Years in Review, the 1’s, 1981: Pop, Rock and Musical Theater


The upper reaches of my re-vamped 1981 chart are decidedly Pop-Rock though #1 is a bit different. The finale of the 1980 movie “Fame” still stands out as one of my favorite movie moments. At the time the movie was my favorite, it connected to my time in musical theater in high school, something I did not pursue once I went to Boston and attended Boston University. The song incorporates everything you would expect from a musical about the High School of the Performing Arts in NYC. There were rock textures, but also standard pop balladry, a choral section, and symphonic grandeur.

This song cemented by love of orchestral rock though you could say “Jesus Christ Superstar” took care of that previously. I have never been a big fan of straight-ahead classical music but when incorporated into music styles I love it can be breathtaking. Most recently that happened with an updated version of the song “Where’s The Love” by Hanson. On the 2018 album “String Theory” the brothers worked with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, creating a story arc using their catalog over the previous 25 years. This version may have eclipsed the original 1997 song (I have written about this before).

The soundtrack to “Fame” features 6 songs that made my personal chart. “Fame” and “Out Here On My Own” ended up on my re-vamped 1980 year-end list at numbers 34 and 159 respectively. Linda Clifford’s dance stomper “Red Light” was #83 that year. On this list, Irene Cara shows up again with “Hot Lunch Jam” (#29) and Paul McCrane’s ballad “Dogs In The Yard” at #22. The actor spent 11 years as the caustic Dr. Robert Romano on the TV series “ER”. Ironically we watched the movie last weekend (at least most of it) and alas, it felt dated.

Numbers 2 and 3 on the list are also ballads, “Time” by Alan Parsons Project and “You Could’ve Been With Me” by Sheena Easton. “Time” comes from my favorite album of 1981 “Turn Of A Friendly Card” (though released in November 1980). The melancholy of this song is quite powerful, but the delivery is understated and graceful. The lyric “Goodbye my love, maybe for forever” exemplifies the force of this song. 7 songs from the album show up in my top 100 of the year.

Here was a band that also incorporated orchestral tones to their music. The instrumental “The Ace Of Swords” (#26) is certainly one of those songs though the entire album is orchestral in nature. “May Be A Price To Pay” (#57) opens the concept album about gambling and its addictive quality. “Games People Play” (#36) gave the ensemble their first top 15 Pop hit, reaching number 12. “Time” was the follow-up single and reached number 7. Side two featured the “Turn Of A Friendly Card Suite” which was actually 5 separate tracks. Along with ‘Swords’ “Snake Eyes (#71) and ”The Turn Of a Friendly Card” Parts 1 & 2 come in at #93 and #94.

Parsons was a producer and engineer who worked on albums like “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” and with Pop bands like Pilot whose major stateside hit was “Magic” in 1975, the basis for the “Oh Oh Oh Ozempic” commercials. David Paton. the lead singer of Pilot was a vocalist on the first 4 albums by the project whose core was Parsons and Eric Woolfson, The rest were a revolving stable of musicians. Their first album from 1976, “Tales Of Mystery and Imagination” features all the members of both Pilot and Ambrosia and is based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

The young British vocalist Sheena Easton had arrived in the States in early 1981 with the Hot 100 number one song “Morning Train (9 to 5)” (#119). The title of that song was originally just “9 To 5” in the UK but was changed for the American market because Dolly Parton’s song of the same name (#35) was out concurrently. The Easton song feels dated and suffers on my year-end list because of that while Dolly’s song seems timeless. Easton had quite a year, by the end of 1981 she had 4 songs make the Pop top 15 including the James Bond theme “For Your Eyes Only” and the gorgeous “You Could Have Been With Me”. I feel this single was the first one to show the dynamics of her voice. The vocal soars on the chorus. Both “Time” and “You Could Have Been With Me” stand up as classics to me, untouched by the ravages of time. Ironically, they both reached #7 on the Pop chart and #15 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

By the time the Moody Blues song “Gemini Dream” (#4) came out as the lead single from their number 1 and tenth album “Long Distance Voyager” it seemed it was never clear what type of song they would click with. The progressive rock band from the UK were another group to heavily use orchestration in their music, most famously on “Nights In White Satin” a song from 1967 that became a bonafide hit in 1972 with a re-release. That happened because a Washington D.C. DJ used the song as his sign-off. Listeners wanted to know what it was and started requesting it and a hit was born. Kind of an early version of a song going viral. The album it came from, “Days Of Future Passed”, saw a resurrection as well and the next Moody Blues release “Seventh Sojourn” was also a number 1 album in the States.

