There was a time in the early 80s when a good synthesizer and a weird haircut could make you a potential star on the fledgeling MTV. The synthesizer put endless sounds and effects at your fingertips: strings, drums, bass, keys, horns. You could literally become a one-man band – especially if you got one of those sweet portable ones with a strap that let you prowl the stage. Or, at least, your mom’s basement.
Of course, synths were nothing new. You heard them on “Here Comes The Sun” by the Beatles and “Living For The City” by Stevie Wonder, for starters. But synthesizer-based music seemed to really dominate in the 80s.
As an anodyne electronic instrument, it was perfectly suited for capturing a certain “coolness” in an era defined by Reagan, acquisition (#yuppies), and mindless, shiny style. Jan Hammer made his name by composing the theme to the 80s TV hit, Miami Vice — which launched a million dudes wearing Armani suits with loafers but no socks.
From Devo to Human League, Gary Numan to Prince, synthesizer-based tracks defined the 80s, and as such, we got dozens of memorable songs from that decade. Here are a few worth recalling.
ALPHAVILLE: Forever Young
The German trio recorded this ode to youth and aging (not to be confused with the Dylan track of the same name) not once, not twice, but three different times. There are various other dance mixes and it even appears in the 2004 movie Napoleon Dynamite. While it didn’t do much on the charts (although a bit better in Europe than the US), the synth riffs (a mix of joy and melancholy) are instantly recognizable.
PETER GABRIEL: Shock the Monkey
This was Gabriel’s first Top 40 hit in the US. He took the relentless synthesizer hooks and “warmed” them up a bit with a dance rhythm and repetitive vocal that you couldn’t forget. And, as he would do so often in years to come, the video was…well, all Gabriel.
PETE SHELLEY: Homosapien
Shelley wrote this in 1974 a few years before he formed the Buzzcocks. He saved it for his first solo album in ’81, adding pulsing, beeping synthesizers that conveyed the driving urgency of his message about seeing beyond labels. Despite being banned by the BBC for its supposed reference to gay sex (not what Shelley intended), the song’s hypnotic beat made it a favorite among renegade New Wave deejays.
THOMAS DOLBY: Europa
Dolby was sort of the godfather of 80s synth, introducing himself to the MTV audience by way of the goofy video for “She Blinded Me With Science.” “Europa and The Pirate Twins” was inspired by World War II and how the era overwhelmed relationships at the time; Andy Partridge of XTC shows up on harmonica. In 1982, the song reached #37 on the Billboard rock chart.
HOWARD JONES: What Is Love
Howard Jones was such a talented pianist that he once gave kids in the neighborhood private lessons – while he was still a kid. Even on synth, his ear for melody can be heard on hits like “No One Is To Blame” and “Things Can Only Get Better.” “What Is Love” was Jones’ second single, released in 1983. He’s stated that he didn’t want to write the typical love song – and his use of the synthesizer creates a moodier, darker vibe around the perennial song topic.
What are some of your favorite 80s synth tracks? Spill ’em in the comments!
Photo: Howard Jones (Getty)