1980s Pop: The Best Bits

Earworms: ’80s pop was chock-a-block with ’em. Studio technology was blossoming fast and there was constant temptation (and pressure?) to come up with new sounds. Fairlights, Emulators, Synclaviers, gated snare drums: there had never been more ways to skin a cat.

But woe betide the ’80s popster who neglected the basic tenets of songcraft; the trick was coming up with memorable ‘bits’ that fitted seamlessly into a track and bore repeated listening. Thankfully, for every what-does-this-button-do novelty hit, there was a genuinely innovative, memorable pop confection.

So here’s a compendium of good bits from the 1980s, details that mark the decade out as a unique musical era. The rules: one artist per slot and every song has to have made the UK or US top 40 singles chart, or both…

34. Mel Gaynor’s volcanic snare-drum fill after the breakdown in Simple Minds’ ‘Alive And Kicking’

There’s a similar eruption in ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, but this one wins out for sheer audacity. I wonder what ‘anti-muso’ co-producer Jimmy Iovine had to say about it… 

33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’

32. The Middle Eastern-sounding synth riff in Blancmange’s ‘Living On The Ceiling’

31. Steve Jansen’s marimba solo on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’

30. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar at the tail end of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’

29. Martin Drover’s trumpet riff on Adam Ant’s ‘Goody Two Shoes’

28. The bassline enters at 0:20 of The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’

Phil Thornalley is a veritable Zelig figure in ’80s pop, but even he couldn’t have imagined that his superbly simple-yet-complex bassline (try playing along) could have had such an impact on this stand-alone UK top 5 single.

27. Martin Fry’s hysterical ‘You think you’re smart/That’s stupid/Right from the start/When you knew we would part!’ at the tail end of ABC’s ‘Poison Ivy’ 

Pointing the way forward for similar outbursts from Jarvis Cocker et al.

26. The weird coda of Stephen Tin Tin Duffy’s ‘Kiss Me’

Just when you thought this slightly-annoying-but-effective UK top 10 single was all done and dusted, there’s that menacing little DX7 kiss-off…

25. Melle Mel’s laugh-rap on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’

24. The guitar riff on The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’

The jury seems to be out on whether Billy Bremner or Robbie McIntosh played this (answers on a postcard please).

23. Pino Palladino’s opening bass salvo at 0:04 of Paul Young’s ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ 

22. David Williams’ guitar break on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

21. The jangling piano motif of Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’

Who came up with this weird brilliance? For a generation of listeners, it’ll always be the theme to BBC radio’s ‘Week Ending’.

20. The post-chorus drum fills on It Bites’ ‘Calling All The Heroes’

Deceptively simple (leading with the left hand is not easy for a right-handed drummer), tasty fills from Bob Dalton, the Cumbrian four-piece’s sticksman.

19. The backing vocals at 1:45 of Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’

Patti Austin’s kaleidoscopic overdubs on the Rod Temperton-penned single which reached #11 in the UK chart.

18. ‘Heeeere’s Grace!’ on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

17. ‘Science!’

Dr Magnus Pyke’s outburst on Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ still raises a titter, but apparently he quickly came to regret his contribution to this US #5 single.

16. The Emulator string stabs which close Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’

Sending us out into that good night with a chill in the heart…

15. The spoken-word bits in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s songs

Take your pick from: ‘Well ‘ard!’, ‘Are you flipping me off?’, ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/Pleasuredome erect!’ or my favourite: ‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!

14. Neneh Cherry’s cockney accent on ‘Buffalo Stance’

13. The Sweetbreaths’ backing vocals at 1:36 on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’

Tina Weymouth’s sisters Lani and Laura bring the silliness, interpreted by Google thus: ‘Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam/Haykayay yipi yaykayé/Ahou ahou a nikichi’.

12. Bill Wyman’s French accent in the chorus of ‘(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star’

Or the whole damn song really… 

11. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on Eurythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel’

Is there any musician in pop music history who has better communicated pure joy?

