the form of a message written on the wall of a men’s room stall, “For a Good Time Call: 867-5309/Jenny“. He calls it, and tells her “I know you think I’m like the others before who saw your name and number on the wall…” which he probably is. I mean, c’mon…seriously? “You give me something I can hold on to,” he says. I have a pretty good idea what that is. The same thing the other guy had a grip on.
After all, the song smacks of being an ode to a phone sex operator from her customer. Perhaps it is. To be honest, it took me years to understand the song as I didn’t know about phone sex operators until the 90s when ads in bus stops and local rags began appearing and advertising “Hot Chat $1.99 per minute”. But Tommy Tutone guitarist, Jim Keller, told People Magazine in 1982, that the origins of the song are far more innocent. Frankly, I don’t think he’s telling the truth.
“”Jenny is a regular girl, not a hooker. Friends of mine wrote her name and number on a men’s room wall at a bar. I called her on a dare, and we dated for a while. I haven’t talked with her since the song became a hit, but I hear she thinks I’m a real jerk for writing it.”
That Tommy Tutone had no way of knowing Syd Brak’s Long Distance Kiss was blowing up in popularity all over the world is a given. The band could not be reached for comment so the mystery remains. I personally don’t feel it’s a coincidence as the timing, the image and the subsequent re-releasing of the song on compilation using an image of a red-lipped girl blowing kisses into a red phone, tie the two together perfectly.
If it is a coincidence, it’s a brilliant one.
In 2009 the phone number belonging to a DJ company with the area code (201) sold on Ebay for $186,853.09 prompting Tommy Tutone to auction off the number with an Iowa area code, claiming he had the real number. For accuracy, the original phone number bore a Los Angeles area code.
In 2014, the phone number 867-5309 was still receiving calls for “Jenny” from people wondering who they can turn to and asking whoever answered, “Don’t change your number.” For this reason, as of 2015, #867-5309 has been disabled as a working phone number in 95% of US area codes.
It’s difficult for people today to believe that a simple white t-shirt with an obscure phrase printed on it could cause so much trouble and controversy.
But it did.
They were banned, reviled, ridiculed and censored. Wearers of the shirt were beaten, ostracized, expelled from school, denied entrance to certain establishments and were celebrated all at the same time. It became an enormous fad for a very short while, so short that you could call it a footnote. But that footnote was an important one.
So, who’s Frankie, and what does he say?
Let me put it to you this way: He said a hell of a lot more than “Jenny” ever did.
The t-shirt was the marketing concept of the English band, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose hit “Relax”, released in the USA in 1984, urged people to give in to whatever sexual urges they had, including homosexuality. Today, a song like “Relax” wouldn’t even ruffle a feather. But in The 80s, while it may have been okay for “Jenny” to engage in phone sex with strangers, it was not okay for two men to engage in sex with each other. Kind of a double standard, right? Well, Frankie Say That Too.
For the longest time the song escaped the censor’s ear on radio stations, playing over the airwaves at peak times, until someone with an attentive ear caught what a portion of the lyrics were saying:
“Relax: Don’t do it…when you wanna suck, do it…relax, go to it when you wanna cum/come.”
I have the distinct and uncomfortable memory of riding in the car with my mother when “Relax” came over the radio, and cringing when she began singing to it, bobbing her head from side to side, oblivious to what “Frankie Say“. Years later, I told her and we had a big, if somewhat still embarrassing, laugh.
The song was eventually banned from airplay worldwide until censored edits were released. Even so, the song rarely was heard during peak times after that and didn’t come back around to being played in its unedited form until the late 90s when what Frankie Say wasn’t such a big deal anymore, and not shocking in the least.
Every once in a while you can find one of the 250,000 tee shirts made in 1984 laying around in thrift shops and Goodwill’s across America. If you see one, buy it. It remains one of the coolest pieces of once-controversial memorabilia left of the fads of The 80s that few people today remember yet alone even realize happened.
Parking Lot Parties
Chances are if you were one of the 24 million teenage metal heads in the 80s who upheld full-fisted allegiance to such bands as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Metallica -the trinity of metal gods- you hung out in the parking lot hours/days beforehand listening to “Screaming for Vengeance” or “Number of The Beast” blaring from car stereos and boom boxes on blast, at least once.
If not, you haven’t lived a full life.
Welcome back to one of the last periods in US history where teen freedom rang without a cell phone. (You should put some “Maiden” on now…and turn it up)
As shown in the cult-short, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, filmed in Maryland in1986, in a lot outside of a concert arena, scores of teens gather, smoke dope and drink themselves silly. This was a frequent occurrence when top-billing metal bands came to town. Any town. With no security cameras or cell phones, and only an occasional security guard on duty, teens by the hundreds rolled in, parked and rocked out before the show with few or any chances of a buzzkill.
