Music

The Soundtrack of 1983: A Year of Sonic Landmarks

today15 March 2024

Background
1983, soundtrack of the 80s, The Police, Michael Jackson, Men at Work, Irene Cara. 1983 neon sign in the background

The Soundtrack of 1983: A Year of Sonic Landmarks

As the world turned its gaze towards the horizon of the mid-80s, 1983 emerged as a landmark year in the annals of music history, presenting a vibrant tapestry of sounds that would define a generation. This was a year where the synthesizer became king, and genres like new wave, pop, and rock intertwined in exciting new ways, heralding the advent of music videos as a dominant force in shaping the pop culture landscape. The top songs of 1983, from the infectious grooves of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to the haunting melodies of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” captured the eclectic essence of the era. These tracks not only dominated the airwaves, earning their place atop global charts, but also reflected the evolving tastes and technological advancements of the time. Their lasting impact can still be felt today, as these songs continue to resonate with audiences, cementing 1983 as a pivotal year that reshaped the musical horizon.

 

 

“Every Breath You Take – The Police”

By 1983, The Police were at the zenith of their career, soaring on the success of their distinctive blend of rock, reggae, and jazz influences. Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland had reshaped the musical landscape with their innovative sound and had become one of the most influential bands of their time. Following their breakthrough album ‘Outlandos d’Amour’ and the continued success of subsequent albums like ‘Reggatta de Blanc’ and ‘Zenyatta Mondatta,’ The Police were well-established as a force in new wave music, eagerly anticipated with each new release.

“Every Breath You Take” was penned by Sting during a period of personal upheaval and romantic estrangement, capturing a stalker’s persistent obsession rather than a loving sentiment. The song’s signature, suspenseful guitar riff was created by Andy Summers, adding a haunting texture to the melody. Recorded at AIR Studios in Montserrat, the song was meticulously crafted with producer Hugh Padgham, who helped The Police achieve a sound that was both clean and layered, leveraging the studio’s advanced technology to create the song’s enduring sonic signature.

Musically, “Every Breath You Take” melds a simple yet catchy guitar riff with a smooth, flowing bassline and steady drumbeat, creating a sense of both unease and allure. Lyrically, the song delves into themes of surveillance and possessiveness, often misinterpreted as a love song due to its soft melody and Sting’s soothing vocal delivery. The contrast between the music and the lyrics adds to the song’s complexity and intrigue.

Upon its release, “Every Breath You Take” became a massive commercial success, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks and becoming 1983’s biggest hit. Critics praised the song for its musical craftsmanship and Sting’s evocative lyrics. It won two Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year, cementing its place in music history.

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The song’s cultural impact was monumental, becoming a staple of 1980s music and influencing a generation of artists. Its ambiguous narrative has been widely dissected and discussed, contributing to a broader conversation about song interpretation and the importance of context. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” continues to resonate, often featuring in films, television, and cover versions, illustrating the lasting power of a song that marries haunting beauty with lyrical depth.

 

 

“Billie Jean – Michael Jackson”

By 1983, Michael Jackson had already established himself as a prodigious talent, transitioning from the boy-wonder lead of the Jackson 5 to a solo artist of extraordinary acclaim. His album “Off the Wall” had marked a creative surge, but it was with “Thriller” that Jackson would become a global icon. As the album’s second single, “Billie Jean” was released into a world where Jackson was not just a musician but a cultural phenomenon.

“Billie Jean” was inspired by Jackson’s own experiences with a woman who claimed he was the father of her child. The relentless beat, a product of Jackson’s own beatboxing, was developed further with producer Quincy Jones. Jackson, driven to create the perfect track, insisted on recording the vocal in complete darkness to capture the song’s mood. The resulting studio experience was intense, with each element, from the synthesizer bassline to the drum machine rhythm, painstakingly worked on to create a sound that was at once crisp and enigmatic.

Musically, “Billie Jean” features a driving, instantly recognizable bassline, a propulsive drum rhythm, and Jackson’s own vocal hiccups that would become a signature of his style. The song’s structure is a masterclass in tension and release, with quiet verses building to an explosive chorus. Lyrically, it speaks to the darker side of fame: obsession, scandal, and paranoia. The narrative of the song, combined with Jackson’s impassioned delivery, creates a compelling story of a man hounded by a false claim.

“Billie Jean” was a juggernaut on the charts, holding the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks and becoming a global hit. Its success was bolstered by a legendary performance on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special, where Jackson debuted the moonwalk, ensuring that both the song and the dance moved into legend.

The impact of “Billie Jean” has echoed throughout the decades, influencing countless artists across genres with its sound, its style, and its definitive music video. The song’s bassline alone has been sampled, imitated, and revered, becoming a staple for learning bassists. For music fans, “Billie Jean” stands as a monument to Jackson’s genius, a piece of musical history that captures the essence of an artist at the peak of his powers. Its influence persists, a touchstone for performers and an anthem for audiences, embodying the transformative power of music.

 

 

“Flashdance What a Feeling – Irene Cara”  

Irene Cara was already a recognized talent by 1983, known not just for her singing but also her acting, as showcased in the 1980 film ‘Fame’. Her portrayal of Coco Hernandez and the film’s title track “Fame” had launched her into the limelight, showcasing her dynamic vocal ability and establishing her as a voice of inspiration for aspiring artists and dreamers.

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“Flashdance… What a Feeling” was inspired by the motion picture ‘Flashdance’ and aimed to capture the spirit of the film’s underdog story. Cara, along with composers Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey, crafted the song to embody the determination and resilience of the film’s protagonist. Anecdotes suggest that Cara drew from her own experiences in the entertainment industry to infuse authenticity and passion into the song’s delivery. The recording was a product of the era’s innovative synthesis of pop and electronic music, and Cara’s involvement in co-writing the lyrics added a personal touch that resonated with the song’s empowering theme.

