Here’s a quandary. If you had to choose one 1980s song to get people on the dancefloor – maybe you’re the last-minute guest DJ at a wedding disco – what would you go for?
The track probably needs a few things going for it:
1. A great intro – a ‘call to arms’.
2. Cross-generational appeal, one for the kiddies and grandparents alike.
3. It has to be a total hit – no cult favourites.
4. Loudness and ‘impact’.
5. It’s probably ‘pop’ and pretty genre-less – no heavy metal or R’n’B.
6. A soundtrack hit might be good – something from a John Hughes joint or ‘Dirty Dancing’?
7. A flavour of the ‘novelty’ hit/one-hit wonder might help.
In his (great) book ‘Nothing Is Real’, David Hepworth comes up with five ultimate floorfiller contenders including two from the 1980s: Brucie’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and Madonna’s ‘Open Your Heart’. Both choices strike this correspondent as a little odd. Rather I’d posit the following (feel free to chime in with any omissions):
Michael Jackson: ‘Billie Jean’
Dexys Midnight Runners: ‘Come On Eileen’
Simple Minds: ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’
Toni Basil: ‘Mickey’
Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’
Roxy Music: ‘Same Old Scene’
Cyndi Lauper: ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’
Bill Medley/Jennifer Warnes: ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’
De La Soul: ‘Say No Go’
Young MC: ‘Know How’
Wham!: ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’
Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’
ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’
Madonna: ‘Into The Groove’
But the one 1980s track I’d choose to get people onto the dancefloor is…
David Bowie: ‘Let’s Dance’
I’ve rounded up most of these and some others into a playlist. Happy groovin’.
Go into a record shop and likely you’ll be stunned at the price of secondhand vinyl, not to mention new catalogue LPs that can cost up to 25 quid for a posh reissue.
All of which might amuse/surprise music fans of my vintage who kept hold of their record players through the years and spent the noughties digging around the vinyl discount stores, often picking up ‘esteemed’ albums for anything between 10p and a quid (the price of a postage stamp, for readers outside the UK).
So what were those 1980s vinyls that were/are ALWAYS in secondhand shops and, by extension, still ever-present in charity shops? And why were they always there?
Most smack of the impulse buy by people who get one album a year, or the ‘difficult’ follow-ups to a smash. Some are tainted by an almost ineffable naffness. Most were deemed surplus on vinyl once CD became the format of choice, and most are weirdly genre-less.
Stacked high/sold cheap, you’d think they’d be reissue-proof, never to be seen again. But not so fast: ‘deluxe’ editions of these are probably on their way to a shop/streaming service near you, or have already arrived…
The Beautiful South: Welcome To The Beautiful South
U2: Rattle And Hum
Del Amitri: Waking Hours
Hothouse Flowers: People
Michael McDonald: Sweet Freedom (The Best Of Michael McDonald)
T’Pau: Bridge Of Spies
Foreigner: Agent Provocateur
Michael Bolton: Soul Provider
Meat Loaf: Dead Ringer
John Cougar Mellencamp: The Lonesome Jubilee
Five Star: Silk And Steel
Arcadia: So Red The Rose
Sade: Diamond Life
Chris Rea: The Road To Hell
Phil Collins: No Jacket Required
Bryan Ferry: Boys And Girls
Genesis: Invisible Touch
George Michael: Faith
Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman
Fleetwood Mac: Tango In The Night
Wet Wet Wet: Popped In, Souled Out
Fairground Attraction: The First Of A Million Kisses
One of the legacies of the wretched last few years is that everyone and their little brother has started a podcast.
Of course there’s a lot of flim-flam but the good news for fans of 1980s music and movies is that many of the decade’s big names are getting involved. They are in bullish, talkative mood, still full of ideas and enthusiasm.
Elsewhere podcasters of all stripes are revisiting key (and not-so-key) works of the 1980s and beyond, offering fresh perspectives. Here’s a selection of podcasts that have held movingtheriver’s attention over the last few years.
