Monday, February 27, 2012

Mikhail Gorbachev and The Police

I have been listening to some eighties music lately. No - not hair metal or Roxette or Kylie - I mean the good stuff. I took music very seriously from about 1981 onwards. I'm not saying I was hanging out in smoky dancehalls or swapping deep cuts outside allnighter soul clubs - I was watching Countdown in the beanbag with my sisters, at home in Burnie. I was 13. But the stuff that appealed to me was almost never the stuff that was Top Ten. Some pretty far-out acts got a run on Countdown. We also used to watch Sounds Unlimited late on Saturday morning with Donny Sutherland, which was a much safer laid-back show that always seemed to have Richard Clapton on. And I believe it was the first home of Agro the puppet.

My first record was Glass Houses by Billy Joel, but soon after that I was buying Madness, Devo and Midnight Oil. In 1984 I discovered Talking Heads, and ended up owning everything they recorded (and side projects) by the time they broke up. Meanwhile Sally was the family Blondie, Cure and Culture Club fan, while Jacki was obsessed with The Police. At the time I had to pour scorn on all these try-hards, but fairly soon I was playing the girls' records when they weren't around. (Except Culture Club).

Now - the point I am labouring towards is - there is quite a strong current running through a lot of fairly mainstream 1980s music, when you listen to it now. And it's fear. No-one could really write a protest song any more like the very direct stuff of the 1960s, but just about every rock act felt the need to put into words their fear of a nuclear war. Global warming has neatly taken its place in recent times as a shared thing to fret over, but (the Maldives and Palau aside) it doesn't have the edge that a term like Mutually Assured Destruction gave the nuclear panic.

Midnight Oil made it one of their central themes. Frankie Goes To Hollywood had a very catchy dance anthem about it, Two Tribes, complete with a stagey video showing Reagan and Chernenko giving each other bloody noses. (Fun fact - Chernenko was as old as Methuselah when he succeeded to running the USSR, and only lasted five minutes, so I can date Two Tribes quite precisely).

I have just got around to buying a few key tunes (because you can do that now) from the early Police albums. Later, on Synchronicity and Ghost In The Machine the music got all prog-rock and gloomy, and Sting let his conscience-of-the-planet thing go wild. On the first few albums he was still trying to sound Jamaican with his "TCHA!" and his "yo yo yo", and the music was punchy and bright. But (and I had forgotten this) it often deals with apocalyptic imagery. Poppy but doomy.

Devo's Beautiful World was one of many, many music clips that borrowed heavily from archival Civil Defence programs on nuclear fallout, wind tunnel modelling of effects of blasts etc etc. It was a very, very pervasive theme in popular music. I was a keen collector of 7" singles, and I even have an example by Men At Work called It's A Mistake - the sleeve art shows cartoon US and Russkie generals with their thumbs on The Button. I and my fellow CND-badge-wearing earnest young people would all think to ourselves "if only Ronald Reagan and this new bloke Gorbachev would listen to Men At Work, maybe they would see some sense."
My kids have asked me lately about the Soviet Union. They are quite interested in history, and they see the name on old maps, and read about in the history of World War II. Now it's gone, and there are about a dozen -stans and the like, plus Russia, in its place. So I have given them a potted description of how that came about, which brought the whole period to mind again.

Having done that, and listened again to the music of the era, my conclusion is - thank you Mikhail Gorbachev. He was next in line after three Soviet leaders in succession expired and were slowly wheeled off to mausoleums. He could see the USSR was on the slide, and needed to make big changes to survive. He introduced market freedoms and freedom of expression in his country, and allowed travel abroad. He ended the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. As eastern Europe started to wriggle free of Communism, he refused to send Soviet troops, which would have been automatic only ten years earlier. That was a huge change.
In his 6 July 1989 speech [...] Gorbachev declared: "The social and political order in some countries changed in the past, and it can change in the future too, but this is entirely a matter for each people to decide. Any interference in the internal affairs, or any attempt to limit the sovereignty of another state, friend, ally, or another, would be inadmissible."
[...] By the end of 1989, revolts had spread from one Eastern European capital to another, ousting the regimes built in Eastern Europe after World War II. With the exception of Romania, the popular upheavals against the pro-Soviet Communist regimes were all peaceful ones. The loosening of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe effectively ended the Cold War, and for this, Gorbachev was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold in 1989 and the Nobel Peace Prize on 15 October 1990. - Wikipedia
Above all (from my point of view in Australia), he went to talks with Ronald Reagan with a positive unilateral approach, proposing nuclear disarmament by 2000.
On 11 October 1986, Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavík, Iceland to discuss reducing intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. To the immense surprise of both men's advisers, the two agreed in principle to removing INF systems from Europe and to equal global limits of 100 INF missile warheads. They also essentially agreed in principle to eliminate all nuclear weapons in 10 years (by 1996), instead of by the year 2000 as in Gorbachev's original outline. - Wikipedia
 That's pretty huge, no? I almost feel like we should have a Gorby Day where we make an effort to remember what the world felt like before he came along.


Anonymous said...

How can you write all this stuff and not mention Glasnost? I didn't even know what the word meant until checking it just now, but I remember it was a BIG deal!

But Gorby was great. I second the Gorby Day proposal. Maybe Gorby's Glasnost Day?

chris.dadness said...

It was amazing how we all started talking Russian there for a while wasn't it? Perestroika and Glasnost. Gorby's Glasnost Day it is. I'll get Hobart City Council to string one of those banners up over Murray Street.