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Recreating the Sound of the 80s: Part Deux

Updated on May 16, 2016
Synthpop group Soft Cell, whose 1981 hit "Tainted Love" remains one of the most popular songs of the 80s.
Synthpop group Soft Cell, whose 1981 hit "Tainted Love" remains one of the most popular songs of the 80s.

As a follow up to my previous article, I’ve decided to cover some compositional aspects of 1980s music.


To transition from instruments to composition, I'll begin with an aspect of 80s music that can be applied to arrangement and production, as well as composition: the influence of 50s and 60s music. Many songs of the eighties included elements of music from the 50s and 60s; this is not limited to retro revival bands like the Stray Cats, but is applicable to most styles of music in the 80s (especially new wave). Examples include the Bo Diddley style rhythm guitar on George Michael’s “Faith,” and the opening vocals in David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” are reminiscent of the vocal harmonies of many 50s and 60s pop songs.

One example is the “jangle” guitar sound popularized by bands such as the Byrds. This sound was typically achieved by playing a twelve-string Rickenbacker through a Vox amp, with added compression and reverb. The 12-string Rickenbacker was used by guitarists such as Johnny Marr of the Smiths, the Edge of U2, Peter Buck of REM, Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, Marty Willson-Piper of the Church, David Wakeling of the Beat, Paul Weller of the Jam, the Romantics, and the Plimsouls. This revived trend eventually led to the formation of “jangle pop” in the late 80's.

Another 60s instrument that experienced a resurgence in the 80s was the combo organ, Electronic organs were used by a number of 80s bands: Vox organs were featured on tracks by Huey Lewis and the News, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Teardrop Explodes, Madness, and the Specials. Talking Heads, Blondie, the B-52s, Suicide, Simple Minds, REM, and Squeeze played Farfisa organs.

80s drummers also drew inspiration from the 60s. Keith Moon influenced drummers such as Clem Burke of Blondie. Hal Blaine's drum intro to “Be My Baby” served as the rhythmic backdrop for songs like “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” by Billy Joel, “A Question of Lust” by Depeche Mode, “Heat of the Moment” by Asia, “King’s Cross” by Pet Shop Boys, and “Just Like Honey” by Jesus and Mary Chain.

Noise pop pioneers Jesus and Mary Chain.
Noise pop pioneers Jesus and Mary Chain.

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This is further reflected in the trend of eighties bands covering songs from the sixties. Classic songs that saw a return to the charts include "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell (originally recorded by Gloria Jones in 1964), "Always Something There to Remind Me" by Naked Eyes (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in the 60s), "I Want Candy" by Bow Wow Wow (originally recorded by the Strangeloves in 1965), "I Think We're Alone Now" by Tiffany (originally recorded by Tommy James and the Shondells in 1967), "The Loco-Motion" by Kylie Minogue (originally recorded by Little Eva in 1962), "The Tide is High" by Blondie (originally recorded by the Paragons in 1967), "Red Red Wine" by UB40 (originally recorded by Neil Diamond in 1967), "Hazy Shade of Winter" by the Bangles (originally recorded by Simon and Garfunkel in 1966), and "Money" by the Flying Lizards (based on the 1963 Beatles version).


As a transition to the section on chords, I shall explore the use of 50s and 60s chord progressions in 80s songs. The “fifties chord progression" (I-iv-IV-V or I-iv-ii-V), or a variant of it, was featured in many 80s hits including “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, “Don’t Dream its Over” by Crowded House, “Enola Gay” and "If You Leave" by OMD, “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles, “Somebody’s Baby” by Jackson Browne, “Making Love Out of Noting At All” by Air Supply, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" by Jefferson Starship, “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel, and “True Blue” by Madonna.

Chord progressions were pretty standard and were usually limited to major and minor triads. Some 80s songs were made up of mostly or entirely the I, IV, and V chords. Examples include "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves, "Stand" by REM, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2, "Here I Go Again" by Whitesnake, "Dressed For Success" by Roxette, and most songs by Jesus and Mary Chain.

The overused I-V-vi-IV chord progression, although it has appeared in earlier songs, became a cliché in the 80s. This progression, sometimes called the "pop punk chord progression," or the "sensitive female chord progression" when it takes the form of iv-IV-I-V, appears in countless 80s hits, sometimes slightly altered. Examples include "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey, "Like a Prayer" by Madonna, "With or Without You" by U2, "Down Under" by Men at Work, "Africa" by Toto, "Higher Love" by Steve Winwood, "Tonight She Comes" by the Cars, "Forever Young" by Alphaville, "Right Here Waiting" by Richard Marx, and the chorus of "Take on Me."

Suspended chords were fairly common in the 80s, especially suspended fourths. They appear in songs such as "Every Breath You Take" by the Police, "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House, "A Little Respect" by Erasure, "Free Falling" by Tom Petty, and "Secret" by OMD.

Seventh chords were used occasionally, in songs such as "True" by Spandau Ballet. Anything more complicated that than is pretty much absent from 80s music.

Key, Tempo, and Form

Most 80s songs were written in major keys, although it is worth noting that minor keys were more commonly used in the 80s than in previous decades; most Depeche Mode songs are minor key, as are many by the Cure.

As is the case with most music, the music of the 80s was mostly in common time (4/4). Tempos were usually fairly high; I would suggest generally staying between 120 and 200 bpm.

A common trait in 80s music, and seen less often in other decades, is a longer and more memorable intro. Rather than just going straight into the song, there is often a gradual build up. Depeche Mode’s “Stripped” begins with samples of revving engines and idling motorcycles before the main instruments come in.


As in most decades, the majority of popular songs in the 80s were love songs, such as the Cure’s “Lovesong.” However, there are other topics covered in 80s music that is less common in other decades. One is technology. “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, notable for being the first video to air on MTV, described the obsolescence of one technology as another replaces it. Thomas Dolby took his stage name from audio technology company Dolby Laboratories, and many of his songs referenced technology. Kraftwerk's 1981 album Computer World was a concept album about the role of computers in (then) modern society. Dazzle Ships by OMD explored the theme of communication technology in the Cold War era.

Science fiction was another popular theme, especially with new wave and psychobilly bands. “I Ran (So Far Away)” by a Flock of Seagulls tells the story of a romance between an alien and a human, combining the more tradition love theme with the less conventional sci-fi theme. Gary Numan often dealt with science fiction themes, as did Devo.

Nuclear war was also a common theme. Nena’s “99 Luftballons” is one of the best-known examples. "Heaven" by Psychedelic Furs and "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" by Ultravox are further examples. The Modern English classic “I Melt With You” combined this theme with the typical love theme.

These compositional aspects, combined with appropriate production, should result in a classic 80s sound.

A Flock of Seagulls, and their iconic haircut.
A Flock of Seagulls, and their iconic haircut.


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