A couple of years ago, I posted the best of the 90s, and the best of the 00s, from my point of view.
So, here is the beginning 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. On with the first twenty…
[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.]
Front Line Assembly
Digital Tension Dementia
Gashed Senses and Crossfire
Like some other long-lived industrial bands, I think it is fair to say that FLA’s heyday was actually in the following decade (i.e. the nineties). But this song, the single from their third album, was the point where the band’s sound really began to coalesce into what became their sonic signature (and in the albums that followed, quickly produced some enduring industrial dancefloor classics). There are the swirling synths, the thumping beats, and Bill Leeb’s distinctive vocals, that even in the midst of the band’s evolution is instantly recognisable as FLA.
I have to confess that earlier period Clock DVA doesn’t quite sit as well with me as their later material (in other words, Buried Dreams, in particular – and as I’ve already included The Hacker in the 90s list…), mainly as in their earlier incarnation they still seemed to be finding their way with the technology and their sound. Clock DVA were always about experimentation, mind. But what is so striking about the band is just how much they changed over the active period. This song, much as most of the album it comes from, very much can be dated as early 80s – just check those elastic basslines, the synthesised horns, the soaring quasi-gospel backing vocals. But key elements of the band’s later explorations into industrial soundscapes can be found, too, lurking in the shadows. And as such this is an important pointer to what Clock DVA eventually became.
Mother Love Bone
More remembered for what they preceded nowadays, perhaps (Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament went on to form Pearl Jam, via their appearance in Temple Of The Dog), this short-lived band were worthy of note themselves. Flamboyant frontman Andrew Wood’s soaring vocals were the first notable thing about the band (and his nowadays cringeworthy lyrics, too), but it could also be argued that this band were the missing link between 80s “rock” and what became grunge. This was somewhat overblown, sometimes far-too-long rock. But this song was snappier, and lyrics aside, still stands up well.
Biting My Nails
Their finest moment was actually in the next decade, for me (their sprawling, eponymous epic that gained a Leftfield remix that remains one of my favourite remixes *ever*), but even in their earlier moments they were still proving to be some way ahead of the curve. This track had a funky, sampled rhythm, a guitar sample that is naggingly familiar, and a cool, laid-back vocal. It is also exhibit A for why both the Poppies and The Chemical Brothers doffed their cap to RS in following years.
I sometimes wish that I was that bit older, so that I could have seen and heard the development of early industrial as it progressed, particularly in the UK. And here is one reason – the early electro weirdness of Frank Tovey’s project. A song about drink driving, a severed hand, and it features a Black & Decker drill prominently (and brilliantly used, too). Now I come to think about it, I really should use this in a DJ set sometime.
Where the Streets Have No Name
The Joshua Tree
Bono: humanitarian, (alleged) tax-dodger, gobshite. and lest we forget, a singer in a band who at one point used to be really quite great. Unlike some other bands, it never quite felt like they musically kept up with the times – ironically while their live tours were continually re-inventing and pushing the envelope – with attempts at including dance elements amongst other ideas being somewhat, er, hamfisted, aside from the brave experimentation of Zooropa. But rewind back to the eighties and it is pretty damned hard to pick a particular song. But the more I thought about, the more that legendary guitar lick that opens (and dominates) this song came to mind. An impassioned plea for less segregation and more open-minded thinking, or something like that, it has a huge, wide-open-space sound that U2 used to be utter masters of, being a band of the people – and the video for this, where they shut down multiple blocks in LA to play the song on a building top – shows that to the best effect. And aside from The Fly early in the next decade, for me they’ve never topped it.
The Wonder Stuff
Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More
The Eight Legged Groove Machine
Back before Britpop, the indie world was a very different place. Where chart placings actually mattered, and the indie chart actually mattered too. But then, CD and vinyl sales were still important then, and with no internet for distribution, it was all about those many indie record stores. So for a band like the Wonderstuff to break through – and, lest we forget, end up with a number one single a few years later – was more than a bit unusual. Miles Hunt was rather outspoken, of course, and seemed to despise the music press as much as they despised him at times, but with songs as good as this they sometimes should have just left the music to talk. A pointed stick in the eye of the late-80s “greed is good” mantra, this is cracking songwriting together with a killer tune.
Life’s What You Make It
The Colour of Spring
Talk Talk had a pretty unique career trajectory – new romantic through thinking-mans-pop to effectively inventing post-rock, all in the space of ten years. And that thinking-mans-pop, if you will, got them some seriously heavy rotation in the US and elsewhere, and a few big hits, of which this track is far better than It’s My Life, in my opinion. And despite the reputation the band (and Mark Hollis) have for being a bit dour, frankly, this track has an uplifting message, in some respects. The idea of making the best of what you have, don’t fight with it, deal with it instead. But the song, I suspect, was a hit for different reasons – the rolling beat, that squalling guitar riff, and the synth hook that propels the song forward. Oh, and the plaintive chorus, of course…
Yeah, so I’m sick of She Sells Sanctuary, so this makes it in instead. Anyway, everything about the Cult really should have been rather naff. A band from Bradford that blended hard rock, cod-mysticism and some frankly bizarre fashion choices, somehow they transcended this to be a big, big selling rock band in the late 80s. And it isn’t a stretch to suggest that this is because of their handy knack of writing killer anthem after killer anthem. Still, it would be nice just once at a goth club to hear something other than the obvious (like this) more than once in a while – a track where there is less of the mystics, and more of the kick-ass rock, as it bulldozes through five minutes with drum solos, guitar solos and that fucking ginormous chorus. It is probably fair to say, though, that the song has aged better than the video…
Gimme More (Much More)
Freiheit Für Die Sklaven
No, not the German rock band, the Italian electro-EBM band. One of the earlier pioneers in what became known as EBM, it isn’t hard to see their influence in particularly the harder edged-industrial dancefloor music that followed late in the decade. And indeed, this track is from the period where that style was still gestating. Less EBM than a machine-gun beat, the brutal rhythm takes a while to get going, as the vocals then take up the baton and keep things pushing forward: and it sounded utterly phenomenal live last year at BIMFest.
