One of my best friends and I bonded over music in the 1980s as friends are apt to do. However, Jonathan and I have always been ridiculously simpatico when it comes to what we consider to be great songs, despite his obsession with Patti Smyth.
Kidding aside, we both loved this tune from a guy named John Hunter, which I’ve always misspelled as Jon Hunter until today. He was with a Chicago-area band called The Hounds, and he had a minor, minor, minor solo hit in 1985 with a song called “Tragedy.”
This was a minor hit, but a major song. One of my all-time favorites of the decade.
And it’s a great video, too. Check it out.
It peaked at No. 39 on February 16 and 23 of 1985, and it was gone just like that. I was able to find this Chicago Tribune article about Hunter’s success with the song and his aspirations to become a great writer. In the article, he talks about getting to move out of his parents’ home and buying a nice car.
He never sniffed commercial success again, but God bless America, he contributed a wonderful song to the 1980s catalog. Best I can tell from Google, he’s been a music instructor somewhere in Chicago — and best I can tell from YouTube, the band The Hounds has gotten together at least once over the past few years.
Ever since I started this blog dedicated to the greatness of 1980s music a couple of weeks ago, I have intended to delineate some editorial plans for certain days of the week. For example, I think Wednesdays are perfect for one-hit wonders of the decade. Get it? Wonder Wednesdays? It’s alliterative.
And when I refer to one-hit wonders, I’m referring specifically to one-hit wonders of the American pop music charts as tabulated by Billboard magazine. I don’t think I’ll explain that with each blog, but for this era, in America, that was the standard: Billboard.
It also should be said that for every one-hit wonder, from any era, there is likely years and years of struggle, sweat and good old-fashioned hard work that goes into cultivating an audience and creating art. My first one-hit wonder of the 1980s achieved its biggest success in 1988, but they got started in 1980. It’s The Church, an indie band out of Sydney, Australia.
The four-man band got its one and only American chart hit in 1988 with “Under the Milky Way,” a wonderfully haunting song that remains a favorite of mine from the era.
That track peaked at No. 24 in 1988, and the band was never heard from again on the American pop charts. However, they did get some indie play with a tune called “Metropolis” at the end of the 80s into the early 90s. This song was The Church’s biggest chart hit in Australia, peaking at No. 19. Alas, it didn’t even crack the Hot 100 in the States.
In all, The Church had four Top 40 hits Down Under but only one in America. It doesn’t diminish their greatness by any means, especially when you consider that they gave us “Under the Milky Way.” Beautiful song and quintessentially 80s.
I don’t want to make you feel old, but Madonna will turn 60 in 2018. Did that do the trick? Good. Sure made me feel old!
I’m old enough to remember when Madonna first hit the charts in 1982-83 at the ripe old age of 24, ancient compared to some of today’s tween stars. Madonna had been “Burning Up” the dance club charts before breaking through with “Holiday” in 1983. However, I gotta tell you: Nobody thought she was necessarily a huge star after her first two or three chart singles. Her chart resume was good but not great after a year in the spotlight.
And then she set every TV in America on fire on one unforgettable September night.
Billboard magazine tells the story of a few pre-show drinks at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 14, 1984. Madonna stepped down from a giant wedding cake, in a hot white wedding dress, lost a white stiletto and started rolling around on the stage to the delight of every teenage boy in America as she sang her first No. 1 hit, “Like A Virgin.”
Truth be told, watching it back, I’m mostly amazed at how stark the production was compared to today. I’m also remembering her iconic appearance to have been much more risque than it actually was. Compared to some stuff we’ll see on awards shows these days, this was kind of tame.
But believe me when I tell you that Madonna became a star that very night. It changed everything.
Madonna was the decade’s biggest female pop star, and she was its most important. I would argue that Whitney Houston was the decade’s most talented, but I would also argue strongly that Madonna has never gotten enough praise for her musicality. No, the Michigan native was never the best vocalist, but all 19 of her Top 40 hits in the 1980s were musically interesting. They were largely all more sophisticated than the typical three-chord stuff we hear today. Madonna’s songs were equally catchy, interesting and often lyrically provocative, in an era when we shocked rather easily. They are all still listenable.
You can say a lot of things about Madonna Louise Ciccone, but she was never formulaic.
She charted her own path, forged her own style and had an influence on pop culture that I don’t think anybody comes close to matching today. Style and fashion aren’t my areas of expertise, but I can take you on a guided tour of Madonna’s 19 Top 40 hits during the 1980s, ranking them from the least awesome to the most totally tubular.
One note: “Into the Groove” is not on this list because it was never a Top 40 hit. Mind you, this massive radio hit from the movie “Desperately Seeking Susan” was named by Billboard magazine to be the ‘Dance Single of the Decade.’ However, because it was the B side of the Top 40 hit, “Angel,” it was ineligible to chart. For what it’s worth, I would have ranked it No. 4 out of 20. The video was among her best, too.
Let’s count it down.
