Monday, June 6, 2016

1986: The Music

Thirty years ago I was ten years old, which means I was still at optimal receptiveness for the things that would in 2016 evoke fond memories and feelings of nostalgia. I got the idea for this post from the first Dragon Con panel I was a part of – 1982: Best Sci-Fi Movie Year Ever? (or some such thing). We had a great discussion about the movies that came out that year. Sadly nobody recorded it, but I thoroughly enjoyed having a topic that was both broad and focused. It was only 1982 sci-fi movies, but there were plenty to discuss!

Back in May I reminisced about the toy lines of 1986 (because of course I did) and the following week I wrote about 1986 movies. I thought my final post was going to be last week’s piece about the TV shows of 1986, but it turns out I’m not close to done.

I hadn’t planned on doing so many 1986 posts, but I realized there was so much more going on than just toys. I was basically a little pop culture sponge in 1986. Movies and television had a big influence on me, and toys have obviously been a huge part of my life. Cartoons are going to warrant their own post – I was foolish to think they wouldn’t – and today I’m going to talk about music.

I don’t write about music a whole heck of a lot because I like what I like and that’s the end of what I have to offer. I have loved music for as long as I can remember. From listening to those first Muppets records at home to listening to Dad’s music in the car to discovering everything that MTV had to offer, music has accompanied me all my life. It’s another thing that I’m not just into, but am invested in. I’m a fan.

There were times in my life when I tried to make music. I took piano lessons when I was very young, I tried to be in the band in high school, and I was in a punk band after high school. I do not have a talent for making music. I also do not have the patience to learn to make music. With all of those things I expected too much of myself, too soon (a common theme of my life).

Just looking at the year-end Billboard Top 100 list for 1986 is emotionally powerful. There are so many songs on that list that make me ache for my youth. I’m talking a palpable, physical feeling. I’ve been having a lot of those lately. Just the other day I was playing the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head for my son for the first time (we’ve broken the profanity seal) and for whatever reason when those opening sounds of “Funky Boss” kicked in I just had that feeling. That overwhelming yearning for those times when there were still possibilities and I didn’t spare half a thought on the future.

I don’t know why “Funky Boss” did that. It’s not one of my favorite tracks or even all that good outside of the context of the album. I’m sure it triggered some very particular feeling associated with an event that happened while that song was playing that I don’t even remember. But it was powerful. As someone who tends to keep feelings buried deep down inside, I felt that one. And looking at that Billboard list – just glancing – I felt multiple versions of that feeling rumbling around deep inside. These songs might even be hitting harder because there are many of them I haven’t heard in years. I listen to Check Your Head at least monthly, so “Funky Boss” affecting me came a s a surprise, but it was muted by years of familiarity. This stuff is going to be like surprise memory daggers.

What I’m saying here is that writing this post is probably going to leave me a sobbing wreck. Enjoy!

Side Note: This post consists almost entirely of entries from the Billboard Top 100 of 1986. I hadn't planned to use that as my only resource, but once I saw the list I realized it was a powerful year for music and I would have plenty to discuss. If there are songs or artists you feel are missing, it's because they didn't hit in 1986 or I just didn't become aware of them then.

The Beastie Boys

I was into Michael Jackson like everyone was into Michael Jackson. Weird Al was the first musician I was a fan of. As in, I bought everything he did and sought out magazines and recorded his videos on MTV and stuff. But as much as I adore Weird Al and look at him as a hero, to me he is more of an entertainer than a musician. I know that doesn’t sound right, but he does too much to just be a musician. Maybe I’ll get more into that in another post, but the point is that in my head Al is too big for just one type of thing.

While the Beastie Boys have also pursued other forms of entertainment, they will always be firmly ingrained into my consciousness as a musical group. And 1986 was the year that their debut (hip hop) album Licensed to Ill was released. They were the first musical group that I was obsessed with.


That is a post for another day. I can’t rightfully mention the Beasties as anything more than a footnote here because while Licensed to Ill dropped in November of ’86, I am fairly certain I didn’t become aware of them until the video for “Fight For Your Right (to Party)” came out in February of 1987. Because MTV was how I learned about almost everything back then. So let’s move on to the group that opened the door to a whole new world of music for me, the world that the Beastie Boys found their success in.


I don’t remember my youth very well. I don’t have the recall that provides crystal clear memories. I can dig down and find fuzzy memories that consist of feelings more than fact, but there aren’t a lot of events that I can visualize.