The lead single from that album, the rocker “I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock and Roll Band)” hit number 12 on the Hot 100, as did “Gemini Dream”. ‘Dream’ seemed an anomaly for the band, a throbbing, infectious and almost danceable Pop-Rock song (at actually peaked at #36 on the Billboard Dance Chart). The song was followed by the seemingly more popular “The Voice” (#155). In looking at my chart reference books “The Voice” was number 1 for 4 weeks on the newly created Rock Tracks Chart in Billboard while ‘Dream’ only reached #13. ‘Dream’ performed better on the Hot 100 where “The Voice” peaked at number 15. On the Radio & Records Pop chart, both songs peaked at number 6.

The orchestral theme plays out again (weird) on my #5 of the year, “Joan Crawford” by Blue Oyster Cult. The first 40 seconds of that song sound like a piece from a piano concerto. The song inspired by “Mommie Dearest” then turns into a straightforward rock song, but definitely a fun one. It received moderate Rock radio airplay, but the video was banned by MTV because of a sexually-explicit scene. You can find it on YouTube. The lead single from the album “Fire Of Unknown Origin”, “Burnin’ For You” (#51), reached number 1 on the Rock chart and number 40 on the Hot 100. Lead singer Eric Bloom is Howard Stern’s cousin.

The group was considered a Hard Rock band bordering on Heavy Metal though these songs are less heavy and they did score a Pop top 10 song in 1976 with “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”. The more metal AC/DC were coming off their breakthrough year in 1980 and the title track from the album “Back In Black” (#65) was a holdover from the previous year. Because of that success, their 1976 album “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” saw a re-release in March 1981, the title track (#186) saw top 5 placement on the Rock Tracks Chart but the tongue-in-cheek and clever “Big Balls” (#27) was an album fav as well. The album featured the original lead singer Bon Scott, who passed away in early 1980 from a drug overdose.

AC/DC were on the verge of stardom with the 1979 album “Highway to Hell” and considered disbanding following his death but instead recruited vocalist Brian Johnston as his replacement. “Back In Black” was released during the summer, less than 6 months after Scott’s death, and kept their momentum going. The resurgence of ‘Dirty Deeds’ however, was felt to hamper the follow-up to ‘Black’, “For Those About To Rock We Salute You”. Though it reached number one on the Billboard 200, ‘Dirty Deeds’ which reached number 3 outsold it. Nothing to worry about in the end, AC/DC are one of the most successful rock bands of the last 50 years.

Another band in the Hard Rock realm at the time was Canada’s Triumph. Fueled by the vocal dynamics of Rik Emmet, they had a strong run on the Billboard’s Rock Tracks Chart from 1979-1986 with 1981’s album “Allied Forces” their most successful. “Magic Power” (#31) was arguably their most popular song (number 8 Rock, Hot 100 number 51, and in Canada number 14). I certainly liked it at the time, but the song has a more powerful grip on me now with the lyric “I’ve got the magic power of music in me”. It resonates as a mantra in my life. Though I am not a performer, I have expressed that power in my own way through my 60 years. In 1982 the song “Say Anything” from “Allied Forces” would reach #1 on my personal chart and was #17 of the year back then. A funny anecdote that I came across on Wikipedia is that the first live performance Triumph did in the NYC area was at the Capitol Theater in my hometown of Passaic, NJ in 1980.

“The Night Owls” (#6) was a top 5 Pop song in late 1981 for Little River Band but I have a feeling a lot of people don’t remember it. Between 1978-1983 they scored 8 top 10 Pop hits in the States. While the Australian band’s albums performed better in their homeland as their career progressed the singles did infinitely better in the U.S. The album “Time Exposure” was produced by George Martin, famous for his work with the Beatles. They are definitely one of the most successful bands on my personal chart during that era. The 2 other singles from the album “Take It Easy On Me” and “Man On Your Mind” will do well on my re-vamped 1982 chart.

Another Australian band comes in at #10 on my re-vamped 1981 chart. “Welcome To The Universe” by Flash and the Pan has grown in stature over the years. The duo of Harry Vanda and George Young were in a mid-60’s band the Easybeats. They had one U.S. hit with “Friday On My Mind”, peaking at #16 in 1966. I remember this song more than that chart position would indicate. Wikipedia says Blue Oyster Cult did a cover of it, but I can’t find that. David Bowie also covered it on his 1973 album “Pinups” but I don’t recall that version.

