It’s no secret that rock music from the 1980’s is vastly different from rock music now. In the 80’s, rock was mainly guitar driven. Catchy and hard-hitting riffs, simple chord progressions, inoffensive lyrics, and anthemic rock-opera type vocals were an industry standard--not forgetting the notorious power ballad. Today, the industry standard is almost none of these things. As a matter of fact, a majority of today’s popular rock bands hardly follow such clear conventions. What exactly led to this? How did we get here?
To begin, we must first explore the production and songwriting techniques of the 80’s. When it came to songwriting, there was typically a formula for making hits, almost like making a cake. At the core of it was the chord progression or riff and the key it would be played in. Think of this like cake batter. Riffs were commonly made out of the minor pentatonic scale, chord progressions were typically one of two, and the key was generally A major. The second part was instrumentation, or “baking the cake.” Drums and bass were kept relatively simple and catchy. After the rhythm section was sorted, the rhythm and lead guitar and synth parts would be written (assembling the cake.) Finally, there were the vocals and the obligatory Eddie Van Halen-style guitar solo (frosting the cake.)
After songwriting came the production (dressing up the cake), where the true advances and excesses of the 80’s could be felt. In this decade, digital recording was the hot new thing. You could now add effects like reverb in post, instead of having to use a clunky analog system. Digital synths were also a hot new innovation, making it much easier to get that electronic sound without a giant tower shrouded in cables. Another major innovation were digital effect pedals, which produced a much cleaner and controllable effect than analog pedals. The digital versions were sleek, new, and interesting, and of course going to be featured anywhere and everywhere a producer could reasonably fit them. Glam metal and arena rock were probably the two most popular styles of rock where these things were used most. Reverb, distortion, chorus, flange, and delay became the most popular effects. Producers commonly would add an appropriate amount of compression and a much less appropriate (bordering on excessive) amount of reverb to vocals. Delay was also a popular addition, typically added at the end of a verse for dramatic effect. Sometimes, flangers would be added, but it was more common that effects like that were relegated to the other instruments.
Then, everything changed. September 24, 1991 was the day legendary Seattle alternative rock band Nirvana would release their debut album Nevermind. Nirvana had been around since the late 80’s, alongside other legendary bands like The Pixies--whose 1988 album Surfer Rosa Kurt Cobain says he tried to rip off when writing “Smells Like Teen Spirit”--, but it was in 1991 that they truly carved out a spot on the map. They weren’t the first to make heavy metal and punk rock sandwiches with a healthy glug of indie rock, but they were the first to become huge playing it. By 1993, “grunge,” as music journalists labelled it, had killed arena rock and glam metal. With these genres went that polished sound so commonly associated with the 80’s, and in its place was a much more raw and angsty type of rock, left largely unproduced. There’s a long road in terms of sound evolution at this point, but long story short, grunge dies in 1997, is succeeded by nu metal and post-grunge (aka butt rock), and these two styles are then supplanted in 2001 following the release of The Strokes’ debut album Is This It. From this point on, indie rock comes to dominate the airwaves. “Simple but interesting” is the basic idea of indie rock, kicking virtuosity to the curb. Interesting textures are welcomed from any instrument, not just guitars. Vocals are typically recorded using low quality mics for a scratchy quality. The production itself is mostly just compression and balancing. Pianos and synths are rare.