The title of this post is "Five quintessentially 80s songs." Not "THE five quintessentially 80s songs." Just five of them from what is presumably a much longer list.
So don't get your panties in a bunch complaining about my choices, which by the way are exquisite. If you have additions, please, add them in the comments.
I suppose I mean at least three things by the phrase "quintessentially 80s":
- These are songs that define or really capture some part of the decade's vibe and feel.
- They are songs that may still be listened to and enjoyed by many, but that I submit could only have been hits in the 80s.
- And they're songs that I like. As I always say, I'm pushing the keys here, so I make the rules.
I Ran - Flock of Seagulls
I have this belief that no discussion of 80s music or culture is complete without at least a passing mention of Flock of Seagulls. They weren't especially huge, as New Wave bands go, but lead singer Mike Score's hair and their overall sound were very much representative of what was going on in one segment of pop music in, say, 1982 and '83.
My friend Mel was a huge Flock of Seagulls fan and had all of their music on cassette. This was before the CD era, of course, but long after vinyl had stopped being cool. Ironically, vinyl is ultra-hip and cool today, which just goes to prove what Mark Twain said about history not necessarily repeating itself, but it sure does rhyme a lot.
Down Under - Men at Work
There are probably few people in the U.S. (or even the world) who still listen to Men at Work as frequently and as enthusiastically as I do. Their sound is dated in many ways, but I guess that's why I like it. "Business As Usual," the album on which "Down Under" appeared, could only have clicked on a global scale as it did in the early 80s, largely as a reaction to much of the blandness that proceeded it on the pop charts in 1979 and '80.
This particular tune resonated with millions partly because it helped bring about a massive wave of interest in Australia, a continent we had all sort of collectively forgotten about for several decades prior. Suddenly it was like, "Hey, remember Australia? They're all so cool down there! And how about that Crocodile Dundee?"
Greg Ham's flute riff defines this song for many, but it doesn't work without Colin Hay's voice and phrasing. The original version of this song, as Colin likes to point out, was much darker than the pop version that swept the world. But no one was really interested in dark and dreary at that point in history, so the cheery remix prevailed.
Come On, Eileen - Dexy's Midnight Runners
If someone brings up the topic of 80s one-hit wonders, this is your go-to band. I never quite got the whole overalls-and-bandanna ragamuffin look they were going for, but that's OK because this tune is one I can listen to again and again.
By the way, lots of misheard lyrics in this song, including the very garbled first stanza. For the record, it goes like this:
Poor old Johnnie Ray
Sounded sad upon the radio
Moved a million hearts in mono
Our mothers cried, sang along
Who would blame them?
Not Shakespeare, I guess, but better than, say, Vanilla Ice.
99 Luftballoons - Nena
We're talking about the German version here, not that weak English-translated "99 Red Balloons." Nena is Nena only when she's speaking der Deutsch and showing off her hairy armpits. (And for what it's worth, the English translation wasn't a direct translation, so it's not even the same song, really.)
I guess this was designed to be an anti-war song of sorts, which would make sense from a German band working in the early 80s. They lived in a place where the Cold War was being waged on a daily basis.
But what everyone really liked was the beat of the song, and specifically the synthesized bass line. The song could have been about floor wax for all it mattered, and none of us knew what Nena's German lyrics meant anyway. A worthy addition to any list of great 80s songs.
Video Killed the Radio Star - The Buggles
Nowadays, this songs only gets mentioned as the answer to a trivia question: namely, what video was the first one ever played on MTV?
But it's a good tune in its own right and it gets heavy rotation on my iPod (to which you're probably responding, "Of COURSE it does.")
Technically, "Video Killed the Radio Star" doesn't even belong on this list because it was officially released in 1979. But because of the MTV connection, and because of what it represented, it deserves a place here. It tells the story of the passing of one era and the dawn of another, which reminds me that there really was a kind of collective anticipation as the 70s were ending and the 80s began.
Of course, by the time the 90s rolled around, all we had to show for the decade were crates of unsold parachute pants and a hole in the ozone layer caused by the use of millions of metric tons of Aquanet hairspray, so I'm not exactly sure what everyone was so jazzed about.