“REMEMBER the good old 1980s? When things were so uncomplicated?” sings Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), “I wish I could go back there again, and everything could be the same." The lyric comes from a sentimental, perhaps even saccharine song, Ticket to the Moon, from ELO's album Time, released early in 1981.
The singer has a ticket to go to the moon, the flight departing from Satellite 2. The scene takes place somewhere in the future. To be precise, it's set in the year 2095, as explained in another lyric on the album in which the singer falls in love with a robot and sings her praises.
In Ticket to the Moon, the singer would rather stay on Earth with the one he loves — in this case, another human, one would assume. “I've got a ticket to the moon, but I'd rather see the sunrise in your eyes," croons Lynne.
So, it's about someone in 1981 imagining how someone in 2095 would probably long for the 1980s, a decade that had just begun and still lay ahead. A love song as science fiction.
Those of us who had to live through the 1980s probably remember that things weren't quite as uncomplicated as ELO predicted at the beginning of the decade. Or perhaps they were being ironic, because Time is rather ironic, despite the sentimental moments in a song like Ticket to the Moon.
In terms of musical processing, Time still holds a sound from the 1970s; it hasn't completely transitioned into the synthetic sound of the 1980s. In the video, the band's clothing and hairstyles still heavily reflect a 70s aesthetic. It's worth mentioning, however, that the 1980s' electro-pop sound had already been laid out in the 1970s, especially by a band like Kraftwerk, widely regarded as one of the most important pioneers of electronic music and the popular use of synthesisers.
Lately, I've been intrigued by the term retro-futurism. It has become a trend in popular culture, especially as past predictions turn into present-day reality. Think about advancements in artificial intelligence and novels that speculate on the humanity of machines (such as Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me and Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun). Other predictions, when looked back upon from today's perspective, seem entirely absurd, even surreal.
That's essentially what retro-futurism is about — looking back from the position of an imagined future to see how that future was perceived in the distant past. Sometimes, one is shocked by how accurate those predictions turned out to be, but mostly it's rather amusing to see how the future looked from a different past. Or perhaps one should say, how different the present looked from the past. I'm getting a bit tangled up in my thoughts.
Nonetheless, consider the concept known as steampunk. In the time when science began to advance and the steam engine was the pinnacle of progress, all vehicles that could fly, sail underwater or move across land were powered by bulky, exuberant, pumping steam engines.
Those engines had a kind of Victorian aesthetic that seems quite appealing in the present — hence the aesthetic homage to the imaginative world of that era, owed to people such as Jules Verne and Mary Shelley.
However, the Victorian era seems much more attractive in the present than the future vision of the 1980s. The 1980s' vision of the future appears just too absurd, or perhaps it's still too close to us, to justify a contemporary retro-futuristic aesthetic re-evaluation like steampunk.
I'm now thinking of that evergreen party anthem by The Buggles, the one where everyone sings “video killed the radio star", about how television and visual representation replaced broadcast sound. This one also happens to be from 1981.
Then there's Styx's Mr. Roboto from two years later. The speaker in the song thanks robots for doing the work that no one else wants to do, but still, the technology is also the cause of alienation. “Machines to save our lives, machines dehumanise," sing Styx.
In this video, the fashion aesthetic of the 1980s has arrived. Just look at the pastel suits and the new-wave hairstyles — curly on top and short at the sides, a slight flick at the back but not quite a mullet. Shortly after that, neon would also emerge as a popular fashion colour, or perhaps more accurately, a flicker.
South Africa in the 1980s? An interesting question.
There was also futurism in popular music, even before the onset of the 1980s. In 1978, the Radio Rats' ZX Dan was a hit on the radio, partly inspired by David Bowie and partly by Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In it, they sing:
My name is ZX Dan
I am a spaceman
My galaxy is doomed
So I've moved to your moon
Turn up your radio
And play me that rock ’n roll
And stop feeling so blue
'Cos I'm coming down to you
But ZX Dan could have made his appearance just about anywhere. Why specifically South Africa, where mostly white, 16-year-old listeners of English pop music are waiting for a night-time visit from a romantic spaceman? If I were ZX Dan, I would have preferred to swing by Berlin, Tokyo or Chicago. Or even Maputo!
Who would want to venture a visit to South Africa from outer space? Especially in the 1980s.
On one hand, there's the turmoil South Africa was undergoing — the declaration of a state of emergency, a referendum on separate representation for people classified as Indian or coloured in a parliament with too many chambers, the pseudo-independence of Bantustans as breeding grounds for the type of state service corruption that would later engulf the whole country (“Listen, Mangope, Matanzima, and Gqozo, if you play along and don't support the ANC, we'll also turn a blind eye to what you're doing with budgets and casinos").
On the other hand, there's the establishment of the United Democratic Front, trade unions that would eventually begin making an impact in the workplace, a turning point in the cultural life of Afrikaans (Voëlvry, Dakar), a jubilant time of uprisings and the struggle against apartheid that would eventually bear fruit, the independence of Namibia.
So perhaps a bit of light amid the darkness as well.
Alright, ZX Dan. Fly past Berlin (just check the wall) and drop by.
What did take place in the imagination of white, Afrikaans-speaking South Africa in the 1980s was that a visit to outer space from South Africa was far in the future.
This brings me to one of the 1980s' unique television achievements when it comes to retro-futurism. I'm being sincere about this. I think Interster as a series was fantastic, even if I'm saying it with the appropriate self-irony. The show was made with puppets, probably inspired by the Thunderbirds series (broadcast in Afrikaans as Redding Internasionaal in South Africa).
As far as I can tell, Interster had almost 40 episodes and was aired between 1982 and 1986. I recently came across versions of it on the web and watched excerpts again.
Yes, I know Buks de la Rey and his crew's space helmets were orange-white-blue. Looking at it now, it's quite comical, as is fitting with retro-futurism.
In the story, South Africa is part of Earth, which itself is an isolated planet in the vast planetary world — probably a metaphor for the kind of status South Africa had at the time. There's a cold war between Earth and the planet Krokon.
Then there's Cape Town as seen in the future. Of course, a very white Cape Town, and I'm not referring to Cape Dutch walls. The city has expanded so much that skyscrapers have been built all the way up Table Mountain.
This is what one would expect from TV of that time.
But now, looking back at Interster, there are two things I really like.
The first is the theme music, composed and performed by Lloyd Ross and Tully McCully. It's enjoyable, it kicks, it has those necessary futuristic synthetic sounds. It's retro-futuristic gold. It's a shame only Vyfster's theme music (also by Ross) became a hit. The length of the music at the start of an episode also stands out. You had time to carbonate your soda with a SodaStream, add syrup, and light a cigarette in front of the TV.
The second thing is the fact that one of the villains — a certain Dr Gorman — looks like PW Botha. Was that deliberate? I sometimes wonder. How the hell did they get that past the censors?
There was probably enough orange-white-blue on the space helmets.
Now, if I watch Interster again or flip through the Fritz Deelman series — about how the future from my youth's past looked — I also wonder how we will think about the 2020s in 40 years from now. About how we saw the future from where we are now.
Will we be able to mock retro-futurism?
♦ VWB ♦
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