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WYEP Decades Week: 1984 was on fire with guitar riffs, synthpop and sexy saxes


Things were changing in 1984's music world. It was the heyday of the mega-album, all with at least five singles released from them: Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down and Huey Lewis' Sports were released in 1983 but still dominated singles charts in 1984; Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. and Prince's Purple Rain would explode out of the gate in '84 and make noise all through '85. But college radio (and shows on community stations like WYEP) were also demonstrating a powerful underground of artists that had both growing fanbases and critical acclaim. And artists like U2 and Depeche Mode were starting to break through to the U.S. mainstream with top 40 hits.

Today, as we celebrate 1984 as part of WYEP's Decades Week, here are some of our favorite songs of the year:

U2, “A Sort of Homecoming”

This was the first song that burst out of stereo systems and Walkmans when U2’s The Unforgettable Fire album was released in late 1984, and it signaled a new direction in the band’s music. Less strident and more cinematic, the lyrics spoke of an urgent and difficult journey home. The song was not released as a single, but it quickly became a fan favorite.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Two Tribes”

One of the more brilliant singles from the mid-1980s: a song about the U.S./U.S.S.R. cold war conflict that combined the sound of American funk with music inspired by Russian classical composers. The song is bombastic in all the best ways.

Laurie Anderson, “Sharkey’s Day”

Avant-garde performer Anderson distills a lot of her style into this epic-length track, from her poetic lyrics to her evocative musical dreamscape. Guitarist Adrian Belew is on hand to contribute some key neck-bending moments.

General Public, “Tenderness”

Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger of English Beat fame emerged from that band’s break-up with this new group (also featuring The Clash’s Mick Jones playing guitar on many tracks, including this one). This song was a top 40 hit in the U.S. and became General Public’s calling card.

Bruce Springsteen, “I'm on Fire”

While “Dancing in the Dark” and “Born in the U.S.A.” were blasting out of radios everywhere in 1984, this quieter and restrained song still managed to be a top 10 hit (although not until early 1985). The tense images, upfront synthesizer, and rim-played drum are still riveting.

R.E.M., “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”

While the song was variously listed as “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” or “S. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” on single or album track listings, the inner sleeve of the Reckoning album has its full name (and the proper way to say the title): “Southern Central Rain (I’m Sorry).” From the opening 12-string guitar riff to the final 33 crashing piano chords, it’s an iconic ‘80s indie rock classic.

Bronski Beat, “Smalltown Boy”

While the tales of lonely woe sung by The Smiths’ Morrissey are remembered as the benchmark of the form in the 1980s, let’s not forget this 1984 classic. While directly inspired by the band’s experiences being gay in a repressive England, there’s a universality to the lyrics to which most listeners can relate. The glorious synthpop and falsetto vocals by singer Jimmy Somerville made this song instantly memorable.

Sade, “Smooth Operator”

The “sexy sax” in 1980s songs can be a cliché but this song — Sade’s first hit single in the U.S. — has both elements of the phrase on full display. The international man of mystery of the song’s title breaks hearts and seeks fortune, and while Sade describes his cold-hearted activities largely without judgment the sax seems to revel in them. It’s a stylish and enjoyable mini-movie.

Bob was one of the on-air hosts at the beloved 1980s Pittsburgh radio station Double X. He brings his knowledge, his memories, and his personal touch to We Got the Beat every Friday evening from 8 to 10 PM on WYEP. Bob was the Production Director for Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station 90.5 WESA, and is a host and the Operations Manager for JazzWorks. Bob has been working in different areas of the radio industry for 33 years.