25 Classic Songs of the 80s

So, as part of our week of features about the 1980s, here are twenty five classic songs from the decade itself. Such a short list can in no way be a definitive list (i.e. THE best), or a complete one, given the thousands of classic songs released during the ear, instead it can really only hope to offer a taster of some of my personal favourites of some of the more popular numbers.
1980- 1989 was an exciting and innovative time for music, beginning with post punk, new wave, the emergence of hip hop and two tone movements at the beginning of the decade. While the mid eighties belong to slick pop music and hair metal, by the end of the decade, it was all about indie and dance music, certainly in the UK. All this against the background of Thatcherism, race riots, mass unemployment, Irish terrorism and the miners strikes, made for a decade with a powerful, enduring soundtrack. Here goes…..

1) Borderline – Madonna: I could have chosen ‘Like A Virgin’, Madonna’s breakthrough 1983 hit, produced by drug-taking studio genius and 80s superproducer Nile Rodgers (the dude behind 70s disco legends Chic, would later produce Bowie and Duran Duran), as its’ significance for female empowerment inspired masters degrees. But I love this record. There’s an innocence and simplicity about it – it doesn’t rely on the big controversial concept video that she became known for (‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Vogue’, etc), and which indeed became the template for later stars, including latter day Madonna-inspired, Lady Gaga. Instead, ‘Borderline’ is about as perfect a pop record as she or anyone else has ever made.

2) Chameleons – Swamp Thing: the work of criminally underrated Mancunian early 80s act The Chameleons, I used to dance to this in darker rooms of (recently closed Manchester club) Rockworld where pale old Goths hung out drinking cider. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJ6zVlIxnrQ

3) New Order – Truth Faith: It’s an oft-repeated fact New Orders’s Blue Monday was the biggest selling 12 inch vinyl record of all time, and one that lost a penny for every copy sold, due to the chaotic financial acumen of Tony Wilson and his situationalist cohorts at Factory Records. But this was the first New Order song I ever got into, a huge hit for the band, and a defining video of the 80s MTV era. Whether it’s about the disillusionment of growing up, or coming down off Ecstasy, a brilliant record.

4) Stone Roses – I Am The Resurrection: By the end of the 80s, musical winds were changing, as people grew tired with Thatcher’s Britain, and the increasingly, conformist pop music associated with it. Grittier stuff was happening underground – in the days before the internet, music culture was still segregated, spread by word of mouth, and cut off from mainstream society. The Roses were part of movement in Manchester in the mid to late 80s that was centred around indie bands attending house and techno nights at the Hacienda, leading their rock / dance crossover sound. It’s obviously something that’s been incredibly well documented, but where 24 Hour Party People addressed the Happy Mondays and Factory, it’s easy to forget how important the Roses were. In a short recording career, so many of the songs they released were timeless classics, and this is just one.

5) Siouxsie and the Banshees – Spellbound: Massively influential punk chanteuse Siouxsie Sioux has had a massive impact on female singers ever since she arrived in the late 70s. Indeed, Allmusic guide described her as “one of the most influential British singers of the rock era”. The London singer, with her distinctive goth look and powerful vocal style confidently held her own in an unforgiving, male dominated music scene. The frontwoman was a perfect combination when matched with the impact of her band, the Banshees, and together, their music was later echoed in the work of groundbreaking acts including Massive Attack, Jane’s Addiction, LCD Soundsystem, U2, Jeff Buckley, and many, many more. ‘Spellbound’ is considered noteworthy by no less than Smiths’ Johnny Marr, and Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam, who both had high praise for this particular record.

6) Guns N Roses – “Nightrain”: The Gunners’ debut record exposed the dirty, drunken, debauched lifestyle of the seedier side of Los Angeles in the 80s, where they held court, at times effectively homeless as they recorded ‘Welcome To The Jungle’. A fan favourite, ‘Nightrain’ was named after a strong, cheap liquor available in Cali, good for getting wasted on the cheap. The video performance, Live at the Ritz, is a rare piece of early footage, capturing their star quality, and aggressive, punk attitude, before they became caricatures of themselves by the stadium-filling days of Use Your Illusion.

7) – Rise: It’s hard to know what do after being in one of the greatest groups in the history of music. John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten of rock’s most infamous group, The Sex Pistols, went straight onto P.i.L. in 1978. A much more experimental post rock venture in counterpoint to the Pistols’ musical conservativism (the Pistols may have terrorised Britain with their lyrics, and then-shocking appearance, but musically, the borrowed as much as any British band from the ongoing tradition of the Beatles, The Kinks and The Who), the P.i.l. sound was characterised by bass-driven grooves and the primeval yelp of Lydon’s distinctive singing.

Also, I couldn’t mention P.i.L without referring to Death Disco, which comes from Metal Box, regularly listed as one of the best albums of the 80s.

