Your baby-boomer parents might claim that the Swinging ’60s were pretty much a non-stop laugh riot but the early ’80s trump them for sheer musical ebullience. There was a tangible feeling of positivity in the air despite Thatch, inner-city rioting, The Troubles, African famine and the Falklands War. Music was forward-looking and celebrated life, love and happiness (despite state-of-the-world addresses like ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘The Message’), and no one even thought of buying older stuff because there was something new and exciting coming along every week. Live Aid proved a kind of Year Zero for ’80s pop but up until then artists like Culture Club, Dexy’s, Wham!, ABC, The Associates, Frankie, Adam Ant, Madonna, Thompson Twins, Bananarama, Jacko, Altered Images and Fun Boy Three brought unlimited colour and energy to the party.
11. The return of quality British songwriting
How about Squeeze, Morrissey/Marr, Roddy Frame, David Sylvian, Kirsty MacColl, Mark Hollis, Pet Shop Boys, The Associates, Edwyn Collins, Julian Cope, Sting, XTC, Mark E Smith, Thomas Dolby, the Cocteaus, Green Gartside, Boy George, Eurythmics, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Nick Heyward, Lloyd Cole, Madness, Paddy McAloon, Paul Weller, Robert Smith, UB40, Siouxsie and Kate Bush for starters? Yes, their formative years were the late ’70s but they did their best work in the ’80s, with the possible exceptions of Weller and Costello. The result was a glorious display of chart-bothering, musically-ambitious British songwriting talent not seen since the late-’60s.
10. Band Aid/USA For Africa/Live Aid/Sir Bob
Maybe it wasn’t the most musically edifying series of projects in the world, but who cares? At last count, Live Aid has raised well over £150 million. Anyway, there were some brilliant pop moments – Boy George’s vocals, Phil C’s electrifying drum performance and Bowie’s spoken word interlude on ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, Queen, Bowie, Jagger, Tina Turner and Madonna at Live Aid and all the soloists on USA For Africa (except Tina Turner, Huey Lewis and Kenny Loggins…). Live Aid may have killed off New Pop (represented by Adam Ant, Spandau and Duran etc.) and ushered in the AOR-era of Q Magazine and Dire Straits, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.
9. Goodbye Dad Rock – Hello pan-sexual/pan-musical New Pop!
A quick glance at the charts during the ‘1981-’83 peak of Post-Punk/New Pop/Second British Invasion might tempt one to say that Lad/Glam/Punk Rock had all but been wiped out. Artists like Human League, Kid Creole, Wham, The Associates, Orange Juice, Talking Heads, Altered Images, Wham, Culture Club, UB40, Pigbag, Everything But The Girl, Eddy Grant, The Clash, Madness, The Belle Stars and Level 42 took elements of synth pop, free jazz, ska, Burundi Beat, Go-Go, electro, calypso, hip-hop, funk, reggae and Afrobeat to the top of the charts, leading some commentators to proclaim the death of rock. By the mid-’80s, Big Country, Simple Minds, U2, The Mission and Springsteen had brought back the Big Bam Boom, but it was fun while it lasted.
8. Sisters Doin’ It For Themselves
Chrissie Hynde, Bananarama, Siouxsie, Donna Summer, Belinda Carlisle, Carly Simon, The Pointer Sisters, Alison Moyet, Grace Jones, Sade, Bjork, The Bangles, Sheila E, Annie Lennox, Janet Jackson, Joan Jett, Salt-N-Pepa, Laurie Anderson, Whitney Houston, kd lang, Tina Turner, Bonnie Tyler, Gloria Estefan (!), Jane Siberry, Regina Belle, Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, Teena Marie, Jill Jones, Lisa Stansfield, Cyndi Lauper, Wendy and Lisa, Tracey Thorn, Helen Terry, Chaka Khan, Kirsty MacColl, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Julia Fordham, Tanita Tikaram, Madonna… You don’t have to be Camille Paglia to note that this was a great decade for strong, successful female musicians.
4AD, Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet, Relativity, Factory, On-U, Demon, Creation, Some Bizzare, Big Beat, Mute and Postcard were vital for the music industry and all hit their peaks in the ’80s. Up to around 1985, the Independent Chart actually meant something and was a badge of honour for the kinds of Peel-patronised artists who were going up against the corporate biggies, long before today’s web renegades. By the mid-’80s, ‘indie’ had became a musical style rather than a raison d’etre and labels like ZTT and Blanco y Negro were tributaries of major labels, but at least the lunatics had taken over the asylum for a while.
6. The peak of Music Journalism
This great musical decade certainly got the journalism it deserved. Again, the roots were laid down in the NME/Sounds/Melody Maker punk years but writers such as Ian Penman, Mark Ellen, Paul Du Noyer, Ben Watson, Tom Hibbert, David Toop, David Hepworth, Mick Wall, Richard Cook and John Fordham flourished big-time and graced the great bastions of ’80s writing such as Smash Hits, Kerrang!, The Wire and Q. Sprinkle in some of the most outspoken, politicised and downright lairy musicians of all time and you have the ingredients for a brilliant decade of music journalism.
5. Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna?
They were almost exactly the same age but can all three really have hit their straps in the same decade? Ambassador, you are spoiling us…
4. Music TV flourishes
The Tube, Top of the Pops, Going Live, No. 73, The Late Shift, The Oxford Road Show, Sounds of Surprise, More Bad News, Whistle Test, The Chart Show, Wired – howzat for a partial list of ’80s music shows? There was a commitment to all music genres across all the terrestrial channels. Forget Jools’s Later luvvie fest or the simpering One Show – in the ’80s you could watch The Smiths on Saturday morning kids TV, Blancmange at teatime and Ornette Coleman late at night. The burgeoning Channel Four has to take a lot of credit (and had a lot to prove) – The Tube was a brilliant statement of intent and later in the decade Sounds of Surprise and The Late Shift showcased superb jazz and blues documentaries. Imagine turning on the TV at 6.30 in the evening and seeing this…
3. ’80s Pop Tribes
Again, the watchword is variety; music and fashion pretty much went hand-in-hand in the ’80s to the detriment of neither. New Romantics, Goths, Soulboys, Ravers, Casuals, Psychobillies, Brosettes, Durannies, metal kids – they all had an instantly-recognisable uniform and ethos. The DIY punk spirit had came to the fore again, but this time with added musical spice. And this time there was so much to go around that no-one could be accused of being a fashion victim.
2. Music Video comes of age
The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night and The Monkees laid the foundations but the music video was raised to an art-form in the ’80s. The great clips of the decade – ‘Sledgehammer‘, ‘Thriller‘, ‘Walk This Way’, ‘House of Fun‘, ‘Stand and Deliver‘, ‘Smalltown Boy‘, ‘Land of Confusion‘, ‘Take On Me‘, ‘New Frontier’, ‘Once In a Lifetime‘ – sometimes used the latest technical innovations, sometimes delighted in their DIY, no-frills approach and sometimes ‘borrowed’ from conceptual art/movies, but all became virtually inseparable from the songs.
1. Black Music goes mainstream
Motown and the ‘early 70s pioneers laid the foundations but Run DMC, Sade, Cameo, SOS Band, Robert Cray, John Lee Hooker, Prince, Tone Loc, Salt-N-Pepa, Bobby Brown, Miles Davis, Rick James, Anita Baker, Courtney Pine, Miles Davis, The Pointer Sisters, Whitney Houston, Albert Collins, Shalamar, De La Soul, Janet and Michael, Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, Prince, Maze, Buddy Guy, Grandmaster Flash, Chaka Khan, Imagination, Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and Fatback all smashed it in the ’80s. Blues, soul, funk, jazz, electro, go-go, house and hip-hop were setting the agenda. It’s quite astonishing now to think that a song like Houston’s ‘Saving All My Love For You’, an R’n’B ballad with jazzy chord changes, could power to number one in 1985.
9 thoughts on “12 Reasons Why The ’80s Were The Greatest Ever Music Decade”
You make a great case. But I suspect you’d argue persuasively for any decade.
Me? Sixties. It all started in the sixties.
But I’m that boomer you referred to.
The singer from the Associates was clearly taking his style cues from that Resistance lady from Allo Allo.
Very good points but the one you missed out was that the 80s was also the golden age of heavy metal with bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Twisted Sister, Dio, Motley Crue, Ratt, etc. One great independent label that ruled in the mid 80s was Combat Records.
Cheers and you’re dead right, that is a real oversight on my part. To that end, I’m gonna add another clause to this page soon! I should have known better – I’ve just read Mick Wall’s book of metal interviews and at least 90% of the biggies are from the ’80s.
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I shall look forward to reading it. On a shameless self publicising note. Five years ago, I wrote a book about metal in the 80s called “Rock And Roll Children.” It might be worth checking out.
Damned straight. While the 70s and 60s would probably come in second and third for any musical contest, no generation beats the 80s for Pure raw music Talent and Exposition. You might have focused a bit more on the punk rock explosion that really got its team in the early to mid 80s, and the musical offerings from Gen-X and Transvision Vamp, for example, followed by solo Acts from Billy Idol and Joan Jett after they came into their own, but the 80s had so much to offer, one article could never possibly cover it all. It was truly a cornucopia of musical goodness. I was unbelievably lucky to live through such an era, especially when you compare it to such lackluster, talentless, over-vocalized, and recycled music offerings from the 90s forward (with few exceptions) and for such stodgy offerings overall prior to the sixties.
Thanks Michael. I agree with all of that…except the bit about Transvision Vamp! But seriously, I could definitely have added a bit more on post-punk, AOR and metal.
I left school in 1984. The only radio stations that we listen to in our home are 80s station. The kids are now grown up at 18 and 22 and they too listen to a lot of 80s music. None of the music these days seems to chime with them like the music that we listened to as kids.
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Hi Simon, I agree, it definitely seems like teenagers now are getting interested in ’80s music.