80s Music Facts

Thomma Lyn Grindstaff
boombox and tapes

The 1980s was a major decade of growth and change for popular music, with the advent of music videos, CDs, new genres, and superstar artists who captivated millions of people all over the world with their talent and their tunes. Learn all kinds of tasty tidbits about the songs you love and the artists who wrote, performed, and recorded them

Band Names

The 1980s had its share of innovative, eclectic, and sometimes amusing band names. Music artists found inspiration in everything from psychology to popular culture to current events.

  • The Police got their band name from Stewart Copeland, the drummer. His father had worked for the CIA.
  • The 1967 movie Barbarella featured a quirky character called Dr. Durand Durand. The band Duran Duran performed their first music gigs in 1978 at a club whose name was Barbarella's, and the group named themselves after the character in the movie.
  • Tears for Fears got the inspiration for their name from primal scream therapy, a method of psychotherapy developed by Arthur Janov.
  • To name his band, Michael Stipe picked R.E.M. randomly from a dictionary. Stipe has emphasized that it doesn't stand for rapid eye movement, the dreaming stage of sleep. The band wanted a short, simple name that was open-ended and wouldn't limit people's ideas of what their music should sound like.
  • Named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the female band with the greatest number of singles to hit the charts, Bananarama based the name of their highly successful pop group on the Roxy Music song Pyjamarama.
  • Punk rock band The Clash was named by guitarist Mick Jones, who chose the name because he noticed that the word "clash" appeared to come up frequently in newspaper headlines.
  • The Beastie Boys started out as a punk band before they morphed into a 1980s hip hop phenomenon. The "Beastie" part of their band name speaks to their punk roots and is an acronym that stands for "Boys Entering Anarchist States Towards Internal Excellence."
  • The Cars, one of the most successful new wave bands, had two previous band names: Ocasek & Orr as a duo, then Cap'n Swing after they became a band. They didn't do too well under either name. After they renamed themselves The Cars, they started getting regular gigs and won a record deal, and the rest was history.
  • Huey Lewis and the News considered calling themselves American Express, but their record label told them the name probably wouldn't be appreciated by the credit card company. So the band called themselves Huey Lewis and the News, a nod toward Lewis' passion for television news.
  • The B-52s are named after a slang term used to describe the iconic beehive hairstyle that was popular in the 1960s. The hairstyle was so named because of its resemblance to the nose of the B-52 bomber aircraft.
  • The iconic all-girl band The Bangles started out their band life as The Bangs but since there was another band performing under that name in New Jersey, the girls decided to add a few letters to their name to become The Bangles.
  • Bruce Springsteen's E Street band took its name from an actual E Street located in Belmar, New Jersey. The keyboard player's mother lived on E Street, and she was happy to let the band rehearse there.

Music Videos

MTV debuted in 1981, providing 24 hours of music videos hosted by VJ s (video jockeys), and the more mellow VH1 arrived a few years later, in 1985. Videos completely changed the music landscape, becoming a staple of sonic entertainment and music marketing, but there can be no doubt the decade of the 80s was the Golden Age of music videos.

  • The first music video to be shown on MTV was Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles, which appeared on August 1, 1981. The video was preceded by footage of the moon landing in 1969 and from a shuttle launch that had taken place earlier in 1981.
  • The video for You Might Think by The Cars came out in 1984 and won Video of the Year at the very first MTV Music Video Awards, held in the same year. It was one of the first music videos to make use of computer graphics technology and served as a strong influence and inspiration for creative videos to follow.
  • MTV's most played video is Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer from 1986, which featured a technique called stop motion animation that captured images one frame at a time. While the video was being filmed, Peter Gabriel had to lie underneath a sheet of glass for sixteen hours. Sledgehammer made use of animated clay figures and funky pixelation, all of which were provided by Aardman Animations. The video won nine awards at 1987's MTV Music Video Awards and continues to hold the record for video awards.
  • Rolling Stone notes that Michael Jackson's Thriller turned music videos "into an art form." It ran almost fourteen minutes, cost half a million dollars, and was the priciest video to have ever been made by that time. The director, John Landis, referred to Thriller as a coming-of-age story represented by the cast growing hair and turning into werewolves. It was a metaphor for the changes of adolescence.
  • In the 1985 video Money for Nothing by the Dire Straits, Sting has a guest part, singing "I want my MTV." He shares a songwriting credit with the band.
  • Van Halen's Hot for Teacher video was released in 1985. Two women actually played the sultry blue bikini-wearing teacher who danced on the desk in the classroom: Lillian Muller, a Norwegian model, and Donna Rupert, the 1981 runner up for the Miss Canada beauty pageant.

