What makes up a musical decade’s defining traits is never defined by nice 10-year increments. “The Sixties” really didn’t become the sixties, at least in American pop culture, until 1964 and the arrival of the Beatles in America. Though Grunge bands certainly existed prior to the nineties, the style of grunge is often what we think of as the defining style of rock music of that decade. And 1991, due to the releases of Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, Pearl Jam’s “Ten” and to a lesser extent Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” along others, is often thought of as the nineties flagship musical year. I would argue that 1983 defines when the eighties became “The eighties” musically. It’s a bit of a tough argument to make.
When people think of the eighties are go to an eighties night at a club or throw an eighties party, they are certainly listening to and enjoying songs that came out prior to ’83. But ’83 was the year when the post-punk and new-wave of the late 70’s and very early 80’s really gave way to the “New Romantics” and synth-pop. Though “Thriller” my Michael Jackson, was released very late in 1982, it did most of its commercial damage in ’83 and gave way to the blockbuster album. Albums that sold many millions and shot 4, 5 & 6 songs onto the pop charts. Most of these albums seemed to fall in 1983 and ’84, though you can certainly find more examples throughout the rest of the decade. It was the year of Def Leppard’s “Pyromania” & Motley Crue’s “Shout At The Devil”, which together helped launch the hair metal phenomenon. Though commercial rap music had existed since 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, ’83 brought the first Run-DMC single- the double A side “It’s Like That/Sucker MC’s (Krush Groove 1)”. It was a line drawn in the sand between the old school and the new school. DMC changed rap musically, stylistically and aesthetically. Rather than feature battle-raps and live instrumentation, the sound was very minimal with beats primarily from the drum machine, sometimes featuring elements from rock music. The raps were done in an aggressive style with the subject matter varying between taunts and self-braggadocio to socio-polical commentary. Rap music would never be the same.
I was 11 years old in 1983- old enough to listen to a ton of music, but too young and lacking in older siblings to guide me toward more experimental music. ’83 is also sometimes checked as the beginning of college rock. Much of the New Wave preceding it actually made the pop charts, even some of the ultra weird stuff, and the even weirder and less accessible post-punk music mostly came out of the U.K. and only charted overseas. It was up to ambitious American music lovers to seek it out themselves. The first full album “Murmur” by a little band from the college town of Athens, Georgia named R.E.M. broke the mold with college radio in the U.S. R.E.M. received no airplay on pop & rock radio at the time, but they were plenty big in their college radio niche and also became beloved by rock journalists. Their success, although limited at the time, paved the way for other like-minded bands throughout the rest of the decade and college rock radio eventually begat alternative rock, which became its own full-blown cultural phenomenon by the early 90’s. “Murmur” to my ears still remains one of the best albums of the eighties. Perhaps the definitive 80’s college rock album though was the debut of The Violent Femmes. They were virtually unheard and un-promoted at the time of the album’s release, but the album was passed around from college age older sibling to high school age younger sibling and by the time I was mid-way through high school it was considered a classic by virtually every music-loving peer I knew. I love it when great music can’t be kept down.
Though less successful than R.E.M. in the States at first, U.K. band The Smiths released their first two singles “This Charming Man” and “Hand In Glove” in ’83. Their first album would come the following year and they achieved massive success for an indie-band in the U.K. They would take much longer to catch on in America but our generally thought of now as one of the best and most important bands of the decade. Ireland’s U2, initially started out in the late 70’s as a very earnest post-punk group, but was slowly adapting to a more, mainstream, anthemic rock sound. 1983 brought both the “War” album and the “Under A Blood Red Sky” live album, which was their first bit of commercial success in America. “War” is still one of their best albums and contains two of their signature songs “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day”. U2 would of course go on to become the biggest rock band in the world. Still several years away from their ascension to commercial dominance, English rock band The Cure released two great non-lp singles “The Lovecats” and “The Walk”. Their forthcoming singles comp “Staring At The Sea: The Singles” would become a must-have for every discerning high school age music lover.
