Even traditional rock bands were known to incorporate keyboards into their music, live performances, and music videos.
New wave bands, however, were totally tied to the synthesizer without exception. This sound was present in the majority of 80s songs. Soft Cell’s hit popsynth ditty, “Tainted Love,” completely embraced the new wave synth sounds that were raging across the culture.
The electronic sound of the synthesizer combined with the driving BIM-BIM, whip-cracking beat and love-takes-no-prisoners lyrics made “Tainted Love” an enormous success, perhaps the greatest one-hit wonder of the 80s – and the 80s were, like, totally packed with awesome one-hit wonders.
Composed by Ed Cobb and originally recorded by Gloria Jones in 1964, “Tainted Love” found worldwide appeal when Soft Cell recorded it in 1981. Since then, it has been covered and sampled by countless groups and artists, including a Marilyn Manson version and a sample in Rhianna’s 2006 song “SOS.”
However, the song remains a testament to 80s music. It soared to the top of the UK charts and was soon released in the U.S., where, although it took 19 weeks to hit the top 40, it spent 43 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.
The B-side of the single was another cover song, the Supremes’ Motown classic “Where Did Our Love Go?” There was also a popular remix of “Tainted Love,” which included a brief interlude of the B-side. Remixes were standard fare for 80s songs, and longer versions of new wave songs were totally popular in clubs.
80s Music Video: Tainted Love
There were several music videos created for “Tainted Love.” One featured Soft Cell’s Marc Almond and David Ball in an ancient Greek setting. Another shows Ball haunted by starry apparitions interspersed with images of Almond singing against a night-sky backdrop.
Check it out:
The song’s videos were not among the most memorable or heavily featured 80s songs on MTV. However, radio stations played the heck out of it, cementing it firmly among the pillars of 80s music.
80s Songs and One-Hit Wonders
Soft Cell was just one of many bands who lucked out when their 80s songs became worldwide phenomena. One-hit wonders were standard for 80s music, and while most musicians prefer a long, steady career, these fly-by hits catapulted songs like “Tainted Love” to fame and earned songwriters, producers, and performers a pretty penny.
Tainted Love remains one of the most important 80s songs. It helped define 80s music and its popularity continues through cover versions and sampling.
It was a pop song with a new wave twist, breathy, begging vocals, and a totally haunting melody carried out by synthesizer. “Take on Me” was standard fare in 80s music. But the music video for the song was anything but ordinary.
The video tells a story of a girl sitting in a café and flipping through a book of sketches. One of those sketches features a handsome fellow who winks at her. Wait! The sketch just winked? How is that possible? Well, in this video, anything’s possible because next, a hand comes out of the sketchbook and reaches for the girl. So begins her adventure.
80s videos often told stories or included special effects. Artistically, they were more creative and compelling than most modern videos because it was a new art form and people were enthusiastic about experimenting with short-form music videos. Now, they’re just standard fare, mini-commercials for the songs the videos are trying to sell.
In the 80s, music underwent a dramatic change due to the launch of MTV. Countless film techniques were implemented to make each video more exciting and unique than the last. “Take on Me” was a groundbreaker.
There were actually two videos for the song “Take on Me.” The 1984 video used a different recording of the song and clips from this first video were actually used in the second video. You can catch those clips when you see the band singing in front of a blue background in the 1985 video.
The live action footage for the second video was filmed at a café and on a sound stage in London. It incorporated sketch animation combined with live action. A technique called rotoscoping allows the live-action footage to be traced over animation on a frame-by-frame basis. This causes the action to appear natural and realistic. Rotoscoping for the video took two months, which explains why “Take on Me” was one of the only 80s videos to use the technique.
“Take on Me” became one of the most popular 80s videos. In fact, in 1986, it earned six MTV Video Music Awards:
- Best New Artist in a Video
- Best Concept Video
- Most Experimental Vide
- Best Direction
- Best Special Effects
- Viewer’s Choice
The video was also nominated for Best Group Video and Video of the Year. At the American Music Awards that same year, it was nominated for Favorite Pop/Rock Video.