Electronically Yours is helmed by Human League/Heaven 17 co-founder and producer/synth pioneer Martyn Ware. He opens his formidable address book to speak to some big names as well as influential but less well-known figures who helped shape 1980s music. Ware seems an amiable fellow and he extracts some intriguing revelations from his guests, sometimes even getting closure on issues that affected his career 40 years ago (see the Bob Last and Simon Draper interviews).
Though he occasionally sounds a bit like Gareth Keenan of ‘The Office’ during one of his Health & Safety seminars, Edward Russell’s podcast Inside the Groove takes an indepth, entertaining look at Madonna’s music and career. There are intriguing bits of studio gossip and great chances to hear exposed multi-tracks of the hits – ‘Borderline’ and ‘Open Your Heart’ are doozies.
Smersh Pod is a look at the Bond films and their connections, expanding out to discuss notoriously cruddy cult movies such as ‘Bullseye’ and ‘Death Wish II’. John Brain presents with vigour and chats with a lot of amusing guests mainly from the comedy world.
Breakfast With Vinnie is the unique podcast of drum hero Vinnie Colaiuta. He generally eschews celeb interviews (though John McLaughlin makes a lovely appearance) in favour of philosophical musings about music, society and culture.
Rockonteurs, co-helmed by Spandau man Gary Kemp and Floyd/Bryan Ferry bassist Guy Pratt, is a series of informal chats with friends and colleagues. Their repartee is sometimes a little grating but interviews with Level 42’s Mark King, Boy George, Trevor Horn and key Madonna/Ferry collaborator Patrick Leonard are particularly memorable.
Word in Your Ear is the brainchild of ‘Whistle Test’ presenters and founders of Q/The Word magazines Mark Ellen and David Hepworth. It won’t surprise anyone that it’s witty, entertaining, opinionated and always worth a listen.
Bass Culture UK is a valuable portrait of the movers and shakers of British reggae and soundsystem culture, featuring excellent interviews with key figures like Don Letts and Dennis Bovell.
But – drum roll – the movingtheriver.com Podcast of the Year is… 80sography. It’s mostly a series of extended interviews with key producers of the decade and a must for anyone who wants to know what went on in studios during the 1980s. It also serves as a good ‘making of’ many classic albums. The Stephen Hague, Langer/Winstanley, Hugh Padgham and Stephen Lipson interviews are all entertaining and comprehensive.
Any other cool related podcasts? Leave a comment below.
By summer 1984, Frank Zappa was already decrying MTV clichés in his ‘Be In My Video’ single (‘Pretend to be Chinese/I’ll make you wear red shoes’!).
But, away from the familiar tropes, there were trailblazing videos that set MTV on its way during the formative years. Either technically or thematically, these clips laid the groundwork right up until the end of the 1980s.
Of course they are kind of familiar, but watching them all the way through brought some interesting surprises, and even an unexpected lump in the throat area during the denouement of ‘Take On Me’…
9. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (Dir. Don Letts, released September 1982)
The first ever video shown on MTV by a Black artist. This was a huge bone of contention in MTV’s early days, not helped by their regular, disingenuous rebuttal: ‘We only play rock’n’roll’. Don Letts’ joyful film put a spanner in the works, placing the lads in front of the Houses Of Parliament, the supposed ‘postcard’ vision of London, a tribute to the influence of Black culture in the UK and a stark message to the powers that be. Letts also created a huge hit in the process, reaching #1 in the UK and #10 in the USA.
8. The Police: ‘Every Breath You Take’ (Dirs. Kevin Godley & Lol Creme, released 20 May 1983)
Strongly influenced by Gjon Mili’s 1944 short ‘Jammin’ The Blues’, this was the video that catapulted Synchronicity‘s album sales into the stratosphere and gave the band a UK and US #1. Apparently directors Godley and Creme were pretty blitzed throughout most of the filming – according to the latter, ‘The first thing we’d do when we arrived on set was roll a reefer.’ Sting was reportedly no shrinking violet either, pointing to himself and telling the directors, ‘Keep the camera on the money’!