Other great left of center, great U.K. bands would have trouble crossing over to America but had varying degrees of success in their native land. Aztec Camera released their excellent debut album “High Land, Hard Rain”. Echo & The Bunnymen’s “Porcupine”, The Fall’s “Perverted By Language” and Big Country’s “The Crossing” were other big U.K. albums released that year. Australia’s Go-Betweens released their great “Cattle & Cane” song- now an 80’s alternative classic which was pretty much unheard in the U.S. at the time. U.K. ska-pop band Madness did have huge crossover success in America with the great “Our House”.
A younger, brattier, more pissed off cousin to college radio was the early 80’s hardcore scene. Derived from punk rock and the very late 70’s L.A. hardcore scene featuring bands like Black Flag, X & the Germs, ’83 was one of American Hardcore’s most pivotal years featuring the only full length release by Washington D.C.’s incomparable Minor Threat with “Out Of Step”, and L.A. bands like the Circle Jerks “Golden Shower Of Hits” and Suicidal Tendencies’ anthem “Institutionalized”. I was not aware of this music at all until 1985- my first year as a metalhead, as it was the primary of choice of my metal-opposing skate-rat friends.
As mentioned above I was in full-on top 40 mode in 1983. I listened to more pop radio during ’83 and ’84 than I ever did before or ever have since. Luckily there was a plethora of great stuff to hear. U.K. synth-pop by the Human League, Eurythmics, Naked Eyes, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and especially Duran Duran (my favorite group at the time) sounds as good to me today as it did then. Though I wouldn’t hear groups like New Order, Tears For Fears, Yaz or Depeche Mode until high school or later, all of them released notable music in ’83 as well. New Order especially came out with their first great album “Power, Corruption & Lies”, as well as the iconic “Blue Monday” single, still the greatest selling 12” record of all time. Some late new wave music that crossed over to the pop charts by the likes of Missing Persons, Australian band Men At Work, The Fixx, Modern English (the great “Melt With You”) & the underrated Billy Idol was really appealing as well. One hit wonder “99 Red Balloons” (99 Luft Balloons outside of the States) by German singer Nena perfectly captured the Reagan/Thatcher era nuclear paranoia and remains a favorite of mine to this day. Cheesy though it might be, the well-crafted cookie-cutter arena rock of Bryan Adam’s “Cuts Like a Knife” was another beloved radio staple from 1983. ’83 was also the year that Johnny Cougar took back his real name, John Mellencamp, and was finally seriously by at least some people. 1983’s “Uh Huh” contained huge rock hits like “Crumblin’ Down”, “The Authority Song” and the awesome “Pink Houses”.
As said before, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dominated the musical landscape in 1983, probably unlike any act since the Beatles or at least the Bee Gees in the 70’s disco era. But there were a handful of other blockbuster albums in 1983. The previously mentioned Duran Duran released the “Seven And the Ragged Tiger” album which boasted three hits. But Americans were still catching up to the Duranies and tracks from 1982’s Rio” and even their 1981 self-titled debut were charting simultaneously, which made “Tiger” feel like an even bigger record. The reggae and punk influenced British band the Police had been changing and refining their sound every year since their 1978 debut album. 1983’s “Synchronicity” was their most mature (not their best) and by far most commercially successful albums and featured omnipresent ’83 radio staples “Every Breath You Take”, “King Of Pain” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger”. Rock legend David Bowie released his most commercially successful album in years with Let’s Dance”- it’s three singles, the title cut “Modern Love” and “China Girl” and their corresponding videos secured his iconic status with the brand new eighties MTV generation. Texas boogie blues band ZZ Top had been playing their trade since the early 70’s. They completely reinvented their sound for 1983’s “Eliminator” to create an upbeat synth-blues sound. Radio hits “Legs”, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’” also featured stylish (for the time) and hilarious videos which garnered them massive MTV airplay. Spunky, freaky and talented native New York City girl Cyndi Lauper released her debut “She’s So Unusual”. Her signature hit “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, beautiful ballad “Time After Time” & her feminist ode to masturbation “She Bop” were all massive hit singles as well and led the way to Lauper becoming another 80’s icon. Even bigger was Madonna, certainly one of the biggest stars of the decade. Though she wouldn’t reach true stardom until 1984’s “Like A Virgin”, her debut album “Madonna” paved the way and boasted three radio hits as well with “Holiday”, “Lucky Star” and “Borderline”. Cool club hits like “Everybody” and “Burning Up” are still fan favorites as well. I still think her debut is Madonna at her very best.