Pop Superstars

The popularity of music videos and their emphasis on image and appearances helped give rise to pop music superstars who helped define the 1980s with their musical chops, fashion styles, and star quality.

  • Eddie Van Halen played a significant role in the phenomenal success of Beat It, the third single from Michael Jackson's legendary 1982 album, Thriller. Quincy Jones, the producer of the album, called Eddie Van Halen during a break in his band's touring schedule to get him to record a guitar solo for Beat It. Van Halen changed around some of the parts of the song and improvised two guitar solos, and Michael Jackson loved the result.
  • Weird Al Yankovic told Mojo Magazine about a decision he made in the late '80s to turn down a five million dollar offer to become the official spokesperson for a brand of beer. As a family-friendly, non-drinking star, he turned the deal down out of concern for the young, impressionable nature of his fans. Though he acknowledges the money would have been nice, he doesn't regret his decision.
  • Bon Jovi named their second album 4800 Fahrenheit after Fahrenheit 451, a novel by Ray Bradbury. 451 degrees is the temperature at which books will catch on fire, and 4800 degrees is the temperature at which rocks melt. The band wanted the title of the 1985 album to connote "American hot rock."
  • Whitney Houston, who was catapulted to instant superstardom in the 1980s, continues to hold the record for the highest number of consecutive charting singles. She achieved seven number one hits in a row between the years of 1985 and 1988.
  • Bonnie Tyler, who recorded the smash 1980s hits Total Eclipse of the Heart and Holding Out for a Hero, wound up with her trademark husky singing voice after she had surgery for vocal nodules. She strained her voice after the surgery, then did her best to rest and heal her voice. When she started singing again, her voice was deeper and edgier, and her band loved her new sound.
  • Paula Abdul, who rose to pop superstardom in the late 1980s with hits such as Straight Up, Forever Your Girl, and Opposites Attract, got her start in the entertainment industry when members of Michael Jackson's family saw her in action as choreographer for the Los Angeles Lakers cheerleaders. The Jackson family hired her to choreograph the family's Victory album and tour, and she also choreographed Janet Jackson's video for Nasty.
  • Madonna's signature look when she released her 1984 mega-hit album Like a Virgin was created by New York designer Maripol and unleashed a massive influence on teen girls and young women, who copied it in droves. The look consisted of bleached blond hair, fishnet stockings, lace gloves and tops, bangles and bracelets, and crucifix jewelry.
  • The week of April 19, 1986 testifies to Prince's amazing presence on the Billboard Hot 100 as a performing artist, musician, and songwriter. At number one that week was Kiss, and at number two was Manic Monday. Both were written by Prince, but Manic Monday was recorded and released by the Bangles. Prince had given them the song, and he is credited as its writer under the pseudonym Christopher.
  • Thriller, released by Michael Jackson in 1982, continues to hold the record for the world's best-selling album. As of the end of 2015, the album was certified 30 times multi-Platinum, meaning 30 million sales in the United States. Thriller spent 37 weeks in the number one position on Billboard's album chart, another record which still hasn't been broken, and the album also hit number one in other countries, including Australia, Denmark, the UK, France, Spain, and Canada.
  • Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper's smash hit from her 1983 debut album She's So Unusual, was originally written and recorded by a man, Robert Hazard, in 1979. Originally, the song was from the point of view of a naughty boy who was nuts about girls. Cyndi gave the song a brand new take and turned it into a frolicsome anthem of female empowerment.

