As promised, I’m back with the second and – at least for now – final part of my ultimate ’80s playlist! Think of this as “Side B” of the mix tape!
Songs from childhood tend to stick in the mind, and even now I’ll occasionally stumble across a song that I haven’t heard in decades – yet still find I can remember the lyrics. If only my memory was that good for other things! For me, songs that were popular here in the UK in the ’80s and into the ’90s play on the radio in faded memories of childhood and burgeoning adolescence; the soundtrack to forgotten car rides and the school bus, as well as rainy days stuck indoors with the radio for company.
Almost every popular musical trend builds on what came before, and that’s certainly true of music in this era. The guitar-driven rock & roll of the ’50s and ’60s gave way to more experimental music and broader instrumentation in the latter part of the ’60s and into the ’70s, and the development of synthesisers and electronic instruments gave some bands and artists in the ’80s a distinctive, modern sound. But many acts still retained a guitarist, bassist, and drummer at the core, even while they were happy to experiment with a broader range of instruments.
The ’80s also saw the rise to popularity of entirely new genres of music – particularly hip-hop and rap. As had happened decades earlier with the blues, this musical style of African-American origin exploded in popularity around the world, and even when artists weren’t jumping headfirst into the genre, the influence of these new genres grew and could be felt in many different popular tracks by the end of the decade.
Musical taste is perhaps the single most subjective and personal thing there is! Even among fans of the same artist or band, individuals will disagree over which song is the best. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on what it is that makes a song enjoyable or not. All of my picks for this playlist are tracks I’m happy to listen to over and over again, but if you don’t agree that’s okay! We all like different songs for different reasons, and I doubt any two people would ever put together the same collection of tracks.
Just like last time, all of the songs below are embedded YouTube videos, and availability may vary by country. If you can’t listen to one or more of the songs below for some reason, I daresay most will be available to stream elsewhere.
Jessie’s Girl – Rick Springfield (1981)
Rick Springfield had been a semi-successful musician in his native Australia in the late ’60s and early ’70s before transitioning to acting. By 1981 he’d had a handful of television appearances – including in a guest-starring role on the pilot of Battlestar Galactica – before signing on with soap opera General Hospital. That same year, Springfield recorded the album Working Class Dog, from which Jessie’s Girl was the lead single.
Springfield would deservingly win a Grammy for Jessie’s Girl, and though the song took a few weeks, it eventually reached the number-one spot in the United States. Jessie’s Girl is a mid-tempo rock song about unrequited love, and is almost certainly Rick Springfield’s best-remembered hit.
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes – Paul Simon (1986)
What I’m really saying with this inclusion is that you should listen to the entirety of Paul Simon’s 1986 South African-inspired album Graceland! That album was the first I ever bought on CD for myself shortly after getting a CD player. Paul Simon went to South Africa to work and record with black musicians at a time when the apartheid regime was trying to prevent any African music being heard. Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes is perhaps the one track on Graceland which best showcases Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Simon’s main South African musical collaborators.
Graceland was a controversial album at the time because of Simon’s decision to break the boycott of apartheid South Africa. But the way in which he brought black African music to mainstream attention, working around the oppressive regime, I think more than makes up for that. Graceland is one of a very small number of albums I can think of where every single track is worth a listen. It’s a beautifully-crafted record, undoubtedly Paul Simon’s best work. And Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes is a fantastic song.
Walk This Way – Run DMC ft. Aerosmith (1986)
A decade after its original release, hip-hop group Run DMC chose to cover Aerosmith’s hit single Walk This Way. Lead singer Steve Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry returned to perform with the group, and Walk This Way became far bigger and more memorable than it had ever been in its original incarnation.
Rock and hip-hop don’t always make for natural bedfellows, yet Walk This Way just works. The bassline and beat of the original song flow perfectly into Run DMC’s style of hip-hop. The song helped relaunch Aerosmith’s flagging career, too. But for me, Walk This Way is symbolic of people from very different backgrounds coming together.
We Didn’t Start The Fire – Billy Joel (1989)
There aren’t many songs I can think of that are lyrically similar to Billy Joel’s 1989 hit We Didn’t Start The Fire. Joel uses the song to run through a series of historical events, beginning with Harry Truman’s 1948 election win and ending with the Tiananmen Square protests that happened earlier in 1989. If he’d waited a few more weeks he could’ve included the fall of the Berlin Wall!
Billy Joel has an eclectic mix of styles in his back catalogue, from pop-rock tracks like Uptown Girl to slower pieces like Piano Man. We Didn’t Start The Fire is very much in the first category, but it’s also a unique track insofar as I really can’t think of any others quite like it. The fast-paced lyrics cover many of the important events of the preceding four decades in less than five minutes.
