Spotify playlist : Top 40 Singles of 1981
YouTube playlist : Top 40 Singles of 1981
(If the videos aren't working below you can go direct to the playlist here : 1981)
Having a number 1 single doesn't really mean what you think it means. Yes, it's a number 1 and blah blah blah, history, awards etc. But when you think about it, you've just had the most popular song of that moment in time. There have been some awful number 1 singles but they got there because they hit at the correct moment in time. If Ultravox had released Vienna three weeks later than they did, it would have been number 1 without a problem. However, Joe Dolce's 'Shaddap your face' was the right record at the right time. It must have been a nightmare for artists who knew they had a brilliant single, working out when best to release it. However, Human League had absolutley no expectations for 'Don't you want me' to the point Phil Oakey didn't want to release it as a single.
In the end though, chart positions don't matter. 'Vienna' ended up being a song for the ages whilst 'Shaddap your face' was a song for the moment. Number one or number two doesn't really matter; it's almost arbitrary, a lot like my personal top 40 of 1981 in fact. However, this is definitely the strongest list of songs I've complied since starting in 1973 so sit back, stick the playlist on and read along...
(40) Duran Duran - Planet Earth
Duran Duran were a little bit ridiculous at the start. They fully embraced the New Romantic look of frilly pirate blouses, long floppy foppish hair and that weird dancing people did when Visage came on the radio. However decent this song was, it didn't suggest the band would be crashing into the chart at number 1 in two years time, nor did we think they'd still be releasing records and touring right into 2021! (They've had some terrible moments in that time sprinkled with gems of genius). I've seen them live four times, twice when the original line-up got back together for the Astronaut Album in 2004. This got to number 12 and they even managed to get on the Old Grey Whistle Test. Which was an acheivement for a band such as this back then.
Some cynics would say they nicked the sound on their first album from Roxy Music.
(39) Dramatis - Love Needs No Disguise
For a Gary Numan fan, this was great. Dramatis were his former backing band who got together after Numan announced he was retiring from touring (a decision he reversed two years later). Maybe I'm biased but I adore this song, the atmosphere is electric - probably not the 39th best single of 1981 but it's my chart so I can do what I like. It spent two weeks at number 33 and then fell out.
(38) Four Tops - When She Was My Girl
This was their first top ten hit since "Simple Game" had reached number three in 1971. This got to number 3 also. There was something formulaic about this sort of music - but no more than that churned out by Stock, Aitken and Waterman or even Swain and Jolley - if it works, it works and when it works well, it's brilliant.
This could well have been a B-Side for one of Michael Jackson's singles from 'Off the Wall'. He would probably have done it better too.
(37) Barry Manilow - Let's Hang On
Nobody gets in the chart these days with a cover version of something first released in the last ten years. They all have to go back to the 80s or 90s. Back in the day you could have three versions of the same song by different people in the top 40. The Four Seasons and Johnny Johnson And The Bandwagon had both had hits with this song in the '60s. Then Darts had their very last hit with this song in 1980 when they took it to number 11. 18 months later, Barry Manilow took it to number 12 and gave us the definitive version even though I picture Frankie Valli's face whenever I hear this version.
(36) Sheena Easton - For Your Eyes Only
Nobody had heard of her 12 months ago but Sheena was given the honour of recording the title song for the latest 'James Bond' film. Since being on a kind of documentary about starting in the music industry, she'd had five top 40 hits and one near miss in a year. This number eight peaking single had a good chart run lasting ten weeks, but was her last top ten hit ever. She even performed this at the Oscars. Then Prince got his claws into her and made her into something else entirely...
(35) Ottowan - Hands Up
After dislocating your arms trying to spell out 'D.I.S.C.O.' in the style of 'Y.M.C.A.', Ottowan decided to release a song that would put further strain on your arms. Putting your hands up every time the chorus came around got very tiring. This was a fun Pan Pipe-led tune that no doubt had all the Nannas up on the dancefloor in Benidorm at the time. It spent two weeks at number three.
(34) Hazel O'Connor - Will You
This was Hazel's third and final hit. I remember thinking at the time that this was a very mature song - I didn't know what was going on in it but knew that I didn't know what was going on because it had mature themes. It surprised me that Hazel stopped having hits, especially with her starring in Breaking Glass, from which "Will You" was taken. It got to number eight.
