For me, music marks the time.
Maybe everyone does this, but I often find myself matching “eras” of my life to songs that were popular at the time.
For example, twenty-five years ago this month, I started college. Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was popular at the time, and the college move-in crew used it as a “theme song” for the incoming freshmen. So I’ll always link that song to that chapter of my life.
Now then: this summer, on the occasion of my sons turning thirteen, I started thinking about the songs playing on the radio during summer I turned thirteen, thirty years ago, in 1983– the summer Darth Vader took off his mask, Sally Ride journeyed into space, and David Hasselhoff got upstaged by a talking car.
I started compiling my list, and the treasure trove of songs that started unfolding before me absolutely blew me away. What benevolent force, I wondered, brought these incredible, legendary songs together all at once?
But don’t take my word for it: check it out for yourself, as you undertake this flashback to the Age of Flashdance. Here, in no particular order, are thirty songs that the Solid Gold Dancers might have been grooving to, way back in the summer of 1983…
“Safety Dance,” Men Without Hats: No, the Haberdashery-Challenged One-Hit-Wonders never actually explained what a “safety dance” is. And yes, they have strange criteria for friends. (“‘Cause your friends don’t dance/ And if they don’t dance,/ Well, then they’re no friends of mine.”) But for writing such a timeless song, I tip my hat to them.
“Electric Avenue,” Eddy Grant: Impossibly catchy song that still rocks down Pop Culture Avenue, thanks to shout-outs in The Cleveland Show and Seth Rogan’s Pineapple Express.
“Wanna Be Startin’ Something” AND “Human Nature,” Michael Jackson: The conquering juggernaut that was Thriller rolls on, spawning two singles in the summer of 1983. It took a little while for “Human Nature” to grow on me (like, twenty-eight years), but I liked “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” right out the gate, despite the fact that I still don’t know what “Mama say mama sa mama ku sa” means. And speaking of gibberish…
“Too Shy,” Kajagoogoo: Even after thirty years, Kajagoogoo still retains the crown of Goofiest Band Name from the 80’s… Or Possibly of All Time. (And this is despite stiff competition from Oingo Boingo, Scritti Politti, and Bananarama.)
“Our House,” Madness: The house is in the middle of the street? In the middle of the street? That IS madness.
“China Girl,” David Bowie: At the time, I didn’t “get” David Bowie, Unsophisticated and unschooled in musical history, the thirteen-year-old me thought, “Who is this guy, why is he writing such a creepy song, and did he just say ‘visions of swastikas’?” The forty-three-year-old me humbly apologizes for this error.
“Big Log,” Robert Plant: So, let me get this straight: your love is “in league with the freeway”? Hmmmmmmm. At the very least, with this song, Plant proves that his penchant for writing ridiculous lyrics didn’t die with Led Zeppelin. (Oh, come on, you know it’s true. “Ramble On”? “The Lemon Song”?)
“Come Dancing,” The Kinks: I thought I had this song figured out: a nostalgic look on a lost childhood, right? But recently, I learned something that made me look at the song in a new light: Ray Davies wrote this song about his older sister, Rene, who gave him his first guitar on his thirteenth birthday. Later that very night, Rene goes out dancing at a dance hall… where she collapsed and died! Who knew such a peppy song could have such a tragic context?
“Faithfully,” Journey: Technically, this is a spring song, but it was still on the charts in June 1983, so that seemed like a good excuse to include it. Astoundingly, this wasn’t even a Top Ten hit for Journey (it peaked at #12), but man, does it have staying power. Fitting, too, that it’s about unending devotion because that’s what fans have for this song.
“She Works Hard for the Money,” Donna Summer: A bona fide anthem from the late, great Disco Queen. And to think it only took thirty years for me to realize the first word off the first verse is someone’s name: Onetta– i.e. the over-worked bathroom attendant about whom Donna Summer (allegedly) wrote this song. (In related news, only a year or so ago did I figure out that the song “Maneater” includes the word “jaguar.” And speaking of Hall and Oates…)
“Family Man,” Hall and Oates: Fun Fact: A musician named Mike Oldfield originally wrote this song, but in Daryl and John’s more cynical version, the so-called “family man” cracks and decides to go with the prostitute (only to find– to quote another Hall and Oates classic– she’s gone).
“Cuts Like a Knife,” Bryan Adams: And so begins America’s love affair with the raspy-voiced, ruddy-faced Canadian. (Say, you think Bryan Adams, Bill Murray, Edward James Olmos, and Seal ever hung out? Formed some sort of Pockmark Club or something?)
“She’s a Beauty,” The Tubes: Sure, The Tubes are One-Hit Wonders… but when your one hit is a beauty like this one, maybe it’s OK. Just a great song. (Why would I lie?)
