75 Great Singles Of The 1980s

Even the most ’80s-phobic pop fan would surely have to concede that it was a great decade for singles.

The first 7″ I asked for was either Nick Lowe’s ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’, Elvis Costello’s ‘Less Than Zero’ or 10CC’s ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, all from the late ’70s, but the first single I distinctly remember buying was Scritti Politti’s ‘The Word Girl’.

But many others have stayed in the head and heart. Here are a bunch of them in no particular order (apart from the #1), but I’m barely scratching the surface.

The rules: one artist per slot, and a simple ‘quality’ criterion applies: when any of these songs comes on the radio or onto a playlist, they demand to be listened to. They stand alone, retaining a magic ‘buzz’, wow-factor, presence, mood, drama. Nothing grates, and nothing – or at least not much – could be improved upon…

75. Tom Tom Club: Wordy Rappinghood (1981)

74. Rolling Stones: ‘Undercover Of The Night’ (1983)

73. David Bowie: ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (1980)

72. Dire Straits: ‘Private Investigations’ (1982)

71. Afrika Bambaataa & The SoulSonic Force: ‘Planet Rock’ (1982)

70. Belinda Carlisle: ‘I Get Weak’ (1988)

Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ kept it off the US number one spot in early ’88. Almost-perfect pop/rock from the pen of Dianne Warren.

69. The Jam: ‘Town Called Malice’ (1982)

68. Michael Jackson: ‘Billie Jean’ (1982)

Always the loudest song on any playlist.

67. Robert Wyatt: ‘Shipbuilding’ (1982)

66. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1984)

65. Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (1980)

64. Carly Simon: ‘Why’ (1982)

63. Bros: ‘I Owe You Nothing’ (1988)

62. Dollar: ‘Videotheque’ (1982)

61. Yazoo: ‘Don’t Go’ (1982)

Difficult now to disassociate it from Alan Partridge’s early morning show, but still a brilliant slice of Basildon techno-funk.

60. Bronski Beat: ‘Smalltown Boy’ (1984)

Touching meditation on the travails of youth. Even an appallingly-played synth in the intro cannot wither it.

59. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ (1981)

The first showing for that ’80s staple, the Roland CR-78 rhythm box, on a single that legendary Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun adored…

58. Fine Young Cannibals: ‘Johnny Come Home’ (1985)

57. Robert Palmer: ‘Addicted To Love’ (1985)

No apologies for including this US number one. Imagine waking up with this buzzing around your head. Palmer apparently bumped into Chaka Khan on a New York street during the vocal sessions and asked her to harmonize the lead line – a great pairing (but was she removed from some versions? Doesn’t really sound like her… Ed.).

56. Alexander O’Neal ft. Cherelle: ‘Never Knew Love Like This’ (1987)

Producers/songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did a damn good job of creating a Marvin/Tammi or Marvin/Diana for the ’80s. Gorgeous harmonies and vocals.

55. Salt-N-Pepa: ‘Push It’ (1988)

The ‘Smoke On The Water’ of ’80s rap. But, according to the ladies, it’s not about sex – it’s about ‘pushing it’ on the dancefloor.

54. Talking Heads: ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (1981)

53. Don Henley: ‘Boys Of Summer’ (1984)

52. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)

51. Billy Joel: ‘Uptown Girl’ (1983)

Billy’s tribute to The Four Seasons works a treat, with a slammin’ rhythm section and melodic curveballs to make even Macca jealous.

50. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (1982)

The joyful sound of late summer 1982 and the first song by a black artist to be played on MTV.

49. Junior: ‘Mama Used To Say’ (1982)

48. Genesis: ‘Mama’ (1982)

The first ‘event’ single in their career. Epic/menacing.

47. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ (1982)

Quincy assembles his dream team (Ndugu, Swedien, Hey, Temperton, Phillinganes) to produce an underrated cracker.

46. The Police: ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ (1981)

Sting wrote the band’s fourth UK number one in 1976. Apparently Summers and Copeland hated Jean Roussel’s keyboard playing on this – but they were wrong.