Flash and the Pan are best known for the song “Hey St. Peter” which debuted on the Hot 100 on my birthday, July 28, in 1979. The last time I re-did that year’s chart it came in at #12. The 8:23 long ‘Universe’ has an atmospheric intro and outro but it’s the meat of the song that I love. It has a rolling piano line that is quite infectious. George Young is the older brother of Angus and Malcolm Young of AC/DC. George and Malcolm died less than a month apart in late 2017.

Boston was an early market for the song “Ah! Leah! (#7) by Donnie Iris. Cleveland and Pittsburgh were also early on the song. Its success in these cities helped Iris cement a 5-album deal with MCA Records who re-released the album in October 1980. The song would go on to hit number 29 on the Hot 100. On the inaugural Rock Tracks Chart dated March 21, 1981, it was number 19 but I suspect if the chart had debuted earlier, it would have been top 10, maybe even top 5. The song started out as an anti-war song(?!) and Iris and his songwriting partner were trying to come up with a Gregorian style chant for the song. They came up with ah Leah which led to the song becoming about a girl. In 1970 Iris was a member of the Jaggerz who had a Hot 100 number 2 with “The Rapper”, a song written by him. He also has my #32 song of 1981 with “That’s The Way Love Ought To Be”.

The San Francisco band The Tubes achieved their most commercial success to date in 9181 with the album “The Completion Backwards Principle”, garnering their first top 40 hit “Don’t Want To Wait Anymore” (#8) and the Rock Tracks top 10 “Talk To Ya Later” (#21). Before this, they were largely known for the 1975 song “White Punks On Dope” and their elaborate stage shows. In 1980, after their turn in the movie “Xanadu” on the rock/big band hybrid “Dancin’” (which I love), their label A&M dropped them. They were able to secure a contract with Capitol Records and aided by legendary producer David Foster, they made their mark on the radio in the early ‘80s.

To me at the time, the ballad “Don’t Want To Wait Anymore” seemed out of character. Now knowing Foster co-wrote and produced it makes complete sense. I can hear elements of 1980’s era Chicago in this song. ‘Later’ had virtually no involvement from band members other than vocalist Fee Waybill. Foster didn’t feel the album had an upbeat single and he enlisted Steve Lukather of Toto to help write a song with he and Waybill. ‘Later’, though just missing the Hot 100 at number 101, was a big hit largely because of MTV. A new musical force at the time, airplay on the cable music channel was never factored into the Hot 100, a big misstep in retrospect. Another fun ditty from the album, “Sushi Girl” (#81), was a favorite of mine at the time but I can’t recall if got any airplay. Fee Waybill has my #10 song of 2021 with the crunchy “Faker” from his 2020 release “Fee Waybill Rides Again”. He still sounds great at 71, at least on record.

Southern rockers 38 Special had a big year in 1981, finally breaking into the mainstream with “Hold on Loosely” (#9) and “Fantasy Girl” (#11). By this time, while not abandoning their roots, their sound evolved into a radio-ready sound that melded the sound of Foreigner and the like, with their southern style. Part of that was aided by the songwriting of Jim Peterik who helmed the ‘80s band Survivor. He co-wrote those 2 songs, plus 2 others on the album “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys”.

Donnie Van Zant was a co-founder of the band, the younger brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant. The lead vocalist on those 2 songs, Don Barnes, recorded a solo album “Ride The Storm” in 1989. It was not released because the label A&M was being sold. It finally surfaced in 2017. Going back to the Chicago reference, that album features a cover of one of my favorite songs by the band “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday”. This is a new find for me in 2022 and it sounds like 38 Special never left. Another Southern rock band from Florida (38 Special hails from Jacksonville), Tampa’s The Outlaws, brought their blistering car song “Devil’s Road” to #30 for the year, and the song “I Can’t Stop Loving You” just missed the top 200 at #202.

Though only a minor 2002 hit, Phil Collins’ version ‘Can’t Stop Loving You” hit number 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart and #8 on my weekly personal chart. In another instance of a song attaining greater heights than its Hot 100 peak would indicate, the Genesis front man’s first solo single “In The Air Tonight” (#40) only peaked at #19. It was huge on MTV and Rock radio and an international mega-hit. VH1 selected it as the number 35 song of the ‘80s. The production of the song owes a lot to the former leader of Genesis, Peter Gabriel, with its moody otherworldly feel. Gabriel shows up at #207 with “I Don’t Remember” and two other songs from Collins’ debut album “Face Value” made my top 200, “I Missed Again” (#107), and “Behind The Lines” (#163).

