It’s a question that has been obsessing your correspondent over the last few days – which music epitomises the 1980s?
If, in 500 years, someone demanded to hear a song that represented the decade, which piece would best encapsulate it? And is ‘1980s Music’ a genre?
A website called movingtheriver.com should be able to pin down what makes a quintessentially 1980s track, but it’s not easy. So let’s begin with a process of elimination.
A lot of 1980s music was influenced by previous genres – Motown, punk, glam, psych, prog, metal, disco, jazz/funk, singer/songwriter, folk, reggae, ’70s electronica, minimalism, funk, blues. So we need tracks that jettison those tropes.
Many bands used synths in a way that was influenced by 1970s pioneers Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder (Japan, OMD, Pet Shop Boys, The Art Of Noise etc.), so wouldn’t qualify as uniquely 1980s. We’re after artists that used sequencers and synths in a more ‘progressive’/melodic way, mainly to aid songwriting.
Huge 1980s acts like Wham!, ABC, Madonna, Simply Red and Culture Club obviously tapped into Motown, R’n’B and Chic-style disco/funk. Eurythmics were inspired by everything from the Stones to Kraftwerk. So they won’t do.
Tina Turner, MJ, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Bruce, Prince and Hall & Oates all blossomed in the 1970s, while Cyndi Lauper’s songs and style had elements of that decade too, as did many Goth acts. Production styles came and went, and of course there were common tropes like the gated snare drum and synth bass, but again they don’t particularly define the decade.
The sweet spot seems to be around 1984/1985. Musicians and songwriters were leaving behind post-punk, classic soul, blues and ‘rock’ (though of course all would return with a vengeance by the end of the decade) and forging a quintessentially 1980s sound.
I’d put forward the following as completely 1980s, born and bred in that decade, with no apparent antecedents from any well-worn styles (‘bluesy’ chord progressions, ‘folky’ singing) or particular era, with the possible exceptions of Sting and Associates (and of course one could have chosen some other tracks by these artists). In short, for better or worse, it’s pretty hard to work out their influences:
A sense of contour, of line, a bit of colour, a good tone and maybe a touch of – that horrible word – narrative. A bit of flash never heart anyone either, but mostly we’re probably listening for emotion and ‘storytelling’.
Luckily for us, the 1980s featured an embarrassment of riches on the guitar soloing front, a decade when you could hear everything from glorious cameos of post-punk insanity, slabs of avant-garde weirdness, shock-and-awe widdlefests and sometimes perfect little compositions in themselves.
Sometimes great solos came from the guitarist in the band, but more often than not they came from the ‘ringer’, the session player. Truly great players of all stripes could find themselves blowing on a top 10 single. Their job was to add the pizzazz, the zing, the memorable bit that all the kids wanted to learn.
So here’s a selection of goodies from the guitar-shaped chocolate box, featuring some rock, some blues, some fusion, some soul, some new-wave, some pop, some metal, some funk, some jazz:
27. Lloyd Cole And The Commotions: ‘Forest Fire’ (Guitarist: Neil Clark)
26. Tears For Fears: ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ (Guitarist: Neil Taylor)
25. Marillion: ‘Easter’ (Guitarist: Steve Rothery)
24. Michael Hedges: ‘Aerial Boundaries’
The whole thing is a solo, of course, but it’s one of the most astonishing examples of solo guitar in recording history, a mixture of tapping, strumming, thumping and hammering. There are no overdubs and a very strange tuning on the classic title track to Hedges’ 1984 album.
23. Tribal Tech: ‘Tunnel Vision’ (Guitarist: Scott Henderson)
An almost perfect solo from the jazz/rock master’s album Nomad. It’s so complete it sounds almost pre-composed (apparently only the first eight bars were hummed to him by the tune’s writer Gary Willis), each interesting idea following completely logically from the last. Starts at 1:13:
This one taken from the classic album The Colour Of Spring can be filed in the ‘minimalist’ category, but it’s brilliant. The way the veteran Pretenders/McCartney guitarist bends into his last note, perfectly fitting with the key change, is sublime. Starts at 2:52:
21. Johnny Guitar Watson: ‘Telephone Bill’
Johnny G pulled out all the stops for this barnstorming bebop-meets-blues breakdown, from the Love Jones album, closing out his funny proto-rap in some style. He also gets extra points for quoting Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Salt Peanuts’. Starts around 3:30:
From Booty’s now forgotten 1988 album What’s Bootsy Doin’, a brief but flamboyant classic from one of the great unhinged metal guitarists of the decade, used as a ringer by George Clinton, Bill Laswell and Shakespear’s Sister to good effect. Starts around 2:44:
19. Thomas Dolby: ‘Budapest By Blimp’ (Guitarist: Larry Treadwell)
The LA-based guitarist was part of a Christian duo backing the Pope on his infamous ‘Popemobile’ tour of American stadiums when he answered Dolby’s magazine ad, and he excelled himself on this epic track from Aliens Ate My Buick, coming up with a strong melody over the funky break and even throwing in a little Dave Gilmour homage. Starts around the 5:30 mark:
18. Trevor Rabin: ‘I Can’t Look Away’
The title track of the Yes guitarist’s 1989 solo album was a song of two brilliant solos, but I’m going for the opening salvo, a brutal, flashy classic that features all the notes he knows and more.
