The start of a new decade always seems more dramatic than other new years, whether it is symbolic, literal or otherwise; 1980 didn’t necessarily mean a complete 180 turn from the 70s, but it certainly marked a beginning of new trends in the cultural paradigm, including music. The biggest shift that began to occur was the use of digital technology within the studio, on stage and in rehearsal spaces when writing the songs. With the advent of synthesiser came synth-pop and, in turn, more use of electronic synthesizers; Devo would have their biggest commercial hit with ‘Whip it’ which was a blessing and a curse; Joy Division’s 1980 album, Closer featured synthesizers suggesting early foreshadowing of New Order.
Throughout the ’80s, genres such as electro, techno, and house formed and developed. The Madchester rave scene would also explode via the Factory-owned Hacienda nightclub in Manchester. These discoveries in genre would also play a part in spawning other urban genres such as hip-hop and rap, experiencing a golden age from the mid-80s to the 90s and now the most dominant sound in the world. Along with the underground movements of new-wave and post-punk which would occasionally offer up, from the underbelly, a few groundbreaking acts such as Talking Heads, Blondie and Echo and the Bunnymen, the elite pop acts of the ’80s were Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, The Police, and Wham!, all of which gathered dup chart places like machines.
The ’80s, as a decade, gets a bad rap, perhaps because of cheesy pop acts like Wham!, Toni Basil, and Rick Astley. However, all one needs to do is delve a little deeper to find some brilliant artists. Despite what many would call a wave of mediocrity, there were was an eclectic mix of acts which came to the mainstream’s attention, which offered a healthy supply of choices for those looking for an alternative tipple.
Glam metal saw considerable success; bands like Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Guns n’ Roses, and bands of the softer variety, such as Styx, Journey, REO Speedwagon, ZZ Top and Aerosmith. All of these bands, including the rise of virtuosic guitar players and to a lesser extent bass players — all played a huge part in defining the ’80s.
The rise of alternative rock music as we know it today began in 1980, with who many consider the first real alternative rock band, R.E.M. leading the charge. 1980 was a great year for post-punk and new-wave music too, providing a little bitterness to our sweet palate. The Pretenders made their debut; Adam and the Ants released their manifesto for freaks; Van Morrison was on his own mystic plain surveying the land from heavenly heights; thanks to Keith Richards, Jim Carroll, the NYC poet, made his debut in music with his lyrical masterpiece, Catholic Boy; Talking Heads released their groundbreaking album, Remain in the Light; The Soft Boys released their sophomore album; and Echo and the Bunnymen made their debut. In short, 1980 was a rich year for music.
We delve into some of these albums and others that we believe deserve an honourable mention and more attention as ones that stood out for the year, 1980.
The best albums released in 1980:
Kings of the Wild Frontier – Adam and the Ants
The album reached number one in the UK charts and performed very well in other countries. Perhaps the clearest assertion to make about Kings of the Wild Frontier is that it has aged extremely well, having pioneered a unique strain of indie and glam post-punk which many bands nowadays are attempting to emulate. The band’s music has a heavy percussive element to it; with two drummers added to tribal chanting, gave Adam and The Ants a kind of special edge to them that was virtually non-existent in other sounds happening at the time.
Adam and the Ants fused interesting elements and styles to their image, sound and overall aesthetic. There was certainly a theatrical element to their act: Adam Ant and the rest of the group dressed as glamorous pirates with eye makeup, mixed with futurist elements. Their music videos are some of the best that any band from any period of time has ever done and demand re-watching. Their aesthetic is neatly packaged and presented within these music videos, which pictured full stories, typically with Adam Ant being the protagonist.
Their stories drew from fairytales like Cinderella and Prince Charming and incorporated magical realism, surrealism and comedy.
Crocodiles – Echo and the Bunnymen
Reaching number 17 on the album charts, Crocodiles became a staple of the post-punk sound, tastefully walking a fine line between the doom that Joy Division was fully immersed in, and grace — a kind of reawakening of the soul and search for the holy grail. Ian McCulloch, the band’s singer, has been previously compared to the pre-Raphaelite artists; he searches deep inside his soul and attempts to redefine what it means to be Nietzche’s superman.
