Ah, 1984: George Orwell’s magic year and a time of runaway artist success. Prince‘s Purple Rain, Van Halen‘s 1984, and Bruce Springsteen‘s Born in the USA ruled the rock airwaves, while Madonna‘s lucrative Like a Virgin career was ramping up. New wave had achieved a semblance of maturity, primarily fueled by MTV, with acts like Culture Club and Duran Duran scoring #1 Billboard hits. Even Michael Jackson‘s all-time 1982 smash Thriller wasn’t quite finished, selling more copies in 1984 than any other Stateside release.
However, as with art and naval warfare, the real action occurred beneath the surface. Despite pop radio’s stubborn recalcitrance, several compelling lesser-known tracks managed to bleed through into the Glasnost-era sunlight. Some sneaked in alongside college rock’s UK/Athens, Georgia breakthrough in the early 1980s; others forged new paths for established artists. A few merely did the same thing everyone else was doing but with more verve and lasting influence. Either way, a singular confluence of classic rock, new wave, and indie rock experimentation made for a captivating and surprisingly durable musical brew.
Here we revisit ten of 1984’s coolest, most memorable non-smash hit singles. All but two cracked the US Billboard Top 40, then found themselves largely consigned to oblivion over the subsequent 40 years. Fortunately, at least where pop culture is concerned, Gen-X forgets nothing.
10. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – “The Runner” (Chart #22)
Begin with our lone cover song, originally written by Ian Thomas in 1981. Along with the Byrds, Manfred Mann’s rock covers are legendary, from Bob Dylan’s “Mighty Quinn” to their #1 smash version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By the Light”. “The Runner” made a brief but nifty appearance in the film “Philadelphia Experiment”, then benefited from 1984 Olympics fever to garner crucial MTV airplay. The song is a pounding Sousa-style march, perfectly encapsulating the era’s loner Rocky/Rambo can-do attitude. Chris Thompson’s lead vocal also outshines Thomas’ original cut, with spooky keyboards and rippling guitars contributing to “Runner’s” creepy midnight-movie feel.
9. The Style Council – “My Ever Changing Moods” (Chart #29)
Viewing the 2020 Style Council documentary “Long Hot Summers”, one is struck by their indisputable falloff in quality compared to Paul Weller‘s earlier proto-punk hero band, the Jam. The Jam influenced darn-near everybody; most of the Style Council’s languorous output wouldn’t make the cut on an early Steely Dan record. But this tingling, jazzy near-masterpiece, utterly ill-at-ease among its new wave chart peers, still sounds wonderful. Oozing urbane maturity and swinging Brit cool, “My Ever Changing Moods” defies time and style to consign its fellow summer hits to elementary school fodder. Stick with the extended 12″ single version for the full jazz-hall effect.
8. Ratt – “Round and Round” (Chart #12)
Every music snob has a hair-metal skeleton in his closet – mine being Cinderella, forever and always. But it was Ratt that scored one of the first huge MTV metal hits, making glam and hard rock palatable enough for delicate youngsters and their Reagan-era parents. “Round and Round” is fun, catchy as hell, and childishly subversive, with an archetypal hair-metal video featuring Vaudeville idol Milton Berle in drag. (Turns out Berle was Ratt manager Marshall Berle’s uncle.) But the song rocks, too, with pounding Alex van Halen-style drums and a genre-perfect solo by lead guitarist Warren DeMartini. Motley Crûe and others may have gotten there first, but it was Ratt that opened the pop floodgates for the likes of Winger, Skid Row, and Britny Fox. Isn’t that what floodgates are for?
7. Billy Idol – “Eyes Without a Face” (Chart #4)
Every so often, a successful yet uneven artist releases a track so extraordinary, so shockingly superior, that even haters are forced to take notice. This is exactly what happened when former Generation X frontman and MTV video darling Billy Idol released his “Eyes Without a Face” single in June of 1984. This achingly gorgeous ballad, suffused with murderous undertones and one of pop’s most unexpected ripping solos by guitarist Steve Stevens, is also a full minute longer than most chart hits. As Idol wrote in his memoir “Dancing With Myself”, the song is about “a relationship gone wrong, on the edge of disintegrating into madness.” As for the question of why the greatest art derives from such nether regions of suffering and disrupted passion, we’ll leave it for another time.
