1983 was one of those years. Michael Jackson was huge and the way everyone talked about it, he was a global cultural phenomenon like none before him. With Michael being Michael, everything else about music felt a little bigger. It felt like we were all looking for the things that were bigger than just hits. We were looking for magic.
Or maybe there wasn’t anything special about it. Maybe it was just the fact that I was 11 and the things that are big when you’re 11 make a big imprint on you. Michael made the world of music into something bigger than an 11 year-old could wrap his head around.
Let’s change it up this week. Instead of five songs from the top five of July 1983, here are five songs from the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending July 23, 1983——the end of the fourth week of July. There’s a lot of that year’s hits on the charts that month, lots of songs I could write about. I’m going to stick to ones I liked or that had an impact on me.
5. “Beat It” by Michael Jackson
By July this former #1 song (it ruled the charts for three weeks in April and May) only came in at #53. No matter. As part of the Thriller album that made Michael into Michael, it still has never gone away. “Billie Jean” was the bigger hit record, but “Beat It” was the more interesting video——with its street gang subplot——and more interesting song——with Michael going rock and guitar work by the master himself, Eddie Van Halen.
4. “1999” by Prince
It was released in fall 1982 and had made it to #44 on the Hot 100 by Christmas. Re-released in 1983, the song reached #12 in July, its peak position on the charts. The album 1999 was Prince’s first with his band the Revolution and, in many ways, it was the start of the cultural wonder that he would become. While I would always be a bigger fan of his earlier album Dirty Mind, 1999 was the kind of new sound that was undeniable and mesmerizing. The song is iconic, as is the video. For me, it was the start of a “Highlander”-like (“there can be only one”) contest between Michael and Prince. You had to be either. But there was no way not to love both.
3. “Rock of Ages” by Def Leppard
It came in at #22 in July, a few steps shy of its peak position. It was the song my friends and I loved from the album Pyromania, produced by the legendary rock guru Mutt Lange. 1983 was the year of Ozzy’s Bark at the Moon, Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind, Metal Health by Quiet Riot, and Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil. I was awash in rock and new metal. “Rock of Ages” was a song some people made fun of (and still do).
It was a song I felt I didn’t need to justify. I just liked it. And, after all, it’s better to burn out than to fade away!
2. “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie
David Bowie was a legend to many before I ever heard of him. It’s still an odd thing to me that he became a known figure to me in 1983 because he was experiencing his biggest commercial success with his album Let’s Dance. I’d later become semi-obsessed with his Ziggy Stardust work but at 11 his Nile Roger’s produced pop sounded pretty damn good. This title song peaked at #1 in May for only one week and dropped to #67 by the end of July, far behind his climbing single “China Girl.” The vocals here still grab me in ways the other tracks never did. (The closing guitar was by Stevie Ray Vaughan.)
1.”Puttin’ on the Ritz” by Taco
There are so many good songs that came out in 1983 and this is not one of them. But I was only 11 so my taste can be forgiven. This cover of a 1927 song written by Irving Berlin (once famously recorded by Fred Astaire) hit the #33 spot in July on its way to #4 two months later. Performed and interpreted by an Indonesian-born Dutch singer named Taco, the song was a hit with everyone I knew. We joked about the singer’s name in my house, me and my friends would break dance to the song (it was not a typical break dance song), and it was one of those collective musical experiences of the time. The synthpop sound and simple video were made for the early MTV era. I don’t remember any controversy from the use of blackface in the original video, although it was apparently edited out of later versions.