Why Listening To Music In 1984 Was Worse Than 2014 (One Direction Notwithstanding…)

The latest in-car technology...

The latest in-car technology…

Even in 2014 life has its minor irritations:

“Unexpected item in the bagging area”.

“Incorrect username or password”.

“Nick Grimshaw”.

But it isn’t all bad news.

A few days ago I wrote down a few examples of how our lives have been made easier through the years, in particular relating to finding and listening to music. Examples 1-5 included how podcasts have replaced taping from TV and radio, iPlayer means we can catch up on shows we miss and the Internet can tell us what albums a band has recorded. Here are five more examples. All of these relatively simple 21st century tasks required Heath Robinson style solutions thirty years ago. Indeed, in the 1980’s even finding out who Heath Robinson was, required a Heath Robinson style method. Here are some more examples:

6. Watching a music video

Now: YouTube.

Then: Waiting for the Chart Show to play the “Rock Charts” once every three weeks, staying in with finger on the VHS recorder hoping that a) the video would be one of the three they played a three minute extract from and b) you hadn’t miscalculated and it was actually the turn of the “Dance” chart. Imagine YouTube where you have to wait three weeks. Or, if you prefer, imagine watching YouTube with a dial up internet connection.

7. Finding out the name of a song on the radio when you miss the DJ’s introduction:

Now: 1. Google a small portion of whatever lyric you caught or 2. hold your iPhone against the radio using Shazam. 3. look it up on the radio’s own website or 4. Look at the display on your digital radio which tells you what’s “now playing”.

In the eighties: Completely and utterly impossible. You could only keep listening on the off-chance they played it again. Toyah actually wrote a song about her years of frustration trying to find out the names of songs playing on the radio in the eighties. She called it “It’s A Mystery”.*

8. Buying a reasonably priced CD.

Now: an album on iTunes costs the same as a record did in 1989, at £8. Spotify is just £10 per month.

Then: Actually it took until the introduction of CDs and the nineties before things got really out of hand. In the eighties, an album cost between £6-£8. CDs became popular from 1987 onwards and sold for £10 plus. Yet by 1997, CDs each cost more than an average sized studio flat (okay, not quite, except perhaps for certain streets in the rougher parts of Toxteth**) and it wasn’t until record companies began supplying supermarkets on the cheap that prices began to fall.

I remember a conversation I had in 2002 with a record store owner in Tottenham who told me the supermarkets were selling CDs for less (£10) retail than he could buy them wholesale which anyway you look at it was a disgrace.

It was especially bad in the UK: when I travelled to the USA on holiday in 1994, I came home with more than thirty (new) tapes and CDs – all bought at less than half the UK price.

9. Hearing lesser known tracks by famous artists

Now: Certain bands have great B-Sides. But if you want to hear, say, all of Suede’s early output, you don’t need to buy the singles any more – you can either buy individual tracks on iTunes or simply buy the remastered deluxe reissue of their debut album. Easy…

In the eighties: there was no option but to buy each physical single just for the B-side if still available, or tape it from a friend. Bands that had good B-Sides were rightly celebrated: That’s why many fans bought their singles even though they had the album. Still somewhat financially ruinous of course.

10. Listening to music on the go.

Now: 160gb iPods mean you can carry your entire music collection with you which you have lovingly ripped from your impressive CD collection / downloaded from illegal torrents. (Delete as applicable) In the eighties we had the Sony Walkman. Or, if, like me, you couldn’t afford a Sony you had an Aiwa or something similar which would eat batteries like Gary Barlow used to eat donuts and which would have variable speed according to what angle you tilted it.

Then there was the issue of what to listen to. You had to cart a handful of tapes around with you. And spare batteries. This required the strength of Hercules in his prime. If you owned an album on vinyl you would need to tape the record onto a blank C90 cassette, with the added complication that if the album was more than 45 minutes long, you would have to leave a track off. If you had borrowed the album that meant a lifetime of not hearing the album as intended. For this reason alone, there is still one track from Peter Gabriel’s “So” album (and a few others) that I have never heard. Things got worse when CDs came on the scene. Discman? They just remind me of those old adverts for record players in cars…

So there it is. When you break it down, listening to music outside the BBC playlist in the eighties could be pretty hard work. However, these difficulties also meant a couple of times I went to see a really good band without ever having heard them before. That probably only happens at music festivals now, or if you’re lucky with a support band. I had a good hit rate. The first band I saw without having heard a note was Kings X in 1989. The second band was in 1990: The Black Crowes in what was their first London show at The Marquee Club. I’ll talk about that next time.


