Home Music Music Lists

100 Best Albums of the Eighties

From synth pop and rap to metal and funk, 100 best albums of the Eighties selected by the editors of Rolling Stone

First 10 entries here span the Clash's polyglot punk, Prince's crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman.

This has been the first rock & roll decade without revolution, or true revolutionaries, to call its own. The Fifties witnessed nothing less than the birth of the music. The Sixties were rocked by Beatlemania, Motown, Phil Spector, psychedelia and Bob Dylan. The Seventies gave rise to David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, heavy metal, punk and New Wave.

In comparison, the Eighties have been the decade of, among other things, synth pop, Michael Jackson, the compact disc, Sixties reunion tours, the Beastie Boys and a lot more heavy metal. But if the past 10 years haven’t exactly been the stuff of revolution, they have been a critical time of re-assessment and reconstruction. Musicians and audiences alike have struggled to come to terms with rock’s parameters and possibilities, its emotional resonance and often dormant social consciousness.

The following survey of the 100 best albums of the Eighties, as selected by the editors of Rolling Stone, shows that the music and the values it stands for have been richer for the struggle. Punks got older and more articulate in their frustration and rage, while many veteran artists responded to that movement’s challenge with their most vital work in years. And rap transformed the face — and voice — of popular music.

The first 10 entries here span the Clash’s polyglot punk, Prince’s crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman. Further down the list, old-timers like Dylan, the Stones and Lou Reed hit new highs; Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. kicked out some serious streetwise jams; Metallica and Guns N’ Roses established new hard-rock beachheads; and Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and the Replacements offered definitive statements of postpunk angst. The embarrassment of riches on this list is all the more remarkable, since arthritic radio programming, corporate sponsorship and outbursts of racism and sexism in rap and metal have complicated rock’s present and raised fears for its future.

Best-of lists such as this one are by nature subjective. But rock in the Eighties was like that — lively, varied, contentious and, to some degree, inconclusive. Looking at the best rock has had to offer in the Eighties, it’s clear that there’s plenty of life left in the old beast yet. The next revolution may be just around the corner.

This feature was originally published in the November 16, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

8

R.E.M., ‘Murmur’

"We were conscious that we were making a record that really wasn't in step with the times," says R.E.M.'s Peter Buck of Murmur, the group's enchanting first album. "It was an old-fashioned record that didn't sound too much like what you heard on the radio. We were expecting the record company to say, 'Sorry, this isn't even a record, it's a demo tape. Go back and do it again.'"

For the most part, I.R.S. Records liked Murmur a great deal, and so did an audience that embraced R.E.M. as one of the most significant new bands of the Eighties. From the mysterious photograph of a kudzu-covered train station on the jacket to the intriguingly off-kilter music within, Murmur quietly broke with the status quo and mapped out an enigmatic but rewarding new agenda. There is nothing obvious or superficial about R.E.M.'s songs or the way the band chooses to play them. Meanings are hidden in a thicket of nonlinear imagery, with mumbled or distant vocals from Michael Stipe. Elliptical language occasionally jumps out in terse phrases such as "conversation fear" (from "9-9") as Murmur bypasses logic and goes straight for the subconscious — a state of altered awareness not unlike the rapid-eye-movement stage of dreaming from which the band took its name.

The members of R.E.M. incorporated elements of folk and country music into pop that was, by turns, bright and murky. Theirs was a quasi-traditional yet boundary-breaking sound that served as a blueprint for alternative bands throughout America for the rest of the decade.

Initially outcasts on the arty-party band scene spawned by the B-52's in their hometown of Athens, Georgia, the members of the group profess to draw more inspiration from Velvet Underground and the Byrds than from any of their contemporaries. They also claim to have learned a lot from Gang of Four and the English Beat, with whom they toured early on. "They taught us about what a rock & roll band could be, idealistically," says Buck.

Though the individual members weren't extraordinary technical musicians, the balance of personalities within R.E.M. made for a startling chemistry. "It was a unique combination of people, where there was enough tension and enough cohesiveness," says Don Dixon, who produced and engineered Murmur with fellow North Carolinian Mitch Easter. "There was a tremendous amount of energy and a lot of real subtle things going on." Buck's rhythmic strumming allowed Mike Mills to play melody lines on the bass and freed drummer Bill Berry from mere timekeeping. Drawing from his fertile imagination, vocalist Stipe launched R.E.M. into a whole other dimension.

The four organized the band in Athens in 1980, traipsing across the South to play anywhere that would have them and cutting one single ("Radio Free Europe") and a five-song EP (Chronic Town) at Easter's garage studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For Murmur they moved eighty miles south to Charlotte's Reflection Studios, a twenty-four-track facility whose principal client was Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL Club. (Stipe, in fact, left Charlotte with a souvenir PTL license plate and an autographed Tammy Bakker single.) The group balked at recording elsewhere. "We wanted to do it in the South with people who were fresh at making rock & roll records," says Buck. "In Charlotte we could sit up all night and mess around, have ideas and not worry too much."

