Brace yourself: Slippery When Wet is thirty years old.
That’s right: the album that shot Bon Jovi into the superstar stratosphere– thanks in part to the number one hits “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name”– was released three decades ago, in 1986.
Back then, the guy who drove me to high school played his Slippery When Wet tape pretty much on continuous loop every morning. Flash-forward thirty years: I’m still driving to a high school (I’m a teacher now), and I still hear “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” on the radio, on a semi-regular basis. And what may be even more astounding: those songs have aged well, much like Jon Bon Jovi himself. (Damn you, you 54-year-old rock ambassador, with your wrinkle-free face and luxuriously full head of hair!)
Thinking about the longevity of those two songs made me think of all the other classic songs that came out around that same time. So, as a follow-up to last July’s hugely successful (i.e. I got one comment!) Summer of 1986 retrospective, I present to you 28 other songs from the Fall of 1986—the era of The Fly, ALF, and Crocodile Dundee (not to mention the worldwide premiere of The Oprah Winfrey Show):
Everybody Have Fun Tonight: Thirty Songs from the Fall of 1986
“Take Me Home Tonight,” Eddie Money: From its moody/ kind of spooky opening, to the legally-required-to-sing-along chorus, Eddie Money hit the jackpot with this one. Plus, by including Ronnie Spector, he was able to cash in on the mash-up phenomenon a good twenty years before mashing-up became a pop music pre-requisite. Just a great song– the source of a great parody on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. (“Stake me out tonight…”)
“True Colors,” Cyndi Lauper: A beautiful song that shows the softer side of Cyndi. Still, fans concerned that Softer Cyndi no longer wanted to have fun need not have worried: at one point in the “True Colors” video, she’s wearing a skirt made out of shredded newspaper. Talk about showing your true colors…
“To Be a Lover,” Billy Idol: Two things you may not have known about this first single off Idol’s Whiplash Smile (great title, by the way): (1) It’s a “remake” of a 1968 R & B song, “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” by William Bell– and I put “remake” in quotations because Billy’s version bears very little resemblance to the original. And (2) When Cameron Crowe was writing the script for his film Say Anything…, he initially had “To Be a Lover” in mind for the Lloyd Dobler/ boom box scene. He quickly changed his mind (Crowe has said he liked “To Be a Lover” for exactly “one day, the day I wrote that scene”), but imagine if he went with Idol over Peter Gabriel? What kind of world would this be?
“Welcome to the Boomtown,” David and David: Under-appreciated song, from a wildly, sinfully under-appreciated album, Boomtown. David and David only put out this one album, but it had some really solid songs, including two which I feel are even better than “Welcome to the Boomtown”: “Ain’t So Easy” and “Swallowed by the Cracks.” On a related note: David and David, Duran Duran, Mr. Mister, Lisa Lisa (see below), Talk Talk, and even The The– what’s up with 1980s and double groups?
“Don’t Get Me Wrong,” Pretenders: I can’t pretend to love this song, but it’s harmlessly snap-happy and waaaaay better than the repugnant, unredeemable “Brass in Pocket.”
“Typical Male,” Tina Turner: So, get this: Tina Turner only had ONE number one hit in her illustrious career– “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” And she’s only had TWO number two hits: “We Don’t Need Another Hero” and this song. I don’t know what’s more mystifying: that the great Tina Turner– who seemed to be all over the 80s– only had one song at the top of the charts, or that “Typical Male”– a song that never gets played, that no one remembers, that isn’t even that good– out-ranks most of her other songs.
“Hip to Be Square,” Huey Lewis and the News: In the 2000 film American Psycho, Christian Bale’s character Patrick Bateman called this song Huey’s “undisputed masterpiece”– which I actually have to dispute. I mean, it’s a fun song that anticipated the whole “geek chic” phenomenon… but a masterpiece? Then again, in the film, Bateman professed his love for this song right before he murders Jared Leto with an axe, so I guess it’s good he and I aren’t on the same page. (Incidentally, back in 1989, Sesame Street did a shape-themed parody of this song, called “Hip to Be A Square.” So, basically, Huey’s song is linked to Big Bird and axe-murderers. That’s pretty versatile!)
“Wild, Wild Life,” Talking Heads: The song that contains one of my favorite lines in any pop song, ever: “Things fall apart. It’s scientific.” (Which is reminiscent of one of my favorite lines in any poem, ever: “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold,” from “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats. Who says 80s songs are dippy and uninspired?)
“A Matter of Trust,” Billy Joel: This song is a paradox, all right: a quintessential Billy Joel piano song that doesn’t feature piano. Instead, he pairs this straight-up ballad with an electric guitar. The result: “She’s Got a Way” meets “You May Be Right”– and perhaps the last truly great song of Billy’s storied career (at least, so far).
