Five years ago, as I began writing this blog, I knew that I wanted to occasionally shine a light on the hundreds of great songs from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that have been forgotten or were never discovered. I refer to them as “lost classics,” and now, with today’s post, I have done this 25 times (!), bringing you a little insight into roughly 275 tracks from those decades of yore.
I admit I’m inclined to focus more on songs of the ’60s and ’70s than the ’80s, so I intend to fix that with this batch of tunes, which all come from the ’80s. I hope you enjoy rediscovering, or hearing for the first time, these fine selections.
“Music, sweet music, you’re the queen of my soul…”
“Winning Ugly,” The Rolling Stones, 1986
Tensions were running high between band members — especially Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — during this mid-’80s period. Jagger had released his first solo album, “She’s the Boss,” the previous year, and Richards would form his own band X-pensive Winos the following year, two indications that neither man had his heart in the next Stones project. Not surprising, then, that most of the “Dirty Work” LP sounds formulaic and uninspired. Even the album cover art is shoddy and kind of tacky. There are exceptions, however; their cover of the Bob & Earl soul tune “Harlem Shuffle” reached the Top Five, and Ronnie Wood’s “One Hit to the Body” maintained a nice groove throughout. My candidate for lost classic here is the driving “Winning Ugly,” the strongest Rolling Stones track since “A Rock and a Hard Place” from “Steel Wheels.” Jagger sings forcefully and the guitars are mixed loud and up front, giving the track some serious horsepower.
“I’m Steppin’ Out,” John Lennon, 1980/1984
When Sean Lennon was born in 1975, John Lennon retreated from the music business to become an at-home father, perhaps in part to make up for the way he neglected his first son Julian during the Beatles’ reign. He and Yoko were recluses in their New York apartment, and John only occasionally picked up a guitar. Once Sean turned five, John decided it was time for a triumphant return, so he wrote a batch of songs, as did Yoko, and they put them together on their “Double Fantasy” LP. The album and single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” were gradually moving up the charts when, on December 8, 1980, Lennon was assassinated by a mentally unbalanced fan. Now everyone had to have the album, but as it turned out, there were enough additional tracks to assemble a posthumous collection in 1984 called “Milk and Honey.” Yoko’s tracks could be tweaked and polished, but John’s, like “I’m Steppin’ Out,” were basically recorded rehearsals with a loose feel to them.
“Somebody Crying,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1987
A devotee of ’50s and ’60s Top 40 pop and soul tunes while growing ups in suburban Detroit, Crenshaw first found fame playing John Lennon as a part of the “Beatlemania” stage show in the 1978-1980 period. He soon embarked on his solo career, making a moderate dent in the charts with his debut album (#50) and the Top 30 single “Someday, Someway.” His somewhat nerdy look and basic roots-rock approach drew comparisons to Buddy Holly, which was just fine with him. “I’ve been a Buddy Holly fan all my life,” he said. “The joy still comes across in his music. It’s really got its own je ne sais quoi.” So does Crenshaw’s, in my view, but of his nine additional albums, only “Field Day” came close to the debut LP in chart success. His fourth LP, “Mary Jean and 9 Others,” has several great tracks you’ve never heard, including “Somebody Crying,” which showcases his penchant for intriguing chord changes to keep listeners on their toes.
“Home by the Sea/Second Home by the Sea,” Genesis, 1983
The best purveyors of art rock during the heyday of progressive rock in England, Genesis attracted a rabid following for their experimental fantasy music led by the unparalleled Peter Gabriel. From 1967 to 1975, he led the band with marvelous visuals, costumes and props, culminating in the dense storytelling of “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” After Gabriel’s departure, drummer Phil Collins took over on vocals, and the band continued in the same vein for a couple albums, but eventually Collins pushed them in a more pop direction that made them superstars, even if their original fan base abandoned them. I think the best of the ’80s Genesis LPs was called simply “Genesis” (1983), which included the cutesy hit “That’s All” and the much better “Taking It All Too Hard.” I prefer the 11-minute tour de force “Home By the Sea”/”Second Home By the Sea,” a real showcase for the band’s instrumental talents as well as Collins’ vocal workout.
“Don’t Pay the Ferryman,” Chris de Burgh, 1982
Depending on which British critic you ask, de Burgh is either “a master songwriter of soaring, majestic tunes” or “a pretentious bombastic art rocker dabbling in pop.” I’m familiar with only three of his 21 studio albums released between 1974 and 2016, but I would come down on the side of his proponents. In particular, the 1984 LP “Man On The Line” is quite solid, with compelling melodies and insightful lyrics. He has spent most of his life living in Ireland, and his work has been well received there and in various countries in Europe and South America, but he has had limited success in the UK or the US. He is made fun of for his treacly ballad “The Lady in Red,” a 1986 single that reached the Top Five in the US and seven other countries. Before all that, there was the rather spooky single “Don’t Pay the Ferryman,” from his 1982 album “The Getaway,” which made it to #34 in the US and is worth your attention.
“No Time for Talk,” Christopher Cross, 1983
This guy got so much success out of the gate with his 1980 self-titled debut that he ended up somewhat jinxed for the rest of his career. At the 1981 Grammys, Cross won Best New Artist, Album of the Year, Record of the Year for his #1 single “Sailing” and Song of the Year for writing “Sailing,” which marked the first time one artist won all four major awards. He followed that with “Arthur’s Theme” from the Dudley Moore film, another #1 smash hit that also won a Best Song Oscar in 1981. His second LP, 1983’s “Another Page,” did reasonably well, but he quickly fell out of favor in the MTV era. He looked more like the guy who brings the keg to the frat party than an Eighties rock star, and his music, while pretty and well produced, soon became derisively described as “yacht rock” (adult contemporary). Still, I take you back to the compelling “No Time for Talk,” the leadoff track on “Another Page,” which features Michael McDonald on harmonies.
