- 14 Mar 16
The music was fine & the fashion crazy- but there was still a whole lot wrong with the world during the bleak decade that the '80s became. We select a major news event from each year, to give a flavour of just how grim things were- alleviated by the occasional smidgeon of good news...
Ah, the ‘80s. We might look back on it with a sort of euphoric nostalgic recall, but in truth there was much about the decade that was insufferably grim. Politically, it was a horrendous time for those of leftist bent: Margaret Thatcher had swept to power in the UK in 1979, Ronald Reagan conquered the White House in 1980.
The neo-liberal greed-is-good agenda became an almost-unquestioned, unchallenged political orthodoxy (many would say it still is). Not everyone was willing to buckle, and there was insurrection in Ulster, riots in London and Liverpool, and general unrest everywhere. Ironically, this climate helped to produce some fantastic social commentary from the worlds of ﬁlm, literature and music – it is impossible to listen now to, say, The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ or Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ and not feel faint stirrings of awe for a time when the icons of the age had plenty to say and were determined to say it. Here is an overview of the decade’s seismic events...
Aged 40, arguably the most famous and revered ﬁgure in the musical universe met a tragically premature end at the hands of a crazed stalker. John Lennon, by some distance the most talented, opinionated and outspoken of The Beatles, was pumped full of bullets by Mark Chapman, a paranoid schizophrenic who had placed a rather extreme interpretation on his numerous readings of JD Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye and was determined to rid the world of ‘phonies’. The shots reverberated around the world; the grief still ripples three-and-a-half decades later.
The great cities of Britain were ablaze: Thatcher’s economic war on the working class led to rising unemployment queues, and that summer, deprived areas in London, Liverpool and beyond erupted into full-scale rioting. In northern Ireland, things were even bleaker. A showdown that had simmered for years between IRA prisoners and Her Majesty’s Government escalated into a hunger strike, which was eventually called off after ten prisoners had starved themselves to death. Among them was Bobby Sands, an elected MP whose funeral was attended by over 100,000 people. The episode garnered considerable sympathy for the Republican movement, and is now seen as a key formative event in Sinn Féin’s ascension to the political mainstream.
Under some domestic pressure and beset by poor ratings in the opinion polls, Mrs. Thatcher launched a tenweek war in a little-known corner of the South Atlantic Ocean, the Falkland Islands just off the coast of Argentina, one of those outposts of Empire where the Union Jack continued to ﬂy. Britain won the war; the episode boosted patriotic sentiment in the UK and was seen as signiﬁcantly contributing to Mrs. Thatcher’s landslide re-election the following year. An appalling bout of jingoism in the British media gave us one of the worst tabloid headlines in history, when The Sun greeted the sinking of the Argentinian ship, the Belgrano, on May 4, in which 368 men died, with just one word: Gotcha.
Long Kesh, where prisoners Republican and Loyalist alike languished as a result of the armed conﬂict raging in the North, was widely regarded as the most escapeproof prison in Europe. This mattered little to the 38 Provisional IRA detainees, led by the current Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast, Gerry Kelly, who successfully broke out that September, in what was another major propaganda coup for Republicans and a severe embarrassment to the Thatcher government.
A deﬁning moment in industrial-relations history in this part of the world, and a major political victory for the Conservative party, the Arthur Scargill-led strike of 1984-5 arouses strong emotions still. The National Union of Mineworkers went on strike against a succession of pit closures and pay restraints: the government and police’s resolve was unyielding, and after twelve months of bitter stalemate, a demoralised NUM voted to return to work. The coal industry was eventually privatised and some 120,000 livelihoods were lost. The UK had 174 working mines at the start of the year; it now has six.
The previous year had faded out largely to the strains of all-star pop ensemble Band Aid’s charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, whose purpose was to raise funds for the relief of an apocalyptic famine in Ethiopia. The hunger continued to rage, but so did fundraising efforts to alleviate it: in July ’85, this culminated in Live Aid, a massive-scale all-star pair of concerts spanning two continents organised by Irishman Bob Geldof and Scotsman Midge Ure, and featuring almost everyone who was anyone at the time. Wembley and Philadelphia played host to the gigs, which were watched by 1.9 billion people across 150 nations, raising a sum in the region of £150 million. It was the biggest event in the history of the entertainment industry at the time.
In April, in a town in Ukraine in the thenSoviet Union, a nuclear reactor exploded, which released huge quantities of radioactive waste into the atmosphere. It was one of the worst catastrophes ever and the horriﬁc aftereffects are still felt to this day: vast swathes of Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia were severely contaminated with fallout, crops failed, cancer rates skyrocketed, children were born with horriﬁc defects, hundreds died of acute radiation sickness in the immediate aftermath, and vomiting and hair loss were endemic in the region for years to come.
U2 topping charts all over the world with The Joshua Tree may have felt like a novelty, but musical success was not really entirely new. However, Ireland was even less accustomed to sporting triumphs, so the nation could probably have been forgiven for going a little bit bat-shit crazy when, in the heat of the summer of ‘87, following what was by any standards an heroic performance, Dublin cyclist Stephen Roche won the ﬂagship event in the cycling calendar, the Tour de France. Roche’s place in history was instantly assured: An Taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey, was not slow to rush to the scene of the triumph, greeting the new champion in Paris, and Ireland as a nation had a taste of the intangible morale boost that sporting triumph can provide. It proved a pleasant appetiser for what was to come the following summer...
At 2.36 GMT on June 12 1988, the world changed completely, as Ireland midﬁelder Ray Houghton – hardly the tallest man in the universe – rose to direct a looping header into the net behind England’s goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Thus began Ireland’s epic adventure at Euro ’88: the Boys in Green somehow survived the 84 minutes of relentless Sassenach onslaught that ensued, and won the match 1-0. Three days later, we slaughtered the considerable might of the USSR (history records that match as, somehow, ending up in a 1-1 draw after Ireland had run rings and squares around the Soviets); then, in a cruel twist of fate, we were dumped out by a blatantly offside goal from Holland’s Wim Kieft, nine minutes from the end of the deciding group game. Holland had been on the verge of being knocked out: they went on to win the tournament, leaving us to ponder forever on what could (or perhaps should?) have been.
A consequence of liberalisation in the USSR, which had been underway since the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in 1985, was the increasing political weakness of the various Stalinist tyrannies in Eastern Europe. Popular dissent was growing across what was known at the time as the ‘Eastern Bloc’, and throughout 1989 it came to a head, with street demonstrations in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania etc. rapidly gaining an unstoppable momentum, as they turned into mass popular revolutions. By November, the ailing GDR regime in Berlin had realised there was no resisting the mass tide of protest, and the Berlin Wall – which had stood since 1960 as both a physical barrier and an iconic symbol of the division between East and West – opened, swiftly to be knocked down. Marking the end of a momentous, turbulent decade, the collapse of the Berlin wall triggered euphoric scenes and opened the door to a new, uniﬁed Germany – which would go on to become Europe’s most powerful economy. It also inspired the well-known Irish four-piece, U2, who arrived in the city in October 1990 to begin recording their landmark Achtung Baby album in Hansa Studios, close to the Berlin Wall. A huge critical success, it went on to become one of their best sellers, shifting 11 million copies in all. A good way, you might say, to start the new decade...
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jul 23