It began the way 1983 ended: as the Year of Michael Jackson.
By February 1984, he had won an unprecedented eight Grammy awards and watched "Thriller" sales climb into the stratosphere. Then his brothers got into the act, and the Victory Tour proved that to the victors belong the spoils. By year's end, the Jacksons' tour had grossed about $75 million, but promoter Chuck Sullivan said he had lost money and his health.
The tour, which could mark Michael Jackson's farewell to the concert stage, turned out to be just one of three traveling extravaganzas. One solidified the mythic stature of Bruce Springsteen as the unemployed mechanic next door. The other did it for Prince, the trench-coated voyeur lurking in the mirror. All three hit Washington, with the Jacksons playing two shows for 90,000 of the faithful at RFK Stadium; Springsteen four shows for 80,000 blue-jeaned worshipers; and Prince seven shows for 130,000 delirious fans (the latter two stands were made at the Capital Centre). Springsteen worked the hardest for his money. And, in a year in which black music's presence was the strongest since the golden age of Motown, his show was also the only one to attract an overwhelmingly white audience.
Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." was just part of a Buy American movement that returned control of the rock scene to American acts in almost the same landslide proportions that the American people returned Ronald Reagan to the White House. The themes were a native blue collar realism and despondent energy from acts as disparate as Springsteen, Husker Du, John Cougar Mellencamp, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Black Flag, Kurtis Blow, Miami Steve Van Zandt and Afrika Bambaataa, all of whom rejected the commercial calculations so central to British pop.
Buying American wasn't always buying quality: Witness Madonna, Twisted Sister, Motley Crue and Ratt.
If 1983's pop character was defined by Brits like Culture Club, Eurythmics, Duran Duran and the Police, the only new British bands to make waves 20 years after the original British Invasion were Wham!, whose Sun Tan Alley pop marks the rebirth of Pat Booneism, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who rode in on a media barrage and turned out to be better in theory than in fact. Britain still managed its intrigues: Keep an ear out for Bronski Beat, Alison Moyet, Paul Young, the Smiths, Sade and Malcolm McLaren's further adventures in opera.
The most daring music of the year came from two unusual sources: a slew of rock and jazz musicians paying an intensely personal tribute to the music and genius of Thelonious Monk on "That's the Way I Feel Now" and "The Gospel at Colonus," Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's brilliant wedding of black gospel and Greek tragedy in a transcendent musical. When it played at Arena Stage at the end of the year, it featured the best pure singing Washington experienced all year.
Prince Rogers Nelson confirmed the promise of "1999" with "Purple Rain," the year's best album, source of the year's best single, "When Doves Cry," also the highest grossing rock film ever and the fastest selling video of all time, as well as the fastest grossing concerts in memory, and probably the . . . well, he was hot and everybody went crazy. Don't write it off as skillful marketing, either; this was purposeful music. "Purple Rain" provided the meeting ground for personal vision and ego, for black and white audiences, for funk and rock music.
While everybody focused on the magnificent three, Lionel Richie outsold them all, with more than 9 million copies of "Can't Slow Down," an album that mixed his trademark love ballads with some skillful uptempo excursions. Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias surprised some critics who felt his Europop wouldn't cross the Atlantic and became the only solo artist to have two platinum albums in 1984. With a little help from Willie Nelson, he wisely made his entry via country music, whose demographics and conservative tastes most closely resemble those of his overseas audience. And while Menudo continued to make bilingual pablum, the best Latino music was being made by Los Angeles' Chicano champs and roots rockers, Los Lobos, and by New York's progressive salsa master, Reuben Blades, who tempered his hot music with cold steel lyrics.
In 1984, 10 sound-track albums went platinum -- with sales of more than 1 million copies each -- twice as many as ever before. Two, "Purple Rain" and "Footloose," together occupied the number one album slot for more than half the year. Interestingly, they were self-contained affairs, the first featuring only Prince material, the second featuring only songs written by "Footloose" screenwriter Dean Pitchford. Stevie Wonder snuck an olf-fashioned ballad album out while nobody was looking, disguising it as a sound track to "The Woman in Red," and surprising everyone with "I Just Called to Say I Love You," a cool blast from the past.
Little wonder then that the record industry estimated a 15 to 20 percent sales jump over 1983. The only sour note was the possibility that the album list price could reach $9.98 by mid-1985, a move that would certainly dampen consumer enthusiasm. If there was little brave new music, there were all sorts of new formats, ranging from issuing the same song in several different mixes of the recorded sound to audio and video tapes and compact discs that often offered more playing time and material than standard albums.
In 1983 compact discs arrived on the market. In 1984, their sales were explosive, and threatened to become more so with the end-of-the-year introduction of portable and car model CD players. Some industry analysts predicted a continuing reduction in CD prices, holding out the acceptable notion that by the end of 1985, we could see a uniform $9.98 list price for albums, tapes (which now account for more than 50 percent of sales) and CDs.
