Music of the ’80s is forever remembered for mega-stars, all neon everything and a cavalcade of one-hit wonders. But beneath the glossy surface lies a wealth of great bands producing a panorama of sounds incorporating unexpected elements of the past with an eye on the future. L.A. Weekly recently explored a host of great but criminally underrated acts from this incredible decade of music. Now I’ve been given the honor of unearthing 10 more bands from the ’80s deserving of more exposure and acclaim.
Digging through my crates of vinyl, it wasn’t long before I had a stack of albums from ‘80s artists that still stand out today. Enjoy the ride.
Fronted by David Sylvian, British group Japan was a band all but defined by perpetual stylistic changes. Initially a late-’70s punkish glam-rock outfit (see early single “Adolescent Sex”), the group would connect with legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder for one-off single “Life in Tokyo,” catapulting them into the heart of the new romantic movement. Albums like Quiet Life and particularly Gentlemen Take Polaroids delved deeper into synth-driven new wave, heavily influencing the likes of Duran Duran. Japan’s sound would crystalize with final album Tin Drum, fusing Far Eastern influences with ambient atmospherics, scoring the band’s biggest hit, “Ghosts.” Splitting in 1982, Sylvian and former Japan members Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri briefly reformed in 1990 as Rain Tree Crow. Fretless bass virtuoso Karn died of cancer in 2011.
Tones on Tail
As goth icons Bauhaus were flaming out in the early ’80s, guitarist Daniel Ash launched this stellar side project, which would eventually include Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskins. Incorporating an experimental dance-floor edge and rockabilly guitars, the band would produce underground favorites such as “Go!” next to moodier moments including “Rain” and “You, the Night and the Music.” Tones on Tail would be a short-lived outfit, as member Glenn Rampling left the fold after just two years, and former Bauhaus bassist David J rejoined Ash and Haskins to form pioneering alt-rock band Love and Rockets in 1985.
Led by prolific songwriter Paddy McAloon, British band Prefab Sprout’s ornate, heartfelt pop made an impact from their debut album, Swoon, which drew producer Thomas Dolby to work with the band throughout their career. Together, they produced the group’s instantly classic 1985 sophomore full-length, Steve McQueen (released as Two Wheels Good in America), packed with gorgeously crafted, jazz-inflected songs including “Goodbye Lucille #1” and “Bonny,” which invoked influences ranging from Cole Porter to Elvis Costello and The Smiths. The band streamlined its sound somewhat on follow-up From Langley Park to Memphis, scoring the outfit’s biggest hit, “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Coming out of Los Angeles, The BusBoys brought a decidedly black approach to their New Wave–ish take on classic rock & roll. The mostly African-American band (drummer Steve Felix was Hispanic) played up their iconoclastic nature across debut album Minimum Wage Rock & Roll. Featuring sardonic songs such as “KKK” and “There Goes the Neighborhood,” the group’s theatrical live shows soon caught the eye of comedian Eddie Murphy, leading to the band’s appearance on Saturday Night Live and in the movie 48 Hrs. with their biggest hit, “The Boys Are Back in Town.” They would go on to open for Murphy on his massive Delirious tour. Murphy would continue to support the group, featuring in the song and video for 1988 single "Never Giving Up."
This group is considered by many as ground zero for the Athens, Georgia, indie rock scene, and for good reason. The band’s original rehearsal space went on to become the city’s legendary 40 Watt Club. Pylon played shows with such acts as Gang of Four and U2 before disbanding in the early ’80s after just two albums. Advocated by the likes of The B-52’s in their early years, the group’s biggest champions would be fellow Athens natives R.E.M., whom they clearly influenced with jangly guitars and murky production values. R.E.M. covered Pylon’s song “Crazy” for 1987 compilation album Dead Letter Office. Pylon reformed in 1989 and went on to open for R.E.M. during the Green tour that same year.
The Three O’Clock
This Los Angeles outfit (originally known as The Salvation Army) were an integral part of the “Paisley Underground” scene alongside The Bangles and Rain Parade. Sporting psychedelic influences and Rickenbacker guitar tones reminiscent of The Byrds, the group blasted out of the gate with the outstanding Baroque Hoedown EP, followed by the equally strong debut album, Sixteen Tambourines, which featured the hit “Jet Fighter.” The group had an unlikely fan in Prince, who would sign The Three O’Clock to his Paisley Park label for the band’s final album, 1988's Vermillion, which included the Prince-penned “Neon Telephone.”
The ’80s were also the decade of industrial music, the marriage of metallic electronics and goth tendencies into often danceable tracks for the underground. Personified by Chicago’s Wax Trax! label and acts such as Ministry, early industrial also had a major player in Canada’s Nettwerk label, which featured acts such as Skinny Puppy and, eventually, Australia's Severed Heads. Led by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Tom Ellard, the group hit their stride with 1983 full-length Since the Accident, boasting the club hit “Dead Eyes Opened.” Severed Heads subsequently joined Nettwerk for a string of industrial favorites including “Hot With Fleas” and “Twenty Deadly Diseases.”
Somewhat similar to Prefab Sprout in their jazzy influences, this Scottish band was led by prolific songwriter Roddy Frame. Frame was still a teenager with Aztec Camera released their debut album, High Land, Hard Rain, in 1983. Frontloaded with the single “Oblivious,” the album was packed with Frame’s exemplary guitar playing and romantic lyricism. While Frame and Aztec Camera would go on to release five more worthwhile albums (including the perpetually derided and underappreciated sophomore release, Knife), none would ever really hit the same heights as their storied debut.
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Kid Creole and the Coconuts
This theatrical, multicultural and decidedly New York band emerged from the ashes of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Frontman August Darnell rechristened himself Kid Creole, and along with sidekick Coati Mundi launched Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Combining a host of Latin and South American influences, the group’s raucous live shows quickly became the stuff of legend, and landed a musical guest appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1980. Boasting club favorites like “Endicott” and “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy,” the group received a major boost of mainstream exposure with an appearance in the 1984 movie Against All Odds.
This English post-punk band were lauded by John Peel early in their career, with the legendary DJ hosting them for Peel Sessions before the group signed a record deal. Marked by slashing guitars and thunderous rhythms, The Chameleons produced a pair of well-received albums (Script of the Bridge and What Does Anything Mean? Basically) and singles including “Up the Down Escalator” before signing with Geffen for what’s considered by many to be the band’s finest hour, 1986 full-length Strange Times, fronted by the singles “Tears” and “Swamp Thing.”
[Correction: Due to a copyediting error, an earlier version of this list described Duran Duran as influencing Japan, when in fact it was the other way around. We regret the error.]