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Defining Musical Moments Of The 1980s
April 9, 2013
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In terms of pop culture, the 80s is a maligned decade - both for its fashion and for its music.

The big hair and even bigger guitars, the legwarmers, the spandex, the leather ties, the lace gloves, the shoulder pads, the mullet - it was a period many would rather forget.

But if you dig a little deeper, you'll find that the 80s delivered many a moment that changed music history and shaped music to this day.

A new book, by former MuchMusic VJ Kim Clarke Champniss, Republic of Rock 'n' Roll - The Roaring 80s from Curtis to Cobain captures the legacy and undeniable energy of the time.

The book looks at a number of key developments including the birth of MTV, charity music spectacles, the decline of vinyl and the rise of rap and electronic music.

We've decided to spotlight some of these Defining Musical Moments Of The 80s.

The Sony Walkman Goes On Sale In Japan 07/1/1979

Sony co-founder Masuru Ibuka wanted a device he could enjoy during business flights and asked his design team to come up with something.

defining-musical-moments-of-the-80s-feature5.jpg He presented the Walkman to the company's chair saying, "Try this. Don't you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?"

The Walkman profoundly changed how music was enjoyed, making it personal and mobile. Soon, cassettes were eating into sales of vinyl. The mixed tape became increasingly popular, as people dubbed and swapped songs.

The music industry launched a campaign entitled "Home Taping is Killing the Music" with a pirate flag featuring crossbones. (something of a foreshadowing to Napster) Home Taping is Killing Music.jpg

Champniss told, that corporations in the 90s were "correct in believing they had copyright laws on their side and Napster and other free services were breaking the law and would ultimately fold.

But the growth of the Internet, and the belief by young people that information should be free, overwhelmed moral and legal obligations."

Led Zeppelin Breaks Up After John Bonham's Unexpected Death: 9/25/1980

The band that defined the excesses of rock music called it quits when legendary drummer John Bonham died.

Bonham, in the course of a day, consumed 40 shots of vodka and died of alcohol poisoning at 32.

The death was devastating to singer Robert Plant, who recalled in People Magazine, "I had a great, warm, big-hearted friend I haven't got anymore. It was so final. I never even thought about the future of the band or music."

Zeppelin are one of the most successful, innovative and influential rock bands in the history of music and are ushered in the big stadium concerts we see to this day.

Emergence Of Rap - 'The Breaks' Becomes The First Certified Gold Record Rap Song: 1980

Pioneering rappers like Kurtis Walker (aka Kurtis Blow) helped break rap (the Champniss book could easily be subtitled, The Roaring 80s From Kurtis To Cobain).

Blow was the first rap artist to sign with a major label in 1979 and his single 'The Breaks' sold more than half a million copies.

Here he is on 'Soul Train' back in the day.

John Lennon Is Killed: 12/8/1980

Similar to the infamous Altamont concert of 1969, which put a nail in the coffin of 60s hippie culture, many point to the murder of John Lennon as the end of the 70s.

He was shot four times outside his apartment in New York by Mark David Chapman, who pleaded guilty to 2nd degree murder.


On Lennon's birthday and the anniversary of his death, fans celebrate his legacy at the Strawberry Fields memorial in New York's Central Park - where his ashes were scattered by Yoko Ono.

MTV Begins Broadcasting: 8/1/1981 & MuchMusic launches: 8/31/1984

It's easy to forget how big a game and channel changer the launch of MTV was, with a mandate to play music videos and market shows directly to young people.

In 'Republic of Rock 'N' Roll', Champniss explains how the channel's popularity spread:

"In the USA, cable companies aided by government de-regulation, began to expand. More channels than ever before were delivered into living rooms..."

As a result of this change, record companies "no longer depended solely on radio stations to break a hit. [Now] heavy rotation on MTV sold records..."

Champniss told music channels like MuchMusic are much-needed "curators/gatekeepers", especially in this era where music is so heavily fragmented.

