THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"TEN AWESOME FORGOTTEN '80s MOVIE SONGS"
In a way, I feel sorry for film fans who didn't grow up in the 1980s. It was a magical time for movies and music. Marketing departments discovered that soundtrack albums could be hot sellers, so almost every film that came out was stuffed with pop songs. It didn't even matter if the songs were relevant to what was happening onscreen. (A famous chase sequence in Beverly Hills Cop is scored to the Pointer Sisters' “Neutron Dance,” for example.) While that may sound like a bad thing, it was often quite the opposite. Filmmakers used music to enhance atmosphere and tone in mainstream pictures, making things that were already fun even more effervescent.
If I asked you to make a mental list of famous movie themes from the '80s, you'd probably be able to think of quite a few, from Ray Parker Jr.'s “Ghostbusters” (from the film of the same name) to OMD's “If You Leave” (from Pretty in Pink) and beyond. Many great '80s movie songs have gone on to achieve classic status.
And just as many great '80s movie songs have faded into obscurity.
This is unfair. As someone who grew up in the era – and still listens to this music with immense fondness and nostalgia – I think it's time to rectify that. Below are ten of the very best “lost” 1980s movie songs. Listen to them. Enjoy them. Cherish them.
“Man-Sized Love” by Klymaxx (from Running Scared) - When you think of the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines buddy-cop comedy Running Scared, Michael McDonald's “Sweet Freedom” undoubtedly comes to mind. But that was just one of the many great tunes music producer Rod Temperton (Michael Jackson, Donna Summer) assembled for the film's soundtrack. Klymaxx's “Man-Sized Love” wasn't as big a chart hit, having stalled at #15, as opposed to a #7 peak for “Sweet Freedom.” It's even catchier and more infectious, though. Klymaxx eventually had a highly acrimonious split, which was revealed when VH1 attempted to reunite them in 2004. Whatever their outcome, “Man-Sized Love” remains a highlight of their career. Good luck not tapping your toes to this one.
“The Wild Life” by Bananarama (from The Wild Life) - Cameron Crowe made a splash when he wrote the script for 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, based on his own book. He experienced a massive sophomore slump with his second script, for 1984's The Wild Life. While they had nothing in common, the movie was conceived as something of a companion piece to Fast Times. Starring Chris Penn, Eric Stoltz, and Lea Thompson, the story explores the unhinged freedom a young man experiences when he gets his first apartment. The Wild Life isn't especially funny or insightful, but its New Wave-influenced soundtrack is highlighted by Bananarama's uber-catchy theme song, which somehow has not achieved the same level of appreciation as “Cruel Summer” or their cover of “Venus.” Because the movie was forgotten, the song was too.
“Teacher, Teacher” by .38 Special (from Teachers) - In Arthur Hiller's 1984 film, Nick Nolte plays a burned-out teacher forced to find his idealism again after the high school where he works is sued for graduating an illiterate student. Teachers was not a big hit, partially because it couldn't decide whether to be a drama about the failings of the public educational system or a satire of them. (There's a whole strange subplot about a mental patient who escapes an institution and wanders into the school, where he begins successfully teaching history.) I contend that Teachers is a movie ripe for a remake/update. The raw material is still here for a probing look at our schools. If a remake does ever happen, it would do well to maintain the .38 Special song “Teacher, Teacher,” which lyrically captures the plot's more rebellious ideas. (“They take the best years of your life/try to tell you wrong from right/but you walk away with nothing.”)
“No Easy Way Out” by Robert Tepper (from Rocky IV) - No film better exemplifies the movie/music symbiosis of the '80s better than1985's Rocky IV. The film is little more than a 90-minute music montage. Such montages were common at the time, but Rocky IV took them to an extreme. James Brown's “Living in America” and Survivor's “Burning Heart” were the big hits off the soundtrack, which hit the top ten on Billboard's album chart. However, it also spawned singer/songwriter Robert Tepper's first and only Top 40 hit, “No Easy Way Out,” a tune with the kind of hard-driving beat that is the musical equivalent of boxing. It's far and away the most authentic song in the film. Incidentally, it would appear from the video that Tommy Wiseau used Tepper as the inspiration for his personal style.