“Cool Running,” Boz Scaggs, 1988
Here’s another talented singer-songwriter-guitarist who came from a hip rock/blues background with the early Steve Miller Band in 1968, then went solo and eventually started favoring R&B material. By 1976, with the help of studio musicians who would soon form Toto, Scaggs released “Silk Degrees,” one of the hottest, smoothest albums of the year, including “Lido Shuffle,” “It’s Over,” “We’re All Alone” (a hit for Rita Coolidge) and his own monster hit “Lowdown.” His next two LPs continued his Top Ten run (“Down Two Then Left” at #11 and “Middle Man” at #8), but curiously, he took time off from recording through most of the ’80s. From then on, Scaggs recorded sporadically in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, but always producing polished work. On his 1988 release, “Other Roads,” there’s a great track I love called “Cool Running,” that has the same infectious groove of his “Silk Degrees” period. His vocals and song arrangements are particularly impressive.
“Heartbeat City,” The Cars, 1984
Finding a way to merge the immediacy of the punk style and the accessibility of melodic pop was the goal of The Cars, and they struck gold from the outset in 1978. Ric Ocasek wrote and sang lead vocals on some of the most popular songs of that late ’70s-early ’80s era — “Just What I Needed,” “Let’s Go,” “Shake It Up,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Let the Good Times Roll.” To my ears, the band was never better than on their fifth LP, 1984’s “Heartbeat City,” which spawned five hits, most notably “You Might Think” and the dreamy “Drive,” sung by bass player Benjamin Orr. I’ve always been partial to the wonderful groove of the title track, dominated by mesmerizing synthesizers and Ocasek’s vocals about a here-today-gone-tomorrow girl named Jacki. The band made only one more album after this one and then retired. Surprisingly, the band reunited in 2011 for a seventh LP, “Move Like This,” a worthy return to form after more than two decades away from the limelight.
“Things She Said,” Toy Matinee, 1990
This was one of those records I felt compelled to buy because I was knocked out by the single on the radio. “Last Plane Out” was superbly produced with a catchy melody and great vocals, so off I went to buy this LP by a new band called Toy Matinee. Turns out the group was the brainchild of singer-songwriter Kevin Gilbert, a multi-instrumentalist who collaborated with keyboardist Patrick Leonard to write all the songs, using session musicians to round out the lineup. Once the album was complete, Reprise Records failed to promote it, and the musicians went off to participate in other projects. Gilbert visited key radio stations on his own which resulted in regional airplay in those cities, and tried to assemble a touring band, but that went nowhere. Gilbert died in 1996 at 29 from an asphyxiation accident. My point here is that albums like this sometimes contain more hidden gems, and sure enough, you should check out “Things She Said,” one of several goodies.
“God Bless the Absentee,” Paul Simon, 1980
We all know Simon’s mega-successes, from “Bookends” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with Art Garfunkel in the late ’60s through his first three strong solo LPs in the ’70s, and the widely praised “Graceland”/”Rhythm of the Saints” period in the late ’80s. He also has a number of underrated, lesser known albums along the way, one of which is 1980’s “One Trick Pony,” an unusual film soundtrack to a mildly depressing movie that starred Simon himself in the leading role. He played a musician who had been on top of the charts years earlier but was now struggling to make a living as the leader of a five-man band that performed relentlessly to mostly lackluster audiences. “Late in the Evening,” the album’s hit single (#8 in the US), tells of the character’s love of rhythmic music and describes one of those nights when everything was clicking nicely. Alternately, “God Bless the Absentee” is a sad, piano-driven piece that mourns all the time spent away from the family he loves.
“Wild Heart of the Young,” Karla Bonoff, 1982
Holy smokes, I love this woman’s music! Bonoff was part of the Southern California singer-songwriter scene in the 1970s, playing and singing in a group called Bryndle with Andrew Gold, Kenny Edwards and Wendy Waldman. Each of them performed in Linda Ronstadt’s touring band and on her studio albums at various stages of her long career, and Bonoff’s songs were often featured, most notably “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again” and “If He’s Ever Near” on her “Hasten Down the Wind” LP in 1976. Bonoff recorded and released her own version of those songs on her own debut LP the following year. In 1989, Ronstadt’s duet with Aaron Neville on Bonoff’s song “All My Life” won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo. In 1982, Bonoff had her only Top 40 hit, “Personally,” but the clincher for me is the title track from that album, “Wild Heart of the Young,” an achingly beautiful song about lost love and life’s lessons.
“When the Hangover Strikes,” Squeeze, 1982
This British new wave band rode a modestly successful career arc on the strength of solid songwriting from guitarists/vocalists Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford. They had several chart successes in the UK with singles like “Cool for Cats” and “Up the Junction,” and their albums broke into the Top 20 a couple times. In the US, fame took longer. Nobody was buying their first few albums, and it wasn’t until the “East Side Story” LP with its quirky tune “Tempted” (sung by short-term band member Paul Carrack) that American sales picked up. Later Squeeze albums like 1987’s “Babylon and On” spawned two songs that received decent US airplay, “Hourglass” and “853-5937.” One of my favorite tracks by Squeeze is the slow, cocktail-lounge jazz feel of “When the Hangover Strikes,” from 1982’s “Sweets From a Stranger.” It’s the perfect soundtrack to help you through those hard-to-face mornings after nights of too much drinking.