I remember very clearly the first time I saw the video for RUN DMC’s “Walk This Way”. And all I wanted was for that annoying white guy with the huge mouth to shut up so that the coolest guys I had ever seen in my life could keep… doing whatever it was they were doing. It wasn’t singing, but it wasn’t talking. It had rhythm, but it wasn’t like anything I had heard. And the music. It compelled my head to bob.


These two guys were telling stories to music and it was fascinating. And I cannot emphasize enough how cool I thought they looked. One of them had glasses like me, but they were HUGE and he wore them like they were cool. They were in all black except for their big, white Adidas sneakers that didn’t even have laces.

Were they fucking magic?

Yes, they were.

I have more stories of RUN DMC, but they’re all post-1986, so I’ll save them for a day when I don’t have a hundred other soul-forging music moments to cover.

Robert Palmer

This guy had a heck of a year in 1986. He released two incredibly similar videos for two songs that seemed to follow some sort of textbook for radio play and pop music success. The first was “Addicted to Love”, which is not a very good song and has no personal value to me other than the fact that I heard it when I was ten and it had a video featuring a bevy of incredible women in nearly see-through dresses. As a guy that sort of thing sticks out to me.
The second was for “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” and this is where things are going to get sad. Because this was the song that was representative of every girl I would meet for roughly the first twenty-five years of my life. There’s real pain there. Ugh. Let’s move on.


There was a lot of sex going on in 1986. The internet wasn’t a thing and I don’t think I’d found my dad’s Playboy magazines yet, but the eighties were heavy with innuendo and daring fashion and so, so much lace and fishnet. Madonna was the queen of all of these things. Her 1986 album True Blue spawned four massive singles that year that were also incredible songs. While I can’t claim to be a huge fan of “Live to Tell” just because it’s slower and more thoughtful, it was everywhere and it is a very good song.

“Papa Don’t Preach” was huge because it was one of the first “message” songs I was ever aware of. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I knew there was some conflict involving a baby. She wanted to keep the baby, so it seemed like a good thing to me.

“True Blue” is a classic pop masterpiece. It’s one of those songs that almost seems to pre-date the era it is part of. You can’t help but be happy when this one comes on.

And then there’s “Open Your Heart”. It’s a great song, for sure. In the video Madonna portrays a stripper dancing at a sleazy peep show and she is sexy as hell. I, at ten, would not have used the phrase “sexy as hell” and I’m not even sure I quite understood what “sexy” was yet. But over the years Madonna would definitely be one of many teachers.

Van Halen

I had friends that were much bigger music aficionados than me. I think this led to them embracing a much wider spectrum of music than I did. Sometimes they’d introduce me to bands I’d fall in love with like Primus or nine inch nails. Other times I’d wonder how they could enjoy things like Extreme or Whitesnake.

Or Van Halen with Sammy Hagar.

I can’t remember which friend played 5150 for me, but I was so excited to hear the new Van Halen album. I had loved everything I’d heard from them. They were something that a lot of the hard rock bands of the time weren’t – they were fun. Now that I’m thinking about it, I believe my buddy Peyton was the one that dropped this particular bomb on me. As I mentioned before, there was no internet back then and while I watched plenty of MTV, somehow I missed the Big News about Van Halen. I suppose because if MTV showed anything other than videos at the time I changed the channel or just tuned out.

But I remember Peyton putting that tape into his impressive boom box (or “ghetto blaster”, if you will) and as soon as the vocals kicked in wondering what the hell was going on. I didn’t believe it was the new Van Halen album.

Side Note: My ignorance is shocking me right now. By today’s standards I should have been aware of David Lee Roth’s split from Van Halen, but I wasn’t. Even without hearing or reading about it somewhere, the video for “Why Can’t This Be Love” came out a month before the album, so I should’ve seen it. But I am one hundred percent positive that sitting there listening to 5150 was the first time I was aware that Van Halen was a different band.

I hated it. Sammy Hagar is a great vocalist, but not for Van Halen. And there wasn’t anything fun about the album at all. It sounded just like any other hard rock act of the time. Thye had lost all of their personality.

I know hating on Van Hagar is a trite and generic thing, and that Van Halen has existed for as long without David Lee Roth as they have with him. But I never would have loved them if David Lee Roth hadn’t been the frontman when I discovered them. Sammy Hagar and Gary Cherone (yeah, that happened) just don’t have the magic.

