Back the 80s
by Jim Beviglia (Rowman
It’s hard to condense the
music of an entire decade into a concrete and meaningful listing. That goes
doubly for an adventurous and musically rich era like the 1980s. I could
probably easily come up with a list of hundreds of the greatest songs of the
decade, so it’s pretty impressive that music journalist Jim Beviglia was
able to weed it down to less than 70 tunes.
Everyone has their own 80s
mix-tapes in their mind, and while I would personally debate some of the
choices, I have to say that Beviglia has good taste and has mostly made some
very smart choices.
Beviglia’s genius idea was
to pick what he considered the best songs of the 80s and talk with the
artists about the recording of the songs – everyone from giant stars to
one-hit wonders. (In fact, I have interviewed many of the same artists
talked to here and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t come up with this idea
first.) Interviews would not be about the artists’ careers – though that
sometimes came into play – but mostly it was specific to the recording of
the songs and their cultural impact.
Beviglia came up with some
ground rules to keep the list manageable. Only one song per artist – no
matter how big their career may have been and how many hits they may have
had in the decade. (Phil Collins sort of gets a pass on this rule. He is
listed as a solo artist with “In the Air Tonight,” but gets a second single
as a duet with “Separate Lives.” That interview was with duet partner
Marilyn Martin, so it gets through on a loophole.) Beviglia did not
necessarily pick the acts’ biggest songs, but the singles that resonated
with him the most.
The songs were mostly big
pop hits, but he threw in some songs that were only minor hits at the time –
or not really hits at all – which ended up becoming iconic over the decades
since. Some examples of those are “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads,
“Lunatic Fringe” by Red Rider, “I Melt with You” by Modern English and “One”
by Metallica. (That last one, sorry, definitely would not have been included
in my list.)
Sometimes Beviglia cheats
a bit to include artists who he could not get interviews with. He’ll
interview the producer, or the studio drummer, or the songwriter on the
tracks of difficult-to-pin-down or dead artists like John Lennon, Michael
Jackson, U2, Marvin Gaye, Glenn Frey, The Police and Metallica. However,
these are the exceptions, not the rule, Beviglia has done a good job of
tracking down the original artists whenever possible.
Therefore, you get
interesting insights into things like how a hangover inspired Huey Lewis to
write “I Want a New Drug” or how Dr. Magnus Pyke was a bit of a prima donna
on the set of the music video for Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with
Science.” Eddie Money explains that while he had bigger hits in the 1980s, “Shakin’”
seems to resonate most with his fans because it is such an elemental look at
being a horny high school kid looking to get drunk and laid.
I love the fact that
Beviglia does not fall into rock critic disease, where he judges the
“artistic worthiness” of a band or artist. He’s not afraid to mix in
superstar geniuses like John Lennon, Tom Petty and Michael Jackson, with
upstarts like Living Colour, Bananarama and Julian Lennon. He doesn’t give
any more weight to hard rockers like Metallica than the more derided softer
acts like Air Supply and Rupert Holmes. Music is music and all of it has
value. I am impressed that a list of the greatest hits of a decade includes
such diverse musical acts as Don Henley, Roxette, Glass Tiger, Men Without
Hats, Journey, The Tubes, The Little River Band and Love & Rockets.
One slight complaint, the
book has several factual errors which really should have been caught in
editing. For example, Billy (Vera) and the Beaters’ pre-“At This Moment” top
40 single was called “I Can Take Care of Myself.” It was not “I Can’t Take
it Anymore,” as stated in the book.
Also, the book says that
British band Madness never had another charting hit in the US after their
1983 smash “Our House” – even suggesting they had one minor hit earlier with
“It Must Be Love.” However, while “It Must Be Love” was released previously
internationally, in the US it was the follow-up single to “Our House.”
Madness guitarist Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman even gives the correct
timeline in a later quote in the same chapter, which makes the mistake even
I get that it’s been a
long time, and not everyone remembers everything exactly as it happened.
However, things like that should have been caught and fixed in the
However, like a great
mixtape, there are a lot more hits than misses in Playing Back the 80s.
It’s a book that is almost like eating potato chips – every time you finish
a chapter (which are all a very manageable three pages long), you crave just
Jay S. Jacobs
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December 28, 2018.