Music: Hidden Treasures of the 1980s

The 1980s was not my favorite decade, especially for music, but there are some hidden treasures. I’ve bypassed the more famous bands and artists in favor of ones that may be a mystery to you.  Incredibly, the majority of these artists are still performing today. The 1980s was a strange decade for music.  Radio format changes like the weather and MTV would soon put a whole new spin on music. Fashion and presentation became more important than ever.  England was still sending out new bands and musical trends.  Disco transformed into club music or dance beats.  The synthesizer became king as technology created keyboards with digital sampling.  Recording effects like deep echo, especially on drums (thanks Phil Collins) became the norm. Guitar groups did not fade away, as evidenced by many regional bands that used a stripped-down, 1960s sound.  This was not the beginning of indie or alternative rock, but it found a niche, particularly with college and blue collar audiences and would become the big thing in the next decade.

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The Bongos

Drums Along the Hudson What is often missed in the punk, club music and synth pop, indie rock emerged. Remember R.E.M.? The Bongos were an American band with energy like the Police and U2. They first broke in England, this album culled some of their best stuff.

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The Smithereens

Green Thoughts was their debut album and a fabulous one. “Only a Memory” is a great guitar song along with “Drown in My Tears”. The Smithereens were another indie rock band from the east coast, not a lot of frills, but great guitar-based songs.

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Bruce Cockburn

A Canadian folk-rock singer-songwriter, who often included social issues in his lyrics. In the 1980s, he toughened up his sound with electric guitars and synthesizers. Stealing Fire (1984) featured “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” which was an angry political rant.

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Jules Shear

The Eternal Return was his second big label album. His songs were being recorded by Cyndi Lauper and the Bangles. His songwriting was pure pop with a sense of mid Sixties soul. This album had “If She Knows What She Wants” “Steady” and “You’re Not Around.”

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Marshall Crenshaw

His debut was called Marshall Crenshaw, released in 1982. Crenshaw did not fit any of the genres of the early 1980s except the Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe category, bouncing guitars, harking back to the early days of rock and roll. “Mary Anne” “Cynical Girls” and “Someday, Someway” are really fine songs.

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Aztec Camera

A Scottish pop band that was really more like Elvis Costello or Haircut 100. Rodney Frame was the singer and main songwriter. There songs alternated between sweet pop and melancholy ballads, but employed some interesting chord progressions. My favorite album is Knife, it was produced by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. The most interesting song is the complex title song.

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Haircut One Hundred

This British pop-soul band had only one real album, Pelican West, before they lost their main songwriter. “Fantastic Day” and “Love Us One” were the biggest songs, but the entire album rocks. Nick Heyward, broke off for a successful solo career.

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Madness

A British new wave-ska band with slippery rhythms and catchy grooves. Madness includes a few songs from earlier albums and was a great introduction to American audiences. “Our House” and “It Must Be Love” are recognizable songs from the album. Madness always reminded me of a party in progress.

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Paul Collins and the Beat

Another east coast band that recalls the Kinks and The Who, straightforward rock. The Beat” was there debut in 1979 and The Kids Are the Same followed in 1981. With their second album, the band shows more maturity. If you like power-pop from this era, check out this band.

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The Specials

England produced a smorgasbord of beats, rhythms and inventive melodies in the last 1970s and early 1980s. Reggae and ska could be found in my forms of music. Young listeners were blind to labels and enjoyed the World Music influence. The first two albums were really an assortment of genres. Find the greatest hits collection.

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ABC

The Lexicon of Love (1982) was a fusion of punk energy and disco grandness. “Poison Arrow”, “Tears Are Not Enough” and “The Look of Love” were big hits. Big arrangements and funky beats propel these love songs.  The Lexicon of Love was their most successful album.

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The Buggles

A geeky duo of Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. Their first album provided the hit “Video Killed the Radio Star” after which they both joined the progressive-rock band Yes, for one album. The Buggles then released Adventures in Modern Recording, which was a minor classic. It’s a lovely blend of new wave and old wave.

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Frankie Goes to Hollywood

If you like turbo-charged synth pop, you’ll remember how big this album was. Welcome to the Pleasuredome was hugely successful and was all over the radio. Trevor Horn (The Buggles, Yes) produced. “Relax” was about masturbation if you recall. “Two Tribes” and “The Power of Love” also charted. If you like the big, glam production of the era, drink up.

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The Members

Uprhythm, Downbeat was their second album, a punk turned reggae/pop group. Like the English Beat, the Specials and the Clash, the Members evolved quickly, with the help of a talented producer, gaining a healthy dose of pop slickness. “Working Girl” and “Going West” are ear candy. Forget the cheap-looking album cover.

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Nik Kershaw 

Kershaw several hits in his native England and released his first album, Human Racing, which featured several singles including “Wouldn’t It Be Good” and “I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”.  His music was used in several films like Pretty in Pink and Doc Hollywood, and his songs were recorded by other artists.  He has maintained a successful career, lending vocals to other artist’s projects and as a songwriter.  Unfortunately, the mullet was a casualty of hair loss.

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Naked Eyes

Burning Bridges Is a synth-pop duo, quirky melodies and arrangements. “Promises, Promises” is an original, a soulful ballad. “Always Something There to Remind Me” is the Bacharach/David song which became a hit around the world and still gets airplay.  Success was short-lived, as the group never toured and a follow-up album was greeted with mixed reception. A version of the band does tour.

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Graham Parker

Another Grey Area Graham Parker and the Rumor released some very energetic pop in the 1970s. Parker went solo with mixed results. Parker dialed-down the angry young man attack as a solo artist, releasing more mainstream pop albums. Parker, like Elvis Costello is a consummate songwriter.  Parker is an acquired taste, he has vocal appeal like Costello and his songs can be dense with lyrical imagery and lack the Top 40 snap, but offer a rewarding listening experience.

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Translator

Heartbeats and Triggers Another indie rock, guitar-centric band, with a smooth 1960s sound, similar to the Byrds. “Everywhere That I’m Not” was their first single and is very representative of their sound.  They released three more thoughtful albums before breaking up in 1986.  They have since regrouped, but also perform as solo artists.


8 thoughts on “Music: Hidden Treasures of the 1980s

  1. Some great stuff there. I knew when I saw ‘hidden treasures’ and 1980’s- Marshall Crenshaw HAD to be listed… also love Aztec Camera, Graham Parker..The Smithereens!!

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  2. Cool list. Since you listed the Specials and Madness, you might like the English Beat, with Dave Wakeling. He was a great songwriter with a distinctive singing voice. Another ’80s band I liked was Talk Talk, with the late Mark Hollis. (I did an obit/tribute to him on my own site.)

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    1. I intentionally did not list the English Beat, although I thought about it. I love them, but think they were too well known for my list. I saw Wakeling a few years ago when his version of the band played locally. Great concert. I also like Talk Talk and thought about including them. If I do a second list, they will be in it. Thanks for the suggestions.

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      1. I saw Wakeling too, back in winter of 2008, when he came to Cincinnati. GREAT show. I also admire his tradition of having audience members throw dollars onstage for his pet cause of cleft palate surgeries. A noble cause.

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