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Recently I have been doing stuff that has brought the 1970s, 80s, and 90s to mind for me again (notes for a memoir), particularly the 1980s. And, because I have been doing a series of lists on this blog (movies, music, books &c), I thought I’d curate a list of 1980s music. The decade was actually a really interesting time musically (and culturally). The 1960s and 70s hoover up a disproportionate amount of attention when it comes to post-War popular music and culture but, it seems to me, a very good case can be made for the creativity of the 1980s too, as I believe this play-list testifies.

As always when one does something like this one has to deal with the question of what is it you mean when you produce a Top 10 or Top 20 (or in this case a Top 30)? Do you mean your own favourite tracks from that decade? And if so, do you mean your favourite 1980s tracks now or do you mean these are the tracks you liked 30 years ago?

The answer to these two questions are — firstly — yes, I mean my own favourite music from the decade: I’m not going to give time and space and attention to anything I do not like, am I?, even at the cost of having a somewhat distorted representation of the decade. (Can one really have a credible list of music from the 1980s and not have Madonna or Michael Jackson featuring, or, indeed, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Shakin Stevens, Diana Ross or the Nolan Sisters, you may ask?)

And — secondly — yes and no: which is to say, mostly the list is stuff I liked at the time but there are groups I like now which I did not like so much at the time — The Smiths, for example; it wasn’t that I disliked The Smiths especially, it was more that I was unmoved by what they were doing; I was slow to catch on, I guess, about 10 years behind the curve. And similarly there is music I liked at the time which I really do not like at all now. What’s here is about 85% / 15% — 85% stuff I liked then and now and 15% stuff I like now but maybe not so much at the time.

To underline or highlight this — i.e., that in this presentation there is an irreducible measure of me looking back 30 years on (as opposed to a true reflection of the 1980s) — sometimes I’ve chosen modern versions of 80s classics, The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’, or Prince’s ‘Kiss’, for example, or that rather excellent version of ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ by the Tom Tom Club — sometimes because I like the rearrangement musically, sometimes because I like the video, and sometimes to show that these compositions have staying power and can sustain rearrangements and renovations (which for me is one of the indicators of quality in something).

And then there is the whole business of choosing things because you want to present some form of narrative, either a narrative about yourself or about the decade — the 1980s was a super politicized decade, certainly in Britain and Ireland anyway, with Thatcher and Charlie Haughey, H-block hunger strikes, Brixton and other inner-city riots, the Miner’s Strike, Abortion and Divorce Referendums in Ireland, boycotts of Apartheid South African culture and products, and then Ronald Reagan and the intensification of east-west relations (cruise missiles in Europe, “Star Wars”, and so on).

And, of course, an awful lot of 1980s music was explicitly political, perhaps more so than in any other decade — Billy Bragg and UB40, obviously, The Specials (‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Free Nelson Mandela’), The Clash, The Jam too and lot and lots of one-offs — Fine Young Cannibals’ ‘Blue’, for example: ‘My hometown is falling down, I’m mad about that…’). And Band Aid was political in its way too — political with a lowercase ‘p’ — and, I would argue, acts such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Culture Club ought to be viewed using a somewhat politicized lens too (culturally they were enormously significant).

And then there is the whole thing of not picking something because it doesn’t have a good video (Moving Hearts’ ‘Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian roulette’ from 1981, for example, which I cannot find a good video for and so I have decided not include it); or, for example, when choosing a Madness track, I actually wanted to go for ‘My Girl’ from 1980, but in the end I went for ‘It must be love’ from 1981, just because I think the video better.

The answer to all these is No, I haven’t bothered with any of such consideration very much, at least not initially — I’ve simply picked my favourite tracks from the era, and, believe me, that has been job enough. However, when whittling down my track selection from well over a hundred to 50, then to 40, and then finally to 30, these kinds of consideration did play a part (to some extent).

And, yes, of course I’m cheating by slipping in a few extras here in the introduction.


1980: ‘So Lonely’ by The Police is from the 1978 album Outlandous d’Amour, it was a hit a chart success for the group in March 1980.

