I actually started this 80s rundown a couple of years back, but life and other things have rather got in the way. So, a little bit of spare time has allowed me to get this finished. Without further ado, then, let’s get on with it.
So, here is the third part of my look at the 80s, the decade I grew up in (I was born in 1978). I discovered many of these bands subsequently, yes. But music is a voyage of discovery, and I enjoy continuing on that.
[Note: This was written a while ago, and like the other lists, has been left as it was written originally – only the formatting has been updated and corrected where appropriate.]
Romeo and Juliet
Not a “cool” choice, I suspect, but I kinda grew up hearing Dire Straits a lot (my dad loves their material), and this song is one of those enduring classics, nowadays. Piano-led rock, pretty much Dire Straits by numbers at the time, it is elevated beyond that by the dramatic dynamics of the song, but most of all by the sly reworking of the Shakespearean tragedy into a modern-life tale of jilted love – that is a whole lot more cynical about love and relationships…
Teen Age Riot
Sonic Youth – now on hiatus, in effect over I suspect as the members of the band do other things – are kinda the elder statesmen of the alternative movement, having outlived many sub-genres and fashions, all the while doing their own thing, sometimes being in-tune with the times, at others being miles off-tangent. The sprawling Daydream Nation is universally agreed to be their high-water mark, although I’ve always found it to be nowhere close to being an accessible listen as some make out. It does have its moments, though, such as the fuzzy, rocking charge of this track, where the band dropped their guard and made a quite wonderful pop song in amongst all the feedback.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood
Welcome To The Pleasuredome
Yes, this featured in Tuesday Ten: 109, about nuclear issues, and it was far from the only song of the time dealing with the scariest threat to the world in the eighties. Few of them had the massive impact of this, though – number one for nine weeks (in the eighties this was an eternity), the throbbing, threatening bassline sounds like an enemy force rising over the horizon, and the memorable song was only made even better by the brilliant, satirical video putting world leaders into the wrestling ring, while Holly Johnson takes centre stage as Master of Ceremonies…
I’m with Pitchfork in that it is plainly impossible to write an 80s list without including Michael Jackson somewhere. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about this particular song is that it was the *seventh* single from the album Bad. A brilliant, taut rock track with every element being on the money, and the video was pretty damned awesome too. Even Alien Ant Farm couldn’t fuck up a cover of it, which says something perhaps about how great this song was.
I really ought to get ’round to doing a Tuesday Ten about New York sometime (perhaps around when I go, eventually! Edit: On Tuesday Ten: 275, I finally did so). In the meantime, one New Yorker who frequently writes about her city is Suzanne Vega, and this track is an elegant, sometimes-overlooked gem from her most popular album Solitude Standing, is about the life of women, metaphorically trapped in the city. And as a character sketch, it is beautifully understated, and like so much of Vega’s work, the music takes a backseat to her soothing voice.
Hounds of Love
The return of Kate Bush to the live arena after thirty-five years in the past month – needless to say with a corresponding scrum for tickets that left many of us disappointed even with twenty-odd shows – has been met with a fair amount of revisionism when it comes to her back catalogue, much of which was not met with universal acclaim upon release. One that broadly was received warmly was Hounds of Love, her 1985 album that was a handful of singles on one side, and an epic suite of songs about a night in the water on the other, and one of the few Kate Bush albums that I’m really familiar with. It has two amazing singles in particular – Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) and then this. I suspect this really is the only song about psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich to have made the charts, and even then it is perhaps an odd track to be a single – a dramatic rumble of drums and strings underpin Bush’s soothing wordplay, while in the video she even managed to get Donald Sutherland (!) to play the part of Reich while she played his son. As you do. Either way, this is the avant garde somehow elbowing into the mainstream, just for a short and spectacular while, and even then formed the hook that Utah Saints built Something Good around….!
(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang
Penthouse and Pavement
Formed by two ex-members of Human League, Heaven 17 took a similar, synthpop/new-wave sound into political realms with their exceptional first single, that quickly gained the honour of being banned by Radio 1 because of it daring to be left-wing, and to criticise (amongst others) Thatcher and Reagan. Not only are the lyrics deep with political comment and meaning, but the music is an equally complex beast, with multiple rhythms and effects stacked on top of each other without ever sounding messy. It is far better than Temptation, too.
Ace of Spades
Ace of Spades
Indisputably one of the greatest metal anthems of all, this is perhaps the pinnacle of the three-piece of Lemmy, “Fast” Eddie and “Philthy” Taylor’s work in the band – yeah, so Motorhead have been reliably great for years live, but frankly their recorded stuff in recent years has been passable at best. Maybe the problem is that they set the bar so sodding high with tracks like this. Just shy of three minutes of speed-fuelled, straight-ahead metal that isn’t subtle, isn’t pretty but is catchier than the plague and even after all these years is still a joy to hear.
Blister In The Sun
The anguished howl of horny loserdom, or perhaps just one damned catchy earworm? One of those songs that seems to have soundtracked everything going, it rocks hard despite being acoustic, and is utterly stuffed with hooks and memorable moments.
Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force
One of the most obvious uses of Kraftwerk – among many – at least here Afrika Bambaataa used the building blocks of Trans Europe Express and Numbers to forge a spectacular, early electro tune that in its own way, was massively influential. There are hooks, there are grooves, there is the funk. It also sounds quasi-futuristic, which is partly testament to the genius of Kraftwerk as much as AB – but without this, whole swathes of hip-hop and dance music would simply not exist.
A tough choice between this and Ashes to Ashes – but in the end I plumped for this. There is just something about this song that I love deeply. Nile Rodgers infused Bowie’s songcraft with a sense of, well, almost disco, and it is bursting with life. That astonishing, rousing intro, a blistering chorus – not to mention yet another iconic video – and not surprisingly it became a massive hit.
