1983 and the synths that hurt so good

It’s August 2016 and at the moment everyone is obsessed with the Stranger Things, and its evocative take on 1983. The series is full of moody electronic tunes and a few rock hits of the era and it seems to be a show that has people rooting out their favourite tunes of that time. So of course I had to do the same thing.

My criteria:

  • Only songs that charted in New Zealand in 1983.
  • Only songs that I passionately liked in 1983 (I was eight, ha ha ha)
  • No songs that I didn’t like in ’83 but I do now.
  • And no iconic “Now that’s what I call 1983!” hits.

So that rules out “Blue Monday”, which I loathed at the time — I couldn’t understand why such a boring song was so ridiculously popular. It also rules out tunes like “The Message”, “Let’s Dance”, “1999”, “It’s Raining Men” and “Karma Chameleon”.

There were other tunes that I wanted to include but they weren’t on Spotify, and other songs that I had to exclude because Spotify only had the long album version of the song. (Srsly, 6:29 of “Pulsing” is just ridiculous.)

And some observations about the pop of 1983:

  • Synths were everywhere, showing up in the weirdest places.
  • Songs took ages to get going, with meandering introductions (maybe for radio DJs to talk over).
  • And fade-out endings were popular, as if everyone suddenly forgot how to definitively conclude a song.

And for some perspective, here is the top 20 from 4 September 1993, just to demonstrate the broader spectrum of pop hits of the era, in all its awkwardness.

Anyway, here is my playlist and reasons why.

1983: Get those nice things

1. “Bop Girl” – Pat Wilson
“Bop Girl” was a quirky one-hit wonder for the Australian music journalist and singer Pat Wilson. It was one of those songs that showed up being all “notice me!” then went away. The music video, directed by Gillian Armstrong, is notable for being the debut of Nicole Kidman, a curly-haired cool 15-year-old.

2. “Rock the Casbah” – The Clash
“Should I Stay or Should I Go” featured in Stranger Things, I figured “Rock the Casbah” ought to make an appearance. In this remastered version, at 1:51 there’s an electronic sound that sounds like a ’90s cellphone ringtone.

3. “Promises, Promises” – Naked Eyes
I am only including Naked Eyes because for about two weeks in 1983 I had an all-consuming crush on the lead singer. Cheekbones and beady eyes were my thing back then? Oh, and it’s a quite a good song.

4. “Too Shy” – Kajagoogoo
This all seemed so mysterious. A band with a strange name. A singer with a strange name who was a boy and a girl. Lyrics that didn’t quite make sense. That’s what good pop is.

5. “I Eat Cannibals” – Toto Coelo
Like I said, I was eight in 1983. Obviously a dumb-arse super catchy song like this was going to have huge appeal.

6. “Rockit” – Herbie Hancock
Suddenly “Rockit” shows up and nothing is the same. Electronic sounds, turntablism, and Mr Hancock’s jazz background. Even 33 years on, a song like this still sounds alien and edgy.

7. “Buffalo Gals” – Malcolm McLaren and the World’s Famous Supreme Team
This is probably the first rap song I’d heard. It’s filthy old Malcolm McLaren doing his thing, but it was still introducing brand new sounds and concepts to the pop charts. Also – Trevor Horn pretty much wrote this song!

8. “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)” – Wham!
Or was this the first rap song I heard? I love that George Michael basically penned an ode to the joys of being on the dole, including the best opening couplet ever: “Hey, everybody take a look at me!/I’ve got street credibility!”

9. “Love On Your Side” – Thompson Twins
I’m kind of including this because I wanted more New Zealand artist and the Thompson Twins were one-third Kiwi. Les Twins had a super pop sensibility and were

10. “Say Say Say” – Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson
It sounds like a Paul McCartney song mashed up with a Michael Jackson song, which I guess essentially it is. I love the massive synth sting at 2:00, another example of how electronica was invading all genres of music.

