A lousy decade punctuated with greatness
Listening to rock in the 80s was musical suffering. The decade shifted from weak New Wave pop, top 40 crud and, shiver, hair metal. However, within this mess there were a few bands that were doing something different. Two of them, U2 and R.E.M., eventually moved from college rock to becoming two of the biggest bands in music.
The Clash: "London Calling"
With one of the most distinctive openings of any rock song, The Clash proved with "London Calling" that England's punk movement had moved on.
On this song, as well as the double album of the same name, The Clash display complex arrangements of the musical styles that were prominent in the streets of London during the late '70s and early '80s.
With a title that comes from BBC radio's WWII signature sign-on, "This is London calling," Joe Strummer's lyrics express fear and helplessness in the face of looming disasters.
Motörhead: "Ace of Spades"
Anyone who knows metal, knows that Motörhead is owed great homage. The band set many of the standards by which thrash is played: hard, punching chords that reflect punk as much as heavy rock, quick guitar runs, booming drums and lots of loud.
"The Ace of Spades," the band's signature song, is hard and aggressive with a phenomenal melody that well fits Lemmy Kilmister's raspy, gravelly voice.
For those unfamiliar with Rush, "YYZ" is a perfect introduction into what an amazing trio of musicians make up this band. The song begins with the drums, which are then joined by the guitar and bass, all playing YYZ Morse Code, the identification code for Toronto's airport.
Geddy Lee's bass licks are phenomenal while Neil Pert is, well, Neil Pert. The pair trade off runs, segueing into Alex Lifeson's guitar solo, which has a mythical Far Eastern flair.
Stray Cats: "Stray Cat Strut"
The Stray Cats prove three things: that three guys can generate a lot of sound; that the stand-up bass is freaking awesome and that just because it's rockabilly, doesn't mean it's easy to play, evidenced by Brian Setzer's remarkable guitar licks.
A great song that's lots of fun.
Cheap Trick: "She's Tight"
Just because a song has a pop feel, it can still rock. Cheap Trick singer Robin Zander shows his chops and range while guitarist Rick Nielson's lyrics are, well, self evident (not much of an double entendre here).
U2: "New Year's Day"
"New Year's Day," U2's first hit, was a great departure from the '80s pop sound that dominated the market. Bass player Adam Clayton gives the song its oomph, while The Edge adds guitar as well as the song's haunting piano melody. Larry Mullen Jr.'s percussion fills in the gaps with rapid-fire drumming. Bono's vocals are emotive and challenge the audience to feel the immediacy of the meaning.
Bono's lyrics, about the Polish Solidarity movement, show that one of the reasons U2 is so great is that they can create a protest song without sounding as if they are creating a protest song.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: "Pride and Joy"
The first time I heard this song, I was driving in Houston's rush-hour traffic and it came on the radio. I pulled over at the first music store I came to and bought his recently released "Texas Flood" album.
While most agree that Jimi Hendrix is the greatest rock guitarist, the Texas music legend comes a close second. Heavily influenced by Hendrix, SRV used the guitar god's blues progressions backed by a Texas Swing beat.
R.E.M.: "Pretty Persuasion" (April 9 1984)
One of the forefathers of college radio, R.E.M. came from the college town of Athens, Ga., the same musical incubator that created the B52s. R.E.M. has a sound uniquely their own that reflects the hot and muzzy feeling of the South, which is strangely laid back and rocking. "Pretty Persuasion" is a perfect example of this seeming contradicting moods.
Challenge: Can you understand what Michael Stipe is singing here without looking the lyrics up? Bet you can't.
The Talking Heads: "And She Was" (June 10, 1985)
Some believe the song is about astral traveling, while singer and songwriter David Byrne reportedly said the song was about a girl he knew who would take LSD next to a factory where they made Yoo-hoo.
What I do know, is that this is possibly The Talking Heads' best song.
The Pixies: "Gigantic" (Aug. 22, 1988)
The Pixies were alternative before alternative became popular. "Gigantic" is a rare Pixies song in that bass player Kim Deal sings lead (which she would later do full time with the Breeders).
Written by Deal and usual lead singer Frank Black, "Gigantic" features, like all Pixies songs, an eclectic but hypnotic tune burnished with edgy and dark lyrics, made more disturbing by Deal's sweet voice.