The Year in Music: 1983

Michael Jackson led the charge as America woke up to black music. New groups hit it big on the radio, and record labels bowed before MTV.

Michael Jackson, 'Thriller', released on December 2nd, 1983. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

In 1983, probably the most significant year in music since the polar ascendancies of punk and disco in 1977, only Michael Jackson had things pretty much figured out. His scenario for Thriller looked something like this: satisfy the black/urban-contemporary audience at the year's outset with the dance-club-styled "Billie Jean." Then, as LP sales hit 2 million, launch a major assault on the whites-only land of MTV and album-oriented radio (AOR) with "Beat It," a rock & roll slammer that features a blazing Eddie Van Halen guitar solo and is accompanied by an invigorating video directed by Miller Lite lensman Bob Giraldi.

It was a smart plan, but it didn't work. It didn't have to. There was simply no resisting "Billie Jean" — that pile-driving bass line, that soaring vocal and that magnificent Steve Barron video, each frame of which is a further testament to Jackson's amazing talent as a dancer. With charges of racism already filling their ears, MTV and AOR were facing heavy pressure to air "Billie Jean." In March, MTV finally blinked: The week that "Billie Jean" hit Number One, the honchos at the 24-hour cable channel reversed their earlier stance and added the video to their playlist. Why? Out of the goodness of their hearts? Or because CBS Records Group president Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull each and every CBS video off the channel if they didn't? No matter: The door that blocked black artists from getting exposure on rock & roll TV and radio stations had been kicked down by the industry's most talented foot. Nothing was the same after that.

The immediate effect of Jackson's breakthrough was to boost the sales of Thriller into the stratosphere. The 25-year-old's second solo LP for CBS became the biggest-selling album in the history of CBS Records. By November, it had sold 16 million copies worldwide and 10 million in the U.S. alone. It had also become the first nonsoundtrack LP to spawn five Top Ten singles: "The Girl Is Mine," "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Wanna Be Starting Something" and "Human Nature," with "P.Y.T." looking to make it six.

Jackson's showing was the high-water mark of a good — not a great — year for the music industry, a rebound of sorts from 1981 and 1982. Other megawinners of '83 included the Police, whose triple platinum (sales of 3 million) album even had the temerity to bump Thriller from the Number One slot. Led by the undeniably charismatic figure of bassist-vocalist Sting, the Police undertook a massive summer tour of the U.S. that included some of the most stirringly effective stadium shows in recent memory. Into the typical sex-appeal-plus-chops rock-star equation, Sting added a disquieting note of ultimate alienation: the sight of him wailing the plangent "So Lonely" in front of 60,000 cheering, dancing fans couldn't help but stick in your mind, no matter how arrogant he otherwise seemed. Ironic — and touching, too — was that despite the frequent references to the complexities of the Police's music, the group built the year's biggest single, "Every Breath You Take," around a simple I-IV-V progression and a limpid, heart-hurt lyric.

The other artist who attracted significant attention from old and new fans alike was David Bowie. The chameleonic showman inked a multimillion-dollar pact with EMI-America at the beginning of the year and promptly delivered Let's Dance, an album that sold 1.5 million copies and produced two Top Ten singles. On his world tour — reputed by some to be the biggest-grossing rock excursion — Bowie happily unveiled a new, "normal" image. To be taken, one imagines, with Lot's wife.

But in a year full of successes and trends, from the Aussie Invasion to the Tide of Technopop, the crossover of Jackson's "Billie Jean" was the most important. It exposed black music to a white rock & roll audience for the first time in the post-disco era; it led to the collapse of AOR and its consultants; and it signified the utter primacy of MTV.

In the wake of "Billie Jean," a number of black artists notched major hits. Caribbean performer Eddy Grant scored with a Number Two single, "Electric Avenue," and a gold LP. Donna Summer, who couldn't crack AOR in '82 with a Bruce Springsteen song, "Protection," nailed a crossover classic with "She Works Hard for the Money," a Michael Omartian-produced throwback to her Giorgio Moroder-Pete Bellotte glory days. Prince's guitar-heavy, synth-fried 1999 had already gone gold before rock stations opened their eyes. After white radio and MTV came around, 1999's "Little Red Corvette" and "Delirious" became Top Ten singles, and the pint-size founder of the "Minneapolis sound" was starting to look like the most influential music man of the Eighties so far.

