1981 was a very big music year for me. Though I certainly remember hearing tracks from the 70’s on the radio- mostly in my parents car, and can remember being obsesses with top 40 radio and purchasing some 45 records in 1980, ’81 was the first year that I bought any albums. I still remember them- Styx “Paradise Theater”, REO Speedwagon “Hi-Infidelity”, Hall & Oates “Private Eyes”, J. Geils Band “Centerfold”. All on cassette. My Mom got my a couple of comps called “Dancer” and “Dimensions” that I still remember rather vividly and both were surprisingly pretty awesome. I certainly started off anything but a hipster in training. In my teenage/adult life I only felt the need to upgrade one of those cassettes to CD (Geils), though I own a nice comp by Hall & Oates. ’81 was the height of the arena rock, which is exemplified by all of the above albums. It was towards the end of a very solid era of music (’77-’82) but by a long shot the weakest year of that period. There were some extremely solid and interesting albums but no real unifying masterpieces. That said there was plenty of interesting stuff going on. Though the top 40 was ruled by not only arena rock, but aging Boomer-rock, soft-rock (now known as Yacht-rock), Urban Cowboy music and the dying embers of Disco- plenty of stale & cheesy stuff for sure, but there were a number of gems to be found even amongst the most corporate and mainstream of the music. New Wave was also a dominate sound of ’81, along with its offshoots synth-pop & the New Romantic movement. Early Hip-Hop, Electro & Hardcore- particularly the L.A. & D.C. scenes, dominated the underground. MTV also launched toward the last third of the year, marking ’81 as both the beginning and the end of an era. As more and more subscribers received the cable it would come to dominate the music industry, infusing the music listening audience with younger, more far out and more underground bands (for good!) but also ensuring a focus toward looks & image and away from music (for bad!). Many homelier looking artists (sorry Christopher Cross) were not able to make the transition to the new era despite being hugely successful prior to it.
Though New Wave had been coined several years before as a way to market punk music to the mainstream, by ’81 it had split into different factions. The Synth-pop sound was all over the club scene and the radio. Its antecedents, groups like Kraftwerk & Suicide were far artsy, confrontational and “out there”, but groups like Soft Cell, the Human League & Depeche Mode figured out how to take their sound and morph into the confines of a 3-4 minute radio single. That’s not to imply any of those bands are sell-outs. Soft Cell had a huge pop hit with “Tainted Love”, but also had a club hit with “Sex Dwarf”- they were unafraid to challenge conventions, and explore perversions while lead singer Marc Almond was proudly openly gay during a time when few musicians were out. The Human League went to #1 with the great single “Don’t You Want Me”, and their album “Dare!” was one of the best of the year, containing a number of absolute gems which never were released as singles. The aforementioned Kraftwerk released their last great album “Computer World”, which predicted out future world with a high degree of accuracy. Depeche Mode released their debut album “Speak & Spell”, which included future Erasure founder Vince Clark. Though it wasn’t an immediate hit, it did contain future classic “Just Can’t Get Enough” as well as other great tracks like “Dreaming Of Me” and set the stage for a long and prolific career. After the very unfortunate suicide of Ian Curtis of the band Joy Division, the remaining members formed the band New Order, which would become Depeche Mode’s equal in influence in the 80’s synth-pop movement. Their debut “Movement” sounded like a hybrid of Joy Division and the future, clubbier New Order sound- it wasn’t one of their better albums but did contain classic tracks “Ceremony” and “Everything’s Gone Green”. Ohio group Devo, riding the success of their biggest hit “Whip It” in 1980, scored another hit with the follow up album “New Traditionalists”, which included great songs like “Jerkin’ Back & Forth”, “Beautiful World” & “Through Being Cool”. Some other classic synth-pop tracks of ’81 were “Happy Birthday” by Altered Images and “(We Don’t Need This) Facist Groove Thing” by Heaven 17- proving that synth-pop could be just as political as punk.