“Take on Me” stands out in a sea of 80s music primarily because of its video. I still remember how often MTV used it play it. The song was pretty good but the video was cutting edge. Take a look and see for yourself:
Technically, “Walk This Way” is a 70s song. But something happened to it in the 80s and it was never the same.
Written by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, “Walk This Way” was the second single off Aerosmith’s 1975 album, Toys in the Attic. While the song was well received at the time, it would later become one of the most iconic 80s songs over a decade later when it was resurrected, revamped, and covered by an unknown rap group.
In 1986, rap group Run-D.MC. included their version of “Walk This Way” on their 1986 album Raising Hell, which itself became one of the defining albums in 80s music. The new version of “Walk This Way” quickly became an international hit and won both groups, Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. a Soul Train Music Award for best rap single.
Run-D.M.C., Meet Aerosmith
While working on Raising Hell, Rick Rubin introduced Run-D.M.C. to Aerosmith’s music. Neither Run nor DMC were familiar with the 70s rock band. Jam Master Jay suggested they remake the song. Initially, Run and D.M.C. were not interested. But eventually, they covered the song and it became one of the most important 80s songs, laying the groundwork for Run-D.M.C. to become pioneers in hip hop and 80s music stars.
The revamped “Walk This Way” helped revitalize Aerosmith’s career. More importantly, it popularized rap music and particularly a new hybrid genre, rock-rap, which combined rock music with rap lyrics. The single included Steve Perry on guitar, Steven Tyler’s vocals, and rapping and scratching by Run-D.M.C. According to VH1′s Pop Up Video, Run D.M.C. couldn’t afford to use everyone in Aerosmith, so only Steven and Joe were on the track.
To this day, “Walk This Way” is considered a pioneering success within 80s music. In fact, it was the first rap song to make the top five in the Billboard Hot 100. It paved the way for various genres to fuse with rap and hip-hop music through artist collaborations. VH1 named it number four in its list of the “100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop.”
The Run-D.M.C. version of “Walk this Way” charted higher than the original. It’s totally one of the best 80s songs ever.
“Walk This Way” kicks off with a two-measure drum beat that morphs into a now-famous guitar riff, which was written by Joe Perry. The intro is followed by the first verse backed by a steady drum beat and bassline. Meanwhile, there are two lead guitars dueling it out. In short, it’s a noisy song, which is notable since most 80s songs tended toward the melodic.
The lyrics are about a high school kid losing his virginity and were inspired by a line from Marty Feldman’s Young Frankenstein. The rhyme scheme is metered and stressed, which may be one of the reasons why the song lent itself so well to rap.
The Run-DMC cover lyrics are almost identical to the original version of the song.
Rock, Rap, 80s
In a decade jam-packed with new and innovative 80s music, “Walk This Way” was one of the few covers that was not only successful, but a true reinterpretation of the original rather than a cookie-cutter remake. As far as 80s songs go, it’s unique because it single-handedly popularized hip-hop music, bringing an entirely new genre to mainstream listeners.
Thriller was not only the most successful of 80s albums, it was the most successful album of all time. Within a year of its release, Thriller had sold more than any other other album in history. The album still holds that title in 2010 with 65 to 110 million units sold worldwide.
Released in November, 1982, Thriller was Michael Jackson’s sixth studio album and the follow-up to 1979′s Off the Wall, which was critically and commercially acclaimed.
Thriller was a hybrid of pop and soul, R&B and rock, and even echoed disco dance music of the 70s. It soared up the charts and set the tone for all 80s music to come.
Michael Jackson, ever the over-achiever, also filmed a number of breakthrough videos for the album, many of which entered heavy rotation on MTV. Foremost among those was the album’s title track. Another single, Billie Jean became an iconic music video and established Michael Jackson as an MTV fixture.
80s Music Awards & Accomplishments
Most albums are lucky if they boast two or three singles, let alone any hits. However, of Thriller’s nine tracks, seven were released as singles and every single one of them made the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 list.
In 1984, the album broke records at the Grammys, earning eight awards.
Due to the success of Thriller, Michael Jackson is credited with having broken racial barriers, particularly with regards to MTV. The station has been noted for refusing to play videos by non-white artists, but once Thriller became the most successful of 80s albums, their policy started to change.
