Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Best Of 1981 - part 1

JUMP TO: 30-21 II 20-11 II 10-1

In 1981, my life was all about The Smurfs and other Saturday morning cartoons, but in the wider world it was the year of Charles and Diana’s wedding and the launch of MTV.

Bucks Fizz made their skirt-ripping debut in 1981
I was becoming more and more interested in music, and alongside the Aussie pop/rock and American MOR music that you heard everywhere, a new breed of UK synthpop groups started to get noticed – especially by me. Human League, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell... groups like these would come to define my musical tastes for the next few decades.

I’m going to split my 1981 recap across three parts, starting with number 30 to 21…

At number 30 is a song I now associate with Kmart thanks to a 1990s ad campaign: it's “Counting The Beat” by The Swingers. The New Zealand band had a huge number one smash in Australia with this song - in fact, no song sold more copies that year. I've always joked that I don't like music with guitars in it - which, based on the presence of this song alone, clearly isn't true, but I like my rock to be sing along-able and catchy, not ponderous or thrashy - and The Swingers fit the bill perfectly.

It’s hard to believe that the song at number 29: “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John was actually banned by certain radio and TV stations for being too risqué. As I've discussed elsewhere, controversy often just makes a song all the more successful, and "Physical" was a number 1 here in Australia and in the US, where it was the longest-running number 1 of the decade. The only truly offensive thing about the video is the flabby bodies on display, but the gay twist at the end was often cut at the time. It's a gag that's clearly still funny in 2012 with a similar sting in the tail of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call My Maybe" clip. 

A Eurovision winner is at number 28. Yep, it’s “Making Your Mind Up” by Bucks Fizz, who would go on to have a string of hits, but who I'll always remember most fondly for that moment in the performance when the guys rips the skirts off the girls to reveal skimpier outfits hidden underneath. Genius.

It’s power ballad time at number 27: “Keep On Loving You” by REO Speedwagon. I've always assumed the band was named after some sort of hotted-up vehicle, but a quick search online establishes the inspiration is a delivery truck from the 1910s and '20s which doesn't look particularly speedy at all. Fascinating.

More American power pop/rock at number 26: “The Break-Up Song (They Don’t Write ’Em) by Greg Kihn Band, who had a pun-tastic series of album titles like Next Of Kihn, Rockihnroll (from which this song is taken) and Kihntinued. There were more, but you get the drift. Ah, the '80s - such comedy.

Into his third decade of hit-making, at number 25 it’s “Wired For Sound” by Cliff Richard - and the clip doesn't get much more '80s. A black leather outfit, a walkman with massive headphones, rollerskating action and, of course, Cliff himself with one of his five Aussie top 10 hits of the decade. His biggest would be "Living Doll" with The Young Ones in 1986, which would be his only number 1 here until 1999's "The Millennium Prayer". The less said about that the better.

Number 24 is “Shake It Up” by The Cars, who are one of those bands I always forget about, even though I clearly liked their music. And after resisting the reunion circuit for years, the surviving members of the band got back together in 2010, even releasing an album last year which completely passed me by.

At number 23: “Urgent” by Foreigner, who are another American band with half a dozen songs I like. Enough to justify their best of a place in my CD collection (believe me, I bought best ofs by artists with only one or two songs I actually like in the pre-iTunes age). "Urgent" only got to number 24 in Australia, but I prefer it to their all-conquering ballads, "Waiting For A Girl Like You" and "I Want To Know What Love Is", which, it must be said, are both great songs as well.

Two decades before she perfected the art of fence-sitting on Australian Idol, at number 22 it’s “Your Love Still Brings Me To My Knees” by Marcia Hines. This was Marcia's last big hit, but she'd spent the previous five years as a major star in this country. This song was a fitting end to a great pop career.

And at number 21, a soul classic: “Never Too Much” by Luther Vandross, a song I was introduced to thanks to a 1989 remix, which was about the time he broke through in a major way in the States. In Australia, he wouldn't chart until his duets with Janet Jackson (on 1992's "The Best Things In Life Are Free") and Mariah Carey (on their 1994 cover of "Endless Love"), both of which reached number 2 here.

So, what's coming up in Part 2 of our trip through my favourite songs from 1981? It's a mixed bag, with a Vegas superstar, a family affair, the most successful New Romantic act and a singer who'll always be associated with one very famous duet.

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