If nothing else, 1985 was a good year for rock 'n' roll's often maligned image. From USA for Africa's "We Are the World" -- probably the most documented recording session of all time -- to July's Live Aid concerts, and from September's Farm Aid extravaganza to the "Sun City" antiapartheid project, pop musicians of all stripes publicly conspired to shatter decades-old stereotypes about caring, commitment and community. It was not rock's finest hour, but certainly one of its better ones -- even if Bob Geldof, rock's good samaritan, didn't get sainted or Nobeled.
As one British paper said, it was the year of giving generously.
Then again, a Washington power group managed to take a legitimate parental concern -- the influence of explicit rock lyrics on young children -- and turn it into the media circus called "Porn Wars." Fittingly, the congressional hearings starring Big Brother and Twisted Sister provided the grist for a new Frank Zappa recording. The opposing sides not only misunderstood each other totally (one side not making sufficient distinctions, the other overstating consumer labeling as censorship) but ended up forging a compromise agreement with enough loopholes to fly a Concorde through. The Hill hearing was one of the year's great entertainments: Alan Carr must wish he could take it on the road.
One consequence of all this visibility: Rock's ability to speak to the masses took on a renewed legitimacy, and people started noticing the social, political and moral commentary flowing through much (though definitely not all) of the music. (Of course, they had to buy the records to hear it, because radio, as segregated as it's ever been, continues to ignore anything with bite. If you want to get a message over the airwaves, you have to buy a 60-second spot.)
There were times in 1985 when it looked as though rock 'n' roll was taking over the world. Television's "Miami Vice" became the first weekly long-form rock video, with cameos from a wide assortment of pop figures. A rock sound track sold the dance movie "White Nights," and woe to those films that failed to click with at least one hit single or that didn't feature at least one rock-star-turned-actor (Sting, Tina Turner, Grace Jones, Madonna, Prince).
In the world of advertising, everything seemed to be geared to the MTV esthetic; whatever it is, it sells. MTV, radio and the major record companies appeared to be marching in lockstep with the conservative capitalist esthetic of Reagan Republicanism. Even Bruce Springsteen's bitter and ironic take on being born in the U.S.A. couldn't deter Lee Iacocca from offering him many millions to connect his Boss mug to a truck, a la John Riggins. Springsteen's refusal to be co-opted didn't stop people from using blue-collar chic to sell everything from fast-food hamburgers and beer to Chryslers. Come to think of it, that sounds mighty American.
Springsteen was the most curious phenomenon of 1985, a runaway train headed uphill. The myth-making process that enveloped him 10 years ago now recasts him as an electric Woody Guthrie, an acerbic observer of blue-collar realities and the American condition, singing about decay and decline. Springsteen, rock's Paul Bunyan, has not invited any of this myth making; while his concern, commitment and sense of purpose seem genuine enough, he seems thoroughly uncomfortable as a working-class hero. At least he's providing young white Americans with an inspirational role model.
Ironically, Springsteen mimicked much of the formula that made Michael Jackson the biggest star of 1984: video presence, dance remixes, stadium concerts, quiet philanthropy, media inaccessibility, mass air play and digging deep into one hugely successful album to find seven Top 10 singles.
The essential images of rock 'n' roll '85 ranged from Bruce's bulging biceps to Madonna's unshaven armpits. If you wanted to see more of Miss Ciccone, you just had to get Playboy or Penthouse; thankfully, she didn't try to deny her past experiences. Madonna's shallow pop may be a triumph of style over substance, but there's something delightfully appealing about her manner.
Phil Collins quietly emerged as a superstar, while U2 and Dire Straits deservedly became household-name bands. Sting went solo, to good effect; Mick Jagger did the same, at least on record, less impressively. David Lee Roth left Van Halen, Morris Day left the Time and Jane Weidlin left the Go-Gos: people noticed only one of those departures. The most in- triguing new personality wasn't even a real human being, but British cable personality Max Headroom (and don't you wish MTV's jocks were half as alert or entertaining?).
This was the year in which rock's two biggest stars got married (Prince apparently couldn't find a mirror that knows how to say "I Do"). But some of the most revealing records came from musicians with an ex to grind: Richard and Linda Thompson, Carly Simon and James Taylor, and John Doe and Exene Cervanka of X all played out their separations in song. A number of artists -- John Cougar Mellencamp, Joni Mitchell, Pete Townshend -- did some maturing on vinyl, with Mellencamp and Mitchell unveiling some caustic political commentary at odds with their past personas.