1980: From their first studio album Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, ‘There, there, my dear’ was a hit for Dexys Midnight Runners in July 1980. I love this for its razor sharpness, razor sharp sound and lyrics too.

Dear Robin
Hope you don’t mind me writing, it’s just that there’s more than one thing I
need to ask you. If you’re so anti-fashion, why not wear flares, instead of
dressing down all the same. It’s just that looking like that I can express
my dissatisfaction.

Dear Robin
Let me explain, though you’d never see in a million years. Keep quoting
Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir, Kerouac,
Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie. I don’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra.

1981: From the 1980 album More Specials, ‘Do Nothing’ was a chart success for The Specials in January, 1981.

1981: ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ was a chart success for the Tom Tom Club in July 1981, however what we have here is the group doing an acoustic version of it 30 years on and it’s really excellent, I think.

1981: From the album Complete Madness (1982), ‘It must be love’ charted for Madness in December, 1981

1982: From the 1982 album, The Gift, ‘A Town called Malice’, a hit in February 1982 for The Jam

1982: From the Live im Frühjahr 82, ‘Da Da Da’ from Trio (love this video)

1983: ‘Love cats’, The Cure, from their 1983 album Japanese Whispers, however, I’m not sure when this video was done but, clearly, it was some years later (a piece of class)

1983: ‘Speak like a child’, The Style Council, from Introducing the Style Council (1983)

1983: ‘Snot Rap’, a hit for comedian and broadcaster Kenny Everett in April 1983, which I think captures the era rather well (it’s interesting to note how commonplace rapping was even as long ago as this). Kenny Everett had a series of characters, one of whom — the guy in leathers in this video — was called Sid Snot.

1984: From the album Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984), ‘Relax’, from Frankie goes to Hollywood

1984: ‘Smalltown boy’ Bronski Beat, from the 1984 album The Age of Consent

1984: ‘Sex crime (nineteen-eighty four)’, Eurythmics, from the 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother) album

1984: ‘It says here’, by Billy Bragg, a great swipe at the tabloid press in Britain (the tabloids have been greatly diminished since the 1980s; I believe you would need to have lived through it to fully understand the power these rags and the rag-masters who owned and operated them had, which is part of what makes it such a really strong composition), from the 1984 album Brewing up with Billy Bragg; Bragg performs his song here in the BBC Breakfast Television studio — breakfast television was very much a novelty in 1984.

1985: ‘How soon is now?’, The Smiths, from their 1985 album Meat is Murder

1985: ‘Brand new friend’, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions, from the 1985 album Easy Pieces

1985: ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’, Band Aid, the finale to the London end of the Live Aid event, Wembley Stadium, 13 July 1985 (a really great day, a landmark in British and Irish culture) and, in the circumstances, a pretty good rendition of the song too given that everyone must have been exhausted!

1985: ‘A pair of brown eyes’, The Pogues, from Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, their second studio album released in August 1985

1985: ‘This is England’, The Clash, from the 1985 album Cut the Crap

1985: ‘Bring on the dancing horses’, Echo and the Bunnymen, a chart hit for the group in October and November 1985 (from the album Songs to Learn and Sing)

1985: ‘The road to nowhere’, Talking Heads, from the 1985 album Little Creatures

1985: ‘Suspicious minds’, Fine Young Cannibals, from the album Fine Young Cannibals (1985)

1986: ‘Happy Hour’, The Housemartins, from the album London 0 Hull 4 (1986)

1986: ‘Kiss’ was a hit for Prince and the Revolution in March 1986 (from the album Parade), however the video here is a tribute to Prince filmed at the Burning Man festival in Nevada in 2016 (which I think a fabulous tribute)

1987: ‘With or without you’, U2, from The Joshua Tree (1987)

1987: ‘Way Down in the Hole’, Tom Waits, from the 1987 album Frank’s Wild Years

1987: ‘End of the world as we know it’, REM, from the Document album

1988: ‘Waiting for the great leap forward’, Billy Bragg, from his 1988 album Workers’ Playtime

1988: ‘Sweet Jane’, Cowboy Junkies, from the Trinity Session album (1988)

1989: ‘Nothing ever Happens’, Del Amitri, from the 1989 album Waking Hours