The 80s were a strange decade. I think back on them as innocent and free, but that’s only because I wasn’t there. The 80s are the 50s of the second half of that century. One thing it had was a plethora of interesting music, set between the odd mix of progressive rock and disco from the 70s, and the blasting off of hip hop and grunge in the 90s. There are lots of famous songs from the 80s, but also a host of incredible music that is largely forgotten. Here’s my ten best forgotten songs of the 80s.
Who is Mike Oldfield? Hard to say. He did Tubular Bells, if you remember that. Didn’t sing, I don’t think. Then came this 1984 song with Maggie Reilly on vocals. I don’t know what it’s about, but wow, those vocals. And that sense of travelling, of going somewhere, as though this song was looking into the 90s and beyond. The places where we are now.
In 2023, we’re still thinking about Top Gun, for obvious reasons. Berlin did ‘Take My Breath Away’ from the original 80s movie, but this is their best song. The music is sinister, the question of: “if I walked away and left you there, would you know why?” slightly ominous. This 1986 song features Terri Nunn screaming with an intensity that is near alarming.
Name another song by Bronski Beat off the top of your head. Good luck. I’ve often felt that this is the song of the 80s, about alienation and otherness, the decade itself a transition between old days and new. An exploration of who we really are, and acceptance of that no matter what. We get this now, but in 1984, this was new.
Lost in Space – Platinum Blonde
You better have a Canadian glamrock band. Platinum Blonde was hoaky, and famous, but not for this 1985 song. What glamrock band sings about strange men standing so high and fighting in the sky? Or wondering how time will remember us? Put this song on a rocket ship to Mars, and play it on the red planet. It would fit right in.
We remember ‘Caribbean Queen’, but what about this song? Starts with synth, then this bouncy, otherwordly rhythm, before Billy comes on and belts it out. This 1984 tune is the epitome of fun: danceable, singable, and undoubtedly destined for placement in a modern movie that wants to evoke high school gymnasiums and smoky video game arcades.
This 1983 tune has a title that naturally ties it to David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, and it’s definitely about space travel. But the similarity ends there. This is a strange, spacey tale of Major Tom, questioning why he is blasting into space, drifting and falling, until his final thought: “Give my wife my love”. Then nothing more. A lovely tune.
Country Death Song – Violent Femmes
There was alternative music in the 80s. Witness this 1984 song by TVF, a jangly, dark ballad about a failure of a father who drinks too much, is too poor, and just sits around and thinks. You know something bad is going to happen in this song, but the reality is brutal, especially when played overtop a banjo. This is understated punk.
New wave music hit in the late 70’s. This 1980 song is heavy on the synths, and previews the 80s as a whole. It’s dreamy, filled with English and French lyrics, the type of song that you could daydream to. It’s also a song that would feel right at home in the current musical resurrection of the 80s, as a modern electronic tune.
Nik Kershaw sang ‘Wouldn’t it Be Good?’, a longing song about being other than who you were. But he also has this 1984 song, some kind of mythical exploration of Babylon and the wise men who inhabit it. Kershaw says the lyrics are meaningless, but you can find a variety of possibilities in this strange, looming ballad with its beautiful production.
“No reason to give up on the illusion,” sings China Crisis. This 1986 song is distinctly underground, blatantly real about life in the 80s, but does exactly what we would expect of the decade, providing a bouncy, hypnotic hope that would stand us well in the times to come. Take confident possession of yourself, indeed!
18 thoughts on “Forgotten Songs of the 80s”
Interesting. I was a pre-teen/teen in the 80s but the only songs I know on this list are Major Tom and Country Death Song (loved that album). The others are not just forgotten, I don’t think I ever even heard them. Then again, I was more of a metal head and hard rock kind of guy. Only You by Yaz would make my list, as might No One Is To Blame by Howard Jones. Then there’s Don’t Pay the Ferryman by Chris De Burgh. I’m listening The Judy’s as I write this, which is an entire band I forgot about. I do miss the innocence and freedom of the time. Not sure if it really was that way in reality, but that was my experience of it, anway. Hope all is well for you, Trent.