45. Japan: ‘I Second That Emotion’ (1981)

Most original cover version of the ’80s?

44. Bananarama: ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ (1983)

Apparently about sexual abuse…

43. The Bangles: ‘Eternal Flame’ (1989)

42. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: ‘The Message’ (1982)

41. Blondie: ‘Atomic’ (1980)

Minor/major splendour. Debbie’s voice always sends a shiver down the spine and there’s that Roland CR-78 again.

40. The Specials: ‘Ghost Town’ (1981)

39. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Two Tribes’ (1984)

No expense was spared for the all-important follow-up to ‘Relax’ – according to arranger Anne Dudley, a 60-piece orchestra featured on the intro.

38. Ultravox: ‘Vienna’ (1981)

Kept off the UK top spot by Joe Dolce’s Music Theatre’s brilliant ‘Shaddap You Face’ (which nearly made this list…).

37. OMD: ‘Souvenir’ (1981)

More like a dream than a pop song.

36. Adam And The Ants: ‘Ant Rap’ (1981)

35. Bucks Fizz: ‘Land Of Make Believe’ (1982)

34. Madonna: ‘Crazy For You’ (1985)

Featuring Rob Mounsey’s sumptuous arrangement and a winning vocal from La Ciccone.

33. The Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’ (1982)

32. Thompson Twins: ‘Hold Me Now’ (1984)

31. Young MC: ‘Know How’ (1989)

By way of tribute to Cooking Vinyl founder Matt Dike who died recently.

30. S’Express: ‘Theme From S’Express’ (1988)

29. Nik Kershaw: Wouldn’t It Be Good (1984)

28. The Passions: ‘I’m In Love With A German Film Star’ (1981)

A quintessential ’80s one-hit wonder, still beguiling after all these years, with a classic guitar performance from Clive Temperley.

27. Wham!: ‘Freedom’ (1984)

26. ZZ Top: ‘Sharp Dressed Man’

25. George Michael: ‘Careless Whisper’

24. Art Of Noise: ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Allegedly built on an unused Alan White drum track recorded during Yes’s 90125 sessions.

23. Blancmange: ‘Living On The Ceiling’ (1982)

22. Paul Hardcastle: ’19’ (1985)

21. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)

20. Rick Astley: ‘Whenever You Need Somebody’ (1987)

Wacky song construction; try playing along on guitar. So many key changes. Arguably Stock/Aitken/Waterman’s best and vastly superior to ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.

19. Hall And Oates: ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ (1982)

18. Freeez: ‘Southern Freeez’ (1981)

17. Kim Carnes: ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (1981)

A classic lyric, and musically rich too.

16. MARRS: ‘Pump Up The Volume’ (1989)

15. Eric B & Rakim: ‘I Know You Got Soul’ (1988)

14. Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’ (1982)

13. Christopher Cross: ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’ (1981)

Hard to resist the gorgeous Bacharach-penned melody and superb drum performance from Jeff Porcaro.

12. Will Powers: ‘Kissing With Confidence’ (1983)

11. The Jones Girls: ‘Nights Over Egypt’ (1981)

10. Roxy Music: ‘Same Old Scene’ (1980)

9. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)

8. Joe Jackson: ‘Stepping Out’ (1982)

7. Neneh Cherry: ‘Buffalo Stance’ (1989)

You may mock but slap on this Tim Simenon-produced corker and watch the dancefloor fill up…

6. Prince: ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ (1987)

5. Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’ (1989)

Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn cooked up this epic UK No.1, adapted from the traditional Irish song ‘She Moved Through The Fair’. Here’s an interesting live version I’d never seen before.

4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’

3. Madness: ‘Baggy Trousers’

It is London school life in 1980 – simple as.

2. Scritti Politti: ‘Absolute’

And the single which I would save if my flat was on fire:

1. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

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Thompson Twins: Quick Step & Side Kick 35 Years On

‘We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!’ It was Wayne and Garth’s catchphrase but it could just as easily have been uttered by Thompson Twins’ frontman Tom Bailey in response to the band’s worldwide fame during 1983 and 1984.