One great new arrival was Whitney Houston, Cissy's daughter. The son also rose, in the form of Julian Lennon, who still needs to prove that he's got something besides good bloodlines. Two Washington music legends were the subject of media analyses: Marvin Gaye, in David Ritz's riveting book, and Patsy Cline, in Karel Reisz's revolting film "Sweet Dreams."
Barbra Streisand returned to her Broadway roots, and several other veterans made strong returns: Tina Turner (alas, not on record), James Taylor, John Fogerty, Robert Plant, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck and Bill Withers. Even Stevie Wonder put out a record (a monster, but not the great monster everyone expected).
Rookie of the year honors went to Houston, Katrina and the Waves, the Hooters, Suzanne Vega, Sade, Corey Hart,'Til Tuesday, Freddie Jackson and Stanley Jordan, whose guitar technique must be seen to be believed. The record business was booming, but it was also changing: Tapes now account for 60 percent of sales, and CDs -- in flush sound -- are climbing fast.
It's morning again in American rock 'n' roll. While the media seemed obsessed with the shrinking galaxy of rock superstars, or with the increasingly dull survivors and descendants of the most recent British Invasion, the most exciting and visceral rock music was being made by young American bands whose independent spirit was often betrayed by their independent (and therefore uneven) systems of distribution.
The best of these were not longtime critical favorites like REM, X, the Long Ryders, Marshall Crenshaw, Hu sker Du or the Blasters (who all put out powerful albums), or the flock of paisley revivalists (who didn't), but a fresh wave of mostly guitar-based bands. Dismissing British influences, they root their music in the qualities that once defined American rock -- visceral spirits and heartfelt emotions -- and recast those influences in a highly personal style.
Among the best are Zeitgeist, 10,000 Maniacs, Guadalcanal Diary, the Rave-Ups, Chris Isaaks, the Replacements, Beat Farmers, Swimming Pool Q's, Lone Justice, the Meat Puppets, the Primitons. Although some of them have been recently signed to major labels, your chances of hearing them on mainstream radio are slight (come to think of it, mainstream radio is slight). These bands thrive in a noncommercial context that's ragged but right and has its own complex support systems.
Still, there'll always be an England. Pretty-boy pop flared in the form of Wham!, Go West and (the less pretty, more concrete) Tears for Fears. The best singers to cross the waters were the soul-suffused Paul Young and the coolly elegant Sade. The most provocative British music, however -- Prefab Sprout, Kate Bush, the Cure, Dream Academy, New Order, Del Amitri, Blue Nile -- got little exposure on American radio.
Australia continued to impress with INXS, the Divinyls, Hoodoo Gurus, Eurogliders and Midnight Oil. Norway contributed A-Ha (ho hum).
The buzz in black music was Washington's go-go sound, but the reality was a plethora of Minneapolis clones (real and implied), from the Family, Morris Day, Andre Cymone, Jesse Johnson, Sheila E. and Alexander ONeal to Ready for the World. Prince went psychedelic (and suffered a sales slump), while Luther Vandross proved to be not only the best singer on today's soul scene, but a shimmering concert presence as well.
Just as heartening was the return to form of Aretha Franklin, whose "Who's Zoomin' Who" zoomed right up the charts and restablished her as the queen of soul. Patti La Belle and Bobby Womack continued their strong comebacks of the last two years, while ex-Temptations Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin found a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t through the auspices of Daryl Hall and John Oates. Run-D.M.C. dominated the rap field, but young bloods like Doug E. Fresh and LL Cool J were heard from as well. One of the most intriguing albums of the year was a live Sam Cooke date from 1963, while the most impressive historical package was the 186-song "History of Atlantic Rhythm and Blues."
Country music continued to be led away from its uptown inclinations and back toward its roots by the so-called New Traditionalists. Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs, the Judds and George Strait, all singers with obvious ties to bluegrass or hard country, dominated this year's Country Music Awards. It remains to be seen whether they will have the same impact in the '80s as the "progressive" or "outlaw" movement, led by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, did in the '70s.
