1984 had a whole lot going for it, and especially since the decade is pretty much all downhill from here, I’ll again try to keep things as positive as possible here. ’84 is the point where “sounding ’80s” starts to become something a song has to overcome rather than something it can boast. In the latter half of the decade, strong hooks and engaging performances can and do rise above the slick void of their production, but more often become hopelessly mired in endless echoing snare drums and keyboards. Even more so than the stuffy brill building fare of the 60s or the lame kitschiness of 70s easy listening, the worst pop of the mid-late 80s is dated beyond redemption, a product of its time in all the worst ways, and these 10 songs are no exception. On with the show!
#10: Billy Squier- Rock Me Tonite
“Rock Me Tonite” is a better song than “The Stroke”. No two ways about it, Billy Squier stepped his game up across the board here: the chorus hits harder, the lyrics avoid outright stupidity, and the addition of synths at least nods toward something other than played out rock-isms. But after “The Stroke” it’s impossible to un-hear how little Squier brings to the table as a performer and songwriter, and for all the improvements it makes, “Rock Me Tonite” simply can’t muster an argument for why this guy was anyone worth paying attention to. He again feels fairly stuck in the 70s as a songwriter, putting those aforementioned synths to use on an ELO-ish plonk-plonk rhythm that seems to get in the way of the stabs at strident guitar rawk rather than enhancing them. Remember: ‘84 was the year of Billy Idol’s breakout album Rebel Yell, the year ZZ Top hit the Billboard top 10 with “Legs” and Van Halen went all the way to number one with “Jump”. Idol used synths to lend a nervy energy to his poppy takes on punk rock, Billy Gibbons and co. used them to add a modern sleekness to their bluesy southern grooves, and Eddie Van Halen crafted a fist-pumping main riff befitting of his band’s party-til-you-die energy. All Squier can think to do is awkwardly tack a modern DX-7 tone onto the same old keyboard ideas bands had been working for over a decade.
The song is also saddled with one of the most unfortunate music videos of the 80s, featuring Squier prancing about in a tank top, improvising the sort of dance moves that should never make it out of the shower. It’s almost enough to lend the song a bit of charm, but ultimately “Rock Me Tonite” only proves once again that in the pantheon of 80s rock, Billy Squier sat at the kids’ table.
#9: Cyndi Lauper- She Bop
‘84 was a big year for Cyndi Lauper. Her debut album She’s So Unusual became one of the defining albums of the decade practically overnight, a bright, brash slew of pop confectionery that, along with Duran Duran’s Rio, once and for all crowned synthpop as the sound of mainstream music in the 1980s. Both bubblegummy banger “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and gauzy ballad “Time After Time” missed the cut for the best list this year, but even though I have my issues with both (particularly “Time After Time”, which Lauper handles somewhat indelicately), I do still respect them as important milestones in pop music history, game-changing megahits that, all things considered, hold up decently well today. But the third hit from She’s So Unusual, “She Bop”, lays bare every crack in Lauper’s pop-princess tiara with little else to redeem it. It’s not enough to fully sour me on her more fondly-remembered songs, but if I had been around in ‘84, this would be the point where I’d have predicted that Lauper’s hitmaking career was not to be a long one. Instead of embracing the big hooks and colorful instrumentation of ‘84 synthpop, Lauper here reaches back to the earliest days of the genre, with a jerky, robotic synth riff that almost reminisces of Freedom of Choice-era Devo. I can at least see the reasoning at play here, pairing a more angular sound with a more risque lyric. But besides that riff being too simple to not grate by the track’s halfway mark, and besides her tripping over the hiccup-y melody, at the end of the day Cyndi Lauper doesn’t have the instincts of a provocateur like Mark Mothersbaugh, or even like fellow ‘84 pop freshman Madonna. She can’t pull off confrontation, and the pro-masturbation preaching here wilts under her tittering winks at the audience. You can see it in the music video- Lauper is every bit the telegenic ray of sunshine she was in the “Girls Just Wanna…” video, constantly beaming and mugging at the camera. She’s simply too dang likeable to fit with a stiff, twitchy tune like this, and too committed to broad, goofy showmanship to convincingly provoke. “She Bop” sharply delineates the limits of Lauper’s abilities: a consummate entertainer and a boatload of fun when she wanted to be, but ultimately confined to too narrow a tonal niche to reach the heights of her more ambitious peers.
