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Top 10 Rock Albums of the 1980’s

This list is going to be divisive. It’s unavoidable. Some choices you will agree with, some you won’t. Some might even prompt you to dust off those old CD’s, or nip over to Spotify to see what you missed. The fact of the matter is that for a decade more famous for it’s fashion crimes than anything else, there was a lot of great music produced in the eighties. This list barely scratches the surface. I’ve chosen the albums that were especially meaningful to me, or played a significant role in my life. If you think you can do better, make your own list. Now, let’s rock.

1: U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)

Before Bono disappeared up his own arse, U2 were probably the best band in the world. They hit their creative and commercial peak with this collection of America-centric songs released in March 1987. In fact, legend has it that it’s working title was ‘The Two Americas,’ to signify what Bono saw as the mythic America and the ‘real’ America. Paradoxically, at the time it was the fastest selling album in British chart history, shifting 300,000 copies in just two days. Universally well-received, it topped the charts in over 20 countries. In his liner notes for the album’s 20th anniversary edition, American writer Bill Flanagan stated, “The Joshua Tree made U2 into international rock stars and established both a standard they would always have to live up to and an image they would forever try to live down.”

Random Fact: The Joshua Tree was the first new release to be made available on CD, vinyl and cassette on the same day.

2: INXS – Kick (1987)

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Apart from AC/DC and the Bee Gees, Australia had never been known for producing international rock stars. That changed with INXS, who found worldwide fame with their fifth opus. Impeccably produced by Chris Thomas, who had previously worked with the likes of Queen, the Beatles and Pink Floyd, Kick was loaded with huge, anthemic choruses set to a rock/funk backdrop, with a liberal smattering of heart string-pulling ballads. Michael Hutchence was the archetypal front man, oozing mystique and sex appeal like a modern-day Jim Morrison. Unfortunately, the parallels didn’t end there. New Sensation still gives you chills.

Random Fact: At the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards, the band took home no less than five awards for the Need You Tonight video.

3: Bryan Adams – Reckless (1984)

BA’s fourth album probably ranks as his best. At least, his most successful. No fewer than six singles were released from the 10-track album, including the classics ‘Run to You’ and ‘Summer of ’69’. Adams ‘came’ clean afterwards and publicly admitted the latter was about a sexual position, rather than a reference to a year. In November 2014, Adams embarked on the Reckless 30th anniversary tour comprising 23 dates in Europe, during which he played the entire album in sequence. Around the same time, Reckless was re-released as a double set with live tracks and studio out-takes. It still sounds fresh as a daisy.

Random Fact: Reckless was the first Canadian album to sell a million copies in Canada.

4: Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA (1984)

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To some, the Boss’s macho posturing and fist pumping, never more prevalent than in the mid-eighties, is tedious and contrived. To others, it is passionate and life-affirming. There can be no argument that this album struck a chord not just in the American psyche, but on the international stage as it remains Springsteen’s biggest commercial hit. The follow-up to 1982’s starkly acoustic offering Nebraska, the album took a more pop-oriented approach, mainly at the behest of producer/manager Jon Landau. Seven singles were released, all making the top 10 in America, catapulting the Boss to a whole new level of stardom. The production lets the album down a little as the keyboards are too high in the mix and it hasn’t aged well but still, great stuff.

Random Fact: Born in the USA spent a total of 84 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Top 10, the longest period in American chart history.

5: Prince & the Revolution – Purple Rain (1984)

The Grammy award-winning soundtrack to the movie of the same name is universally regarded as one of the best albums of all time. And rightly so. Love him or hate him, the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince ticked all the boxes on this one. Featuring a host of his best-loved singles including When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy and the sweeping title track, Purple Rain spent an incredible 24 consecutive weeks at number one on the Billboard album charts, before being ousted by Springsteen’s Born in the USA.

Fun Fact: Purple Rain was the first album recorded with and credited to Prince’s backing group, the Revolution.

