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What Happened in 1981: The Music

By Edited Jun 9, 2015 0 0

The Hits of 1981: Watch the Videos!

MTV happens, music follows


Ronald Reagan, former Governor of California and Hollywood legend, became President of the US in 1981. The hostage crisis in Iran ended after 52 Americans spent 444 days  in captivity. In England Lady Di marries Prince Charles, Poland witnessed the rise of the Solidarity political movement, and the wreck of the Titanic was found on the North Atlantic ocean floor. Not only was it the year of the maiden voyage of the space shuttle, but 1981 saw the first IBM PC, and the beginning of Microsoft's domination of the market with MS-DOS. A product that we soon learned we couldn't live without was released - Post It Notes from 3M. And of course, there was something new to watch - and listen to - in the vast wasteland of television.

hits of 1981

What happened in 1981's music?

The top 5 worldwide hits and the top 100 for the year showed clear evidence of a further drift from dance and disco into new territory. John Lennon, Kim Carnes, Phil Collins, Stars on 45 and Soft Cell had the really big hits, while Blondie stretched the envelope with a reggae tinged hit (Tide Is High) and the first appearance of a rap in the top 100, Rapture. Dylan and the Stones marked time with the second-rate albums Shot of Love and Tattoo You, but U2 continued their ascent with October, their second record. A strange young man known as Price put out his second album too, and similarly broke new ground. But of course the biggest trend of 1981 was the arrival of MTV.

MTV is born
On August 1, 1981, MTV showed the first video of the new age, appropriately titled Video Killed the Radio Star. Apparently the idea of playing music videos to promote new music was just lying around waiting for the right entrepreneur to take it and run. There was plenty of older video material around to use at first, notably Beatles short and feature films made by those pioneers of the form. But as soon as the music network took off and the music business realized what was going on, the flood of video music began. Soon, it was a sign of rebellion to NOT make a video for a song to promote sales of records. Video disc jockeys (VJs) became stars overnight, and something strange happened: new music was connected to a visual form, and for MTV watchers it was impossible to hear a song without seeing the video mentally. Music added a dimension, and for many critics and music lovers it didn't seem like a very good idea.  But it didn't go away, not for a very long time - MTV was here to stay.

A Year for debuts
The number of first records from new wave and other artists in 1981 is truly mind-boggling. It was as if someone turned on a faucet and said let it flow, and debut albums came pouring out. Coincidentally - or not - all of these artists were in MTV heavy rotation as well within a year or so: Adam Ant, the Eurythmics, New Order, Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, Billy Idol, Wall of Voodoo, Level 42, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, the Church, and Soft Cell. A tough little group from Minneapolis called the Replacements released their first record, and refused to make videos for a long time, but actually sold more albums due to all the publicity from that stand. And great American bands like the Blasters and the Minutemen (D Boon was their guitarist, and now a member of the Forever 27 Club) debuted as well, showing that we had our own thing to do.


Women rock
Females had always been a part of rock and roll, but usually as singers, not as instrumentalists and songwriters (there are many notable exceptions of course, like Carole King and Carol Kaye). But the flood of new bands included all-girl groups like the Go-Gos, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts,  and the Bangles, who started playing but didn't record for a couple more years. Other exceptional rockers who happened to be women included Pat Benatar, Debbie Harry (with Blondie and solo), Chrissie Hynde (leading the Pretenders), and Stevie Nicks, going solo after Fleetwood Mac. Many New Wave and popular MTV bands included women, just in time for videos - who wants to see all those guys all the time, anyway? But seriously, it was a time of blossoming expansion into the previously male dominated world of rock and roll, and it was a wonderful thing to behold.


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