19. “True Blue” This was the title track to Madonna’s 1986 album, and it got as high as No. 3 on the Top 40. The arrangement was structured like a 1950s tune, and it came during Madonna’s ‘Sean Penn’ short-white-hair era. Good but not great.
18. “Causing a Commotion” This is how good Madonna really was in the 1980s. This was one of a couple hits from her 1987 movie, “Who’s That Girl,” and even children of the 80s barely remember it. However, it hit No. 2 on the singles charts, and it sounds just fine today.
17. “La Isla Bonita” Think about today’s artists and their penchant for playing it safe, and then consider how different most of Madonna’s singles sounded. This was the third single from the album “True Blue,” and it peaked at No. 4 on the American singles charts. It topped the charts in Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland and Great Britain.
16. “Express Yourself” The second single from the album “Like A Prayer” topped out at No. 2 on the singles charts and was probably a bigger radio hit than how I have it ranked here. However, there are a handful of Madonna’s tunes that I think were underrated, even for her catalogue. This one, I think, was perhaps a bit overrated.
15. “Lucky Star” Madonna’s third Top 40 hit was her first Top 5 single, and I think it was her best video — an all-time great in that category just for being iconic. Not that it was the inspiration for Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” but watch that and then watch Madonna’s video and soak in the understated cool that was early-era Madonna.
14. “Holiday” This was Madonna’s first chart hit after three tries, one of three chart hits from the 1983 album “Madonna.” Musically, it reminds me of ABC’s “The Look of Love,” one of the many great early-1980s songs I’ll expound upon on this blog. However, it got Madge into the chart game, if you will, peaking at No. 16.
13. “Papa Don’t Preach” Between Madonna’s crucifix fashions and references to virgins, there was little doubt that Madonna was Catholic. However, her 1985 No. 1 hit took it to a new level with this moral conundrum of a pop song.
Early in the song, Madonna proclaims to know right from wrong before singing this in the chorus:
Papa don’t preach, I’m in trouble deep
Papa don’t preach, I’ve been losing sleep
But I made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby, oh
I’m gonna keep my baby, mmm…
Madonna is neither musically formulaic nor socially predictable. This wasn’t my favorite song but I’ll be damned if it won’t get stuck in your head without much effort.
12. “Who’s That Girl?” The title track from the movie soundtrack of the same name, “Who’s That Girl?” was a chart-topper in 1987. This was one of Madonna’s most forgettable tracks in terms of pop culture impact, but it’s another of those songs that I would say proves her musical worth. And for the record, she’s dressing as if she had been watching Scritti Politti videos.
11. “Oh Father” I remember writing about George Michael on Facebook, noting that his best song in my opinion was one of his deepest if not his most popular, “Praying for Time.” I’m reminded of that as I place “Oh Father” at No. 11 on this list of Madonna’s best for the decade. What it didn’t achieve in typical Madonna pep it did in gravity, and it was sorely underrated musically. For what it’s worth, this was her worst-charting song of the decade, peaking at No. 20 on the American singles chart.
10. “Like A Prayer” We’re back to the religion on display, and as I recall, this one had the Catholic church all in a tizzy because of burning crosses, dancing in neglige and various Catholic imagery. However, the song was beautifully backed by Andrae Crouch’s gospel choir. The truth is, Madonna was much more thoughtful and respectful than not in most ways regarding her themes. And while there aren’t many Madonna songs that made you sit back and say, “Damn, she’s got some soul,” this track came as close as anything she did, and it was a worldwide No. 1: United States, Australia, Canada, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Great Britain.
9. “Open Your Heart” The songs from here on out, for me, are all great. Madonna had five singles released from the album, “True Blue,” the most by a lot of any album in the 80s for here. This was the fourth single, and it came with a very enjoyable video where a little kid waits outside while Madonna works the peep show inside. I’m positive I’m not doing it justice, so I’ll leave you to it. And, again, I’ll empathize if the song gets stuck in your brain for hours.
8. “Dress You Up” Madonna wrote many of her own songs, but this was not among them. It was included on the “Like A Virgin” album mostly because she liked the lyrics. It peaked at No. 5, her sixth-consecutive Top 5 hit, but I liked it because musically it carried a melody that could have been part of an older jazz standard. Quick side note: Watch the video and tell me she’s not dabbing at :37 into it.
7. “Angel” Here’s where I’ll get a bit passionate about Madonna. This is a delight to the ears even if it’s a track that doesn’t get mentioned much from her catalogue. The production is smooth, the bass is booming and it’s a great track to dance to in the car when nobody’s looking. It peaked at No. 5 in late 1984, early 1985. To me, this might be her most underrated song. The songs I have at No. 3-1, many 1980s aficionadoes adore. This one, I don’t know.
6. “Material Girl” It’s not so much that I love the song, it’s that this woman is called the “Material Girl,” and the video is as iconic as any that were made in the 1980s. Besides, as I noted earlier in this post, everything Madonna did musically in the 1980s was interesting at worst. Juxtaposed against her previous hit, “Like A Virgin,” this was quite the change of pace.