Alabama, the biggest selling group in country, continues to inspire self-contained bands (20 years after rock 'n' roll brought them to the fore). Some of the best country music was coming out of small, independent labels like Sugar Hill, Flying Fish and Rounder, as Nashville struggled through the same identity crisis it experienced in the late '50s -- struggling to attract the young audience that buys records while still satisfying its older core audience, which is less inclined to do so.
In jazz, the good news was the return and revitalization of the legendary Blue Note label, but much else was downbeat. With the exception of a few feisty American labels (Gramavision, India Navigation, Concord, Fantasy) that continue to champion provocative new jazz, the majority of jazz records in 1985 seemed to be either reissues (and thanks for that) or imports from Italy, Japan or Scandinavia. The most impressive new sound belonged to guitarist Stanley Jordan, who has synthesized a revolutionary keyboardlike playing technique with technical assurance while still couching his music in accessible terms.
Some familiar faces turned up in unexpected places: After 25 years with CBS, Miles Davis moved to Warner Bros.; Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland left Wynton Marsalis for Sting; Weather Report took a break, with Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul forming new bands; and Dexter Gordon turned actor in Bertrand Tavernier's upcoming film, " 'Round Midnight." And the Kool Jazz Festival celebrated itself for the last time as the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co. withdrew its support.
Of the charity rock events, Live Aid was probably the most significant not just because it raised the most money, some $65 million; or because it served up a number of sublime moments, supplied by a virtual galaxy of pop stars; or even because it brought rock to some 1.5 billion people; but because it provided that global village -- temporarily realized through the magic of satellite television -- with a vi- brant global jukebox, one that offered a specific message and implied many more.
"Feed the World" may have been a naive instruction, but it nevertheless elicited an immediate response and confirmed that pop music fans needn't be frightened off by social or political comment. And as Live Aid focused world attention on the tragedy of famine-struck Africa, it provoked an awareness that when rock lives up to its promises, it can change the outer world as well as the inner one.
The ubiquitous "We Are the World" was significant, also, though we could probably survive quite well without ever hearing it again. Depite the song's intentions, it now seems cloying and self-righteous. It was a good copy (of Band Aid) that made good copy.
At times, it looked like every country and every style of music was forming its own version of Band Aid while expanding the areas of concern to include American farmers and AIDS victims.
Farm Aid suffered from its own great (and greatly confused) expectations. But as a vehicle for increasing public awareness about the plight of the American farmer, it was a huge success. And the music, like the theme, was solidly American, rich and varied.
"Sun City" raised the ante from charity to protest, and proved to be the most eclectic, egalitarian group project. The record sold well despite radio's apathy and proved to be only the tip of a persistent antiapartheid campaign in song.
Locally, Charlie's Georgetown closed after five years of mounting costs and Ted Liu's opened in the spirit of Los Angeles' Madame Wong's, a refuge for developing bands in search of both a voice and an audience.
Go-go, the funk phenomenon that had thrived unhyped for close to a decade, suddenly popped up as the Next Big Thing in magazines like Playboy and Rolling Stone. Every label in the world descended on Washington trying to sign up anything that looked like a go-go band. But despite an all-out media blitz, particularly in England, go-go failed to produce any national hits. And "Good to Go" -- filmed here during the spring and summer and heralded as the breakthrough vehicle go-go desperately needs -- remains in limbo, twice delayed and now scheduled for a late March release.
The first annual Washington Music Awards were held in October. In an attempt to celebrate the city's cultural diversity -- and to bring its disparate elements together -- the Wammies ran into organizational and credibility problems. Local bands went on trying to overcome Washington's provincial reputation, putting out a score of local albums and eps and trying to find work in a dwindling universe of nightclubs. The Unicorn Times -- once a powerful voice in sustaining the area's music community -- seems to have quietly folded after 12 years.
While go-go remained the biggest, and most consistent, draw on the live scene, there were other highlights. On Aug. 5, Washington was rock 'n' roll heaven, with Bruce Springsteen at RFK Stadium, Tina Turner at the Capital Centre and Crosby, Stills and Nash at the Merriweather Post Pavilion (all three shows sold out). Zydeco and cajun music were heard regularly at Friendship Station (which, unfortunately, closed after it lost its liquor license); country singer-songwriters Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash and Guy Clark provided several evenings of intimate illuminations at the Birchmere; New Orleans' Neville Brothers proved on any number of occasions that they are the best unsigned rock 'n' funk band in the world; and the oft-maligned Madonna, at the Post Pavilion, proved a charismatic delight.