“Flashdance… What a Feeling” is structured to build from a reflective opening into a powerful, dance-inducing chorus, mirroring the journey from self-doubt to triumph. The genre fusion is evident as it combines synth-pop with disco influences, creating a sound that was both contemporary and timeless. The song’s lyrics speak to the joy of feeling alive and the exhilaration of achieving one’s dreams against all odds, encapsulating the 1980s ethos of self-expression and aspiration.

Commercially, the song soared, becoming an international hit and earning Cara an Academy Award for Best Original Song, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. It dominated the Billboard Hot 100 and became synonymous with the film, enhancing its cultural impact.

The enduring relevance of “Flashdance… What a Feeling” is reflected in its continued presence in popular culture, frequently appearing in films, TV shows, and commercials. The song became an anthem for anyone chasing a dream, defining Cara’s career and immortalizing her as an emblem of 80s pop culture. Its motivational message continues to inspire artists and fans, securing its place as an iconic track that transcends time, reminding listeners of the power of music to capture the human spirit’s boundless optimism.

 

“Down Under – Men at Work”

Before their anthem “Down Under” surged in popularity, Men at Work were a burgeoning band from Australia, blending pop and rock with a unique twist of reggae and ska. They debuted in 1981 with their album “Business as Usual,” which quickly gained traction in their homeland before catapulting them to international success. Their music, characterized by catchy hooks and quirky lyrics, captured the zeitgeist of the early ’80s with a fresh sound.

“Down Under” was inspired by the band’s sense of Australian identity and a desire to reflect the culture and slang of their homeland. The song originated from a guitar riff by Ron Strykert, and frontman Colin Hay’s experiences traveling the globe, encountering Australians abroad. The production involved the fusion of various instruments, including a prominent flute riff by Greg Ham, which became the song’s defining feature. This innovation, along with its cheerful rhythm, contributed to the song’s unique and distinctive sound.

The song is structured around a memorable, upbeat guitar riff, complemented by the iconic flute melody. Its composition incorporates elements of rock, pop, and reggae, creating a style that feels both international and distinctly Australian. Lyrically, “Down Under” celebrates Australian culture with references to Vegemite sandwiches and a “land down under,” while also commenting on the loss of innocence and the commercialization of Australian culture.

“Down Under” topped charts globally, including the United States and UK, solidifying Men at Work’s international acclaim. The song became a staple on radio playlists around the world and was a significant factor in the album “Business as Usual” hitting multi-platinum status. Critics praised its catchy tune and distinctive sound, and it won the 1983 Grammy for Best New Artist, propelled by the song’s success.

Over time, “Down Under” has become an unofficial anthem for Australia, celebrated and cherished as a representation of Australian pride and culture. Its lasting impact lies in its infectious charm and the way it captured the essence of an era. The song has influenced artists by showing how regional identity can be embraced and turned into an international hit. Men at Work’s “Down Under” remains a cultural touchstone, illustrating the power of music to define national character and resonate across the globe.

 

“Maniac – Michael Sembello”

Before his hit “Maniac,” Michael Sembello was largely recognized as a talented session guitarist and songwriter. He worked with numerous artists, including Stevie Wonder, contributing to his albums and honing his craft behind the scenes. His contributions to Wonder’s works, especially, garnered him respect within the industry, setting the stage for his eventual breakout as a solo artist.

“Maniac” was originally a darker song with lyrics pertaining to a serial killer, a far cry from its eventual dance-pop vibe. Sembello and his co-writer Dennis Matkosky reworked it entirely after it was considered for inclusion in the film ‘Flashdance’. The film’s influence steered the song towards the energetic, synth-driven sound that fit the aerobic dance theme. The recording process saw innovative uses of synthesizers and guitar riffs, coupled with a driving beat, transforming “Maniac” into a dance floor anthem.

It stands out for its high-energy tempo and driving rhythm, characteristic of the 1980s synth-pop style. The song’s structure, with its explosive chorus and compelling synth lines, captures the intensity and passion of a dancer’s experience. The lyrics, although revised from their original conception, retained an edginess, describing the borderline maniacal dedication and frenzy of a performer or athlete pushing themselves to the limit.

“Maniac” became an instant hit, soaring to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming one of the defining tracks of 1983. It was omnipresent on the radio and became inextricably linked to the imagery of ‘Flashdance’, particularly Jennifer Beals’ iconic training montage. Critics praised the song for its infectious rhythm and Sembello’s vocal intensity, and it received a nomination for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards.

Over the decades, “Maniac” has maintained its status as an emblematic 80s song, often featured in retrospectives of the era and remaining a favourite on classic hits radio stations. Its significance extends to the way it encapsulated the fusion of film and music, influencing how soundtracks and pop culture interplay. Sembello’s “Maniac” has influenced the synth-pop and dance genres, encouraging artists to explore the synergy between cinematic storytelling and musical expression, while also remaining a beloved piece of 80s nostalgia.

 

Timeless Classics That Defined a Musical Generation

The top hits of 1983 served as a vibrant soundtrack that not only captured the spirit of the era but also left a lasting imprint on the musical landscape. These songs, with their infectious rhythms and memorable lyrics, transcended the year’s charts to become timeless classics. They defined a period of bold experimentation, genre-blending, and the rise of iconic music videos, echoing the cultural shifts of the time. Their continued relevance is a tribute to their universal appeal and the indelible mark they’ve made on artists and audiences alike. Decades on, the melodies of 1983 continue to resonate, defining the enduring power of a great song.

Written by: Brandon Lawson