The 1980s - Music Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The 1980s - Music

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Pop culture in the 1980s was a sad and pale reflection of the sad and pale lives people were leading. Compared to the grim and dark Thatcher regime, even lightweight nonsense such as Bananarama seemed acceptable or rocking. To be honest, comparing them to more recent acts like Steps is inaccurate; Steps are well-honed and practised professionals, which removes them a million miles from the Bananarama style of a amateur-hour talent show. But Bananarama came at the tail end of the punk ethic, as said 'amateur hour' ethic is vastly preferable to the bland, plastic professionalism of modern acts. But if they were the best the '80s had to offer, it's not a very good show is it?

From 'Brass in Pocket' by The Pretenders to 'Hangin' Tough' by New Kids on the Block, the 1980s was a diverse period of musical innovation. New releases were still available on vinyl records and at the beginning you could still find 8-track tapes if you looked in the right places.

'I Want My MTV...'

In August, 1981, a new channel was launched that revolutionised not only American television but the whole way music was experienced around the world. MTV was the brainchild of Mike Nesmith, formerly of the 1960s band The Monkees, who saw a gap in the market and plugged it with an audacious proposal - music television all day long! The first video that was played was 'Video Killed the radio Star' by Buggles, an act that, without an imaginative video, might have been dismissed merely as a novelty act and forgotten.

The blandness of middle-of-the-road music had already led to the outbreak of punk, four years earlier, but this time the revolution was more subtle. As bands began relying on having a cool video to get publicity for their songs, some saw it as an exciting new way to enhance their image and get across their message through the latest in video technology. Certain bands such as Duran Duran, Wham! and Spandau Ballet exploited the new medium by setting most of their videos in exotic locations and wearing bright clothes in colourful surroundings. Elsewhere videos became near-artforms with visuals for 'Fade to Grey' by Visage, 'Money for Nothing' by Dire Straits and 'Ashes to Ashes' by David Bowie. Though such early examples of the pop promo might appear crude and unsophisticated nowadays, at the time they were raw, exciting and ground-breaking. Bands didn't just have to play well (indeed, many of them didn't) - now they had to look good, too.

Although the station proudly boasted that they could deliver enough music videos to fill out their schedule, the reality was somewhat further from the truth. While artists like Rod Stewart were happy to put a little extra effort in to record a performance video to promote the latest songs, some older, less adaptable, artists found it hard to reconcile being a 'serious' musician with having to act and dance as well. It was the wealth of experimentation coming from the British New Wave - acts like Adam and the Ants and Culture Club that saved the station as they imported videos and in turn created an influx of British music into American charts. Some cynics thought the station would be a short-lived fad, confident that it was only a medium for art-school kids with nothing to say. But then - against all hopes - Bruce Springsteen conceded and made a video for 'Dancing in the Dark'. He mimed, he danced and he proved that some serious artists were not afraid of change.

The station was not without its controversies. In the beginning, their agreed playlist consisted primarily of pop, a genre predominated by white artists. As a consequence, it would be 18 months before MTV aired a video by a black artist - that video was 'Billie Jean' by Michael Jackson, in January, 1983. However, despite this apparent blip in political correctness, MTV America is today recognised as one of the most racially-integrated stations in US Broadcasting.

Ferry Cross the Mersey... Again

Now, MTV has regional versions all over the world. It seems strange to think that it began with a video by Trevor Horn, the man behind another phenomenon of the '80s - Frankie Goes to Hollywood, a band from Liverpool (birthplace of The Beatles). In the early-to-mid 1980s, Liverpool became, for a while, almost as important to music as it had been in the 1960s; the likes of Yazoo, A Flock of Seagulls, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Mighty Wah all played at The Cavern, Eric's or the Royal Court, while Probe Records, at one time the workplace of Dead or Alive frontman Pete Burns, was the place to go to buy the latest records. It seemed that everyone in that city was in a band, or knew someone who was.