Amid the futuristic, techno-industrial-thrash-death-metal hybrid that was Fear Factory’s iconic Demanufacture was one song that immediately stood out somewhat, as it was rather more sparse and melodic, perhaps, than the rest of the album. A closer look at the CD booklet confirmed that this was a cover, but to my sixteen-year-old eyes/ears, Head of David meant nothing to me. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was a cover of a song of one of Justin Broadrick’s pre-Godflesh bands, and all the more remarkable was how little Fear Factory tinkered with the song – aside from obviously giving it a rather more electronic-tinted production, it was just simply bigger. The brilliance of the song is clear from the rough-and-ready original, that’s for sure…
Lean On Me (ah-li-ayo)
The Circle and the Square
An album I remember my dad loving at the time, and I rediscovered it after many years a little while back, when it saw a re-issue of the album appear. And remarkably, it has aged gracefully, being another of those albums that cast the net wider in influences than the usual western pop-rock, with various “world” influences sneaking in here and there, but with a political sensibility and an ear for melody that made for a cracking album – and some glorious singles, including this one. A massive hit in 1985 in the UK (apparently the most played song on radio that year), and it isn’t hard to see why, with that huge, huge chorus and bright, upfront production. A band somewhat unfairly forgotten, I think…
Public Image, Ltd
John Lydon has allowed himself to become such a figure of ridicule at times (those godawful butter adverts, some ill-advised public statements, reforming The Sex Pistols more than once) that it has overshadowed the total brilliance of some of the work he has done, like PiL. Taking punk and post-punk into overtly different spaces – particularly the dub reggae undertow that other punks before had dabbled in, but nothing like Jah Wobble’s bass-work – they released striking album after striking album, and their singles were frequently exceptional too. None more so than this, a tribute apparently to the-then continuing uprising in-and-out-of South Africa fighting against Apartheid, an anthemic, brooding call-to-arms all held together by Lydon’s firebrand vocal performance – “anger is an energy” indeed.
That Total Age
“WHERE. IS. THE. YOUTH?” From that roared vocal intro, this is a charging EBM anthem that kicks like a mule, as aggressive as it is catchy, and like much of the greatest EBM of the eighties doesn’t appear to have aged one bit (indeed, much like the band, who barely appeared to have aged either when I saw them live a few years back). What is more remarkable, looking back at this album, is just how much gold it had on it – at least six timeless EBM anthems are on it, which is some feat for a debut.
Eric B. & Rakim
Paid in Full
Paid in Full
Certainly one of the most influential, if not the greatest, hip-hop duos of their time and since, once again picking one song is damned hard. The whole of Paid in Full is a lesson in rapping and sampling (ironic seeing as parts of what they created, and Rakim’s vocals, have been sampled to death since – particularly M/A/R/R/S single Pump Up The Volume which plundered seemingly half of this track), Rakim providing a thoughtful, intelligent flow that is mainly preoccupied with reflections on his life, and how fucking great a rapper he is – and for once his is a fulfilled boast, too – while Eric B provides a languid but unbelievably dense backing. And this track is a perfect example of how brilliantly the pair worked together, with all of the above applying in spades.
The Young Gods
The Young Gods
It was well into the nineties before teenage me stumbled across this band, by which point TV Sky was out, and their sleek electronic-rock period was well underway – so the blistering, punk-edged sound of this was a heck of a shock the first time I heard it. Especially when it was realised that this was still the sound of a band using samplers and not guitars. Industrial rock that rocks harder for not using guitars. Their recent revisiting of their earlier material has been so good I’ve now seen it three times (in three different countries across Europe!), and indeed has resulted in a return to the original line-up permanently, too.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
The Mercy Seat
Not unlike a number of artists in this list, trying to nail down just one song by Nick Cave from the eighties was an exceptionally hard thing to do. The Carny or Tupelo could just as easily have made it, but this song made it for a number of reasons. For a start, it is an exceptional song, one of breathless dialogue and dynamics, as well as a fascinating subject – a convicted criminal facing execution turns to God to find closure and repent for his sins, but he isn’t afraid of death. The song itself coils tighter, gets faster and more chaotic as death comes closer, perhaps reflecting the chaos in the narrator’s head as they prepare for death. Nick Cave has touched upon religion in many of his songs, but none with the grace, elegance and fire like this.
Tour de France (1983)
Tour de France (single)
Kraftwerk’s most groundbreaking, iconic work was undoubtedly their period from Autobahn onwards in the seventies, a frankly untouchable period where there isn’t a single duff track, and in the space of a few albums, they pretty much influenced every single dance artist going in one way or another. But as they inched into the eighties, they had a few more moments of glory. Computerwelt‘s embracing of a rapidly advancing technology somehow hasn’t especially dated (many other attempts from a similar time have done so), but it was when they got in cycling and made music about it for the first time that it really got special: the rhythmic nature of cycling, and the rider’s breathing, interlock beautifully with the beats and those glorious, melodic synths. A song so good they eventually revisited it with an entire album – twenty years later! – and it was also one of the (many) jaw-dropping highlights at their 3D show we witnessed in January 2013 in Düsseldorf.
Fugazi were, of course, a band who took great umbrage with the whole idea of “moshpits” and made their views clear at their live shows many times. And this song, one of their earliest, helps to understand why – this is a hardcore sound to dance and groove to, not to mosh to – and this insanely catchy three minutes became one of their most iconic songs. One where you move, and sing along, and contemplate why you too are stuck in the waiting room rather than forcing the issue and pushing your own life forward.