Stranger Than Fantasy: Six More Unsung Pop Songs From the ’80s

Features / June 20, 2019

“So You Ran” by Orion the Hunter

I’ve always been sort of morbidly fascinated by the music that toiled in the shadows of the big 1980s pop behemoths, which is why I love it when we do these “Six Songs” features. And as far as pop behemoths go, 1984 was The Year: Thriller was beginning its gradual slide out of supremacy, making way for other titans: Springsteen, Prince, Lauper, Madonna, and yes, the Footloose soundtrack. Meanwhile, peaking at #76 on the Hot 100 singles charts in June of ’84 was this weird little nugget of 1970s classic rock hangover crossed with early-’80s power metal: “So You Ran” by Orion the Hunter.

Orion the Hunter was a quasi-supergroup made up of Boston members Barry Goudreau and Brad Delp (who contributed only background vocals), future Boston member (and Delp/Dio soundalike) Fran Cosmo on lead vocals, Heart drummer Michael Derosier, and bassist Bruce Smith. Orion the Hunter’s self-titled 1984 debut was their only release, as Boston itself took a decade-long break after the colossal success of their own massive self-titled 1976 debut and the sometimes overlooked 1978 Don’t Look Back.

The music video for “So You Ran” is, well, of its time. Mixed with stage performance footage, the narrative portion tells a story of heartbreak as Goudreau moons about after his Nagel-model-looking ex, all while wearing a sad New England ’80s dad mustache and a Members Only jacket. The cliché of deeply MTV-unready musicians from another era mixing it up with the flashy models that were de rigueur in music video by 1984 is admittedly pretty hilarious. But despite all this awkwardness, the song itself is an absolute jam; it really does fuse the majestic power rock of Boston with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal-inflected pop then coming into its own with the international success of albums like Def Leppard’s Pyromania. And Goudreau’s absolute shredding of that guitar solo makes up for any residual embarrassment from the video.

On classic rock radio in New England in the ’80s, the ubiquitous Boston were our guys. In the aftermath of Boston’s disintegration after Goudreau and Delp’s split with Boston founder (and MIT engineering grad) Tom Scholz, it seems a shame that Orion the Hunter didn’t stick around longer to carry that flame further into the 1980s. —Grasso

“Is Your Love Strong Enough?” by Bryan Ferry

I loved Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985) so much the first time I saw it that I convinced my friends and their friends and their extended families to go see it one Saturday a couple of weeks later. The glares of execration and derisive, tight-lipped taunts I endured when we filed out of the theater were something else, let me tell you. I haven’t seen the damn thing in years, but I bought the soundtrack when it came out (my first), and eventually realized that it was the music that made the film special to me—along with Alex Thomson’s stunning cinematography.

The original soundtrack was scored by Jerry Goldsmith, but the producers decided it wasn’t “contemporary” enough, and Tangerine Dream got the gig, cranking out a new one in three weeks. While that score has been criticized for leaning too hard on presets, I think it perfectly captures the fairy tale atmosphere of enchantment that’s both lovely and dangerous. The soundtrack included two songs, “Loved by the Sun”—with music by Tangerine Dream and vocals by Jon Anderson of Yes—and “Is Your Love Strong Enough?” by Bryan Ferry, with guitar by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and bass by session player Guy Pratt, who had worked with both Floyd and Roxy Music before. I love both of these songs, but Ferry’s track, culled from Avalon outtakes, is a glorious turn (although the video is pretty terrible). It’s gloomy and moody, to be sure, a perfect match for Ferry’s wavering croon and the mystical minor chord theme employed by Tangerine Dream. That underlying darkness is probably why the song never caught hold on the charts, but it’s also what makes it so beautiful. —Roberts

“Say I’m Your Number One” by Princess

Four years after the tawdry national pantomime that was the 1981 royal wedding, the paternal-filial bickering traditional in the McKenna household during the transmission of Top of the Pops—increasingly fraught as the cracks in a once-shared pop aesthetic widened—was silenced by the appearance on screen of a true monarch: as soon as I saw Princess’s imperious (sorry) gaze boring out of the TV screen, I knew it was love. Love inspired in part by the regal hauteur she emanated like a laser grenade, but mainly imposed by the fact that “Say I’m Your Number One” was such a fucking killer song.