The Liverpool music scene wasn't just about Scousers either. Scottish promoter Bill Drummond was a major player in the Liverpool music scene of the early 1980s. After numerous projects and collaborations turned sour he changed track and managed a pair of Glaswegian polka-dot pop princesses:

One of my fave bands was Strawberry Switchblade who were from Glasgow. They used to dance around in polka-dot dresses, high-heeled black patent leather boots and make-up you could scrape off with a palette knife. Sadly, after the initial success of 'Since Yesterday', and their excellent cover version of Dolly Parton's 'Jolene', the rest of their singles flopped. Rose McDowell left and formed a group called 'Spell' which didn't do much better.

Some other musical memories of the decade:

Drummond's final act of revenge on pop was to form the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu - also known as The KLF - just to show his former acts how to have a hit record and still maintain a healthy amount of contempt for the music industry.

  • ZZ Top - Every girl's crazy 'bout a Sharp Dressed Man. Apparently.

  • 'Big hair' bands like Def Leppard, Warrant, Great White, Cinderella, Survivor, Bon Jovi and Poison.

  • Aerosmith made a comeback, courtesy of hip-hopsters Run DMC's cover of 'Walk This Way'.

  • John Peel and Andy Kershaw were the twin gods of BBC Radio 1, playing The Fall and 'The National Top Ten of Zimbawe', respectively.

  • Paul Simon finally broke the apartheid deadlock by resolutely ignoring the rest of the world and teaching us to dance to the rhythms of the townships.

  • The Flying Pickets - everyone tried to copy them by singing 'Only You' a capella.

I do remember one particularly horrid summer when 'Born in the USA' and 'Brothers in Arms' were all you could hear or see.

A Lot of Good Work for Charity

The single biggest event in music during the 1980s was, of course, Live Aid. After the success of the Band Aid single, 'Do They Know It's Christmas?', Bob Geldof and Midge Ure mounted the world's biggest rock concert, with stages across the globe (the two principal ones being at Wembley Stadium, London, and RFK Stadium, Philadelphia) to raise money for the starving millions in Africa.

Not only did this change the way people thought of charity, it also convinced people that one of the quickest ways to make money for a good cause was to release a record. In the year following Band Aid's number one hit, a further four songs made it to number one on the strength of their charitable intentions, with many more similar singles released to varying degrees of success1.

UK Number One Singles of the 1980s

The '80s British pop charts opened with 'Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)' by Pink Floyd at number one and closed with a reworking of 'Do They Know It's Christmas' by a group of artists under the name of Band Aid II. But what about all those chart-toppers in-between?


  • 'Brass in Pocket' - The Pretenders
  • 'The Special AKA Live!' EP - The Specials
  • 'Coward of the County' - Kenny Rogers
  • 'Atomic' - Blondie
  • 'Together We Are Beautiful' - Fern Kinney
  • 'Going Underground'/' 'Dreams of Children' - The Jam
  • 'Working my Way Back to You - Forgive Me Girl' - The Detroit Spinners
  • 'Call Me' - Blondie
  • 'Geno' - Dexy's Midnight Runners
  • 'What's Another Year' - Johnny Logan
  • 'Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless)' - MASH
  • 'Crying' - Don McLean
  • 'Xanadu' - Electric Light Orchestra with Olivia Newton John
  • 'Use It Up and Wear It Out' - Odyssey
  • 'The Winner Takes It All' - Abba
  • 'Ashes to Ashes' - David Bowie
  • 'Start' - The Jam
  • 'Feels Like I'm In Love' - Kelly Marie
  • 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' - The Police
  • 'Woman in Love' - Barbra Streisand
  • 'The Tide is High' - Blondie
  • 'Super Trouper' - Abba
  • '(Just Like) Starting Over' - John Lennon
  • 'There's No One Quite Like Grandma' - The St Winifred's School Choir


  • 'Imagine' - John Lennon
  • 'Woman' - John Lennon
  • 'Shaddap You Face' - The Joe Dolce Music Theatre
  • 'Jealous Guy' - Roxy Music
  • 'This Ole House' - Shakin' Stevens
  • 'Making Your Mind Up' - Bucks Fizz
  • 'Stand and Deliver' - Adam and the Ants
  • 'Being With You' - Smokey Robinson
  • 'One Day In Your Life' - Michael Jackson
  • 'Ghost Town' - The Specials
  • 'Green Door' - Shakin' Stevens
  • 'Japanese Boy' - Aneka
  • 'Tainted Love' - Soft Cell
  • 'Prince Charming' - Adam and the Ants
  • 'It's My Party' - Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin
  • 'Every Little Thing She Does is Magic' - The Police
  • 'Under Pressure' - Queen and David Bowie
  • 'Begin the Beguine (Volver A Empezar)' - Julio Iglesias
  • 'Don't You Want Me' - The Human League


