Funny, isn’t it, how we sharply divide pop culture into decades?
I guess we’ve got to start a new decade at some point, so we choose Jan. 1, 1970, or 1980, or whatever. In truth, however, it’s not that precisely defined. The Sixties didn’t slam shut at the beginning of 1970. The trippy, dense music of the progressive rock bands of 1970-1973 had much more in common with ’60s psychedelia than the rest of the dance/punk/disco/new wave genres that dominated the rest of the ’70s.
The same holds true for the 1980s. The music of 1980 and 1981, for example, was still dominated by disco and new wave rather than the synth pop, Eurodance, metal and hip hop that came to define The Eighties music in general.
Me, I was 25 when 1980 arrived, and by 1985 I was 30, married, contemplating a family and, on the whole, less plugged in to the newer bands and styles. I mostly clung to my favorites from the ’70s (and ’60s) who were still releasing albums and touring. But I still stuck my toe in the waters now and then, thanks to friends’ recommendations and inevitable exposure through radio.
All of this came to mind as I spent last week searching the albums of the 1980s, looking for “lost classics” for this week’s post. In the ’80s, I hadn’t immersed myself in entire albums anymore the way I’d used to, so I came to realize I had a smaller selection of deep album tracks and “diamonds in the rough” for me to bring to the surface for you all to hear again, or for the first time. But I settled on a playlist of a dozen tracks that I think you’ll enjoy. Some are by artists who debuted in the ’80s; others were ’70s bands still making great new music. In any case, I loved these tunes and hope you will too.
Rock on, music lovers!
“Trust Me to Open My Mouth,” Squeeze, 1987
A case can be made that Squeeze was really just singer/songwriter Glenn Tilbrook and singer/lyricist Chris Difford, with a revolving door of sidemen throughout their career, which has lasted into the 2010s. Their native England fans ate up the catchy, accessible new wave music when they first arrived on the scene in 1978 with the “Cool for Cats” and “Up the Junction” singles, both reaching #2 there. Their first big impact in the US came with the 1981 single “Tempted,” sung by occasional member Paul Carrack, which reached #8 on mainstream rock charts. In 1987, Squeeze had their biggest success here with the delightfully titled LP “Babylon and On,” and two hit singles: “Hourglass” (#15 on Top 40 charts) and “853-5937” (#32). A solid rocker that curiously didn’t click as a single is “Trust Me to Open My Mouth,” featuring Difford on vocals.
“Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” Echo and the Bunnymen, 1987
Ian McCulloch (guitar, piano, vocals) wrote nearly all of Echo & The Bunnymen’s solid post-punk catalog with guitarist Will Sergeant and bassist Les Pattinson, and although they didn’t make much of a dent in the US charts, they were a big success in the UK, where they enjoyed five Top Ten albums and a handful of hit singles during their 1982-1987 heyday. While the 1984 LP “Ocean Rain” is regarded as their high-water mark, the follow-up, entitled simply “Echo & The Bunnymen,” appeals most to me, especially the fabulous “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo” and the minor UK hit “Lips Like Sugar.” Regarding the band’s quirky name, Sergeant explained, “We had a mate who kept suggesting all these crazy, stupid names. We thought Echo & The Bunnymen was stupider than the rest, so we went with that.”
“Captured,” Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, 1984
If you know little or nothing about this energetic R&B throwback band from the Jersey shore, do yourself a favor and track down their first three albums: “I Don’t Want to Go Home” (1976), “This Time It’s For Real” (1977) and “Hearts of Stone” (1978). They operated in the shadow of, and with considerable help from, Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band stalwart Steve Van Zandt, who wrote much of their material and produced their albums. A few personnel changes came as they switched labels in 1980 and continued on throughout the ’80s with less consistent albums but always a few great songs buried in the track lists. On the 1984 LP “In the Heat,” there’s a jewel called “Captured,” carried now by synthesizer and guitar instead of a sweaty horn section as in their early days. Southside Johnny Lyon’s soulful voice is the real trademark, and he’s in fine form here.
“To Be With You,” Simply Red, 1989
Dynamic lead singer Mick Hucknall’s flaming red hair was the reason the band was named Red, but one night a venue promoter was unclear about their name, to which Hucknall responded, “Red…simply Red.” Up on the marquis it went as “Simply Red” — and it stuck. The soul/pop group has sold upwards of 50 million records worldwide between 1986 and 2010, with a dozen Top Ten albums (including four at #1) in the UK, and two #1 singles in the US: “Holding Back the Years” in 1986 and a cover of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” in 1989. From that ’89 album, “A New Flame,” I’ve always been partial to the infectious “To Be With You,” full of vibrant horns, a danceable groove and Hucknall’s magnificent vocals.
“The West Side,” Phil Collins, 1983
Starting in 1981 and throughout much of the ’80s, Genesis drummer/vocalist Collins had a hugely successful solo career running parallel to Genesis’s increasingly commercial path. Collins’s presence on the radio was ubiquitous to the point of suffocating for a couple of years — Genesis singles, solo singles (seven #1s between 1984-1989), Disney film soundtracks, one-off collaborations with artists like Philip Bailey, Marilyn Martin and David Crosby… I admit I stopped buying his stuff after a while, but I enjoy going back to his first efforts on his own, 1981’s “Face Value” and 1982’s “Hello I Must Be Going.” The latter includes a bold, instrumental big-production number called “The West Side” that still packs a wallop and is far more interesting than his commercial hits from that period.
