File this under NOT early music.
People often accuse me of being stuck in the 80s. Not because of a penchant for parachute pants, and certainly not because of my moussed-out, technicolor hairstyle. It’s because I have a terrible memory… until the conversation turns to pop music of the Reagan years.
I was not quite 10 years old when MTV launched in 1981. It was a big deal. The only problem was access. Living in the suburban expanses of the Greater Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area, I didn’t have cable television. No one did. (Cable wasn’t installed until 1988!) So no matter how desperate I was to gorge myself at MTV’s nonstop audiovisual buffet, I had no choice but to stomach whatever local radio served up**.
From 1980 to 1989, the radio was always on— clock radios, boom boxes, car stereos, walkmans, etc. (I even had a waterproof shower radio!) I absorbed everything, and not just titles and lyrics: I unconsciously committed to memory years of chart data, band biographies, production credits, songwriting credits, etc., etc.
But when the 80s ended, so did my love affair with radio. By the end of the decade, overblown hair metal had conquered the airwaves, driving artists with quirky pop smarts to the outlands of college radio. Dandies with synthesizers were usurped by guitar-slinging misogynists, MTV turned its back on music, Top 40 radio slipped into a coma called “adult contemporary,” and then… *shudder* …Seattle.
I never truly gave up on the 80s. (Let’s be honest, the music never really went away. I mean, come on— Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” has been playing nonstop since 1982. And if I hear “Come on Eileen” one more time….) But thanks to the time-wasting benefits of the internet, my commitment has grown deeper. I’ve been able to uncover music that I missed the first time around and revisit stuff that for whatever reason I dismissed unfairly.
But let’s get something straight about obscure pop music of the 1980s: much of it deserves to be forgotten, and the rest has little to offer beyond its sentimental or novelty appeal. But some of it—the choice stuff—deserves another look.
So, here are 15 of my favorite “misses” of the 1980s— songs that should have been hits, or at the very least should be better known than they are. (I tried to trim the list to 10, but couldn’t. It was just too painful.)
Before we begin, I want you to understand that I exercised great restraint here. I did not, for instance, let my enduring love for Talking Heads put a thumb on the scale. The same is true of the Clash, tragically underrated in terms of their pop smarts. Also, there are artists for whom I’ve developed an affection over the years, and while their overall output has endeared itself to me, I couldn’t identify a specific song that warranted inclusion on my “Big Misses” list. I’m looking at you, Psychedelic Furs, Tom Tom Club, Marshall Crenshaw and Ultravox. Lastly, I tried to limit my choices to songs that were released as singles and not just unknown album tracks. I didn’t entirely succeed in this.
15 BIG MISSES OF THE 1980s
1.) China – Red Rockers
The Red Rockers were a punk band from New Orleans, but you’d never know it by listening to this song, what with its spacious production and “hooky” chorus. I don’t have a clue what it has to do with China, but it sure is catchy.
2.) Thorn in my Side – Eurhythmics
Dave Stewart’s production style is less than subtle here. But when you have a singer as capable as Annie Lennox, what’s a few more bells and whistles? This song was a hit in the UK. Here in the states, it didn’t even reach the Top 40. Stupid Americans.
3.) Dissidents – Thomas Dolby
5 seconds in and I’m already hooked. Like other Thomas Dolby songs, lyrical ambiguity is an obstacle. But with a groove like this, who cares? Perhaps the Russian-sounding countermelody of the bridge was a bad match for the nuclear paranoia of the day, or maybe a running time of nearly 5 minutes was too much of a programming commitment. Whatever the case, there’s a lot going on here. Spread the word.
4.) When I Write the Book – Rockpile/ Nick Lowe
Like other songs in Nick’s catalog, “When I Write the Book” is simply charming. Why this song wasn’t as big a hit as “Cruel to be Kind”, I’ll never know.
5.) The Real Adventure – Bill Nelson
I don’t know who the hell Bill Nelson is, but he ran off with one of Peter Gabriel’s songs! The fuzz of analog synths and angular melody make my day every time it pops up on my iPod. And I dare you to name another song that has dueling guitar and xylophone solos!
6.) Girlfriend is Better – Talking Heads
This song had hit written all over it. And yet…. Like many Talking Heads songs, the amped-up live version is in many ways superior to the studio track. Two magical words: keyboard bass.
7.) Lost Planes – The Fixx
The Fixx could always be counted on for stupid lyrics. But don’t let a line like “when you’re hanging from a parachute, the whistling wind might play your flute” fool you– this is a pretty cool tune.
8.) Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale – a-Ha
I’m totally cheating here. As far as I know, “Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale” was never released as a single. It is, however, my favorite a-Ha song and so evocative of an era that it deserved to be included.
9.) Town Called Malice – The Jam
Apart from maybe Hall & Oates’ “Maneater”, the Motown thing never really caught on here in the states. But it sure did across the pond– Culture Club, Wham!, Human League, English Beat, Squeeze… even the Clash got in on the act with a (horrible) song called “Hitsville U.K.” The Jam’s “Town Called Malice” is a convincing, full-throated hybrid– a Motown groove with punk pop purpose.
10.) Don’t Change – INXS
Anthemic. Best of all, it doesn’t sound like INXS.
11.) Lips Like Sugar – Echo and the Bunnymen
Back in the day, comparisons to the Doors were a nonstarter for me. I wrote Echo and the Bunnymen off. How sad for me.
12.) Union City Blue – Blondie
A top 20 hit for Blondie in the U.K.. It’s unknown here in the states. What a shame. Moody and expansive, its “wall of sound” presages 90s alt rock.
13.) Life’s What You Make It – Talk Talk
There’s a self-importance to the music of Talk Talk that should be totally off-putting. Then again, I’m blogging (at great length) about a topic few people care about, so who am I to lecture anyone on self-importance? Enjoy the song.
14.) See Those Eyes – Altered Images
The Scottish band Altered Images was doing this in 1982. It took “progressive music” years to find this sound again.
15.) Johnny and Mary – Robert Palmer
Argh! I’m so on the fence about this one. Out of respect for the dead, I’ll throw Robert a bone.
So there you have it— 15 of my favorite “misses”. Ask me next week and I’m sure you’d get a completely different list of songs. That’s the thing about unhealthy obsessions: they conform to your every move… like gum in your hair. (Yes, I remember hair.)
Songs that nearly made the list? “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” – Split Enz, “Senses Working Overtime” – XTC, “Quiet Life” – Japan, “I Found a Love” – Phil Seymour, “Pleasure Victim” – Berlin, “Mean to Me” – Crowded House, “Volume” – Pylon…. See how hard this was?!
I almost added “Long Hot Summer“, but since it’s grown in popularity over the past 30 years, I decided that it didn’t need my help. Suck it, Style Council– you’re on your own.
And for the Gabriel Jacksons of the world left asking “where is the urban music?”, don’t worry… there are more lists brewing.
** Don’t buy my sob story about MTV deprivation. I wasn’t entirely out of the loop. Cable TV managed to snake its way to rural West Virginia, so I got my fix when I visited my grandmother. I’d park myself in front of her TV for hours. And believe me, there’s nothing better than watching music videos with your grandmother!