  • 'Land of Make Believe' - Bucks Fizz
  • 'Oh Julie' - Shakin' Stevens
  • 'The Model'/'Computer Love' - Kraftwerk
  • 'Town Called Malice'/'Precious' - The Jam
  • 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' - Tight Fit
  • 'Seven Tears' - The Goombay Dance Band
  • 'My Camera Never Lies' - Bucks Fizz
  • 'Ebony and Ivory' - Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder
  • 'A Little Peace' - Nicole
  • 'House of Fun' - Madness
  • 'Goody Two Shoes' - Adam Ant
  • 'I've Never Been To Me' - Charlene
  • 'Happy Talk' - Captain Sensible
  • 'Fame' - Irene Cara
  • 'Come On Eileen' - Dexy's Midnight Runners
  • 'Eye of the Tiger' - Survivor
  • 'Pass The Dutchie' - Musical Youth
  • 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me' - Culture Club
  • 'I Don't Wanna Dance' - Eddie Grant
  • 'Beat Surrender' - The Jam
  • 'Save Your Love' - RenĂ©e and Renato


  • 'You Can't Hurry Love' - Phil Collins
  • 'Down Under' - Men at Work
  • 'Too Shy' - Kajagoogoo
  • 'Billie Jean' - Michael Jackson
  • 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' - Bonnie Tyler
  • 'Is There Something I Should Know?' - Duran Duran
  • 'Let's Dance' - David Bowie
  • 'True' - Spandau Ballet
  • 'Candy Girl' - New Edition
  • 'Every Breath You Take' - The Police
  • 'Baby Jane' - Rod Stewart
  • 'Wherever I Lay My Hat That's My Home' - Paul Young
  • 'Give It Up' - KC and the Sunshine Band
  • 'Red Red Wine' - UB40
  • 'Karma Chameleon' - Culture Club
  • 'Uptown Girl' - Billy Joel
  • 'Only You' - The Flying Pickets


  • 'Pipes of Peace' - Paul McCartney
  • 'Relax' - Frankie Goes to Hollywood
  • '99 Red Balloons' - Nena
  • 'Hello' - Lionel Richie
  • 'The Reflex' - Duran Duran
  • 'Wake Me Up Before You Go Go' - Wham!
  • 'Two Tribes' - Frankie Goes to Hollywood
  • 'Careless Whisper' - George Michael
  • 'I Just Called to Say I Love You' - Stevie Wonder
  • 'Freedom' - Wham!
  • 'I Feel For You' - Chaka Khan
  • 'I Should Have Known Better - Jim Diamond
  • 'The Power of Love' - Frankie Goes to Hollywood
  • 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' - Band Aid


  • 'I Want To Know What Love Is' - Foreigner
  • 'I Know Him So Well' - Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson
  • 'You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)' - Dead or Alive
  • 'Easy Lover' - Phillip Bailey and Phil Collins
  • 'We Are The World' - USA For Africa
  • 'Move Closer' - Phyllis Nelson
  • '19' - Paul Hardcastle
  • 'You'll Never Walk Alone' - The Crowd
  • 'Frankie' - Sister Sledge
  • 'There Must Be an Angel (Playing with my Heart)' - Eurythmics
  • 'Into The Groove' - Madonna
  • 'I Got You Babe' - UB40 with Chrissie Hind
  • 'Dancing in the Street' - David Bowie and Mick Jagger
  • 'If I Was' - Midge Ure
  • 'The Power of Love' - Jennifer Rush
  • 'A Good Heart' - Feargal Sharkey
  • 'I'm Your Man' - Wham!
  • 'Saving All My Love For You' - Whitney Houston
  • 'Merry Christmas Everyone' - Shakin' Stevens