One Hit Wonders

The 1980s are known for music artists who achieved stunning success with one or two songs but who, for whatever reason, couldn't or didn't stay relevant. The decade's pace of change was rapid both with regard to technology and the practices of the music industry, making it hard for many artists to keep up.

  • 867-5309/Jenny, recorded by Tommy Tutone, was released in 1983, and it immediately gave rise to a tremendous number of crank calls to people who actually had 867-5309 as their phone number. The Jenny phenomenon was still in evidence 21 years later in 2004, when a New Jersey disc jockey requested the number, thinking it would go well with his business, only to find himself inundated by calls and messages.
  • Toni Basil's version of Mickey was released in 1981 and hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The song, originally recorded in 1979 by UK music group Racey, was originally titled Kitty. Basil changed the name from Kitty to Mickey to make her version of the song about a man.
  • Rock Me Amadeus spent three weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and German rapper Falco is considered a one-hit wonder, but he actually had another successful song, Vienna Calling, that reached number eighteen. The artist had also written another hit song, Der Kommissar, that became a hit when it was recorded and released by After the Fire in 1983.
  • If you've ever wondered about the meaning of Nena's 1983 one-hit wonder 99 Luftballons, wonder no more. The title of the song can be directly translated into English as Ninety-Nine Air Balloons, and the band wrote the song as a protest against nuclear war. The song describes a child releasing 99 red balloons to fly high in the sky, but "war machines scramble," believing that the balloons are a threat, and the ensuing debacle results in nuclear war.
  • VH1 lists Come On Eileen number one on its list of the 100 greatest one-hit wonders of the eighties. The 1982 song reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States and charted in other countries, as well, making it an international hit. Twenty-three years later, the song was used as a wake-up call for a U.S. astronaut named Eileen on the last day of her 2005 mission on the Space Shuttle Discovery.
  • A-Ha's 1984 song Take On Me reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with help from MTV. The band experienced frustration in the studio recording the song, and though they attempted to record it twice, they remained unsatisfied. Their record label, however, invested in a top-notch video for the song, which resulted in heavy play on MTV and propelled it to fame and glory. In 1986, the video for the song captured six awards at the MTV Music Video Awards.
  • Thomas Dolby was quick to recognize the potential of videos to market music and win new fans. He sketched out the entire story of the video for She Blinded Me With Science before he even wrote the song, which was about mad scientists. He said he thought of the song as the soundtrack for the video. The video, released in 1982, was a mega hit on MTV and helped the song reach number five on the Billboard Hot 100.

Hair Metal and Heavy Metal

Two kinds of metal bands were popular in the 1980s. Hair metal bands had a pop sensibility to their music and sported a glam look that featured eye-popping spandex outfits and hair that was long, large, and lush. On the other end of the metal spectrum were the gritty, hard core rockers, who cared less about hair than about heavy metal thunder.

  • Since they became famous during hair metal's height of popularity, Twisted Sister is often considered glam metal, but they rejected the label, considering themselves to be a parody of a glam metal band. Lead singer Dee Snider once made the comment that he rejected the "glam" label because it meant "glamour" and that Twisted Sister should be referred to as "hid" since they were "hideous."
  • Motley Crue's first music gig at the Troubador in 1981 was highly successful and broke attendance records for the club. Van Halen's David Lee Roth saw the show and gave them some good, solid advice about how to succeed in the music industry.
  • One of Guns N Roses' biggest hits, Sweet Child O Mine, was written in only five minutes. Duff McKagan, the bass guitarist, is quoted as saying it was a three chord song that was the result of Slash, the lead guitarist, just "messing around." Slash was quoted as saying that Sweet Child O Mine was his least favorite of all the band's songs, but fans loved it. The song hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the charts for 24 weeks.
  • Pour Some Sugar on Me is one of Def Leppard's greatest hits, reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988 and remaining on the charts for 24 weeks. Lead singer Joe Elliott got the idea for the song at his home in London when he asked his producer, Mutt Lange, for sugar for his tea. Lange asked whether he wanted one or two lumps, and Elliott replied, "I don't care. Just pour some sugar on me."
  • Cliff Burton, Metallica's bass guitarist for their first three albums, was killed when the heavy metal band's tour bus was involved in a tragic accident in Sweden in 1986. His power and influence lives on, though. Burton had legions of fans, some of them in up-and-coming metal bands who studied and emulated his playing, and he was ranked by Rolling Stone as the ninth greatest bass guitar player of all time.
  • Iron Maiden excels at writing and performing classic, head-banging heavy metal, but they also have a soft spot for classic poetry. The song Rime of the Ancient Mariner, from their 1984 album Powerslave, is based on an 18th century poem of the same name written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