Foreigner, who were at the forefront of what was called arena rock at the time, absolutely has its place on my list. The song “Urgent” (#18) is the 1st to show up. They call the song a rock and soul hybrid, and I agree. The immediately recognizable intro was just a lick Mick Jones was toying with and Mutt Lange the producer (of AC/DC, Def Leppard and Shania Twain fame) helped him build a song around the riff. The album “4” was a pinnacle for the band, spending 10 weeks at number 1 on the Billboard 200. The title of the song came from the person who was the synthesizer programmer for the album, a lad named Thomas Dolby. He had a demo for a song where he sang ‘urges, urges” and Lange asked him if he could incorporate that into a song they were working on. The sax solo on the song was performed by Junior Walker. He with his band the All-Stars had a string of Pop and R&B hits from the mid-60s through the early ‘70s. The Motown artist’s 1st hit was “Shotgun” in 1965. Dolby wrote another song in my top 100 of 1981. “New Toy” (#76) was written specifically for Lene Lovich by Dolby after seeing her perform live.

“Waiting For A Girl Like You” (#144) had the distinction of spending 10 weeks at number 2 on the Hot 100 without ever hitting the top spot. It was held off by 9 weeks of Olivia Newton-John’s 10-week stay at the top with “Physical” (#83) and then Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go For That” in early 1982. On the list of top 100 songs from the 50th anniversary of the Hot 100, it placed at #80. “Jukebox Hero” (#128), the 3rd single from the album reached number 3 on the Rock Tracks chart in the summer of ’81, long before its single release in January 1982. The story song about a fan buying a guitar and wanting to become a star was a live highlight of the band and one of Lou Gramm’s favorite songs to do. In 2018 the band launched a show in Canadian theaters with the hopes of reaching Broadway titled “Juke Box Hero” featuring 16 of their songs. The connection between Pop music and musical theater has ramped up in the last 25 years but they all can’t be a win.

1981 was a benchmark year for arena rock with 4 bands seeing their most successful albums. Along with Foreigner, REO Speedwagon had the #1 selling album of 1981 with “Hi Infidelity” (their 9th album), while Styx’ “Paradise Theatre” (their 10th album) and Journey’s “Escape” (their 8th album) both hit number one on the Billboard 200. The REO and Journey albums both sold in excess of 10 million copies in the U.S. These 4 albums held the top spot on the Billboard 200 topped for 23 weeks of the calendar year.

7 songs from “Hi Infidelity” made my top 300 of the year, “Don’t Let Him Go” (#58), “Take It On The Run” (#64), and the Pop number 1 “Keep On Loving You” (#92) in the top 100. The Illinois band Styx used the famed Paradise Theatre in Chicago as the backdrop to a fictional concept album about its rise and fall. This one brought 6 songs to my top 250, another album with 3 in the top 100; “Rockin’ The Paradise (#28), “The Best Of Times (#66), and “Too Much Time On My Hands” (#82). That song was Tommy Shaw’s only lead vocal on a Pop top 10 song.

Journey’s now ubiquitous song “Don’t Stop Believin’ (#25) has now become an empowerment anthem of sorts and the best-selling digital track of the 20th century in the U.S. with over 7 million sold. Sports teams have regularly used it but its use in the final scene of “The Sopranos” and the initial episode of “Glee” are certainly huge factors. It was also used as the closing number in the musical “Rock Of Ages”. Elsewhere in my top 200 of 1981 are radio songs “Stone In Love” (#39), “The Party’s Over (Hopelessly In Love” (#52), “Who’s Crying Now” (#113), and album cuts “Keep On Runnin’” (145) and “Escape” (#158)

More musical theater connection here. Meat Loaf songwriter Jim Steinman got his start in that realm in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through” (#12) and the album it came from, “Bad For Good”, were intended to be the follow-up to the juggernaut “Bat Out Of Hell”. That album was developed from a musical Steinman had written in 1974 called “Neverland”, described as a “futuristic rock Version of Peter Pan”. Meat Loaf was having vocal problems and Steinman decided to release the follow-up it on his own. He sang on most of the tracks, though his voice was no match for the music. Rory Dodd sang lead on 3 tracks, including ‘Dreams’. Meat Loaf eventually recorded his version of the song in 1993 on “Bat Out Of Hell II”. The original (my preferred version) reached #14 on the Rock Tracks chart and went top 25 on the Radio & Records Pop chart. Meat Loaf’s peaked at #9 on the Pop chart in 1994. I don’t remember this at all. Steinman sadly died this year on my mom’s birthday, April 19.

