For many people of my generation (I was born in 1973), the music of the early 1980s has a certain resonance, as I suppose does the music of anyone’s childhood. For me, that coincides with the dawn of MTV, back before the mid-80s video innovations of the Cars, Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson and others – the bulk of the videos were just lip-synched (or sometimes genuinely live) performance shots of the band playing the song, and I LOVED it. I watched MTV for literally hours a day, studying the sounds and what the musicians did. The resonance is supported by how many 80s-flashback album compilations, radio shows and package tours there are now that folks of my generation have (hopefully) some discretionary income and a dose of nostalgia. And yet, there are songs that I remember loving from that era that have been largely forgotten – for every “867-5309” or “Safety Dance” there are songs that have largely disappeared . . . but for the wonder that is Youtube, my generation’s way-back machine.
I make no attempt to objectively judge the quality of these songs – if I loved ‘em that much at the time and that was part of my growing enthusiasm for music, that’s good enough for me in this context. For a song/video to be eligible for this list, there are a few criteria:
• The song needs to have been part of my consciousness via MTV at the time – I know there are videos for “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats, “Radio Free Europe” by R.E.M. and “Ah, Leah” by Donnie Iris, but I never saw them before Youtube. Likewise, I now really enjoy music from that era by John Hiatt, Marshall Crenshaw, Joan Armatrading and others, but I wasn’t seeing/hearing it on MTV.
• I actually needed to like the song at the time. I now have a certain fondness for “Open Your Eyes” by the Lords of the New Church, “Life of Illusion” by Joe Walsh, David Johansen’s Animals medley and various songs by Joe Jackson but at the time I didn’t.
• It has to be, by my perception, completely absent from modern radio and CD compilations. So, for example, in recent years I have heard comparative obscurities including “I Know What Boys Like” by the Waitresses, “Woman In Love” by Tom Petty, “Don’t Let Go the Coat” by the Who, “Slit Skirts” by Pete Townshend, “My Girl (Gone Gone Gone)” by Chilliwack, “I Got You” by Split Enz, “Talk Talk” by Talk Talk, “She’s Tight” by Cheap Trick and “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio” by the Ramones on the radio (on “remember the 80s” shows, granted, but still on commercial radio).
• We’re talking early 1980s, so that means no dice to Fishbone, 10,000 Maniacs, Midnight Oil, and various others.
On to the list:
1 ) Roger Daltrey: “Free Me”
This was my favorite song during these early years, and because I never once heard it on the radio, its appearance on MTV was a particularly noteworthy “event.” I remember one particular occasion when I had watched so much MTV in a day that I bargained with my mom to let me watch some more, but with the sound off. Then this video came on and I was struck by the 8-year-old moral dilemma of whether to uphold the deal or whether to plead for a special exemption . . .
2 ) Producers: “What’s He Got”
This song is so insidiously catchy that I really don’t understand how it was never a hit. And you have to love the makeshift keytar that appears during the guitar solo 🙂
3 ) Psychedelic Furs: “Run and Run”
I think this is the catchiest song the Furs ever did, but its place in history is mainly as the flop follow-up to “Love My Way.” (note – there doesn’t appear to be a Youtube clip for the “official” video, so here’s a live version)
4 ) Jethro Tull: “Lap of Luxury”
I knew nothing about the broader scope of Jethro Tull’s music (which I subsequently got into in my teens) when this catchy and fairly non-characteristically synth-y and now largely forgotten song went into heavy rotation on MTV.
5 ) Utopia: “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”
Utopia is best know at this point as being hitmaker Todd Rundgren’s prog-rock side project. This tune, however (on which Todd is not the lead vocalist), is pure hook-y pop, and with some great costumes to boot.
6 ) Foghat: “Third Time Lucky (the First Time I Was A Fool)”
Yes, I’ll admit that in early high school I went through a Foghat stage after winning tickets to hear them play live (along with Savoy Brown and the Outlaws). Rest assured there was nothing cooler for a teenager in 1989 to do than wear a Foghat t-shirt to school! Their signature boogie-rock, however, is nowhere to be found on this song, a “power ballad” before there was such a thing, and this live video (which I saw often, well before I re-discovered the band through seeing them in concert) is a stripped-down version that is a lot more appealing to these ears than the minor-hit studio version that I only heard years later when I bought the record (for a buck, in case you’re wondering).
7 ) Blotto: “I Wanna Be A Lifeguard”
This song is just too raw (and probably too stupid) to have had anything beyond novelty value in the long term. But man, talk about fun.
8 ) Kansas: “Play the Game Tonight”
This song was in heavy rotation on MTV for a minute, along with an “archival” video of the group lip-synching “Dust In the Wind.” This catchy rock tune was actually a hit at the time, but it seems to have been entirely forgotten by all but the legion of Kansas fans, and I get the feeling that even they see it more as a commercialized blip on the radar than as part of the band’s legacy.
(note: embedding of video disabled, but you can see it here):
9 ) Uriah Heep: “That’s the Way That It Is”
As with the Jethro Tull tune above, at the time when this came out I had no idea about Uriah Heep’s long history as a popular band. Unlike Jethro Tull, the band’s overall output (which I explored a bit years later) never did much for me, I’m afraid. The group (moderately commercially successful in the 1970s, while being one of the most critically reviled bands in British rock history) has been described as a poor man’s Deep Purple . . . and I don’t even like Deep Purple that much to begin with.
10 ) Barnes and Barnes: “Fish Heads”
I can safely say that there never has been and never will be another song like this. I put this so low on the list because I’m not sure it’s fair to call it “forgotten” – it certainly never had mainstream success or got radio airplay anywhere but on Dr. Demento’s program, but anyone who has heard it surely remembers it. When this was in rotation, I actually had the record, which was shaped like a fish head (and the other songs on which were completely obscene, so note that I do not recommend purchasing any Barnes and Barnes collections for your favorite young people this holiday season). Note that one half of the group was the guy who as a kid played Will Robinson on “Lost In Space.” Danger indeed. (Note: the song begins at about 2:18)