Note: MTV’s official statement on this matter is that they were a rock station and they didn’t play black artists because black artists didn’t make rock music. However, as 80s music evolved and MTV became more popular, they broadened their genres to better appeal to a wider audience.
In 2003Thriller ranked number 20 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
80s Albums & Videos
Thriller delivered three of the best music videos of all time. In fact, videos were a key component in marketing the album, and this set the stage for future 80s albums to use music videos as promotional tools. Using videos, Michael Jackson was able to elaborate on the songs. Each video functioned as a short film that told a story.
The video for the title track “Thriller” was groundbreaking. At 14 minutes, it told the story of a young couple leaving a theater where they’d just seen a horror film. It featured zombies and one of the most famous dance sequences in history.
“Billie Jean” tells the story of a man who claims he is not the father of his former lover’s child. As with all of Jackson’s other videos, it included iconic dance moves.
The “Beat It” video was a retelling of West Side Story and included fight-like street dancing.
In 2008, Thriller 25 was reissued as Thriller 25 and included remixes featuring contemporary artists, a previously unreleased song, and a DVD.
Any mention of Michael Jackson always takes me back to the first time I noticed him. I was just a kid, about ten or eleven years old, watching a little 80s TV with my parents. It was the Motown 25th Anniversary Special.
I didn’t know who the guy was, but when he suddenly glided backward across the stage, appearing to defy the laws of physics, I sat up and my eyes went wide. I remember that my parents, too, were astonished.
“Did he just do that?”
“What was that?”
“It had to be special effects!”
Michael Jackson had just debuted the moonwalk.
A Star Rises
The next thing we knew, Michael Jackson had taken over anything and everything that had to do with 80s music. He was everywhere – on MTV, on the radio, on tour, on a poster taped to the back of my bedroom door, and blaring on my boom box.
Every single song on that Thriller cassette was a hit. I watched Michael at the Grammys, his arms overflowing with awards. After the Pepsi commercial debacle, in which Michael’s hair caught on fire, I was concerned for his well being. I even remember his duet with Paul McCartney – “Say, Say, Say” – an 80s music video that I adored.
I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t get that moonwalk down.
80s Music Memories of Michael
The “Thriller” music video was, in my memory, Michael Jackson’s greatest achievement in the 80s. Everybody was talking about it and that was before it aired. The buzz got even louder once the video went into MTV’s rotation. It was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. The theme (zombies) was wild, the choreography was incredible, and the song was packed with energy. The dancing was phenomenal.
Whenever “We Are the World” played, I remember feeling like someone had roped my heart and was tugging on it. My eyes would tear up and I’d sing along. I loved that video too – all those awesome 80s music stars in one video!
And “Billie Jean” was an 80s music staple. The song, the video, they were the thread with which the 80s were woven. Hearing that song today is like flying through time, back to the days of lunchboxes and leg warmers. Times were simpler then. It was the 80s. And it was my childhood.
I adored Michael Jackson. Everything from his smile to that sparkly glove enchanted me, and I especially admired his dancing. After all, my dream back then was to grow up and become a dancer myself. Michael Jackson was the best dancer I had ever seen.
As much as I adored Michael, I wasn’t a rabid fan. I had Thriller and a poster, and I always watched his videos when they came on MTV or listened to his songs when they played on the radio. I followed the stories about him, too, but I don’t think I realized back then, while it was happening, just how monumental this artist was.
Last week, I first heard about Michael Jackson’s death on Facebook. It’s gotta be a joke, I thought. It was just one comment somewhere on my news feed. I hit refresh and couldn’t believe what I saw. Post after post from my Facebook friends were talking about how Michael had died from cardiac arrest but it was not confirmed and he had been taken to a Los Angeles hospital.
I stared at the computer, my jaw hanging open. I was dumbfounded.
80s Music Legend
Since that day, I’ve followed much of the news about Michael’s life and his death. I’ve listened to his music, watched his videos. I’ve sang along and I’ve cried, mourned. Here was a man-child who never had a childhood and never grew up. Has there ever been a human being more fascinating or enchanting than this modern day Peter Pan?