Crocodiles was beautifully layered and set up by a band who were strong at every corner. Whether it was Will Sergeant’s crystal-like guitar, something reminiscent of Paul Verlaine’s playing or Pete De Freitas’, arguably the decade’s best drummer, who kept the foundation steady like no other. Les Pattison’s role as a bass player, consisted of carrying a whole other driving melody throughout the songs. Meanwhile, Ian McCulloch, the ’80s English Jim Morrison, possessed an enigmatic presence rarely seen in frontmen. This debut did much in the way of setting a moody but thrilling tone for the decade to come — they certainly were on the forefront of the post-punk movement.
Pretenders – Pretenders
Pretenders’ eponymous debut album combined the perfect amounts of 1977 punk and pop-rock. What set Pretenders apart from the other post-punk bands from 1980, was Chrissie Hynde’s poignant, down to earth vocals and songwriting. It seemed like the perfect stepping stone between punk and post-punk. Chrissie Hynde is elegant and cutting; offering a female perspective in a man’s game while also remaining one of the ‘boys’.
The album’s single, ‘Stop your Sobbing’, is a Ray Davies song, whom she was dating at the time. The single is not really representative of the album’s sound, although it is a beautiful version produced by Nick Lowe. Unfortunately, Nick Lowe was very critical and would not work with the band again, stating that “they were not going anywhere.” Think again, Nick.
Jim Carroll – Catholic Boy
Thanks to Keith Richards, the writer, Jim Carroll was able to make his break into music with one of the best debuts ever to be made. Songs like ‘People Who Died’ and ‘It’s Too Late’ are lyrical masterpieces, telling stories of New York City street life like none other since Lou Reed. In fact, the Velvet Underground man would invite Carroll onto the stage to perform ‘People Who Died’ at a show — most likely channelling real experiences of the tragic deaths of various NYC artists they both knew throughout their careers.
Carroll established his sound as the role of the outsider observer, picking through normality with a fine-tooth comb and only delivering the most visceral reflections. Most of the songs on this album were written and performed with a sense of urgency that stemmed from an artistic necessity rather than a contractual obligation to release another album.
David Bowie – Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Biographer, David Buckley called Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) “the perfect balance” of artistic integrity and commercial success, which is saying a lot considering that Bowie had an uphill battle, artistically speaking, due to his achievement with the Berlin Trilogy. In this regard, thankfully the Berlin trilogy did not perform well commercially. On the other hand, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) restored Bowie’s commercial status in the US and went platinum in the UK. Critics would call this album “his last great album.”
Bowie had gotten out of the 70s alive and was feeling much stronger about his sense of identity as an artist and as a sober person. He would say about this period of time, “there was a certain degree of optimism making [Scary Monsters] because I’d worked through some of my problems, I felt very positive about the future, and I think I just got down to writing a really comprehensive and well-crafted album.” ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ the album’s single still remains an absolute classic. Despite the incredible influence the Berlin trilogy had on post-punk, only Bowie himself could outdo the albums, in particular Low, by releasing Scary Monsters.
Talking Heads – Remain in Light
Often considered the band’s magnum opus, The Library of Congress has deemed the album, “culturally, historically, and artistically significant.” This would most likely be because of the band and producer Brian Eno’s seamless ability to fuse disparate genres and combine traditional instruments with new electronic technology. For this reason, the album truly lives in the past and the future, while defining the present moment in 1980 and proving to be the most important new-wave group of the decade.
Brain Eno and the rest of the group sought to dispel critics’ assertion that Talking Heads was merely a backing band for David Byrne — the band truly came together as a tight unit especially live, gathering an ensemble of 9 musicians. When writing the material for the album, Byrne took influence from African music and literature, drawing ideas from Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti, by incorporating African polyrhythms into funk, rock and electronic music. Listening to the album, one is tempted to dance while also being struck with intellectual and creative prompts.