British bands Duran Duran, Adam & the Ants & Japan helped to form a New Romantic movement, which combined punk & synth-pop and very wild fashion. The scene would blow up in the next several years, as Duran Duran became one of the biggest bands in the world and other fellow New Romantics like Culture Club, Spandau Ballet & ABC emerged. ’81 saw the release of Duran’s self-titled debut which included hits “Girls On Film” & “Planet Earth”. It wouldn’t be until the following year that they really caught on with the general public, but once they did they were basically the poster band for MTV- five great looking and highly fashionable guys with some fantastic songs to boot. Adam Ant came from more of a punk background than Duran Duran, but streamlined his sound ditching the original band members and adding two drummers, appropriating the Burundi beat from Africa. Already legendary composer/producer/glam rocker/techo God Brian Eno and Talking Head David Byrne also collaborated on “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”, a groundbreaking collection combining African music, electronics, ambient & spoken word samples- many of them by creepy evangelists. Fellow Talking Heads, Chris Frantz & Tina Weymouth’s side project Tom Tom Club released their self-titled debut which melded disco, synth-pop, rap & African music. It’s big hit “Genius Of Love” is one of the defining songs of the year and a music played and sampled to death club classic to this day. The great British Two Tone-Ska group the Specials released their defining song, the brilliant “Ghost Town” in the wake of anti-Thatcher riots all across England. Though the great Bob Marley had died in 1980, groups like Black Uhuru with their album “Red” were doing their best to move Reggae music forward after the tragic death of its leader. South Bronx group ESG were three sisters combining post-punk, rap & disco. They remained relatively unknown at the time but were a huge influence on the flourishing downtown NYC scene at the time and a prime example of all of the cross genre breeding going on in ’81 which continues to define so much of the great music we hear today.
By ’81 the straight up balls to the wall punk rock of New York City and London was mostly dead, but it left many different strands in its wake- many of them falling under the all encompassing banner of post-punk. Though New Wave & Synth-pop were both related to punk, particularly the more D.I.Y., anti-fashion and political bands, the post-punk bands were more akin to their punk forefathers in sound. These bands came from many different places- in the U.K. there were leftovers from the original scene like the Clash & the Jam who were increasingly expanding their sound away from just the fast and heavy. The Fall, who then was just still starting out, but who would remain a D.I.Y. post-punk institution to the present day. The Pretenders, who’s Pretenders II was the last album with their classic lineup before the drug related deaths of two of their members. The socialist-punk group Gang Of Four released their second great album “Solid Gold” and one of their best singles ever “To Hell With Poverty”. Goth-punk bands like Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Cure & Echo & the Bunnymen (surprisingly goth in their early days) all released transitional albums- a few classic tracks to be found on each. Other bands would remain unheard and appreciated until later, like the above mentioned ESG, including Television Personalities a huge influence on the twee pop and lo-fi scenes of the late 80’s and early 90’s and Scottish-Punk bands Orange Juice and Josef K. An Irish band you may have heard of named U2 released their 2nd album “October”, a step down but still great follow up to their debut “Boy”. In the next few years they would become one of the biggest bands of the college rock/progressive/call it what you will movement, which of course set the tone for alt-rock domination in the early 90’s. Australia’s Radio Birdman & New Zealand’s The Clean were other great post-punk groups. Birdman had already broken up by ’81, but their 2nd album was posthumously released that year. They had been around since 1974 so should probably qualify as pre-punk or pub rock. Being so far away from the major media hubs allowed both of those bands to exist in more of a vacuum.
In the U.S., Boston’s Mission Of Burma released their great “Signals, Calls & Marches” EP. They would only be a regional sensation during their original run and broke up before they were able to capitalize on the future success of their type of music, but they are deservedly much celebrated today as one of the best post-punk groups ever. In Los Angeles groups like the Blasters, the Gun Club & the Flesh Eaters were providing a twisted take on punk & rockabilly called ‘Pyscho-billy’, celebrating the roots of rock n’ roll but bringing it into the modern era. The great L.A. punk group X toed the link between the original L.A 70’s punk scene & the 80’s hardcore and psycho-billy movements. Their second album “Wild Gift” is one of my favorite albums of ’81 and pales in comparison only to their debut. L.A. hardcore classics like “Living In Darkness” by Agent Orange and especially the scene defining “Damaged” by Black Flag also were released in ’81. In D.C. Minor Threat and Bad Brains dominated. Bad Brains wouldn’t release their debut until the following year but Threat’s first two 7 inches both came out in 1981 and are as note perfect as hardcore music gets. About half the tracks on both are classics of the scene and though Threat would release one full length two years later, these two 7 inches are their defining moment and maybe the defining moment in all of hardcore.
