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Playing Back the 80s – A Decade of Unstoppable Hits (A Book Review)

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

Playing Back the 80s (A Decade of Unstoppable Hits) by Jim Beviglia

Jim Beviglia – Playing Back the 80s (A Decade of Unstoppable Hits) (Rowman & Littlefield)

It’s hard to condense the music of an entire decade into a concrete and meaningful listing. That goes doubly for an adventurous and musically rich era like the 1980s. I could probably easily come up with a list of hundreds of the greatest songs of the decade, so it’s pretty impressive that music journalist Jim Beviglia was able to weed it down to less than 70 tunes.

Everyone has their own 80s mix-tapes in their mind, and while I would personally debate some of the choices, I have to say that Beviglia has good taste and has mostly made some very smart choices.

Beviglia’s genius idea was to pick what he considered the best songs of the 80s and talk with the artists about the recording of the songs – everyone from giant stars to one-hit wonders. (In fact, I have interviewed many of the same artists talked to here and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t come up with this idea first.) Interviews would not be about the artists’ careers – though that sometimes came into play – but mostly it was specific to the recording of the songs and their cultural impact.

Beviglia came up with some ground rules to keep the list manageable. Only one song per artist – no matter how big their career may have been and how many hits they may have had in the decade. (Phil Collins sort of gets a pass on this rule. He is listed as a solo artist with “In the Air Tonight,” but gets a second single as a duet with “Separate Lives.” That interview was with duet partner Marilyn Martin, so it gets through on a loophole.) Beviglia did not necessarily pick the acts’ biggest songs, but the singles that resonated with him the most.

The songs were mostly big pop hits, but he threw in some songs that were only minor hits at the time – or not really hits at all – which ended up becoming iconic over the decades since. Some examples of those are “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads, “Lunatic Fringe” by Red Rider, “I Melt with You” by Modern English and “One” by Metallica. (That last one, sorry, definitely would not have been included in my list.)

Sometimes Beviglia cheats a bit to include artists who he could not get interviews with. He’ll interview the producer, or the studio drummer, or the songwriter on the tracks of difficult-to-pin-down or dead artists like John Lennon, Michael Jackson, U2, Marvin Gaye, Glenn Frey, The Police and Metallica. However, these are the exceptions, not the rule, Beviglia has done a good job of tracking down the original artists whenever possible.

Therefore, you get interesting insights into things like how a hangover inspired Huey Lewis to write “I Want a New Drug” or how Dr. Magnus Pyke was a bit of a prima donna on the set of the music video for Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science.” Eddie Money explains that while he had bigger hits in the 1980s, “Shakin’” seems to resonate most with his fans because it is such an elemental look at being a horny high school kid looking to get drunk and laid.

I love the fact that Beviglia does not fall into rock critic disease, where he judges the “artistic worthiness” of a band or artist. He’s not afraid to mix in superstar geniuses like John Lennon, Tom Petty and Michael Jackson, with upstarts like Living Colour, Bananarama and Julian Lennon. He doesn’t give any more weight to hard rockers like Metallica than the more derided softer acts like Air Supply and Rupert Holmes. Music is music and all of it has value. I am impressed that a list of the greatest hits of a decade includes such diverse musical acts as Don Henley, Roxette, Glass Tiger, Men Without Hats, Journey, The Tubes, The Little River Band and Love & Rockets.

One slight complaint, the book has several factual errors which really should have been caught in editing. For example, Billy (Vera) and the Beaters’ pre-“At This Moment” top 40 single was called “I Can Take Care of Myself.” It was not “I Can’t Take it Anymore,” as stated in the book.

Also, the book says that British band Madness never had another charting hit in the US after their 1983 smash “Our House” – even suggesting they had one minor hit earlier with “It Must Be Love.” However, while “It Must Be Love” was released previously internationally, in the US it was the follow-up single to “Our House.” Madness guitarist Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman even gives the correct timeline in a later quote in the same chapter, which makes the mistake even more blatant.

I get that it’s been a long time, and not everyone remembers everything exactly as it happened. However, things like that should have been caught and fixed in the editing/fact-checking process.

However, like a great mixtape, there are a lot more hits than misses in Playing Back the 80s. It’s a book that is almost like eating potato chips – every time you finish a chapter (which are all a very manageable three pages long), you crave just one more.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: December 28, 2018.

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