Hair Metal, College Rock and Folk Punk - A Guide to the 80s Biggest Rock Bands
Though often overlooked, the 80s was a fantastic decade for music. As well as the emergence of post-punk, new wave and a fresh set of hard-hitting metal bands, it boasted its fair share of traditional rock and roll superstars. All of which makes it pretty hard to compile a list of the decade’s biggest bands. We’ve given it our best shot, though. So, without further ado and in no particular order, here’s our ultimate guide to the greatest rock groups of the 1980s.
Guns N’ Roses
Though they only formed halfway through the 80s, Guns N’ Roses are responsible for two of the decade’s most influential albums. Both their exhilarating debut release, Appetite for Destruction, and the more balanced sophomore attempt, G N’ R Lies, feature some of the era’s biggest hits and cemented the band’s reputation as hard rock legends.
Headed by one of the most talented frontmen in history, the band were the last of rock’s old guard and famed for their enormous live tours, outlandish backstage behaviour and enormous egos. As the 80s came to a close and the excesses of rock’s biggest bands gave way to the 90s more down-to-earth Britpop, Indie and dance-orientated groups, it was only Guns N’ Roses left standing.
A special band that showed traditional rock could still be innovative, exciting and impassioned, they left a lasting legacy and continue to rank highly in lists of the greatest groups to ever take to the stage.
Even those who haven’t the faintest interest in rock music can belt out the chorus to Livin’ on a Prayer. One of the most successful groups of the 80s, Bon Jovi are synonymous with big hooks and classic arena rock. Originally comprised of Jon Bon Jovi on vocals, Richie Sambora on lead guitar, Alec John Such on bass, David Bryan on keys and Tico Torres on drums, the band released four albums between 1984 and 1988.
While their first two albums were received well and managed to chart in the top 40, their third album, Slippery When Wet, marked the start of their mainstream success. It contained two number one singles and would go on to sell more than 20 million copies. However, this remarkable success was surpassed by their fourth record, New Jersey, which broke the record for the glam rock album with the most top 10 hits.
Though Bon Jovi’s music is very much of its time, the band enjoy continued success, with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and their tours in the 00s registering as some of the most profitable of the decade.
The history of rock music is littered with bands who lived fast and died young. So it takes more than a bit of work to earn a reputation as the hardest-partying group in music. Mötley Crüe will forever be associated with excess and much of their legend is founded on tales of debauchery, wild behaviour and near-death experiences. While it’s true that many of their most famous controversies were managed PR stunts, there was just enough truth behind the stories that they endeared them to generations of music lovers.
Formed in 1981 and almost burnt-out by the end of the decade, the group indulged in many of the stereotypical rock theatrics we’ve come to expect of the genre. Televisions were thrown through hotel windows, an endless array of substances were abused and inter-band tensions ensured a regular turnaround of members.
Despite all this, the band are still going strong to this day, having recently released a Netflix series about their early days in Los Angeles and with a world tour suspended due to the COVID pandemic. If you’d like a little bit of a deeper dive into the band’s history, check out our piece on the Crüe’s fascinating story.
Though they formed in 1976, a year before the punk explosion tore through the UK, U2 didn’t release their debut album until 1980. It was definitely worth the wait. Boy marked the band as something completely different from other groups on the music scene. Honest and unpolished, it established U2 as a more traditional rock band than their punk and new wave counterparts, paving the way for them to become the arena rock behemoths we know today.
The follow-up, War, contained the band’s first smash hit, Sunday Bloody Sunday, and reached number one in the album charts. Earning themselves a reputation as a must-see live band, they toured extensively throughout the 80s and really made their name with an outstanding Live Aid performance. By 1987, they were at the height of their powers and released their most critically-acclaimed album, The Joshua Tree.
The record remains the band’s best-selling album and is certified 10x Platinum. It contains three of U2’s most recognisable hits, Where the Streets Have No Name, With or Without You and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, and regularly ranks amongst the era’s greatest albums on critics’ best of lists.
I don’t know about you, but when we think of hard rock, there’s one band that instantly springs to mind. While AC/DC had been in existence since 1973, their most influential records were released in the 80s, after the unfortunate death of original lead singer, Bon Scott. Despite almost disbanding, the group brought vocal powerhouse Brian Johnson on-board and went on to release the iconic Back in Black in 1980.
This was quickly followed by 1981’s For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the first of their albums to take the top spot in the US charts. While the second half of the decade saw the band struggle with limited commercial success, the impact those early records had is enough to guarantee them a place on any list of great 80s rock groups. Hells Bells, You Shook Me All Night Long and Back in Black are all classics of the genre and for that, we salute you AC/DC.
