Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year by Michaelangelo Matos

Music really is the soundtrack to our lives. I have six older brothers and sisters who were all into music. So were my parents. I love all kinds of music, but I grew up most definitely a part of the MTV generation. I was eleven years old in 1984, so obviously, I’m the perfect demographic for Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year (Amazon). I received an ARC from NetGalley for my honest opinion of this book, which is released December 8, 2020 by Hachette Books.

You don’t have to be a child of the 1980’s to enjoy Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year (Amazon). The book really isn’t just about 1984; there’s quite a good history of music-making and record and radio play of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I worked in radio in high school and college and played all sorts of music on several different types of stations: A/C (Adult Contemporary), CHR (Contemporary Hit Rock) and AOR (Album Oriented Rock). This book covers them all and more.

The reason 1984 was such a big year for music can be whittled down to one thing: Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Amazon). It was released in 1983, but most of the singles and videos and awards came in 1984. The record in all forms sold more than 23 million copies in a few short years. And Michael Jackson videos did something else: the broke the color barrier on MTV. Before Jackson, there simply weren’t any African American (the author used the term Black because that was what we said at the time) artists on the hit-making music channel.

In 1984, cassettes were the number one source of music for people in the United States and UK. And another, new format was making in-roads: the compact disc. Players sold for hundreds of dollars, and a disc could set you back $20 (as opposed to vinyl or cassette which were around $10). I had no idea CDs were that old; I thought we were early adopters when we got our first CD player in the late 1980’s.

No band or artist of 1984 was left untouched. Everything from Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger and Arena to Willie Nelson’s duet with Julio Iglesias, to Wynton Marsalis’ Hot House Flowers to Run D.M.C.‘s crossover success, Can’t Slow Down covers the breadth of popular music in the United States and U.K. Once in a while the author reveals his opinions on artists, which I found jarring and unnecessary. He did not like Huey Lewis & the News, whose Sports would spawn four #1 hits. He also didn’t think much of Wham!’s Make it Big, even though it was a top seller that year.

The author interviewed many of the artists. He seemed to like Van Halen a lot and spent a lot of time talking to “Edward.” Apparently sometime after fading from the spotlight, Eddie Van Halen wanted to make it clear he was grown up and preferred his formal name. The influence of Van Halen making heavy metal more accessible is covered in detail, as well as the spectacular exit of David Lee Roth after scoring big on the charts.

Some other bands that are covered include Def Leppard, Bon Jovi (and the fascinating fact that all the members of Bon Jovi were, from the first contract signed, considered employees of Jon Bon Jovi), Phil Collins, who was everywhere that year, to Twisted Sister, Ozzy Osbourne, Prince’s breakthrough year with Purple Rain, both the soundtrack and the movie, R.E.M., Los Lobos, Culture Club, The Go-Go’s, Madonna, ZZ Top, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Chicago, Don Henley & Glenn Frey’s solo success (Don Henley’s Boys of Summer has to be one of my all-time favorite songs and videos), Pat Benatar, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Lionel Richie’s monster year including performing at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, just to name a few.

It was the year of soundtracks, besides Purple Rain there was Footloose and Ghostbusters, which were mega hits. There’s even mention that Ghostbusters ripped off Huey Lewis and the News’ I Want a New Drug, and there was a lawsuit. Twenty years later, the producers admitted they’d used Lewis and the News’ record as temp music and lobbied for the band to write the theme song, which they turned down. The suit was eventually settled out of court, quietly, by the end of the year.

Nineteen eighty-four is also the year of Nikki Six of Motley Crue’s fatal car crash in which he was driving drunk and only suffered minor injuries, as well as Def Leppard’s drummer Rick Allen’s accident where he lost his left arm. The Beach Boy’s Dennis Wilson died while surfing, and the irony was not lost that he was the only Beach Boy who actually surfed.

Can’t Slow Down also talks about the more socially-conscious efforts of Band-Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas, and continued into 1985 to cover USA for Africa’s We Are the World and Live Aid in the summer of 1985, but the author discounted all the older groups, calling Live Aid’s primary legacy was “this veritable golden parachute, putting the media spotlight back on acts with nothing to contribute to the present day,” which I thought was a rather cynical take on the day.

If you’re a fan of Billboard’s Hot 100, you’d be wise to pick up Can’t Slow Down to get a look at what radio and record playing was like in the mid-1980’s. If you’re Gen-X like me, it’s a great trip down memory lane, with mentions of groups long-forgotten.

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    • I actually have a Billboard’s book of top 40 hits that was put out some years ago and my husband and I, who were both DJs, thumb through it once in a while. It’s great to look back on the music that was so important to us at one time. This book will definitely be added to our library.

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