17. Robert Cray: ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’
You could choose almost any solo from Mr Cray’s Bad Influence album, but this one seems to be best encapsulate his classy string-bending, snappy rhythmic sense and ice-cold Strat tone. Starts at 1:33:
16. Nile Rodgers: ‘Stay Out Of The Light’
A brilliant player not necessarily known for his solos, but this closing track from his forgotten second solo album B Movie Matinee opened the floodgates – a fantastic mixture of Charlie Christian and Jimmy Nolen. Starts at 3:37:
15. John McLaughlin: ‘The Wait’
McLaughlin plugs in the Les Paul and unleashes one of the most vicious solos of his career, gradually developing in intensity, with even a touch of his old mucker Carlos Santana at times. Unfortunately it mostly fell on deaf ears, coming from a nearly-forgotten 1987 album Adventures In Radioland. Starts around 1:43:
14. Defunkt: ‘Eraserhead’ (Guitarist: Ronnie Drayton)
One of those unhinged solos that starts at ’11’ and then just carries on in the same vein. The underrated session great is given his head and goes for it. From the punk/funk legends’ forgotten, excellent 1988 comeback album In America.
13. Yngwie J. Malmsteen: ‘Black Star’
This piece, kicking off the Swede’s Rising Force opus, is a guitar masterclass from top to tail, but the first few minutes demonstrate some extraordinary touches like a legato section that you’d swear was achieved with a delay pedal.
12. Stanley Clarke: ‘Straight To The Top’ (Guitarist: Carlos Santana)
The song – which kicked off Stanley’s 1981 career nadir Let Me Know You – may be a disco cheesefest but Carlos’s solo is a stonker, an emotive showstopper with a luscious, creamy tone and lots of emotional moments. It was a good period for Santana – see also Herbie Hancock’s ‘Saturday Night’ and Carlos’s own ‘Stay Beside Me’ and ‘Song For Devadip’.
11. It Bites: ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ (Guitarist: Francis Dunnery)
The Cumbrian gunslingers wrote a great ballad here and Dunnery laid his claim as one of the great Brit guitarists of the ’80s with this extreme solo, a sometimes lyrical, sometimes demented mixture of flash and panache. From the lads’ debut album The Big Lad In The Windmill. Starts at 5:09:
10. Billy Idol: ‘Rebel Yell’ (Guitarist: Steve Stevens)
He produced several memorable moments alongside the 6’2” blond bombsite born William Broad, but Stevens excelled himself here with a memorable, well-organised solo full of flashy bits and unexpected ‘outside’ notes.
9. Joe Satriani: ‘Ice 9’
Satch’s sophomore album Surfing With The Alien of course produced some guitar highlights but this track featured one of his most distinctive solos ever, Allan Holdsworth meets Eddie Van Halen.
8. Randy Crawford: ‘You Might Need Somebody’ (Guitarist: Steve Lukather)
This gets in for superb tone and admirable restraint, apart from that fantastic flurry of notes in the middle. Luke could hardly do any wrong around this time. Just around the corner was Quincy’s The Dude, ‘Rosanna’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Love’ and Jacko’s Thriller.
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers: ‘Sex Rap’ (Guitarist: Hillel Slovak)
One of those great solos that sounds like it could fall apart any second, and frequently does. From the lads’ uneven but sometimes thrilling George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley album. Starts at 1:14:
6. Yellowjackets: ‘Monmouth College Fight Song’ (Guitarist: Robben Ford)
In the days when Robben’s trump card was playing bebop/blues with a distorted guitar, and when he loved blowing over interesting chord changes, this track from 1981’s Casino Lights is a classic. A super-sophisticated mixture of Charlie Parker and Albert King. Starts at 1:35:
Hiram could be relied upon to produce classic solos in the late 1980s, as he did with Steps Ahead, Terri Lyne Carrington and on his solo records, and this from Sting’s …Nothing Like The Sun was sublime. Starts at 1:27:
4. Pink Floyd: ‘Comfortably Numb’ (Guitarist: David Gilmour)
Take your pick between two fantastic solos from The Wall album, but I’m going for the first one, a beautiful feature with a killer tone and great use of whammy bar. Starts at 2:38:
3. XTC: ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ (Guitarist: Dave Gregory)
He apparently rehearsed it alone for hours in a little room stinking of rat poison in Todd Rundgren’s rundown studio complex in Woodstock, upstate New York, but it paid off, a memorable, melodic classic. Starts at 2:08:
2. Mike Stern: ‘Time In Place’
The title track of Mike’s second solo album demonstrated definitely one of the slowest solos of his career, and also one of the most lyrical. Starts at 1:35:
1. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’
This was one of the more memorable solos of Martyn’s career, during a decade when he was more interested in songwriting than making extreme guitar statements. But he sure found his Les Paul’s sweet spot on a classic cover version from Grace And Danger. Starts at around 1:28:
Excellent recent documentary ’20 Feet From Stardom’ busted the myth once and for all that backing singers aren’t ‘good’ enough to be solo artists.