Michael Jackson wasn’t just a star. He was a supernova. His life and his career were riddled with soaring highs and devastating lows. He was unusual and eccentric. Scandals haunted him. And he was clearly troubled.
But one thing is undeniable. When Michael took the stage, everything changed. His shyness faded and a magical confidence took its place. It’s like when the music started and the lights went on, Michael went into metamorphosis. He changed and changed us.
We will always be able to dance and sing along with the musical legacy that Michael left us. His performances changed people’s lives and through music and through love, he will live on forever.
Which is just perfect because I’m an 80s kid who was also born in the 70s. Let’s just say I totally love 80s music like this.
“Video Killed The Radio Star” is historically recognized as the first music video to play on MTV, and it was an apt choice, for music television did indeed go on to kill the radio star.
Originally released in 1979, the song comes courtesy of British synthpop band The Buggles. The lyrics center on the golden age of radio (“back in ’52″) and tell the story of a radio star whose career is terminated when television becomes a reckoning force in pop culture (“pictures came and broke your heart”).
The video (and MTV) totally set the stage for all 80s videos to come and also told the story of the fate that would soon befall radio stars all across the world.
MTV Debuts 80s Videos
Isn’t it totally awesome that this, of all 80s videos, not only was the first music video that played on MTV, but also that it’s technically a 70s song? Now that’s foresight!
As mentioned, “Video Killed the Radio Star” went down in history as the first music video to air on MTV. However, most people don’t know that the video played again on the music television giant on February 27, 2000. This time, it marked the millionth video to play on MTV.
Thanks to MTV and the death of the radio star, this song (not the video) topped the 80s music charts and was later covered by several other recording artists. It’s even been parodied.
80s Music: A New Era
The Buggles’ Trevor Horn penned the lyrics and of the song. He said that he felt “an era was about to pass.” Maybe he was psychic! His co-writers included the other two members of The Buggles, both Geoffrey Downes and Bruce Woolley.
Horn also took inspiration for the song lyrics from a short story titled “The Sound-Sweep” by J.G. Ballard. In the story, a mute boy who lives in a world without music is tasked with vacuuming up stray music (garbage). The story takes a turn when he meets an opera singer hiding out in the sewers.
Both the lyrics and the music of “Video Killed the Radio Star” are nostalgic, and bring up images of days gone by.
Directed by Russell Mulcahy, the video also features guest singers Debi Doss and Linda Jardim, who provided the female vocals and Hans Zimmer, who appears for a flash on keyboard. As for the song, it was produced on the album Age of Plastic.
Love Those 80s Videos!
We love 80s music but we must remember that what made it so totally wicked were all those awesome 80s videos that were given to us by MTV and groups like The Buggles. Long live the 80s!
The year was 1984. MTV’s bad girl had the church ladies’ panties in a wad. But teen girls across the nation couldn’t get enough of her. And everyone awaited the much-anticipated release of her Like a Virgin album.
It was a disgrace to virgins and good girls everywhere! She was a hussy! A slut! A star! Madonna seduced the spotlight and cameras everywhere. She was (and is) an entertainer. She totally knew how to work a song, a video, and a stage.
And she knew how to put out hit after hit. Her Like a Virgin album was jam-packed with 80s music singles, and Madonna dominated the charts.
Anticipating Like a Virgin, Foremost Among 80s Albums
Leveraging off shock value and controversy, Madonna released her sophomore album in 1984, and the public was soaking it up before they heard her sing a single note. Chatter about the cutting-edge title, “Like a Virgin,” was mixed. Some said it was blasphemy. Others said it was brilliant.
Critics mostly dismissed the album, calling the title track a one-hit wonder, but once it became available, the public ate it up and Like a Virgin became a commercial success, an album so important to 80s music that it was celebrated twenty years later at the MTV Video Music Awards (and sealed with a sexy pair of kisses between Madonna and modern pop princesses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera).
The album was dedicated to “all the virgins of the world,” and was a cacophony of disco and pop inspired hits like “Material Girl,” “Angel,” and “Dress You Up,” not to mention the title track, “Like a Virgin.”