10. The ‘Hey!’ sample on Art Of Noise’s ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Not the Noise’s Anne Dudley apparently, but Camilla Pilkington-Smyth (Who she? Ed.). A song of good bits.

9. The ‘Oh yeah!’ sample in Yello’s…’Oh Yeah’

8. Eric B’s ‘Pump up the volume!’ on ‘Paid In Full’

7. That Phil Collins drum fill on ‘In The Air Tonight’

It’s always a bit louder than you think it’s going to be…

6. Roy Bittan’s flanged piano on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

5. The banshee-wailing on The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

It’s a close call between that and the haunting air-raid sirens at the end.

4. The whistling on XTC’s ‘Generals And Majors’

Real whistling or a synth? Who cares? Colin Moulding’s song has more great pop hooks than you can shake a stick at.

3. Abby Kimber’s cod nursery rhyme at the end of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Land Of Make Believe’

2. The synth riff of Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s funky piano on David Sylvian’s ‘Red Guitar’

Have I missed out some great moments? Of course. Let me know below.

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Sounds Like Steely Dan?

They were of course the pop/jazz masters whose harmonic and lyrical sophistication had the critics purring since 1972. They’ve also often been described as ‘influential’. But is that true? Does any other music sound remotely like Steely Dan?

In the 1980s, the term ‘Steely Dan-influenced’ was bandied about particularly in relation to British bands of the ‘sophisti-pop’ variety: The Big Dish, Style Council, Everything But The Girl, Curiosity Killed The Cat, Hue & Cry, Sade, Swing Out Sister, even Prefab Sprout and Deacon Blue. More recently, it’s The High Llamas, Athlete, Mark Ronson, Toy Matinee, The Norwegian Fords, Mayer Hawthorne, State Cows and even Pharrell (this article rounds them up nicely).

None really sound like Steely. Sure, they show off some slick grooves, jazzy solos and nice chord changes. But they also generally scrimp on the hooks, harmonic sophistication, production values and soulful, distinctive vocals which characterise Becker and Fagen’s oeuvre. However, there are random tracks over the years – by artists one wouldn’t necessarily have predicted – that have seemingly ‘cracked the code’. Here’s a smattering, not all necessarily from the ’80s. More suggestions welcome if you can think of any.

10. Billy Joel: ‘Zanzibar’

Lush production (Phil Ramone), cool chords, great arrangements, biting Fagenesque vocals, quirky lyrics and nice guitar from Steely regular Steve Khan. Also featuring two kick-ass solos by trumpet/flugelhorn legend Freddie Hubbard.

9. The Stepkids: ‘The Lottery’

Underrated American psych-soulsters deliver jazzy weirdness, a nice groove, cool chords, memorable hooks and a distinctly Fagen-like croon from vocalist Tim Walsh.

8. The Tubes: ‘Attack Of The 50ft Woman’

The bridge and backing vocals always remind me of Steely, and I’m sure the boys would also appreciate the ‘50s B-movie lyric concept and ‘easy listening’ middle eight.

7. Danny Wilson: ‘Lorraine Parade’

The Dundonians’ superb debut is full of Dan-ish moments but this (sorry about the sound quality) could almost be an outtake from Katy Lied. See also the B-side ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’.

6. Frank Gambale: ‘Faster Than An Arrow’

The Aussie guitar master swapped the chops-based fusion for this slick, lushly-chorded, Steely-style shuffle. Gambale sings, plays piano and guitar and also wrote the excellent horn chart.

5. Maxus: ‘Nobody’s Business’

The little-known AOR supergroup came up with this standout in 1981. Jay Gruska’s vocals and Robbie Buchanan’s keys particularly stand out as Steely-like (apologies for the creepy video).