Glory Days – Bruce Springsteen (1984)
I didn’t really appreciate Glory Days until I got a little older. The song, included on Springsteen’s 1984 album Born in the USA, recounts a man reminiscing about his early life and how the “glory days” of some of his high school friends came to an abrupt end. We all look at the past with rose-tinted glasses sometimes, and I think there’s something very relatable about Glory Days as a result.
Bruce Springsteen is another artist who’s made an eclectic mix of records over the years! Though best-remembered for albums like Born in the USA and his output in the ’70s and ’80s, one of my favourites is his folk-inspired 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions! But to get back on topic, Glory Days is a fantastic song, with a happy, up-tempo sound that stands in contrast to its bittersweet lyrics.
Heaven – Bryan Adams (1985)
Heaven is an absolutely beautiful song that showcases Canadian singer-songwriter Bryan Adams’ distinctive voice. It’s been covered multiple times – including a piano version that was popular here in the UK in the early 2000s – but the original slow-tempo pop-rock version remains the best.
The song was co-written by Adams and his writing partner Jim Vallance in 1983, after Adams had been on tour with the rock band Journey. The love song’s lyrics are very sweet, and fit the music perfectly. It would go on to top the charts in the United States and become a worldwide hit.
Walking on Sunshine – Katrina and the Waves (1985)
Is there a better feel-good, get-up-and-dance song than Walking on Sunshine? If there is I haven’t heard it! The song was recorded in the UK, and it was here where the band found its greatest success. I’d always assumed Walking on Sunshine had been a number-one chart-topper, at least here in the UK, but it actually peaked at a lowly number eight in the charts on its original 1985 release.
It isn’t unfair to say that Walking on Sunshine’s popularity has grown over the past thirty years, though. It’s often included on compilation albums, on television, and even in advertisements – making Katrina and the Waves a decent amount of money in royalties, no doubt!
Enola Gay – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980)
A powerful anti-nuclear song with a distinctive sound, Enola Gay was the right song for a moment in time. Going very heavy on keyboard and synthesiser sounds, Enola Gay is, in some respects, the embodiment of early-80s synth-pop. That sound and style has, for many folks, defined what they consider to be “typical ’80s music,” helped no doubt by modern depictions of the decade tending to favour that kind of sound as a way of setting the scene.
Enola Gay was banned by some radio and television stations in the UK as it was considered a “gay anthem,” perhaps because of the word “gay” in its title. Interestingly, there really isn’t much evidence that the song became a big hit in the gay community in the UK at the time, so this is just another example of the homophobic media establishment overreacting and failing to understand what was going on! The title is, of course, a reference to the aircraft named “Enola Gay” which dropped the first ever atomic bomb in 1945.
Goody Two Shoes – Adam Ant (1982)
After a series of hits with his band, Adam and the Ants, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Goody Two Shoes was Adam Ant’s first solo record. If the names weren’t confusing enough, several of his bandmates from Adam and the Ants joined in for the recording of the song – and it was even erroneously attributed to the band in some areas upon its 1982 release.
The up-tempo new wave pop song is very much in line with Adam and the Ants’ earlier singles, but there’s something about the track that elevates it and makes it – in my considered opinion, at least – his best work to date.
Never Gonna Give You Up – Rick Astley (1987)
Years before anyone conceived of the idea of “Rick-rolling,” some of us were enjoying Rick Astley’s 1987 chart-topper on its own merits! Never Gonna Give You Up was the best-selling single of that year here in the UK. I later rediscovered it on an ’80s compilation album sometime around the turn of the millennium, and it was giving me the nostalgic feels even then!
We can’t talk about Never Gonna Give You Up without acknowledging the “Rick-rolling” phenomenon. How did that get started? It’s one of those incredibly random internet jokes that people all over the world share. It doesn’t make any sense – but then again it doesn’t have to. It’s harmless fun, and gave a great song a new lease on life in the new millennium. Never Gonna Give You Up recently surpassed one billion views on YouTube!
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Theme – James Horner (1982)
Though arguably not as “classic” as The Original Series theme or the theme from The Motion Picture which would be repurposed for The Next Generation, James Horner’s first ever film score was fantastic. The main theme for The Wrath of Khan incorporates parts of The Original Series theme, but takes things in a completely different direction. It’s an adventurous, inspiring piece of music – that takes a dark twist right at the end.
So that’s it for now!
This was the second part of my ultimate ’80s playlist. Soon I’ll move on to the 1990s, so I hope you’ll stay tuned for that. For me this has been a fun nostalgia trip! Maybe you think so too, or maybe you’ve discovered a brand-new song you hadn’t heard before. Either way, I hope you enjoyed this look back at some of my favourite songs from the 1980s.
All songs on the playlist above are the copyright of their respective record company, studio, distributor, composer, artist, etc. All videos courtesy of YouTube. Videos are merely embedded here, and are not hosted by Trekking with Dennis. For copyright claims, please contact YouTube directly. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.