He told Channel Four in 2001 (see below) that, at the peak of their success, he always felt on the verge of being ‘found out’ – an intruder at ’80s Pop’s High Table. And then there was the ignominy of being christened The Thompson Twats by those naughty boys Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

They were being a tad harsh; The Thompson Twats made some great pop in the early ’80s. But Quick Step – released 35 years ago this week – is fiendishly difficult to ‘place’, representing a kind of musical Year Zero. The only real antecedents seem to be Bowie, Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby (who I can’t believe is not a guest keyboard player on the album – if he is, he’s not credited).

After the Twins’ first two records – when they were a kind of Grebo/agitprop/post-punk outfit – Bailey sacked half the band (including bass ace Matthew Seligman) and formed a lean, mean three-piece (Bailey took care of the music, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway the image and stage show, though all got songwriting credits). The final masterstroke was recruiting star Grace Jones/Talking Heads/Robert Palmer producer Alex Sadkin.

The formula worked a treat on Quick Step, recorded at Compass Point Studios on the Bahamas and one of the first albums I loved all the way through. Sadkin plays a blinder, adding loads of percussion, perambulating synths and those much-imitated, elastic bass sounds. There are so many classic early ’80s pop tunes that it’s almost indecent. Just hearing the intros to ‘Lies’ and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ makes me want to jump up and down like my 12-year-old self. ‘Watching’ – featuring Grace Jones’ hysterical vocals – and ‘We Are Detective’ are also good clean pop fun. The latter even throws in some Piazzolla-style fake accordion for good measure. The only dud I can make out is the closing ‘All Fall Down’.

Quick Step & Side Kick was a big hit in the UK, hitting #2. Those anti-capitalist ideals were quickly waylaid. US sales were helped no end when the ever-prescient John Hughes chose ‘If You Were Here’ for a key moment in his 1984 movie ‘Sixteen Candles’, but the Twins didn’t really hit the jackpot in the States until the follow-up album Into The Gap. They even played at Live Aid – in Philadelphia, not London.

N.B. Michael White wrote a really nice, little-known memoir about life in the Twins called ‘Thompson Twin’. He played live keyboards with the band during their pop peak. Spoiler alert: it was not a bed of roses…

 

Grace Jones: Inside Story

Grace

EMI/Manhattan Records, released November 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1990?

7/10

Flicking through Grace’s well-received memoir recently, I noticed that she rates Inside Story as her favourite album – pretty surprising considering the likes of Nightclubbing and Living My Life nestling in her discography.

But close reading of the small print reveals why it’s her most personal project – she co-wrote every track (with ex-Camera Club/’Slave To The Rhythm’ co-writer Bruce Woolley) and also co-produced the album with Nile Rodgers. And while hardly a classic, Inside Story‘s a much more wholehearted and successful record than the previous year’s Slave To The Rhythm.

It seems pretty inevitable that Nile would end up collaborating with Grace. They were long-time acquaintances on the NY party scene since the Studio 54 days. On paper, he would seem the perfect fit for her, though she barely gets a mention in his excellent memoir ‘Le Freak’ (though he has promised a sequel which will presumably feature her a lot more).

Inside Story‘s lead-off single ‘I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You)’ surprisingly didn’t make much impact on the US or UK charts but was a minor hit all over Europe. Its Keith Haring-directed video is particularly striking though, featuring cameos from Andy Warhol and a load of other NY art figures, and there was also an interesting 12″ mix by early house pioneer Larry Levan.

The album is great when it sticks to short, sharp, frivolous pop tunes but comes a bit unstuck when going for something more ambitious. ‘White Collar Crime’ is very much the son of ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, sneaking in a few of that song’s chords and an almost identical two-note verse, but it’s let down by asthmatic synths, a puny drum machine and Nile’s sketchy bass playing, though Lenny Pickett’s punchy horn arrangement is a winner.