4. Cliff Richard: ‘Carrie’

More than a hint of ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ in the chorus, lovely production and Cliff does a neat Fagen impression throughout. And hey, isn’t that ‘Mike’ McDonald on backup? (No. Ed.) Apparently co-songwriter Terry Britten was a huge Steely fan (as Cliff told this writer during a live radio interview circa 2008).

3. Boz Scaggs: ‘We’re Waiting’

Steely regulars Michael Omartian, Victor Feldman, Jeff Porcaro and Chuck Findley contribute to this enigmatic cracker which could almost be an Aja outtake. The oblique lyrics possibly relate to Hollywood in some way. See also Boz’s ‘Gimme The Goods’ which sounds suspiciously like ‘Kid Charlemagne’.

2. Tina Turner: ‘Private Dancer’

This Mark Knopfler-written gem pulls off the Steely tricks of simple melody/elaborate harmony and a risqué lyrical theme. There’s also more than a touch of ‘FM’ in the intro riff. Knopfler was always a big Dan fan and of course guested on ‘Time Out Of Mind’. See also Dire Straits’ ‘Private Investigations’ whose outro bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘The Royal Scam’.

1. Christopher Cross: ‘I Really Don’t Know Anymore’

From one of the biggest-selling debut albums in US chart history, this features the production/piano skills of Omartian, backing vocals from McDonald and a majestic guitar solo by Dan legend Larry Carlton. See also ‘Minstrel Gigolo’ from the same album.

Story Of A Song: Dire Straits’ Private Investigations

Andy Beckett’s excellent new book ‘Promised You A Miracle UK80-82’ has got me thinking about the early ’80s a lot. It was in many ways a bleak time in the UK (temporarily lightened by the Royal Wedding and Ian Botham’s cricket heroics against the Aussies), mainly defined by Thatcher’s deeply unpopular government, the Yorkshire Ripper murders, various terrorist attacks and fears of a nuclear war that were hardly appeased by the unintentionally-terrifying ‘Protect And Survive’ public information films.

dire straits

Contemporary pop music generally railed against this attitude, creating some much-needed fun and glamour out of the gloom. Although ‘Private Investigations’ shares almost nothing with prevailing musical trends of the period (and Mark Knopfler saved his reaction to the Falklands War for Brothers In Arms‘ title track), it continues to hold my fascination, ever since my Dire Straits-loving uncle played it to me sometime in the mid-’80s.

I would try to decipher the noirish lyrics in a typically teenage way (no change there, then) but these days it’s hard to read the song as anything other than a portrait of a love affair gone wrong, emphasised by the slightly dodgy video. The song’s protagonist is fixated on looking for clues of his paramour’s infidelities, so he goes ‘checking out the reports’ and ‘digging up the dirt’, finding some ‘confidential information in the diary’. We never found out exactly what he finds but it definitely ain’t good; in this song, to discover the truth of a relationship is a fate worse than death, leaving one ‘scarred for life’ with ‘no compensation’.

Love Over Gold Tour, Zagreb, 1983

Love Over Gold Tour, Zagreb, 1983

I love the track’s sonic detail. The sense of drama and use of dynamics leaves other contemporary pop for dust. The stereo spectrum is used as a kind of panaromic field across which various sonic events are ‘placed’ to fit the narrative, including Mike Mainieri’s intricate marimba and subtle bits of percussion. The result is a kind of mini-movie set to music, best listened to with headphones. Ennio Morricone couldn’t have done it better. You could argue that ‘Private Investigations’ was the catalyst for all Knopfler’s film soundtrack work.

He also demonstrates a mastery of many guitar styles on the track, from the nylon-string acoustic main theme/mini-solos through to the power-chorded interjections towards the end, the latter frequently inspiring some of my uncle’s most spirited air guitar-playing back in the ’80s. Then Knopfler’s volume-pedal swell perfectly imitates a cat’s nocturnal howl. The last section, with its picked-bass/kick-drum heartbeat and Alan Clark’s chiming piano chords, seems very influenced by the title track of Steely Dan’s ‘Royal Scam‘. I love that glass (window?) breaking and the click of a suitcase opening, or is it the latch of a door being tampered with? The space in the track forces you to focus on these details. It all adds up to something akin to Knopfler’s version of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Intruder’.