8) Frankie Goes To Hollywood – 2 Tribes: Since 9/11, today’s news agenda may be driven by the War On Terror, but prior to that, a large amount of the cultural climate of the 80s was driven by Cold War paranoia and fear. America was engaged in a war by proxy with Russia, which was played out by using other countries as pawns, arming them to the teeth and watching them do battle. Any number of movies, books and songs played on and document the fear that hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people would be killed in outright nuclear war between the two superpowers – Armageddon was a very real possibility. Liverpools’ controversial 4 piece FGTH added to the genre. They may have made headlines with their single ‘Relax’, which was banned from the BBC for its’ gay innuendos, but their killer track was ‘Two Tribes’, a behemoth of a song produced by legendary 80s production genius Trevor Horn.

9) Mr. Mister – Broken Wings: one of the defining sounds of the 80s was the power ballad. A sleek sounding affair typified by synthesisers, gated guitars and narcotically catchy melodies (oh, and every lyrical cliché in the book) they can be heard on movies of the era, and the sound is none more typified than by ‘Broken Wings’.

10) Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over: One of the few genuine, rare stone cold classics of the 80s, Australia’s Crowded House wrote a pop song that has been covered numerous times, and appeared in countless TV shows and movies since. http://www.we7.com/song/Crowded-House/Dont-Dream-Its-Over?m=0

11) Kim Wilde – Kids In America: Coming at the tail end of the post punk era, Kim Wilde offered a pop version of teenage punk rebellion with this number written by her brother, Ricky, and her dad Marty, a former 50s rock n roll star. Sadly, it’s been ruined in recent times by a cover by egregious Cascada, and, on a better note, Ash’s Charlotte Hatherley.

12) Duran Duran – The Reflex: Take the lips, swagger and antics the supermodel shagging antics of Mick Jagger, and throw in some new romantic makeup, white funk and keyboards, all performed by five lads from Birmingham, and you get one of the biggest groups of the 80s. With 100 million albums sold, they performed the rare feat for a British band of conquering America, and having endured several lineup changes, are still going, and soon to release a Mark Ronson produced album.

13) U2 – Sunday Bloody Sunday: Britain, during the 80s was a bad time for Ulster, with the ongoing ‘Troubles’, leading to violence sectarian violence by a variety of republican and unionist groups determined to claim the province as their own. The reality for people living in the province was one of ongoing fear, and over here on the British mainland, there was a terror threat, not from Al Qaida, but the IRA. Amidst all this, Irish band U2 were not the much hated old stagers they are today, but a young band in their early 20s, back during the first years of the decade. Having grown up with the conflict, they attempted to speak on behalf of both sides, calling for an end to all violence. Sunday Bloody Sunday was a ground breaking protest song about the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 civilians in cold blood were gunned down by the British Army. After several enquiries, the British government finally accepted responsibility for the deaths this year, and in June 2010 David Cameron gave a belated apology to the people of Ulster for the massacre.

14) Psychedelic Furs – Pretty In Pink: If the eighties was characterised by a soundtrack of classic indie records and foppish new romantic bands, the movie output of the era was defined in many ways by the work of John Hughes. The influential director documented the lives of teenage highschool America, with its’ alienation, angst and rebellion in movies like Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, the Breakfast Club, and Pretty In Pink. The latter borrowed its’ name from a song by the British band Psychedelic Furs, who ultimately contributed to the soundtrack.

15) The Specials –Ghost Town: Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party came to power in 1979 at a time of great discontent, racial tensions and mass unemployment for the people of Britain. The music of Coventry’s The Specials tapped into a wider feeling of malaise amongst the youth in those early years of her destructive reign. Released in 1981, it went to number 1 just as race riots exploded in Brixton, Moss Side and Toxteth, and the band’s politicised message of racial unity was at its’ most prescient.

The Specials – Ghost Town

16) The Smiths – Cemetery Gates: When did the cult of Morrissey begin? Well, right back when The Smiths were a going concern, between 1983 and 1987, even then the bequiffed frontman was rarely out the papers of the music press, stirring up controversy with his arch proclamations on the world and love of Oscar Wilde, daffodils, and poetry. He made for an unlike star, but one that inspires mass devotion to this day, notwithstanding a dip in favour during the 90s early due to a flirtation with racist, anti-immigration affiliations that blotted his copybook with the NME for some time. He was, however, arguably nothing without Johnny Marr, the most gifted and influential guitarist of his generation, and the band in many ways set the template for modern indie rock.

17) The Violent Femmes – Add It Up: A song that speaks to any adolescent feeling hormonal, this song may be the perfect counterpart to the Undertones ‘Teenage Kicks’, in its’ expression of young sexual frustration. Milwaukee trio Violent Femmes are probably still best known for their other indie dancefloor anthem, ‘Blister In The Sun’.

18) Public Enemy – ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’. It’s impossible to mention music in the 80s without mentioning hip hop, and it’s impossible to mention 80s hip hop without mentioning Public Enemy. The crew burst out onto the music scene in the New York in 1987 with ‘Yo Bum Rush The Show’ but it was following year that bona-fide classic album ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back’ made stars out of them with its’ controversy-courting anthems.