The commercial triumph of black music finished off an ossified rock-radio establishment that had already been mortally wounded by what became known as the British Invasion, but what was, more accurately, the Tide of Technopop: fresh-faced Brit clotheshorses who made hit singles out of catchy synthesizer hooks (Hey, anybody can play these things!) and soulful, legato melody lines. And hit singles is what they were: Culture Club notched three Top Ten 45s before their first album went platinum; Eurythmics bagged a Number One single with "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," but the album of the same name didn't even sell 500,000 copies. No wonder the Recording Industry Association of America's certifications for singles were up, while gold and platinum albums decreased in number.

Hits by these groups and others like them — Spandau Ballet, Men Without Hats — reassembled the all-but-forgotten Top Forty coalition of male and female older teens and adults, with a healthy dollop of MTV'd prepubes tossed into the bargain. AOR flagships like New York's WPLJ and Boston's WCOZ turned to a hits format that varied widely in its choice of music.

These developments appeared to baffle rock radio's consultants, who had their roughest year since the Seventies. The Kent Burkhart-Lee Abrams consultancy decreed that all its stations file away their Led Zep LPs and play 80 percent "new music," but that formula came under a firestorm of flak from stations still wearing out copies of Doors albums. Not surprisingly, Lee Abrams reworked his edict in the autumn. AOR hardliner John Sebastian seemed a woeful specter of his researching self when he moaned this summer about the great job he could do with an MTV-style television program, if someone would give him the chance.

As for MTV, it continued to show that it knows a pretty face when it sees one. Many had hoped that the channel would win some commercial success for such critics' darlings as Dave Edmunds and Graham Parker, to name just two. But 1983 showed more clearly than ever that MTV sells looks at least as much as sound. Perhaps its greatest achievement was to create a rock & roll format as attractive to young women — virtually disenfranchised in AOR's heyday — as to young men. The same sort of audience that had lifted the Monkees to their heights now was responsible for the staggering success enjoyed by Duran Duran, airbrushed guitareens whose Anglofunk, visually set in exotic locales, yielded one platinum album (Rio) and caused their 1981 debut album to finally go gold.

In a year full of successes and trends, the crossover of 'Billie Jean' was the most important, as it led to the collapse of AOR and signified the primacy of MTV.

But MTV also helped put across albums recorded by the raspy-voiced, rugged-looking Vancouver native Bryan Adams and, most notably, Def Leppard, which became the first heavy-metal band ever to develop a truly substantial following among women. Their tough-boy English looks, displayed in some energetic videos, catapulted Pyromania into the thin air of the charts, where it stayed for much of the year, selling 5 million copies. In the realm of ear-bleed rock, the Leps outsold AC/DC, Robert Plant and newcomers Quiet Riot (another MTV find).

One of MTV's first discoveries, Men at Work, released their second album, Cargo, to a platinum reception, and eager trend-spotters sought to put them in the lead of what was yawningly termed the Aussie Invasion. Such down-unders as Mental as Anything, INXS, Midnight Oil and the ferocious Divinyls did leave their axe-slamming marks. But this was less a thematic invasion than a host of bar bands going for the big score. The most innovative Australian efforts were apparently reserved for Newport, Rhode Island.

It was late in the year before a host of rock & roll megaliths were heard from, but many of their releases proved to be worth the wait. Best of the bunch was Bob Dylan's stunning Infidels, a high-voltage collection free of dogma and packed with the raw emotion and intriguing language that have always separated Dylan from his imitators. Almost as hard to resist were the clanging guitar sounds that fired the Rolling Stones' latest, Undercover. Gentler souls could be content with Paul McCartney's tame Pipes of Peace or Paul Simon's Hearts and Bones, the LP that was to have been a Simon and Garfunkel reunion album entitled Think Too Much. Other standbys who held steady commercially in '83 included Bob Seger, Journey and those hits-in-their-sleep Philly boys, Daryl Hall and John Oates.