“Say I’m Your Number One” was written and produced by Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW), the songwriting and production team that took Kylie Minogue out of Oz TV soap Neighbours and made her an international star. SAW’s preppy, upbeat productions would dominate—some would say pollute—the UK charts of the second half of the ’80s. Despite their descent into pop infamy (most egregiously with Liverpudlian proto-millennial pop droids The Reynolds Girls and their “I’d Rather Jack (Than Fleetwood Mac)”), SAW had started with a string of legitimate rockers that included Divine’s “You Think You’re a Man,” Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Right Round,” and several template-setting hits for the prophetess of UK Hi-NRG Hazel Dean.

Her stage name evoking both Prince-like soul nobility and a Cockney term of endearment, Princess—aka Londoner Desiree Heslop—had worked as a backing singer for London-based Afrobeat band Osibisa before teaming up with SAW, and the yearning groove of “Say I’m Your Number One” was a pulverizing showcase of her star quality: both song and production were up there with what was coming out of the States, as proven by the fact that the single did decently in both the UK and US.

The video for “Say I’m Your Number One” continues to exert mesmeric power over me nearly 35 years later, perhaps because performing with such conviction on the top of a tour bus as the grimy shopfronts of London spool past in the background, or in front of a crowd of locals who, huddled against the cold, stare blindly past you (or manically tap their newspapers in Freudian transport), is the fucking definition of chutzpah. The BMX scenes were shot in the shadow of the Westway—the dual-carriageway beloved of J.G. Ballard—on the Silchester estate, a public housing complex in one of the most prosperous parts of London. The crushing financial pressures of speculation and gentrification that now dominate the city mean that the creation of new leisure and housing initiatives of this kind become less likely by the day.

Unfortunately, Princess’s reign (sorry again) was only brief. Who knows what manner of cool country Britain might have evolved into if only, back in ’85, we’d actually been given the People’s Princess we needed. —McKenna

“State of the Heart” by Rick Springfield

It’s amazing what a difference four years can make. Rick Springfield, like Boston, had had two massive hit albums catapult him into musical superstardom: 1981’s Working Class Dog and 1982’s Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet. And all through the first half of the ’80s, Springfield was also the rock superstar heartthrob par excellence. His role as Dr. Noah Drake on the American soap General Hospital helped make him into a multimedia phenomenon, and his feature-length motion picture vehicle in 1984, Hard to Hold, kept his profile high with a soundtrack album packed with hits. But by the middle of the ’80s, his brand of expertly-crafted, straight-ahead power pop was starting to sound out of place on MTV and radio airwaves, so Springfield turned to a new sound to fit into the more slickly-produced music starting to take over the pop landscape in 1985.

The cover of Springfield’s 1985 album Tao clearly indicates that Springfield was trying something aesthetically new, both visually and sonically. On “State of the Heart,” Springfield’s yearning vocals are now washed in reverb, the guitars pushed to the back as synthesized beats, computer-delayed guitars, and synth marimba take the fore. And the visual aesthetic of both album and video strongly owed a debt to all things East Asian, sporting an indefinable but undeniable gritty mid-’80s cyberpunk influence. In the music video, Springfield yearns after a lover lurking behind paper screens; the set itself is a cross between a Zen rock garden and a Japanese bathhouse. Curtains of water and rains of flower petals abound; all that imposing dark marble, reflecting pools, and the omnipresent tile grid show off how Western ’80s pop couldn’t help feeling the far-reaching influence of the seemingly unstoppable economic and cultural juggernaut of 1980s Japan. Of course, these same visual signifiers would influence the vaporwave aesthetic thirty years later as remix artists born during (and after) this selfsame ’80s boom mined this same cultural tension between the West and Japan. Upon first seeing the video for “State of the Heart,” I remarked at how perfectly “vaporwave” the set looked.