With the distinctive production of Hank Shocklee, and DJ Terminator X and the insanity of clock-wearing Hype man Flavour Flav, as well as their own backing dancers / personal army, the ‘Security Of The First World’ lead by Professor Griff, PE were nothing if not idiosyncratic. Meanwhile, rapper Chuck D’s angry, thoughtful exposition of corruption and injustice in American society was totally at odds with the bling espoused by modern rap in the form of multimillionaire brand-baiting MCs like 50 Cent, Jay-Z and Kanye West.

19) A Guy Called Gerald – ‘Voodoo Ray’: as music technology evolved beyond the moog synthesisers of the 70s to the early samplers and sequencers of the 80s, the result was not just the birth of hip hop, but the many shades and colours of dance music. And while house and techno emerged from the clubbing scenes of Chicago, New York and Detroit in the mid 80s, British producers gradually began to catch on and appropriate this new genre for themselves. One notable such producer was Gerald Simpson, better known as AGCG, went on to explore ground breaking drum and bass sounds in the 90s with the critically acclaimed album ‘Black Secret Technology’. He’s best known for being responsible for an oft-remixed, ground breaking club classic in ‘Voodoo Ray’, first released in 1988.

20) The Pixies ‘Where Is My Mind’: The Boston 4-piece opened the door for the explosion of alternative music in the US that occurred during the late 80s / early 90s. Though they never achieved major commercial success in their time, their reputation grew since their initial demise in 1993, with the aid of classic songs such as ‘Where Is My Mind’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’ and ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’. The former is an album track from their debut LP ‘Surfa Rosa’, which is regularly referred to in lists of the best albums of all time, and was made famous by its’ use in numerous movies including Fight Club.

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21) The Beloved – Sun Rising: late 80s / early 90s duo The Beloved were part of the growing movement of musicians towards the end of the 80s that were part of ushering dance music into the mainstream charts, where the form would fragment and splinter into a thousand genres, and dominate for a decade. They first came together thanks to an intriguing advert founder and Cambridge graduate Jon Marsh placed in classified section of the weekly music press, that, should the reader “wish to do something gorgeous”, they should meet in 3 years time outside a diner in Covent Garden. Miraculously, the meeting took place, and an early iteration of the band formed, sounding not dissimilar to New Order. Later, after some changes in lineup and musical direction, the remaining duo of Marsh and Steve Waddington attached themselves to London’s burgeoning late 80s rave scene, providing the inspiration for early ambient hit, ‘The Sun Rising’.

22) Eric B and Rakim – Follow The Leader: when looking back at the hip hop of the 80s, acts such as N.W.A, Run DMC and Public Enemy are often mentioned, but for some reason, Eric and Rakim are often overlooked, despite the latter being one of the greatest rappers of all time. Meanwhile, DJ Eric B’s distinctive horn stabs and James Brown beats influenced a generation of hip hop producers. Together, The DJ and production duo forged a partnership that is critically recognised by The Source, Rolling Stone, and many other publications as one of the best, and most influential in hip hop. ‘Follow The Leader’ is one of their finest cuts.

23) Blondie – Rapture: the 1981 hit from one of the most influential bands to ever come out of New York captured the emerging street culture of hip hop coming out of the city, and exposed many young listeners, including some members of the Wu Tang Clan, to their first taste of the genre. The record took the inspiration for its’ backing track from Chic’s Good Times, and the earlier rap hit Rapper’s Delight which utilised it, meanwhile Debbie Harry’s rap referenced seminal hip hop figures Fab Five Freddie and Grandmaster Flash.

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24) N.W.A – Fuck The Police: It’s hard to believe that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were once youngsters, but as part of the South Central LA street crew they changed the face of rap music forever with their debut album ‘Straight Outta Compton’. Fuck The Police was the standout track, at least in the controversy it garnered, making the group and hip hop itself so infamous that the FBI and Secret Service, as well as several right wing politicians, objected. The central contention of the record – that the LAPD is a racist organisation – foreshadowed the 1992 police beatings of Rodney King that were caught on camera and broadcast nationwide, which would itself lead to riots that year. Meanwhile, the record popularised the genre of gangster rap, which still informs hip hop culture to this day. Dr Dre would become rap’s defining producer throughout the 90s, launching the careers of artists such as Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Tupac Shakur.

25) Iron Maiden – Run To The Hills: Growing up in the eighties, it would be common to see the fashion of white boys with mullets, crap trainers, wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts. At a time when music was more tribal, fans of heavy metal were a distinct sub-culture in every school and college in the country, and the band most beloved of that tribe was arguably Iron Maiden. Part of the highly influential New Wave Of British Heavy Metal in the 70s, the band formed by bassist Steve Harris combined virtuoso musicianship with singer Bruce Dickinson’s (who joined in 1981 to give them their definitive sound and multi-platinum success) distinctive song writing and vocal style. Oh, and a mascot called Eddie the Head, who appears on their all their album sleeves.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.