  • 'West End Girls' - Pet Shop Boys
  • 'The Sun Always Shines on TV' - a-ha
  • 'When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going' - Billy Ocean
  • 'Chain Reaction' - Diana Ross
  • 'Living Doll' - Cliff Richard and the Young Ones
  • 'A Different Corner' - George Michael
  • 'Rock Me Amadeus' - Falco
  • 'The Chicken Song' - Spitting Image
  • 'Spirit in the Sky' - Doctor and the Medics
  • 'The Edge of Heaven'/'Where Did Your Heart Go' - Wham!
  • 'Papa Don't Preach' - Madonna
  • 'The Lady in Red' - Chris de Burgh
  • 'I Want to Wake Up With You' - Boris Gardiner
  • 'Don't Leave Me This Way' - The Communards
  • 'True Blue' - Madonna
  • 'Every Loser Wins' - Nick Berry
  • 'Take My Breath Away' - Berlin
  • 'The Final Countdown' - Europe
  • 'Caravan of Love' - The Housemartins
  • 'Reet Petite' - Jackie Wilson


  • 'Jack Your Body' - Steve 'Silk' Hurley
  • 'I Knew You Were Waiting For Me' - Aretha Franklin and George Michael
  • 'Stand by Me' - Ben E King
  • 'Everything I Own' - Boy George
  • 'Respectable' - Mel and Kim
  • 'Let It Be' - Ferry Aid
  • 'La Isla Bonita' - Madonna
  • 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' - Starship
  • 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' - Whitney Houston
  • 'Star Trekkin' - The Firm
  • 'It's a Sin' - Pet Shop Boys
  • 'Who's That Girl' - Madonna
  • 'La Bamba' - Los Lobos
  • 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You' - Michael Jackson
  • 'Never Gonna Give You Up' - Rick Astley
  • 'Pump Up The Volume' - M/A/R/R/S
  • 'You Win Again' - The Bee Gees
  • 'China in Your Hand' - T'Pau
  • 'Always on My Mind' - Pet Shop Boys


  • 'Heaven is a Place on Earth' - Belinda Carlisle
  • 'I Think We're Alone Now' - Tiffany
  • 'I Should Be So Lucky' - Kylie Minogue
  • 'Don't Turn Around' - Aswad
  • 'Heart' - Pet Shop Boys
  • 'Theme From S Express' - S Express
  • 'Perfect' - Fairground Attraction
  • 'With A Little Help From My Friends' - Wet Wet Wet
  • 'Doctorin' The TARDIS' - The Timelords
  • 'I Owe You Nothing' - Bros
  • 'Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You' - Glenn Medeiros
  • 'The Only Way is Up' - Yazz and the Plastic Population
  • 'A Groovy Kind of Love' - Phil Collins
  • 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' - The Hollies
  • 'Desire' - U2
  • 'One Moment in Time' - Whitney Houston
  • 'Orinoco Flow' - Enya
  • 'The First Time' - Robin Beck
  • 'Mistletoe and Wine' - Cliff Richard


  • 'Especially for You' - Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan
  • 'Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart' - Marc Almond and Gene Pitney
  • 'Belfast Child' - Simple Minds
  • 'Too Many Broken Hearts' - Jason Donovan
  • 'Like a Prayer' - Madonna
  • 'Eternal Flame' - The Bangles
  • 'Hand on Your Heart' - Kylie Minogue
  • 'Ferry Cross the Mersey' - The Christians, Holly Johnson, Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden, Stock, Aitken and Waterman
  • 'Sealed with a Kiss' - Jason Donovan
  • 'Back to Live (However Do You Want Me)' - Soul II Soul
  • 'You'll Never Stop Me From Loving You' - Sonia
  • 'Swing the Mood' - Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers
  • 'Ride on Time' - Black Box
  • 'That's What I Like' - Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers
  • 'All Around the World' - Lisa Stansfield
  • You Got The Right Stuff' - New Kids on the Block
  • 'Let's Party' - Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers
  • 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' - Band Aid II
1One such record, 'Doctor In Distress' was ostensibly to raise money for the Foundation for the Study of Infant Cot Death was also a protest at the BBC's axing of their long-running science fiction series Doctor Who. It failed to chart, despite support from the vocal talents of singers David Van Day, Patti Boulaye and Bobby G.

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