Festival seating, that is, no seat numbers on tickets, prompted kids to arrive early. Die hard fans wanting a front row position on the floor of the venue would show up days before the date and camp out by the doors, making a mad dash through the arena to the front of the stage once their tickets were torn. But for the ones who didn’t want to brave the long, endless line for a prime seat, stepping over urine and vomit, the parking lot became a teenage Babylon. Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. A lot of it.
Most parents had no idea their young metal head was attending an unauthorized pre-party in a parking lot. With rocketing divorce rates and the ratio of a single-parent household being 1 in 3, and two-parent households with both parents full-time employed being 2 out of 3, 80s kids were routinely unsupervised during their entire years of growing up. Thus left to their own devices they did what any teen with a few bucks, a ride and a ticket to the hottest show in town did: they partied, hot-rockin’ with “Priest” until they puked, passed out or pressed-on, propped up by friends who’d baby sit them through the show.
“Oh, man, the parking lot stories I could tell,” says, Don Mierzeski, formerly of Los Angeles. “I remember one -The Scorpions and Iron Maiden- just absolute fucking mayhem for two days; hot girls, half-naked, drunk, everybody drinking, smoking dope, head bangin’, rocking out, makin’ out. Whole lot of crazy stuff that weekend. I probably went to over 25 full-blown parking lot parties between 1980 and 1984 before I straightened up and went to law school. God, I miss those days…did I mention hot chicks?”
By 1986 parking lot parties had somewhat became a thing of the past. Large ragers dwindled to just a 100 or so people hanging out pre-show. In Heavy Metal Parking Lot a significantly smaller group is shown than was actually the reality pre-1986. With more and more surveillance cameras being used, an increase in policing and the fact that festival seating was now being phased out to cull the crowds assembling in lines for days to get in, there really was no way for the fun to continue. Also the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), a political group assembled to keep certain music out of the hands of people under the age of 18, had targeted certain heavy metal acts as “sexually depraved” and “satanic” thus shone a spotlight on youth activities that had been ignored before. The party was basically over.
Like all fads of The 80s, parking lot parties were replaced by something else, something new. Around 1984, a new kind of more commercially acceptable metal caught hold, which appealed to a very different audience: women and a commercial audience. These were the bands most true metal heads shunned like their father’s generation before had done with Disco. “Death to false metal” became a popular saying at the time as well as “Metal up your ass“.
Nonetheless, teen boys wanted to meet teen girls, so it wasn’t uncommon to see a a group of guys in Motorhead or Judas Priest shirts, propping up a wall before a Poison show and looking a bit embarrassed for being there. Hormones make you do silly things.
So here’s to the die hard metal fans who momentarily stopped defending the faith; who reluctantly followed the clicking stiletto high-heels of beautiful girls dressed in short, tight leather, doused in Obsession perfume, out of the parking lot and into the arena of a “fad” that was to become a 6-year multi-million dollar trend; the longest living one that The 80s ever produced besides video games: Cum on, feel the noise…girls rock your boys…
Glam Metal (Butt Rock, Hair Bands)
It was inevitable. Although heavy metal had a dedicated fan base by 1982 totaling over 30 million just in US fans alone, most of those bands were consider by the industry as being “non commercial” and “unmarketable”. This meant limited -if any- airplay except on certain late night radio shows and only selected time slots on MTV around midnight.
Real metal bands, that is the leather-studded, overtly masculine, boot-knockin’ pseudo bondage kind, might have been huge money makers for record labels and promoters, appealing to an overwhelmingly white, male audience, but for the rising cable television viewers and pop-centric radio stations it was definitely a no-go. This created a financial dilemma for record companies trying to figure to market a genre they knew could easily cross over into the mainstream with a makeover. A new sound and image was needed; something cleaner, less dungeons and dragons.
“What to do…what to do…” a frustrated producer and marketing director sighed into his Tab cola. “I know, let’s sign those bands from Orange County – they’re kinda metal, right?- and capitalize on the female consumer market for pretty, naughty boys!”
Thus glam metal was born -if you trust what others write.
Teen idols with an edge and a bite.
Actually that isn’t even accurate at all.
Glam was originally an English import.
Long before bands, like Poison and Mötley Crüe began rifling through their sister’s closet, Gary Glitter and David Bowie had already paved the way in England a decade earlier for glam. However, it was The New York Dolls, USA, in 1973, who took the genre farther than any other band had at that point simply because they didn’t look like they were in theatrical costume. They looked like they lived it. And that’s because they did.
“The Dolls” released some of the best albums ever produced by the genre and brought drag culture front and center. Dressed in women’s clothes, high heels and full makeup, The New York Dolls inspired thousands of young bands in the early 80s -particularly in Los Angeles, CA- to transform the stereotypical black leather image of metal into something a little less gender specific…or as Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground may have observed, they took “a walk on the wild side”.