“The Way It Is,” Bruce Hornsby and the Range: For all the Hornsby-haters out there, who dismiss his songs as repetitive, “Adult Contemporary” fare, let me point out that this song earned the band a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1987, sparked Hornsby’s collaborations with artists such as Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Huey Lewis, and the Grateful Dead, and was eventually sampled by none other than 2Pac (for his song “Changes”). You may resent his success… but that’s just the way it is.
“When I Think of You,” Janet Jackson AND “Human,” Human League: What do these two have in common? They’re both #1 songs from the Fall of 1986 that were written by the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. “When I Think of You,” Ms. Jackson’s first number one song, is a fun, breezy song about school-girl infatuation. “Human,” meanwhile, is a tad darker, about a man asking for forgiveness after he cheated on his love– only to learn that she cheated on him during that same time period. (Man, those two deserve each other.)
“Amanda,” Boston AND “At This Moment,” Billy Vera and the Beaters: I’m lumping these two together because they’re both Second Chance Number One Songs. First, Boston: The band had actually recorded “Amanda” in 1981, but then they broke up. In 1986, when Boston re-connected with the album Third Stage, “Amanda” was finally released… and climbed all the way to #1 (making it Boston’s only song to reach the top spot).
“At this Moment” had an even more circuitous route to #1: Originally released in 1981, “At This Moment” lasted but a moment on the charts, stalling out at #79 on the Billboards. For the next five years, Billy and his unfortunately-named Beaters languished, until a TV producer heard them perform and had the idea of using “At This Moment” for the sitcom Family Ties. And so, let that be a lesson to undiscovered bands everywhere: if you keep marching confidently in the directions of your dreams, you will find success… even if you try to sabotage your chances with an absolutely ridiculous band name. (I mean, the Beaters? Honestly…)
“Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” Wang Chung: Then again, if you have a goofy name, you might as well embrace it: Wang Chung not only included its name in its most famous lyric from its most famous song, but they even turned it into a verb! What does it mean to “wang chung,” exactly? Though the Internet swirls with speculation (Does it mean “Yellow Bell” in Chinese? Does it mean “perfect pitch”? Is it the sound a guitar makes?), no one seems to know for sure, even three decades later.
Personally, I think it has to do with the ancient art of Product Placement– the product, in this case, being the name of the band itself. Think about it: you take a catchy, up-tempo beat and combine it with a non-sensical chorus that includes the name of your band. That way, even if folks mock the lyric, they’re still saying it. Hey, it worked on me: even though I didn’t care for the song as a 16-year-old, as a 46-year-old, I have such great nostalgia for it. Man, how’d I get wang chunged like that?
“Sweet Love,” Anita Baker: This career-launching song, which earned the singer a Grammy for Best R&B Song and another for Best R&B Vocal Performance (Female), went to #8 on the pop charts and #2 on the R&B charts. Sweet, indeed.
“I’ll Be Over You,” Toto: This band really should have hung it up after “Africa.” (After all, how can you top that?) But since everyone mistakenly believed “Africa” was sung by Asia, Toto soldiered on with this lame little ditty, which actually reached #11 on the Billboard chart– thanks, no doubt, to the inclusion of the irrepressible Michael McDonald on back-up vocals. (As an aside, did Toto and Kansas ever go on tour together? Seems like a no-brainer…)
“Dancing on the Ceiling” Lionel Richie: Not the most lyrically complex song, but just try and resist tapping your toes when you hear it (on the floor or ceiling… take your pick).
“The Rain,” Oran “Juice” Jones: One of the shining stars among One Hit Wonders from the 1980s– not only because it features such great put-downs (“You without me is like corn flakes without the milk! This is my world. You’re just a squirrel trying to get a nut!”) but also because it is, to my knowledge, the only song from this list that spawned a rebuttal: Miss Thang’s “Thunder and Lightning,” which features the woman from “The Rain” sassing back to the man. When your song has a Rebuttal Version, you know you’ve made it.
“The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” Timbuk-3: I always considered this just a goofy song– until I learned that lead singer pat mAcdonald (yep, that’s how he spells it) intended for it to be about… wait for it… nuclear holocaust! Apparently, the “shades” are meant to be a metaphor for turning a blind eye to a potential future made “bright” by a giant nuclear blast. And he does make that reference to studying “nuclear science” in the very first line. So I guess I sort of see it. Still, I somehow liked the song better when I thought it was goofy.