6: The Alarm – Strength (1985)

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A well-deserved entry on this list by a band often labelled ‘The Welsh U2.’ Released by IRS in October 1985, Strength, their second album, features such cult classics as Knife Edge and Spirit of ’76, which made the UK Top 40. Many of the lyrics concerning poverty, social deprivation and working class struggles strike a chord with British people who grew up during this era. Strength represented the band’s peak, during which they toured with the likes of Bob Dylan, Queen and, of course, U2, and are still active today, albeit with a vastly altered line-up. 2015 has been dubbed ‘The Year of Strength’ by original member Mike Peters, who is undertaking a full tour to mark the album’s 30th anniversary and releasing a re-imagined and re-recorded version.

Random Fact: The band’s live show in front of 26,000 fans at UCLA on April 12th 1986 was one of the first concerts to be broadcast live via satellite.

7: Marillion – Misplaced Childhood (1985)

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The eighties saw the return of the concept album, with the third opus by prog rock staples Marillion standing up as one of the best of all time. Mid-way through shows of this era, then-front man and lyricist Fish would announce to the crowd, “Now there is time for one more track. The name of track is Misplaced Childhood,” before performing the 41-minute album in its entirety. The story has many thematic elements mainly based around love, the passage of time, and the loss of innocence, and legend has it that Fish conceived the idea during a particularly fraught acid trip. The result is a deep, emotive piece of work that has stood the test of time.

Random Fact: The boy depicted on the cover in military garb lived next door to sleeve artist Mark Wilkinson.

8: Genesis – Invisible Touch (1986)

English band Genesis had released no fewer than twelve albums before Invisible Touch, though it was their first in three years. Despite some mixed reviews, it quickly became the fourth consecutive release to top the UK album charts, and spawned a total of five singles, all of which made the UK Top 40. It’s worldwide success was largely attributed to Phil Collins’ burgeoning solo career, who had released the insanely successful No Jacket Required album the year before. Music from the album has been featured in such TV classics as Magnum PI, Miami Vice and, er, American Dad .

Random Fact: In the movie version of American psycho by Brett Easton Ellis, Patrick Bateman calls the album the group’s ‘undisputed masterpiece.’

9: Simple Minds – Once Upon a Time (1985)

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Their seventh album marked a transition from the group’s experimental early years to the pantheon of stadium rock, bridged by 1983’s classic Sparkle in the Rain. Recorded at Richard Branson’s London studio the Townhouse in May 1985, Once Upon a Time was released five months later, hot on the heels of the massive single Alive and Kicking. Don’t You Forget About Me, from the soundtrack to the John Hughes movie the Breakfast Club, was left off the album because of their initial reluctance to record it. It would be four long years until the band released any more studio material, and Once Upon a Time remains their biggest seller.

Random Fact: The single All the Things she Said was featured on Grand theft Auto V, which went on to become the highest selling videogame ever.

10: Dire Straits – Alchemy Live (1984)

Yeah, I could have gone for the commercial juggernaut Brothers in Arms, but that would have been too easy. This double live set, recorded at the Hammersmith Apollo over two nights in July 1983 at the very end of the Love over Gold Tour, is where it’s at. From the moody opening strains of Once Upon a Time in the West all the way through to the instrumental set closer Going Home (Theme from Local Hero) every whispered lyric, every plucked chord, is perfection personified. When I first discovered this album a couple of years after it’s release, I had been thoroughly brainwashed by the three-minute pop song. I could barely comprehend the fact that an entire double album could accommodate just ten Dire Straits tracks, one of which, Telegraph Road, is an epic 14-minutes long.

Fun Fact: This is the lowest selling entry on this list, with less than a million combined sales in the UK and US. That doesn’t make it a bad record.

Honourable Mentions:

Heart – Animals (1987), The Smith’s – The Queen is Dead (1986), Jesus & Mary Chain – Darklands (1987), Peter Gabriel – So (1986), Stone Roses – Stone Roses (1989).