Astonishingly, in a slightly edited form, ‘Private Investigations’ reached UK number 2 in September 1982 (sitting incongruously in the top 10 alongside ABC, Duran Duran, Dexys, Shalamar and The Kids From Fame!), a sure signifier as to just how much better the charts were back then. The track’s accompanying album, Love Over Gold, is seen as somewhat of a disappointment in Dire Straits’ discography, and I can’t say that any of its other tracks have had much effect on me.

But now that the nights are drawing in and the blinds are being shut, it’s always fun to dim the lights and give ‘Private Investigations’ a spin. The game commences…

Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms: 30 Years Old Today

dire-straitsVertigo/Warner Bros Records, released 13th May 1985

Recorded: AIR Studios, Montserrat

Produced by Neil Dorfsman and Mark Knopfler

UK Album Sales: 3,086,000

UK Album Chart Position: 1

Weeks On UK Album Chart: 195

Singles Released (and UK Chart Positions):

Walk Of Life (2)
Money For Nothing (4)
Brothers In Arms (16)
So Far Away (20)
Your Latest Trick (26)

Whilst enjoying Mark Knopfler’s considerable guitar skills and knack for writing cinematic ballads (‘Romeo And Juliet‘ and ‘Private Investigations‘ would probably make my top 20 songs of the ’80s), Dire Straits’ mega success has generally puzzled me. Knopfler always seemed a Bob Dylan/Randy Newman/Donald Fagen kind of guy – subtle, intelligent and wry/wary – but Straits’ mostly meat-and-potatoes rock music told another story.

But Brothers In Arms hit at exactly the right time on its release in 1985; its digital sheen, beautifully-crafted songs, tasty drumming (Omar Hakim, except on ‘Walk Of Life’ and ‘Money For Nothing’) and mastery of various styles (ZZ Top-style boogie, roots rock, jazzy pop) created an ’80s perfect storm. It’s so much part of the furniture that it’s almost beyond criticism.

Mark Knopfler at Live Aid, 13th July 1985

Mark Knopfler at Live Aid, 13th July 1985

Knopfler’s laidback, post-Dylan vocals are a great antidote to all those oversingers of the ’80s (and right up to the present day). On ‘So Far Away’ and ‘Walk Of Life’, his pitching is not perfect and his phrasing throwaway, but the overall effect is pleasing possibly because it’s such a contrast to the super-slick production and playing.

And he shows himself again to be a brilliant ballad writer – ‘Your Latest Trick’ carries on from where ‘Private Dancer‘ and ‘Private Investigations’ left off, a noirish classic featuring a famous sax break by Michael Brecker just as memorable as ‘Careless Whisper’ (for better or worse!). ‘Why Worry’ and the title track (apparently Knopfler’s response to the Falklands War) are timeless epics. I found myself unexpectedly very moved listening again to the latter the other day. In fact, I was surprised how generally downbeat the album was, not having heard it for a good few years.

Brothers In Arms outsold both Michael Jackson releases (Bad and Thriller) to be the UK’s best-selling non-greatest hits album of the ’80s, spending 14 weeks at number one. Surely a big reason for its success was that it was heavily promoted as a digital recording and as such was perfectly suited to the new CD format.

The fact that it was the ‘test CD of choice’ for yuppies on the lookout for new hi-fi equipment must have been a delicious irony for Knopfler and Straits manager Ed Bicknell, given the lyrics to ‘Money For Nothing’. There were even rumours that at the time other artists were struggling to get their albums pressed onto CD due to the overwhelming demand for Brothers In Arms. Happy birthday, chaps.