Are you sure on Major Tom? People are saying they know that song, but I’m wondering if they’re thinking of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, the ‘ground control to Major Tom’ song. This one is different, quite different. Almost like an unofficial sequel. Love love Howard Jones, and that song in particular… he has some other electro-prog songs that deserve some sunlight. And Chris DeBurgh is a storytelling legend. Great picks. I have no idea who the Judy’s are, but I’m going ot check them out.
All good here, writing hard and not posting any of it, those days are gone. But I’m digging the words. Hope you are too, Walt.
Absolutely certain on Major Tom, I remember that song well, and it’s odd relationship to Space Oddity. Actually, I watched bits of each video, thinking surely I’d heard some of these and just didn’t recognize the title or band. But no. None except the two I mentioned. As for The Judy’s, I don’t know them well at all, but they were popular around the same time the (early) Violent Femmes were popular, and since I liked the VF I checked them out. Didn’t get into them as much, but I remember their album Moo was the one that was big (if you can call anything they did ‘big’.) That’s the one I’d gone back to the other day. The singer has a bit of a Weird Al vibe to his vocals. Also enjoyed the Dead Milkmen quite a bit. Ah… youth. Funny how it’s 80s music you hear on the oldies stations now. When I was growing up, it was the 50s. One day it’ll be Taylor Swift, Justin Beiber, and Ariana Grande.
You got good taste, my friend. But I think one day, some people will be thinking as this being the time of Wolf Alice or Morcheeba or The War on Drugs. There is so much varied music now, something for everyone. The hard part is finding it, because I maintain that the best music being created cannot be heard on radio.
I thought I was Chris De Burgh’s only fan
No way! That man is a gem!
Good gawd, Trent… Are you telling me you remembered all these songs off the top of your head? The ONLY song I recognized just by the title was Billy Ocean’s Loverboy. I only really knew Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, so that was new. If you had held my hand over the fire and said, name the song title and singer of both Smalltown Boy and Major Tom, I would have gotten third-degree burns – nay, my hand would now be a burnt char of remains. Was never into Platinum Blonde and cannot believe they are still rocking. I actually went to Andy Kim’s Christmas special in Montreal a few years ago and they were one of the acts… Fade to Grey kinda sorta almost sounds familiar but barely. The rest? What?
You are a walking Jukebox!
Yah Dale, I love music, listen to some much of it. It’s never far away from me, 80’s especially. Glad you had a listen, hope you enjoyed a few of them.
I can see that!
Yes, I did. Thanks.
Okay, I’ve listened to all of ’em, except “Country Death Song.” Too dark for my tastes, but the rest I enjoyed. “Fade to Grey” and “Major Tom” were particularly good. Thanks for sharing these!
That’s a tough son to listen to. It’s so raspy and hopeless, and terrible, but I can’t stop listening to that song. Glad you liked some of the others, Berthold!
Where were you in the 80’s?
I don’t think I’ve heard any of these songs and will have to check them out. I missed out on most 80’s music, which is pretty common. But it wasn’t because I wasn’t born yet – it was, I would say, for geographic reasons.
Let me know what you think, X. Curious to see if you have any favourites.
Geographic reasons? Intrigued. Were you in Antarctica or something?
When you said that you “weren’t there” I thought all this was going to do was make me feel old. Actually, it left me wondering what I was high on in my 20s. Must have been good stuff because the only one of these I recognized was Major Tom. The beat in the chorus is so compelling that you can’t forget that one and there is no way to mix it up with Space Oddity. I listened to everyone of these and now I feel old and drug addled. 😉 .
Ha! Feeling drug-added is not a bad thing! I’m glad I could contribute to that! Think I may do a few more songs today actually.