Music Features

Staff Playlist #5 - The 1980s

21st Century nostalgia will tell you that the 1980s was the decade that taste forgot, with bad fashion, bad production and bad drum machines. We’re here to tell you that while there were elements of those things, such revisionism is doing the ‘80s a great disservice. Clearly, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

The latest in our monthly themed playlists takes in otherworldly jangle pop, the birth of hip-hop as we know it, post-punk, hardcore and more. The tracks can be found on the No Ripcord page here, Spotify here (Europe only) and 8tracks here. For added authenticity, why not listen while playing Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy?
Black Flag – Six Pack
The first time I heard the bass line from Black Flag’s Six Pack, I was absolutely entranced. Slow and eerie, bassist Chuck Dukowski’s introduction crawls, building tension before the song switches gears and launches into an anthemic stab at alcoholism: “My girlfriend asked me which one I like better / SIX PACK! / I hope the answer won’t upset her / SIX PACK!” Trucking ruckus; one of the highlight’s of Black Flag’s landmark release, Damaged. Sean Caldwell
Cocteau Twins – Beatrix
Cocteau Twins embodied many of the qualities of 80s indie – their songs were gothic, ethereal and quite possibly about nothing at all. But at their best, the combination of Liz Frazer's unique vocal style and Robin Guthrie's rich guitar textures still proves to be compelling and like nothing else around. Mark Davison
Rosie Vela – Magic Smile
Sexy is an adjective seldom applied to the music of Steely Dan - a band who on the rare occasions they addressed the opposite sex did so from the perspective of middle-aged men, baffled and brow-beaten by younger, more assertive women. Strange then that, five years after the group’s hiatus, Dan frontmen, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, re-emerged as the backing band for Rosie Vela – a model and songwriter from Galveston, Texas.
Magic Smile is mid-tempo swing, set at a sultry walking pace, that glows with warmth on the lead into the chorus when Vela's vocal momentarily dissolves into soft focus. The album from which the song was taken - Zazu - sold poorly and has long since evaporated from the collective memory of the 80s, leaving this minor hit to garnish the better compilations of music from the decade. Sam Redlark
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – Perfect Skin
There can never be enough literate, intelligent, jangly pop in the world, and this track is a prime example. Cole is always an engaging lyricist, but here he appears to be so bewitched by the object of his affections, he loses direction somewhat. It’s as if he’s so intoxicated that he can’t fit all the words he wants into a single sentence, so lines begin to spill into one another, giving the track a kind of onomatopoeic feeling of heady desire. Oh, and it includes possibly the greatest couplet in the history of song: “She’s got cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin / And she’s sexually enlightened by Cosmopolitan.” Who wouldn’t want a girl like that? Joe Rivers
X – We’re Desperate
Tension, anxiety, restlessness - if rock n’ roll didn’t conform so well to the human condition, it wouldn’t matter. We’re Desperate by X, from their 1981 album Wild Gift, documents John Doe and Exene Cervenka as co-inhabitants in turmoil. Doe and Cervenka shout, “Every other week I need a new address / Landlord, landlord, landlord clean up the mess / Our whole fucking life is a wreck!”  Perfect words, relatable in every sense. Sean Caldwell
Bruce Springsteen – Highway Patrolman
Story songs don’t get any better than this. There’s the good brother, the bad brother and the girl who loves them both, one as wife, the other as sister. It’s about so many things; filial rivalry, family bonds, the importance of choices. It’s too layered to fairly convey in such a short space, but listen carefully and you’ll wonder if there’s anything Bruce has left out of this brief masterpiece of storytelling. Alan Shulman
Orange Juice – Blue Boy
The 1980s may be notable for the emergence of hip-hop, the popularisation of electronic music, and some truly horrible pop music, but I'm going to overlook these defining trends and throw a little known 1980 single from Glasgow's Orange Juice into the mix. Though they achieved little commercial success in their active years, Orange Juice's influence continues to resonate through the indie-pop scene to this day. At times, Blue Boy sounds like it is about to implode in one great jangly mess, but it never quite does. This, of course, is a major part of the band's charm. Orange Juice became slicker as the decade progressed, but they never bettered their early singles (compiled on The Glasgow School) and fantastic debut album, You Can't Hide Your Love Forever. If you're a fan of indie music you quite simply need to own these records. David Coleman