“Mandela Day,” Simple Minds, 1989
Scottish band Simple Minds, led by the great vocalist Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill, were cult favorites in 1980 and 1981 before reaching #3 on the UK charts in 1982 with “New Gold Dream” and then #1 in 1984 with “Sparkle in the Rain.” These albums managed no better than the mid-60s on US charts, but in 1985, the band had huge international success with “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” the single from “The Breakfast Club,” and the multi-platinum “Once Upon a Time” LP with the US hits “Alive and Kicking” and “Sanctify Yourself.” Although their success continued in the UK well into the ’90s, it tapered off quickly in the US, which is too bad, because their quality remained high. The 1989 LP “Street Fighting Years” took a decidedly more political tone, especially with the stunning #1 single “Mandela Day,” in honor of the (at the time) still-imprisoned leader. Barely anyone in the US heard it.
“Looking For Eden,” Ian Anderson, 1983
After a hugely popular run as the leader of Jethro Tull throughout the 1970s, Anderson wanted to experiment with electronic music in 1980 as a solo artist, but halfway through the sessions for the album, called simply “A,” the record company insisted it be labeled a Tull album, even though Anderson’s supporting musicians on the project hadn’t had anything to do with the band. Hard feelings with the real Tull members, and a fan base that didn’t like the new direction, hurt the Tull brand, and Anderson eventually tried again with a true solo effort called “Walk Into Light” in 1983. Heavy on synthesizers and drum machines, the album sounds a bit dated today, but several tracks shine through, most notably “Looking For Eden,” with an alluring melody line and superb vocals from Anderson.
“A One-Story Town,” Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1982
The late great Petty was a true American success story that ended several chapters too soon when he died in 2017 of a drug-induced heart attack. He and The Heartbreakers played a popular brand of mainstream rock that clicked in the ’80s and kept attracting fans well into the 2010s when they had become almost elder statesmen on the rock concert circuit. Petty was from Florida, but the band was founded in LA in 1976, breaking through in 1979 with “Damn the Torpedos” and the hits “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” In 1982, the band released “Long After Dark,” their fifth LP and third to reach the Top Ten, carried by the Top 20 singles “You Got Lucky” and “Change of Heart.” As often happens for me, I found myself enjoying certain album tracks more than the hits, and in this case it was “A One-Story Town,” a hard rocker that never failed to please when I cranked it up at parties.
“Evil Empire,” Joe Jackson, 1989
I’ve made it clear before on this blog how highly I think of Jackson and his superb catalog of recorded works, from his “angry young man” new wave 1978 debut “Look Sharp!” all the way up through 2019’s “Fool.” His songwriting is among the best in the business, covering a broad range of musical style, genres, tempos and arrangements. He’s had his share of successes in the US, including the Top 20 singles “Steppin’ Out” (#6 in 1982) and “You Can’t Get What You Want” (#15 in 1984), and his albums performed well here throughout the late ’70s and ’80s. One of my favorites was criminally ignored by the public, the marvelous “Blaze of Glory” in 1989. The entire record is worth your time, but I’m particularly fond of “Evil Empire,” which plays on Ronald Reagan’s nickname for Russia.
“Love Like We Do,” Edie Brickell, 1988
When she and her band The New Bohemians made their debut with the endearing “Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars” album in 1988, Brickell struck a memorable pose at the microphone, with one leg crossed well in front of the other as her seductive voice wrapped around her charming tunes. The album yielded the quirky hit “What I Am,” which wasn’t really representative of her music, in my view. I would’ve selected the catchy “Love Like We Do,” which bounces along relentlessly. She met Paul Simon during her performance on “Saturday Night Live” that year, and they were married four years later. She has continued making records with and without the Bohemians, making some great music along the way, especially on “Picture Perfect Morning” (1993) and “Volcano” (2004).
“Kiss and Tell,” Bryan Ferry, 1987
As vocalist and de facto leader of the avant grade Roxy Music from 1972-1982, Ferry led them through a fascinating evolution from edgy dissonance (“Virginia Plain,” “The Thrill Of It All,” “Out of the Blue”) to ultra cool atmospherics (“Avalon,” “More Than This”). He has continued that direction on his subsequent solo projects, including the excellent “Boys and Girls” LP in 1985 and the jazz-influenced “Bete Noire” (1987), which strikes a fine balance between mysterious moodiness and dance-floor energy, and includes one of his best tracks, “Kiss and Tell.” He has spent a lot of time since then doing entire albums of cover versions, and even though some tracks are incredible (“I Put a Spell on You” comes immediately to mind), I have preferred his more recent offerings of new material — “Olympia” (2010) and “Avonmore” (2014).
“Horizontal Departure,” Robert Plant, 1983
When you were the lead singer of the finest hard rock blues group in history, it had to be mighty intimidating to attempt any kind of solo career, but Plant forged ahead pretty quickly, releasing his first effort, “Pictures at Eleven,” only 20 months after Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died and put an end to the band. Frankly, most fans expected it would be guitarist/leader Jimmy Page who would emerge first, but Plant evidently had more fortitude to withstand the inevitable comparisons to the Zep tunes. With guitarist Robbie Blunt helping out, Plant cranked out some fine hard rock and subtle ballads on the debut and its even better follow-up, “The Principle of Moments” (1983), which include the hit singles “I’m in the Mood” and “Big Log.” A noteworthy deep track I’ve liked is the closer, “Horizontal Departure.”