(33) Abba - Lay All Your Love On Me
This only came out as a 12" single. Odd that it sold so well but this was Abba on the slide. Still a great song but quite removed from the style they'd had so many hits with. Erasure covered this and three other ABBA songs for their "Abba-esque E.P" which got to number 1 in 1992. Andy Bell worshipped ABBA and even got the usually retiscent Vince Clarke to dress up in a blue satin jump suit and dance along on stage when they performed it live.
(32) Depeche Mode - Just Can't Get Enough
Speaking of Vince Clarke, he wrote this little ditty. It was like 'Twinkle Twinkle little star' to my young ears and sounded so simplistic, it gave me ideas of grandeur that buying one of those bleepy boxes would mean I could write a simple little bloopy tune and get into the top 10. Turns out no matter how simple it sounds, it's not simple in the slightest. This peaked at number eight, Vince left to form Yazoo and thirty years later, Depeche Mode were still having hit singles.
(31) Cliff Richard - Wired for Sound
Cliff likes tall speakers and Cliff like small speakers but he also likes roller skating in a sports hall wearing a walkman with orange sponge ear protectors. It's a bit table-chair this track but it's decent enough and the video made it memorable enough to endure a decent chart run and end up at number 4.
(30) Rolling Stones - Start Me Up
I used to ask the guitarist in our band to play this for me before each rehearsal - just the intro - cos I loved it. He'd oblige with a sigh and then I'd leave him alone for the rest of the night. The only thing wrong with this is that Mick Jagger totally over-jaggers the vocal and it's quite repetative and it's quite repetative. It reached number seven and it's quite repetative.
(29) Adam and the Ants - Prince Charming
I still want to be Adam Ant. The 80s one - not the one now. This entered the chart at number two on the strength of his popularity, then took the tiny step up to number 1 where it remained for four weeks. I loved the Pantomime video with Diana Dors as the Fairy Godmother (one of her last onscreen performances) and Adam as the Prince assuming the Cinderella role. He then dresses up as Alice Cooper and Lawrence of Arabia for some reason.
(28) Linx - Intuition
If you've ever played the arcade game 'Out Run' then you might have thought it was an odd choice to use this song as one of those accompanying you on your hurtle through tropical lands in a Ferrari. However, it wasn't this song, just an 'homage' (by 'homage' I mean CTRL+C then CTRL+V). It was Linx's highest charting single in reaching number 7.
(27) Foreigner - Waiting For A Girl Like You
This is one of those songs that has loads of potential and you think it's going to be great and then it doesn't quite go where you thought it was going to. Also, I've always had an issue with the line 'a girl like you'. Surely, you should be telling her you've been waiting for her - actually her - not a girl like her. That's not going to go down well on your first date.
They'd managed a number 24 with 'Cold as Ice'. This got to number 8 and made sure the parent album 'Foreigner 4' sold oodles.
(26) Abba - One Of Us
ABBA's 19th and last top twenty hit in their own right. This was like a song from a musical - which is where Benny and Bjorn went next of course. This song also seems to have inspired Ace of Base quite a lot.
(25) Linx - So This Is Romance
Lovely but very much like their other hits. It reached number 15 and was the last time that Linx featured in the top forty.
(24) Phil Collins - In The Air Tonight
Easily one of the greatest songs of all time but not a 'single' for me. It got to number 4 and remains laced with plenty of metaphorical or is that actual literal commentary about an 'incident' that may or may not have happened. I love songs with a mythology. It might have been scribbled on the back of a tab packet in a cafe on a rainy thursday but the atmosphere turns it into something that will live forever. This should have been one of the songs catapulted into space for aliens to find. Unless it already has been, in which case, as you were.
(23) Alvin Stardust - Pretend
My judgement of this song is clouded by the fact it reminds me of a thoroughly enjoyable holiday in Great Yarmouth, in which, was an adventure playground the likes of which I'd never seen, nor even dared to dream ever existed! Anyway, this song is very jolly but I don't think I would have noticed it much without that association. It was Alvin's biggest hit since his March 1974 number one "Jealous Mind", and his first hit of any description since the Summer of 1975. This number four peaking hit, had reached number two for Nat King Cole in 1953.
(22) Bucks Fizz - Piece Of The Action
So obsessed was I by Bucks Fizz at the time, I could be heard singing this in the local supermarket whilst the cashier was checking out our groceries. Only much later did I realise what 'action' the Fizzers wanted a 'piece' of and I was far too young for those sorts of shenanigans. It reached number 12.