* This is clearly something I just made up. “It’s A Mystery” was actually about the popularity of Dave Lee Travis.
 **They actually cost around £16 each in the UK. CDs that is, not Toxteth*** flats…
*** With apologies to the people of Toxteth. A cheap shot, I know. I’m sure it’s lovely there now****
**** It probably isn’t.

Categories: Music

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29 replies

  1. I invented the ipod. Not Steve Jobs. In 1985 I was on a trip with my Choral group to Hawaii and I was listening to No Jacket Required (seriously) on a bus and I thought, I wish I could have my entire record and tape collection stored on my walkman.

    No, I’ve never received a dime so don’t ask.

    Stop looking at me like that.


    • Heh, actually I invented the iPod in 1984. Like you, I never got the credit I thought I deserved…
      Don’t worry about the Phil Collins thing. A lot of people owned that album. Your secret is safe.
      For the avoidance of doubt, however, I didn’t own that album.*
      * I did buy “Invisible Touch” however…


      • Hey, Synchronicity!! I owned that one too.

        On vinyl and my copy was the one with the best version of the artwork!! So mad was I when I got the tape years later an there was a whole ‘nother song on it.

        I bought Invisible Touch too. I don’t accuse Phil Collins. Mike Rutherford’s Acting Very Strange.

        Nuff said.


  2. If I ever bought a single on 45 which wasn’t that common for me, I would listen to the B-side out of curiosity. If I liked the song, then I would conclude that the album must be good. Most of the time I was right but then there was “The Getaway” by Chris DeBurgh. Don’t ask.


  3. This is clever and on whole I agree – my only doubt is whether or not you’ve properly ‘weighted’ into your equation just how irritating that prat Grimshaw is!


  4. I kinda like the old method – go to record shop, thumb through albums, get git in the shop to play a track or two, buy, go and see band for £2.50.
    You’d meet like-minded people who could be bothered and were part of a scene. I think the easy access methods we have now don’t do anything to create a community spirit. Maybe I’m just old and slipping into the ‘in my day it was better’ mode. Buying records and going to gigs went hand in hand. And as we hadn’t been updating our status every two minutes, when we saw our mates, we had something to talk about rather than staring blankly at our screens and sharing LoL clips from the web. Although we did talk a great pile o’ shite on the train to gigs, so I suppose nothings changed, just the speed of the delivery.


  5. A trip down memory lane…I think I prefer 2014!


  6. I do miss High Speed Dubbing…I mean it was cool hearing welcome to the jungle sung by alvin simon and theodore…your list did cheer me up. Especially the invention of You Tube, I used to have to babysit to watch MTV because we didn’t have cable tv growing up for me it was Friday Night Videos or nothing. ahh the memories!


  7. I agree with your points… up until your player of choice mysteriously glitches out and you have to rebuild your library! The old tape chewed up in the Walkman could at least be attended to with the humble pencil.


  8. Kids today with their music, and hair….


  9. Well, here in Canada, we had MuchMusic rather than MTV, which phased out its music videos one, maybe two years after MTV did! But not to fear, as MuchMoreMusic was introduced. Which phased out its music videos. Thank goodness for Youtube. I remember being super excited when I would buy a CD that included the album’s music videos on it.

    I’m too young to remember the actual heyday of the B-sides, but I still very much like the idea of it – elusive and mythical in a way. The fact that a 5-second Google search will yield that for you now is handy, if a little disheartening.


  10. Both times have their good sides. Then there were 12 inch records (the long versions always add to the radio version) and decent record stores, which are disappearing rapidly. And the sound quality was a lot better on vinyl, although the cd does quite well (but downloads have such a poor quality…)


  11. Re supermarkets selling cheap – IIRC, there’s at least one account in ‘Last Shop Standing’ of an independent record store owner buying albums from supermarkets to sell in his own store because they were cheaper there than he could get direct from the distributor. Pretty shameful, really.


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