New Wave

New wave music was actually a variety of sonic currents, including dance, punk, and electronic music. These multiple currents merged into mainstream pop and helped define the music of the 1980s.

  • The Safety Dance, released in 1983 by Men Without Hats, is a protest song of sorts. As disco died out and new wave gained traction, a new dance style called pogoing became all the rage. Club bouncers didn't like pogoing, since it involved people thrashing around and bumping into other dancers, so they either made pogoers stop dancing or threw them out of clubs altogether. Lead singer Ivan Doroschuk wrote The Safety Dance as a rallying cry for people to express themselves freely through the new style of dance.
  • Culture Club's song Karma Chameleon has an enigmatic title, but Boy George explained their number one hit was about the problems of trying to be a people-pleaser, of going along to get along instead of standing up for what's important. The song has a message about the importance of being true to yourself and how you truly feel.
  • Billy Idol was born William Broad. As a performer, he wanted to change his name to Billy Idle, inspired by a school teacher's comment that he was an idle student. He didn't want to get his name confused with Eric Idle, however, of Monty Python fame, so he changed the spelling of his new surname to Idol.
  • Spandeau Ballet became a music phenomenon in the United States with their album True, which spawned a hit single of the same name. Before they were writing smooth pop songs, though, the band was an underground staple of London's dance club scene.
  • The Talking Heads, the band whose 1982 smash hit Burning Down the House blazed up to number nine on the Billboard Hot 100, gave alternative rock band Radiohead inspiration for their name with the song Radio Head from the Talking Heads' 1986 album True Stories.

Hip Hop

Hip hop and rap music gained traction in the mainstream in the mid to late 1980s, thanks to the popularity of music videos. Old school rappers gained a wider audience for their music, and newer hip hop artists set trends with regard to style.

  • Run-D.M.C., the group who brought old school hip hop to a mainstream pop audience, collaborated in 1986 with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler on a remake of Aerosmith's hit song Walk This Way from 1976. The effort was a grand success and reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100.
  • Rhyme Pays, rapper Ice-T's debut album, was released in 1987 and was the first hip hop album to come with a Parental Advisory sticker on its plastic wrapping. These stickers came about as a result of the formation in 1985 of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), which sought to put warnings on music that contained explicit lyrics.
  • Salt-N-Pepa, one of the first female rap bands, got its start when Salt (Cheryl James) and Pepa (Sandra Denton) met in high school and worked together. One of their coworkers asked them to create a rap to help with a class project, and the rap was so good it received radio airplay throughout New York City. Their talent attracted attention, and they signed with Pop Art Records.
  • When superstar rapper LL Cool J was a teenager, his grandfather bought him a marvelous ensemble of audio equipment, including a mixer, an amp, and two turntables. He used the equipment to create his own demo tapes, and he was quickly signed to Def Jam. His performer name stands for Ladies Love Cool James.
  • Hip hop band Public Enemy, who skyrocketed to fame in the late 1980s and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, will forever be known for their song Fight the Power, which was written as a theme song for Do the Right Thing, a Spike Lee movie. The song has been recognized in numerous media as one of the greatest songs of all time, with accolades from Blender, Consequence of Sound, VH1, and Q, among many others.

Album Covers

Early 1980s albums were vinyl or cassette, but after CD technology was introduced in the U.S. in 1983, albums were increasingly available in that format, as well. Whether vinyl, cassette, or CD, 1980s albums featured cover art that varied as widely as the artists who inspired it.

