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A Musical History: 1981

A Top Ten from 1981

Photo by Taylor Grote on Unsplash

Following on from my trip down memory lane for 1980, now it's time to delve into 1981 and the gems this year produced.

By this time, synth music had taken its hold and the charts were flooded with all kinds of versions, from the sleazy antics of Soft Cell to the pop antics of Adam & The Ants.

This was my first full year out of school and my first taste of freedom in terms of jobs and some cash! This meant being able to buy my own music, hone my taste (such as it was), and plan to go to college the next year. The appearance of synth music and magazines like New Sounds, New Styles gave me an insight into the club scenes in the likes of London and Birmingham.  

I was still finding my feet in terms of music, hence some of the choices here.....cheesy pop next to arty beats......welcome to 1981.

A quick word on the subtitle—it's a "guideline" and a catchy phrase to use but as all you "mathletes" will see, there are more than ten tracks in this years edition......so sue me! 

The Specials: "Ghost Town"

This pared down two-tone song really struck a chord—it was a love/hate thing on first listening but Terry Hall's haunting vocals won me around. A song full of social commentary on the full-blown Thatcher era of mass-strikes and the selling off of national assists.

Soft Cell: "Tainted Love"

A re-visit of the Gloria Jones 60s classic, using a simple combo of vocal and synth and slowing the tempo down created a completely different version of this beautiful song. Interesting fact: the vocals on the song were the first take from Marc Almond, and the entire song only took a day and a half to record.

Adam & The Ants: "Prince Charming"

The song that made Adam Ant a sex god in most people's eyes—tight pants and some stunning dance moves. Even better was the inclusion of Diana Dors in the video. One of those videos that launched a thousand bad dances at family parties and discos throughout the kingdom...

Ultravox: "Vienna"

Now, this struck a chord with me—I loved the whole serious, arty vibe both of the song and the video.....it fit right in with the feeling of the time and became a symbol of the synth-generation. Ultravox is quoted as saying that they wanted to take the song and make it pompous in the middle, leaving the sparse before and after—but finishing it in a typical over the top classic style. Billy Currie wanted to make something that sounded as if it was written by a late-19th-century composer—and I think both of them succeeded but when you consider the styles of the club kids of the time, it was sheer perfection!

The Human League: "Don't You Want Me"

This is a classic, a seemingly ageless piece of pure pop. It's another floor filler at all those family get-togethers we all have to attend and has an instantly recognizable intro... Alongside this, you only have to say: "You were working as a waitress..." and everyone, I mean EVERYONE, can shout out the rest of the lines. Taken from Dare, the song was originally inspired by a photostory Phil Oakey read in a teen-girl mag (these things used to be a staple in the 70s and 80s) and also by the film A Star is Born, turning the song into a duet with conflicting viewpoints. The Human League had already had three hits from Dare, and this was considered by Oakey as the weakest song on the album—but it turned out to be the most enduring!

Altered Images: "Happy Birthday"

Ahh, the perky Clare Grogan—how could you not love this quirky piece of music? It's like pop met new wave and had a bouncy baby! The track was produced by Martin Rushing, who also produced for The Human League. The song has been covered a few times since 1981 and was also picked to appear on the soundtrack of the John Hughes movie of 1984, Sixteen Candles. Clare was a singer and actress, and in this same year, did a stint in Gregory's Girl, a classic from this period of Channel 4 funded Brit cinema. This pop ditty is a sheer delight and a great example of this period of music. 

Phil Collins: "In The Air Tonight"

Phil Collins? In the midst of all these artsy bands and poser songs? Listen, now really, I mean it—just listen to this pared-back, slick piece of music— that simple beat throughout, those lyrics, that voice, and then those drums that kick in... Need I say more? Sheer pop perfection. The main hit from Face Value, Phil's first foray into "solo-dom", coupled with a decently sparse video helped this hit become a staple when MTV launched in August 1981 and achieved the status it did in charts around the world.

Landscape: "Einstein A-Go-Go"

Landscape had been around for quite some time before scoring this hit—playing jazz, rock, and punk in various guises before experimenting with computers and coming up with his and their other hit "Norman Bates". So, why is this on my list? Simply because I love a good beat, a quirky computer noise, and a good obscure lyric. I dare you not to tap your tootsies to this one!

Spandau Ballet: "Chant No 1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On)"

I loved this track, it spanned the poseur move into more funky beats, a little white rapping, and a shift away from the pure electronic music that had seeped into the charts over the past year or two. The combination of funk and rap into one track from an all-white band is fun to say the least but Spandau carry it off - but then after jodhpurs and kilts, they could carry anything off!

Duran Duran: "Girls On Film"

Following on form of the rather lack-luster "Careless Memories", this track helped the Durans shift up the charts both in the UK and abroad. The video, by the great Godley and Creme, was ripe for the MTV generation— although the initial idea was to have the video playing in clubs, as this song was released before MTV launched stateside—and the BBC banning it as too raunchy didn't do it any harm..... For me, this track epitomizes the electronic genre—it melded a good voice and a punch synth soundtrack to give you something immediately recognisable and addictive. Le Bon's voice has never sounded better and the songs longevity and admiration from fans helped it become a touring favourite, one the Durans close most concerts with.

Haircut One Hundred: "Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)"

The Haircut's debut single, launching them and a thousand cricket sweaters across the globe. Lead vocalist, Nick Heyward, wrote this jazz-funk ditty. It is instantly catchy, has a nice white rap insert (I see a pattern emerging), and an interesting lyric.  

Toyah: "Thunder in the Mountains"

I admit I loved Toyah—the makeup, the hair, the clothes, and the damn attitude. This song summed all those things right up—the video involves chariots, an amazing hairdo, and glorious costumes all wrapped up in a Mad Max style world dreamt up by the great Godley & Creme while the song gave us anthemic choruses and uses Toyah's vocal range to great effect. This was the band's 8th single and a great Top of the Pops appearance helped it go top fiv in the UK. 

Visage: "Fade To Grey"

The band's 2nd single was also their most successful—with a video that summed up New Romantics style, and best again directed by Godley & Creme —boy were they on a roll. Steve Strange on lead vocals gives it his best art school pout and puts in a good turn in this hymn to the pomposity I loved about this era. The lyrics were the same in both French and English, an idea both Steve Strange and Midge Ure claim as theirs. The band was a strange(!) mix of collaborators of the time, with Steve Strange and Rusty Egan being the mainstays but having input from members of Ultravox and Magazine.

Depeche Mode: "Just Can't Get Enough"

The song the word "ditty" was made for—taken from the band's 2nd album, it was the final single written by Vince Clarke before he left the band later in '81. The accompanying video was also the only Depeche Mode one to include Vince prior to his departure. A total toe-tapper, this remains one of my fav songs by this group.

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