ROCKTOBER 2012: 1981 - The Year That Video (Temporarily) Killed Music

Punk and disco were dead. Where would the music gods take us next? MTV! While pop music had always been pretty-boy/pretty-girl dominated (and music videos dated back to the 1950’s with Oh Boy!) image would finally and totally murder pure pop chops the moment the Bugles “Video Killed the Radio Star” hit the airways.      

Terrible music dominated MTV’s near-cable access (and white only) beginnings, including Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” “Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film,” and REO Speedwagon’s despicable abomination “Keep on Loving You,” whose lovelorn lyrics reportedly turned Morrissey celibate two years later.

But the lasting offender of all this aural tragedy is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” The song is so awful that it ruins bars from San Diego to Portland, Maine every time a sorority girl gets within arms-length of a jukebox.

Then again, the Rolling Stones’ last great song, “Start Me Up,” was an early MTV hit. And Phil Collins, the most unlikely rock star in history, came out with “In the Air Tonight,” much to Mike Tyson’s later delight. We also got Hall & Oats “Private Eyes” in all of its delicious, blue-eyed soullessness.

On the non-video front, several familiar and mind-numbingly bad FM rock stapes came from 1981: Billy Squire’s juvenile, masturbatory classic “The Stroke,” followed by every Dungeon and Dragons’ fans twin nerd Rush attack: “Tom Sawyer” and “Red Barchetta.”

Is there anything salvageable in this dismal year? A bit. The Police and David Byrne and Brian Eno put out Ghosts in the Machine and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, respectively. There were also good records by The Birthday Party, the Cure, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen and Public Imagine Ltd.

One of the best songs of 1981 came from Gang of Four, the ep only “To Hell With Poverty.” It embodies all that is incredible about the band, with its fusion of fuck you political lyrics, metal sheets of guitar and a bass grove so damn funky that Rick James’ 1981 hit “Super Freak” sounds impotent in comparison.

Rawk was somewhat redeemed by Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “The Waiting,” and AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” any day. Fire! But the specter of hair metal was around the corner what with Motley Crue’s independent release of Too Fast for Love.

What music inspired in 1981 can be largely summed up in the title of the year’s best track--“That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” by Mission of Burma. It’s an angry and paranoid song that’s just right for the long darkness that started with Ronald Reagan’s first year in office.

All in all, you would be have been better off heading to the multi-plex for Raiders of the Lost Ark in the dark days of 1981.



Did it all suck? YOU DECIDE! Top 100-ish hits of 1981