However, in more recent years, both MTV and MuchMusic have aired more and more lifestyle programs and reality shows - prompting some critics to say 'we remember when MTV and Much actually played music.'

Grandmaster Flash & ''The Message'' Sweeps America: July 1982

Rap grew out of its humble South Bronx origins, aided by Grandmaster Flash, who is credited with inventing the crossfader - which allowed DJs to fade in one beat while fading another beat out using two audio sources.

That meant there was no break in the music.

Flash, born Joseph Saddler, pioneered other DJ techniques, which helped to spur the development of rap.

The single 'The Message' was a massive hit for the group, and was the first major hip hop song that made social commentary.

The song describes the struggle, inequality and anger of living in poverty in the inner-city, with the poignant lyrics "don't push me cause I'm close to the edge, I'm trying not to lose my head".

Rolling Stone Magazine ranked the song number #51 on its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, the first hip hop/rap artists to receive that honour.

This Is Spinal Tap Premieres: 3/2/1984

Many of the hair bands of the 80s point to this mock documentary about "one of England's loudest bands" as a seminal film of the time.

As much as it was meant to be a spoof, it was also tellingly accurate - whether it was the intra-band spreading of STDs, the less than stellar album artwork, or getting lost backstage in Cleveland.

Featuring a slew of drummers who met their end in a darkly hilariously way (by spontaneously combusting or choking on vomit - not their own, it should be said), this film is a top contender for many as one of the funniest films of all time.

Madonna Plays ''The Virgin'' At The MTV Video Music Awards: 9/14/1984

Emerging out of a giant wedding cake, Madonna's video and performance of 'Like A Virgin' caused quite a stir in 1984.

During her MTV performance, she flashed underwear and garters to the live audience.


Madonna reflected in an interview with Jay Leno, "I was standing at the top of a wedding cake, as one does, and I walked down these steps, which were the tiers of a wedding cake. And I lost my shoe. I lost my white stiletto.

And I thought, 'Oh god, how am I going to get that? It's over there and I'm on TV. So I thought well, I'll just pretend I meant to do this and I dove on to the floor and I rolled around and I reached for the shoe. And, as I reached for the shoe, the dress went up."

The song had a huge social impact, as Madonna's portrayal of a sexually independent, unashamed, and confident woman influenced a new generation of female artists.

Ronald Reagan Uses Born In The USA For His Re-election Campaign Song : 9/19/1984

During his campaign for re-election, President Ronald Reagan referred to 'Born In The USA' during a campaign stop in New Jersey in 1984.

The President stated, "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen."

Trouble is, the song isn't a nationalistic or patriotic anthem.

It actually deals with the negative effects of the Vietnam War on Americans and was about "how the country was going to pot", according to an LA Times critic.

Band-Aid Records Do They Know It's Christmas: 11/25/1984

Bob Geldof and Midge Ure's 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' was an effort to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief in 1984 and laid the foundation for charity songs.

It's a thread that continues to this day with songs like K'Naan's reboot of 'Wavin' Flag' with 'Young Artists For Haiti'.

Geldof and Ure brought together an all-star roster for the song, including Bono, Sting, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey and countless others.


The charity single was parodied in an episode of 'The Simpsons', in which "Krusty The Klown" enlists Sting to help out on his track, We're Sending Our Love Down The Well.

Al & Tipper Gore Hold The Parents' Music Resource Center Meeting; Dee Snider, Frank Zappa & John Denver Called To Testify: 9/19/1985

The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was created in 1985 and fought for more parental control over the music children were listening to.

The group's goal was to get the music industry to develop a rating system for songs and albums (similar to films) and create warning labels for explicit, violent or sexual content.

As part of a U.S. senate committee hearing, three musicians - Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, John Denver - advocated for free speech.

Snider, the frontman of Twisted Sister, surprised the committee with an articulate defense of the U.S. First Amendment and his song, 'Under the Blade'.