Though I may have been knocking aging Boomers above, there was still some great music in ’81 to come from them. Stevie Nicks, of Fleetwood Mac, released her first solo album, “Belladonna”, a smash hit and probably better than any Fleetwood Mac album that came after it. Though “Belladonna” was top heavy its three hits are all fantastic “Edge of Seventeen” & the duets with Don Henley “Leather & Lace” & Tom Petty “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”. Petty released his follow up to his 1979 breakthrough album “Damn the Torpedoes” with “Hard Promises” which failed to live up to its predecessor but did contain the great single “The Waiting”. The Rolling Stones had one more great album in them with “Tattoo You”, a sweet listen from start to finish with classics “Start Me Up”, “Hang Fire” & the majestic “Waiting On A Friend” complete with Sonny Rollins sax solo. Genesis continued their move away from progressive rock but before complete suckitude with “ABACAB”, their best album with Phil Collins at the helm. One of the quintessential arena rock bands Journey (why didn’t I buy that cassette in ’81?) released their biggest album “Escape” with huge single “Who’s Crying Now”, “Open Arms”, the enormous and unfortunately enormously overplayed “Don’t Stop Believing” and the great album jam “Stone In Love”. Fellow arena-rockers Foreigner also issued their most popular album “4” with humongous singles “Urgent”, “Juke Box Hero” and “Waiting For a Girl Like You”. If you’re too cool to like at least some of this music you’re missing out. The Kinks “Give the People What They Want” was also a big hit for them and contains the great tracks “Destroyer” & “Better Things”, one of their most touching songs. Former Punkers and New Wavers had big crossover hits in ’81 as well. Punk/Reggae group the Police created a more sophisticated sound with “Ghost in the Machine”, which had three big hits with “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, “Spirits In the Material World” & “Invisible Sun”, showing that you didn’t have to dumb down to be commercially successful and setting the stage for the world domination of 1983’s “Synchronicity”. Elvis Costello’s “Trust” was another move from him further away from punk as well and his 5th great album in a row. The Cars “Shake It Up” was a return to form after the slight misstep of 1980’s Panaroma”, though it didn’t reach the heights of their first two albums. Great English New Wave Poppers Squeeze probably did reach their high with 1981’s “East Side Story” which had “Tempted”, their signature track on it. Los Angeles women Joan Jett & The Go Go’s had monstrous hits in 1981. Jett with “I Love Rock N’ Roll” and the re-release of her 1980 “Bad Reputation” album and the Go Go’s with their debut “Beauty and the Beat”. The Go Go’s were part of L.A.’s late 70’s punk scene, but were signed to a major and were able to sheen off the rough edges and come up with an 80’s pop classic. Both groups would be huge influences on women in rock forevermore.
Hard Rock and Heavy Metal were also going strong in ’81 and both upped the ante on arena rock and provided an alternate to it in the underground. Former lead singer of Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne surprised everyone, releasing his first two solo albums “Blizzard Of Oz” and “Diary Of A Madman” which had the legendary axeman Randy Rhoads on guitar. He would die a year later in an airplane crash but remains one of the defining metal guitarists of all time. Van Halen’s underrated fourth album “Fair Warning” was their darkest yet and was their least commercially successful but remains a fan favorite. High off of their success with 1980’s “Back In Black”, one of the highest selling hard rock albums ever, Australia’s AC/DC released their follow-up “For Those About To Rock We Salute You”. It was a disappointment compared to “Black” but was a huge hit and the title cut remains one of their best and most popular tracks ever. Iron Maiden released their second album “Killers” which would be the last with original vocalist Paul Di’Anno. He would be replaced by Bruce Dickinson and year later which would become the classic Maiden lineup, though I prefer them in their Di’Anno lead punk-metal incarnation. Prog-Metal was going strong as well. The Canadian band Rush released their biggest and perhaps best album with “Moving Pictures”, containing enduring classic tracks like “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight”. King Crimson, a prog-rock pioneer changed their sound up to compete with the New Wavers and their 1981 album “Discipline” can stand right up their with a late 70’s/early 80’s Talking Heads album. Their musicianship is always unbelievable.