R.E.M. had chosen and sequenced the material for Murmur, most of which was written in 1980 and 1981, before entering the studio. Producers Easter and Dixon provided technical expertise and offered opinions. "They were instrumental in teaching us how to use the studio," says Buck. Very little was done by the book. Stipe, for instance, generally recorded his vocals in a darkened stairwell off to the side. Although his vocal approach was unusual for rock, Easter and Dixon had no intention of altering his style. "I was not about to go in and say, 'Oh, Michael, I can't quite understand your line about the placenta falling off the end of your bed,'" says Dixon. "We were dealing with a fragile sort of art concept and trying to bring in a little pop sensibility without beating it up."

If anyone at I.R.S. had reservations about Murmur, the band didn't want to know. "The people that heard it were like 'God, this is a really good record, but…,'" says Buck. "And we'd go, 'Sorry, see you later.' Because once they start saying but and you listen, you're in trouble."

The band added a lot of quirky, experimental touches to the basic tracks in the overdub stage. "We spent most of our time finding interesting ideas and sounds," Buck says, "like laying down ten acoustic guitars, a lot of vocals way low in the mix, strange percussion things, banging on table legs, tearing up shirts. I'd play acoustic guitar and then take the guitar off and leave the reverb on with the delay, so that it was ghostly and strange."

"We did have some rules," says Dixon, "in that if you were going to fly something in backwards or fly in hunks of music triggered off a drum by James Brown, you could only do it one time, and you couldn't go back and try to get something to work." The band members also had talismans, of sorts, to which they became attached: Two plastic dinosaurs purchased by Buck at a Salvation Army thrift shop across the street, marked L for left and R for right, were placed atop the studio speakers. "The reason our records are so good is the dinosaurs," Buck says. "They've been on the speakers for every album we've ever made."

R.E.M. Roar Back With 'Collapse Into Now'

Photos: R.E.M. Through the Years

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

7

Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’

When twenty-three-year-old Michael Jackson and his producer, Quincy Jones, began recording Thriller, they hoped to create a great record that would at least equal the 8 million unit sales of Jackson's prior solo outing, Off the Wall. "No matter what you do, you are competing against your previous product and everybody expects more," Jackson told a reporter in 1983. What they ended up with eight months later became the biggest-selling album in history.

Thriller, reportedly recorded for $750,000, has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide — and it still sells. It earned Jackson over 150 gold and platinum awards worldwide and a record seven Grammys. At the height of Michaelmania in 1984, Epic Records was selling in excess of 1 million Jackson records a week. Thriller was the musical equivalent of the Hula-Hoop, an item that everybody had to own.

At the center of all the madness was a slick, entertaining, endearingly innocent forty-two-and-a-half-minute collection of pure pop music that produced seven Top Ten singles: "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "The Girl Is Mine," "Thriller," "Beat It," "Billie Jean," "Human Nature" and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." "It felt like entering hyperspace at one point," says Quincy Jones about the phenomenal success of Thriller. "It almost scared me. I thought, 'Maybe this is going too far.'"

With Thriller, Jackson and Jones were aiming for a dynamic, balanced collection of potential hits. Jackson supplied many of the best songs on the album, writing "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" (as well as the slight number "The Girl Is Mine," a duet with Paul McCartney). Jones went through over 300 songs in search of additional material. "I was trying to find a group of songs that complemented each other in their diversity," says Jones. "Give me a ride, give me some goose bumps. If 'Billie Jean' sounds good, it sounds even better followed by 'Human Nature.' 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' ' into 'Baby Be Mine.' I look at an album as a total piece."

It began during the spring of 1982 at Michael Jackson's Tudor-style mansion, in Encino, California, where he had been working on material in his sixteen-track studio. Jones and his engineer, Bruce Swedien, spent several days there with Jackson, listening to "Polaroids," their term for the crude demos Jackson had made.

In April they moved to Westlake Audio, in Hollywood, where the majority of the album was recorded. Jones called on a crew of seasoned studio veterans, including guitarist David Williams, drummer Leon Ndugu Chancler, bassist Louis Johnson and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa as well as a number of synthesizer and keyboard players, including Greg Phillinganes, Michael Boddicker, David Foster and Steve Porcaro. The first song cut was "The Girl Is Mine." "Michael and Paul worked very fast," says Swedien. "Three days and it was done."

The album is full of special touches, from Vincent Price's campy introduction to "Thriller" to Eddie Van Halen's raging hard-rock solo on "Beat It." Many of these ideas were Jackson's own. Particularly innovative was the repeated vocal motif — "ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa" — that ends "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." "That's based on an African riff from the Cameroon region," says Jones. "Michael came up with it, and we added harmonies and made a whole thing out of it."

Price's "Thriller" rap was written by Rod Temperton during a cab ride to the studio, and Jackson recorded the wolf howls in the alley outside the studio. "I think the idea of 'Thriller' was to incorporate drama into pop," says Jones of the song, which was originally titled "Starlight Love." "It's like a one-act play."

Jones had to coax Jackson into writing "Beat It." "I bugged him for three months about doing a strong rock thing," said Jones. "Finally he wrote it. I had to squeeze it out of him."

He was also reluctant to do what Jones calls a "beg" on "The Lady in My Life." "That's asking a girl to give you some," says the producer, laughing. "That's against Michael's nature." But at other moments, the singer's enthusiasm was obvious, and he frequently danced as he sang his final vocals — indeed, Jackson's dancing can still be heard in the final mix of "Billie Jean."

Jones and Jackson thought they had the album wrapped in November. They were wrong. "I took Michael home, and he went to sleep on the couch," says Jones. "Three hours later we went back to the studio and listened to the acetate. Biggest piece of shit in life. We were horrified. So we took two days off, then spent the next eight days remixing. One song a day. We put those babies in the pocket."

Thriller has been an extremely influential album. "I hear it a lot in the records produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis," Jones says. "[Janet Jackson's] 'Funny How Times Flies (When You're Having Fun)' is 'The Lady in My Life.' The new jack swing. Everybody began to understand the power of melody again after Thriller."

Perhaps Thriller's biggest accomplishment has been its influence on other black musicians. "It inspired black artists not to look at themselves in a limited way," says Jones. "Before Michael, those kinds of sales had never happened for a black artist. Michael did it. He did it for the first time."

Photos: The Making of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' Video

Rolling Stone's 1983 Review

6

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

"I had written a catchy song," Bruce Springsteen recalled in an interview last year with Rolling Stone, "and I felt it was a really good song, probably one of my best since 'Born to Run.' I knew it was going to catch people — but I didn't know it was going to catch them like that, or that it was going to be what it was."

Born in the U.S.A. — the album, the song and the sixteen-month tour — turned out to be the breakthrough that Springsteen fans had been expecting for a decade. The influential Jersey musician became the world's biggest rock star — and a bona fide American icon, to boot.

As a result, Springsteen found himself dominating the album charts in 1984 and 1985. He hit the Top Ten seven times and wound up in heavy rotation in the theretofore unfamiliar terrain of MTV. The album inspired those who knew what his bitter, tough-minded songs were really saying (from numerous songwriters to novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, whose In Country owes a debt to the LP), as well as many others who misinterpreted and exploited the cover's American-flag imagery (among them, both 1984 presidential candidates and countless advertising agencies and jingle writers).

For Springsteen, who'd been catapulted into the media spotlight almost ten years earlier, when his album Born to Run landed him simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek, Born in the U.S.A. afforded him an opportunity to do it over again, older and wiser and not so awestruck by the machinery of fame. "The Born in the U.S.A. experience obviously had its frightening moments," Springsteen told Rolling Stone. "But I was thirty-five, and I had a real solid sense of myself by that time. With Born in the U.S.A., I had a chance to relive my 1975 experience when I was calm and completely prepared and went for it. It was like 'Great. We're selling all those records? Dynamite.'"

But it took Bruce Springsteen a long time and a lot of soul-searching to get to the point where he was willing to welcome that kind of stardom. Born to Run was followed by two years of legal difficulties and, finally, the grim, relentlessly downbeat Darkness on the Edge of Town. The commercial breakthrough of The River was answered by the bleak acoustic album Nebraska. But when it came time to assemble a new album, Springsteen's choice was clear: If he was ever going to make a blockbuster rock record, this would have to be the one.

Besides, he already had most of the songs. Springsteen and the E Street Band had recorded seven of the songs on Born in the U.S.A. prior to the release of Nebraska in a three-week blitz in May 1982: "Glory Days," "I'm Goin' Down," "I'm on Fire," "Darlington County," "Working on the Highway," "Downbound Train" and — most crucial of all — "Born in the U.S.A."

Springsteen originally recorded the last of these on the acoustic demo tape that became Nebraska, but he quickly abandoned that version, feeling it didn't really work in that format. At the start of the May sessions with the full band, Springsteen revived the song in a new, electric arrangement. "Bruce started playing this droning guitar sound," says drummer Max Weinberg. "He threw that lick out to [keyboardists] Roy [Bittan] and Danny [Federici], and the thing just fell together.

"It absolutely grabbed us. We played it again and got an even better groove on it. At the end, as we were stopping, Bruce gave me the high sign to do all these wild fills, and we went back into the song and jammed for about ten minutes, which was edited out. I remember that night as the greatest single experience I've ever had recording, and it set the tone for the whole record. That track was so special; it was really something to live up to."

For a while, though, Springsteen was ambivalent about following through with the rock record whose tone had been so dramatically set by "Born in the U.S.A." "He spent a good deal of time after the release of Nebraska feeling very close to that album," says Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, who coproduced Born in the U.S.A. "I don't think he was ready to suddenly switch back into the 'Born in the U.S.A.' mode."