“Word Up!,” Cameo: Another “more-than-meets-the-ear” song. I always just liked the tune, but once I actually bothered to study the lyrics, I realized the song is an indictment of rappers and other “sucker DJs” who “put on airs” and write about “psychological romance” instead of just writing cool dance music. Hence the paradox: a song that seems to critique other songs for their Deeper Meanings actually has a Deeper Meaning. Ah, Cameo, you tricksters.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Aretha Franklin: You have to respect the Queen of Soul’s output during the 80s; “Freeway of Love”… “Sisters Are Doing it for Themselves”… “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)”.. and this forgotten doozy of a cover, featuring Keith Richards and Ron Wood (from the Rolling Stones) on guitar, for the Whoopi Goldberg film, also called Jumpin’ Jack Flash. (And fun fact: Aretha was Whitney Houston’s godmother.)
“All Cried Out,” Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force: What do you get when you take Lisa Lisa, spread on some Cult Jam, then add a dash of Full Force? The ultimate break-up empowerment song. Think about it: here you have the Dumpee placing all the blame for the break-up on the Dumper– and the Dumper just taking it! The guy in the song doesn’t even TRY to offer up any defense; he just laments, “Why was I such a fool?” and “How could I be so wrong?” The all-time great TKO break-up song.
“Next Time I Fall,” Peter Cetera and Amy Grant AND “Will You Still Love Me?” Chicago: It’s 1986, and gang warfare has erupted on the Billboard charts. David Lee Roth and his ex-band Van Halen have put out competing albums (Eat ‘Em and Smile and 5150, respectively); Benjamin Orr and Ric Ocasek, both members of the Cars, have released singles (“Stay the Night” and “Emotion in Motion,” respectively); and Peter Cetera and his former bandmates in Chicago are slugging it out in an epic battle for Soft Rock Supremacy.
Just how vicious was this Cetera-Chicago duel? Well, I’m reminded of Sean Connery’s line from The Untouchables: “He brings a knife, you bring a gun. He sends one of your guys to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.” (Only, in this case, instead of knives and guns, both Cetera and the Chicago guys were armed with cheesy, David Foster-penned ballads.)
Ultimately, I guess you’d have to say Peter Cetera won the battle, since both of his songs from 1986, “Glory of Love” and “Next Time I Fall,” went to #1, while “Will You Still Love Me?” peaked at #3. Still, #3 is not too shabby, and Chicago proved they could survive, even without Cetera’s bizarre falsetto. They’d go their own way– the Chicago way.
“Heartbeat,” Don Johnson: For a solid year, Eddie Murphy reigned as the Celebrity Who Put Out the Most Embarrassing Pop Song, 1985’s “Party of the Time”… until the Fall of 1986, when Don Johnson decided to cash in on his Miami Vice fame by putting out this piece of steaming, soulless, opportunistic crud– roundly regarded as one of the worst songs ever.
But here’s the thing: “Heartbeat” reached #5 on the Billboard charts! How did that happen, when I don’t know anyone who admitted to liking it? And another head-scratcher: supposedly, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, and even Barbra Streisand helped Don Johnson on this album… which begs the question: how crappy would the project have been if these folks didn’t assist?
“Walk Like an Egyptian,” The Bangles: Bad news: the recording of the song caused some friction among the Bangle-gals (Ban-gals?), when the producer not only forbade bandmember Debbi Peterson from singing one of the verses (she was relegated to the whistling section), he also replaced her drumming with a drum machine. Three years later, the group broke up– not necessarily because of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” but it couldn’t have helped.
On the other hand, the good far outweigh the bad with this song: it reached #1 on the Billboard chart; it was the very first song performed by an all-female group playing their own instruments to reach the top spot on the charts; and it brought the concept of “cops hanging out in the donut shops” into the limelight. Bottom line: when you think of great songs from the 80s, this one has to be near the top of the pyramid.
(Unless, of course, you’re Toni Basil, the one-hit wonder responsible for 1981’s “Mickey.” Seems songwriter Liam Sternberg first took “Walk Like an Egyptian” to Toni– who turned it down! And even now, thirty years later, if you listen closely, you can still hear Toni Basil crying.)
“Stand by Me,” Ben E. King: I wanted to conclude my memory-lane jaunt here because this song (and the 1986 film that sparked its re-release) is about the importance of enduring friendships.
I was sixteen when these songs came out, a junior in high school. Even now, I look back on the Fall of 1986 as a special time– when my friends started driving, which meant my Saturday nights started consisting of hanging out with actual people, instead of Julie McCoy, Isaac the Bartender, and the rest of the crew from The Love Boat.
The songs on this list may provide the soundtrack for this magical time in my life, but my friends were the characters who made that portion of the movie fun and interesting and worthwhile. The songs were on the car radio, but my friends were the ones in the car with me. They were the ones who made the memories. They were the ones standing by me.
Thirty years ago, I was a junior in high school. Now my twin sons are juniors. And for my sons, I have this wish: that thirty years from now, in the year 2046, they’ll look back just as fondly on their friends… and their music.