The 80’s was a special decade in popular music as it created things that just wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened at any other time. Some of the reasons are technology, some are social.
The main technologies to affect music in the 80’s were affordable Synthesizers, Samplers, and the Music Video. The social events were fear of Nuclear War, loss of Jobs, new Wealth, Nostalgia and yet still a Passion for Life.
Here are a few of the albums that I think should be celebrated, owned, and understood by anyone interested in music.
John Foxx – Metamatic
This is a stunning classic that is very out-there in concept whilst never losing sight of being a Pop record at heart. This record was almost 100% electronic. I didn’t even realize there were any real instruments till a few years ago and I know these songs note by note, synth by synth. John took the vision of Kraftwerk and added the very futuristic 80’s sense of identity. While there are now a trillion Electro records with dead-pan vocals and twisted sense of self-identity, none have done it with such surreal yet human confidence as John Foxx did. This record couldn’t be made now because while people constantly do the alienated thing, they lack courage in the sense of beauty and poetry that allowed 80’s artists to write in layers – a pretty record that has strata below that tell complimentary yet different stories.
Contenders are Depeche Mode “Speak & Spell” & OMD’s “Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark” both mined similar ground and were brill but John got in first and made the better record, even if history doesn’t remember that so well. The Buggles “The Age of Plastic” also is truly brilliant but it doesn’t carry the depth of feeling and warm alienation that Metamatic does. While perhaps a bit more 70’s, ELO’s “Time” is also well worth adding as it has some wonderfully 80’s-aware moments.
Duran Duran – Duran Duran
The Durans were trying to copy Japan and Chic. They failed on both counts in so many ways but they did create something wonderful. Deep and dark yet never far from pure Pop. Simon whined, Nick waggled his shoulder pads and the other lads did stuff that looked fabulous on TV. This launched music videos in a big way. Videos weren’t new but the look combined with the fledgling MTV meant Rock & Pop got changed overnight. All that, however, takes away from the really interesting record itself. While Japan had been cloning Bowie’s Berlin period and Ultravox not far removed, Duran Duran made a unique record with pop brilliance coupled with darker, moodier cuts that never let go of the light at the end of the night. This record can’t be re-captured as it is purely of its time in look and content. Lots try to make dark records but so few dare to do that in a bright tone.
Contenders are Tears For Fears “The Hurting” which also balances style and substance with dark lyrical content and does a fab job overall. A special mention has to go to Flock of Seagulls whose first three records sound vapid if you don’t pay attention but the third is about a suicide, whilst still being full of life, singable melodies, and cool hair.
Thompson Twins – Into The Gap
What I think is so great about using Thompson Twins as an example is that what they lacked in finesse they carried so well in the desire to do something a bit unique. To be fair, being a bit unique was very much a flavour of the 80’s. Every act needed to have something unique. Being another of the same wasn’t good enough for either record companies or the audiences. I very much don’t see that to have been the same to the same degree at any other time. This record has some nice variety as well as some deserved smash hits. It never gets old to listen to from start to finish.
Contenders: I could have easily used Culture Club “Kissing To Be Clever”, Alphaville “Afternoons in Utopia”, Talk Talk “It’s My Life”, aha “Hunting High & Low” and a big handful of others. Japan really found this groove on “Tin Drum” which while technically a better record and introduced the idea of World Music, fails to have much impact on the charts.
Purple Rain – Prince
The fact that this was a soundtrack for a movie about himself is not unique as the purple sprout was copying the Village People’s “Can’t Stop The Music” and Olivia/ELO’s “Xanadu” which was as 70’s as Disco. What makes this record so important is that it merged, Rock. Pop and Funk in an absolutely perfect balance that didn’t edit anything of the bombast or honest feeling of the artist. These last two are the real reasons that Purple Rain could not happen again; we don’t welcome bombast and everyone is so scared to be simple and honest about how they feel. Everything has to be edited for fashion and political correctness. This record paints a superb picture of what was so good in the 80’s.
Contenders are The Cars “Heartbeat City” & Spandau Ballet’s “Parade” which also perfectly balanced bombast and complex feeling in seemingly simple songs with lovely Production.