This list was first published by the Huff Post:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/chris-saunders/

Check out the companion piece:

https://cmsaunders.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/top-10-greatest-80s-movies/


An Ode to the Old Arms Park

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I’d been a Simple Minds fan since 1986, when my cousin Linden turned me on to them. Once upon a Time was one of the first albums I ever bought as a 12-year old, and I loved Live in the City of Light. Therefore, when tickets for the Street Fighting Years tour went on sale I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. It was the first gig I ever went to, and I still remember the buzz as the excitement built in the weeks leading up to the gig, and then during the day. The support bands were the Darling Buds, the Silencers and Texas (not the Pixies, as some sources state), an early highlight being Sharleen Spiteri calling us a ‘load of Welsh b*stards’ and storming off in a huff because, in truth, nobody was there to see her band and didn’t pay them any attention. There may have been a few projectiles in the form of little plastic bottles aimed at the stage. For me and the 56,000 others, it was all about the Minds.

I wasn’t such a big fan of the Street Fighting Years album, though in time the title track and Belfast Child went on to become two of my favourite Simple Minds songs. I was more into the stadium rock sound that preceded it. Important and relevant it may have been, but being so young, a lot of the political stuff about Apartheid and Nelson Mandela went over my head.

Musically, the Cardiff gig wasn’t perfect. The set was too heavily reliant on the newer, slow-paced material and, as far as I can remember, they played virtually nothing pre-Sparkle in the Rain. Until recently, the band has tried desperately to distance themselves from those early art-rock outpourings, and it is more than a little ironic that today those tunes sound a lot fresher than some of the albums they put out in their pomp. Jim Kerr has always been a fantastic frontman (“Lemme see yer hands!”) and even back then I could appreciate the relationship he formed with the crowd and the sheer effort he and his bandmates put in.

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Now, more than 25-years on, Simple Minds are still recording and touring. They endured some difficult times during the late 90’s and early noughties when they declined in popularity and lost major label backing, but in the past couple of years have experienced a renaissance and are back playing arenas again, if not stadiums. Paradoxically, they have returned to the style of their first few albums and tracks from that period feature prominently in their setlists, usually at the expense of material from the Street Fighting Years (1989) and Real Life (1991) albums. Last year they put out Big Music, their most acclaimed album in years, which pays more than a passing nod to their roots. They seem to be enjoying their Indian summer, which is good to see.

Despite being renowned as a rugby union stadium, a fact acknowledged from the stage by Jim Kerr that day, during this era Cardiff Arms Park (aka the National Stadium) attained a pretty good pedigree in attracting world famous recording artists. Michael Jackson had performed there the year before, and over the years it also played host to the Stones, David Bowie, U2, Dire Straits and REM, to name but a few during its tenure as Wales’ biggest and best music venue. Summer gigs there became a bit of a tradition among people of a certain age. The last act to put on a show there before the venue was demolished to make way for the Millennium stadium was Tina Turner in 1996. Bands still come to play at the Millennium Stadium, but it just doesn’t have the same allure as the old Arms Park, which has surely earned it’s place in the rich tapestry of Welsh culture.


A Musical Odyssey (part 1)

Everyone has their own personal musical odyssey, their own journey through the rich landscape of sound. To an extent the journey mirrors and charts our progression and development as people. As in life, within the musical realm we all have our guilty pleasures, and those little dalliances that we instinctively know are bad for us but relish anyway. Some songs or artists are a part of your life for the briefest time, a one-night stand when compared to others with whom you form deep, lasting relationships. To paraphrase a Less Than Jake lyric, the music we listen to is the soundtrack of our lives.

Welcome to my personal musical odyssey.

One of my earliest memories is listening to the Beatles on an old 8-track cartridge on the way to the seaside in my dad’s Volkswagen Beatle. Yep, I’m that old. It was a compilation of their earliest hits, I wanna hold your hand, Can’t buy me love, etc. A perfect introduction to the world of pop. Those things were called 8-track cartridges because they could only physically hold 8 tracks, for a total playing time of about 20 minutes. What a pain in the ass it must have been to be a music lover in the late seventies.

I first became musically aware, in that I began to recognize what I liked and what I didn’t, and started to seek out certain kinds of music around the time I hit puberty in the mid-1980’s. This was probably my most ‘open’ spell when I was still trying to discover what genre I actually liked. I was receptive to everything from Five Star and Madonna to Public Enemy and Anthrax, though was always drawn to the rockier side of things.

