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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Magick Moments: Siouxsie and the Banshees In The Early ’80s

Siouxsie_and_the_Banshees-3

Steve Severin, Siouxsie, Budgie

One of the nice things about immersing oneself in ’80s music is rediscovering stuff you’d once dismissed or were too young to really investigate. I must have been vaguely aware of Siouxsie’s music at some point in the decade, but she didn’t really appear on my radar until I started to get interested in the Sex Pistols around the early ’90s (she was famously in the studio during the Pistols/Bill Grundy ‘swearfest’ and even had the misfortune of being ‘propositioned’ by the semi-sloshed presenter…).

Siouxsie in New York, 1980

Siouxsie in New York, 1980

But now it’s time to confess: I almost wish I had been a Goth in 1982/1983. In these days of twee, over-sharing singer-songwriters and soul-deadening ‘rock’ bands, what is immediately appealing about Siouxsie and the Banshees is their absolute earnestness, the total lack of irony. They mean it, maaaan! These days, pop bands flirt with magickal images, shamanistic sounds and boundary-pushing lyrics, but the Banshees really were dark and truly an alternative (or reaction?) to shiny, aspirational Thatcherism. The song titles said it all: ‘Halloween’, ‘Nightshift’, ‘Voodoo Dolly’, ‘Arabian Knights’.

They also flew in the face of punk, totally rejecting the ‘DIY’ ethos. As bassist Steve Severin told Simon Reynolds in the excellent ‘Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews And Overviews’, ‘I never understood where that do-it-yourself ethic came from. It was so patently obvious that not everybody could do it. You had to have a modicum of talent and an original idea. But for one moment, the floodgates opened and everyone had their five minutes, put their single out, and then disappeared back to what they were destined to do in the first place.’

The Banshees began the decade with three classic albums of their kind: Kaleidoscope, Juju and A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (best album title ever?). It was no accident that they all featured one of the great British guitarists in John McGeoch, master of inventive chord voicings and creative layering. The era spawned a raft of great singles: ‘Spellbound‘, ‘Happy House’, ‘Christine’, ‘Slowdive’, ‘Fireworks’, ‘Israel’, ‘Dear Prudence‘. Even as the post-punk era turned into fully-fledged Goth, they always retained a pop sensibility.

By 1982, though, it has to be said that they had also turned into a truly Bacchanalian outfit, with copious drug use, booze breakdowns and all kinds of weird rituals. McGeoch was sacked after collapsing onstage in Madrid, apparently as a result of an alcohol-induced nervous breakdown. (He re-emerged with The Armoury Show before becoming a member of PiL between ’86 and ’92. He died in 2004.)

The Cure’s Robert Smith filled in on guitar when McGeoch left, as he had at various times between 1979 and 1983 (Polydor Records apparently tried and failed to ‘merge’ The Cure and The Banshees towards the end of this period). He later said of his tenure in the Banshees: ‘It allowed me to go mad for a period of time. I had no responsibilities. I just had to turn up and play the guitar. Severin and I became good friends. Our friendship was based entirely on altered states. I’ve never felt as bad in all my life as when I was in the Banshees. I reached a point of total collapse in 1983.’

Siouxsie herself has revealed that she was on an LSD jag around ’82 and ’83, particularly inspiring the songs on Dreamhouse. Recently, she told MOJO magazine: ‘I seem to remember “Cocoon” being written whilst I was tripping. I was in a rented flat and if I didn’t have a notebook I used to write on the wallpaper.’

The band’s early ’80s period was also musically very influential. There were those effective, trademark tempo changes – usually a slowish intro that suddenly gathers momentum in the verse. As far as I know, no rock bassist had used a flanger pedal before Severin. Budgie came up with some arresting tribal rhythms and all their guitarists pretty much wrote the post-punk rulebook. As Robert Smith once said, tongue firmly in cheek: ‘I just used to turn all the effects pedals on – your basic Banshees sound.’ And Siouxsie is always such a powerful vocal presence. You can hear her sound in everyone from the Cocteau Twins and Lush to PJ Harvey and Florence And The Machine.

So here we are. The Royal Albert Hall, 30th September 1983. Siouxsie in her Goth Princess pomp, Robert Smith (who, despite everything, is obviously an excellent guitarist), Steve Severin and Budgie. Almost wish I’d been there. Were you there (as Shaw Taylor used to say)?