Billy Joel – An Innocent Man
Something that many don’t notice about the 80’s is that there was a lot of looking back going on. It was 30 years since Rock & Roll started and pretty well everything had been explored already. R&R started out as fun, got preachy and then got very complex. The old guys were at the age when they were looking back at being kids and the kids were looking at what Rock had to offer and wanted the pure fun of Rock & Roll back. Billy managed to nail that to the tree with an arrow with a big banner on it with this record which covers a brief history of R&R and Soul without losing focus as a great set of songs played by a master of the form. Mastery was also important. Punk threw up the idea of doing what you could and damn the rules. That was pure Rock & Roll jive but despite the pose the records had to be good. A single trick wasn’t enough. Billy plays this record simple but everything is quality, sorry Quality.
Contenders are Huey Lewis who had that 80’s-ified 60’s Rock vibe hammered flat. Joe Jackson “Body & Soul” took a slightly jazzier feel but was all about the quality performance of the songs. Dire Straits were virtuoso without flaunting anything; “Brothers In Arms” may, at moments, be a tad dull but oh so superb overall. Manfred Mann’s “Live in Budapest” portrays this overview of Rock attitude very well. Billy Idol went the complete opposite way; he lacked some chops but he had the whiplash smile of Rockabilly in spades; so much he beat the Stray Cats at their own game.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik – Flaunt It
Sadly many people don’t know this record. However, it did some things that were truly a wrap-up of 80’s as well as incredibly forward looking. While Billy Idol had made a career out of mixing Rock & Roll with Disco it was in fact, the former colleagues who really nailed the mash whilst setting the tone for Cyberpunk as well as the pure commerciality (literally as they included paid adverts) of music to come. Tony James (former Billy Idol bandmate) and Giorgio Moroder (former boss of Billy’s Producer Keith Forsey) created something truly unique with this record. Sure in some ways it isn’t the best record and can wear a bit thin but the sheer audacity coupled with the ability to deliver a unique vision with such cheek and panache make for a record which has no real equal. I don’t know of any record since that can play with tongue so firmly in cheek whilst still delivering a great new vision*.
Contenders are of course Billy Idol “Rebel Yell”, Adam & The Ants “Kings of the Wild Frontier” & Stray Cats self-titled, but also the less obvious Dave Edmunds “Repeat When Necessary” as they were all fusing Rockabilly with Punk and 80’s Pop. Also worthy of consideration, but not quite perfect records, were the Cult’s “Electric” and Screaming Blue Messiahs “Gun Shy”.
* I will consider The Darkness on their 2003 “Permission To Land” but seeing they were mining the 70’s with no added new vision I think they don’t really count. What I will concede were Spice Girls, Aqua and Venga Boys from 1998 as they were pure fun Pop with a great sense of party whilst still being lovely & musical.
Van Halen – 1984
Hard Rock & Metal were a very 70’s sort of thing but Eddie Van Halen & David Lee Roth turned that right around with 1984 which featured not only a sense of fun that was infectious but the lead instrument was as likely to be a synth as Eddie’s guitar. Matter of fact one track is wholly synth and the opener is more Jarre than Judas Priest. Yet at no point is the record poe-faced or anything other than a pure celebration of life as expressed in a young man’s desires. Metal, Rock and even Pop these days is so scared of melody, fun and even doing something remotely different that it is impossible for this record to be made again. that and since the dourness of Nirvana, we have no frontmen as wonderfully fun as Diamond Dave.
Contenders are Def Leppard “Pyromania” is probably the closest with great material and very tight production. Bon Jovi “Slippery When Wet” is a blast of a record. Slade’s “Rogues Gallery” also featured synths in a guitar based format to great effect and Noddy was typically irreverent. You may wonder why I chose Slade over Quiet Riot who were covering Slade but I think Rogues is a better record than “Metal Health”. Mention has to go to the Glam Metal bands like Motley Crue and Cinderella as they carried the torch of fun time R&R for almost a decade. Some are even back at it.
Iron Maiden – Powerslave
As mentioned above, Metal was a very 70’s thing but many bands wanted to update the sound in keeping with the cleaner 80’s essence. Iron Maiden were at the forefront of that, bet it wasn’t till 1984’s “Powerslave” that they really hit their straps. It is a tight record with a sound that is clearly Metal but also not like the more Bluesy/Prog sound of the 70’s. The songs and sounds have edge but are not a great stretch from any Pop record. Yet never seeming remotely compromised as a sell-out record. Since then Metal bands have been increasingly scared of being open and bare about their humanity or making concessions to a wider audience. The riffs are faster and meaner, downright brutal, but, also less soulful as a result. This leaves Powerslave as a pinnacle of the form.