Critics suggested the song was about sadomasochism, bondage, and rape. Snider denied that, saying it was about the fear of undergoing surgery.

As he opened his testimony, Snider said "I am 30 years old, I am married, I have a 3-year-old son. I was born and raised a Christian and I still adhere to those principles. Believe it or not, I do not smoke, I do not drink, and I do not do drugs."

He went to say "Ms. Gore was looking for sadomasochism and bondage, and she found it. Someone looking for surgical references would have found it as well."

"The full responsibility for defending my children falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us," he said.

Run DMC & Aerosmith ''Walk This Way'' Peaks At No. 4 On The Pop Chart: 9/27/1986

'Walk this Way', the Aerosmith original, was released in 1975. But by the 80s, the band's better days were behind them.

Run DMC, got wind of the song from producer Rick Rubin and their version was the second single off their 'Raising Hell' album.

Run DMC and Aerosmith.jpg

It featured scratching at the beginning and was the album's first video released at a time when MTV was becoming a cultural force.

The video featured both groups playing side-by-side, eventually knocking down literal and metaphorical walls that separated rock and rap. The song went on to win both groups a Soul Train Music Award for Best Rap Single in 1987.

U2 Releases The Joshua Tree: 3/9/1987

About the album, The New York Times wrote, "Bono's lyrics - the music is by the band as a whole - addressed sensitive and interesting themes in a way that was, if not truly poetic, at least evocative and challenging."

Rolling Stone was also effusive in its praise, "For a band that's always specialized in inspirational, larger-than-life gestures - a band utterly determined to be Important - The Joshua Tree could be the big one, and that's precisely what it sounds like."


The album was top of the charts in 20 countries, and featured timeless U2 songs like 'With or Without You' and 'Where The Streets Have No Name'.

Slant Magazine said that The Joshua Tree's opening trio of songs helped "the band became lords and emperors of anthemic '80s rock" and that "U2 no longer belonged to Dublin, but the world."

Guns 'N' Roses Releases Appetite For Destruction: 7/21/1987

This was one of the first albums to carry a parental advisory sticker for its off-colour language and suggestive sexual content.

As a band, it's been said Guns 'n' Roses brought danger and debauchery back to rock n roll at a time when hair metal bands were all about girls and partying.

As Dafydd Goff put it in the Guardian, their music "embodied the illicit allure of adulthood" taking the writer, "on a booze-soaked, smack-addled, over-sexed tour of the LA underground, a world peopled with pimps and prostitutes, dealers and dope fiends."

N.W.A. Releases Straight Outta Compton: 8/8/1988

This album is considered the pioneering record of gangsta rap and had a huge influence of the evolution of West Coast hip hop.

The title track upped the violence quotient, with lyrics like "When I'm called off, I got a sawed off, squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off."

And the song "Fuck tha Police" prompted a complaint to N.W.A.'s record label from the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service.

In 'Droppin' Science: Critical Essays On Rap Music And Hip Hop Culture', author William Eric Perkins says "N.W.A. placed even more emphasis [than their contemporaries] on exaggerated descriptions of street life, militant resistance to authority and outright sexist violence [with] lyrics far more brutal than what had come before".

As noted in 'Republic of Rock 'N' Roll', N.W.A. "tapped into society's fascination with gang culture and set the stage for gangsta rap to take over in the 1990s, with artists such as Ice-T, Tupac and Biggie."

Public Enemy Releases It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back: 1988

'It Takes a Nation of Millions' was the first hip hop album to be ranked best of the year by a number of rock critics.

Public Enemy became known for their social commentary and politically charged lyrics - pushing the idea of self-empowerment of African Americans.

Here's a few lines from the song 'Don't Believe The Hype': "All the critics you can hang 'em, I'll hold the rope... But they hope to the Pope, and pray it ain't dope... The follower of Farrakhan, don't tell me that you understand, until you hear the man..."

In 2003, the album ranked number 48 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.


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