Springsteen drove to Los Angeles, where he began recording demos on his own, most of them closer in sound and spirit to Nebraska than to Born in the U.S.A. Some, like "Shut Out the Light," eventually appeared as B sides; others, such as "Sugarland" and his overhaul of Elvis Presley's "Follow That Dream," never appeared.

When he returned to recording with the E Street Band, the sessions were marked by prolific songwriting and a freewheeling approach on the part of Springsteen. "I remember one night when we were completely packed up to go home and Bruce was off in the corner playing his acoustic guitar," says Weinberg. "Suddenly, I guess the bug bit him, and he started writing these rockabilly songs. We'd been recording all night and were dead tired, but they had to open up the cases and set up the equipment so that we could start recording again at five in the morning. That's when we got 'Pink Cadillac,' 'Stand on It' [both used as B sides] and a song called 'TV Movie.'… Bruce got on a roll, and when that happens, you just hold on for dear life."

In the end, though, most of the sessions were inconclusive. Of the dozens of songs he recorded from mid-1982 to mid-1983, only "My Hometown" would make Born in the U.S.A.'s final cut.

Eventually, Landau and coproducer Chuck Plotkin convinced Springsteen that the best songs were from the May 1982 sessions. Late in the recording process, however, Springsteen wrote a few more standouts, including "Bobby Jean," his benediction to guitarist Steve Van Zandt, who'd left the band to pursue a solo career, and "No Surrender," an optimistic raveup. The album slowly and painstakingly assumed a shape with the help of band members, colleagues and friends who were asked to vote for their favorites from about twenty contenders.

Born in the U.S.A. appeared to be finished, but then Landau, in an exchange that he admits was "testy, by our standards," told Springsteen that the album needed another song. He had a list of requirements: It should unify the record, it should be written in the first person, and it should capture where Bruce was at that point in time. Springsteen objected — "The obvious response is, 'Hey, if that's what you want, then write it yourself,' and I got a little bit of that in this case," says Landau — but three days later Springsteen played Landau a new song born of his frustration and confusion. Its title was "Dancing in the Dark." With that, his blockbuster was finished.

Born in the U.S.A. was Springsteen's triumph, though he doesn't regard it as his best work. "That was a rock record," he says from the vantage point of four years later. "When I put it on, that's kind of how it hits me: That's a rock record. And the bookends ["Born in the U.S.A." and "My Hometown"] sort of covered the thing and made it feel more thematic than probably it actually was, you know? But I never really felt like I quite got it."

Still, if Springsteen looks back at Born in the U.S.A. as merely "a rock record," it should be pointed out that this was the album that defined how hard a record could rock, how much a rock record could say and what impact a rock record could have.

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bruce Springsteen

Photos: 17 Great Bruce Springsteen Collaborations

Rolling Stone's 1984 Review

5

Paul Simon, ‘Graceland’

Few albums have had humbler beginnings, been as musically adventurous, generated as much political controversy or been as warmly received by the public as Paul Simon's Graceland. Released in 1986, Graceland matched Simon with a host of African artists — including guitarist Ray Phiri and his band, Stimela, and the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The album's scintillating blend of lively beats and thoughtful lyrics, as well as its seamless fusion of the familiar and the exotic, restored Simon's career and brought African music, and particularly South African music, to a broader international audience.

The journey to Graceland began with an unlabeled cassette tape that guitarist Heidi Berg gave to Simon, who listened to it incessantly, without knowing what it was, throughout the summer of 1984. Simon's curiosity eventually got the better of him, and he discovered that the album on the tape was called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II and had been recorded by the Boyoyo Boys, a group from South Africa.

The kind of music on Gumboots is mbaqanga, or "township jive," the street music of Soweto, South Africa, but for Simon the album called to mind music that was closer to home. "It sounded like very early rock & roll to me — black, urban, mid-Fifties rock & roll, like the great Atlantic tracks from that period," Simon told Rolling Stone after the album's release. "The rhythm was a fairly uptempo, 2/4 feel with a strange accordion in there. But the way they play the accordion, it sounds like a big reed instrument. It could almost be a sax."

The music, which seemed to Simon both fresh and reminiscent of the earliest music he loved, suggested a potential new direction for his work. He got in touch with South African producer Hilton Rosenthal, who sent him about twenty additional albums by local musicians, and in February of 1985, Simon traveled to Johannesburg to begin recording Graceland. While there, Simon recorded with Tao Ea Matsekha, who helped provide the irresistible groove to "The Boy in the Bubble"; General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, who fired up the funky "I Know What I Know"; and the Boyoyo Boys, who lent the bounce to "Gumboots."

Simon's trip to Johannesburg also triggered a firestorm of protest from antiapartheid groups that charged that, however honorable his intentions may have been, he violated the United Nations cultural boycott of South Africa. For a time it seemed that Simon would be added to the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid's list of censured artists — a list that also includes Linda Ronstadt, who sang on "Under African Skies" on Graceland.