5. “Live To Tell” When one thinks of Madonna, one doesn’t think “balladeer.” However, two of my favorite Madonna songs, two of them in the Top 5 were ballads. This track was made for Sean Penn’s movie, “At Close Range,” during the time when they were together. It was also included on the album “True Blue,” the first of five singles from that CD. As a musician, I listen to the melody and the progressions and am fascinated by how not formulaic this song is. And if you’re curious: She wrote it. (Note: She co-wrote it. Very few huge pop songs are credited to just one writer.)
4. “Like A Virgin” This was not only Madonna’s first No. 1 hit, it was the song that launched her from fame to uber-fame. Written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, this smash stayed atop the Billboard singles charts for six weeks. The VMA appearance launched it into the annals of pop culture history, but the song itself held enough greatness to put it at or near the top of all sorts of all-time and end-of-decade charts. In addition to that, I have to give it props for having one of the better opening lines in all of pop music: “I made it through the wilderness. Somehow I made it through.”
3. “Cherish” These last three songs I would include on my personal decade-favorites lists. In fact, for my taste, I would say that Madonna had three truly great songs, this being the first of them. The song is joyous, playful, super positive and catchy as all-get-out without being formulaic, to repeat a theme I’ve focused on throughout the blog. The song was the third single from the “Like A Prayer” album in 1989 and peaked at No. 2. It’s tough to listen to this song and not come away with good energy.
2. “Crazy for You” The first thing I would tell you is that in a decade filled with good soundtracks, the CD from the movie “Vision Quest” was among the best. The second thing I would tell you is that “Crazy for You” might be the best ballad by any singer of the decade. Sure, there are some just as good, but I can’t think of any better. This was Madonna’s second No. 1 hit, and I’ve always loved that two-chord hook that takes you into the verse. It’s something I’ve used from time to time when I write songs.
1. “Borderline” Greatness. This isn’t merely my favorite song from Madonna, it’s one of my 25 favorite songs of the entire decade, regardless of genre or performer. It’s melodically beautiful. The production is smooth. It’s soulful. And it was her second chart hit ever, her first Top 10 track, and it still gets radio play today.
Because it’s terrific.
Take that, 2017. 1983 totally kicks your musical tush.
By the way, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that “Borderline” was written by a fellow named Reggie Lucas, who was best known for his work with Mtume and for co-writing Stephanie Mills’ hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” Go listen to that song, and soak in the similarities between it and “Borderline.”
I’m such a big fan of this song that I sat down and did a cover version of it AFTER I had written this blog post. Love this song. Hope you enjoy the cover!
That’s my list in all its glory. If you enjoyed the post or taking this li’l trip down memory lane, I’d love it if you stopped by ilove80smusic.com periodically. I’ll be posting a few times every week on songs, videos and topics that mean quite a bit to those of us who grew up during the era.
“The 1980s are back!” Or maybe that should be, “The 1980s are back?” Really?
In reality, there probably shouldn’t be that much excitement. A statement declaring “The 1980s are back” will suffice. In many ways, this isn’t an awful development. The decade, culturally, was pretty vapid but it was sweet. It was nice. The music was synthy and rich and fun, and even in the midst of the decade’s cheesiness, the magazine Rolling Stone deemed 1984 the greatest year in pop history.
As a lover of all-things 1980s and a self-proclaimed historian of the decade’s music, I can hardly disagree. That year produced magic from Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Van Halen, Madonna, George Michael and so many more.
Aside from The Weeknd’s recent ode to “Off The Wall”-era Michael Jackson or Taylor Swift’s genuinely terrific album, “1989,” most of today’s attempts to bring 80s synth back falls short because of terrible writing. Today’s melodies are weak. The chord progressions are completely unimaginative, and the lyrics are awful.
Not that the lyrics in the 1980s were THAT great. I digress.
Beyond the music, however, there’s quite a bit of evidence that 1980s fashion is back. Not that I’m bringing back my mullet or my pegged jeans legs, but this article declare it so, and — damnit — it’s the New York Times, so I’ll take their word for it.
We would all be lucky to have movies the like of which John Hughes made, but I suspect the closest we’ll get is “Stranger Things.” Truly, we’re living in the golden age of TV.
However, the most obvious comparison to be made between today and the 1980s is the high profile that Russia has taken since the election of President Donald Trump. If one would have uttered those words in 1987, “President Donald Trump,” the laughter would have been crazy loud just as it would have been at the words, “President Ronald Reagan,” 30-plus years before that.
The big difference politically between the 1980s and today is that, back then, the tension we felt was the understanding that we could be thrown into a nuclear apocalypse with the Soviet Union at any moment. And today it’s that we’re headed toward a second civil war.
This blog won’t focus on any of that stuff. There’s too much negativity in the world as it is. However, blog marketing experts say to “blog what you know,” and I know 80’s music. So, click subscribe, like, follow or whatever the kids on WordPress do these days and follow along. I’ll recount the one-hit wonders, the near misses, foreign hits, great videos and terrible hair.
This blog will be lots of fun.
PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Dooley shared this photo via Flickr’s Creative Commons