It's hard to resist the siren call of the 1980s. After the late-1970s explosion of punk and the advent of user-friendly synthesizers, even pop music started to sound pretty weird. It's no wonder that people remain obsessed with this highly creative decade. And so, L.A. Weekly is back with its third installment of “Underrated ’80s Bands You Need to Hear Now,” featuring another 10 groups that deserve a place in your vinyl (or digital) libraries.
“I might like you better if we slept together.” If you grew up in Los Angeles listening to ’80s KROQ, then you no doubt recall the most striking lyric from Romeo Void's “Never Say Never,” which might have seemed then to stand alongside Berlin's “Sex” and Soft Cell's “Sex Dwarf” to form a trio of new-wave hook-up jams. Years later, though, you may have taken a peek at the written lyrics and noticed that stanza where the character's desire for sex is juxtaposed with a homeless person's need for shelter and a coat. There's more to Romeo Void than the chorus. Led by singer Debora Iyall, the San Francisco–based group flirted with popularity in the early ’80s thanks to the aforementioned song and another Top 40 single, “A Girl in Trouble.” Today they deserve a revisit not for nostalgia but for lyrical prowess. Iyall shares stories that are equal parts detailed and vague; there's enough there to set a scene and enough missing to let the listener interpret it. Check out “Undercover Kept,” from the 1982 album Benefactor.
Driven by Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, XTC released 14 albums between 1978 and 2000, with the bulk of the output concentrated in the 1980s. Alternative-radio listeners of the era will recognize the band for singles including “Senses Working Overtime” and “Dear God.” As songwriters, they tackled subjects such as war, on the snarky and perennially relevant “Generals and Majors,” and atheism, on the surprise hit “Dear God.” They never reached the level of commercial success of R.E.M. or attained the same sort of cult following that The Smiths did. Maybe that was due in part to their absence from the road; the band stopped touring in the early ’80s. Still, their studio work was filled with multiple strokes of genius that mixed perfectly melodic guitar pop with forays into experimental music. XTC fiddled with electronic blips and walls of noise with the same eloquence that they wrote pop ditties like “Mayor of Simpleton.”
From the opening of “Astradyne,” the introduction to Ultravox's 1980 album Vienna, it's clear that this was a band intent on making a bold entrance into the new decade. Their sound was large enough to fill a stadium, with swells of synthesizers that could conjure images of an electronic future. A seminal U.K. post-punk band of the late ’70s, Ultravox headed into the ’80s with a new singer, Midge Ure, and a commitment to dramatic pop songs that garnered them commercial success across Europe. In the United States, though, the story was different. A committed new-wave nerd would know the band, and the former cool kids of the decade might recognize songs like “Vienna,” “Reap the Wild Wind” and “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes.” But Ultravox never broke in the States the way that they did elsewhere — a reality even Ure joked about that when he recently played solo in Los Angeles. Ultravox's 1980s output, from the energetic “We Came to Dance” to the heartbreaking “Vienna,” deserves to reach more American listeners.
German group Camouflage made a splash with their debut single, “The Great Commandment,” which topped the U.S. Billboard dance chart in 1988. From there, however, the band's profile faded. Now they're mainly recognized only by those who didn't give up on synth-pop after the genre's 1980s heyday. Indeed, you'll still hear the synth-obsessed DJs of L.A. dropping tracks like “Love Is a Shield,” from Camouflage's 1989 sophomore effort, Methods of Silence. While Camouflage reflected a waning period of 1980s music, before techno hit the underground and guitar rock went on to dominate ’90s alternative radio, the band continued. In fact, their most recent album came out in 2015.
Best known for their 1984 album, Meeting in the Ladies Room, Klymaxx had a bit of Top 40 success with the ballad “I Miss You.” The sentimental slow jam, though, wasn't quite an accurate representation of the all-female group. Head back to 1981 for their underappreciated debut album, Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman, where late disco–era cuts meld into fierce funk. It is damn near impossible to escape the hip-swiveling groove of “You're the Greatest” and the rousing handclaps of “All Fired Up.” By the mid-’80s, Klymaxx had developed an electro-funky sound that made for some of their most exciting and cheeky work, like the title track for Meeting in the Ladies Room and “The Men All Pause.” This is essential party music.
After a stint known simply as Q, SSQ released their only full-length album, Playback, in 1983. Led by singer Stacey Swain and guitarist-producer Jon St. James, the group pulled together a mishmash of ideas that resulted not so much in a cohesive album but rather a sample of how many directions synth-pop could take. “Synthicide” is a bouncy, new-wave number in line with the hits of the day, although it didn't make the same kind of impact as, for example, Kim Wilde's “Kids in America.” On “Screaming in My Pillow,” they take a more minimal approach for a song that has aged quite well; it could easily fit in a set of today's indie synth artists. Then there's “N'importe Quoi,” which is basically ’80s lounge music. While SSQ didn't make it big, Swain and St. James' creative partnership did after the singer renamed herself Stacey Q and released the 1986 hit “Two of Hearts.”
Bow Wow Wow
Bow Wow Wow's lone U.S. top 40 single, “I Want Candy,” is a staple of ’80s parties, almost as cliche a representation of the decade as Valley Girl imitations. But Bow Wow Wow remain underrated in that people just can't seem to get past that one song, itself a cover of a 1965 hit for The Strangeloves. Formed by former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, Bow Wow Wow strayed far from that group's signature snarl, but they were no less rebellious. Lead singer Annabella Lwin's raspy voice was equal parts charming and forceful, sounding like the connective tissue between the music of the 1960s and that of the 1980s, as she spouted lyrics that sometimes dealt quite frankly with sex. Lwin's style of singing was also a wonderful match for the rhythmic bounce that came courtesy of former members of Adam and the Ants and is best evident on songs like “Do You Wanna Hold Me?” and “Aphrodisiac.”
The Selecter's first run was short-lived — they formed in 1979 and disbanded in 1981 — but in that time, they recorded enough solid tunes to be a seminal force in 2-tone ska. Musically, The Selecter seamlessly bridged complicated emotions, a point best illustrated on “Bombscare” (from sophomore album Celebrate the Bullet) when drum rolls lead into dark, dubby interludes that augment the fear in Pauline Black's voice. The beat picks up as that fear turns to anger. The title track from their debut album, Too Much Pressure, channels ska into the musical equivalent of a boiling point.
Book of Love
Book of Love deserve a spot on this list solely for the bold way this synth-pop four-piece opened their sophomore album. Lullaby propels listeners onto the dance floor with a cover of “Tubular Bells” — best known for its use in The Exorcist — which plays out like hearts racing under a disco ball. It is filled not with the fear of demonic possession but of love, longing and angst that comes to fruition when the cover morphs into “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls.” Book of Love kept it real in a way that dance music frequently doesn't. In “Boy,” the narrator describes being a girl stuck outside of a gay bar with a touch of melancholy that belies the energetic beat. Recently, the band embarked on a 30th-anniversary tour and released a new EP, All Girl Band.
Thanks to Joy Division and New Order, Factory Records became one of the best-known indie labels of the post-punk era and a pivotal player in Manchester's music scene. Among the lesser-known artists to release music through the storied label is Quando Quango. The band fused an international array of influences into a big, club-friendly sound that made an impact during the period after disco's fall and before house's rise. Fittingly, Quando Quango member Mike Pickering became a DJ at Factory's now-legendary Hacienda nightclub. (He also went on to form the group M People.) “Love Tempo” and “Atom Rock” are cult favorites among dance-music lovers and have turned up on several compilations over the years. Check out the band's sole full-length, Pigs + Battleships, for a faithful cover of “Low Rider.”