Thursday, June 29, 2017

wide-brim hat music (Bad Music Era slight return)

There is this mid-Eighties Brit-indie sound that I think of as wide-brim hat music

I would have fingered Dream Academy as absolutely archetypal except I can't seem to find much evidence of them wearing hats

They do have headgear of varying kinds on the cover of this though

The wide-brim hat seems to go hand in hand with a non-rocking, wussy innocuousness, combined with an over-layered, slightly florid thing

It's these fine fellows I think who are the actual archetype - and again I'm not sure if it's even "wide brim", it's just hat-wearing - that was a real  thing on the indiepop scene 1984-85-86

Ha! Look! I was right - in this TV clip from the show Wired, the presenter who's introducing Martin Stephenson and the Daintees is wearing one of those hats, and he stops right in front of a hat shop, and he says "they'll be banning hats next" (in reference to some Thatcher government measure against homosexuality).

Who else had hats?

The Woodentops!

Who - at least for the duration of the first four singles - are not Bad Music Era at all -  in fact I really liked them.

Interviewed them around the (disappointingly wussily-produced) debut album Giant, which did have a few lovely dreamy tunes like this one -

- but overall got a bit sickly and spoiled by overproduction.

You can forgive any hat-wearing tendencies when it's muscular driving trancebop like "Well Well Well", "Move Me", "It Will Come" - but when it gets all wispy and wimpy, the hats start to seem like the problem...

Who else then?

I might have fingered Microdisney as culprits, but on quick glance can't see much hat-wearing evidence and I'm not going to start poring through old videos, that's for certain (never cared for their supposedly subversive-MOR sound)

James (like the 'Tops another group I liked then - but only for a moment) appear to have gone bare-headed

Aha - Virginia Astley had a big old hat in the photo sessions around her second album, 1986's Hope In A Darkened Heart, as you can just about see from this cover.

I am not sure that a woman wearing a hat of this kind is so potentially culpable as it is when a man does it, though. However it does go hand in hand with some wispy, florid, non-rock-instrumentation-bedecked music, though, in Ms Astley's case.   The strawberries-and-cream dove-toned Englishness of her music would have been something I'd not have been able to stomach at the time - but nowadays, an aging expatriate pining for the rolling hills and horse chestnut trees of the motherland, I have developed a fondness for it. Perhaps it can even be considered part of the proto-canon for hauntology.

The Blue Nile put out an album actually called Hats, of course - with a chap on the front cover wearing a hat -  but I don't think they took to going hat-clad onstage or in photo sessions. The Nile didn't really have a look as such - nor would I be able pick any of them out of a police line-up.


Lots of good suggestions coming through in the comments, e.g. Fairground Attraction

Andrew Parker sent through some thoughts:

Michael Stipe (yes, even before the early 90s)

Andy Prieboy (Wall of Voodoo) - the 'western' style was in vogue for a while in the mid 80s.

Tracy Pew (a bit earlier) 

Blixa Bargeld (a bit later, circa The Weeping Song, 1990)

Fields of the Nephlim

Wayne Hussey


I think with Pew and Bargeld the hats have a more macho evocation than the wide-brim thing I'm talking about.

Pew's whole image was a sort of Texan shit-kicker, a sartorial foretaste of the Southern Gothic direction that the late-period Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds would plunge into. 

My favorite Pew quote, about the early skinny-tie art-pop of Boys Next Door - "we made the unpardonable error of playing to thinkers rather than the drinkers"

And yeah with the Mission / Nephs and with G'N'R, it's definitely something else than the Daintees / Woodentops idea

(the Nephs went so far as to put "desert dust" on their hats for the full spaghetti western wilderness look - actually flour, which made them the butt of endless Melody Maker jokes about Mother's Pride)

Perhaps what is needed is a typology of Eighties alternative music millinery! c.f. the leather cap look mentioned in the comments.

Bit more from Andrew

Another nomination: Lindy Morrison (Go-Betweens) on the cover of Liberty Belle ...

Slash's hat could have been worn in the late-60s Haight-Ashbury scene, which was an inspiration for the paisley underground scene of the mid-80s. 

Not sure goth should be eliminated as the bands were intentionally evoking the distant past (Victorian era lace and boots).

Other nominations: Mike Scott (The Waterboys), and moving further from alternative music Boy George, the woman from The Thompson Twin

I was going to mention the Waterboys and then forgot, although their sound is a bit more epic and windswept (the Big Music - cf. the hatted tendency of U2 circa Joshua Tree)


  1. Style wise, it's the nice-boy cousin of the even more repugnant 'dungarees and BIG FLAT CAPS' look. Seems to ref the same era and is looking for working-class-origins type cred, but "clean and dreamy" instead of "gritty but heartfelt".

  2. Yes! I was looking at various bands of that time and I noticed quite a few caps. The Kane Gang. But who were the dungaree bands? Joboxers?

  3. Fairground Attraction?

  4. Although they were late 80s I know. On another point, what would be the official time period of the bad music years? Shouldn't 1987 also be included as among other things it was the pinnacle of the mullet and big snare drum in pop. Obviously it was also the year when things started becoming good again.

  5. I suppose the obvious one is Dexys, although their dungarees moment was earlier than this, wasn't it?

    [googles Joboxers] Argh! I see they were more jeans-and-conspicuous-braces but look, there are the caps. The dungarees are there in spirit if not in the flesh.

  6. The hat symbolizes profundity, dunnit. Reminiscent of the preacher, and the mysterious stranger in Western movies. Hats are associated with particular roles, so they also indicate a sense of purpose - "I'm here to add depth to your existence with my plangent guitar melodies."

    Bands I associate with hats (whether or not they actually wore them) - Swing Out Sister, The Blow Monkeys, Curiosity Killed The Cat, Prefab Sprout. Basically, the English corollary of all those "dignified" Scottish/Irish bands like Deacon Blue, Fairground Attraction, Danny Wilson, Hothouse Flowers etc.

  7. Fairground Attraction is a good call - I remember them as hatted, even if they weren't. They were spiritually wide-brim-hat-clad.

    Bad Music Era is a hazy thing, if you wanted to be expansive you could say 83-84-85-86-87. The core of is is 84-85-86 which just so happens to be when i started out as a music journalist, looking around for things to be excited about and shout about, and not finding much. The mainstream was pretty ropey but if anything the indie charts were even worse - lot of second-wave Goth, psychobilly, Americana, and motley uncategorisables, as well as the gone-into-decline discography of once great bands. There were still great things here and there all through the period, but a general feeling of entropy and directionlessness, a profusion of fads, and a lot of badly-produced records. Things started to pick up with the early hip hop and also by 87 you started to stronger records out of indieland.

  8. Tim Farron has retrospectively cast the big hat of futurity over 80s sophistopop

  9. Tim Farron has retrospectively cast the big hat of futurity over 80s sophistopop

  10. Danny Wilson- flat caps, dressed like Notorious B.I.G, sounded like 60s-thru-80s retro.
    Matt Bianco must have. Giles Smith from Cleaners From Venus def did, and had the grace to mock his old photos in his Lost in Music book.

  11. Mike Scott is still gettin round in his hat as seen here