In the wake of Graceland's release, denunciations flew back and forth. Simon insisted that black South African musicians "voted to let me come," were paid triple the union scale for their work on the album and valued the international exposure Graceland would provide for their music. "To go over and play Sun City, it would be exactly like going over to do a concert in Nazi Germany at the height of the Holocaust," Simon said. "But what I did was to go over essentially and play to the Jews."

The explanation did not wash. "When he goes to South Africa, Paul Simon bows to apartheid," said James Victor Ghebo, the Ghanaian ambassador to the UN and an antiapartheid activist. "He lives in designated hotels for whites. He spends money the way whites have made it possible to spend money there. The money he spends goes to look after white society, not to the townships. This is one reason why we do not want people to go there."

Eventually, after months of recriminations, both sides simply seemed to tire of the battle. Simon was never formally added to the list of censured artists. For his part, Simon reluctantly wrote a letter reiterating his refusal to play in South Africa — he had twice previously turned down offers to play Sun City — and donated proceeds from a number of concerts on the Graceland tour to black charities in the United States and South Africa.

From Simon's point of view, Graceland helped in the struggle to end apartheid. "I never said there were not strong political implications to what I did," he said near the end of the Graceland tour. "I just said the music was not overtly political. But the implications of the music certainly are. And I still think it's the most powerful form of politics, more powerful than saying it right on the money, in which case you're usually preaching to the converted. People get attracted to the music, and once they hear what's going on within it, they say, 'What? They're doing that to these people?'"

Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo tells a story about life in Johannesburg that lends resonance to Simon's defense. "I remember there was a riot there," he says. "People were fighting, the kids were fighting. But not Black Mambazo. The policeman ask us, 'Where do you come from?' I said, 'We come from singing.' They said, 'You are singing while the people are fighting?' I say, 'Yes. They are doing their job. I am doing my job.'"

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums: 'Graceland' by Paul Simon

Paul Simon Peels Back the Years on New LP

Rolling Stone's 1997 Review

4

Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’

"A lot of people don't realize this, but Remain in Light was the worst-selling Talking Heads record ever," says drummer Chris Frantz.

"Financially, we took a beating on that one," says David Byrne. "At the time, it was a really hard sell. The reaction that we heard was that it sounded too black for white radio and too white for black radio."

Remain in Light may have been a commercial disappointment, but musically, the band's 1980 album — which combines funk, disco and African rhythms — was years ahead of its time. "It got great critical acclaim, and we felt that it kind of took popular music to the next phase," says Frantz, "which is what we always wanted to do."

But getting there wasn't easy. Depending on who you speak to, tensions in the studio often ran high between at least two parties. "Remain in Light was a difficult album to make," says Frantz. "We wanted to do something groundbreaking, but we didn't want to get into fights about it. And a couple of times we did get into fights — musical fights — because somebody wanted to go one way and another person thought it shouldn't sound like that."

Within the first week of recording with producer Brian Eno at the Compass Point studios, in the Bahamas, British engineer Rhett Davies quit in frustration. "He said, 'You guys could be making a great pop album,'" says Frantz. "The British, you know, have these ideas about 'great pop albums.' So he left." In his place, they hired David Jerden, who had worked with Eno and Byrne on their recent collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Bassist Tina Weymouth says recruiting Eno was difficult because he and Byrne had had a falling out. "Brian didn't even stay to finish Bush of Ghosts," she says. "Something happened between him and David. We asked him to work on Remain in Light, and at first he was reluctant. I really don't know what went down between them."

Byrne has slightly different memories of who was fighting whom. "That was between me and Tina," he says with a laugh. "I think she was understandably upset that Brian and I were pushing this whole direction so adamantly. It was almost like it was a train out of control or something. Maybe she felt that she wasn't a part of that. She was a part of it, but I can understand how she might have felt." Did that tension affect the album? "Nah," says Byrne, "it was all kind of extracurricular."

Even today, the band members disagree about what they'd set out to accomplish. "We were really intrigued and excited by the formal aspects of African music — the way it was created and put together," says Byrne.

Weymouth, however, says, "David had such a completely different theory about it. His theory was far more intellectual and bookish. I never felt that there was any conscious, manipulative effort on our part to play African styles. To me and Chris, it seemed as if that importance was attached to the record after the fact."

While working on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne and Eno studied voodoo and Afro-Atlantic cultures. "They were very keen on some literature they'd been reading," says Weymouth. "I suppose we all were quite aware of African music sometime before that. But no one discussed with us the fact we were going to be playing in an African style. To us, it was all very funny, putting this bibliography together with a record. It's so pseudo intellectual and everything we were trying to get away from."

While the music may or may not owe a formal, conscious debt to African styles, the words are definitely more playful than intellectual. Byrne says that Eno encouraged him to be a bit freer with his lyrics. "I really played around a lot more," he says.

"It was the beginning of David finding a way to improvise very quickly in the studio," says Weymouth. "Before, it had been a very private kind of struggle."

