The '80s were way better than you probably remember. Of course, if you already remember it as the raddest decade in history, then I don’t mean you. But for the rest of us, we choose to remember only one side of it: shoulder pads, leg warmers, dramatic synth solos, robotic synth snare drums — synth everything, really. And then there was the hair, which, in all fairness, is unforgettable. In fact, glam metal, or, if you like, hair metal, is largely to blame for why many choose to look back on the '80s as that brief funny moment in history that produced nothing but embarrassing photos and laughable music videos (OK, it’s not all hair metal's fault; this guy, too.)
We choose to focus so heavily on the lows that it’s about time we re-assess the highs, which there were a lot of — especially if you were a fan of music in Canada. It’s not that we completely avoided all those embarrassing lows, but, as a country, we achieved many musical milestones and produced a ton of timeless music that is still played and loved today. But if you’re just skimming the decade, the greatness is easy to miss amid the sea of cheese. Even on paper, it doesn’t look that great. For instance, in the 1970s, Canadian artists produced eight number one songs on the Billboard Hot 100. In the '90s, we produced 10. In the '80s, that number was two. Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” reached the coveted spot in 1985, and Sheriff’s “When I’m with You” followed in 1989, which isn’t a fair representation of how great the decade truly was. So how great was it? Here are just a few reasons.
For starters, at a time when Bob Dylan was at a low point, making the least celebrated work of his 50-plus year career despite releasing eight albums, including his attempt at rap (“Street Rock” with Kurtis Blow, 1986), Leonard Cohen was making some of his best, most celebrated work, such as “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “First We Take Manhattan,” “Take this Waltz,” "I’m your Man” and, well, “Hallelujah.”
Out of Calgary, Loverboy kicked off the decade with multiple massive rock singles such as “Turn me Loose” and “Working for the Weekend” that were popular all over North America, all while refusing to give into the glam that was all around them (in all fairness, the red leather pants were pretty glam, but at least no one was feathering their bangs).
In 1984, MuchMusic launched not just as a counter to the overwhelming culture vacuum that was MTV, but as a dominant medium to celebrate Canadian music across the country.
In 1988, Toronto’s the Pursuit of Happiness launched a career on the strength of a low-budget video for “I’m an Adult Now,” highlighting not only how powerful video play on MuchMusic was for artists, but also that there were artists all over the country outside of the major label system worth seeking out. It completely changed the rules for how to make it in the music business, which in turn helped kicked off the country’s Cancon renaissance and a burgeoning indie music scene that’s still thriving today.
While the U.K. had the Cure and the Smiths, Canada had its own burgeoning new wave scene: the Spoons; Strange Advance; the Payola$ (who can forget singer Paul Hyde’s dance moves in the video for “Eyes of a Stranger”?) and so many more great acts.
And let’s just put this out there right now: “Tears are not Enough,” by Canadian supergroup Northern Lights, was leagues better than their U.K. counterpart Band Aid and “Do they Know it’s Christmas.” (Even Bob Geldof hates that song, and he wrote it). Written by David Foster and Bryan Adams, among others, “Tears are Not Enough” featured artists such as Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cumming, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Dan Hill and Neil Young (at peak side burn, too), and that was only the first verse! The video deserves to be in the national archives for this one intimate moment with Young alone.
The '80s deserve a second chance, which is why we’re devoting next week to just that, starting with the 50 best Canadian songs of the '80s on Monday.
For all our '80s content, including an ode to Bryan Adams, Sunset Strip memories from Slash and Jian Ghomeshi's top Canadian new wave acts, be sure to click here throughout the week.