#8: Mike Reno & Ann Wilson- Almost Paradise
If there’s any song from this decade that could fairly be considered an analogue to 1974’s Carly Simon/James Taylor duet “Mockingbird”, this is it. “Almost Paradise” is a distressingly slapdash team-up that misunderstands the talents of its stars so badly I’m almost given to wonder if songwriters Eric Carmen and Dean Pitchford had heard any of Mike Reno or Ann Wilson’s material, or even knew who they were. These two were not balladeers! These two were rockers for chrissake, they knew how to cut loose and pump up a crowd and wail an energetic hook like every audience member’s life depended on it. It’s disheartening to hear two genuinely talented singers stumble through nearly 4 minutes of drippy soft rock, trying in vain to find a place where they can actually holler a bit. Wilson (probably the more dynamic singer to begin with) manages to eke out a few glimmers of smoky melancholy, but Reno is reduced to near Bryan Adams levels of tawdry gruff-crooning, ending his career as a charting singer with a whimper rather than the roar he deserved.
As with “Mockingbird”, the most fatal flaw here proves to be the song itself, a thoroughly substandard ballad all-around. Eric Carmen employs the same pensive, melodramatic tone here he did on his own “All By Myself” years earlier, but where that song’s despondency was elevated by the self-serious music, the totally generic love song-isms here come across as little more than bland whining. It’s yet another love song that makes love sound like the most tedious undertaking in the world, despite the ostensibly uplifting story it tells. In combination with one of the year’s more forgettable melodies and big, 80s-y production it never rises to meet, “Almost Paradise” ends up almost anything but.
#7: Peabo Bryson- If Ever You’re in My Arms Again
Not a whole lot to really dig into here: Peabo Bryson’s a broadly unremarkable R&B balladeer, of the type the 80s produced maybe a dozen too many of. He had a pretty good voice, but it was nowhere near good enough to save him from generic crud like “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again”. The melody and instrumentation here are as standard as they come, the production sands away anything that might have given Bryson’s pitch-perfect vocals a little contrast, and the lyric totally fails to impress. The narrator’s lover dumped him for not appreciating them enough, and he promises that if given a second chance he’ll be more affectionate and/or attentive- barely serviceable stuff, relegated to the very low end of mediocrity by a notable lack of any real detail. It’s tough to get a sense of the narrator’s emotional growth when he puts so little effort into actually describing it, filling the song instead with platitudes about really long hugs or whatever. Even if, in the pantheon of smarmy, questionably-sincere apology songs, it’s too milquetoast to rank as the worst, “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again” ends up as little more than a reminder of how far R&B had fallen from its vibrant 70s peak by the mid-80s.
#6: Lionel Richie- Hello
“Hello” has a solid claim as Lionel Richie’s greatest impression on pop culture, and in a way it does sum up his artistic ethos in a way many of his lesser-known tracks fall short of. It certainly doesn’t skimp on the arrangement, injecting a handful of serviceable synth and guitar fills to flesh out the baroque-indebted composition. That composition also has a fair bit of weight to it, with some major sevenths and minor ninths to add drama to the verses and the chorus even bringing in an unexpected B-flat chord. Point is, whatever else I may say about it, I can’t fairly call “Hello” boilerplate or predictable. It’s more immediately apparent here than on much of his other material, but Richie was, in fact, a very talented songwriter who tended to venture beyond the same old drab four-chord slop some of his contemporaries were so enamored by.