So far, our list has been dominated by traditional rock acts. Now, it’s time for something a little different. R.E.M were trailblazers in the US alternative rock scene and developed a devoted following across the US and, later, internationally. Often regarded as the epitome of the college rock group - a term used for those bands who built a loyal fanbase off of the back of radio play from college campus stations - R.E.M were far more melodic, introspective and abstract than many of their contemporaries.
In this sense, they paved the way for many of the alternative bands that would emerge at the end of the decade and the start of the ‘90s. Pavement, Nirvana and Radiohead have all cited the band as an important source of inspiration, while Johnny Marr is on record as having said that the Smiths always kept one eye on what R.E.M were doing as a way of staying ahead of the curve.
While 1996’s Adventures in Hi-Fi is often regarded as the band’s masterpiece, R.E.M’s reputation as authentic underground heroes was built on a string of releases in the 80s. Murmur, Reckoning and Green are all fantastic albums and even more impressive for the fact that the band received little attention in the mainstream music press at this time.
Though rock and pop have always incorporated influences from other musical styles (just think of George Harrison’s sitar-tinged psychedelia or Led Zep’s Celtic experimentation on Led Zeppelin III), few bands blended genres as openly as the Violent Femmes. Though they’re undoubtedly a rock band, the country and folk influence is clear for all to hear, most notably on their Americana-infused second album.
Founded in 1981, the band released their best-selling and most highly regarded album in 1983. The self-titled record contained a host of irrepressibly catchy singles, including Blister in the Sun, Kiss Off and Add It Up, and eventually went platinum eight years after its release. The follow-up, Hallowed Ground, was ridiculed at the time for its overtly religious lyrical content but, with the passing of time, has come to be seen as an ambitious and exciting ode to US roots music.
The band split in 1987 but have reformed several times over the last thirty years, on one occasion to release an excellent cover of Gnarl Barkley’s hit Crazy.
The Boss has enjoyed such a long and illustrious career that it’s difficult to pin him down as belonging to any one particular decade. However, if we had to choose, it would be the 80s. These were the years that he rose to prominence and the years in which he released his most iconic, rock-orientated albums. Though purists may say that the 70s are when he made his most urgent and important work (The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run, in particular), it’s difficult to argue with the incredible run of success he enjoyed in the following decade.
First came The River, a double album that saw the artist step out of the shadow of his main source of inspiration, Bob Dylan, and embrace a more uniquely Springsteen sound. Next, was Bruce’s first solo effort, Nebraska. More sombre and muted than the high-octane, jam-band sound that came before, it dealt with many of the same key themes as his previous work, namely working-class life and small-town America. Finally, Born in the U.S.A was released in 1984 and quickly became Springsteen’s most successful album and one of the best-selling records of all time.
However, looking back on this rock classic, Bruce Springsteen himself has some reservations. Though the title track contains an anti-war message, the sing-along refrain at the heart of its chorus means it has been misinterpreted as a rabble-rousing call-to-arms for US patriots on countless occasions. This complex legacy, along with the fact that the Boss feels the album doesn’t quite stand together as a cohesive whole, means that it’s often viewed as a commercial, rather than critical, success.
Though Sting’s reputation may have taken a bit of a battering over the last 20 years or so, there was a time when The Police counted themselves amongst the biggest bands in the world. Several of the band’s best-known singles, including Roxanne and Message in a Bottle, were released towards the end of the 70s, but it was their run of chart-topping albums in the early 80s that made them international superstars.
Don’t Stand So Close to Me was the best-selling single of 1980, while Every Breath You Take from the excellent Synchronicity album would go on to become the band’s signature track and was voted the British public’s favourite single of the 80s. How can you argue with that level of success?
While a large number of Queen’s biggest hits, including Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions, were released in the 70s, the 1980s was the decade that made them the biggest band on the planet. In large part, this was due to the extensive touring that saw them visit countries with little history of hosting large-scale pop concerts.
In 1981, the band toured South America, playing the largest show in Argentinian history in Buenos Aires and performing to the biggest audience in the world (at the time) in São Paulo. In early 1985, they played in front of a crowd of 300,000 in Rio de Janeiro and repeated the feat the next night for good measure. Then, in the summer of that same year, they took to the stage to serenade Wembley Stadium at the most famous live show in modern music history - Live Aid. Their performance was widely heralded as the best on the day and is still regularly cited as the greatest performance ever committed to film.
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