7. ZZ Top: ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’ (Dir. Tim Newman, released August 1983)
Randy Newman’s cousin Tim helmed all of ZZ’s key videos (and Randy’s excellent ‘I Love LA’) and he masterminded this much-imitated, endlessly-rewatchable classic, giving the band a new lease of life and a lasting image as kind of ‘mythical rockers’ (apparently influenced by his reading of Joseph Campbell). But it was ZZ manager Bill Ham who laid down the law to Newman, offering two directives: ‘Use the car (Billy Gibbons’ 1933 Ford coupe) and put some girls in it.’
6. Cyndi Lauper: ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ (Dir.Edd Griles, released 6 September 1983)
Cyndi’s thing was inclusivity, and she delighted in showing a woman of every race in the video. It has echoes of John Waters’ aesthetic and the early Devo and B-52s videos, but this had a whole different vibe, apparently inspired by Lauper’s love of Jacques Tati’s 1958 film ‘Mon Oncle’.
5. Michael Jackson: ‘Thriller’ (Dir. John Landis, premiered December 1983)
‘Billie Jean’ opened the door for so many Black artists but this was pure box office and a delicious comedy/horror. Famously Michael headhunted director John Landis after watching ‘An American Werewolf In London’, giving him just one brief: ‘Can I turn into a monster?’ Landis was not interested in music videos but did like the idea of making a theatrical short. The video changed the game completely, and it’s arguable whether the dance routines have ever been bettered. It premiered on MTV on 2 December 1983 and reportedly doubled Thriller’s album sales within a few weeks of its first showing. It’s still absolutely thrilling.
4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’ (Dir. Pete Angelus, released December 1983)
Of course Metal acts were starting to make waves before this, with impactful videos by Twister Sister and Def Leppard, but ‘Jump’ laid down all the future ‘live on stage’ clichés, with balls on. Hair Metal became huge after this, and MTV adored the likes of Warrant, Winger and Bon Jovi, but none could ever match this song or Diamond Dave’s natural showmanship.
3. Madonna: ‘Borderline’ (Dir. Mary Lambert, released February 1984)
Lambert had only directed one video (Tom Tom Club’s ‘As Above So Below’) before getting her dream job on this breakout Madonna single. Madonna and Lambert discussed the video’s plot for two days in the former’s minimalist bolthole on the Upper East Side with Madonna insisting there be a Hispanic influence, necessitating moving the shoot to downtown Los Angeles. This is reportedly the first video to use black-and-white footage combined with colour; Madonna’s manager Freddy DeMann supposedly went ballistic on viewing the final cut but of course it became a video cliché, gave Lambert a successful career and Madonna her breakthrough song.
2. Lionel Richie: ‘Hello’ (Dir. Bob Giraldi, released February 1984)
Apparently director/scenarist Bob Giraldi was driven half mad by Lionel’s terminal lateness onto the set. For his part, Lionel was very sceptical about the bust. Apparently he finally plucked up the courage to approach Giraldi about it: ‘Bob, that bust does not look like me.’ There was a pregnant pause. Finally, Bob said, ‘Lionel…she’s blind.’
1. A-ha: ‘Take On Me’ (Dir. Steve Barron, released September 1985)
The song had completely flopped on its original release, so WEA gave Steve Barron a blank cheque to make a memorable video and get a hit. Working alongside rotoscope animator Michael Patterson, who did 1,800 drawings for the shoot, Barron was heavily influenced by Ken Russell’s 1981 movie ‘Altered States’. Barron knew it would work when the memorable image of an animated hand reaching out of a comic book popped into his head whilst he was bored shooting a Toto video. Apparently singer Morten Harket and lead actress Bunty Bailey fell in love during filming, becoming almost inseparable. ‘By take four, they would carry on holding hands even when we’d cut,’ remembered Barron. Aided by the video, ‘Take On Me’ became the band’s only US #1.
