When I was a teenager in the 1990s, the 1980s were often reviled as the decade that taste forgot. But I think this list is far less heinous than the 10 Worst Songs of the 1970s – the corporate vibes of the 1980s sound less dated than the hippie ethos still permeating some of the worst 1970s songs.
I couldn’t squeeze in Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson’s ‘The Girl Is Mine’, or anything by Huey Lewis and the News. Several 1960s legends disgrace themselves and the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail contributes two numbers. Read on for all the gory details.
10 Worst Songs of the 1980s
#10: Kokomo by The Beach Boys
By 1988 The Beach Boys had been an irrelevant legacy act for years – 1960s mastermind Brian Wilson was struggling under the care of controversial psychologist Eugene Landy, while Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983. ‘Kokomo’, featured in Cocktail, was an unexpected U.S. number one single. It was written by a collective of prominent 1960s musicians – The Beach Boys’ Mike Love, producer Terry Melcher, The Mamas & The Papas’ John Phillips, and Scott McKenzie, best-known for ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’. It’s redeemed somewhat by lovely vocals in the bridge from Carl Wilson, but it’s a crass cash-grab from a legendary pop band.
#9: Tainted Love by Soft Cell
Gloria Jones’ ‘Tainted Love’ began as an obscure 1965 b-Side, but became popular in British clubs in the 1970s. Leeds synth-pop duo Soft Cell covered the song in 1981. It’s a much-loved tune, easily the most controversial inclusion on the list, but it’s always grated on me. The combination of the repetitive backing track and the sleazy lead vocal has always made it a tough listen.
#8: Shaddap You Face by Joe Dolce
This novelty song was a number one hit in Australia and the UK, but it failed to crack the top 50 in the USA. The US had superior taste in this instance; unlike Australia, where for years it was the highest-selling single ever. This accordion-driven tale of a rebellious Italian boy belongs to the 1920s rather than the 1980s. Dolce was unsuccessful in milking the formula for a follow-up hit – neither ‘You Toucha My Car, I Breaka You Face’ nor ‘Pizza Pizza’ was successful.
#7: The Final Countdown by Europe
Swedish glam-rock band Europe designed ‘The Final Countdown’ as a concert opener, with its piercing and dramatic keyboard riff. They’re ostensibly a rock band but it’s a pop song, based around a drum machine and a synth riff. Europe left the song off their first two records because it was too unusual, but included it on their third album where it was a worldwide smash hit.
#6 – Lady In Red by Chris de Burgh
Argentina-born Chris de Burgh started his career opening for Supertramp, but hit the pay-dirt with this swooning 1986 hit. There’s a pleasant verse melody, but the chorus is lazy and insipid. Chris de Burgh wrote ‘Lady In Red’ about the first time he met his wife. He wrote ‘For Rosanna’, also from 1986’s Into The Light, about his 2-year old daughter; she later became Miss World 2003.
#5 – Girl You Know It’s True by Milli Vanilli
Milli Vanilli are an easy target – the European R&B duo shot to infamy in 1989 when a technical glitch revealed that Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus were lip-syncing their live performances. They weren’t singing in the studio either, although I’m a firm believer that the final product is more important than any notions of artistic integrity. The problem is that the final product is utterly generic R&B, with its “true” and “love you” rhymes – the slick dance moves of Morvan and Pilatus are the group’s biggest redeeming feature.
#4 – We Are The World by U.S.A. for Africa
There are a bunch of questionable collaborative songs that emerged in the 1980s – duets featuring various combinations of Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson were all considered, as well as ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’. It’s fun watching a bunch of legends takes turns at the mic in the music video for ‘We Are The World’ – you’re unlikely to see the combination of Dionne Warwick and Willie Nelson anywhere else. But ‘We Are The World’, written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, is essentially a bad Christmas carol.
#3: Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin
‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ is the second song on this list to originate from the movie Cocktail. Bobby McFerrin has a jazz pedigree, influenced by Keith Jarrett and working with Herbie Hancock. The song is an impressive technical achievement with all of its sounds emanating from McFerrin’s mouth. But ultimately it’s a gimmicky novelty hit – McFerrin’s faux-Jamaican accent is particularly painful. ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ was used as George H.W. Bush’s campaign song against McFerrin’s wishes, and it’s often falsely attributed to Bob Marley – Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ (which also features lyrics about not worrying) is a much stronger song.
#2: We Built This City by Starship
In the 1960s Jefferson Airplane were an anti-establishment band, pushing boundaries with songs like ‘White Rabbit’, ‘Triad’, and ‘Volunteers’. By 1985 they’d morphed into Starship and they were the establishment, singing a corporate rock song about how they’d built this city on rock and roll. Bernie Taupin provides incomprehensible lyrics like “Marconi plays the mamba”. The attempted inspirational anthem ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, from 1987’s No Protection, was also in contention for this list.
#1: Dancing in the Street – David Bowie & Mick Jagger
Two rock legends joined forces for a cover of a 1960s Motown classic, with a video recorded for broadcast at Live Aid. It’s a robust song, co-penned by Marvin Gaye, but it’s spoiled by the over-enthusiastic singing of the pair. They sound like caricatures of themselves, embarrassing dads.
Am I wrong about ‘Tainted Love’? Am I crazy to think that David Bowie and Mick Jagger recorded the worst song of the decade? What did I forget to include?