June 23, 1984. Two days before the U.S. release of Purple Rain. Five months before Band Aid. Weird Al was a bona fide star. We were approaching the middle of the decade, and, looking back, it was as “80s” as the 80s would get. Here’s how things looked on the charts in the UK and the (Born in the) USA 30 years ago next week. (Thanks again to Jeremy Helligar for standing in for the vacation-ing JB!)
ROUND ONE: THE U.S.!
5. “Self Control” Laura Branigan
JH: Lori, do you remember the time we went to see her in concert at CBGB a year or two before she died? I don’t know which was more surprising to me: that an ’80s pop queen was performing at the iconic shrine of punk rock, or that there wasn’t a larger crowd to see her. It was Laura Branigan, for God’s sake! I remember seeing this video for the first time and thinking how scandalous she looked sitting on the floor with her legs wide open after the masked man left. Of course, this was about six months before Madonna and the lion-headed man in “Like a Virgin.” The only thing I really knew about scandal was the one that featured Patty Smyth.
LM: Ha! Good one! The weird thing about Smyth in “The Warrior” and Branigan in “Self Control” — and Bonnie Tyler in “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” come to think about it — is just how damn earnest and melodramatic these women were! Madonna was the picture of confidence in “Like a Virgin”; but, while Branigan was a far better singer, she made for an awkward video star. Maybe she was just aware of how dopey this video was? The eerie shot of the porcelain doll in the opening scene; the orgy of dancers that probably inspired Eyes Wide Shut; and, weirdest of all, that Phantom of the Opera dude who pulls her by the hair and takes her titular self-control, apparently giving her an orgasm in the process! Sexy song; super-silly video.
4. “Dancing in the Dark” Bruce Springsteen
JH: It’s hard to believe that this is Bruce’s biggest hit single (and even harder to believe that he’s never gotten higher than No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100). It’s so far from his signature song. Do people even think of this when they think of him? It’s probably best known today for the video, which introduced Courteney Cox to the masses. So I guess we can say that Friends wouldn’t have been the same without Bruce. And I guess we can also say that we have Bruce to thank for one of the biggest TV sitcoms of the ’90s. Where would Jennifer Aniston be without him?
LM: It’s well-documented (well, in Mad World, at least) that I hated the “Rosalita” video. Whenever it came on MTV I felt like I’d just lost a whole roll of quarters on a wheel of chance down the Shore. It felt hours long; Springsteen looked sweaty and (to me at least) gross. Worst of all, it was an in-concert clip. How boring! So I didn’t have high hopes for “Dancing in the Dark.” I thought: Yeah, yeah — so this Bruce guy is a riot in concert. I get it already! Even though I lived in Jersey, I wasn’t among the scores of seventh-grade girls wearing the Born in the USA tee shirts. I was into English boys, thank you very much. But, as the years wore on, I came to appreciate the Boss and “Dancing in the Dark.” The latter positively reeks of ’84, along with Purple Rain, Ghostbusters, “You Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and “The Reflex.” These. Were. The. Good. Times.
3. “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” Deniece Williams
JH: Look, I loved Footloose as much as any other teenager in 1984. But anyone who also knows Deniece for her previous crossover pop hits, 1976’s “Free” (a No. 1 U.K. single!) and 1982’s “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” and for the theme song of the ’80s sitcom Family Ties well knows that judging Deniece solely on her relatively lame – um, tame – vocal display on her only pop chart-topper would be like calling Meryl Streep “the star of Mamma Mia!.”
LM: I LOVED THIS SONG TO DEATH! I also loved “The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Roll” by Huey Lewis. I was 13.
2. “Time After Time” Cyndi Lauper
JH: I never really got the appeal Cyndi’s first No. 1 single. I never really got the appeal of Cyndi full-stop until her next single, “She Bop.” And as Cyndi Lauper ballads go, “True Colors” wins out over this one, time after time.
LM: You weren’t a teen girl at the time. This song was everything. “Lying in my bed I hear the clock ticking, think of you/Caught up in circles, there’s nothing new.” Wait — this song IS everything. STILL! “If you’re lost you can look and you will find me, time after time.” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was, in the words of my friend Brian Greenspan, a dirty-water hotdog, while “Time After Time” is a juicy filet mignon. (Vegan versions, of course.) I love the sweet vocal flourishes, particularly on “You’re wondering if I’m oh-kay” and that last, whispered “time after time.” Cyndi’s schtick did wear thin after a while, but in the summer of ’84 her “unusual”-ness was still fresh and endearing.
1. “The Reflex” Duran Duran
JH: I’ve never told you this, Lori, but had we fmet 15 years earlier, we probably would have been even faster friends than we became that day in 1998 when we bonded over Medazzaland during lunch at Mangia in New York City. For quite a few singles there – “Hungry Like the Wolf” to “Skin Trade” – Duran Duran were my favorite group. I loved them less because they were so cute than because they could be so dirty. For a young teen who’d grown up in a religious home, plopping down 99 cents for a single as lyrically suggestive as “Wolf” was like the ultimate in daring. But that couldn’t hold a candle dripping hot wax on soft, supple skin to embracing an ode to an erection. Do you believe in shame? I didn’t!
LM: I had no idea Duran used to be your favorite band. I love you even more now! I’m only two years younger than you, Jezza, but at the time I hadn’t a clue that what “the reflex” actually was, and it was some time before I’d come to realize that it was a euphemism for having sex. Of course I thought Duran Duran were cute, but it was their music that drugged me, not their looks. However, I didn’t come around to “The Reflex” until Nile Rodgers remixed it for the single. I was never a big fan of the version on Seven and the Ragged Tiger. Nile’s version, though, had me at those first ta la la la’s! It was such an upbeat summer song, with loads of fun bits, like that Why-yi-yi, Whoh! bridge. And then there was the video. Captured live onstage as if to announce “We’re not just a video band!”, Duran made us scream with Simon’s twirl on the “round-about” and the huge wave of water that comes right off the screen to splash the audience. “Rosalita” seemed so last century, forget about last decade. Thirty years on, “The Reflex” represents my favorite band at their absolute peak, if not exactly their finest hour. (That would be “Rio” or “Ordinary World.”)