Further reading: ‘I Want My MTV’ by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks
Like most good ideas, it was a deceptively simple one: music radio, but on TV.
When the Warner Bros./American Express-bankrolled MTV (Music Television) launched 40 years ago this month, kicking off with The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, the music business was in a post-Saturday Night Fever slump.
But global record sales doubled between 1981 and 1990. Like it or hate it, MTV had a huge role to play. Its story also has fascinating echoes of the music business in the 2020s. But how did it revolutionise the industry so quickly?
In the early ’80s, video-making was a veritable Wild West, an almost-anything-goes environment. There were undoubtedly some shenanigans which wouldn’t win any #woke awards these days but, interestingly, it was predominantly women who ran video shoots, as producers and production designers.
Though their offices were based in New York, MTV was only initially available in the Midwest and suburban areas, as these were the places that had cable laid (leading to a veritable industrial revolution after the iconic ‘I Want My MTV!’ promo spots). Sonically, it was also important that MTV insisted on stereo audio from day one.
The localisation of MTV led to a big grassroots following for bands, particularly British ones, almost overnight. It also led to record companies getting very granular with sales; they paid closer attention, watching with interest if a band took off in one area. Labels started to take MTV very seriously indeed.
Then there was the Second British Invasion: a whole legion of young British acts (ABC, Flock Of Seagulls, Eurythmics, Culture Club, Cure, Billy Idol, Bananarama etc.) emerged in the early 1980s who took to videos like a duck to water.
They wowed Middle America, helped enormously by gifted Brit directors such as David Mallet (whose groundbreaking work on ‘The Kenny Everett Video Show’ from 1978 to 1980 ushered in many music-video tropes), Julien Temple, Steve Barron, Godley & Creme, Nigel Dick, Don Letts and Tim Pope.
But, in a curious echo of the current streaming craze, it seems the major labels were not prepared for the video revolution. They didn’t understand it and were suspicious of giving their content away for free.
So they did what they usually do: shafted the artists. Video budgets became recoupable fees that came straight out of the artists’ profits. Artists were to all intents and purposes paying for their own videos.
The rise of MTV also meant that now the emphasis was on killer tracks rather than albums. It was a big problem for some acts, and the 1980s became synonomous with one-hit wonders.
Rolling Stone and the trade magazines regularly trashed MTV in its first few years, and David Bowie questioned the lack of Black artists amidst frequent charges of racism.
But, by 1984, everything had changed. In the bumper year for Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Lionel Richie, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and Madonna, it was clear that MTV was the tail wagging the dog. The naïve, experimental era was over.
Post-‘Thriller’, more and more money was being thrown at videos and every director wanted to put their stamp on the material.
Also, by 1984, thanks to advertising revenue, MTV’s margins were huge. They were dictating to record companies, not the other way round. MTV didn’t have to pay royalties to artists or labels for showing videos. There was no ‘playlist’ per se, so they could pick and choose what they played.
It couldn’t last. The big major labels demanded a royalty to play their videos in 1984, threatening withdrawal of their products, and they eventually got it.
The first few hours of MTV’s launch day is a fascinating watch, showing how rooted in the 1970s it was when it started out, featuring REO Speedwagon, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, Gerry Rafferty, Todd Rundgren, The Buggles, Lynyrd Skynyrd (and TWO videos each of Pat Benatar, Split Enz and Rod Stewart!) and showing the dearth of decent contemporary videos.
The gauntlet had been laid down and it didn’t take long for some very creative people to pick it up.
Next time: the videos that made MTV during its first five years on the air.
Further reading: ‘The Speed Of Sound’ by Thomas Dolby
What a sad, strange bit of news to hear that Nick Kamen has died at the age of just 59.