For "Crosseyed and Painless," Weymouth says, Byrne was struggling to come up with a vocal part. "Chris had just played drums on the new Kurtis Blow record, 'The Breaks,' which was a real front-runner hip-hop record," she says. Frantz played Blow's album for everyone, and after hearing it, Byrne came up with such lyrics as "Facts are late." "It was that whole rap thing," says Weymouth, "but in his own style."

Weymouth claims that most of the songs on Remain in Light came about from jams, yet only Byrne and Eno receive songwriting credits. "Eno called up David and said, 'I really think this is unfair,'" she says. "'I really think I did more work, and so I think you and I should get all of the credit.'"

That didn't go over well with the rest of the band. "Poor David got yelled at by a lot of people as a result," Weymouth says with a laugh. "But Brian and David were really into this credit thing, I guess."

The album cover, which features computer images over the faces of each band member, was conceived of by Frantz and Weymouth, who'd been experimenting on computers at MIT. "The masks could have been anything," says Weymouth. "They could have been African, they could have been tomatoes on our face. It wasn't really that important — it was just kind of raising questions. Making people think, 'What are they trying to do?'

"We really didn't know. We don't always know what we're doing. We often just get excited, put something down and say, 'Oh, neat.'"

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Remain in Light' by Talking Heads

Rolling Stone's Original 1980 Review

3

U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’

Bono wanted to explore rock & roll's American roots; the Edge wanted to continue the expressionistic experimentalism of The Unforgettable Fire. The creative tensions between them resulted in U2's best record, a multifaceted, musically mature work. "Two ideas were followed simultaneously," says the Edge. "They collided, and this record was born."

The Joshua Tree is the rather esoterically titled album he's referring to — a title that even the typically solemn Bono could joke about. As the U2 singer said to Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis at the time of its release, "You get record-industry people saying, 'As big as the Beatles — what's the name of the album?' 'The Joshua Tree.' 'Oh, yeah, oh, right.' It's not exactly Born in the Joshua Tree, or Dark Side of the Joshua Tree. It sounds like it would sell about three copies."

In fact, the album sold about 12 million copies worldwide, and launched the already popular Irish quartet into the rock stratosphere. But more important than the mass appeal of the album was its message of spiritual and creative yearning, articulated in songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "With You or Without You" and "Where the Streets Have No Name." Equally significant was the group's continued examination of political and social issues. In "Running to Stand Still," Bono describes the havoc that heroin use can cause, while "Bullet the Blue Sky" captures the horror and moral outrage that the singer felt about U.S. involvement in Central American politics.

"I just think the album takes you somewhere," says bassist Adam Clayton. "It's like a journey. You start in the desert, come swooping down in Central America. Running for your life. It takes me somewhere, and hopefully it does that for everyone else."

The Joshua Tree is "an album of contrasts," says the Edge. "Bono had fairly strong ideas. He'd been taken with American literature and music. Lyrically, he wanted to follow the blues and get into America. I'd written off white blues in 1978. I was trying desperately to figure out ways to play without using white blues. I wanted to push the European atmospherics. But listening to Robert Johnson and other early blues, I could see what was there. I warmed to the idea."

Both Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who coproduced the album, made major contributions. "Brian strongly suggested that we do it all ourselves," says the Edge. "We felt inclined to bring people into the sessions — at times it would have been nice to have pedal steel or background vocals. But he always felt we could do it. There was a great wisdom in that decision."

There was no attempt to make The Joshua Tree a commercial album. "If anyone had even breathed that idea …," says Clayton. "We wanted to make music. The thing is to challenge radio. To get 'With You or Without You' on the radio is pretty good. You don't expect to hear it on there — maybe in a church."

Before recording began, the group spent time rehearsing at Clayton's house in Dublin, and the atmosphere was so comfortable that they decided to record there. "Just this big, high room," he says. "One of the biggest rooms I've ever seen in a house. With windows and natural light. Pretty much all of it was recorded at my house." The band spent about three months on the album, interrupting the sessions to headline Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope Tour in the U.S. Some recording was also done at Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios, at the Edge's house and at another Dublin studio, S.T.S.

Approximately seventeen songs were worked on. Some of the material that didn't end up on the album — such as "The Sweetest Thing," "Spanish Eyes" and "Deep in the Heart" — became B sides of singles.

Lanois credits Eno with sparking many of the music's more adventurous moments. "They had found the experimental side of working on The Unforgettable Fire tiring," says Lanois. "But if you work with Brian, like it or not, he's gonna weird things up."

Yet the sessions often had a relaxed, off-the-cuff feel. Of "Running to Stand Still," the Edge says it was "almost improvised to tape." And "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" originally had a different melody and was called "Under the Weather."

One of the album's best tracks, "Where the Streets Have No Name," proved extremely difficult to record. At one point Eno became so disillusioned with it that he tried to destroy the tape; the engineer told the Edge, "I just had to stop Brian from erasing 'Streets.'"

"It took forever to get that track," says Lanois. "We had this giant blackboard with the arrangement written on it. I felt like a science professor, conducting them. To get the rise and fall, the song's dynamic, took a long time."