6. Sammy Hagar – “I Can’t Drive 55” (Chart #26)
Yours truly has received plenty of grief for my incorruptible Sammy Hagar-philia over the years. The man had an uncanny talent for combining adrenaline-soaked rock with respectable pop and a career that has lasted into his 70s to prove it. Here he concocted THE model corporate-rock song, lean and mean, with one of the greatest buzzing riffs ever put to vinyl. Sparked by a speeding ticket Hagar received for doing 62 in a 55 mph zone, “I Can’t Drive 55” speaks to any rebellious soul who ever put their foot to pedal and has achieved pop-culture status far in excess of its mediocre chart showing. An engineering friend once told me that Eisenhower’s US interstates were designed to handle 70 mph with ease, which explains why Sammy’s frustration is both nationwide and easily understood. Bonus question: I wonder where that patrolman is right now?
5. Howard Jones – “New Song” (Chart #27)
Released Stateside in early 1984, Howard Jones‘ debut single shot out of automobile speakers like an ecstatic new wave meteor. Fueled by his inimitable call-and-response keyboard style, “New Song” became one of the bounciest, most joyous hits of the rock era because it was designed to sound that way. Per Jones: “I wanted a song that was like my manifesto… You can do what you’re really good at in this life if you set your mind to it.” He represented the sunnier, less intellectual side of Thomas Dolby on the new wave spectrum, and some contemporary critics savaged him for it. But history has been kinder to Jones’ early catalog, mainly because today’s world needs his buoyant, carefree vision more than ever.
4. The Psychedelic Furs – “The Ghost in You” (Chart #59)
Mainstream America wasn’t ready for the Psychedelic Furs when they debuted in 1980, and aside from a few modern rock hits and the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, we never really got there. According to biographer Dave Thompson, the band “would have more impact on future musicians than they ever did in the marketplace”. Perhaps aided by MTV airplay, “The Ghost in You” actually peaked higher in the US than in Britain or Canada. Yet this striking single still demands attention forty years removed, with otherworldly harmonies and scornful romantic lines like “Love… You can’t give it away”. “Ghost’s” eerie appeal also remains broad-based: This reviewer knows several dedicated ska-punkers and metalheads unable to resist the song either.
3. U2 – “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (Chart #33)
When U2 were good, they could be downright great. Despite a future larded with Top Ten hits, they never sounded better than this searing homage to Martin Luther King, Jr. Other artists like the Chameleons or even Flock of Seagulls’ Paul Reynolds may have explored similar paths. But the Edge’s groundbreaking ozone-layer effects on “Pride” went further, influencing too many followers to count. Take away heavy MTV rotation, and a forward-thinking track like this might never glimpse the US pop chart. Fun playground trivia, courtesy of Wikipedia: Did you know Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders sang backing vocals on “Pride”? Neither did I.
2. The Icicle Works – “Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)” (Chart #37)
Who the heck were the Icicle Works, and what makes this resolute, barely-a-hit single so fondly remembered? MTV and hip radio stations embraced it, while other markets were too busy airing Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” a million times to touch a song like this. In hindsight, “Whisper to a Scream’s” whirlpool guitars, twisting jungle drums, and pining idealistic chorus could hardly miss with mid-1980s teens, especially when boosted by a mesmerizing flowing-leaves video. In typical record-label fashion, Arista Records demanded changes to the original cut prior to its American release. Either way, the song encapsulates everything nostalgic and memorable about New Wave rock during its popular heyday.
1. Roger Hodgson – “Had a Dream (Sleeping With the Enemy)” (Chart #48)
Totally and unjustifiably forgotten, this epic condemnation of mankind’s inexhaustible cynicism probably hasn’t graced a pop radio dial in 30 years. “Had a Dream’s” unedited full version – eight-and-a-half minutes of righteous misanthropic fury aimed squarely at the cruel futility of human nature – is stark proof that grand musical ambition sometimes pays off. This first track off Roger Hodgson’s solo debut plays more like a suite than a single, with the ex-Supertramp frontman handling every instrument except drums. Careening from urban nightmare to stifled romance and back again, the song closes out with one of Hodgson’s fiercest guitar solos, solidifying his underappreciated rock prowess. Though the rest of 1984’s banal In the Eye of the Storm fails to measure up (sorry, Roger), “Had a Dream” remains an ardent and visionary artistic statement from what turned out to be quite a historic musical year.