It suddenly makes one feel very old. The singer, songwriter and model was such a quintessential 1980s figure, famously first appearing on the cover of The Face magazine in early 1984.
I remember seeing Nick and a few pals walking down London’s iconic King’s Road circa 1987. He looked great, wearing chinos, black polo neck and dark blue blazer. He literally stopped the traffic! It was a perfect late-80s moment.
His much-parodied 1985 Levi’s 501 ad might not have done much for jeans sales but it had the opposite effect on boxer shorts and also gave Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ a new lease of life.
He gave a great, outrageously flirtatious interview to Paula Yates on ‘The Tube’ on the eve of his first single ‘Each Time You Break My Heart’, written and co-produced (with Stephen Bray) by Madonna. It was a hit.
Nick’s brother Chester was in the meantime carving out a successful career as session guitarist and Bryan Ferry’s go-to axeman – you can watch him in action with Bryan at Live Aid.
Nick may have not enjoyed the rigmarole of the pop business but he did it pretty well. Though the UK press mocked (see below), he actually had two further UK top 40s, ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ and ‘Tell Me’, also featuring Madonna on backing vox, which spent nine weeks at #1 in Italy during 1988.
Esteemed producer and Madonna/Stanley Clarke collaborator Patrick Leonard helmed Nick’s second album Us. Nick had several further hits all over Europe – ‘I Promised Myself’ was one of 1990’s best selling singles in Europe (#1 in Austria and Sweden, top 5 in Germany, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland) but just missed the UK top 40.
By 1993, though, Nick was sick of the pop game. He died of bone cancer at his Notting Hill home. Madonna and Boy George led the heartfelt tributes. RIP to a bona fide 1980s star.
Ivor Neville ‘Nick’ Kamen (15 April 1962 – 5 May 2021)
To some, the advent of the 12” single in the early ’80s was musical sacrilege; but others it was a new dawn, a chance to hear your favourite song in widescreen format, expanded into an epic and not bound by radio conventions.
The 12” came about at an exciting time in music when a few things were colliding: the cult of the ‘star’ producer, club culture, sampling, dub techniques, electronic music moving into the mainstream and an ‘anything goes’ post-punk ethos.
Talented sound designers such as Trevor Horn, Gary Langan, Shep Pettibone, John Potoker, Francois Kevorkian, Alex Sadkin and Steven Stanley were in the right place at the right time. And it probably helped that sales of 12” singles contributed to weekly chart positions, so the stakes were high.
So let’s have a look at some key artefacts of the 12” revolution, a great time in music when anything – well, almost anything – went. A few of these I now prefer to the originals.
21. Paul Young: ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ (1985)
Laurie Latham’s completely mad mix seems entirely designed to annoy the neighbours. A cacophony of metal guitars, Pino Palladino’s floor-shaking, P-funk-influenced bass and bizarre samples. And is that a jazzy riveted cymbal slinking into the mix from time to time?
20. A Guy Called Gerald: ‘Voodoo Ray’ (1989)
A timeless collection of house music tropes which doesn’t ever seem to date. Simplicity is the key, with subtly-shifting riffs.
This one seems impossible to find on the internet or any other compilation album apart from the marvellous Slipstream 2-LP set which came out on Beggars Banquet in 1982. It’s a feast for the eardrums with gorgeous, spacey delays and twinkling Moog lines sprinkled into the mix.
18. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)
Remixer Gary Langan skillfully juggles of all this classic track’s trademark features: Trevor Rabin’s chiming guitar figure, the ethereal backing vocals and those crazy samples. Plus you can really hear Alan White’s drums here – never a chore.
17. Joni Mitchell: ‘Shiny Toys’ (1985)
Joni’s a name you probably wouldn’t expect to see here but remixer Francois Kevorkian had great raw materials to play with – Thomas Dolby’s dub-style treatments, Mike Landau’s lush rhythm guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta’s killer drums and all the silly vocal overdubs.
16. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)
Trevor Horn ups the ante with a cool, extended lounge-jazz intro and lots of little musical motifs, a new bass part and some new guitar solos.
15. Michael Jackson: ‘PYT’ (2017)
I can’t resist including this recent discovery – someone has somehow got hold of the Thriller masters and put together a real classic. It’s even funkier than the original, if that’s possible.
14. Madonna: ‘Open Your Heart (Maxi Extended Version)’ (1986)
Steve Thompson And Michael Barbiero’s exciting mash-up of Motorik sequencers, Jonathan Moffett’s sick drums and Madonna’s strident vocals, all adding up to an ‘I Feel Love’ for the 1980s.
13. Phil Collins/Philip Bailey: ‘Easy Lover’ (1985)
Mixing engineer John Potoker cut his teeth working with Miles Davis and Steely Dan, and his sonic mastery shows through with this stunning reimagining of a somewhat corny single, bringing the originally-submerged drum machine right to the fore and adding loads of top-end. His nickname wasn’t ‘Tokes’ for nothing…
12. Scritti Politti: ‘Hypnotize’ (1985)
Gary Langan was at the controls again for this stunning collision of ’50s B-Movie voices, swooning synths, rhythm guitars and bangin’ machine beats. The only thing missing is some serious low-end.
11. Grandmaster Flash/Melle Mel: ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ (1984)
Sylvia Robinson arguably laid down the groundwork for all future 12” singles with this 1984 classic.
10. Prince & The Revolution: ‘Mountains’ (1986)
If you – like me – are always frustrated when this track fades out on the album/single version, have no fear because this remix carries on for another six minutes in the same vein, and turns into one of the sickest grooves Prince ever committed to vinyl.
9. Peter Gabriel: ‘Sledgehammer’ (1986)
Another entry helmed by John ‘Tokes’ Potoker, this one boosts the top-end again, adds some scary reverbs and focuses on David Rhodes’ guitar, Gabriel’s piano/vocal ad-libs and Manu Katche’s drums to superb effect. I now prefer this version…
8. Eric B & Rakim: ‘Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness Mix)’ (1988)
Coldcut put together this sonic feast, one of the most sampled 12”s of all time. You’ve probably heard almost everything on this remix 100 times on other tracks.
7. Thompson Twins: ‘Lies’ (1983)
Alex Sadkin brings his Compass Point mastery to this remix, adding a real drummer (Sly Dunbar?) and bass player, and pushing the sequencers and percussion right to the fore.
6. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (1985)
‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ is possibly the more artful Grace remix, but this is included for its irresistible groove, and the fact that I always want the original single to go on for twice as long as it does. Also I love the ‘false’ ending and off-stage shout (Horn?) at 3:40.
5. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Dance Version)’ (1982)
You could hardly go wrong with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien at the controls, but this remix just brings out the sheer luxurious beauty of this single, and various sections are repeated and amplified to superb effect.
4. Will Powers: ‘Adventures In Success (Dub)’ (1983)
Chris Blackwell’s protegé Steven Stanley was in charge of this fascinating dub, completely dispensing with Lynn Goldsmith’s vocals and delaying the reveal of Sting’s bass for as long as possible.
3. Propaganda: ‘Duel’ (1985)
Included mainly for Steve Lipson’s beatific long guitar solo during the outro, and the fact that it sounds like it could go on forever…
2. Paul Hardcastle: ’19 (Destruction Mix)’ (1985)
A chilling remix which brings out a little more detail of the single version, adding more spoken-word excerpts from the ‘Vietnam Requiem’ documentary and lengthening the funky drum breakdowns.
1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Rage Hard’ (1986)
Stephen Lipson and Paul Morley created this insane confection, a kind of Young Person’s Guide To The 12”, featuring Pamela Stephenson introducing all the clichés of the genre, Viv Stanshall-style. Only ZTT can do this. (It seems sacrilege to leave Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes (Annihilation)’ out, but this gets the nod for sheer balls).