Seven Great 80s Songs (and their music videos)

A Facebook meme that didn’t bug the shit out of me

The reason I started Rock n Roll Globe was anger at Facebook. But that doesn’t mean the collective wisdom of a billion people on world’s biggest social network can’t cook up a good meme from time to time. This is one of them: the 80s songs that most defined the era for you. Here’s my list.

Day 1: Fuck tha Police by NWA

I begin with a record that I literally wore down to the point of unplayability. It first came out in late summer 88 but didn’t reach my radar til early 89. But by summer 89, I knew every single rhyme and nuance of this record. I don’t know that Fuck tha Police is even my favorite song on Straight Outta Compton, but it’s definitely the one that best summarizes the incredible power and shock of this disc. I was electrified. Driving across Europe in summer 89 on tour with Green, we listened to this over and over and got it into our bloodstream. It’s a formula that winds through all popular music – angry young people with something to say and the talent to say it with power and clarity.

Day 2: Drive by The Cars

I think of The Cars as a prototypical late 70s band, but it really wasn’t until their fifth album, Heartbeat City in 1984, that they made peace with the tension between their punky new wave instincts and their desire for pop stardom. To me, that all comes together with this perfect song. Gorgeously sung by bass player Ben Orr, who died in 2000, this very simple three-beats and a snare structure had a hypnotic effect and its lyrics were uncommonly accessible and straightforward for always-great songwriter Ric Ocasek: Who’s gonna pay attention to your dreams / Who’s gonna plug their ears when you scream. Soooooo nice. I’m including the video of them performing it at Live Aid because as great as the studio version is, The Cars videos were almost extra stupid. This live version is good, but not as great as their appearance on Saturday Night Live was — that one was flawless. Their refusal to do “rock moves” on stage was a sort of anti-rock form of punk rock that is actually really cool.

Day 3: Unsatisfied by The Replacements

A perfect song on a perfect album by an endearingly imperfect band at the peak of their powers. I intentionally selected this on the day after “Drive” because it’s another 1984 song and could hardly be more different in terms of attitude, scope, and context, but at the end of the day, you’re talking about two supernaturally moving pop songs sung to gut-wrenching effect. Paul Westerberg is an uneven songwriter and really endured a directionless phase after the band left Twin/Tone. But you can count on a couple hands and feet the number of songwriters who have crafted an entire album unmarred by even a single song that’s less than great.

From the cover photo (on Mrs. Stinson’s roof) to the Kiss cover, from the drumless Answering Machine to the confection of I Will Dare, Let It Be is a hundred times better than its pretty great namesake. And this one’s the very best of the very best. I feel super lucky to have seen this band at their highest point. This remastered version reveals some acoustic guitar subtleties that I hadn’t noticed (and couldn’t play…) when I spent a hundred hours transcribing that weird Fsus2 chord that undergirds the whole song. Brave of The Lilacs to cover this a few times and I wish I had a tape of that, though I’m kinda glad I don’t. There’s no music video of this of course—the next song on the record is Seen Your Video, which mocks the entire artform. This live version from 30 years after the original is tough to listen to because the entire crowd is shouting along. But it’s great to look at, as the whole thing just shows Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson still feeling it.

Day 4: Blood and Fire by Indigo Girls

A great song should be great no matter who plays it or under what circumstances. That’s why it’s really tough to screw up “Twist and Shout” (although Van Morrison tried, just to spite Bert Berns). But sometimes a great song is matched up against the person who was born to sing it and that’s what you have here with Amy Ray and her scratchy pipes. Just try not to get chills during those parts where she says “And I’m calling you, I’m calling you…” I can still see the mix tape that Jennifer LaPorte made for me with her perfect cursive handwriting. She and I used to play this one together on stage sometimes. If you didn’t fall in love with her at least a little bit when she was singing that one, boy or girl, well I just don’t know if you’re fit to stand in a smoky room at Batteries Not Included and recover from heartbreak. “I am intense I am in need I am in pain and I am in love.” Me fucking too.

Day 5 and Day 6: If You Love Me and I Don’t Even Need Her (Now) by Green

The song “If You Love Me” from 1985 is Green at early pop purest. Those four downstroke Dm chords, the amazing Johnny Diamond bass line, John Valley’s rare ability to play both fast and heavy, it’s all there. But as ever, the real star is the incomparable voice of Jeff Lescher. This is a not-terrible live version we filmed at The Exit while a very pro crew from Northwestern University was filming Green for a documentary. I saw Material Issue cover If You Love Me a couple times and they reproduced it really faithfully. MI’s singer Jim Ellison admired Jeff’s songwriting and singing a ton.

The second song is 1989’s I Don’t Even Need Her (Now). This is not just a great song, but a really good video, as well, 100% conceived by Jeff. He even drew the storyboard that the little kid in the video is coloring on. We shot this in Amsterdam and elsewhere in Holland during Summer 1989, which was so fun. At 1:39, there’s a good shot of me in a Dinosaur Jr. shirt at the soundcheck for our show at Waterpop Festival in Rotterdam, which held thousands of people. Cool close-up of Jeff doing a very tasty solo on his Les Paul. At 2:50, you can see the still photographer who shot a bunch of great photos of us, Esther Kroon. She was a mondo talent who was murdered a few years later during a robbery in Guatemala. I play a pretty nifty bass solo in the outro here.


Day 7: Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey

This masterstroke requires no further elucidation. But that doesn’t sound like me. So here’s my stupid little story. I have adored, worshipped, learned from this song since the moment it appeared. Escape came out right before my bar mitzvah in Fall 81 and I remember thinking that if I could get Caryn Goldberg to dance with me to Open Arms, my life would be complete. DSB brings it all together — that irresistible opening piano riff, the huge guitar arpeggio, the supercheese lyrics – all just work like crazy for me. But of course it’s the singing that makes it … special. My sister and I would listen to that record in her room over and over, singing into her hairbrush and getting our moves down. Did you know that Don’t Stop Believing holds the record for highest number of digital downloads of any song released in the 20th Century?

This song also revealed, years later, what a total asshole I am.

Here’s what happened.

Whenever I participate in karaoke, I choose a Bowie song – high cool factor, and challenging enough to sing that I can show off some chops, but well-known enough to involve the crowd. Around the time I was turning 40, we were invited to another friend’s 40th birthday party – an 80s themed karaoke party. This was a group of friends from my kids’ school and that was mostly my ex-wife’s racket, so I didn’t know these people well. I decided that everyone there was going to goof their way through Born in the USA and Call Me Al, so I was going to show them how a real rock star does karaoke at the 80s themed 40th birthday party of a bunch of yeshiva parent friends.

Oh brother, typing this out, this story is even more pathetic than I remembered.

Anyway, I decided on Don’t Stop Believin’ because it’s not just universally beloved (Family Guy has a funny riff about that) but also incredibly hard to sing and seldom seriously attempted. I practiced holding the “night” on “Somewhere in the night….” for weeks. Again, I fully realize that practicing for a karaoke night violates the spirit of the whole thing and is a douche thing to do in general. But it totally worked!

The people there got it. Not that I was “discovered” at 40 years old and so fat I could have eaten Steve Perry, but to this day, people who were at that party mention it to me. We live for the small pleasures in life.

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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