But just as “Hello” exemplifies Richie’s strengths, so too does it exemplify his weaknesses, and their uncanny ability to completely overpower those strengths . His entirely nondescript singing voice stands out more than usual here, and as the song drags on (and boy does it drag on) his inability to project any kind of emotional intensity into his vocal delivery, as well as his lack of sheer chops, becomes ever-more crippling. The guy didn’t grate on the ears or anything, but it seemingly never occurred to him that a song could actually be made better by a great vocal performance, and in contrast to the more involved songwriting, the unshakeable feeling that he’s just on autopilot through the whole thing is difficult to look past. The lyrics only compound the headache, too. The problem isn’t so much their actual content (a fairly inoffensive love-you-but-I-don’t-know-how-to-tell-you type beat) as their tone, which comprises the same oppressive, dour poutiness that corrupts seemingly every ballad Richie touches. Even as the words seem to reach for some kind of optimism or resolution, the melody and the mood color it as nothing but wallowing. Absent any real internal conflict to direct all the musical angst in an appropriate direction, the whole song just fizzles and utterly fails to satisfy. I wouldn’t blame anyone for calling this their favorite Lionel Richie song; from a distance, it fulfills every promise he ever made about what he was capable of as an artist. I might actually call it my least favorite Richie tune- for every decent idea it presents, I’m left all the more bitter he couldn’t put it to better use than this dreary, moaning slog.
#5: John Cougar Mellencamp- Pink Houses
John Mellencamp rose to prominence in the early days of the 80s as a sort of mainstream-friendly version of Bruce Springsteen; as The Boss grew ever-more thoughtful (and often cynical), good ol’ Johnny Cougar was there to give the masses the soulful rootsy rock they so craved, with an emphasis on big, catchy choruses and a side of corn-fed good looks tailor-made for teen girls’ bedroom walls. Here’s the thing, though: Mellencamp hated that shit. He was an early example of a music-industry archetype we’ll probably see at least a few more times over the course of this project: the hitmaker hungry for artistic credibility. Mellencamp didn’t want to be Springsteen-for-teenyboppers, he wanted to be Springsteen. He aspired to be the kind of artist whose albums fans pored over for years on end, who tackled serious issues and the gritty realities of American life. 1983’s Uh-Huh saw Mellencamp taking his first steps towards remaking himself as such an artist, tacking his real surname onto his stage name and even co-writing one song with country/folk legend John Prine.
Sadly, no matter how valiant the effort was, Uh-Huh found Mellencamp totally out of his depth; anyone out to dismiss him as a pretty-boy dilettante would only have more grounds to do so after hearing a song like “Pink Houses”. The real shame here is that he really is trying, and it’s easy to imagine a version of this song that cuts a little deeper and connects. Mellencamp sets up a couple scenes of modern small-town living, tinged with the melancholy that the world is sort of passing these folks by. It’s a fine enough starting point, but none of it has real bite, lacking as it does a unifying thesis to propel all the imagery, or even just a tangible sense of anger that something has gone awry here. The lyrical details fail to articulate anything visceral or tragic about working-class life, and the refrain of “ain’t that America?” comes off as totally unearned, a cheap ‘really makes you think’ to try and connect the verses to some broad statement about the state of the nation.
Worse yet, the tune never soars the way his early material did, muting Johnny Cougar’s greatest asset in service of a studious seriousness that never ignites and grabs the listener by the collar. Say what you want about “Jack & Diane”, but that song is catchy enough that rock radio has never forgotten it. It also knew what it was! Take away the choruses and this is basically the same song: a bit of theoretically interesting but ultimately frivolous character writing, thought-provoking only in the most general, life-sure-is-crazy sort of way. I don’t want to be too harsh here- like I said, he’s clearly making an honest effort, and his intentions seem good. But instead of marking the moment where Mellencamp finally rose to the level of his heartland heroes, “Pink Houses” only confirms what his detractors likely suspected from the get-go: that he wasn’t insightful enough as a lyricist to earn that same devoted following. Though the albums he put out after this have their share of defenders, 35 years later us critics have yet to reevaluate him as an unfairly ignored talent. I suspect the guy still has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about it, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s only got “Pink Houses” to blame.