“Living in America”

As ridiculous as it may sound, I had no idea who James Brown was until the Apollo Creed anthem “Living in America” was released. As a matter of fact, he was so new to me that I wondered why this old guy’s song was being played on MTV. Or more specifically, I suppose, why the makers of Rocky IV had chosen this old guy to do the big song for their movie.

Back in 1986, Americans were still proud of our country, so this was a big hit.

Janet Jackson

There’s a heck of a story behind Control – Janet Jackson’s third album. I am not qualified to tell it. I think it would be suitable for a big Hollywood biopic. But the main thing to know is that it was the start of Ms. Jackson’s (because I’m nasty) relationship with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, two of the most talented and prolific producers in the history of pop music.

Like Madonna, Ms. Jackson released four incredible singles in ’86 – “What Have You Done for Me Lately”, “Nasty”, “When I Think of You”, and “Control”. And they were and still are massive because I guarantee as you read them each song started playing in your head and you wanted to look them up online and listen to them.

“What You Need”

This single was my introduction to INXS. Pop music was so weird back then. It was hard to categorize so much of what was coming out. INXS played rock, but there was more to it than that. It was pop, but it did have a bit of an edge. Michael Hutchence seemed to have equal parts snarl and sass.


The album Invisible Touch was huge, but in 1986 the singles that counted were the title track, which was awesome, and “Land of Confusion”.

“Land of Confusion” had a music video that remains one of my favorites of all time because it features puppets designed by the creators of the English show Spitting Image. I used to think that the puppets were done by Sid and Marty Krofft due to the similarity and proximity in time of their show, DC Follies. In all likelihood Follies was heavily influenced by Spitting Image.

Genesis would go on to provide several more songs that are part of my lifetime soundtrack. I’ve always had a soft spot for Phil Collins and his music, even if I’ve never bought a single album.

The Bangles

Their first big hit was “Manic Monday”, which was a song Prince wrote under the name Christopher. That alone is noteworthy and the song itself was pretty big, but I think if you mention the Bangles, most people are going straight for the low-hanging fruit of the gimmicky “Walk Like an Egyptian”. It’s funny to look at the band’s catalogue now and realize how odd and out of place the song is, but it made them back then. It was so much fun and the video was so silly. I loved it and so did everyone else. If you were alive back then, you walked like an Egyptian at least a few times.


Peter Gabriel released two amazing music videos, “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time”. The songs are okay. The videos are fucking insane. “Big Time” didn’t come out until ’87, but I’m going to mention it anyway because it’s so similar to “Sledgehammer” and it would be weird not to.

Both were stop-motion animation videos featuring the weirdest imagery I’ve ever seen aside from the pilgrim porn that was the first actual dirty movie I ever saw.

Everyone makes such a big deal about “In Your Eyes”, but that stupid song didn’t even have a video, so how good could it be, really?


Prince was nothing new at this point, but I hadn’t yet accepted that I was a fan. Everything that I saw from him fascinated me, but he was just a little too exotic for me to discuss 
publicly. His big single in 1986 was “Kiss”, which is an excellent song; one of my favorites. Here’s a weird story about it:

Every once in a while my dad would come home with some weird pop culture reference that I assume he picked up from people at work. Once he quoted Revenge of the Nerds, a movie I hadn’t seen yet. Prior to that he had shown pure, unbridled excitement over the impending release of the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man. One night he came home from work and put a cassette in the stereo system (I still own this particular cassette deck). I was familiar with the song that came out of the speakers – “Kiss” by Prince and the Revolution – but I did not understand how my dad could be into this song by this androgynous (not that I knew that term) little sexpot (I might have known that term). But here he was, dancing around the living room.

And no – this was not the 1988 Tom Jones/Art of Noise version. Which would have been much more appropriate.

The Transformers: The Movie Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

I discussed the movie in my movie post, but I didn’t get into the soundtrack aside from mentioning that “Dare to Be Stupid” was used in the movie. That’s obviously the best thing about the soundtrack, but some pretty amazing contributions from other artists cannot be overlooked.

The new version of the Transformers theme song by Lion is incredible. I’d say it gets about an “8” on the Phantom Troublemaker Nerd Chills scale, with 1 being the theme from Golden Girls and 10 being John Williams’ theme from Star Wars.

Stan Bush’s “The Touch” is legendary, but “Dare” is pretty kickass, too. I think the only reason it doesn’t get more attention is that during the movie that little bitch Daniel is talking over it.

N.R.G.’s “Instruments of Destruction” is sort of like Megadeth-lite, except that it accompanies a horrifying scene of murder, so is much heavier than anything Megadeth ever recorded.