  • The cover for Metallica's 1986 album Master of Puppets was designed by Dave Brautigam with haunting images of grave markers whose strings reach up to be controlled and manipulated by a faceless master. The gravestones, shaped like crosses, poke out of a field choked by weeds and rampant vegetation. Brautigam commented that his artwork was intended to suggest the desperation and dark ramifications of addiction.
  • AC/DC's 1980 album Back in Black sported a basic black cover, and for a good reason. The members of the heavy metal band were in mourning for the bandmate they had lost, former lead singer Bonn Scott. The band continued rocking and rolling, but they wanted to make it clear to their fans that Scott's legacy would live on.
  • Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen was released in 1984, which was an election year. The album cover had a flag on the front, which led to controversy and misinterpretation, especially since it was Springsteen's jean-clad bottom that was prominently featured. Springsteen says it was designed that way simply because the shots of his bottom were preferred to the shots of his face, so that was what was put on the cover.
  • Van Halen's album MCMLXXXIV, more commonly known as 1984, has one of the most distinctive album covers in rock music history. It features a cherubic baby boy, complete with wings, posed with two packs of cigarettes and a smoke in his hand. The smokes are actually candy cigarettes. The cover was designed by Margo Nahas, and the baby boy was based on a photo of the two-year-old son of one of Nahas' friends.
  • The art for the cover of Def Leppard's 1987 album Hysteria was created by Andie Airfix at Satori. You can think of it as a visual representation of hysteria, and it adorned not only the albums but also Def Leppard t-shirts and merch that was bought by the band's enthusiastic fans.

Concert Trivia

The 1980s did things on a large scale, whether big hair or big concerts. Some concerts were events to promote recording artists' albums while others were organized for charitable causes.

  • July 13, 1985 saw coverage of two Live Aid concerts, held at London's Wembley Stadium and at Philadelphia's John F. Kennedy Stadium. Together, the concerts lasted sixteen hours and were broadcast all over the world via satellite link. Among many others, the concerts featured Phil Collins, Wham!, and U2 in London and Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, and Cyndi Lauper in the U.S. Two singles will forever be remembered from these efforts: We Are the World and Do They Know It's Christmas? Live Aid raised $125 million for famine relief in Africa.
  • Farm Aid, a concert to benefit farmers and local agriculture, took place on September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois. The twelve-hour mega concert was organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, and Neil Young and featured a wide variety of performers, including Joni Mitchell, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
  • Tina Turner's Break Every Rule tour, held in 1987 through 1988, was a phenomenal success. She played 180 tour dates throughout 25 countries all over the world. For a concert held in Brazil in January of 1988, she continues to hold the record for the largest audience ever to watch a solo artist perform with more than 184,000 tickets sold, a feat listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
  • On their Music for the Masses tour, new wave band Depeche Mode played a sell-out concert for 65,000 fans at the Pasadena Rose Bowl on June 18, 1988. It was by far the band's biggest crowd up to that point, and the show, which rocked the stadium and marked their most memorable performance, became known as the Concert for the Masses.
  • David Bowie's 1987 Glass Spider tour was nothing less than a theatrical spectacle for which the artist was in fine form. He hired Toni Basil, who had recorded the hit song Mickey, to choreograph the dancing, and he brought aboard Peter Frampton as one of his guitarists. Before setting off on the tour, Bowie and his musical team put in twelve hours a day of demanding rehearsals to get everything just right.
  • U2's 1987 album The Joshua Tree was a spectacular success, hitting number one on the Billboard 200, and it led to an equally spectacular world tour. The group enlisted a number of top notch acts as openers, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, UB40, the Pretenders, Lou Reed, and Los Lobos.
  • Pink Floyd's 1988 to 1989 Momentary Lapse of Reason tour to promote their album by the same name was the most successful tour in the history of the band, grossing $135 million dollars. The album was also taken by the Soyez TM-7 crew on their mission, making Pink Floyd the first rock band to have an audience in outer space.

Staying Power

The 1980s are long gone, but the music continues to survive and thrive, whether winning new fans, influencing up-and-coming music artists, or both. As long as there are music enthusiasts who appreciate the sonic treats the decade had to offer, 1980s music will never fade away.

80s Music Facts