One of the first bands I developed a fixation with was Dire Straits. I still remember the TV commercial for Brothers in Arms, showing clips of the Money for Nothing video featuring Mark Knopfler’s famous glowing sweat band. It was enough to make me buy the album. I liked it so much I saved up my pocket money and over the coming months bought Alchemy Live and Love Over Gold as well. Great albums. I always meant to get Making Movies, I thought about it every time I went into a record shop, but it had a shit cover. Those things were important then.

Take Marillion, in their early days the packaging on their albums was so cool, all colourful gate-fold sleeves with lots of hidden pictorial messages. I later discovered they were all designed by the same artist, Mark Wilkinson. Another good example is the Iron Maiden records of the late-seventies and eighties, which were all designed by Derek Riggs. I can’t imagine Maiden being quite as successful is their records came in plain white sleeves.

During my teens I consumed pop music and spent every spare penny I had on vinyl and tapes. Tapes, or cassettes, were all the rage for a while. Sometimes bands put bonus songs on them to entice you into buying them. Cassette singles, or ‘cassingles’ (groan) were a complete waste of time. But even these were a better idea than the copy-proof cassettes you were encouraged to buy. They were more expensive than normal cassettes, and you couldn’t make copies of them. Needless to say the whole concept was an unmitigated disaster. Like most people, what music I couldn’t buy for myself I would either steal from shops or tape off someone else, which was the eighties equivalent to file-sharing. I even watched Top of the Pops and listened to the Radio 1 chart show religiously hoping to discover new avenues to explore.

My first folly into full-fledged fandom was Simple Minds, who released a great album in 1986 called once Upon a Time and had a song on the soundtrack of the supercool Brat Pack movie The Breakfast Club. Me, a few mates at school, and an older cousin who I thought of as some kind of music guru, all declared ourselves fans. I think I was the only one who actually went so far as to join their fan club. It was quite a good deal; you got a regular magazine, some badges, a poster, and some other useless shit. If you joined a fan club these days you’d probably just get an email every couple of months.

Simple Minds at Cardiff Arms Park, summer 1989, was my first live concert. It was a very special time in my life. I was just about to leave school, it was the end of a decade, my future was a blank canvass, and I thought the world was my oyster. The concert was one of the rare events in life that actually lived up to expectation. The Minds, as the cool people called them, were fantastic, even if the set list was dominated by songs from the rather patchy Street Fighting Years album. Also on the bill that day were the Silencers (who, as the opening act, were technically the first band I ever saw live) and Texas, fronted by a very temperamental Charlene Spitteri who kept threatening to go home unless people stopped throwing bottles at her.

At this stage in their career Simple Minds were pure, fist-pumping stadium rock, just what a teenager needs in his life. I loved the passion and the energy. I also became a huge Alarm fan. Their music and lyrics held added poignancy for me, with many of their songs being about Wales. The artist I felt most affinity with, however, was Bruce Springsteen.

I was vaguely aware of the Born in the USA hype in 1984 / 85, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later when Live 1975 – 85 and Tunnel of Love came out that I caught the Boss bug. Somehow, my obsession with the Boss became intertwined with my blossoming fondness for travelling. If you are going to be a Boss fan you have to go and see him play live, so between 1992 and 2003 I saw him 5 times in 4 different countries. Philadelphia, USA; Milan, Italy; Rotterdam, Holland; and London and Manchester, England. Every gig was an emotional, intense experience. At his best, the Boss is one of the best performers the world has ever seen. I cried at the San Siro when he sang ‘Follow that Dream.’ I was going through some massive changes in my life and that song just struck a chord in me. I listened, and I did follow my dream.

For me, there were always tests involved when I travel to see the Boss. It is never plain-sailing. In 1999 I travelled to Philadelphia to see Springsteen play ‘at home.’ My girlfriend and I had tickets for two shows, but one was cancelled because of Hurricane Floyd. What a bitch. Even that wasn’t as bad as the Rotterdam adventure, where I got robbed by three big black guys then strip searched on my way home when my coach got pulled by French border police with guns.

Note to self: Never attempt to travel from Cardiff to Rotterdam by coach again. Life is just too short.

What happened next: A Musical Odyssey part 2


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