11. “Send Me an Angel” – Real Life
Every aspect of this song is just ridiculous, but especially ridic is those big doofy synths that seem to be used whenever theres a lull. Real Life were Australian, but the song only reached No.1 in New Zealand and West Germany. Also:


12. “Der Kommissar” – Falco
Falco is the only good musician to come out of Vienna, and that includes Mozart. There was also an English version of “Det Kommissar” in the charts, but it was rubbish and Falco’s original can only be considered die wahre Kunst.

13. “Sierra Leone” – Coconut Rough
Oh look! A fierce New Zealand synthpop song that doesn’t wank on for seven minutes. The song is total fantasy – Sierra Leone is rain forests and savannah, not deserts. And Leone is a two-syllable word.

14. “Love is a Battlefield” – Pat Benatar
This song is flawless. As well as P. Benatar’s snarl and swagger, the song has such a  tight, clean production, giving her a solid foundation to emote over. And the song’s message: love is a battlefield! What a thrilling concept to grapple with.

15. “Muscles” – Diana Ross
I’ve just discovered that Michael Jackson wrote this song. That explains it. That explains all of it.

16. “Every Day I Write the Book” – Elvis Costello
This was the first song I chose, deciding that it had to be the closing track. It just has that romantic, hopeful, cinematic feeling that is the best thing. It’s quite weird coming straight after “Muscles”, but I’ve spent too long mucking around with track order. It stands.

Part 5: Holiday makers

“Hagley Park is the second-largest manicured park in the world. It’s the largest in the southern hemisphere.” The airport shuttle driver provided a commentary for the English tourists in the van. “It’s a real asset for the city. I always love seeing people walk along the river, jog along it.”

It was a cheerful, sunny Sunday morning. My four days in Christchurch were up and my itinerant itinerary was demanding that I jump on an aeroplane and fly to Dunedin. But it was such a nice day it seemed like it would have been more enjoyable to make the five-hour journey on the ground, listening to good road-trip music.

But I saved my road trip tunes and instead got on a plane and journeyed into the gothic world of green, purple, gold and grey, grey, grey Dunedin.

By the time I had checked into my hotel, it was late in the afternoon. I was hungry so I stopped off at a kebab shop for a felafel. Now, I’ve had a fair few felafels and I know the basic felafel-making process – it doesn’t take long.

But somehow the lady in this kebaberie took a really really long time to warm up the pita bread. She stood by the hot plate and slowly moved the pita around with some tongs. While she did this, the Holiday Makers’ 1988 hit “Sweet Lovers” played in its entirety (3:51) on the radio. The kebab lady had a frozen look on her face, as if she had recently realised that none of her dreams had ever come true.

Was there anything I could do? I thought about telling her some fun facts about the song.

“Hey, kebab lady! “Sweet Lovers” is a cover version of an obscure Bill Withers song called “We Could be Sweet Lovers”, from his final studio album, 1985’s “Watching You Watching Me”. Wellington covers band Holiday Makers faithfully covered it, but innovatively turned it into a duet.”

By this stage, the kebab lady would have started considering if there was life outside the kebab shop, and what it would be like to not have to work on a Sunday.

I would continue with more music trivia.

“It was a number-one hit single, and earned the Holiday Makers a fistful of awards at the 1988 New Zealand Music Awards, including Single of the Year, Best Video, Best Producer, Best Engineer, Most Promising Male Vocalist, Most Promising Female Vocalist, and Most Promising Group.”

This would inspire the kebab lady, making her wonder if such success would come to her one day if she set a goal and went after it.

“Sadly that promise was not to be realised. The ‘Makers fell victim to the curse of being a band whose first single was a cover version. Their follow-up single, “Waiting in the Sunshine”, flopped and they eventually took their place in New Zealand music history as beloved one-hit wonders.”

But, the kebab lady would realise, sometimes even something as glorious as a number one single can end up amounting to little if you don’t follow through on it. But at least you will have tried and enjoyed it. Yeah, we could be sweet lovers.

Finally my felafel was ready. It was cold.