But lost in the gushy prose about the bounce-back of the record industry was the surprising number of disappointing performances by some of the business's most enduringly popular artists. Albums from Styx (Kilroy Was Here), Jackson Browne (Lawyers in Love), Pink Floyd (The Final Cut), Christopher Cross (Another Page), Rick Springfield (Living in Oz) and Joan Jett (Album) all failed to live up to the success of their previous outings. A Flock of Seagulls' second LP was the year's biggest technoflop. Worse still were the bombs dropped by Elton John (his Too Low for Zero couldn't scratch the Top Thirty) and Rod Stewart (his gold-lamé lameout, Body Wishes, sank like a rock after hitting Number Twenty-Six). And while the Flashdance soundtrack LP was one of the year's spiffiest sellers, not even the yeoman efforts of Frank Stallone could redeem the Bee Gees treacle that was the Staying Alive LP.

Many of those disappointments were on Warner Bros., which continued to have trouble breaking new acts not in the commercial mainstream. Small wonder, then, that while CBS was registering a $64.9 million profit increase for the first half of '83, Warner Communications' music division took a $6 million dip.

For many record companies, it was a year for consolidation, especially in the area of record distribution. Chrysalis saved its embattled label by turning over its distribution to CBS. Arista did the same with RCA, and Motown ankled its independent distribution and hooked up with MCA. Those moves looked like small change, though, next to the proposed merger between Warner Communications and PolyGram. Upon learning of this intended wedding of the titans, Yetnikoff sounded as though he had Bill Agee and Mary Cunningham holding on line three, as he publicly vowed to cruise around for his own acquisitions. And the industry continued to seethe with rumors that the long-squelched story of independent record promoters — who are paid to get songs on the radio — was about to blow sky-high. Payola, part two? Stay tuned.

So much for the dollar signs. Where, you ask, was the year's cutting edge? It's a good way to start an argument. For the first time in a long while, the most exciting and challenging music did not seem to be emanating from inner-city dance clubs. Nothing in rap music, for example, rivaled "Planet Rock," "The Message" or, for that matter, "Murphy's Law." Indeed, under the tutelage of their manager-producer, label president Sylvia Robinson, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five embarked on an almost embarrassingly lame series of "Message"-type material that received dim nods in both the clubs and the columns. By October, members of the group had filed suit to get off the Sugar Hill label.

Arthur Baker of Streetwise Records continued to be in demand for his production services — including one session with British gloom merchants New Order — but even he had his problems. His label's biggest coup appeared to come with the release of "Candy Girl" by New Edition, a young-teen Boston band whose lead singer, Ralph Tresvant, bore an uncommon vocal similarity to the young Michael Jackson. By July, though, the poor kid's voice was changing.

With the exception of the mondo sellers discussed earlier, much of black music seemed to swerve toward the middle of the road this year, as Al Jarreau, Jeffrey Osbourne and James Ingram chalked up creamy, tame hits. Not bad for what they were, perhaps, but none was as thrilling as Michael Jackson — there he is again — reunited with the Jackson Five on the 25th-anniversary Motown TV special, crooning an impossibly soulful "I'll Be There." Lionel Richie remained king of the cash register with his zesty "All Night Long (All Night)," which was a pleasantly energetic departure for the Johnny Mathis of the Eighties.

Sure, there were American acts who were worth watching. Longtime critical favorite T-Bone Burnett issued Proof Through the Night, a searing catalog of personal, political and spiritual concerns fused with his oddball perspective. And though their lyrics may be impenetrable, R.E.M.'s jangly, energized guitar lines made Murmur and "Radio Free Europe" some of the year's best listening.

But the next big thing really did seem to be coming from the other side of the Atlantic — only they weren't lugging synthesizers, and most of 'em weren't English. They were Scottish, Irish and Welsh, and they played electric guitars. They were the Alarm, blasting out songs with the fervor — and without the dogma — of the early Clash; they were Big Country, twin axes wailing away like bagpipes run amok. Above all, they were U2, combining the energy and commitment of punk with the moral concerns of Bruce Springsteen (unheard from in '83). These were young but surprisingly savvy bands, eager to use the power of guitar-fueled live shows but conscious of the responsibility that goes with that power. Some dubbed it nouveau rock, others called it positive punk. What it really seemed like was hero rock, music with a life-affirming point of view put across by performers of uncommon determination. All three of these bands absolutely leveled their U.S. audiences this year. Theirs is a rare source of energy — one that will, in the months to come, be increasingly hard to ignore. And you know that can't be bad.