Does the band consider The Joshua Tree one of the best albums of the Eighties? "With Joshua Tree, we wanted to make a really great record, with really great songs," says the Edge. "We became interested in songs again. We put abstract ideas in a more focused form. It's the first album where I really felt Bono was getting where he was aiming with the lyrics. Bono is more of a poet than a lyricist. With Joshua Tree, he managed, without sacrificing the depth of his words, to get what he wanted to say into a three- or four-minute song."

"Important?" muses Clayton. "I don't know. It was important for us. Suddenly we could do so many different things musically. It gave us a great freedom. I think we were able to stretch and do things we didn't really understand before. It captured a musicality for us that we'd never gotten on record before."

Rolling Stone's 1987 Review

U2 Photos: Three Decades of the World's Biggest Band, Onstage and Backstage

2

Prince and the Revolution, ‘Purple Rain’

“Prince knew this was going to be it,” says Susan Rogers, who engineered the 14 million seller Purple Rain. “He was ecstatic when he finished it.”

Over five years later, the influence of Prince and Purple Rain is incontestable. He is one of just two artists (along with Bruce Springsteen) to have four albums among Rolling Stone‘s 100 Best Albums of the Eighties. And perhaps more than any other artist, Prince called the tune for pop music in the Eighties, imprinting his Minneapolis sound on an entire generation of musicians, both black and white.

Released in tandem with the film of the same name, Purple Rain was more than simply a soundtrack, and it stands as Prince’s most cohesive and accessible album. “He envisioned the film as he made the album,” says Alan Leeds, vice-president of Paisley Park Records, Prince’s label. “He had a vision in his mind of the film a year before he got in front of the cameras, and he wrote the music to that vision.”

Purple Rain contained five hit singles, including his first singles to reach Number One, “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” as well as “Purple Rain,” which reached Number Two.

It was also the first Prince album to prominently feature his band the Revolution. “The band gelled when [guitarist] Wendy Melvoin joined,” says drummer Bobby Z. “We were recording and writing and doing it. We all worked hard and did this music together.”

Some of the album’s success — and certainly its reception by radio — was possible because Prince downplayed the overt sexuality of previous records. There was only one controversial lyric on the album, the much quoted line “I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine” — which appears in “Darling Nikki.” The song caught the ear of Tipper Gore, the wife of Senator Albert Gore, who cited it when she formed the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group that lobbied to have warning labels placed on album covers.

The album’s quirky first single, “When Doves Cry,” originally had a more conventional sound. But Prince stripped the song down to its current form, completely removing the bass part. Despite initial qualms among some of the people at Warner Bros, about the unusual instrumentation, the record was released and quickly reached Number One on the pop charts.

According to Rogers, “The Beautiful Ones” was Prince’s favorite. “That song meant a lot to him,” she says. “It was written for Susannah Melvoin [Wendy’s sister and, at the time, Prince’s girlfriend]. A lot of songs were written about her, but that was the first one.”

Prince debuted many of Purple Rain’s songs during a performance in August 1983 at 1st Avenue, the Minneapolis club featured in the film. Although the show was recorded, Prince didn’t intend to use the live performances on his album — a decision that he reversed when he heard the tapes. Ironically, Prince and the Revolution lip-synced their parts for the film’s live-performance sequences.

When Prince first played a version of “Purple Rain” for some of his staff, it caused quite a commotion. “Big Chick [Prince’s bodyguard at the time] came into the office raving,” says Leeds. “He said, ‘Wait until you hear the song he did last night. It’s gonna be bigger than Willie Nelson.'”

For Prince, the international success of Purple Rain was simply the culmination of many years of hard work, coupled with a strong sense of self-confidence. In 1985 he told Rolling Stone, “I wish people would understand that I always thought I was bad.

1

The Clash, ‘London Calling’

This album could not have come at a more perfect time or from a more appropriate band than the Clash. Released stateside in January 1980, with the decade but a pup and the new year in gear, London Calling was an emergency broadcast from rock's Last Angry Band, serving notice that Armageddon was nigh, Western society was rotten at the core, and rock & roll needed a good boot in the rear. Kicking and screaming across a nineteen-song double album, skidding between ska, reggae, R&B, third-world music, power pop and full-tilt punk, the Clash stormed the gates of rock convention and single-handedly set the agenda — musically, politically and emotionally — for the decade to come.

The band had already chalked up two masterpieces of petulant punk fury with The Clash (its 1977 debut) and Give 'Em Enough Rope. But this time singer-guitarist-songwriters Joe Strummer and Mick Jones fine-tuned the Clash worldview with a deeper sensitivity, addressing issues by zooming in on individuals and hard realities. While the LP's cosmopolitan sound anticipated the world-music fad, its message — revolution begins at home — triggered the reemergence of pop's social consciousness in the Eighties.

