40 years later: reflections on 1981 – pop music’s greatest year?

In 1980 things were changing: the “Blitz Kids” were riding high – Steve Strange & Rusty Egan‘s “Bowie Night” had expanded out of Billy’s club in Soho and was now at peak cool, attracting the so called “New Romantics” to The Blitz Club in Covent Garden. Bowie himself had even anointed his disciples by making an unannounced appearance at the club to select extras to appear in his (at the time “the most expensive ever made”) Ashes to Ashes video. The Blitz club movement was actually creating culture… the Blitz’s own house band, Spandau Ballet, had created themselves a record deal and chart success out of the whole Blitz Kids phenomena.

A couple of really insightful documentaries tell the “Blitz Kids” story at a time when the UK was slowly coming out of depression, how little pockets of creativity were beginning to foretell big social & cultural changes. Interestingly there’s a mellowing in the attitudes of the protagonists in the 20 years between the two documentaries – in 2001 there’s still some evidence of Spandau vs. Duran and Boy George vs. Marilyn hostility/tension whereas in 2021 there’s more of a consolatory tone.

2001 BBC Documentary
2021 Sky Arts Documentary – some of the stories have mellowed somewhat

In the December of 1980 John Lennon had been murdered; his killer had created a list of targets and Bowie was next in line. Bowie was spooked; he cut short his stint in “The Elephant Man” on Broadway and jetted off to become a recluse in Switzerland…

Although in some ways things may have seemed pretty bleak, what followed in 1981 was an explosion of pop diversity which couldn’t have happened without the creative sparks from Bowie, Steve Strange & Rusty Egan in the years before.

What happened to pop music in 1981 has never been equalled since… it’s clear to me that 1981 was POP’S GREATEST YEAR:

Adam & The Ants – Stand and Deliver
As a young teenager in 1981 I remember going to my local record shop in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire to buy this single but they’d sold out. Woolworths had sold out too. I pestered my parents to drive me to Doncaster to find a copy…. thankfully they did, and we found a copy, and there was no surprise when it went straight in at No.1!

(Since 2008 in the UK “Record Store Day” has been attempting to re-create some of the excitement of record-buying as antidote to the instant streaming/digital/download world 🙂 )

What a spectacle though – Adam Ant as dandy/highwayman/buccaneer/pirate/native-American hybrid. WTF. Pure pop theatre. I loved it. School discos would never be the same again. Diddly-qua-qua!

Human League/Heaven 17
The original Human League line-up split in two – one half becoming Heaven 17 releasing their debut single “(We Don’t Need This) Facist Groove Thang” – the other half continuing with the Human League name and in 1981 releasing arguably one of the best LPs of the whole decade “Dare“. The track they didn’t-want-to-release-as-a-single (“Don’t You Want Me”) went on to be their best selling ever and an international success. Growing up in Scunny, which is geographically close-ish to Sheffield and shared “Steeltown” heritage, these bands seemed local to me.

ABC- Tears Are Not Enough
Another Sheffield gem – the music press struggled to define ABC at the time, soul/pop/new-wave? Who cares, their music was fresh!

Duran Duran – Planet Earth/Late Bar
From the alternative (i.e. not London) scene up in Birmingham at the “Rum Runner” club came Duran Duran (named after a character in Barbarella) with “Planet Earth”/”Late Bar”. One of the catchiest bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop lines ever and “Late Bar” – the best B-side ever! “…and there’s an all-night party in Room 7609” 😀

Japan – The Art of Parties
My most treasured 12″ single, bought in 1981

Associates – Party Fears Two
As a teenager you know if you’re doing it right if your parents are triggered by your music choices. In 1982 my Mum & Dad continually referred to this track as “the one by that bloke who can’t sing“. WHAT NONSENSE.

New Order
Their first 2 single releases – the masterpieces “Ceremony” & “Procession”. Originally Joy Division demos but released as New Order. These tracks bridge the tragedy and signal future intent. One of the most influential bands over the following decades.

Ultravox – Vienna
Through the Ure/Strange/Egan links tracing its roots back to the Blitz Club scene, with an epic song and video.

Visage – Fade to Grey
All the essence of the Blitz Club nights condensed into this perfect slice of pop, the Blitz Kids had finally achieved chart success in most of Europe.

Depeche Mode – Just Can’t Get Enough
Another massively influential band that débuted in 1981 with the last Depeche Mode song that was written by Vince Clarke before he left the band.

Talking Heads – Once In a Lifetime
David Byrne & Brian Eno’s creation… A complete work of pop-art.

Level 42 – Love Games
As an aspiring bass player I looked up to the thumb-slapping Mark King and Level 42’s Brit-funk sound, 1981 saw them release their début album

Scritti Politti
Re-invented from post-punk no man’s land into pure pop perfection. Green Gartside as poet laureate 😀

OMD – Souvenir
Oh the melodies. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The first album I ever bought.

Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure
Queen’s Greatest Hits was released in this year. One of the greatest bands ever. And then they casually drop this collab, “Under Pressure” with Bowie… Could 1981 get any more epic?

Prince – Controversy
Continuing the royal theme (cheesy!) – this year also saw the release of the Controversy album, containing the first Prince track I ever heard, the title track. Although prince wasn’t “mainstream” in 1981 I’m sure I recorded “Controversy” from the radio and was instantly hooked…

(not from 1981 but it gets in because Prince)

In the Air Tonight – Phil Collins
Freeze-dried vocals and the power drums that everyone likes to air-drum to, what’s not to like? 😀

Tom Tom Club – Wordy Rappinghood

For me there’s no doubt that 1981 was the best pop music year ever, such a wide and varied selection of pop greatness that even the “other notable mentions” list could beat many other years in its own right 😀 :
The Specials – Ghost Town
Yarbrough and Peoples – Don’t Stop the Music
Blondie – Rapture
Grace Jones – Pull Up to the Bumper
Imagination – Body Talk
Kate Bush – Sat in Your Lap
The Teardrop Explodes – Reward
Landscape – Einstein a Go-Go
Soft Cell – Tainted Love
Laurie Anderson – O Superman

Then there’s the obligatory “novelty” No.1 single
Joe Dolce – Shaddap You Face

….and actual Eurovision WINNERS
Bucks Fizz – Making Your Mind Up

pop’s greatest year 1981 had it all!

Another reason 1981 was the best year 😉

Published by zedstarr

Chilled out human being, doing techy stuff.

4 thoughts on “40 years later: reflections on 1981 – pop music’s greatest year?

  1. Quite a list of some of my all time favorites from this Yank from across the Atlantic. I could probably double that list while only subtracting Phil Collins, personally. 1981 seemed like an unstoppable peak of musical merit. Building magnificently from 1979-1980. 40 years later it feels like a golden era. How I wish I could re-experience that thrill-packed year again. With more money to buy everything that was of interest back then!
    Was it down only to my age at the time [18] or was it something in the water? I could tell by 1983 that the wave was receding. By 1985 it would be a different musical landscape with the old ways [Pre-Punk] re-instilling themselves. Part of it was down to Live Aid bringing back the dinosaurs after the age of peacocks was over with. Bowie’s fall from grace didn’t help things.

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