Rubik’s cubes, shoulder pads, crimped hair and keytars – the ‘80s definitely brought the cringe, but Bryget Chrisfield outlines why this decade is also widely regarded as pop music’s Golden Era. 

#1 Keytar Madness

Why should lead singers and guitarist have all the fun with fan interaction? Keytars made keyboards portable. Suddenly keytarists could steal the show.  Herbie Hancock pretty much immortalised the keytar during his 1984 Grammy performance of ‘Rockit’. It captures him surrounded by robots – one of which is actually demonstrating The Robot dance craze – as he rhythmically sidesteps them while playing that iconic, Grammy-winning keytar riff. 

Prince was another keytar virtuoso. The Purple One even designed and patented his own custom model: the Purpleaxxe. 

The original drawings of Prince’s Purpleaxxe.

Although the keytar is a ’70s invention, this show pony of the instrument world really came into its own with ‘80s New Wave synthpop. Think: Pseudo Echo’s ‘Funky Town’, ‘What Is Love?’ by Howard Jones, Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’, ‘Jump’ by Van Halen, a-ha’s ‘Take On Me’, and Wa Wa Nee’s ‘Stimulation’. 

#2 Power Duets

Then silent music video of ‘Dancing In The Street’ is legit one of the funniest things the internet has ever gifted us. I mean, Bowie and Jagger trying to outshine each other while ‘miming’ their Dancing In The Street cover? That’s some 24-karat gold content right there. Bowie AND Jagger, right? What a mind-boggling megastar collab! 

Power duets of the ’80s were just about as OTT as the era’s toilet brush-inspired mullets. And if we’re discussing power couples with mullets, it would be remiss not to mention the Stock Aitken Waterman-produced ‘Especially For You’ by Australia’s own Kylie and Jason. This duet was released shortly after the UK broadcast of the Neighbours episode during which their characters, Charlene and Scott, tied the knot. Naturally, ‘Especially For You’ went #1 with a bullet in Old Blighty. 

More than 2-million Aussies tuned into Scott and Charlene’s wedding.

One of the most popular duet karaoke selections has gotta be ‘Islands In The Stream’ by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, but did you know the Bees Gees originally wrote this song for Marvin Gaye? 

Timely ’80s team-ups also double-bounced a few heritage acts back into the spotlight: Pet Shop Boys recruited Dusty Springfield – Neil Tennant’s childhood obsession – to feature on ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, which became their first-ever UK #1; and George Michael helped elevate his hero, Aretha Franklin, to the top the UK charts with their power-duet ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’.

Runner-up: Run-DMC releasing their version of Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’ and pretty much inventing rap-rock. 

#3 A New Era Of Dance Moves

We all moved the living room furniture outta the way to learn Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ dance, but when Janet’s ‘Rhythm Nation’ film clip dropped we stole her moves ASAP (particularly The Running Man). The Moonwalk was way cool to master (always remember to check behind you before attempting, though) and Madonna’s film-clip dancing was tricky for those with no formal dance training (particularly the hip-swivelling Holiday chorus chorey).

Breakdancing was also huge in the ‘80s – remember ‘Uprock’ by Rock Steady Crew? – with cardboard squares placed on city-square pavements for spontaneous b-boy/girl battles. The ’80s was also a time when handbag piles identified dance circles. How good was it when someone unexpectedly busted out The Worm during a night out, though!?

#4 Video Killed The Radio Star

A single, culture-defining music video could instantly propel emerging ’80s artists into overnight international superstardom. Just after midnight on August 1, 1981, The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ film clip launched MTV and the telegenic-ness of recording artists became an even more essential ingredient in their recipe for success. Michael Jackson’s mini-movies – ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’ – hogged MTV airplay in the ’80s as did Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ film clip, featuring wrestler Captain Lou Albano playing her dad.

Australian director Russell Mulcahy directed the majority of Duran Duran’s music videos (‘Hungry Like The Wolf’, ‘Rio’, ‘The Wild Boys’), many of which were shot on 35mm film in exotic locations (the Sri Lankan jungle, Antigua beaches, onboard a luxury yacht). As INXS’s director of choice, Richard Lowenstein ensured the band was beamed through our TV sets looking hot and edgy thanks to his award-winning film clips such as ‘Burn For You’, ‘What You Need’ and ‘Never Tear Us Apart’.

Ex-10cc rock duo Godley & Crème also directed some of this era’s most striking film clips, including but not limited to ‘Girls On Film’ (Duran Duran), ‘Every Breath You Take’ (The Police), ‘Two Tribes’ (Frankie Goes To Hollywood) and ‘Don’t Give Up’(Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush). 

