Lyrics? Where we’re going, we don’t need…lyrics!
The reason that I celebrate the music of the 80s over other decades is simple…variety. Top 40 radio in the 80s was a melting pot that spanned from British new wave to the early origins of hip hop and rap. No bias or traditions dare got in the way of a hit song, which meant influences from new technology, television, and movies were rampant on the charts. For pretty much the entire decade, songs didn’t need lyrics to become a pop hit. For part one of this two part column, let’s look at some instrumental hits of the 80s that gained popularity in their own right, no television or film required.
“Synthpop” was in its beginning stages in the mid to late 70s and, by the beginning of the 80s, new wave was in full effect. Synthesizers seemed to be popping up everywhere, including on jazz musician Herbie Hancock’s albums. Considered a pioneer by most for his electronic sounds in the early 80s, Hancock’s most well-known hit was on his platinum album Future Shock in 1983. The instrumental hit “Rockit” is classified as the first pop single to feature scratching and turntable techniques. Even though it did not perform well on the mainstream chart in the US, the innovative animatronic music video received heavy airplay and won multiple awards at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards.
The Royal Philharmonic proved classical music was still popular in 1981 with the release of the instrumental single “Hooked on Classics.” The “borrowed” montage of famous classical composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky used a disco beat as the tempo and used our wallets to climb all the way to #10 on the US charts. The Hooked on Classics album would also stay on the charts for 68 weeks! I always felt like this song was the collective brain child of the Music Teacher Association of Planet Earth, eager to pluck us from our pop music, stuff us in a telephone booth, and send us back in time.
In 1987, Kenny G used his alto saxophone to create a very successful music career. The single “Songbird” from the album Duotones opened up many ears to jazz music on the US pop charts, climbing all the way to #4. Subsequently, he also closed the eyes of many tired workers on the job who heard the song on the radio. Though he seems to be the butt of many jokes, there is no denying his 6 multi platinum albums and success of his instrumental hits (I wouldn’t challenge him on the golf course either).
The British group M.A.R.R.S. had a break out hit in 1987 with its heavy sampled and sound effect dominating single “Pump Up the Volume.” This is another song that many consider a pioneer to house music and sampling with it peaking at #1 in four different countries (Wikipedia sites 30 total samples contained within the song). Many might not consider this an “instrumental” song, but it definitely is not one with any meaningful (or original) lyrics.
Another 1987 breakthrough came with guitarist Joe Satriani. His album Surfing With an Alien remains his most successful to date, earning platinum status in the US. The singles released had minor success on the rock charts, but the album itself was a major accomplishment for instrumental rock. Satriani remains the “Susan Lucci of the Grammy Awards,” being nominated 15 times overall without ever winning an award. If any of the Grammy judges happen to read this, can we give this guitar god some props already??!!
In part two of this column, I’ll look at some of the instrumental themes of 80s television shows and movies that crossed over and became popular hits on the music charts. Until then, I’ll retain the antedote for removing any of these poisonous melodies from your brain. Sorry 80s fans, that’s just how I roll.
Jason Gross is a child of the 80s and loves to subject his two sons to cartoons, TV, movies, and music from the decade. Currently promoting a M.A.S.K. live-action movie script (co-writer) and also enjoys freelance writing about 80s music & pop culture. Background includes radio broadcasting and B2B direct marketing. Follow Jason on Twitter@SockOfFleagulls and check out Rediscover the 80s!
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