“1999,” Prince: Yeah, the summer of 1984 was his true Purple Reign, but Prince didn’t do too shabbily in 1983 either: in May, “Little Red Corvette” peaked at #6 on the Billboard Chart, and “1999” reached #12 in July. Plus, he released a song in 1983 that was guaranteed to see a resurgence sixteen years later! How brilliant is that?
“Never Gonna Let You Go,” Sergio Mendes: Or, as I like to call it, “Never Gonna Like This Song.” Still, it was a big hit at the time, so I felt I had to include it.
“Always Something There to Remind Me,” Naked Eyes AND “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Taco: Why put these two together? Simple: they’re both remakes of older songs. Naked Eyes re-envisioned Dionne Warwick/ Burt Bacharach’s “Always Something,” originally released in 1963; and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was featured in a musical of the same name way, WAY back in 1930. (I was going to call “Puttin’ on the Ritz” one of the oldest songs ever to make the charts… then I remembered The Byrds adapted the words for “Turn, Turn. Turn” from the Bible! Can’t get much older than that…)
“Is There Something I Should Know?,” Duran Duran: Darn right there was something we all needed to know back in 1983– namely, that the ragged tiger that was Duran Duran was going to be sinking its teeth into America and not let go for the next year.
“Far from Over,” Frank Stallone: From the soundtrack to the much-maligned sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Stayin’ Alive (directed by Sly Stallone, who obviously decided to throw li’l brother a bone here). Yeah, Frank’s time in the spotlight was not, in fact, far from over (in fact, his career ended before it really got started), but at least this cheesily-overblown-yet-somehow-magnificent rouser got some love in Martin Short’s great Saturday Night Live “synchronized swimming” skit.
“She Blinded Me with Science,” Thomas Dolby: How can you make an awesome song even awesomer? Simple: Perform it with a man who walked on the moon! Which is what Dolby did in June 2013, at a conference at the Smithsonian, when Dolby sang his signature hit… with astronaut Buzz Aldrin!
“Flashdance… What a Feeling,” Irene Cara AND “Maniac,” Michael Sembello: Fun fact: “Maniac” was originally written for a 1980 slasher flick, also called Maniac, about a serial killer. Of course, Sembello made some slight modifications to the lyrics for Flashdance. For example, the original chorus goes, “He’s a maniac, maniac, that’s for sure/ He’ll kill your cat and nail it to the door.” Like I said, slight modifications.
“Tell Her About It,” Billy Joel: A great, snap-happy song which also gives some good advice about relationships, from a guy who’s been divorced three times.
“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” Eurythmics: Classic, career-defining song, just not the most complex, lyircally: by my count, the song only has forty-two different words. (And that’s counting “use”/”used” and “abuse”/ “abused” as separate words.)
“I’m Still Standin’,” Elton John: They say there are five stages of grief, but Sir Elton hits on the very real sixth stage, the “Thank You for Dumping Me, Because Now I’ve Clawed My Way Back Up And Can See What a Worthless, Miserable Clown You Are” stage. The “Far From Over” of break-up songs.
“Time (Clock of the Heart)” AND “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” Culture Club: Has any group ever had a career trajectory resembling Culture Club’s? They won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1984. They released an impressive string of Top Ten hits in America in the span of two short years. in ’83, Boy George was the hottest act not named Michael Jackson. Then it was all over. And they didn’t just fall out of the mainstream: the entire nation implicitly seemed to agree to file them into the “Let’s Just Pretend That Whole Thing Never Happened” category. Hey, I did the same thing, but I’m just saying: Kajagoogoo is remembered more fondly, for crying out loud…
“Every Breath You Take,” The Police: The Grammy-winning Song of the Year… and quite possibly, the most romantic tribute to stalking ever written.
I prefaced this list by talking about music marking the time. Personally, I can’t hear these songs without also thinking about the beach we used to go to all the time in my youth, Brant Rock Beach in Marshfield, Massachusetts. These were the songs I heard in the car on our way to the beach, car, the songs coming out of people’s boomboxes when we got there.
I can’t conjure up specific memories or stories exactly from that summer– just snapshots: my grandmother’s daily dunk to her shoulders (she never went completely under); my aunt coating herself with sun tan oil (back then, you would never think of wearing sunscreen); my dad lugging the cooler, beach bag, inflatable raft, and four lounge chairs, all at once, from the car. (Heck, I can even remember the chairs!)
I haven’t gone to Brant Rock in years. Not that I could even if I wanted to: my dad says that storms have erased the entire shore. Only rocks remain now.
Well, that’s not all. I still have the memories. And the songs, too. Even after thirty years, they’re still standin’.