It all started with an idea for a Spotify playlist. What if I compiled a playlist, chronologically, of all of the hit songs of 1984? What if I went deeper and added the big music that happened that year in other genres too? R&B, hard rock, early hip-hop, dance… What if I did that for every year since I was born?
THE BACK STORY: HOW I BECAME A MUSIC GEEK…
I started this project nearly 2 years ago, not long after first subscribing to Spotify. I knew it would be an undertaking, but what a great thing to be able to play an entire year, chronologically as the songs came out into the public consciousness. It’s a project I am still working on, having completed about half of my 37 years alive so far. But I had to start with 1984. Why 1984? That is the year I first started caring about music as more than just being background music on the radio. On my seventh birthday, I had received some money as a birthday present from a relative. My mom had taken notice that I really loved when she’d take an afternoon and play some of her records. At the time we were living in a 2 year stint in Oklahoma, a family move that didn’t go as planned. My mom had grown up a rocker in the late 70s. But the records she had were some new group called Alabama, a Kenny Rogers record with his early First Edition songs like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town”, Air Supply’s Lost In Love, and basically, any record she could find at a garage sale. So she had suggested that I look at the Sears catalog we had, and look at the record players they had. One we picked out was the carry-along box type with a suitcase handle. And to start, I picked out a package of 45’s of Disney songs. I still remember getting that package in the mail shortly after. I remember, as I played those records with their pink and purple labels, that I felt like I was opening up a door. My friend Dylan, who was a year younger than me and lived two houses down, was an only child. His parents had already spoiled him with a stereo record player and his first few records. He had “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, the entire Michael Jackson Thriller album, and this new song called “Breakdance”. I had no idea who Irene Cara was. I just knew I loved the way that song sounded, with its cool electronic drum breakdowns.
Marlow, Oklahoma was a small town in 1984. Might still be, as I never went back. Small as in the town was excited when there was a grand opening for Walmart. Our family never had much money. We lived on garage sales. Especially when school was out, I would go with my mom and my grandma every Friday and Saturday. Most of my first records were things that my mom would get for me. I didn’t know much, so sometimes I would want a record if the label looked cool. I remember having a record by Tom Jones, just because there was a cool parrot on the label. Once in a while I’d find something I recognized, like “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton, or Lee Majors’ “The Unknown Stuntman” from the TV show The Fall Guy. But the next couple times we went to Walmart after I got that record player, my mom or my grandma would get a new 45 for me. The first was “The Monster Mash”. It was what I even called then “a kid record” on the Peter Pan label. On the next visit, I got my own copy of “Breakdance”, which was still being sold. The next one.. “When We Make Love” by Alabama. Well my mom loved them, so they must be great right?
About a month later, we decided to move back to Indiana, where we came from. But we had no money. My dad had to look for a new job. And we moved in with my aunt and uncle. What I know was a horrible time for everybody, was the most exciting for me as a seven year old. As my mom and dad scrambled to look for a place for us to live, and we went to countless garage sales and thrift stores to get clothes for school, I started becoming hyper-aware of the music coming from the radio. Every time we were in the car or someplace shopping the radio was on. Usually it was the pop station. And in the evenings, when we were all relaxing after dinner, my aunt and uncle would be watching this new thing called MTV. We didn’t have MTV in Oklahoma that I knew of. Like most poeple seeing it for the first time, I was fixated. The summer of 1984 was a high point for pop music. I learned all their names as fast as I could. Tina Turner, Madonna, Billy Idol, The Cars, Rick Springfield, Pat Benatar, Billy Joel, and this strange guy singing in a bathtub simply called Prince. I soaked it all up like a sponge. Every detail.
We found a place to live. The house right next door to my aunt and uncle went up for rent. How convenient! Once school started, somehow I talked my dad into giving me an allowance. “The other kids have one!”, or something like that. But we didn’t have money to spare really. I ended up getting something like $2 a week. That was enough to buy one 45rpm record, and some candy or something. I didn’t really have toys so to speak. Just my record player and my 45s. I developed a strategy. I would write down the songs I wanted the most, and while I was at school, if my mom went to a store like K-mart or Target, she would get the first one on the list. If that wasn’t in stock, she’d get the second and so on. So it was always a surprise which one I’d have when I got home. And if my mom went to a store with me in tow, I’d look through the records while she shopped, carefully evaluating which one I wanted the most. I wore those records out. I didn’t realize the importance of keeping them in the sleeves. I’d put the sleeves up on the wall. I had a spindle carrier that carried my battered records. That was my world. I was an over-talkative kid that obsessed about all these new discoveries. Most people didn’t care. My family at least humored me. I didn’t care about sports. I wasn’t an athletic kid anyways. I didn’t do the things that other 7 year olds did. So I was mostly a loner. And I was fine with that. It just gave me more time to chase my obsession.
