If you need proof that the ’80s never really ended, you need look no further than some of the concert tours traveling through Utah this summer. In fact, just look at Red Butte Garden’s summer series, where long-popular folk and classic-rock artists like Jackson Browne and Indigo Girls are joined Reagan-era holdovers like Billy Idol and Violent Femmes.
While some will no doubt sneer at the obvious nostalgia at play, others of a certain age (ahem) and holding a soft spot for the pop and “alternative” artists of our youth will look at shows like Friday’s Retro Futura tour featuring Belinda Carlisle (The Go-Gos), ABC, Modern English, The Outfield’s Tony Lewis, Limahl (Kajagoogoo) and Annabella Lwin (Bow Wow Wow) as a primo opportunity to hear some old favorites and relive a little of our youth.
I checked in with a few of the artists involved to get their thoughts on all-hits tours like Retro Futura, what they remember of their time in the ’80s spotlight and why audiences still flock to hear songs nearly four decades old.
Belinda Carlisle actually had two separate career surges in the ’80s, first as lead singer of The Go-Gos, and at the end of the decade with the launch of an ongoing solo career that made her a global phenomenon thanks to songs like “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” and “I Get Weak.”
Carlisle currently lives in Thailand after decades in France, and recently played three sold-out shows with The Go-Gos at the Hollywood Bowl. The abbreviated sets on package tours like Retro Futura are “easy work,” Carlisle says, and the set lists are fun to put together because the set is “All hits. That’s what it is. My set is just bam-bam-bam, everything people have heard on the radio. And I think that works for most people. It’s an evening of instant gratification for everybody.”
Carlisle expresses some wonder that she’s still able to hit the stage 42 years after starting out in the Los Angeles punk scene with The Go-Gos, and predicting a career that would take her from dingy LA basement clubs to the top of the pop charts and around the world would have been impossible. “I never really accepted that this is what I’m supposed to be doing in life until about 10 or 15 years ago,” she says.
She attributes her success to a combination of the Go-Gos’ early confidence that they were going to make it big, and “the fact that my voice is really distinctive.” And the ’80s likewise has a distinct sound that helps make the decade’s music endure, she says.
“I think it’s the last great decade of a specific sound,” Carlisle says. “Like, the ’60s have a specific sound, the ’50s have a specific sound – the ’80s have that sort of production sound. I think it was the last great decade of that, but also the last of really, really good, well-crafted pop songs.”
THE OUTFIELD’S TONY LEWIS
While Retro Futura is mostly a look back for both artists and fans, for Tony Lewis the tour marks the start of a rebirth. When his Outfield bandmate and best friend since the ’70s John Spinks died four years ago, it left the vocalist behind hits like “Your Love” and “Say It Isn’t So” devastated. Lewis couldn’t even think about making music or performing.
“I didn’t know what I was doing from one day to the other,” Lewis says. “Eventually, I got to missing playing the guitar after about a year, but it took a long time. I try not to think about them days a lot, because from then to now, it’s been quite a journey. I don’t remember that first year at all. To not want to play guitar or listen to music, it’s just not me. It was like losing my brother. It was hard to get my head around.”
Eventually, Lewis started constructing songs at home, playing all the instruments himself and getting an assist on lyrics from his wife. The result of that “journey” is his first solo album, Out of the Darkness, which arrived earlier this month. The voice is instantly recognizable from the hits that made The Outfield arena-sized stars way back when, an era when Lewis still fondly recalls getting their first gold records and hearing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” segue into his voice singing “Your Love” in his headphones while he was at a Laundromat. “It was a bizarre event,” he says with a laugh.
Lewis attributes the ongoing ’80s love to the fact that “it was a very optimistic and fun decade.”
“There was a lot of bands that, their music doesn’t stand the test of time, but a lot of it does,” Lewis says. “A lot of stuff, you can say ‘That really sounds ’80s,’ but it still sounds good now. To get that evergreen sound, it’s not easy.”
BOW WOW WOW’S ANNABELLA LWIN
Virtually everything people know of Annabella Lwin’s music career happened in the ’80s – and happened before she was 18 years old. Bow Wow Wow formed when notorious music manager Malcom McLaren took Adam Ant’s band (aka, The Ants) and paired them with the adolescent Lwin. It proved a kinetic match as the band was instantly controversial (in part due to a nude 13-year-old Lwin on the band’s first album cover) and eventually successful thanks to songs like their cover of “I Want Candy” and “Do You Wanna Hold Me?”
“We were doing Latin American-slash-tribal-slash-pop vibes, and we were apparently a New Wave band according to some people,” Lwin says of Bow Wow Wow’s sound, a still-entrancing mix of guitar rock and Burundi drums that blended expertly with their distinct fashion sense and Lwin’s mohawk. “I don’t know that we were in the same box as anybody else.”
While the guys in the band fired Lwin when she was just 17, after less than four years together, they eventually reunited a couple times after guitarist and primary songwriter Matthew Ashman’s death in 1995. Lwin still sounds a bit angry over how the original era of Bow Wow Wow ended (“Nobody told me what was going to happen when it was going to happen most of the time in that band, anyway”), saying she was “shellshocked” when it went down. Still, she’s grateful to be able to perform the songs that have stuck with audiences since the early ’80s.
“I certainly think the whole ’80s thing still remains fresh today because it was all about artists being original and doing something new,” Lwin says. It wasn’t just about dressing up.”
Retro Futura Tour featuring Belinda Carlisle, ABC, Modern English, The Outfield’s Tony Lewis, Kajagoogoo’s Limahl and Bow Wow Wow’s Annabella Lwin is happening Friday, July 20, at 7 p.m. at Red Butte Garden Amphitheater. Tickets are $57 ($52 for garden members) and available here.