Madonna helped spark a new dance movement after the post disco crash in 1980. Dance music had gone very underground in ’81 & ’82. Groups like ESG & Liquid Liquid were popular in the New York City Lower East Side scene but were largely unknown outside of it, though they are now thought of as pioneers who married electro with post-punk & world music but form a new sound. The Talking Heads, the most famous of the mid 70’s CBGB punk bands had expanded their sound to include African polyrhythms as well. Though they had achieved radio hits already on past albums, 1983’s “Speaking In Tongues” was their greatest commercial success by far- containing “Burning Down The House”, their first top ten pop hits as well as another iconic tracks like “Girlfriend Is Better” and “This Must Be The Place”. Pioneering German Kraftwerk, one of the first groups to use all computerized music, delivered the “Tour De France” EP, perhaps their last release to really push the envelope musically. Juan Atkins, one of the founders of Detroit Techno music, released the track “Clear” under the moniker Cybotron. It is considered one of THE key tracks in the formation of techno and remains an electro classic. Other electro tracks actually crossed over the pop charts including “Let The Music Play” by singer Shannon, considered one of the first “Freestyle” tracks- Freestyle an offshoot of electro popular namely among Latina and Italian Americas, P-Funk founder and legend George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”, Laid Back’s “White Horse” & jazz legend Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”. The electro style only last several years but it dominated dance music, rap & R&B. Rapper Afrika Bambaattaa, whose signature track “Planet Rock” had come out the prior year, released his almost as great follow-up track “Looking For The Perfect Beat” in ’83. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “New York New York” and “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” were done in the electro style as well. “White Lines” even sampled the Liquid Liquid track “Optimo”.
R&B music was undergoing changes in ’83 as well. Though much R&B fell under the electro style, much of it was indebted to the “Quiet Storm” style started by Smokey Robinson in the mid 70’s. “Quiet Storm” is slow jam music, great for pillow talk. Tracks like “Juicy Fruit” by Mtume” and “Between The Sheets” by The Isley Brothers were two great tracks done in that style and later sampled to perfection by The Notorious B.I.G. (Juicy) and Ice Cube (It Was A Good Day). Other great R&B hits of 1983 include “Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan, “Just To Good To Me” by the S.O.S. Band and “All Night Long” by the Mary Jane Girls and produced by Rick James. The biggest new star in R&B was Prince who had big hits like “Little Red Corvette”, “1999” and “Delirious” in ’83 all off of the late ’82 album “1999”. With those tracks and the following 1984 blockbuster album “Purple Rain”, Prince was on his way to becoming one of the best and biggest music stars of the 1980’s.
DEF LEPPARD- PYROMANIA
Buy Pyromania Amazon
THE VIOLENT FEMMES- THE VIOLENT FEMMES
Buy Violent Femmes: Deluxe EditionAmazon
NEW ORDER- POWER, CORRUPTION & LIES
Buy Power, Corruption & Lies [Collector’s Edition] Amazon
Buy War Amazon
Buy Kill ‘Em AllAmazon
Buy Eliminator Amazon
Buy The Final Cut [2011 – Remaster] (2011 – Remaster) Amazon
Buy Swordfishtrombones Amazon
THE FALL- PERVERTED BY LANGUAGE
Buy Perverted By Language Amazon
TALKING HEADS- SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Buy Speaking In Tongues Amazon
Buy Madonna (Reissue) Amazon
CYNDI LAUPER- SHE’S SO UNUSUAL
Buy She’s So Unusual: A 30th Anniversary Celebration (Deluxe Edition) Amazon
Buy You And Me Both Amazon
Buy Murmur – Deluxe Edition Amazon
Buy Come Away With Esg Amazon
Buy More Fun In the New World Amazon
Buy Out of Step Amazon
JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP- UH HUH!
Buy Rebel Yell Amazon