Hard Rock’s Ten Most Perfect Songs 1980-85 [OPINION]
I am the first to remind people that all works of art are graded strictly by opinion, and music is included in this truth as an art form.
One man's noise pollution is another man's bliss.
My band, a hard rock tribute act, was performing in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard last year. As it is nearly impossible to get a vehicle onto the island in the summer, we relied on public transportation and ended up dropping our instruments and equipment off at the performance venue in the afternoon, and returned by an Uber vehicle later on that evening.
On the 30-minute trip from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown, we spoke about the ferry ride, the setlist but eventually noticed the odd sounds coming out of the speakers. I asked Rãzvan, our pleasant Uber driver from Romania, what we were listening to.
Rãz, as we ended up calling him by trip's end, said it was his Pandora personalized "Soundscape" channel. Mind you, I'm riding with one Ethan Brosh, a masterful guitar player and accomplished composer of heavy metal.
Rãz was pleased to know that we took an interest in his choice of "music." He explained, "This is my very favorite, because, you know, any sound can come at any point." Both Ethan and I looked at each other, knowing what the other was thinking. Certainly, random unlikely sounds are not our criteria for Top 40 listening. We became increasingly interested, though.
I mean, Rãz was kind of proud of his entertainment choice, which he generously shared with his captive audience of ride-share clients.
Before he dropped us off, we listened intently to the music and never let the poor guy know that instead of enjoying it, we found it to be awesomely awful. It took us all we could do to not break out in laughter at any given moment. He said, "It's the best music because at any time you can hear any noise. You never know what is next."
I mean there was a steady, looping bass drum and bass guitar dance beat programmed into the mix, but random, unexpected samples of car crashes, broken glass, a cat shriek, creaking door, train horns, and other bizarre audio choices plagued the ride.
I once again offered the diplomatic but universal truth that "Music's only truth is opinion," to which Ethan added, "Yes, especially when it is my opinion!" which made us all laugh.
How did he find that to be great music? For that matter, how do any of us come to enjoy and even love music? What is it that attracts us to it? Is it primal or spiritual or both? Well, in fact, it's all about dopamine. Yes, it's legal – for now.
Dopamine is a "feel good" hormone that serves as a neurotransmitter. We make it and we use it to send messages between our nerve cells. The brain releases it when we eat food that we enjoy, have sex and enjoy other things of indulgence, including music.
There is a genius in being able to produce out of nothing, the ability to chemically alter the hormonal levels of other human beings to the point of making a pleasurable experience for them. I mean this for all of us non-supermodel humans only.
A musician or singer doesn't even need to be in the same room or country or even be alive at the same time as the listener. The listener may have no idea what the performer looks like. Yet a connection is made without ever meeting or touching in any other way outside of a pattern of sounds and rhythms passed through soundwaves from a performer to the listener's ear, whether live or through recordings.
Anyway, here are my dopamine-releasing top 10 hard rock songs released between 1980 and 1985. These are the tunes that I feel were either in fact perfect or near-perfect from start to finish. My criteria for judging include the composition, the production, quality of musicianship and vocals, both lead and harmonies (where it applies). I did not include a level of difficulty.
10. "No One Like You," Scorpions (1982)
This German band has a very impressive roster and including alumni of those who have performed with them and gone on to other ventures in music. Guitarist Rudy Schenker and singer Klaus Meine composed this song in 1982. It has it all. Meine has startling vocal qualities: great singing, great lyrics, and great choices in the lyrical notes. The guitar is included right away with the attention-grabbing riff and the solo doesn't disappoint but has to be respected as a mention.
9. "Tom Sawyer," Rush (1981)
This Canadian trio has, for many fellow musicians, the gold standard for average quality per position of almost any band imaginable in rock. They pivoted to a more commercial sound with their release of Moving Pictures and released the feature song "Tom Sawyer," which continues today to be one of the best quality sound productions, despite the lack of digital and other modern advantages found in studios today.
Yes, it is one of those "perfect" songs. The one credible critique on the band is the high pitch of the singer Geddy Lee (also regarded as one of the best bass players ever) but as well as many songs this band produced, it is very fitting and his tone threads the needle and is complementary to "Tom Sawyer." And it's probably the song most played by the air drummers of the world.
8. "Rainbow In The Dark," Dio (1983)
Ronnie James Dio had already been in epic '70s bands Rainbow and Black Sabbath but he put his name on the record and made his own mark (of the devil). The dark lyrics and image which may have been closer in union with you-know-who than even Ozzy was only part of the Dio sound. At five-foot-three, the projection and power coming out of that man were astounding. This song was perfectly constructed and produced by Dio with Vivian Campbell on guitar, Vinnie Appice on drums and Jimmy Bain on bass. This song is popular even today.
7. "Flying High Again," Ozzy Osborne (1981)
A lot of people assumed this song was about drugs but for Osborne, it was about rising from the ashes in the music biz after being fired by Black Sabbath. This song elevated guitarist Randy Rhoads to cult status and Ozzy to "demonic" status. The "Prince of Darkness" soared much higher than his Sabbath bandmates in 1982 with "Flying High Again," hitting No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
With his new toy in L.A. guitarist Rhoads. Ozzy pivoted from '70s heavy metal to the neo-'80s flashier rock. It's difficult for me to pay attention to anything but the guitar, as Rhoads showed why people mentioned him in the same breath as Eddie Van Halen (including people like Eddie himself). With a unique composition and a style that inspired many bands to emulate, "Flying High Again" was the lead single to the platinum album Diary of a Madman.