(21) Teardrop Explodes - Reward
I was and still am scared of Julian Cope. He looked like the kind of kid at school who would smash your art project and laugh about it right in your face. It was the only single by the band to reach the top ten, and peaked at number six.
(20) Soft Cell - Tainted Love
I know this is supposed to be a kind of classic or whatever but I just don't think Marc Almond has a very nice voice. Obviously the 'doo doo' hook of the song is probably what dragged most listeners in to start with but when Marc starts to 'soul', he misses notes all over the place and starts shouting and going all over the top. If he'd just calm down for a minute, it might have sounded quite nice.
Having said that, it was the biggest selling single of 1981 so I'll move on.
(19) Adam And The Ants - Stand And Deliver
Not content with glamorising pirates, he was now doing it with Highway men. Neither have what you'd call balanced morals. This song's five week stay at number one was the longest for a single in 1981. It was also the third single to enter the chart at number one in just over a year.
(18) Shakin' Stevens - This Ole House
The biggest selling male vocalist of the 80s. Bigger than Sir Michael of Jacksonville. He was in an Elvis stage show when he was discovered and didn't release his first single until he was into his thirties but he mixed it with the young'uns and taught them a thing or two about standing on their toes and pointing into the middle distance. It smashed straight to the top of the chart, naturally, and the video was very literal - dancing about in a delapidated old house that needed it's shingles fixed. Maybe antibiotics would have helped?
(17) Human League - Love Action (I Believe In Love)
You know that 'action' Bucks Fizz wanted a 'piece' of? Well, this actual 'love action' was a little different if not related to the same subject area. I'll let you google it. Anyway, Human League were starting to get the recognition they deserved. They had been trying for three years before they had a number 12 hit with "Sound Of The Crowd" earlier in 1981. They had even got a mention in someone else's hit the previous year when the Undertones referred to them in "My Perfect Cousin". It reached number three and spent 11 weeks in the top 40.
(16) Dollar - Mirror Mirror
What a single this is mind. I just don't understand why David van Day became so obsessed with being in Bucks Fizz, then stealing the name when he finally managed to become an official member (despite never being in the original line-up) and then even re-recorded all their hits with his voice on them and releasing an album of 'greatest hits'. He had several perfectly good Dollar songs to tout around the holiday camps. If you ever manage to catch an interview with Cheryl Baker where van Day's name is mentioned, you can actually see her teeth turn to spikes and her eyes turn red. She detests the man. This was a number four hit!
(15) Toyah - Thunder In The Mountains
I used to sing this in my head in order to get to sleep when I was 6. Odd I know, but I loved this song so much. She did a Mad Max impression in the video too. It got to number 4 and all but ended her career as a top 10 artist.
(14) Madness - Grey Day
I never thought a madness song could be so deep. I'll say this for it, it got me through some really bad times when I was much older (the song passed me by at the time) and that's not the sort of thing you'd ever say about the throw-away comedy-esque stuff Madness were doing in and around this period. It's a song with a real finger on the button of what it feels like to look out of your window in the morning and forget what happiness is. This reached number four.
(13) Jacksons - Can You Feel It
This took nine weeks to reach number six, and totalled 13 weeks in the chart. This was 'sampled' in 1998 and got to number one. The myth goes that the ironically named 'Tamperer' used this track without permission but knew they'd make more money than the copyright lawsuit would cost so went ahead anyway.
(12) Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime
I'm a bit slow admittedly, but I'm not entirely sure what the message of this record is. To me it seems the narrator is saying, he lived his life to a script - getting married, getting a car and a house and couldn't remember really how it all happened. Regardless, it's a superb track co-written with Brian Eno and with a video choreographed by Toni Basil. It reached number 14.
(11) Altered Images - I Could Be Happy
A song doesn't have to be serious or have a hugely deep message to touch part of you. This song is deceptively deep however and tinged with more than a little sadness. Claire Grogan's chirpy voice hides the message that she'd rather climb a really tall tree or go to Skye on her holidays just to get away from this awful person she's with. 'I could be happy', she sings, 'run away, get away, far away, how do I escape from you?' - meaning that she's probably trapped in a loveless relationship or worse. It doesn't bear thinking about really but the music is suitably jaunty to hide the horror of what's really going on behind the fun vocal so all's well. I think?
