Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Can't Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year'

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Michelangelo Matos's 'Can't Slow Down.'
Michelangelo Matos's 'Can't Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Michaelangelo Matos and I are almost exactly the same age, and we both grew up in Minnesota, but his childhood was privileged in a way mine wasn't: in 1984, he had a cassette deck that could record straight off the radio. Until I finally got a boom box in '87, I was consigned to holding our tape player up to the TV if I wanted to record the theme to Knight Rider or Fame.

In the summer of '84, Matos writes in his new book Can't Slow Down (buy now), he hit record and decided to keep the tape rolling until the two pop radio stations he was switching between (in St. Paul, must've been KDWB and WLOL) played a bad song. Hours passed, and he never had to hit pause.

Update 12/11: On Facebook, the author clarifies: "I did not have a combo radio and recorder. I had an old reporter's black tape deck from the 70s pointed at a standalone radio. That's how I was able to record myself firing the air rifle with the song." That is, "The Warrior" (bang, bang!) by Scandal.

I had a similar experience recently, revisiting archived air checks of that vintage from KZIO, the Top 40 station I listened to a few hours north in Duluth. (In a strange twist of fate, KZIO is now The Current.) Between weather forecasts ("cooler by the lake") and short DJ breaks ("This would be a great one for slam dancing!" declared the host about Michael Sembello's "Maniac"), the songs were incredible, one after another. We weren't imagining things: pop music in the mid-1980s really was that good.

The subtitle of Can't Slow Down is How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year. It reflects a reality that's become increasingly clear as the decades pass: there was something special about that year. As Matos points out, when people think about how great music was in the '80s, they're overwhelmingly thinking about the peak period from 1983 to 1985, and especially 1984. Early '80s music was anodyne, argues Matos, so boring that the entire record industry slumped. The late '80s became almost a parody of themselves, with trends that were fresh in '84 played out and watered down.

There have been other unusually great years in popular music: 1955, 1967, 1977, 1993, 2007, 2014. There was something towering about 1984, though. Consider all the absolute icons who were at their peak popularity and influence. Prince, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen all released their signature albums that year; while Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and the Police toured behind smashes released in 1983 or late '82.

Veterans of the '70s (Hall and Oates, Genesis, Foreigner, the solo Eagles) and even '60s (Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder) were finding fresh new sounds. Angular post-punks like Talking Heads and New Order were pushing pop, while grizzly blues acts like ZZ Top and all number of hair-metal outfits were bursting out of speakers. Hip-hop hit the mainstream, and alternative rock (R.E.M., U2) was starting to do the same. Dance music was booming, with even Springsteen delving into 12" remixes (though not before fortifying himself with a 12-pack, notes Matos); while country music unapologetically (and very literally) went Vegas.

Somehow, 1984 became the year that everyone seemed to get together and push toward the mainstream...and the result was a pop music fan's dream, the likes of which we're not apt to live through again. In musical terms, it was like everyone agreed to throw one giant party in the mainstream before the genre lines geniuses like Prince and Madonna were working so hard to bend ossified yet again.

It's telling, though, that the book's subtitle doesn't start with the word "why." Matos could have delved deeper into the finer points of radio programming, and the MTV effect, and the evolving definition of stardom (in a beautiful kicker, the book ends with Sting declaring himself fully the equal of Prince Charles and Lady Di). Instead of a microscope, though, he uses a fish-eye lens to take in the sprawling musical majesty of the period from the 1983 rise of the post-AOR Top 40 to 1985's Live Aid, a surreally eclectic high the music would would spend the rest of the decade coming down from.

While this approach may leave hard-core fans of any given artist or movement wishing for more, the approach's appeal is that it helps us understand all the hundreds of artists who made 1984 happen in a wider context.

A prime example is the era's biggest star, and the one whose legacy has become most complicated by the intervening decades: Michael Jackson. Just as Positively 4th Street is one of the best books about Bob Dylan precisely because it's not only about Dylan, Can't Slow Down provides a compelling look at Jackson's story because it's not only about him.

In a virtuoso chapter, Matos walks readers through the Grammys ceremony held in February 1984 and hosted by the "sturdy, efficient, unflappable, and beatific" John Denver. Jackson's searing stardom was the big story, but the ceremony also included an oddly comedic joint appearance by Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder (presenting Song of the Year to an absent Sting for "Every Breath You Take"); Rodney Dangerfield and Cyndi Lauper awarding Best New Artist to Culture Club; Herbie Hancock playing "Rockit" despite not having appeared in his hit's music video for fear of MTV racism; and an appearance by a Latin American boy band, Menudo, that had just drawn screaming NYC crowds that Variety compared to those previously seen for Sinatra.

