Nostalgia Jukebox: Eighties soundtracks

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A regular series delving into my musical archives to look back at tracks which are at least 20 years old.

Maybe it’s because the Eighties coincided with my peak cinema-going years, but for me the decade represents something of a golden age of film soundtracks, when creating a compelling title track and accompanying album didn’t involve multiple focus groups and putting together the biggest available name(s) willing to attach their ‘brand’ to a ‘project’.

Indeed, many of the best soundtrack songs of any era are recorded by relative unknowns. A great film song is more than just about the music itself – like a movie trailer, it should convey the story and personality of the film, with lyrics that echo its key themes. Its opening bars should fill your mind with memories and images of a movie you might otherwise have long forgotten in the recesses of your memory. Often the song is vastly superior to the film itself.

Anyhow, that’s enough pretentious clap-trap. Here is a chronological list drawn from my iPod of truly great soundtrack songs. Enjoy!

1. Best Duet: Up Where We Belong – Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes (1983)

Ask anyone over the age of 35 to name a duet from an Eighties film, and I’ll bet that most people name one of two songs featuring Jennifer Warnes: either (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing or this pairing with Joe Cocker from the romantic drama An Officer and a Gentleman, starring Richard Gere and Debra Winger.

Like the film, the song was a big hit, topping the charts in the US and reaching number seven in the UK. It is frequently referenced in popular culture, having featured in episodes of The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy among others. It has even been used as a football chant for Arsenal midfielder Alex Song, whose full name Alex Dimitri Song Billong perfectly fits the opening line of the chorus.

Up Where We Belong and (I’ve Had) Time of My Life were Warnes’ only top 40 singles in the UK, and even in her home US market she had only one other top ten release.

2. Best Irene Cara Song: Flashdance (What A Feeling) – Irene Cara (1983)

Like Warnes, Irene Cara is also a singer associated exclusively with film soundtracks, having provided the vocals on the title tracks of two of the biggest movie soundtracks of the early part of the decade, both of which went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song (1980’s Fame being the other).

Co-written with producer Giorgio Moroder, Flashdance topped the US chart and was kept off the top spot in the UK only by Rod Stewart’s Baby Jane. It’s a near-perfect slice of synth dance-pop which instantly evokes indelible images of the film’s opening sequence depicting lead character Alex (Jennifer Beals) cycling to work early on a cold morning against the silhouetted backdrop of industrial Pittsburgh and its steel mills.

3. Best One-Hit Wonder: Ghostbusters – Ray Parker Jr (1984)

Like Flashdance, Ghostbusters – written and performed by Ray Parker Jr – peaked at number one in the US and number two in the UK. From the supernatural comedy of the same name, the song is as memorable for the Tron-inspired visuals of its video, complete with cameos from famous names such as Chevy Chase, Peter Falk (Columbo), Carly Simon, Danny DeVito, George Wendt (Cheers) – and Irene Cara.

The song and its lyrics – particularly the catch-phrase “Who you gonna call?” – has often been name-checked in popular culture in a variety of TV shows and films, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the modern version of Doctor Who. Personally, it brings back memories of both the original film and its spin-off computer game, which occupied many happy hours in my childhood.

4. Best Instrumental: Axel F – Harold Faltermeyer (1985)

The instrumental theme from Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop remains the crowning achievement of German musician, composer and producer Harold Faltermeyer, and its distinctive synth melody has become as synonymous with the film as Glenn Frey’s The Heat Is On. But Faltermeyer’s influence on our musical culture extends far beyond the three-film series. He was also a contributor to the soundtracks of several iconic Eighties’ movies, including American Gigolo and Top Gun.

The track reached number two in the UK in the summer of 1985, and number three Stateside. 20 years later, it returned to top the UK charts courtesy of the thankfully brief ringtone phenomenon that was Crazy Frog.

5. Best Madonna Song: Into the Groove – Madonna (1985)

There was a period between mid-1985 and the end of 1987 when it felt like you couldn’t draw breath without a Madonna song from a film – usually a really bad one – taking up residence in the top ten. Vision Quest spawned the vastly underrated Crazy For You (number two, June 1985) and the inexcusably trashy Gambler (#4, October 1985). At Close Range – starring then-husband Sean Penn – gave us Live To Tell (#2, June 1986). And the instantly forgettable Who’s That Girl? yielded three singles: the eponymous title track (#1, July 1987), Causing A Commotion (#4, September 1987) and The Look of Love (#9, December 1987).