Living After Midnight
Christ, how was I supposed to choose between the two classic singles from British Steel? Arguably the album that laid the groundwork for metal to become a big, big force in the eighties and nineties, finally finding a way to streamline metal to make it have a mass-market appeal again, both singles are pretty much unimpeachable, really. So I’ve picked Living After Midnight thanks to the fact that I don’t hear it half as much anymore – which is kinda surprising, really, as it is still a brilliant anthem to the idea of partying/rocking all night, and more than likely a few other things besides. As for the video, what was that about Spandex again…?
A remarkable 29-years old, Mike Muir’s original stream-of-conciousness rant that just happens to be set to a punk-metal blast that gets faster and faster, and still sounds fucking ace. A tale of a teenager being distrusted and eventually sent away, it probably can gain some credit for getting teenagers to fight back a little against overbearing parents. It is probably also to blame for some truly shit “skate punk” that followed, at least one Limp Bizkit song, and even became the subject of a faintly amusing meme recently. But we’ll let those charges slide, eh?
This is a song that a lot of shit that followed owes a massive debt to. Not only that, a song that gave an enormous boost to both acts involved – in the case of Aerosmith, reinforcing their case as rock megastars once again, while in the case of Run DMC, making them stars for the first time. And more importantly, this – enormously fun – hip-hop reworking of a seventies rock classic allowed both bands to cross over into entirely new fanbases, paving the way for what became a deluge of rap-rock crossovers, eventually ending up with the late 90s nadir of nu-metal. The only problem with this song nowadays? It still gets played on MTV “Rocks” and Kerrang TV on heavy rotation even now…
Mission of Burma
That’s When I Reach For My Revolver
Signals, Calls and Marches
MoB are apparently somewhat misrepresented on record – mainly, I’d suspect, in that they aren’t deafeningly loud. When one of the band has to call it quits thanks to tinnitus, you know you were perhaps pushing things that bit far. Still, the band’s strikingly different take on post-punk does work well on record. There are the signature tape loops there somewhere, and the aggressive, snarling vocals also make the band stand out. But more than anything, it is the savage chorus that really makes this click.
I was reminded of the glory of this band’s unique sound again recently when the “best-of” collection Stars and Topsoil was being played in Rough Trade East while I was there, and I certainly spent a bit longer than I otherwise would have there so I could hear a bit more. Obviously, the band’s signature sound – chiming, echo-y guitars and shambling beats, with Liz Fraser’s unintelligable vocals on top – was rather divisive, and I suspect it still is now, but it is certainly indisputable that this band were the forerunners of shoegaze and all that entailed. And with songs as marvellous as this, their legacy was assured early on.
Eat To The Beat
A 1980s release, just (this song was released as a single in February 1980). As if I needed a reason to include one of Blondie’s iconic singles, but other than the rather odd Rapture, this was the last of Blondie’s classic singles. Somehow managing to nick ‘Three Blind Mice’ (!) for the intro, and end up as one of the most brilliant rock/disco fusions of all, mainly for the fact that it all sounds – like Blondie and Debbie Harry always did at their best – like it is all so damned effortless.
Rock Me Amadeus
Quite remarkably, the one-and-only German language song ever to make it to number one in the Billboard Charts, it is so gloriously odd that it is a really quite effective earworm. Apparently “inspired” by the all-conquering film Amadeus the year before, the lyrics deal with the idea of Mozart being the punk superstar of his day, the song is a quasi-hip-hop, part choral-singalong, all pop monster.
Need You Tonight
The song that really made these Aussies superstars, being their only US #1. The sparse, clever production, with most elements coming in-and-out of the mix (that instantly recognisable guitar riff literally jumps out of the speakers at you) allows the late Michael Hutchence to be centre-of-attention, delivering a lyric that is little more than a lascivious come-on. Still, going on the sex-symbol status he quickly gained, it was a tactic that worked.
Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft
Alles Ist Gut
EBM before it even a title was coined for the emerging genre, this grim, darkly humorous single poked fun at fascist leaders, turning them into dance moves, while providing a bruising, instantly danceable beat underneath the booming vocals. As important for what it influenced for what it is, it remarkably still sounds fresh now (lots of electronic music from the time really doesn’t).
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
The Queen Is Dead
I think I can admit here that I don’t love The Smiths as much as many of my friends do. Or, indeed, I don’t hate The Smiths like some of my friends do either. But I am happy to admit that they certainly made some brilliant albums, and some even better singles, and for better or worse their shadow still looms very large indeed over certain corners of the British indie-scene. They are more than likely the reason many of Britain’s greatest indie bands exist that have formed since, but also I can (partly) blame them for the existence of bands like Belle & Sebastian. Oh, the contradictions. So picking a song – just one – was a tough one. After a lot of thinking, I realised that it could only be this. Probably the most perfect synthesis of everything that The Smiths were brilliant at – a tight but almost slight musical backing (even with the synth-strings), and a smart-but-tender lyric, one of love, escape and dealing with death. In some hands this would have come out mawkish and cliched, but here Morrissey handles the concepts with (unusual, with hindsight) sensitivity to make it such a lovely, wistful song.