For Strummer, Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Nicky "Topper" Headon, home was London, where they rehearsed and recorded the bulk of the LP during the late spring and summer of 1979 and where there was ample evidence of impending apocalypse (racial tension, rising unemployment, rampant drug addiction). Strummer's catalog of disasters in the title track, scored with Jones's guitar firepower, sets the tone for the record. But that fear and urgency was also very real to the band, which had just split with manager Bernie Rhodes, was heavily in debt and had declared open warfare on the music business.

"I remember that things were so up in the air, and there was quite a good feeling of us against the world," says Strummer. "We felt that we were struggling, about to slide down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails. And that there was nobody to help us."

Isolation and desperation are recurring themes on London Calling. The Phil Spector-like glow of "The Card Cheat" belies its lyric pathos, while "Hateful" looks at drug addiction from an addict's point of view ("I'm so grateful to be nowhere"). "There was a sense that life really is a succession of heavy blows," says Jones, "that this is what we have to take day to day." Indeed, "Lost in the Supermarket," a dark slice of peppy Euro-pop, is based on Jones's personal life at the time. "I was living in a council flat with my grandmother," he says. "I couldn't get settled. I was supposed to be this rock star, but I was living with my grandmother," Jones and Strummer wrote a lot of songs in his grandmother's flat before Jones eventually moved out.

The album also has fighting spirit to spare in the likes of "Clampdown" ("Let fury have the hour, anger can be power") and "The Guns of Brixton," a Paul Simonon song that combines images of the racially tense Brixton area of London with the outlaw ethic of The Harder They Come. "Spanish Bombs," initially inspired by a radio news report of a terrorist bombing in the Mediterranean, evokes the rebellious spirit of the Spanish Civil War.

London Calling became a double album simply because of the energetic rate at which Strummer and Jones were writing songs. "Joe, once he learned how to type, would bang the lyrics out at a high rate of good stuff," says Jones. "Then I'd be able to bang out some music while he was hitting the typewriter." The members of the Clash devoted nearly three months to arranging and demoing the material at their rehearsal space, a garage in London's Pimlico section, before going into the studio. They added a few choice covers that reflected their widening field of musical vision, such as "Brand New Cadillac," by the British rockabilly legend Vince Taylor, and "Wrong 'Em Boyo," a "Stagger Lee" takeoff by a Jamaican ska group, the Rulers.

The Clash found the perfect producer in Guy Stevens, a kindred renegade spirit with impeccable credentials (he ran the U.K. branch of Sue Records in the Sixties) and an intuitive, if lunatic, genius for getting the essence of rock & roll on record. His protégés included Free and Mott the Hoople, and he'd produced the Clash's first demos in 1976. He'd fallen from grace in the industry, but the Clash felt he was just the madman to do the job.

"We sensed it was a good way to keep it on the beam, keep our feet on the ground," Strummer says. "I think something dies in the music when everything is so straitlaced, with accountants monitoring every move."

There was nothing straitlaced about Stevens's methods, which included pouring beer into a piano when the band wanted to use it on a song over his objections and slinging chairs around "if he thought a track needed zapping up," according to Strummer. Stevens nearly hit Jones with a ladder during one take.

But Jones says Stevens — who has since died — was a "real vibe merchant" and was always "exhorting us to make it more, to increase the intensity, to lay the energy on. "Stevens had good musical instincts, too. The version of "Brand New Cadillac" on the LP is actually a warm-up take. "We said, 'Okay, now we'll do it proper,' "says Topper Headon. "And he said, 'No, it's great, let's keep it.' But we said, 'Hang on a minute, it speeds up.' And he said, 'All rock & roll speeds up.' And that was it."

The Clash quickly got into the spirit of things. The crackling at the beginning of "The Guns of Brixton" is not fire but the sound of the band members tearing Velcro strips off of leather swivel chairs swiped from the control room. "Train in Vain," the album's surprise hit, was recorded so late in the sessions that there wasn't time to include it on the cover or label copy. And there is no train in the song, either. "The track was like a train rhythm," says Jones, who wrote most of it, "and it was, once again, that feeling of being lost. So there it was."

Strangely, the Clash was slagged at home for softening up and selling out to mainstream American tastes.

"When I read that, the notion was so new to me I just laughed," Strummer says. "In that dirty room in Pimlico, with one light and filthy carpet on the walls for soundproofing, that had been the furthest thought from our minds." He also remembers the distress of one German skinhead, who cried, "My grandmother likes 'Wrong 'Em Boyo.' What have you done to me?" Strummer says, "I remember thinking, 'Is he right? Maybe we should have offended her more.'"

In fact, the Clash was simply showing its punk constituency, and the pop world at large, that there was more than one way to rock the house. The cover design of London Calling, a takeoff on Elvis Presley's first album with a photo of Paul Simonon destroying his bass onstage in New York, says it all: This is an album of classic rock & roll values with renewed spirit for a new age.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'London Calling' by the Clash

The Clash in 1980: There’ll Be Dancing in the Streets

Photos: Mick Jones Narrates the True Adventures of the Clash

Rolling Stone's Original 1980 Review

Show Comments