Black music was at quite a crossroads in ’81. Disco was both dying out and morphing into other sub genres. Hip Hop was still in its infant stages. The dominant black music forms in the very early 80’s were funk & slow jams (Venus Flytrap music). There were tons of great radio funk singles in ’81- nearly all of them were a smoother funk, combining aspects of modern R&B (the slow jams) and even New Wave. Rick James had his biggest hits in ’81 including “Super Freak” and “Give It To Me Baby”. The great Earth, Wind & Fire managed one of their biggest hits with “Let’s Groove” and Frankie Smith had his great one hit wonder “Double Dutch Bus”. Though he wasn’t quite a household name yet, Prince released his fourth album “Controversy”, which contained minor hits like the title track and “Do Me Baby”. Roger of Roger & Zapp released his first solo album containing the great “So Ruff, So Tuff”. Post Disco/future club smashes like Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” and Grace Jones’s “Pull Up The Bumper” proved that while Disco may have been dead, dance music lived on, just under a different name. Rap music had only a few big singles as of ’81 but Funky 4+1’s “That’s the Joint” and DJ scratching tour de force “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On the Wheels Of Steel” were both mind blowing enough to forward the genre on their own.
1981 may not be one of the defining years in music, but it sure as hell is a fun one to listen to and pointed the way forward for so many different strands of music.
BLACK FLAG- DAMAGED
Buy Damaged – Black Flag
Buy Damaged [Explicit]Amazon
MINOR THREAT- MINOR THREAT (FIRST EP)
Buy First 2 7″s – Minor Threat
Buy First Two 7″sAmazon
THE GO GO’S- BEAUTY AND THE BEAT
Buy Beauty and the Beat (30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) [Remastered] – The Go-Go’s
Buy Beauty And The Beat (30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) [+Digital Booklet]Amazon
Buy Fire of Love – The Gun Club
Buy Fire of LoveAmazon
ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS- TRUST
Buy Trust – Elvis Costello & The Attractions
*Not available via iTunes
Buy Tattoo You (Remastered) – The Rolling Stones
Buy Tattoo YouAmazon
Buy Stands for Decibels (Bonus Track Version) – The dB’s
Buy Stands For DecibelsAmazon
Buy Fair Warning – Van Halen
Buy Fair Warning (US Internet Release)Amazon
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN- HEAVEN UP HERE
Buy Heaven Up Here – Echo & The Bunnymen
Buy Heaven Up Here (US Release)Amazon
Buy Dare – The Human League
*Not Available via iTunes
Buy Solid Gold / Another Day Another DollarAmazon
Buy Computer World – Kraftwerk
Buy Computer WorldAmazon
MISSION OF BURMA- SIGNALS, CALLS & MARCHES (EP)
Buy Signals, Calls and Marches (Remastered) – Mission of Burma
Buy Signals, Calls and Marches [Remastered]Amazon
Buy October (Deluxe Edition) [Remastered] – U2
Buy October (Deluxe Edition)Amazon
TELEVISION PERSONALITIES- AND DON’T THE KIDS JUST LOVE IT
Buy And Don’t the Kids Just Love It – Television Personalities
Buy And Don’t The Kids Just Love ItAmazon
THE POLICE- GHOST IN THE MACHINE
Buy Ghost In the Machine (Remastered) – The Police
Buy Ghost In The MachineAmazon
Buy Moving Pictures (Remastered) – Rush
Buy Moving Pictures (2011 Remaster)Amazon
Buy Wild Gift – X
Buy Wild Gift [Explicit]Amazon
Buy East Side Story – Squeeze
Buy East Side StoryAmazon