Other memorable music video moments saw ‘Madonna’s Like A Prayer’ condemned by The Vatican, a-ha’s ‘Take On Me’ bringing a comic book to life, and claymation/stop-motion animation used to groundbreaking effect (Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’, which featured bonus raw chickens dancing!?). And then there’s Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, which you simply cannot hear without visualising the accompanying music video’s statuesque all-female ‘backing band’. 

More sick clips: ‘You Might Think’ (The Cars), David Bowie’s ‘China Girl’ (filmed in Sydney’s Chinatown) and ‘Physical’ by Olivia Newton-John, which was banned in some territories due to its racy lyrics. 

#5 Hair (Raising) Metal 

Aerosmith’s classic ‘Dude (Looks Like A Lady)’ was the hairspray metal scene’s unofficial anthem. In the late-1980s, LA’s Sunset Strip exploded in a flurry of hairspray fumes, platform boots, guyliner and spandex. Soon after, ’80s hair (or glam) metal bands – Mötley Crüe, Poison, Twisted Sister, Warrant, Whitesnake et al – dominated music video programming and blockaded global charts.

Fact: 356 cans of hairspray were used for this Whitesnake press photo.

Steven Tyler famously came up with the idea for ‘Dude (Looks Like A Lady)’ at a bar, after having mistaken Mötley Crüe’s lead singer Vince Neil for a woman. Apparently the song’s chorus morphed from the less impactful phrase, “Cruisin’ for the ladies”. 

#6 Silver Screen Smash Hits

From ‘Flashdance… What A Feeling’ to the songs from Footloose (Deniece Williams’ perky Let’s Here It For The Boy, the Bonnie Tyler-led belter Holding Out For A Hero), nothing beats a smash hit from an ’80s movie soundtrack. And the more power-ballady the better!

Check out these craptacular tear-jerkers, for example: ‘Up Where We Belong’ from An Officer And A Gentleman (“Where the eagles fly/ On a mountain high…”) conjures images of young, hot Richard Gere in uniform literally sweeping Debra Winger off her feet. Then, of course, there’s the sizzling ‘Take My Breath Away’ from Top Gun, which made everyone go out and buy one of those leather bomber jackets with brown fur collars and a gazillion sew-on embroidered patches. And how could we possibly forget that quality screech-along opportunity during the ‘St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)’ choruses? 

More movie moments: ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’ from Dirty Dancing, Tina Turner’s Mad Max megahit ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)’. and the synthtastic, instrumental ‘Axel F’ (from Beverly Hills Cop). 

#7 Let’s Talk About Sax

What could be better than a cheesy sax solo blasting through your ‘80s ghetto blaster? Answer: nothing. Case in point: ‘Urgent’ by Foreigner. We’re truly not worthy of the exhilarating twists, turns and octave jumps that Junior Walker’s sax navigates throughout ‘Urgent’. If your eyes don’t widen at some point during this sax solo, you’re probably dead inside.

The main hook in George Michael’s Careless Whisper is parped and the story goes that this melody came to George while he was paying for a bus ticket en route to a DJ gig. 

More sax appeal: Maneater by Hall & Oates, the sultry Smooth Operator by Sade, Bowie’s raucous Modern Love and Billy Ocean’s When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going. 

#8 U Got The Look

Adam Ant, in swashbuckling Kings Of The Wild Frontier attire and alluring war paint, cut a compelling figure in the ‘80s, which helped bring his band’s trademark twin Burundi-style drumming the worldwide attention they deserved. Adam & The Ants boasted both style and substance, unlike many ’80s acts. Remember ‘Shiny Shiny’ by Haysi Fantayzee? And how about Kajagoogoo? Although ‘Too Shy’ remains a stone-cold classic. 

Culture Club’s blue-eyed soul/reggae melange inspired fans to dress up as Boy George clones and Eurythmics also flirted with androgyny. Annie Lennox’s close-cropped fluoro-orange locks and masculine suits were dreamed-up to stand out not blend in. 

Annie Lennox. What a boss.

Bryan Ferry and New Romantic bands such as Duran Duran shone a global spotlight on Stuart Price suits. The Cure and Siouxsie & The Banshees brought out our inner-Goths with makeup inspo. And Wham! inspired a tween/teen fashion movement with their Katharine Hamnett-designed ‘Choose Life’/‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ T-shirts, neon socks and accessories. 

More head-turning ensembles: The B-52’s plus beehives, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Devo’s matching boiler suits and red energy-dome helmets.