Public Enemy – Night Of The Living Baseheads
According to my very limited knowledge of 80s rap, the genre reached a peak of intensity and urgency on this track, with its repetitive horn like an alarm going off and the commanding presence of Chuck D declaring, “Shame on a brother when he dealin’ / Same block where my 98 be wheelin’.” PE would soon top these heights, but that will have to wait for the 90s playlist. Alan Shulman
Marcel King – Reach For Love
Briefly a pop star with Sweet Sensation in the mid 70s, Marcel King signed to Factory Records at the behest of director Rob Gretton, the true soul/dance music fan at the label. Partnered with Bernard Sumner and A Certain Ratio’s Donald Johnson, King puts his Motown-style vocals to wonderful use over a backing track that would easily have fit into any of New Order's seminal 80s albums. Though a hit at the Hacienda, it failed to cross over, perhaps not helped by being put out by a record company still associated with the "grey overcoat" brigade, and the market for electro-dance music being a few years away from taking off. So while Marcel King never released another single, this one still turned out to be brilliant enough that Shaun Ryder thought it the best thing Factory ever put out. D.C. Harrison
Dead Or Alive – You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)
Looking back, this song may seem extremely of its time: the sound is very 80s and they’re singing about actual physical records. However, none of this should detract from what a fantastic song it is. The producer clearly turned on the switch on the desk marked, “Include Kitchen Sink too,” and it leads to a track you can get completely immersed in. It’s got an addictive melody, a simple sentiment and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Ignore Pete Burns’ subsequent descent into self-parody, there aren’t many better examples of the 3-minute pop song than this. Joe Rivers
The Comsat Angels – Independence Day
Independence Day first appeared on the cult Sheffield band's debut album, Waiting For A Miracle, and was released as a single to little fanfare in 1980. The band rated the song so highly that they re-recorded in for their fourth album, 1983's Land, which was a failed attempt to infiltrate the pop market. Re-released as a single, it flopped again. Of the two versions, I much prefer the original, which I think has to be one of the best fusions of post-punk and pop ever committed to tape. The cleaned up pop version isn't bad either, but if you feel inclined to investigate the band further I'd recommend sticking to the first three albums. David Coleman
Siouxsie and the Banshees – Sin In My Heart
Siouxsie Sioux and her band may have been part of the punk scene of the late 70s, but they were arguably a better fit for the musical environment of the 1980s, and Siouxsie's gothic look and androgynous quality reflected the fashion of the time perfectly. Mark Davison
Rod Stewart – Young Turks
The insistent staccato bassline, the absolutely epic chorus, and the glorious synth make up one of my favourite tracks of the 80s, if not ever. Rod Stewart never really gets mentioned as being “cutting edge” - and some may say rightfully so - but at the time the sounds were fairly new to Rod’s mainstream audience. Duane Hitchings, a songwriter for Rod says that the sound of the fast pulsing synth groove was influenced by Devo, who were one of his favourite groups at the time; bet you never thought a Rod Stewart song was influenced by underground heroes Devo! The song tells a story of Billy (the young turk, i.e. a rebellious teenager) who runs away from home and gets his girlfriend pregnant. I don’t know why it doesn’t get played more in clubs. It really is an epically joyous song that is far more deserving than Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing which also came out in 1981. Maybe we’ll just have to wait for Glee to get hold of it. On second thoughts… Tom Roper
Prince – If I Was Your Girlfriend
For a time in the 80s, the world of pop was ruled by three musical giants: Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. The most prolific of this trio was Prince, who produced several classic albums during the decade. There are many Prince tracks which would be worthy of inclusion here, but my personal favourite is the gender-bending If I Was Your Girlfriend. The arrangement goes against the grain of 80s excess and works on the assumption that less is more; the sparse bass and drum machine pattern is punctuated by a gently lilting synth line, and Prince's sped up vocals have a sense of melancholy despair as he highlights the sexual divide in his own unique style. Gary McGinley
As always, we welcome your input. What have we forgotten? What’s your favourite track from the selection? Have we pointed you in the direction of anything new? Tweet us or use the comment box below; we’d love to hear from you.