“Nobody's Fool” by Kenny Loggins (from Caddyshack II) - Kenny Loggins was Mr. Movie Theme Song in the 1980s, having recorded (among others) “Danger Zone” from Top Gun, “Footloose” from Footloose, and, of course, “I'm Alright” from Caddyshack. In 1988, Warner Bros. released an ill-conceived follow-up to the golf comedy, appropriately entitled Caddyshack II. It remains a classic example of a notoriously awful sequel, despite some damn fool giving it a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In a fatal attempt to recapture the magic of the original, the producers tried to recreate the formula as closely as possible, including hiring Loggins to write another theme song. While “Nobody's Fool” doesn't have the same iconic quality as “I'm Alright” does, it remains a darn fine Kenny Loggins song in its own right. And having hit the top ten, it was far more successful than the film that spawned it. Had Caddyshack II not been such a disaster, the song might be considered in the same league as "Danger Zone."
“Fire in the Twilight” by Wang Chung (from The Breakfast Club) - John Hughes was a master of mixing music and film. Each of his movies had a carefully-selected soundtrack. For The Breakfast Club, Simple Minds recorded “Don't You (Forget About Me),” a song that perfectly sums up the story's theme of teenagers trying to connect across social status lines. It plays over the opening credits, and again briefly at the end. On the other hand, Wang Chung's forgotten “Fire in the Twilight” ironically plays in one of the movie's most memorable scenes, where the characters escape their library detention and go running through the halls of the school. You'd think the song would be more popular, this being the case. Wang Chung were, however, a vastly under-appreciated band. Despite their ubiquitous and atypically silly smash hit “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” they were influenced by both the Beatles and classical composers, which gave their music more textural depth than many of their New Wave counterparts. Let's pause now to give them their due.
“Working Class Man” by Jimmy Barnes (from Gung Ho) - If I'm making a list of my all-time favorite songs, this is definitely on it. Jimmy Barnes was an Australian rocker with a powerful voice. While popular in his homeland, he never quite made a mark here in the States. His most notable tune is “Working Class Man,” an ode to blue-collar workers, penned by Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain. It served as the theme to Ron Howard's 1986 comedy Gung Ho, about a U.S. auto worker (played by Michael Keaton) who has to negotiate between his colleagues and their new Japanese bosses. The movie was timely, as Japanese corporations were buying American companies left and right. Gung Ho wasn't much of a hit, and reviews were unkind. Personally, I've always believed it to be better than its reputation. While not perfect, the movie is funny, and it attempts to address something of significance. Given Michael Keaton's recent Birdman-related renaissance, it's time to give Gung Ho a critical reappraisal. Give “Working Class Man” a close listen, too, and try not to be moved.
“Doubleback” by ZZ Top (from Back to the Future Part III) - What do you do when you have to follow up a classic? Huey Lewis and the News recorded “The Power of Love” for Back to the Future, and it went on to become one of the all-time definitive movie theme songs. Think of Marty McFly and Doc Brown and you automatically think of that tune. So when they were asked to pen a number for Back to the Future Part III, ZZ Top didn't even try to compete. Instead, they delivered “Doubleback,” a perfectly good representation of who they were and what they were doing musically in the '80s. You won't necessarily think of the film when you hear it, but it most definitely stands as a ZZ Top song that needs to be more fondly recalled.
“If Anybody Had a Heart” by John Waite (from About Last Night) - John Waite had a massive hit in the '80s with “Missing You,” but it was his theme for About Last Night that brought his music to the big screen. The tune was perfectly in his wheelhouse – a power ballad with a killer hook and an even more killer bridge. “If Anybody Had a Heart” was very well suited to the film it represented, but it didn't make much of a splash, only going as high as #76 on the charts. Give it a listen, and I think you'll agree it's a solid composition that ranks among the singer's best work.
“What Does It Take” by Honeymoon Suite (from One Crazy Summer) - Speaking of power ballads, Canadian rock band Honeymoon Suite provided one for “Savage” Steve Holland's kooky comedy One Crazy Summer. The movie was the follow-up to his sleeper hit Better Off Dead. It didn't make the same impact, despite bringing together John Cusack, Demi Moore, and, um, Bobcat Goldthwait. “What Does It Take” served as a love theme for the two main characters, and its catchy chorus is hard to get out of your head. Honeymoon Suite had greater success with their singles “New Girl Now” and “Feel It Again.” Their foray into cinema produced a real gem, though.
Those are just ten examples of awesome forgotten '80s movie songs. I have more I could cite, and if this piece is popular, I'll gladly stroll down memory lane to uncover some more. To people like me who grew up in that time and were obsessed with pop culture, these were more than soundtracks to movies; they were soundtracks to our lives.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!