Into this heady mix, insert Jackson (and remove Prince, who didn't bother to show up). He brought Brooke Shields and Emmanuel Lewis to the ceremony as his dates, he publicly hugged every member of Toto (all of whom played on Thriller), he wore a hairpiece to hide the burn he'd incurred filming the Pepsi video that premiered during the telecast, he brought his sisters onstage just for the hell of it, he said he was "most proud" of his win for Best Children's Album (the E.T. storybook album, which he narrated), and he very briefly removed his sunglasses (because, he explained, his friend Katherine Hepburn insisted).

As amused as Matos is with the year's full-to-bursting clown car of quirky celebrities, he never forgets why we cared: every clown came with a killer hook. He doesn't just credit the era's undeniable iconic singles, he points out that even the artists who aren't routinely celebrated with downtown dance nights earned credibility with undeniable achievements like Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight" (a bored Eric Clapton was startled into profanity by the now-iconic drum fill), Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" (including a startlingly passionate vocal from Lou Gramm, irrespective of his concern about selling out the band's rock roots), Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" (better than any Eagles song, argues Matos), and Billy Joel's "The Longest Time" (the Piano Man's piano-free best single, per the author).

This being 1984, you could fill an entire chapter with hair metal alone — and Matos does, offering priceless observations like Def Leppard being "so populist they made Quiet Riot sound like Pere Ubu." His chapter on 1984 in country music is gloriously irreverent towards Willie Nelson, who "worked his casualness like a runway walker works a pair of pumps. He was the wise man next door, doing business as one of the ten highest-paid performers in Las Vegas." After quoting Nelson averring he had no idea of the global sales juggernaut he'd tapped by recording a duet with Julio Iglesias, Matos dryly adds, "Of course not."

In researching the book, Matos romped through piles of contemporary publications, allowing him to grab all their best quotes as well. "He's been running up and down the aisles, and I mean every aisle," Bruce Springsteen's security coordinator told Billboard as the Boss prepared to open his Born in the U.S.A. Tour (and shoot a "Dancing in the Dark" video) in St. Paul. "The only other performer I know who does that is Neil Diamond."

Still based in St. Paul, Matos has any number of local angles for attentive Minnesota music fans. He's plumbed the Minnesota Historical Society's invaluable collection of First Avenue archives, noting that the unusually complete file for show where Prince premiered and recorded "Purple Rain" includes a guest list with Peter Buck's name crossed out...meaning he attended. A writer for The Current Rewind podcast, Matos is attentive to the dynamics around the Minneapolis scene and First Avenue, whose manager Steve McClellan was understandably concerned that Prince's name would be much more famously associated with the club than his own would. He also acknowledges that Purple Rain, while it looks a little cheesy today, actually represented quite an achivement for Prince and director Albert Magnoli. "Compared to Beat Street and Breakin', both shot on equally thin budgets," Matos quotes Billboard as observing, "this looks like a Stanley Kubrick film."

Prince also sat out the early 1985 recording session for "We Are the World," an anthem written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson in the latter's bed-less bedroom while his pet boa constrictor made the former Commodore uncomfortable. While even Sting acquiesced to sing a line about "the bitter sting of tears" in the U.K. predecessor "Do They Know It's Christmas?", Prince took a pass on the USA for Africa session; the indefatigable Sheila E. joined in to sing along on the choruses, and Prince's line ("if you believe, there's no way we can fail") "went to the properly humble Huey Lewis."

The motley cast of artists who showed up for that session and the later Live Aid are testament to the enduring fascination of an era when some of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century all conspired to stack the Top 40 with unforgettable hits. It's apt that Matos closes with the Sting line about British royalty, and not just because that era saw a remarkable second British Invasion on the pop charts. More so than every before, and arguably since, pop stars really were our royalty in 1984. No wonder Prince was at his peak.

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December 17: This Isn't Happening: Radiohead's Kid A and the Beginning of the 20th Century by Steven Hyden (buy now)

December 24: My Name Is Love by Darlene Love (buy now)

December 31: Best music books of 2020

January 7: One Last Song: Conversations on Life, Death and Music by Mike Ayers


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