But unquestionably the best of Madonna’s soundtrack efforts was the unashamedly dance-pop Into the Groove from the film Desperately Seeking Susan (in which she co-starred with Rosanna Arquette). This gave her her first UK number one in July 1985 – and 27 years later she is still going strong, with her 12th studio album MDNA topping the album chart on both sides of the Atlantic last month.

6. Song Most Synonymous With A Film I: The Power of Love – Huey Lewis and the News (1985)

A bit of a catch-all category this one, with a vast field of candidates stretching from Blondie’s Call Me (American Gigolo) and Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger (Rocky III) to Kenny Loggins’ Footloose and Everybody Needs Somebody To Love (The Blues Brothers). I’ve allowed myself two selections here, the first of which is the lead track from arguably the finest film trilogy ever: Back to the Future.

Huey Lewis and the News were already a well-established rock band before this track launched them to global stardom. They had enjoyed five top ten singles in the US and a number one album (Sports), but this gave them their first chart-topper as Back to the Future wowed cinema-goers – including this one – the world over. The song’s chart performance in the UK was less impressive, reaching only number 11 in August 1985 before climbing to number nine on re-issue the following February. But even now, nearly three decades on, it remains a joyous and timeless piece of unabashed rock Americana. Fire up the DeLorean and the hover-board …

7. Song Most Synonymous With A Film II: A Kind of Magic – Queen (1986)

Shortly after The Power of Love enjoyed its second spell in the UK charts, another rock effort from the legendary Queen powered its way into the top three. Taken from the album of the same name, which serves as the unofficial soundtrack to the fantasy film Highlander and produced four singles, of which this was the most successful – although One Vision and Who Wants to Live Forever are also fantastic tracks.

Queen had already provided the soundtrack for the Eighties remake of Flash Gordon, but both Highlander and its soundtrack are vastly superior efforts. This song has a great part-performance/part-animated video too. Cartoon backing singers and Freddie Mercury – owner of the greatest moustache in pop – sporting a cape and a cane. What’s not to love?

8. Best Brat Pack Film Song: Pretty in Pink – Psychedelic Furs (1986)

Sometimes a soundtrack song doesn’t need to be a huge commercial success to leave an indelible mark on popular culture. This obscure 1981 track by the Psychedelic Furs inspired the 1986 John Hughes film of the same name starring Molly Ringwald. It peaked at 18 in the UK and an even more modest 41 in the US, but if you google any list of top Eighties film songs you will undoubtedly find this on the list – and deservedly so, as its melody and poignant lyrics immediately lodge themselves in the mind and refuse to let go.

The film itself is a story of teenage love, crossing social divides and coming of age which was typical of films starring the so-called ‘Brat Pack’ – whose number included Ringwald, Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson – during the mid to late Eighties. For a certain generation – my generation – the Brat Pack films were as much a backdrop to their lives as school exams and Margaret Thatcher’s war against the trade unions: Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, St Elmo’s Fire, Sixteen Candles, About Last Night.

And they yielded some anthemic songs as well: Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me), John Parr’s St Elmo’s Fire and Suzanne Vega’s Left of Center, the last of which sits alongside the Psychedelic Furs on a Pretty in Pink soundtrack which also features INXS, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Smiths. It is, in my opinion, the greatest soundtrack album of all time.

9. Best Power Ballad: Take My Breath Away – Berlin (1986)

You wouldn’t think it to listen to the love theme from the Tom Cruise/Kelly McGillis film Top Gun, but Berlin’s output was generally far edgier than this mother of all power ballads, ranging from synth-pop to outright rock tracks. Another song co-written by Giorgio Moroder, it was a massive number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic and also won the Oscar for Best Original Song.

10. Best Cover Version: Hazy Shade of Winter – Bangles (1988)

Originally a Simon and Garfunkel song, this track by the Bangles – from an era when girl-bands weren’t carefully constructed by a record company svengali – showcases their trademark swooping harmonies more fully than perhaps any other of their many hit singles. Which is less surprising when you consider that the band had been performing the song since their earliest days, and simply chose to record it when asked to provide a song for Less Than Zero, a film loosely based on the book of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho.

Recorded with a harder rock edge, the song retains the melancholy which suffuses the Simon and Garfunkel version. The original is a great track, but the Bangles’ reworking improves upon it and is very much in keeping with the darker tone of the film. Hazy Shade of Winter – they dropped the ‘A’ from the front of the original title – was vastly more successful commercially than the film it was attached to, reaching number two in the US and number 11 in the UK, fittingly in the middle of winter, February 1988.

So there you have it – a personal selection of ten great tracks from Eighties films which have received plenty of playing time on my iPod. Do you agree with my choices, or have I missed out a personal favourite of yours? Let me know in the comments.

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