The title track is weirdly reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s ’80s output while ‘Victor Should Have Been A Jazz Musician’ is possibly the standout, namechecking Nina Simone and featuring some lovely Wes Montgomery-style guitar from Rodgers.

Inside Story‘s rhythm section sounds in general are slightly disappointing – Rodgers’ guitar is too low in the mix and a Linn machine takes care of all the drum parts. This suits the mechanized grooves of ‘Barefoot In Beverly Hills’ (almost an example of early house music), ‘Party Girl’ and ‘Scary But Fun’, but the jazzier tracks are crying out for a real drummer. I wonder why Nile didn’t enlist the services of Mr Steve Ferrone, seeing as they’d recently worked together to superb effect on Al Jarreau’s L Is For Lover and Duran Duran’s Notorious.

Inside Story was not a hit, reaching only #61 in the UK album chart and #81 in the US. It’s unlikely to ever get the big-budget, bells-and-whistles re-release/remaster treatment, but sounds pretty good these days.

9 More Great Album Covers Of The 1980s

Check out the first instalment here in case you missed it.

9. XTC: Oranges & Lemons (1989)

Artwork and Design by Andy Partridge, Dave Dragon and Ken Ansell

orangeslemons

8. David Sylvian/Holger Czukay: Plight And Premonition (1988)

Photography and Design by Yuka Fujii

david_sylvian_holger_czukay_plight_premonition

7. Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989)

Artwork by Roger Dean

anderson-bruford-wakeman-howe-52a0c65177b8a

6. Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (1981)

Photography and Design by Jean-Paul Goude

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5. Debbie Harry: KooKoo (1981)

Photography by Brian Aris, Design by HR Giger

debbie

4. Steve Khan: Eyewitness (1981)

Artwork by Jean-Michel Folon

khan

3. King Crimson: Three Of A Perfect Pair (1984)

Artwork by Peter Willis

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2. Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (1982)

Photography by James Hamilton

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1. Tackhead: Friendly As A Hand Grenade (1989)

Artwork by Gee Vaucher.

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So what is the tenth (or 20th) greatest cover of the ’80s? Suggestions below, please…

Alex Sadkin: Sonic Architect Of The ’80s

Grace_Jones_-_NightclubbingOne of the nice things about putting together this website is finding out about some important – though often completely unsung – characters who pop up in the credits of many a classic album. Alex Sadkin is just such a figure.

You could probably write a history of 1980s music purely from the perspective of producers. Perhaps it was the decade of the pop producer. There was certainly a lot of turd-polishing going on, but on the flip side it was a chance for someone to establish their own sound, hopefully in collaboration with a great artist or band.

In the early ’80s, everyone was pretty much using the same fairly limited (but very expressive in the right hands) equipment, so it was a question of being as original as possible.

Though he died at the age of just 38 in July 1987, not many producer/mixer/engineers of the early ’80s had a more distinctive sound than Alex Sadkin. He worked with James Brown, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie, Robert Palmer, Talking Heads, XTC, Thompson Twins, Foreigner, Simply Red and Duran Duran during his short life. His productions are full of colour and detail, usually featuring multiple percussion parts, kicking bass and drums and a very characteristic, super-crisp snare sound.

Alex’s first gig in the music biz was as a sax player in Las Olas Brass, a popular Florida R’n’B outfit, alongside future bass superstar Jaco Pastorius. Jaco and Alex had gone to high school together, and Alex later became the house engineer at Criteria Studios in Miami where Jaco recorded the demos for his legendary 1976 debut album.

Sadkin then engineered James Brown’s ‘Get Up Offa That Thing‘ single and also worked on Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration album, which brought him to the attention of legendary Island Records owner Chris Blackwell. Sadkin quickly secured a new gig as in-house engineer at Island’s Compass Point Studios in Nassau on the Bahamas.