#4: The Rolling Stones- Undercover of the Night
By 1984, the Rolling Stones were a spent force. I never went gaga for the band even at their creative peak, so coming across a tune of theirs on a mid-80s chart was enough to instill a sinking feeling in my stomach. See, around this time things were pretty tense between the Stones. Mick Jagger, on the one hand, was real jazzed about all these hip new styles going on. He wanted to incorporate all manner of unorthodox keyboard-y and/or exotic influences into the Stones’ new material. Keith Richards, on the other hand, was jonesing for a return to form, a back-to-basics blues rock sort of thing that would allow him ample opportunity to play his frumpy little guitar twiddles left right ‘n’ center. The other guys were all over the place: Charlie Watts was deep in the throes of drug abuse, Ronnie Wood was mostly paying attention to his myriad guest appearances on other people’s albums, and Bill Wyman was busy trying to fuck a 13-year-old (seriously). Whatever problems I may have with “Undercover of the Night”, I’ll say this much for it: it accurately reflects the circumstances of its creation. This song is an out-and-out mess, so lacking in any clear direction that I’m hard-pressed to even guess what kind of music they’re failing at. Watts’ lack of involvement feels especially damaging here: the beat seems to be a cut-and-paste amalgamation of electronic drum samples and various world music-y percussion instruments, all of which are jumbled together with little rhyme or reason (and of course smeared generously with gross-sounding reverb). Neither the funky, aggressive bassline nor the eye-rollingly basic blues licks gel with any other part of the song, and Mick’s stabs at commentary on Central American political corruption are left without anything substantial to latch onto. Overall, it’s the most disjointed, confused-sounding song to grace the charts this year- and, I will once again remind you, one of the guys who made it is an actual, literal pedophile. Nuts to this song, nuts to the Rolling Stones, and nuts especially to that sicko Bill Wyman.
#3: Chicago- Hard Habit to Break
If, through some terrible misfortune, I ever find myself required to say nice things about ‘80s Chicago, “Hard Habit to Break” would probably be a decent place to start. The song itself is, er, marginally more dynamic and melodically interesting than their usual guff, even including a couple less-than-standard chord changes. While it ultimately does very little to lend the song any actual flavor, the effort to outdo the likes of “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” is still visible. The arrangement isn’t completely awful, making not-terribly-interesting use of the band’s oft-ignored horn section; it’s by no means deserving of the Grammy it earned the band, but I can at least say that there are ideas here that are executed, which is more than Chicago can boast at their absolute worst. Perhaps most impressively, some sections are sung by keyboardist Bill Champlin, and every second of a Chicago song where someone other than Peter Cetera is singing is a reprieve to be grateful for.
All that said, this song is absolute garbage in the exact same way every single song this band made after 1981 is garbage. The lyrics are the most boring can’t-stop-loving-you tripe I encountered all year, the production is polished beyond any semblance of humanity, and Cetera continues to prove himself one of the very worst pop frontmen of all time, slathering his wounded-condor shriek all over the damn joint without for a second sounding authentically heartbroken or distraught. Nothing about this song is appealing in the least, and the fact that it ranks among Chicago’s more respectable 80s offerings speaks more than anything to their miserable batting average across the decade.
#2: John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band- On the Dark Side
Well this one is just insulting! “On the Dark Side”, performed fictitiously by Eddie and the Cruisers in their eponymous film, and in reality by sub-Mellencampian corn merchant John Cafferty, opens promisingly with a soulful piano line and Cafferty’s gruff vocals mustering a Heartbreakers-y tearjerker of a tune. Then the band proceeds to spit in your face and mine by abandoning it entirely in favor of a generic, nothing-to-it piece of rockaboogie crap. It’s at least a marginal improvement over anything the Stray Cats put out last year, if for no other reason than because Cafferty’s a better singer than Brian Setzer, and yet the very same heinously 80s production sinks it far below the level of anything that was coming out in the early 60s timeframe the film is set in. The vocals are all delayed and reverbed to shit, the drums overpower everything else in the mix, and the bass just thwacks out root notes the whole time, eschewing a more lively and period-appropriate walking bassline for seemingly no reason. “On the Dark Side” wants to be a nostalgic romp through the most beloved sounds of the pre-Beatles years. Instead, it ends up an exhausted, exhausting retread, bereft of any spark of originality or genuine inspiration. Retro works as a side dish, not an entree, and when it’s served like this, a la carte, I tend to wish I was eating anything else at all.
