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Were the 1980s really better?

I’m standing at the bus stop with a monstrous bazooka chewing gum in my mouth and a blue Scout satchel on my back. The bus is coming soon. In my neck pouch is the sweaty green student monthly card with a picture of me, on which I am 13 years old and look like something that was run over on the federal highway a long time ago. It’s 1986 and I, old fool face, fell in love. No, it wasn’t me. They were clowns & heroes.

If you were a child in the FRG in the eighties, the world today can only appear like a glowing lava ball full of chaos and excitement. Life flowed quietly, firmly attached in east and west, in good and bad, in Geha and Pelikan, in chromium dioxide and ferro. One music station, two Germanys, three television programs and four parties. No trace of the multi-optional lifestyle society, of digital filter bubbles, of conspiracy narratives as a mass phenomenon.

No wonder that the decade is currently experiencing an almost intoxicating Candystorm. The exhibition “Pop, Punk, Politics” only celebrated in Munich in the summer of the eighties. Current pop music lovingly quotes lots of 80s style elements such as reverb, e-drums and clean synth sounds. The longing for clear conditions in unclear times is great, as is shown by the interest in lovingly sentimental retro shows that take place in the eighties – such as “Stranger Things”, “Glow”, “The Americans” or “Red Oaks”.

Looking back at a world 40 years ago: The Netflix series “Stranger Things” is set in the fictional town of Hawkins in Indiana in the eighties. © Source: Netflix

Behind the euphemistic veil of selective memory, the eighties seem almost like a counter-model to the unbounded furor of our time. Certainly, the subjective memory is no yardstick for the question of how peaceful the times actually were. (Spoiler: They weren’t.) Recipes for salvation for the present are also seldom found in the past. And yet it is good to remember this life. His innocence, his confidence and his neon colors.

We children looked like robbers and strolled through the neighborhood until the street lights came on, monitored by no GPS tracker or helicopter mother. The street lights were the most important time measuring instrument in the eighties before the triumphant advance of the Casio digital watch – an object that is about the same as a BMX bike to a Tesla Model Y. Our parents did not know where we were for several hours are and what we are doing right now. A concept of freedom that was based on trust and is practically unknown today. We survived anyway.

We had no dead spots, we had band salad

We had no dead spots, we had tape salad: a cassette with a knotted tape. © Source:

We had no dead spots. We had band salad. We didn’t have superheroes. We had Karius and Baktus. We didn’t have any Minecraft mods. We had Smurfs in the type case. We didn’t have any influencers. We had TKKG. We didn’t eat quinoa bowls. We ate buns with crushed chocolate kisses. And if we really wanted to treat ourselves to something, to the horror of the internally imploding kiosk operator, we had a colorful bag put together individually in five-pfennig steps at the kiosk, which could take up to ten minutes (“Now two more Salinos, then one of those greens there, a sour cucumber in red and a lick clam … oh no, better two … “).

“Do you want to go with me? Please check”

And then: love. Having a crush in the eighties was logistical. You didn’t just swipe to the right on your smartphone and you’re done. The language of love wasn’t made up of emojis. But first from the pragmatic clarification of the factual questions via docket (“Do you want to go with me? Yes – No – please tick”) and then from mix cassettes. The mix cassette was the continuation of minnesang with the means of ultra-modern audio technology. At the time, girls owned cassette recorders, but did not record a single cassette themselves because they were constantly being given mixtapes from red-faced youngsters like me. Most of the empty cassette stocks between 1980 and the early 90s were probably bought up by inflamed adolescents.

Austria’s voice of the eighties: pop superstar Falco. © Source: picture-alliance / dpa

As a precaution, my first mix cassette covered a huge range of musical products. I had no idea what Becky was hearing. I chose, among others, “No Stars in Athens” (Stephan Remmler), “Jeanny Part I” (Falco), “Caravan of Love” (The Housemartins), “Jerusalem” (Alphaville), “All at Once” (Whitney Houston) , “Universal Soldier” (Donovan) and “Midnight in Moscow” because I didn’t know that it was a jazz classic that was around 5000 years old. I just liked it. The same was true of the post-war howler “We are the natives of Trizonesia”. I had recorded the song on the radio and thought it was funny. This disturbingly complex mix cassette had no inspiring influence on my love life. Becky wasn’t interested.

Klammerblues in the Fetenkeller

The next level of escalation in love was Klammerblues in the Fetenkeller. At that time, the careful touching of peers did not require written consensus agreements. It just happened – alternating with “Irresistible” by Princess Stephanie of Monaco, “Stay” by Bonnie Bianco and Pierre Cosso and “Reality” by Richard Sanderson from the film “La Boum” (oh, Sophie Marceau). It is a miracle that we cassette children did not all drown in a bucket full of kitsch back then. We didn’t know any better. And the hormonal need was great.