(10) Kiki Dee - Star
I first heard this when it was used as the theme tune to New Faces or Opportunity Knocks or even some other talent show I've forgotten the name of. Kiki Dee was a fabulous singer and with the right material, could have been massive. It's all about who you know though and she wasn't obviously in league with any good songwriters or Elton John any more.
(9) Randy Crawford - You Might Need Somebody
Randy Crawford has one of those voices. Doesn't matter what she's singing, you just want to listen. She has such a unique vibrato that doesn't do that thing they do on X-Factor or The Voice in order to sound like they can sing, but only to people who don't know what a good singer actually sounds like. Anyway, Shola Ama did a decent job of this in the 90s but Randy's version is pure liquid gold to the lug holes.
(8) Roxy Music - Jealous Guy
This was more of a Bryan Ferry solo effort than a Roxy track, but it gave them the only number one single of their career. It spent two weeks on top. I was never really a fan of John Lennon's voice and thought most covers of his songs were better than his versions of them. Bryan Ferry knocks this one out of the park to the point I can't even remember what John Lennon's original sounds like any more.
(7) Human League - Open Your Heart
This was the third single from the 'Dare' album. It peaked at number six. I love the line about 'you know your worst is better than their best'. Human League embraced the Arpeggiator and most of their tracks in this era were heavily based on it. I'm still using mine and thirty years later, I'm still trying to sound 1% like Human League. I'll probably give up in about twenty years.
(6) Kim Wilde - Kids In America
Talking of the arpeggiator, this track begins with the most 80s one of all time. Kim told a story about how this song was written. Her brother Marty was in his bedroom next door playing that thumping bass arpeggio over and over - she was banging on the wall telling him to stop. She didn't know he was busy writing the song that would launch her career.
Kim spent two weeks at number two with this and followed it with a further 16 top 40 hits before the decade ended, more than any other British female soloist in the eighties. Her most recent album 'Here come the aliens' was superb and at least five songs on it would have hit the top 10 were today 1984. Which it is... in my mind.
(5) Bucks Fizz - Land Of Make Believe
I was genuinely terrified of this song. It had the word 'ghosties' in it, which I totally believed in at the time (I did a class project on ghosts when I was nine years old and read sooooo many books about them I was convinced they had to be real - that's a story for another time however). The song sounded haunted too, as did the video and right at the end, a creepy girl's voice starts telling us about an imaginary friend that comes to tea that only she can see. That was it - I spent the next three months under the covers!!
It was number five over Christmas, and had made it to the top by the middle of January 1982, spending two weeks there.
(4) Madness - It Must Be Love
The Ninth successive top ten hit for Madness was a cover version of Labi Siffre's 1971 number 14 hit. They even persuaded Labi to appear in the video. It was one of the first things I learned to play on the piano (the bit at the beginning) and started a life long love affair with Madness. It reached number four in 1981, and then number six ten years later.
(3) Specials - Ghost Town
I don't know that this really reflected what was going on in the summer of 1981. I think it was actually about unemployment and lack of government attention to the working class - and something about the lack of music venues or something. Anyway, this was the seventh and last hit for the Specials, of which all seven made the top ten. As a piece of pop production, it needs to go in a museum - like a proper one, not this on-line one.
(2) Ultravox - Vienna
How devastating. Ultravox didn't do much for me until later in the 80s but this was a bona fide classic that will still stand up to scrutiny in 673858 years time. As I said right at the top, it doesn't matter that it didn't get to number 1, everyone knows it's infinitely better than anything Joe Dolce could do with his ukelele.
(1) Human League - Don't You Want Me
Where do I start with this? Well, it was the first 30 seconds of this record that turned me into a fan of synthesizers. I didn't know it was a synth at the time, I'm not sure I even knew what a synth was per se, but I knew that bass line intro would embed itself in my soul for eternity. The song had a story that you wanted to know more about. The video was mesmerising. Everything about this song is perfect.
It was the fourth track taken from Dare as a single and it was completely unheard of for a fourth single from one album to be this successful. Five weeks at number 1 and it caused sales of the album to rocket again too. Phil Oakey had one of the best voices of the 80s and still sounds great - they're still touring in 2021!
If you want to see my blog about 1980 click here, or if you'd like to dip into the 70s, click here