#1: Billy Joel- The Longest Time
At first, I just disliked “The Longest Time” because it was performed a capella. And make no mistake, that is still one of the worst things about it. Barring a few notable examples (Björk’s Medulla springs to mind), a capella is one of my least favorite musical styles, and in particular the barbershop-quartet doo-wop employed here has a way of immediately grating on my nerves. I think it comes down to a similar issue as showtunes: the appeal of this sort of music, best I can tell, is how tight and rehearsed the vocal interplay is. It is theoretically very impressive that several people can all sing a song together and harmonize and whatnot without hitting a wrong note. But, for me at least, that appeal is one completely lost in the recording process. Taken as a prefab studio creation, I couldn’t care less how gracefully the singers here interweave their voices- who knows how many tweaks and takes and overdubs went into getting it to sound that spot-on? The same way dancing loses much of its impact in the move from stage to screen, commercial recordings of a capella singing feel robbed of the electric thrill of actually seeing people do something that’s just really fucking hard, in flesh and blood in front of your face, and all that’s left- in many cases and certainly here- is a thin, flat sound with minimal timbral interest and a melody that can’t carry the full weight of a song on top of it, with an unappetizing whiff of ‘50s ‘stalgia to boot.
But as I said, that was just my starting point. The more I listened to this song, the more convinced I was: “The Longest Time” is the first (and quite possibly only) time Billy Joel ever cane off completely anonymous on record. This shit could have been written by anyone.
Billy Joel, being the ubiquitous cultural figure he is, has a decent handful of songs people offer up as his worst. Lots of folks detest the smarm of “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”; I’ve never minded it in the least. Just as many are driven to madness by the overwhelming pep of “Uptown Girl”; I find it a mild bother at worst. Arguably his most-hated song is baby-boomer history lesson “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, but to be frank it’s charmed me at least as often as not. While these songs are far from masterpieces, they all have some sort of crunch to them; some flavor or quirkiness that draws me in. Whether it’s “Still Rock and Roll”’s staunch traditionalist struggling to accept changing trends, “Uptown Girl”’s undercurrents of class politics, or even “We Didn’t Start the Fire”’s barely-coherent wrangle with the march of history, all of Joel’s songs, no matter how flawed, are so specific in what they capture that they just have to stick around. We need his songs because there are no other songs like them. “The Longest Time” is just a love song, a simple ditty about rediscovering romance. It’s completely inoffensive and completely banal. “I forgot how nice romance is”? That’s really your insight into the miracle of new love? In every respect, “The Longest Time” is beneath Billy Joel, he’s a more forceful musician and a more interesting lyricist than this makes him out to be. Even if it isn’t his worst song (and that’s a BIG “if” for me), it’s without a doubt his least.
Special update paragraph!!!
…okay, that’s it for part one of the 80s! This seems like a natural place to pause for a bit. I generally don’t talk a lot about my personal life here, but I am currently in the midst of planning a 660-mile move from northern Utah to Washington state, and the next five or six weeks are going to be very full of phone calls and schedule-making and packing and cleaning and driving and plane flights. As a result, I’ll have less time than usual to slave away on this project. My buffer is also close to depleted- I have drafts for twenty-ish individual write-ups across the next few years, but no full lists are ready to go. To be honest, the next few year-ends are ones I’m not terribly excited to be covering overall; songs I’m chomping at the bit to dig into are a little more thin on the ground throughout the latter half of the 80s. Nonetheless, I don’t anticipate this will be a particularly long break- there’s still interesting ground to cover and I’ll be damned if I’m not still intent on seeing this thing through to the bitter end. Think of it as a little intermission in PGTY season 3, where we can collect our thoughts and take a breath before diving into ’85 and beyond. I’ll tentatively say we’ll be back in late summer 2022; could be a bit sooner or a bit later depending on how my actual day-to-day routine shapes up once I’m in my new place. Thanks as always to everyone who reads along and thanks especially to those who have been vocal about their enjoyment. Nothing feels better than hearing that people actually like this weird thing I’m doing. For now, happy listening!