Musical theater requires acting and singing (at least for most of the cast). Rick Springfield does both, but seemingly separately. On the acting side, he is best known for portraying Dr. Noah Drake on “General Hospital”. He debuted in that role in 1981 and attacked the Pop chart at the same with “Jessie’s Girl” (#13). This was a musical comeback for him. 9 years earlier the Australian reached number 14 on the Hot 100 with “Speak To The Sky”. They definitely did not play that on NYC radio from what I recall. “Jessie’s Girl” was number 1 on the Hot 100 when MTV launched on August 1, 1981. It took almost 5 months to reach the summit, a lengthy climb in the day. I was a big fan of the song and the other hits from his album “Working Class Dog”. The Sammy Hagar penned “I’ve Done Everything For You” (#70) and “Love Is Alright Tonite” my #25 of 1982. His brand of Pop-Rock even saw exposure at Rock radio, ‘Jessie’ reaching number 10. To say this song is iconic, well yes, is correct. On the creepy side of things, he dated Linda Blair in the ‘70s when he was 25 and she was 15 though they have remained friends.

Iconic applies to the duo of Daryl Hall & John Oates who had a comeback year in 1980-81 which led to them being the number 4 artist of the ‘80s and 39th overall artist of the Hot 100 era. The 1980 album “Voices” started off in a similar vein to the previous album “X-Static”; the lead single “How Does It Feel To Be Back”, with Oates as lead vocalist, peaked at #30 on the Hot 100, a downward trend from the lead single of the former album “Wait For Me” reaching number 18. The turnaround came with the next release, a cover of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. That brought the duo back to the Pop top 5.

An atypical thing happened with the third single from “Voices”. “Kiss On My List” (#18) would surpass ‘Feeling’ and go to the top of the Hot 100. They were recording their 10th album when it reached the summit. It is so much harder for an artist to amass that many albums in a decade now or even hold a contract for that long. That album’s title track, “Private Eyes” (#14) brought them to the top of the Hot 100 a second time in 1981. In-between the single “You Make My Dreams” (#38) was another top 5 hit. All three certainly are still in the zeitgeist and not forgotten. They have had myriad uses in media, television, and movies throughout the last 40 years.

Another song from “Voices” went to number 1 on the Hot 100, but by another artist. In 1985 Paul Young covered “Everytime You Go Away” reaching the top in May of that year. A track from “Private Eyes”, “Looking For A Good Time” (#98) made my top 100 for ’81 and 5 more in my top 300 from the 2 albums. More tracks would follow in 1982 like the earlier mentioned “I Can’t Go For That”.

Rounding out the Pop and Rock side of my top 25 was a Hot 100 anomaly and a legendary group. Delbert McClinton scored his sole Pop top 10 in early 1981 with “Giving It Up For Your Love” (#15). The 81-year-old Texas Blues Rock guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter has had a lengthy musical career, spanning 7 decades. ‘Love’ was a jangly, upbeat, horn-laden song that stood apart from other songs at the time. The b-side was the effervescent “My Sweet Baby” (#37) featuring some great blues guitar licks. It seems to me that would have been a great radio follow-up. The actual follow-up was “Shotgun Rider” a more conventional Country-Pop song, which stalled at number 70 on the Hot 100. Neither of those songs are available on Spotify but you can find them on YouTube.

The best performing artist on the Pop/R&B side of things was the Jacksons. Michael Jackson was having a banner year in 1980 with the album “Off The Wall” and even though he was the lead vocalist on the singles from the late 1980 album “Triumph” none of them reached the Pop top 10. “Lovely One” reached number 12 and “Heartbreak Hotel” (#16) peaked at number 22. At some point, the name of the song was changed to the ridiculous “This Place Hotel” to avoid confusion with Elvis Presley’s song of the same name from 25 years earlier. Again, ridiculous and Michael Jackson was actually unaware of the Presley song and did not even know the song’s name was changed. In addition to ‘Hotel’, “Can You Feel it” (#42) and “Walk Right Now” (#125) were all great dance floor fillers. “Can You Feel It” is another song (and kind of sports anthem) that I believe is more well-known and appreciated now than at the time.

Next up, the alternative side of 1981

By: Radio Tim 
Jan 12, 2022