This was where it really all began for Sadkin – an amazing melting pot of talent passed through the Compass Point doors including Talking Heads, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Tom Tom Club, B-52’s, Robert Palmer and Will Powers AKA Lynn Goldsmith. But his first bona fide producer credits were alongside Blackwell on Grace Jones’ stunning trio of early ’80s albums (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing, Living My Life).

Sadkin was now a name producer with a trademark sound and considerable rep, and as such started to attract significant attention, sometimes of the negative variety – legendary NME scribe Paul Morley even took agin him for some reason in a review for Thompson Twins’ ‘Hold Me Now’ single. It probably meant Sadkin was doing something right…

Later in the decade, though his work arguably became more anonymous (but then so did a lot of post-1986 pop), Alex’s career went from strength to strength, producing some big albums such as Robbie Nevil’s debut, Simply Red’s big-selling Men And Women and Arcadia’s (admittedly fairly dire) So Red The Rose.

Sadly, Alex Sadkin died in a motorbike accident in Nassau on 25th July 1987 just before he was due to begin working with Ziggy Marley. He had also just recorded some demos with Jonathan Perkins, later to front criminally-underrated early ’90s act Miss World. Robbie Nevil’s song ‘Too Soon‘ and Grace Jones’ ‘Well Well Well’ are dedicated to Sadkin’s memory, as is Joe Cocker’s album Unchain My Heart. Gone too soon, indeed.

9 Embarrassing (But Great) Moments From ’80s Music TV

grace There’s no escape these days. Maybe your band were given a rollocking live on children’s TV or you turned up for a late-night interview slightly the worse for wear and made a bit of an arse of yourself thinking no one would be watching anyway.

Alas. It’s all retained for posterity on YouTube, and some smart aleck was poised with his finger on the VCR record button, primed for just such an indiscretion.

Some of these clips (parental discretion advised) I remember watching live, others have shown up occasionally on ‘TV Hell’-type compilation shows over the years, but they all make for great – if sometimes uncomfortable – viewing.

9. Five Star on ‘Going Live’, 1989

No, the Essex Jacksons were never the critics’ favourites, but this rhetorical question from a young caller may well have had more of a detrimental effect on their career than any NME scribe ever could.

8. Jools Holland interviews Andy Summers, 1981

Jools turned up in Monserrat while The Police were recording the Ghost In The Machine album, and he managed to ridicule their erstwhile guitarist’s demonstration of funk guitar (at 5:30). You must admit, Julian had a point…

7. Matt Bianco on ‘Saturday Superstore’, 1984

Yep, another nightmare phone-in situation, a subgenre full of guilty pleasures (from 1:00 below).

6. All About Eve on ‘Top Of The Pops’, 1988

The infamous appearance during which singer Julianne Regan and guitarist Tim Bricheno were blissfully unaware of the song’s playback in the studio. Cue lots of schoolyard sniggering, but the Eve had the last laugh – their single rose UP the charts the following week.

5. BA Robertson interviews Annabella Lwin, 1982

The singer/presenter comes seriously unstuck when broaching the gender issue with Bow Wow Wow’s superbly-spikey frontwoman (I say ‘woman’ – she was only 16 at the time…).

4. Grace Jones attacks Russell Harty, 1980

An intractable Grace is seriously miffed by Russell’s back-turning.

3. Shakin’ Stevens attacks Richard Madeley, 1980

Humour is clearly the animus here, but the sight of a lagered-up Shakey throttling the grannies’ favourite is still quite something.

2. Dexys Midnight Runners on ‘Top Of The Pops’, 1982

Did someone at the BBC really think the song was an ode to Scottish darts player John ‘Jocky’ Wilson rather than soul legend Jackie? Or was it a pisstake? (It was a pisstake and apparently Kevin Rowland’s idea… Ed.) I love the juxtaposition of Kevin’s intensity and Jocky’s grinning mush.

1. Wayne Hussey on ‘The James Whale Show’, 1989

The Mission mainman seems to have wandered into the studio after a long night on the razzle, but he met his match with the confrontational Mr Whale.