But they’d been walking for a while. Clubs on the Sunset Strip like The Trip, Whiskey a Go-Go and Starwood were hot and heavy long before the first major record deal was signed in 1983 by LA’s Quiet Riot. LA had a bombastic music scene at the time that momentarily eclipsed the burgeoning LA punk scene, before it rose up and decimated the glam metal trend almost entirely in 1991. One of the reasons for its demise, I think, was an ideological one.
Unlike The New York Dolls, LA glam was sexist, misogynistic, often racist and extremely homophobic in spite of the fact that many of the bands looked stereo typically gay and/or dressed like Liberace’s boy toys in lipstick and lingerie. It’s an urban legend that there’s a hole in the earth’s ozone layer directly located above Los Angeles, California, and not because of exhaust emissions but from billions of cans of Aqua-Net hairspray used to construct glam’s signature tornado hairstyles that women and record execs went gaga-wild for.
Keep away from open flame
Mile-High hair. Candy-colored leather. Sequins. Faded denim and lace. Gender-bending bandits in skin-tight pants stealing hearts and pissing Dads across America off to the max when they found posters of “boys who look like girls” hanging on their daughter’s bedroom walls -or worse- their son’s. Teen girls ate it up, swooning over videos of lipstick bad boys breaking all the rules on MTV, the television music network that was now giving airtime to the wildly popular new type of “hair metal” and cashing in big time. Many of these bands found themselves millionaire celebrities overnight as well as sex symbols representing the very epitome of 80s hedonism. These guys weren’t ladies men. They were lady killers, enjoying a steady stream of young women willing to do anything -and I mean anything- to get just a moment of their attention. The stories are scandalous.
In a bid to attract girls and get a piece of the pie, many guys tried to mimic the look, giving rise to the infamous “poser” who could be found working at Tower Records, or hanging in the mall outside of Rock and Roll Fashion, the equivalent to what Hot Topic is today. Saturday nights you’d see them posing outside a local show like they were waiting for a limo to show up. Dressed in tight leopard skin spandex, fringed cowboy boots and black eyeliner, the poser was usually found talking about a band he was in.. But, seriously, it wasn’t a band he was trying to get into, trust me. These clowns always had their van parked nearby in case “an audition” came up and, because of the way they looked, they always got one.
Die hard metal heads hated glam with a passion, referring to it as “butt rock”, a pejorative term rooted in homophobia. Some just cut to the chase and called them “fags”, attaching the term “false metal” to their brand of music and wishing death upon it. But it wouldn’t die. LA Glam had arrived and was here to stay for a very long time, enjoying six solid years of continuous airplay, press, lascivious groupies and hedonistic excess that often made the national news.
As LA Glam grew, the fashion style of the bands grew with it. In an attempt to look more outrageous and differentiate themselves from each other, they began trying to “out-style” each other by whipping their hair even higher, excessively over-accessorizing, and some even took the look into the land of costume, looking more like a cross between a Samurai and an Italian Swiss Guard. It was quickly becoming a ridiculous circus of style wars, where the clowns seemed to be running the show.
Now don’t get me wrong. The fashion style may have been a bit silly after a while but the music wasn’t always without merit. Mötley Crüe’s first album as well as Ratt’s will always be on my list as being two of the best albums ever made. Nothing “false metal” about them. The aforementioned were far more interested in creating quality music than the image they projected and proved that time and time again. They had talent and seemed to joke around and have fun with the glam craze, riding it for everything it was worth yet consistently released valid, long-lasting anthems to the era of hair, whereas many others left us with only images to laugh at on Pinterest today.
By 1990 the disheveled drag queen image was damned near dead save for a few hardliners still trying to hold on to the tiger tail and whip it around one more time. Consumers weren’t having it. By and large people were beginning to question and even feel ashamed of the largely misogynistic lyrical content and videos popular glam bands kept releasing. To make matters worse, several key figures in notable bands had made public comments of a racist and homophobic nature, perhaps to feign badassery but more likely because years of drugs and alcohol abuse had dulled their senses. Suddenly, the glam world wasn’t so pretty anymore. Penelope Spheeris’ documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years reveals some of the darker sides of this genre.
Meanwhile, alternative/grunge music (I hate that term), a huge wave that had long simmered beneath the surface of glam metal’s pretty little boots, rose up from its punk roots and shook the ground, toppling glam metal off the charts. The alternative audience was largely liberal-leaning, college educated and sociopolitical punk fans who didn’t like hearing songs about women being screwed or screwed-over, used and abused, or minorities or LGBT people being ridiculed, excluded and shamed, either by word or in caricature. With their arrival into the mainstream came the quick demise of LA Glam. It’s death was fast and furious. Ruthless, even.
Nirvana planted a headstone on its grave on September, 24, 1991 with the release of Nevermind.
As usual Jenny could not be reached for comment.
Frankie Say I Told You So.