Everything else on the album ranges from good to “it has significance because it was in the Transformers movie”.

The first time I heard the soundtrack in its entirety was over at a friend’s house. He was this kid Jon from South Africa and he had all of the Transformers toys and he was into Doctor Who. We’d run around this massive undeveloped area behind his house that looked just like an outdoor location from Doctor Who and take turns holding a tire gauge that we pretended was a sonic screwdriver. When he got the soundtrack we just played the whole thing over and over again for hours.

I think at some point I was a dick or a bad friend or something. I don’t remember why we stopped being friends.

Side Note: The Golden Girls theme is more like a “6”.

Other Side Note for Future Reference: I just realized this gives me more of an idea of the time frame for when I saw Doctor Who. I know that when Jon and I were playing I had no idea Tom Baker wasn’t the Doctor. So that means that Peter Davison wasn’t introduced in the US until after 1986. Or at least, not on my PBS affiliate.

Bon Jovi

It’s a little hard for me to discuss this one because at this point in my life I think that Bon Jovi is pretty terrible. There aren’t many things that I’ve been a fan of in my life that I’m uncomfortable discussing, and I know that to this day Bon Jovi has a huge number of fans. Heck, one of my teenage nieces went to see them in concert a few years ago and she’s not like, weird or anything. But it’s hard for me to admit that I was ever a fan of the Jovi.

Slippery When Wet was Bon Jovi’s breakout album. “You Give Love A Bad Name” and “Livin’ On A Prayer” were HUGE songs. And while the music didn’t necessarily sound as fun as Van Halen, these guys always looked like they were having fun. I wonder if Van Hagar might have had something to do with my enjoyment of Bon Jovi.

There was this kid named Mike that, for whatever reason, I thought was pretty cool. He was big into Bon Jovi. After one of the breaks from school (Christmas or Spring Break) I caught up with Mike on the playground and told him that I’d finally gotten Slippery When Wet and thought it was awesome. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Bon Jovi is gay. I listen to Whitesnake now.”

“Rock Me Amadeus”

It’s a little-known fact that I entered several lip syncing  competitions in my youth. The first was in my fourth grade class for some sort of elementary school time-wasting nonsense. I thought this song was the coolest, but I did not consider the fact that it is a terrible choice for a lip syncing song, as it consists almost entirely of talking and the repetition of a long chorus. My mother was not about to buy me a tuxedo for this nonsense, so I wore my Members Only jacket and some black pants. Maybe sunglasses. I don’t think I even bothered to learn the speaking parts. I just moved my mouth while doing my approximation of the popular 80s dance, “The Robot”. I’m sure if video existed and I saw it now I would simply burst into flames of embarrassment.

“Vienna Calling” was a much better song.

Honorable Mention

There are plenty of songs that might not have as much personal meaning to me, but that are definitely part of my pop consciousness and that elicit specific feelings when I hear them. I don’t have much to say about these, but they’re still part of my personal soundtrack for 1986:

“All I Need Is a Miracle” by Mike + The Mechanics
“Word Up!” by Cameo
“We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” by Jermaine Stewart
“No One is to Blame” by Howard Jones
“Bad Boy” by Miami Sound Machine
“Venus” by Bananarama
“Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” by Glass Tiger
“Human” by Human League
“Higher Love” by Stevie Winwood
“West End Girls” by Pet Shop Boys

Next Monday should wrap up the 1986 series with an entry on cartoons, because the few mentions I made in the toy post just won’t cut it. This Friday on the Needless Things Podcast I’ll have a panel sharing memories of 1986. In the meantime, join the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group and get in on the conversation! Let me know what you think!

1 comment:

  1. I can relate,1986 was my senior year in high school.Music was a big deal to me then.Let's compare some notes.Van Hagar:Bothered me because at the time I was a big fan of Sammy Hagars solo stuff.It seemed to me that the merging killed both Van Halen proper and Sammy as a solo artist.Janet Jackson:a guilty pleasure for a sworn metalhead like me at the time.I liked The pleasure Principal even more. Strange.INXS What you need:Love it.My band played it at my senior talent show.Bon Jovi Slippery when Wet:Was painting the house with my dad right after grad when I first heard You Give Love a bad name.I wasn't a fan of prior Bon Jovi stuff,but I couldn't deny that this was going to be a huge hit for them.Another band I would like to mention here was called The Outfield,I believe they were from England.Kind of lightweight,formula rock, but caught my ear for some reason.They had 4 chart hits that year, then pretty much vanished.