A Little Help From Our Friends: Backseat Drivers of the 80s

by Jason Gross @SockofFleagulls on January 3, 2012

in Music, The 80s

Once a musical artist makes it big, we usually assign to them the stereotype of having big egos and being selective of who they choose to work with in the future. But it seems in the 80s and even in earlier decades, there were many well-known singers and musicians that would jump in the backseat of an upcoming artist’s career and help them drive to success (think Hulk Hogan & Hillbilly Jim). Thanks to these helpers, many artists vaulted up the charts to achieve the most successful song of their careers. After all, getting to the top is the major battle for artists in the music industry, right?

The path they take after the initial success is basically up to the artist (see Sinead O’Connor’s appearance on SNL). But what usually happens when an established pop star lends a helping hand? Let’s explore some 80 songs with famous backup vocals or musicians and examine the effects on their careers.

O Canada!

Glass Tiger “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)”

Backup vocals by Bryan Adams

Bryan Adams scored six top 15 singles on the US charts from 1985’s Reckless album. Before starting on his next album in 1986, Adams would lend his rising fame and backing vocals to fellow Canadians Glass Tiger. Their debut single “Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone” would reach #2 on the US charts. And even though their follow-up single “Someday” would reach #7, Glass Tiger would not appear again in the top 30 in the US. They did have some success on the Canadian charts through the early 1990s, but in the US their glass tiger had shattered after their debut album.

We’ve Been Friends For Years!

Rockwell “Somebody’s Watching Me”

Backup vocals by Michael Jackson

By 1984, Michael Jackson was an international superstar. Kennedy Gordy, who was the son of Motown founder Berry Gordy, was a childhood friend of Jackson and was working on his own music. While in the studio, he got the idea to get some help from his friend on one of the tracks. Jackson agreed to help and Gordy drove him to and from the studio to record the song. Upon completing the album, Gordy used the name “Rockwell” (because it was said he “rocked well”…fine judge of musical talent that person was) in order to keep his famous last name from having any effect on his success. The single became Rockwell’s first and greatest hit, peaking at #2 on the US charts. His follow up “Obscene Phone Caller,” which also featured Michael Jackson on backup vocals, would crack the top 40 but Rockwell would have no other singles come close to his first hit.

United in the Kingdom

Howard Jones “No One Is To Blame”

Drums and Backup vocals by Phil Collins

Using early success from his first album Human’s Lib in the UK, Jones had a breakout hit in the U.S. with “Things Can Only Get Better” in 1985. And get better they did, when he got Phil Collins to produce and re-release “No One Is To Blame” from his Dream Into Action album. Collins played the drums and recorded backing vocals launching the single to the highest charting song for Jones in the US (#4.) The following two albums would each produce a top 20 hit in the U.S., but none surpassing the Collins-produced single.

Right Place, Right Time

Dire Straits “Money For Nothing”

Backup vocals by Sting

During the time that Dire Straits were recording the album, Sting happened to be in town and was invited to add the background vocals. Sting’s only true lyrical contribution to the song was the famous “I Want My MTV” lyric, to which co-writing credit was given to him. (If you listen carefully, the lyric he sings is the exact melody of the Police song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”) With a catchy riff and a music video with heavy airplay, “Money For Nothing” became a #1 hit that Dire Straits simply couldn’t top. “Walk of Life” would be their only follow up success, reaching #7 in the US.

The End of Top Ten Hits

Don Henley “End of the Innocence”

Bruce Hornsby on piano

Following his tremendous success with the Eagles, Don Henley’s first two solo albums did pretty well and produced three top 10 hits. On his third and what would be his final solo album End of the Innocence (not including his greatest hits album), Henley collaborated with Grammy award winning piano talent Bruce Hornsby to record the title track. Hornsby wrote the music to the song and Henley added lyrics for what would become his last top 10 hit as a solo artist. He would reach the top 10 again in 1992 assisting Patty Smythe on her hit “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough.”

So it seems a little help from your popular friends was a good thing in the 80s…well at least for one song. There are other artists who used some popular friends like Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” with George Harrison on guitar and U2’s “Pride (In The Name of Love)” with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders on backup vocals. I’m sure there are also some collaborations from the 80s that didn’t pan out, but it seems most were successful to launch or peak the careers of many artists. What would you do if you were trying to make it big in the music industry?

Would you take advantage of your popular friends to score a top 10 hit?

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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 both awesome sites: M.A.S.K. the Movie Rediscover the 80s

Corey Chapman January 3, 2012 at 10:18 am

Love it! Knew about Glass Tiger & Rockwell, but didnt know about these other great BACK UPS. Nice work!

Jason Gross (@SockOfFleagulls) January 3, 2012 at 11:11 am

There are a bunch of others…might go back and follow up on this column.

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