80s revivalism can be done badly and it can be done well. Those old enough to remember the decade seem best placed to recreate it, but the success of Stranger Things offers an excellent counterexample. The millennial Duffer brothers did a marvelous job of conjuring the look and feel of mid-80s mise-en-scène by stitching together close viewings of a dozen or so films—from the massively popular E.T. to more obscure flicks like made-for-TV Mazes and Monsters (not to mention such precious archival footage as this.)
When it comes to music however, 80s retro tends to confine themselves to early hip and hop and electro, the synthpop of Gary Numan and Duran Duran or the cheesy hair metal of Mötley Crüe. But this lens misses the significant 60s revivalism that emerged at the time. Garage, surf, and psych rock and the jangly sounds of The Byrds inspired R.E.M., the B52s, the Replacements, the House of Love, and the Fleshtones, a much lesser-known NYC band who may never have gotten their commercial due, but who certainly appealed to 60s art star Andy Warhol.
When Warhol remade himself as a TV personality in the 80s with his MTV variety show Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes he cast the Fleshtones as the backing band for rising theater and film star Ian McKellen, a match-up that represents another hallmark of 80s pop culture—the postmodern juxtaposition of genres, styles, and registers which Warhol helped pioneer 20 years earlier when he brought kitschy silk-screened soup cans, sexy street hustlers, and the Velvet Underground into the art scene.
Warhol's television work turned this impulse into a multimedia circus featuring “The high and the low. The rich and the famous. The struggling artists and the rising stars,” as Warhol Museum curator Geralyn Huxley puts it. In this particularly fitting example, McKellen and the Fleshtones bring Shakespeare's racy Sonnet 20 to young, hip MTV audiences in 1987. L.A. Weekly lists a few of the “cool points” from the clip:
- A young, hot, already insanely talented Ian McKellen
- Wearing awesome New Wave fashions
- At Andy Warhol's Factory in 1987
- Backed by cult group the Fleshtones
- Reciting a Shakespeare Sonnet
What's not to love? Start your 2018 with some Shakespeare-meets-garage-rock coolness from 31 years ago—and revisit more of Warhol’s MTV variety show at our previous post. For serious students of the decade, this is essential viewing.