6. "Unchained," Van Halen (1981)
Finally a band from the US. California's Van Halen boasted ridiculous record sales numbers by the time their fourth album Fair Warning was released. In "Unchained," a sound created by EVH was first heard and would later be the dominant sound of the grunge era in the 1990s, the "drop D" tuning.
"Unchained" is, in my opinion, the greatest hard rock opening song in concert. The energy, tone, style and pace of the musicianship alone grabs you by the throat and demands to be the focus. Add the flamboyant, yet the somehow uber-masculine style of frontman David Lee Roth and his partying lyrics, and the formula changed and advanced hard rock forever.
5. "Don't Stop Believin'," Journey (1981)
California once again. San Francisco's Journey hit it out of the park with "Don't Stop Believin'." Steve Perry has a very enviable voice accompanied by his choices in his approach to the vocal notes. Neal Schon is absolutely brilliant when the guitar is first introduced under the piano and lyrics, and the volume increases with a nicely timed segue into the next verse. Remarkable solo, too. Steve Smith (of Whitman, Massachusetts) plays one of the most recognized drum beats in rock history in this tune and of course, Jonathan Cain's piano riff to start the song is equally recognizable.
4. "Knocking At Your Back Door," Deep Purple (1985)
The legendary band returned from its early '70s glory days with an epic feature single from the comeback album Perfect Strangers. I don't believe I have guitarist Richie Blackmore rated as high as he has rated himself but give credit where credit is due. An incredibly creative and – forgive the pun – deep guitar riff, spectacular solo and outro solo. One of my all-time favorite singers, Ian Gillian, can't hide his enthusiasm to get back in the studio with his old band. It comes through his microphone. I was happy for this band's success on this record.
3. "Jump," Van Halen (1984)
The No. 1 song in 1984, "Jump" brings Van Halen as the rightful only two-time entrant on my list. They dominated the hard rock genre in the early '80s and the video is almost as good as the song. Rumor has it that they spent more on beer than they did on video production. It didn't matter. The anthem of "Jump" is a celebrated staple song for the 1980s. Nonsensical lyrics served with peerless energy, killer guitar solo and Ed's brother Alex Van Halen comes through with one of his best recordings on the drums in this song.
2. "You Shook Me All Night Long," AC/DC (1980)
Proof that keeping it simple is a proven formula. These guys would never be mistaken for being world-class musicians, but they sure knew how to write and they sure knew how to make heads bang.
The vocals are carried by Brian Johnson in his debut with the band after Bon Scott had just passed away from alcoholism. Robert "Mutt" Lange produced this and other AC/DC records and his patented "gold" is unmistakable when you listen to both the lead guitar solo and the strong rhythm guitar behind it. If you are a Def Leppard fan, you'll know what I mean, as Lange produced the Pyromania record for them two years later.
When considering the quality of a rock vocalist, you don't think about whether or not they can sing great, you consider whether or not you like how the vocalist sounds. Otherwise, where would Mick Jagger, David Lee Roth, Tom Petty, and Brian Johnson ever get the idea to step in front of a microphone?
This song has no weaknesses. The lyrics are just so damn rock n' roll. The doubling up of guitars after the second verse is a genius decision to continue the build and the chorus, guitar solo and rhythm section are flawless from start to finish.
1. "Photograph," Def Leppard (1983)
Underappreciated in their home country of Great Britain, Def Leppard had far more success with the American audience. Their third record Pyromania was loaded with hits but none bigger than "Photograph." Mutt Lange's DNA is quite evident in the production. His familiar doubling up of the guitars after the second verse and other aspects of this song gives it almost the same formula as my No. 2 selection. A perfect guitar solo matches the great pre-chorus and harmonies in the chorus.
Joe Elliott is a good frontman and I've always liked his choice of lyrical notes. While somewhat limited, he utilizes his vocal limitations smartly and "Photograph" is right up his alley. The video of the song has a concept which seems to accuse some unknown person of power with murdering Marilyn Monroe. Def Leppard is the epitome of the philosophy that I share, that a band is a team sport.
God knows how many more great songs this band would have come up in the mid-80s but they sat it out and waited for their drummer Rick Allen who, sadly, had to learn how to play the drums with the one arm he still had following a horrible car accident. He crashed his Chevrolet Corvette on New Years' Eve 1984 and his left arm had to be amputated.
Instead of striking while the iron was hot and hiring any stud drummer they wanted, this band was willing to lose money, time and risk its hard-earned fame for the sake of their bandmate. Allen did not disappoint.
He amazingly trained his feet to hit pedals on the floor to make up for the lack of his left arm and he was and is today still a terrific percussionist.
I'm not going to lie, it is part of the reason I put them at the top of the list. But if you listen, you'd have to agree they made a strong argument anyway.
Ken Pittman is the host of The Ken Pittman Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Contact him at ken.pittman@