But mostly I find “State of the Heart” interesting for its tonal switch to moody techno from fun-time rock and roll. Sure, Springfield’s music has always been about heartbreak, but during the making of Tao, he notes he was dealing with depression and trying to explore new sounds to shake himself out of it. One can almost hear the yearning, straight-ahead rock and roll ballad that “State of the Heart” would’ve been circa ’82 or ’83 trying to break out from behind all those synths. —Grasso

“Come Back and Stay” by Jack Lee/Paul Young

I had never heard of English singer Paul Young until a couple of years ago, when “Come Back and Stay” was recommended by Spotify for my kick-ass ’80s pop/rock playlist. Although the track is hailed as an “international hit,” I don’t remember it getting any airplay in the States, even though it reached #33 on the Billboard charts in 1984. The song was the fourth single from Young’s debut LP, 1983’s No Parlez, a number one album in the UK that stayed in the UK Top 100 for over two years. (I now know that it was Young who sang the 1985 version of “Every Time You Go Away,” a pop radio mainstay.)

Come Back and Stay” was written by American proto-punk Jack Lee and appears on his first LP, 1981’s cheekily titled Jack Lee’s Greatest Hits: Volume One, which also includes “Hangin’ On the Telephone,” a song that Blondie made famous on their majestic Parallel Lines (1978). While Lee’s version is a stripped down garage rock burner, Young’s cover is slick and elegiac, highlighted by fretless bass, bright synths, and Young’s remarkably soulful vocals. No Parlez is a mixed bag, a somewhat unsettling but worthwhile combination of experimental New Wave and traditional rock-soul that includes three Lee tunes, the Marvin Gaye cover “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home),” and, gulp, a ballsy, beautiful cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

“Come Back and Stay,” however, is the shining moment, and belongs on any “best of” compilation, an avatar of a decade that was more complicated than it gets credit for. —Roberts

“Body Talk” by Imagination

1981 Britain was still a repressed, buttoned-up-tight place where public displays of… well, pretty much anything, really, were frowned upon—and where public displays of ambiguous eroticism were likely to get the special forces called in to truncheon all concerned (unless all concerned were posh). It was in this climate that the hurried search for a last-minute replacement act led to the first national TV appearance of post-disco funk-soul band Imagination, miming to their club hit “Body Talk”on Top of the Pops.

Viewers around the country sat in the state of awed stupor colloquially known as “gobsmacked” as, with mind-boggling self-possession and paradigm-shift level blasts of camp, Imagination writhed and ground on the tiny TOTP stage, evoking a world of timeless esoteric eroticism out of what looked like a couple of yards of golden rayon and a pair of curtains. A generation of schoolchildren gazed in awe: they looked so… pervy. A really fucking cool kind of pervy. And, incredibly, they sounded as pervy as they looked—yes, a classy, elegant kind of pervy, driven by that sinuous loping bassline, the tinkling piano, and lead singer Leee (sic) John’s lovely falsetto.

Leee John had already lived lifetimes before Imagination hit the British charts, having been signed as a child artist in the US in the wake of the Jacksons’ success, and admits that he knew the only way Imagination could make a lasting impact during their brief window of exposure was by going totally over the top—and they went so far over the top that they practically went all the fucking way round. Amazingly, the performance on Top of the Pops that introduced them to the nation was actually pretty restrained by their standards, as they repeatedly proved, both in video form and in their mind-blowing stage shows.

Imagination’s reverberations through popular culture continued long after they ceased having hits: in addition to the lascivious groove (I have been waiting a long time for an opportunity to write the words “lascivious groove”) of “Body Talk,” the band’s debut LP of the same name featured a couple of tracks (most famously “Burnin’ Up,” not to be confused with the similarly-titled Judas Priest and Madonna songs) that are widely cited as having made a vital contribution to the development of house music.

After Imagination, Leee John gave interviews for LWT’s Nite Network (for whom he interviewed Adam Ant) and appeared on Doctor Who as a pirate together with the marvelous Linda Baron. Still as adorable and as creatively active as ever, he recently helmed a documentary tracing the history of UK Black music that shows what a fundamental part it has played in creating modern Britain’s culture and self-image. —McKenna

One thought on “Stranger Than Fantasy: Six More Unsung Pop Songs From the ’80s

  1. “they went so far over the top that they practically went all the fucking way round.” Definitely a line I’ll be stealing.

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