The 1980s were a mixed bag for veteran rock artists. While many experienced some of their greatest success – often thanks to the recently launched MTV helping them reach new audiences – others struggled to maintain their artistic relevance. Yet another subset straddled both categories, hitting the mark commercially but sometimes finding their aesthetic sense of direction challenged in the process. A common thread, one which transcended stylistic preferences or record sales, was that these artists often found themselves at least temporarily adopting different approaches to their music than those that made them famous. Sometimes, these were minor tangents, such as Billy Joel forgoing piano for guitar on 1986’s A Matter of Trust, but many took the shape of entire albums that were memorable outliers in the artist’s history.
Paul McCartney – McCartney II (1980)
With each of the former Beatles having had multiple #1 singles on their own after the band’s break up, saying that Paul McCartney had the most commercially successful career after the group broke up represents an especially high bar. Just as his first self-titled solo album overlapped slightly with the Beatles’ dissolution, McCartney II was recorded as Wings started unwinding. In contrast to the more traditional pop-rock approach taken with Wings, McCartney II emphasized electronics, yielding one of the most experimental records released by a rock legend. Though a live recording of the opening track, “Coming Up,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980, the synthesizer-driven “Temporary Secretary” is more representative of its approach. A cult favorite, McCartney occasionally plays the song in concert in favor of some of his biggest hits.
Yes – 90125 (1983)
Because they remained popular throughout the 1970s, despite a series of major lineup changes, Yes as a musical brand largely trumped any individual member’s importance to the group. This approach fell to Earth with the 1980 album Drama and its accompanying tour, where departed Yes mainstays Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman were replaced by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of the Buggles. The duo behind “Video Killed the Radio Star” wasn’t an obvious fit for Yes, but Drama contained some interesting new material, and the tour was well attended until fans realized the difference and the group soon disbanded. In the aftermath, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White teamed up with South African musician Trevor Rabin and former Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye, forming a band called Cinema. When Squire enlisted Jon Anderson as lead singer, the group resumed the Yes moniker, though the Cinema name lived on in a Grammy Award-winning instrumental of that name that started the second side of their 1983 album 90125. Produced with Trevor Horn, 90125 offered more tightly structured songs with a multi-layered, harder rock approach, foremost among them “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” The song, which started with a demo by Trevor Rabin, went to #1 in the US, and despite its stylistic contrast with the band’s other material was played by Jon Anderson throughout his 2023 Yes – Epics and Classics tour.
Stevie Nicks – Rock a Little (1985)
After the organic rock sound of her first solo album, Bella Donna, Stevie Nicks started featuring synthesizers more prominently in her music, starting with “Straight Back” on Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage and her 1983 hit “Stand Back,” the latter inspired by Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”
This approach reached its peak – or nadir, depending on one’s taste – with the 1985 album Rock A Little. With her personal and professional relationships with producer Jimmy Iovine fractured, Nicks enlisted new collaborators, including writer-producer Rick Nowels – whose later credits include songs for Belinda Carlisle and Dido – to finish the album. “I Can’t Wait,” which Nowels co-wrote with Nicks, and “Talk To Me” – by Chas Sanford, one of the co-writers for John Waite’s “Missing You” – were both hits, and the album was certified platinum.
Nevertheless, these songs sounded more constructed than crafted, foreshadowing a lengthy period where Nicks found herself further disconnected from the aspect of music closest to her heart, her songwriting.
Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982) and Tunnel of Love (1987)
Even more so than Born to Run, 1980’s The River was the album that established Bruce Springsteen as a major rock star. Springsteen’s first #1 album included not only his first Top 10 single, “Hungry Heart,” but also reflective pieces like the title track – and was a prelude to the impact of 1984’s Born in the USA.
Beyond the cultural ubiquity facilitated by seven Top 10 hits, Born in the USA changed his standing from star to icon. As important as the E Street Band was to his success, Springsteen followed each of those group albums with more low-key records that put the focus more directly on his songwriting. “Atlantic City,” from the 1982 album Nebraska, and the title track from 1987’s Tunnel of Love are just two highlights from these side-steps.
The Traveling Wilburys – Traveling Wilburys Volume 1 (1988)
Very few rock legends had a more complicated path in the 1980s than Bob Dylan. Despite releasing the well-received album Infidels in 1983 and successful tours with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, by 1988 Dylan was perceived as being past his prime, a possibility the artist himself admitted in his fact-based memoir Chronicles. Before the decade’s end, he refuted this perception on a number of fronts. After displaying renewed engagement with his songs in his summer 1988 concerts, Dylan returned to the top of the charts with a record that demonstrated that his songwriting acumen was undiminished.
According to legend, George Harrison, who had himself just returned to prominence with 1987’s Cloud Nine, needed to record a b-side for a new single, which led to an impromptu gathering of Harrison, Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and ELO leader Jeff Lynne. After his record company told him that the resulting song, “Handle With Care,” was too good for just a b-side, Harrison got the quintet back together to write and record enough songs for a full album, which was released under the pseudonym The Traveling Wilburys and became a surprise hit in the fall of 1988.
Of the three songs where Bob Dylan was the primary songwriter, two were standouts that showed him reconnecting with an under-appreciated aspect of his artistry, a wicked sense of humor. Where “Dirty World” ardently embraced double-entendres to create a song like Prince, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” found him looking closer to home for inspiration.
While the tongue-in-cheek tale of New Jersey residents on the wrong side of the law contained allusions to Bruce Springsteen, it also offered a playful spin on Dylan’s own sprawling narratives like “Hurricane” and “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky.”
Neil Young – This Note’s For You (1988)
Having ended the 1970s with the powerful Rust Never Sleeps, in the 1980s Neil Young released an eclectic series of albums, pursuing country and electronic styles along with the rock-oriented approach fans generally associate with him. The decidedly mixed reception to these records included a lawsuit against Young by Geffen Records for releasing non-commercial music, filed after the rockabilly album Everybody’s Rockin’ sold poorly. Label founder David Geffen ended up apologizing to Young, who finished the decade with the acclaimed Freedom, and the radio hit “Rockin’ in the Free World.” However, this perceived return to form was preceded by one more musical detour, This Note’s for You – a blues-rock excursion originally credited to Neil Young and the Bluenotes. MTV initially refused to play the album’s title song, Young’s send-up of artists pursuing corporate sponsorship, supposedly due to legal threats from Michael Jackson’s representatives objecting to the video’s depiction of a Jackson lookalike with their hair catching on fire.
Photo: Stevie Nicks (Getty Images)