In fact, the contrary is often true: they make the artist sound and look better, and there are often a myriad of reasons both professional and personal why they haven’t become headliners in their own right.
Tessa Niles is probably the UK’s most celebrated backing vocalist of the last 35 years, and her excellent new memoir lifts the lid on a distinguished career singing with David Bowie, George Harrison, Elton John, Kylie, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Tina Turner, Pet Shop Boys, Annie Lennox, Gary Numan, The Police, Duran Duran, ABC, Tears For Fears and Robbie Williams.
It’s a real page-turner and ’80s guilty pleasure, a voyage through all the pop fads of the decade (and decades since) and a search for a fruitful work/life balance in the face of demanding touring schedules and family commitments.
We follow Niles’ career from her early days as factory worker, cabaret entertainer and ‘Benny Hill Show’-auditioner to the late-’70s/early-’80s London live music scene, where good, young female singers could make a decent living at the city’s many nightclubs.
She is excellent at painting a picture of this somewhat dodgy state of affairs, when a pre-New Romantic London was anything but swinging and ‘Page 3’ culture was at its peak.
But a shrewd volte face leads Tessa into the burgeoning jazz/funk scene and decent, reliable gigs with Morrissey Mullen and Incognito, plus a chance meeting with US ex-pat arranger and producer Richard Niles.
Though their subsequent marriage gives Tessa her professional surname, it also leads to some conflicts of interest when he helms her commercially-unsuccessful solo debut.
But then Trevor Horn is on the blower and she is whisked into the studio to work on ABC’s ephocal Lexicon Of Love album, the beginning of a long and successful professional relationship with the uber-producer. ‘Date Stamp’ in particular shows Niles’ voice off to great effect.
From here on in, her career goes from strength to strength, but it’s not without its pitfalls: The Police’s long ‘Synchronicity’ world tour plays havoc with her vocal cords due to Sting’s insistence that she (and cohorts Dolette McDonald and Michelle Cobbs) sing in ‘full voice’ throughout, without any vibrato.
There’s also a funny anecdote about what exactly constitutes an audition for Sting.
Then of course there’s Niles’ memorable, electrifying turn alongside David Bowie at Live Aid – it’s amazing that they only had two days’ rehearsal for the ‘little gig’, as Bowie called it.
Elsewhere, there’s lots of good technical stuff about what actually constitutes a decent studio vocal performance – and also what artists and producers demand from a backing vocalist – with wicked anecdotes concerning Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, Steve Winwood’s ‘Roll With It’, Duran’s ‘Notorious’ and Tears For Fears’ ‘Swords And Knives’. Niles also doesn’t shy away from personal reflections about her family relationships and romances.
There’s far too much Clapton and Robbie Williams for my liking and a decent proofreader wouldn’t have gone amiss, but I devoured ‘Backtrack’ almost in one sitting. A really enjoyable, gossipy read.
Tears For Fears’ second album Songs From The Big Chair did the business. A relatively cheap record to make, it sold millions and elevated the Bath boys into the big league.
Early ‘80s technology, boy-band looks and some great hooks had carried TFF through the first two albums but now they felt they had to deliver a polished, ‘musicians’ album’ to match their heroes. Big mistake…
The Seeds Of Lovewas the result, and with it they tragically o’erreached themselves in the search to emulate their heroes Gabriel, Ferry and Sylvian. Four producers. Nine studios. Over a million pounds in studio costs. Broken marriages. Dozens of session musicians.
A famous Q article outlined the painful, sometimes embarrassing lengths the two protagonists Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith went to to complete Seeds.
Orzabal has said he wanted to make something musicians would love, something ‘world-class’. This over-egged curio shows what happened when pop stars tried to buy credibility in the late-‘80s, undeniably under a fair amount of record company pressure to follow up a monster.
The intro of ‘Woman In Chains’ still retains some Blue Nile-ish power before being obliterated by Phil Collins’ sledgehammer drums and overblown AOR guitars; Gabriel/Joni/Sting drummer Manu Katche plays a blinder on ‘Badman’s Song’ but the melodies barely register.
‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ still stands up though as a decent Beatles tribute complete with some lovely woozy drums from Big Chair producer and ex-Ant Chris Hughes and a very cool chord sequence.
‘Standing On The Corner Of The Third World’ is initially very attractive complete with Jon Hassell’s ethno-trumpet and some typically slinky fretless playing from Pino Palladino, but its grand atmosphere and ambience can’t obscure the lack of structure and good ideas.
Swords And Knives’ starts with an interesting piano/voice melody but quickly gets mired in a succession of annoying guitar solos and grandiloquent key changes.
‘Year Of The Knife’ (these boys are really interested in knives…) is a pretty ugly collision of gospel vocals and a sub-‘Broken Wings’ groove. Again, the song runs out of stream after two minutes and tries to cover it up with a fiddly string arrangement and weird avant-metal guitars. Even uber-drummer Simon Phillips sounds uninspired.
The Q article, September 1989
Orzabal almost achieves a Sylvian-ish level of sophistication on the closing ‘Famous Last Words’ but once again blows it, neglecting to supply a B section or cogent lyrics. Quiet/loud dynamics alone do not a good song make.
The album was a hit, going straight to number one in the UK and selling well in Europe and the States, but was it worth all the effort? Orzabal and Smith were barely on speaking terms and didn’t record together for over a decade after Seeds‘ completion. It was certainly a big and bold farewell to the ’80s from one of the decade’s success stories.
Sequencing an album can be a real headache but it’s surely one of the dark arts of the music business.
One thing’s for sure: the lead-off track is key. You know the old A&R cliché – ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar!’ But sometimes quiet and enigmatic can be just as effective as loud and arresting.
Repeated listening and nostalgic reverie possibly cloud the issue but it’s almost impossible to imagine some albums with different opening tracks. Revolver kicking off without ‘Taxman’? Rubber Soul without ‘Drive My Car’? Pretzel Logic without ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’? Unthinkable.
So here are six of my favourite album-openers from the ’80s:
6. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ from Face Value (1981)
Love or hate Phil, no one can deny this is one of the killer intros. He programmes his own ‘Intruder’ beat on a Roland CR-78 drum machine, adds some slabs of heavy guitar, some moody chords (in D minor, the saddest of all keys…) and chills all and sundry.
5. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ from 90125 (1983)
A blast of sampled Alan White drums (later co-opted for Art Of Noise’s ‘Close To The Edit’) and we’re away! Trevor Rabin’s gargantuan power-chord intro became an MTV mainstay and gave the prog-rock survivors their only US number one single. But, arguably, they shot their load too early – the rest of the album never comes close to this lavish opener.
4. Simple Minds: ‘Up On The Catwalk’ from Sparkle In The Rain (1984)
I’m a sucker for drummer count-ins and this is one of the best. There’s a lovely contrast between the unproduced timbre of Mel Gaynor’s yelp and stick-clicks and the subsequent blizzard of gated drums and Yamaha CP-70 piano in the classic Gabriel/Lillywhite/Padgham style.
3. Tears For Fears: ‘Woman In Chains’ from The Seeds Of Love (1989)
A less-than-great song from a less-than-great album, but messrs Olazabal and Smith weave a rather delicious, Blue Nile-influenced intro that promises great things, before Phil Collins’s stodgy drums and some chronic over-production buries it in bombast.
2. PiL: ‘FFF’ from Album (1986)
‘Farewell my fairweather friend!’ bawls Johnny over a cacophony of gated drums (played by jazz legend Tony Williams, fact fans) and angry guitars. Well, hello!
1. The Blue Nile: ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ from A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)
Another one that asks, ‘Hang on, is there something wrong with this CD?’ Subtle synths ruminate in near-silence before some found sounds (coins being inserted into a slot machine?) and a lonesome trumpet gently prod a classic album into life.
Phonogram/Mercury Records, released 25th February 1985
Recorded at The Wool Hall, Beckington, Somerset, and the Hammersmith Odeon, London
Produced by Chris Hughes
Peaked at #2 in the UK album chart
Remained in the UK Top 10 for over six months and the Top 40 for over a year
Reached #1 in the US album charts
Bassist/singer/co-writer Curt Smith explained the album’s title in a 1985 interview:
“The title was my idea. It’s a bit perverse but then you’ve got to understand our sense of humour. The ‘Big Chair’ idea is from this brilliant film called Sybil about a girl with 16 different personalities. She’d been tortured incredibly by her mother as a child and the only place she felt safe, the only time she could really be herself was when she was sitting in her analyst’s chair. She felt safe, comfortable and wasn’t using her different faces as a defence. It’s kind of an ‘up yours’ to the English music press who really fucked us up for a while. This is us now – and they can’t get at us anymore…”
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.