The Music Club

Saved by Run-DMC

You’re so right about that vestigial pop punk pep of the early ‘80s. The Rhino set is rich in this—not just the great Scandal song you mention but also such happy memories as Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,” the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese,” and the Buggles’ ” Video Killed the Radio Star,” which is not just the answer to a trivia question (first song played on MTV), but a big bubble of fun. Even through the mid-’80s, the charts welcomed such poppy joys as Katrina and the Waves “Walking on Sunshine”—a fruity, sparkly wine cooler of a song.

One surprise in Like, Omigod is how strangely eclectic ‘80s pop was. Last night I listed the songs from Like, Omigod that went to No. 1 in 1982 or 1983—a mere subsample of a subsample of a subsample of ‘80s pop. It was a variety store. Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart”—crashing, clanging prog-rock. Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon”—a jazzy goof. Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen”—Celtic pub-rock. Toni Basil’s “Mickey”—New Wave cheerleading. The Eurythmics’ ” Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”—robosynth. Bonnie Tyler’s ” Total Eclipse of the Heart“—an overwrought ballad. Toto’s “Africa”—prefab easy listening. Men at Work’s “Down Under”—Australian jazz-rock. Michael Sembello’s “Maniac”—a dance anthem. Hall and Oates’ “Maneater”—well, what is it? Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”—an amped-up torch song.

Let 1,000 flowers bloom. As a kid in the ‘80s, I always felt like it was a homogenous time for music. I never realized so much was happening. Of course, most of what was happening wasn’t any good. These genres bloomed for a few months and died. None of them passed on their genes. All these songs sound today, to borrow your word, like artifacts.

One track from Like, Omigod does seem as fresh and revolutionary and boisterous today as it did 16 years ago: Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s ” Walk This Way.” When “Walk This Way” came out in 1986, it was an epiphany for teen-age white boys like me. I felt like I had been punched in the face. Music could sound like this? Why wasn’t everything this funny and dirty and loud?

I know the rap bores out there are sharpening their long knives for me, getting ready to bombard me with e-mails about Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash, sending me their closely argued essays about how it was actually Afrika Bambaataa that, at 12:09 a.m. on Aug. 17, 1978, in the Big Star Club of Jamaica, Queens, first sampled electric guitar for rap, etc., etc., etc. But the fact remains: For average white kids in 1986, those millions of us not cool enough to be listening to Afrika Bambaataa, rap was still a novelty. It mystified and scared us. It didn’t really count as music, somehow. With “Walk This Way,” I finally understood how rap and rock fit together. It was a genius marriage. Aerosmith got the reflected glory of Run-DMC’s wit, vigor, and rhythm. Run-DMC got Aerosmith’s audience.

“Walk This Way” didn’t simply bring rap to white kids. It brought adrenaline back to pop music in a way that wasn’t stupid. Until “Walk This Way” came along, the ‘80s teen-age boy had essentially two options. He could grow his hair long, dye it blond, wear ripped black T-shirts, idolize Eddie Van Halen (the greatest guitarist in the world, man!), and headbang to Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, and Van Halen. Or he grow his hair long, dye it black, wear makeup, idolize Morrissey, and mope along with the Smiths and the Cure. It was a Hobson’s choice: stupid energy or smart whining. “Walk This Way” was the third way and a kind of salvation.