So now that you know the back story, let’s flash forward to now. 30 years later. A lot has happened in my life, but the obsession with music has never wavered. 30 years means a lot of memories. Those memories are all attached to songs. I’ve learned many things as an adult about myself. First, I didn’t know until adulthood that I have ADHD. Studying deeper into that, I realized that most of the memory storage in my brain associates itself either to audio or visual elements. I could tell you what year I went on a trip, because I bought an album that came out week, and I remember what year that was in a timeline. A tangent of a tangent. So what would happen when I replayed 1984 in sequence? Especially knowing what I know about music in the here and now. So here’s some things I realized on this journey…
A LOT HAS CHANGED…
This is the no-brainer. Music styles have changed a bit. In 1984, hip hop was only a baby and was underground for the most part. Metal was underground, though some bands like Quiet Riot and Van Halen had made it to the mainstream. But bands like Metallica were happening and weren’t in the massive public consciousness yet. Furthermore, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Twisted Sister and Dio were all called “metal” by many, as to where now most of those would be called “hard rock”. Bands like R.E.M. and The Cure were still completely underground. Go to the CMJ Music Monthly site and pick 2 names you aren’t that familiar with. In 30 years.. they might be The Cure or R.E.M., or Simple Minds, etc etc. Another big difference is that mainstream songs were rarely raunchy. Hence Prince’s “Darling Nikki” was a shocker. Or worse, WASP’s “Animal (F___ Like a Beast)”. In 2014, the lyrical content of both songs could easily make the top 40. Radio did seem to take more risks though musically. The fact that Prince, Twisted Sister, Lionel Richie, The Cars, Duran Duran, Ratt, Cyndi Lauper, Sergio Mendes and Billy Squier were all in the same rotation on the radio was really something. In 2014, not so much. The heaviest guitar-based song in rotation is probably “Centuries” by Fall Out Boy. And maybe Coldplay or Maroon 5 on a lighter scale. But we have more genres, and those genres have babies with other genres. Those sub-subgenres somehow still comprise part of pop music.
…BUT MOSTLY, IT HASN’T
Now I realize different points in time had different styles become popular. But comparing 1984 to 2014 specifically, most of the songs are upbeat. People like happy songs. This week in 1984, Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” was huge. While charming, most people consider that song fluff compared to his 70s work like “Higher Ground”. People like happy and they like songs they can sing along to. While downloading and streaming is becoming the norm, there’s still today a group of one or two hit wonders and a group of artists making albums that have several hits. 1984 had Cyndi Lauper, Lionel Richie, Culture Club, and Huey Lewis & The News. 2014 has Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Sam Smith, and Maroon 5. While anyone over 30 might scoff at that remark, there are parallels in how those artists broke out and their strings of hits. And I’m sure that some who loved pop vocalists of 1954 probably had the same disdain for Cyndi Lauper or Prince. But they also probably liked similar qualities in popular songs.
THERE WAS A LOT OF GREAT STUFF BUBBLING UNDER THE SURFACE
One of the most eye-opening things that happened while playing this all back in order, a few chunks a week, is realizing how diverse music was in 1984 overall. At the same time Prince was breaking out with his classic Purple Rain album, Metallica had released Ride The Lightning. The Smiths’ self titled debut was out and making waves underground. There was r&b that was selling records and that I saw 45s of in the store but that I never saw on MTV. Donna Summer and Diana Ross both had hits on the pop charts during what I remember as a string of every song that shaped me, yet I never heard their songs on the radio. I even recall seeing the 45s but thinking “why haven’t I heard that one?” So there was still a big genre and race gap in music. In fact, most black artists on pop radio in late 1984 had some tie back to Prince, Michael Jackson or Lionel Richie.
IT’S HARD FOR A VETERAN MUSICIAN TO STAY RELEVANT
Another big thing I noticed was that older artists still sold records. Rock radio was still supporting 70s artists like Jefferson Starship, Alan Parsons Project and Don Henley. The ones that made it were those that embraced MTV and got creative with the new technology. But some others like Molly Hatchet were still kicking but sounded like a fish out of water with electronics involved and quickly faded. But then ZZ Top and Tina Turner started new and possibly the biggest chapters of their careers because of this new boost. But seeing some bands’ last gasps in that timeline was a bit strange. It made one thing clear to me: musicians that change genuinely and learn and take chances are the ones that stay around.
I had thought that doing this project would unlock a few memories that I completely left behind. Maybe some song I hadn’t heard in a while would make me remember something I hadn’t thought of in years. But I didn’t think of anything else that I hadn’t before really. Maybe because I keep going back to these songs over the years. Those bits and pieces are always there – every time I play the songs. Maybe that’s part of why I keep coming back to them. My brain has associated a moment or two with each of the songs and filed it away in that manner. The songs really are my happy place. It’s the time when the world wasn’t as complicated and hadn’t jaded me yet. Every time I hear “Borderline” by Madonna I will remember camping in my aunt’s back yard with my two cousins. Every time I hear “I Feel For You” by Chaka Khan, I remember a particular perfect warm summer night that I went shopping at the grand opening of this indoor mall-type place called Buyer’s Marketplace (I think). When I hear “All Through The Night” by Cyndi Lauper, I think of a particular trip with my mom to pick my dad up from work. Who needs a photo album when I have a playlist?
Anyways, that’s the short version of it. It has been a really fun experience, and it isn’t quite over yet – with two more months to go. I’ve been listening to key albums as they came out in sequence as listed by Wikipedia. Some of it was great. Some of it was groundbreaking. Some of it really moved me. Some of it was really obscure and I skipped it out of disinterest. Some of it was overly produced with fluff lyrics, but made me smile. Some of it made me cringe.
Just Like 2014.
If you would like to follow the playlists I created, you can find them below. The largest basis of the project was compiled using Tunecaster, a project by a kindred soul and music fanatic that I can’t recommend enough. I also used various “songs that came out in 1984” lists from various sites, coupled with my own memory of single releases, and lots of Wikipedia research for dates. The chronology of the non-hits is not exact, but I tried to space it out in a way that worked. I also didn’t include country music, unless the songs were in the Tunecaster list. The lists will be ever-changing, as I find a track here or there that I missed, but it is and will probably always be about 97% complete. Enjoy!
1984 – COMPLETE – The Whole Project.
1984 – JUST THE TOP 30 POP HITS – Complete through this week – each week I add the new songs added to that week’s chart. On shuffle this is a great account of what was on the radio.
The TUNECASTER POP TOP 30 THIS WEEK IN 1984 – Updated around the end of each week.