Contenders are Judas Priest “Screaming For Vengeance” which is a fab record but doesn’t manage to separate from the 60’s Blues root quite as cleanly. Candlemass “Epicus Doomicus Metallicus” & King Diamond “The Eye”(1990) are pretty darned good but lack the maturity. And then it went downhill with Thrash, Death, Doom, everything-core eatign the true heart and sould of what made Metal great…
Simply Red – Picture Book
The other people looking back for a way forward were the Blue Eyed Soul bands. They had started as early as the late 70’s, trying to make their own version of Smokey Robinson etc but despite many hits from acts like The Style Council, ABC, Heaven 17 & Soft Cell, it wasn’t till this record that the idea of British Soul with an agenda of its own really gelled in people’s minds. This record had time on its side with the troubled Thatcher/Reagan era of changing economic situations. It also had the ability to bridge the glamorous New Romantics who were on the wane with the rising jeans & button-up-shirt-after-work-at-the-office brigade. This was the new R&R politics. Gone were the big fears of The Bomb in songs like Nena’ “99 Luft Balloons”, it was now all very local and safely grubby. No longer were the kids looking global, they felt too trapped in their parent’s East End row house to care about anything bigger than strikes and Friday night drinks. A trend that actually saw an end to the 80’s joy of living in the big world in a few years. Contrast this record with The Vapours “New Clear Days” from just five years earlier to see how things have changed.
Contenders are Sade’s “Diamond Life” which beat Mick’s mates by a year and was a big hit; however, it didn’t make people feel there was a new style; it spoke about poverty but love seemed the main theme. The Kane Gang Bad & Lowdown World” is a lovely record and is possibly a better example of British suburban Soul. Can’t forget Deacon Blue’s “Raintown” which is a corker of a record.
Art Of Noise – Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise
This record gets here more because of the single, “Moments In Love”. Many people think of Paul Hardcastle’s “19” or Yello’s “Oh Yeah” as being the first sample records but in reality, it was more the Art Of Noise that set the way making records with samples instead of real instruments, or even synths. The main thing you notice about this record is that it is very sample based and even sounds like Breakbeat – soon to become Rap. American DJs & MCs were listening to this record to learn how to do it. In many ways, the most visible member of the ‘band’ is the Fairlight Sampler – even more than the actual band members. While bands do this today, no one has quite managed the same thing. If for no other reason than this was scarily new yet very accessible. It was the sheer novelty of the technology that means that while people still try, these records can never be equaled, only parodied.
*Laurie Anderson’s earlier song “Oh Superman” isn’t really a sample based record; close but no cigar.
Run DMC – Raising Hell
I have never listened to this record but its importance is also unequaled. Talking Rap I would far rather put up something from Grandmaster Flash (Mel Melle) or one of the more truly pioneering Breakbeat acts but Run + Aerosmith was something that has never been equaled. That song alone put Run DMC and the new style of heavy Rap right in the center of the radio dial. This record is all about the timing and really almost belongs more to the 90’s as sadly this is one of the records that truly ended the great things the 80’s had been about. Their version of “Walk This Way” was the last hurrah for the bombast and fun of the 80’s before it all became so dour. with technicalities usurping content and real human soul ever since. Doesn’t matter if we are talking Rock, Soul, Country or Metal, the idea of a pure performance of human feeling is missing. I started to worry in 1985 but by 1987 the writing was on the wall. With the exception of a few years around 1998 (perhaps the big issue of end-of-Century
With technicalities usurping content and real human soul ever since, it doesn’t matter if we are talking Rock, Soul, Country or Metal, the idea of a pure performance of human feeling is missing. I started to worry in 1985 but by 1987 the writing was on the wall. With the exception of a few years around 1998 (perhaps the big issue of end-of-Century looming?) popular music has largely lost relevance as anything more than a shallow mirror for commercial ends alone – stuff like NIN, Coldplay, Keith Urban or Adele.
Don’t think me stuck in the past, I would love to hear something great arise. Maybe you know of a record I need to hear?
No doubt I haven’t covered your fave record. If you think I have made a real omission then feel free to post below in the comments. If you do, please be sure to explain why you believe your record should be in the list. I will reply with my 2-cents.