Round Two: The U.K.!
5. “Relax” Frankie Goes to Hollywood
JH: Apparently, penises were all the rage on both sides of the pond 30 years ago. I was never much of a Frankie fan, though. To me, they reflected all of the worst overproduced tendencies and musical excess of late new wave. (Thank you, Trevor Horn, who never met a kitchen sink he wouldn’t pile into one of his grandiose, bombastic productions. Exhibit A was Yes’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart” the previous year.) Though I tried hard to “Relax,” I opted to “Choose Life” instead.
LM: Jezza, you need to revisit Welcome to the Pleasuredome STAT! I can completely see where you are coming from re: overproduction; “Relax” and “Two Tribes” are bombastic and like a punch in the face from Jack Bauer! But the songs have aged incredibly well. Just listen to the throbbing basslines! And there’s a reason “The Power of Love” keeps getting covered (check out this stripped-down version that youngin Gabrielle Aplin took to number one in the UK in 2012). Interesting that you refer to Frankie as “late new wave” — in Mad World, Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey says the “golden age of synth pop started with the Human League and ended with Frankie Goes to Hollywood… I remember Frankie releasing a different mix of their record every week, and it was just to keep their chart position.”
4. “I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” Nik Kershaw
JH: It’s hard to believe that this was Nik’s greatest hit — bigger than “Wouldn’t It Be Good,” “The Riddle” and “Human Racing” (the latter was his best song). It’s also puzzling that Nik wasn’t bigger, and for longer. But new wave was mostly a group sport. It didn’t produce too many successful solo acts. Although Nik happened in the U.K. for a couple of years, I wonder if he would have had more success crossing over to the U.S. (and by extension, gaining more longevity) had Howard Jones not beaten him to it.
LM: If you played this song to a group of millennials, I bet they could be able to tell straight away the decade it was made in — it’s that 80s-sounding!. As chipper as it sounds, though, it’s another new wave song about what it was like to live with the constant anxiety that on any given day we could all be obliterated by The Bomb.
3. “Smalltown Boy” Bronski Beat
JH: Jimmy Sommerville is a great singer (though I wish there was a bit more grit in his delivery), and I love that a song about growing up gay could be such a massive hit 30 years ago. But I’ve always admired “Smalltown Boy” more than I’ve enjoyed it. Criticizing it makes me feel guilty, though, like I’m kicking a kitten (or Jimmy Sommerville in the video), so I’ll just leave it at that.
LM: This week I watched The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s made-for-HBO film of his play about the early days of AIDS and beginning of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. It had me reflecting on what’s changed (there are gay characters on sitcoms; gay marriage is a thing) and what hasn’t — for instance, we don’t get a lot of gay lust and love scenes. I remember being shocked at the way Sommerville ogled the swimmer’s lithe bod back in the day; today, I find it rather sweet (until, of course, the swimmer puts his biker clothes on and gets his buddies to give Jimmy a beat-down in an alley). I wonder how today’s teens would see it. It’s a shame millennials don’t have their own gay icons to look up to; instead of a Jimmy Sommerville or a Boy George or a Holly Johnson or a Pete Burns they have a straight rapper, Macklemore, sticking up for them. (Although at least they have some representation in “Same Love” backup singer Mary Lambert, who’s a lesbian.) Oh, but Jeremy: I think the song is as beautiful-sounding as it is didactic and important. Musically, it’s the exact opposite of “Relax”: it subtly takes hold of you, without you even noticing.
2. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Wham!
JH: I knew better than to expect lyrical depth from a duo with an exclamation point at the end of their name, so I let the extreme vapidity of Wham!’s first transatlantic No. 1 slide. I still do. Via his future hits, George Michael retroactively earned the right to be silly in song. I once read somewhere that Aretha Franklin so loved this one that she called up George Michael to pitch a collaboration. So the best thing about “Go Go” is that it paved the way for “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” Aretha’s only No. 1 single in the U.K. (astonishingly) and the best thing she did during the second half of the ’80s.
LM: Earlier in this chart, you referenced the “Frankie Say Relax! Don’t Do It!” shirt. Here we have the “Choose Life” one. Other visual clues from “Go Go”: day-glo clothes, George Michael with two hoop earrings; the bleach-white outfits (and teeth!) that played up their tans (must’ve been from Club Tropicana — tans from a bottle weren’t a thing yet); the boys in those teeny shorts. It was just three-plus minutes of good, clean fun and laughs. “Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go)” and “Karma Chameleon” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” are the mid-80s at their poppiest. It’s the stuff that packs the Culture Club nightclub in Times Square every weekend with kids who were born in the 90s.
1. “Two Tribes” Frankie Goes to Hollywood
JH: It just goes to show you, today’s new sensation with two simultaneous Top 5 hits could be slip-sliding away a couple of years later. Let this serve as a cautionary tale to Iggy Azalea.
LM: But Frankie didn’t slip-slide away! Just ask my husband, who cranks their greatest hits on a regular basis.
THE VERDICT: Split decision!
JH: In a week with no overlap and just as much timelessness (how quintessentially ’80s both hit lists are!), I’d give the prize to the U.S. for bookending its Top 5 with two of 1984’s best singles.
LM: Since “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” is the only truly weak track, I’d have to say it’s the UK over the USA — but not by much!