There's a commonly held belief that the '80s is the decade that doesn't matter — the disposable years that gave us little more than consumerism. Reaganomics, big hair and unnatural neon clothing colors, as well as MTV and the growth of corporate culture in music that led to bland, radio-friendly dross. To be fair, the '80s did give us all of those things, but it gave us more too. For every Phil Collins there was a Hüsker Dü, for every Tears for Fears, a Cure. Here in Detroit, we had hardcore punk and hardcore techno thrilling the underground. The quality was there throughout the decade, you just had to look for it.
Truth be told, quality is largely subjective anyway. Ask Carey Denha, frontman with '80s cover band the Mega 80s; he says, with no sign of a smirk, "I can't think of anything I don't like about the '80s."
Seriously? Not one fucking thing? Not the sitcom Who's the Boss? Not the mullet? Dynasty? Shoulder pads?
"Certainly not the fashion, because I love what women wore in the '80s," Denha says. "The hair, the spandex, the colorful leggings and the stilettos. Nothing makes me happier. I love the feel of the '80s. Just a fun, upbeat, party atmosphere. It appeals to the kid in me."
Denha has made a career, through his production company Tangerine Moon Productions, out of reproducing and replicating the sounds of other artists in a live setting. For him, no decade has the allure of the '80s, and he was in a few prototype bands before the Mega 80s took the concept to another level. "Pop culture was shifting so much in the '80s, I wanted to make sure that we could capture that in a multimedia show," he says. "I saw different video animators, and we put together animations for our show. We changed the show drastically from what it was, from being a local band to having a regional or even a national feel."
The Mega 80s, completed by Ron Abraham (keys), Matt Webber (bass), Mick Madness (guitar) and Mike Racette (drums), has an average age in the late-30s, meaning that they were teens in the '80s. Not many people can make a living from rose-tinted nostalgia, but these guys are managing it. Still, it's hard to imagine a '90s cover band having a draw. That decade simply isn't as definable.
"When we came up with the idea, we were the only act in Michigan doing an '80s band," Denha says. "We couldn't get a booking. Everyone thought it was the worst idea. The only place I could get a booking was a place in East Lansing called Harper's, and that was just because it was a brand-new bar. After two shows, there was a line around the block. I think the first thing people think of when they think '80s is a Flock of Seagulls. When we broke it down, we decided to do new wave, hair metal and some of the hip-hop. It's more like a retrospective."
So how do they get around the fact that so many consider the '80s disposable? "I think it's funny that people thought of it as disposable until we hit 2000," Denha says. "Then they realized it wasn't so bad. When you look back and you see the whole work of the '80s, you see the impact it had, especially when you hear bands like the Killers. Sleigh Bells are very '80s-sounding, for example. There's a huge influence in a lot of today's indie rock."
With any cover or tribute band, the image is nearly as important as the music, as it enhances the feeling of authenticity. Denha takes costumes very seriously. "Ever since '98, I've worn an Atari shirt just because it's so iconic," he says. "I can't change that shirt onstage. People ask where it is if I do, no matter how much glitter and sequins I have on. People want that Atari shirt. They feel it symbolizes the '80s. Around Halloween we dress up as different '80s characters, like the Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones or Marty McFly. Some of the success of the band stems from the fact that it's pretty interactive with the audience. It's very welcoming."
Denha says that the first song the Mega 80s learned was "Der Kommissar" by Falco. "If you could play that, and 'Mexican Radio' [by Wall of Voodoo], something very difficult for another band to do, because they don't have keyboards and sequencing, then you were a step ahead. When you add sequencing, it all of a sudden sounds like the original song. Bands like Depeche Mode or New Order used sequencing, as it's the only way they could play those songs live."
You will have realized by now that the Mega 80s isn't just a group of five musicians pulling out their regular instruments and playing their favorite old songs. For Denha, making the songs sound right is an obsession. "We travel with seven to 10 different keyboards on stage," he says. "The original keyboards are the same make and model that the original artists recorded with in the '80s. When Modern English recorded "I Melt With You," we have the exact same keyboard model. When we do a song by Prince, Tangerine Moon Productions buys the make and model of the drum machine he recorded with. We buy the same keyboard Eddie Van Halen used on "Jump." There was only so much technology that existed in the '80s, so you can gather up all those keyboards pretty quickly, and if you know how to tune in the sounds, you can make it sound just like the original."
Denha says that, though Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" gets the, in his words, "naughty mommies" dancing, his favorite song to play live is a medley called "Lost Hits of the '80s." "It's 60 songs in 30 minutes," he says. "It's ridiculous. When we first started it, it was incredibly hard. Now, it's a breeze. It encompasses everything from 'Eye of the Tiger' [Survivor] to 'You Make My Dreams Come True' by Hall and Oates, to 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' [Bonnie Tyler]. Also, Tears for Fears, Howard Jones, the Human League, Billy Ocean, and 'Rock Me Amadeus' by Falco. We'll take clips from a John Hughes movie like the Breakfast Club and we'll go right into a Simple Minds song, then right into a License to Drive movie clip and 'Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car' by Billy Ocean."
Since '99, the Mega 80s have been playing regularly at the Magic Bag in Ferndale (once or twice a month in the summer, and more than that come late fall). The shows never bomb, and people keep coming back. How can the Mega 80s keep drawing when other bands can't seem to buy a crowd, especially in this economy?
"We're playing classic music, but I think they come back because the performance changes," Denha says. "You can see the band play the exact same songs, but the feel will change, or the laughs between songs will change."
The singer pauses, then finishes with, "Still, I'm always amazed there are people there. Every night, I'm like, 'Yes! I'm still employed.'"
The Mega 80s will perform July 13, July 21, Aug. 3, and more dates after that, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030; see themagicbag.com.