I sucked colorful 10-pfennig ice cream, collected PEZ dispensers and gnawing pictures from Fanta caps and failed at the Rubik’s Cube. I sent gossamer airmail letters to my pen friend in Hong Kong and threw bright green, sticky slime chimneys, presumably made from old nuclear waste, on window panes. I found that nothing in the world is as tough as Nappo in winter. And I looked behind the metal flap of a chewing gum machine to see if a disappointed customer had left the hard chewing gum lying around.

Superstar at MTV Europe: As a 23-year-old Kristiane Backer (archive picture from March 1991) experienced a meteoric rise at MTV. © Source: picture-alliance / dpa

I secretly typed on screen text terminals until the image of a woman in a bikini was built up from up to 28 pixels in just twelve minutes. I found MTV Schnacker Ray Cokes endcool and Kristiane Backer hot as a rat. It was the eighties. We had nothing else. Old women still wore aprons.

On TV I wavered between “Who’s the boss here?” And “Alf”. While the pack was being formed at the bus stop, my buddies talked about the “A-Team”, “Knight Rider” and “Miami Vice”. I loved Alf. Alf looked all over like me on my head and spoke my language (“If you need me: I’m in the fridge”). Alf and I encountered the feeling of coming from another planet in different ways: he with great self-confidence, I with complexes. I went to Mardi Gras as a Scot. We didn’t have bagpipes, we had a panpipe. So I went as the world’s first Scot with a panpipe. Take this, Mel Gibson!

Favorite movie of the eighties: “Dirty Dancing” with Patrick Swayze as Johnny Castle and Jennifer Gray as “Baby”.

I loved Indiana Jones, Fathers of Clothes, Otto and Dirty Dancing. On a school trip to Russia, the host family proudly played “Dirty Dancing” in Russian for us. A single man spoke all the voices. He sounded like Vlad the Impaler. That easily took the romance out of it all. “I was carrying a watermelon,” stammered Jennifer Gray. “JJE NOSS ARRRBUSS !!!”, thundered Vlad, the impaler.

I sat in the back and read “Yps” until I felt sick

For a long time my family drove a Renault 4 with a revolver mechanism in red. The R4 – “the highest evolutionary stage of the umbrella”, malicious critics later blasphemed. Long journeys south felt like the inside of a lava lamp. I sat in the back and read “Yps” until I felt so sick that I threw up in the footwell. Later we had a station wagon. On longer highway trips we three children lay in the trunk with blankets and pillows. Today the police, the child protection association, the youth welfare office and UN blue helmet soldiers would be on the spot within minutes.

The bicycle reigned supreme in private transport. A bicycle was a status symbol. I wanted a silver racing bike. Instead, I got a blue folding bike. The folding bike was practical, but without gaining prestige. Alternatively, I could have painted “Depp vom Dienst” on my forehead.

This incomparable feeling of freedom, equality and wet socks: On an Interrail tour with backpacks on a platform in Hamburg’s main train station. © Source: picture-alliance / dpa

When I was 16, I went traveling myself. Interrail! That incomparable feeling of freedom, equality and wet socks! You never felt more grown up than when you were away tearing a Eurocheque from the little Eurocheque booklet and had 50,000 lire paid out. Unfortunately, we ran out of money quickly, and in Paris we sang guitars by Simon and Garfunkel.

Pan-European rail travel in 1988 meant: a groaning wallet full of coins in 18 currencies that hugs the buttocks nicely. After four weeks in the humid climate of the Gluteus maximus, the once chic work of art made of green-purple-colored plastic has clumped into a bizarre lump of indefinite color.

Of course the world was wrong

Certainly: memories like to turn childhood into vibration-free idylls in the rearview mirror of life. Were the eighties really better? Or do they only feel that way to me because, in retrospect, a shock-free childhood always seems like the best of all time?

Of course, the world was wrong in the eighties. If only because there has not been a second in the past 300,000 years when everything around humanity and the planet was in order. Super GAU, cold war, nuclear weapons, acid rain, environmental destruction, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, hostage-taking of Gladbeck – those were also the eighties.

In the end there was one of the greatest peace projects in history

But how nice it would be to experience another decade whose greatest aesthetic defeats are shoulder pads and neon gauntlets, which manage without mass yelling in social networks and which ultimately leads to one of the largest peace projects in history. East and West hugged each other in tears at the end of this decade, which was its first year 40 years ago. Nothing that came after that will destroy the memory of those moments.

I also carried a watermelon back then. And nobody can take that away from me.

In his column “About Life in Germany”, Imre Grimm takes a satirical look at everyday life in Germany – this includes personal experiences, but also curiosities from politics, society and culture.

Arjun Sethi
Passionate guitarist, gamer and writer. Lives for the perfect review, and scrapes texts until they are razor-sharp.


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