In Washington, no shockers, but some bitter surprises, especially the sudden closings of Adam's and, more importantly, the Wax Museum, the city's largest and best-equipped nightclub (it wasn't making enough profit, according to the parking lot ownership). A major opening: Tower Records, the California chain, took over 18,000 square feet of space near George Washington University, filled it with 400,000 records and served notice that Washington's record retailers had better perk up.
Passings: (and this was a harder year than anyone can remember in some time): Marvin Gaye, Steve Goodman, Alberta Hunter, Count Basie, Ethel Merman, Jackie Wilson, Roy Hall, Mabel Mercer, Fred Waring, Esther Phillips, Ernest Tubb, Arthur Schwartz, Machito, Don Reno, Shelly Manne, Big Mama Thornton, Alexis Korner, Red Garland, Z.Z. Hill, Phillipe Wynne, Percy Mayfield, Norman Petty, Gordon Jenkins, Lenny Breau.
For the first time since the golden Motown era in the '60s, black artists were well-represented on the charts. Despite itself, radio reflected a black-white fusion that cut both ways (Prince, Huey Lewis, Madonna, Kool and the Gang) and one of the more encouraging trends of the year was cross-production and integrated bands.
Music video in general, and MTV in particular, continued to loom large (sealing the death of punk and cementing the dominance of hard rock and heavy metal). In terms of sales and audience impact, television may now be more important to music than radio, and it's turning out to be just as rigid and unimaginative. It's gotten to the point that one's experience of a new song is incomplete until one has "seen the video." This is all part of pop music's cyclical evolution, its 35-year pattern of expansion (the move from 78s to albums, transistor radios, mobile/portable sound systems) and contraction (Top 40 radio, music videos).
This was the year MTV went for broke, aiming at exclusivity contracts and pay-for-play plans that provoked charges of antitrust violations (an investigation is currently underway). Ted Turner's adult-oriented video channel lasted 34 days and was bought out by MTV, whose own "alternative/adult" programming is about to begin.
One thing's for sure: A look at Billboard's album charts showed that your chances of getting into the top 100 were 3 in 100 if you didn't have some kind of video to back you up (and the heck with the band). Big names were starting to direct them: Sam Peckinpah, John Sayles, Brian De Palma, John Landis, Taylor Hackford, William Friedkin and Bob Rafelson. And the latest in-thing: star cameos in promo videos.
Ironically, music videos have become the ultimate movie commercial: witness "Footloose," "Purple Rain" and "Ghostbusters," all of which benefited at the box office from the incessant (and free) advertising provided by MTV and other music video programs.
If the rich got richer, the poor were much clearer, and apparently happier, in their vinyl declarations of independence. What's been dubbed the New American Underground is simply a corollary to similar movements in film, theater and art, but a loose-knit but persistent distribution system and a swarm of alternative publications and clubs make it more visible. These are bands you will seldom hear on commercial radio, see on MTV or find on the charts; their music tends to be visceral and daring because music is their primary consideration. There is usually little or no synthesized fabrication of sounds and ye old electric (and sometimes acoustic) guitar tends to be the carrying instrument. Enthusiasm replaces artifice.
The Replacements, Husker Du, Slickee Boys, the Minutemen, Fleshtones, dB's, Trouble Funk, Swimming Pool Q's, R.E.M., True West, Rank and File, the Lyres, Smithereens, Dream Syndicate, 10,000 Maniacs, Tommy Keene, Let's Active, Meat Puppets, No Trend, Black Flag, Leroi Brothers, Barrance Whitfield and the Savages, Rubber Rodeo, Spongetones, Wire Train, Jason and the Scorchers, Rain Parade, Long Ryders, Del Lords, Del Fuegos and Blood on the Saddle all put out albums of more than passing interest. And the 9:30 club, Washington's bravest nightclub, had most of them in to perform live.
Odds and trends:
* But will it be voluntary?: The National PTA asked for a ratings system for the record industry similar to that in the film industry.
* Plagiarism lawsuits: nothing breeds them like success (ask George Harrison, the Bee Gees, Billy Joel and Michael Jackson) but seldom do two success stories end up face to face like Ray Parker Jr., whose "Ghostbusters" is under seige by Huey Lewis' "I Want a New Drug."
* Reissues, mostly in the jazz field, are now coming out with their original covers, and singly, rather than in the two-fers of recent years. Kudos to Rhino, Solid Smoke, Fantasy and Rounder for not relying on an Elvis Presley to carry their programs.
* Like breakdancing, rap and hip-hop in general flourished at the street level despite overexposure in too many "breaksploitation" films and a virtual end to exposure in the media. On the other hand, the surge of star-worshipping fanmags and picture books reached epidemic proportions.
Rock and reel: Three films defined the distance between the great ("Purple Rain"), the sublime ("This Is Spinal Tap," the funniest rock film ever) and the vainglorious ("Give My Regards to Broad Street").
Bad timing: The film version of "1984" comes to America in 1985. No matter, it turned out that it wasn't Big Brother who was watching us anyway. We were watching Big Brother and its name was MTV.