80s Music and the MTV Generation
Madonna debuted the album’s first single by performing “Like a Virgin” at the first annual MTV Video Music Awards. Swathed in a white bustier (which would become one of her wardrobe staples) and a full skirt cinched with her signature “Boy Toy” belt, Madonna rolled around onstage, crooning the lyrics to her shocking new song.
The crowd went wild and MTV put the video for “Like a Virgin” into heavy rotation and so began a long, beneficial, and reciprocal relationship between Madonna and Music Television.
The Virgin Tour
If Like a Virgin was one of the most popular 80s albums, then the Virgin Tour was certainly one of the biggest concerts of the decade. 80s music had reached new heights thanks to MTV and the concerts exploded with the added television coverage.
A performance from her Virgin Tour of the song “Dress You Up” was captured on film and turned into a music video, which like all other Madonna videos, enjoyed heavy play. Concert goers flocked to big stadiums to see the Boy Toy live and in action.
With a full band, backup dancers, and a show that was completely choreographed, the concert was a hit, and eventually made its way to video.
Your 80s Music Collection
Your 80s music collection isn’t complete without the Virgin essentials:
Order the CD from Amazon or download this totally awesome album (or any of its singles) from:
It’s been said before and it will totally be said again – the music of the 80s was pure awesomeness. There was something for everyone – metal and hard rock, rap and R&B, pop, country, and plenty of brand new sounds too. Hip-hop officially hit mainstream and became a force to be reckoned with. Dancing was a running theme throughout the decade and obviously, it relied heavily on 80s music, though it also infiltrated film, fashion, and television. MTV practically kicked off the decade, launching in 1981 and changing the face of the music industry forever.
No More Disco
Toward the end of the seventies, disco music was being mass-produced by record labels that were trying to cash in on the popular sound, making it generic and irrelevant. Plus, legions of rock fans and hardcore musicians protested the disco sound, bashing it as effeminate and fake due to its use of electronic drum beats and synthesizers rather than real musicians.
80s Music and the Synthesizer
Disco may have died but the synthesizer survived well into the 80s. Every band had to have its token keyboard player, even rock masters like Van Halen embraced the new instrument. The synthesizer and keyboards were so heavily used in 80s music that these instruments came to define the the sound of the decade. Plus, they were accessible and mass-produced in a variety of sizes, so lots of smaller versions ended up under millions of Christmas trees throughout the 80s. Almost every household had one.
A New Wave of Sound
With synthesizers and keyboards permeating 80s music, new styles started to pop up, most notably new wave and synthpop. Defined as much by its post-disco dance sound as its style, which melded ultra-mainstream pop fashion with punk stylings, new wave music found a home in the dance clubs that were formerly discotheques.
Other genres emerged as well. Most notably, hip-hop entered mainstream thanks to a groundbreaking duet featuring Run-DMC and Aerosmith in the 1986 single “Walk This Way.”
Alternative music has its roots in 80s modern rock. The techno and electronica genres also have roots in the 80s music that featured synthesizers and other electronic instruments.
Video Killed the Radio Star
On August 1, 1981, MTV (Music Television) launched and almost overnight changed the way musicians performed and marketed themselves. MTV also permanently altered the way the public viewed and listened to music. The format was simple and straightforward – music videos 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The channel featured commentaries and introductions by its veejays (video jockeys) and camera-friendly stars started to rise, a phenomenon foreshadowed by the title of the first video that played on the channel: “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles.
The 80s Music Genre Craze
In the 80s, music started to split into smaller niches, which appealed to more targeted audiences. Genres become more defined in part because of the greater visibility that MTV’s platform provided. The sound of each genre became tied to a particular style. Big hair and glam metal bands appealed to rockers. The goth predecessors, sometimes known as “mods,” were drawn to the alternative modern rock and new wave. Pop music was associated with “preppies” and “fluffs.”
The 80s is one of the most outstanding decades in history, revered for the bulk, diversity, and originality of the music that was produced from 1980 to 1989. Cultural fads and icons like the walkman, boom box, and cassette (as well as the beloved mix tape) and the cultural phenomenon that was MTV helped increase the popularity of 80s music, which was so totally awesome that we still listen to it and totally love it almost 30 years later.