Music is magic. I think of all those times, especially in my youth, when I could put on a record and a pair of headphones, close my eyes, and go somewhere, somewhere that was different that where I was, somewhere where I was different.
Before music can do that, you have to establish a relationship with it. It has to become so much a part of you that it feels like its there for you and you alone. That relationship takes time. The first phase of it, for me, was discovery. I wasn’t ready to go where music could take me. Maybe I didn’t need it yet to take me anywhere. But I started to discover the existence of other places in the music I heard. Far away places. Sometimes even scary places.
I remember learning about the existence of new places, through music, in 1981. It wasn’t all at once; it was a process that lasted for years. As a memory, it fits nicely into the ways I think of those early years of the decade, that is, as years of transition. Part of that is hindsight but some of that was in my 9-year-old mind, too.
We were not a Reagan household. The start of the Reagan presidency felt like an end to how I understood the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate 70s. We saw Raiders of Lost Ark at the Cinerama Dome for me and my sister’s birthday. It felt like a grown-up movie in the visual violence, but one that was made just for me in every other way. At the end of the year, Muhammad Ali retired from boxing, after losing to Trevor Berbick.
The feeling of transition is in the music, too. All times are eclectic, musically, but the early 80s were richly so. Disco flavors from the Village People; Earth, Wind, & Fire; and the Commodores were still around. The Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, and John Lennon continued to make the charts. So did Phil Collins, Rick Springfield, and Juice Newton. And heavy metal continued to grow and grow…
5. “Bette Davis Eyes” (Kim Carnes)
Some songs become hits and then never really go away. This isn’t one of those songs. Kim Carnes reached the top of the charts with this distinctive pop tune in 1981. It finished the year as the most successful single of the year, in addition to the biggest hit of her career. The synthesizer sounds and her raspy voice are what made it a hit, and continue to make it an interesting song now. That it’s largely faded from mainstream radio makes it feel less played out that most hits of the decade. At the time, I remember thinking of it as grown-up, maybe because of the title.
4. “Watching the Wheels” (John Lennon)
This posthumous hit from the legendary musician is really good song. There’s a beauty to it that rests in his middle-aged maturity, a period that really never lasted all that long. It is a bittersweet song, too, released as it was after his December 1980 assassination. The sound of it carries that loss for me, even now. Even though his death wasn’t a profoundly tragic thing for me personally, I knew it was a big deal for everyone else. That realization, and the messiness and confusion of a world where he could be shot dead, are all in this song when I hear it.
3. “Super Freak” (Rick James)
“Super Freak” is soooo 80s. It’s so sexy, crazy, indulgent, offensive, stupid, excessive, funky, and tasty. It’s so, so much of so, so much. How odd that a song could be played at the skating rink, inspiring a bunch of kids to skate in circles, and simultaneously be about a whole bunch of non-kid things. I knew that it was about “adult matters” as a kid, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what those could be at the time. It deserves to be considered as more than sexy trash. Rick James had been hard at work in the world of R&B, soul, and funk for a long time. The song was more than a hit, it was influential. The bass line alone paved the way for a line of copycats. But the hubris of the post-disco, pre-AIDS 80s is also there, all over the place.
2. “Tom Sawyer” (Rush)
Rush is mighty, mighty business. I’ve seen them in concert and they’re as impressive live as they are on record. Three people making all this rich, thick, rock sound. Their complex virtuosity and their lyrical fantasy vibe made them one of “those bands” for a lot of youth older than me. Albums like 1981’s Moving Pictures had a greater mainstream appeal than their earlier work, resulting in a 9-year-old, barrio kid like me learning who they were. There were some skater teenagers around town–hair over the eyes, Vans, and cigarettes–who loved them. They would play them out front of the community center near my grade school. They sounded interesting, magical, and scary to me all at the same time. The drums are a big part of that. Neil Peart is kind of untouchable as a drummer. Alex Lifeson’s licks, and Geddy Lee’s bass, vocals, and keyboards, all round it out.
1. “Crazy Train” (Ozzy Osbourne)
There’s this time before the mid-80s when heavy metal seems more bottom-up than top-down, at least from a corporate angle. That’s probably not true, but there clearly was something lost when big-hair glam rock went Top 40 with bands like Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi. Because of Black Sabbath and the persona that he cultivated over more than a decade in rock, Ozzy seemed like something more pure than what came after. Truth be told, he probably paved the way for that mainstream metal thing to happen. After all, he was as much image as rock. He played the market like no other. Hell, Blizzard of Oz was probably the biggest metal album in history, for its time.
“Crazy Train” is known today as the song of (and now for) metal guitarist Randy Rhoades. Rhoades was a great guitar player, and every little bit of his talent is here for eternity. When Rhoades died in a plane crash in 1982, he became a legend, the kind of guy that became greater in death and inspired countless more to become heavy metal guitarists. It’s not an underserved status. The song is one of the best metal songs in history, and Rhoades is the reason. The fact that it stands the test of time is proof of its greatness. Even now it sounds like it’s from a different, more current time than 1981. It’s a standout song on the album, too. Almost so good it makes the rest seem like something less.
For me in 1981, Ozzy was scary. That seems silly to me now, especially knowing that groups like Slayer were emerging at the same time. But then, in my mind, Ozzy was something that teenagers who were up to no good listened to. He was something related to the devil. But I listened to him, too. Saturday nights, on my Toshiba radio that I bought with the money we made from recycling newspapers, there was a station that played LA metal bands in addition to the bigger hits. This was pre-KNAC, the LA/Long Beach metal station of the late 80s. Whatever the station was, I felt like it was some sort of sneak peak into a world that I found interesting and kind of repulsive at the same time.
Here’s a live performance, with Randy Rhoades in all his glory: