Best of the 1980s—The Masterpieces of Synth Pop

Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Duran Duran,and the Pet Shop Boys. A selection of unforgettable music tracks which made history in the 1980s.

Deutsches Museum

Tubeway Army Are Friends ElectricDeutsches Museum

In May 1979, post-punk band Tubeway Army, founded in 1975, released their single Are Friends Electric? taken from their album Replicas. By the end of June the song had already taken the number 1 spot in the UK charts as the first track of the synth pop era. The hit topped the charts for four weeks and was beaten by the Boomtown Rats and I Don't Like Mondays. Gary Numan, founder and frontman of the Tubeway Army, later explained that he actually wanted to make Replicas a punk album until he discovered a Minimoog synthesizer in the studio.

Gary Numan CarsDeutsches Museum

Straight after their first big hit, Numan decided to drop the name of the band. He did keep the musicians in the band, but the formation was now just named after himself: Gary Numan. Not even three months after Are Friends Electric?, Gary Numan landed his next big hit at the top of the charts with Cars. However, the track only remained at number 1 for a week. It was followed by The Police with Message in a Bottle. Numan was inspired by an incident he had when he clashed with another driver and realized how much a person's character changes when they're behind a steering wheel.

Soft Cell Tainted LoveDeutsches Museum

1981's milestone Tainted Love by duo Soft Cell, consisting of Marc Almond and David Ball, was a cover of the 1964 original performed by Gloria Jones. It stormed to number 1 in the UK charts barely two months after its release. Even if it only spent two weeks there, it was the year's best-selling single on the British Isles. The synth pop classic also reached number 1 in Australia, Belgium, Canada, South Africa, and Germany.

The Human League Don't You Want MeDeutsches Museum

The last number 1 hit of 1981 also belonged to a band that was part of the new synth pop genre. With Don't You Want Me in 1977, Sheffield band The Human League broke through as one of the top acts of the era. It was the fourth single release from their third studio album Dare. The song also reached number 1 in the US. The Rolling Stone magazine described the song as the breakthrough song of the Second British Invasion by new bands from the UK with their new synth sound. The first invasion describes the success of British bands in the US in the 1970s, like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Who.

Kraftwerk The ModelDeutsches Museum

While they never achieved a number 1 hit back at home in the German singles chart, Kraftwerk succeeded in the UK in 1981. With their two A-sides, singles Computer Love and The Model, they climbed to the very top of the list of best selling singles in February 1982. In the music world, the band founded in 1970 in Düsseldorf is still considered a groundbreaking group and part of the success story of electronic music.

Duran Duran Is There Something I Should KnowDeutsches Museum

They were the precursors to the New Romantics, the popular music and fashion wave from 1978 to 1982. Duran Duran, a band founded in 1978 in Birmingham, made a name for themselves in 1981 with their debut album and even placed number 3 in the album chart. Four of their first seven singles also landed in the British top ten, but their first number 1 was in March 1983 with Is There Something I Should Know?. The song held the top spot for two weeks. The second song which sent the band to number 1 was in May 1984: The Reflex.

Spandau Ballet TrueDeutsches Museum

Just a few weeks after Duran Duran, fellow musicians Spandau Ballet also landed their first hit at number 1 in the British charts with True. For the band founded in 1979 and named after a piece of writing scrawled on a wall discovered during a trip to West Berlin, it was actually their only number 1 hit. Their follow-up single Gold actually came in at number 2.

Depeche Mode People Are PeopleDeutsches Museum

Interestingly, the all-time greatest and most successful new wave band never had a number 1 hit in the UK charts. Although Depeche Mode had 14 tracks in the top 10, they never once reached the top 3. One of their biggest achievements was the number 4 hit People Are People in 1984, which did achieve the top spot in Germany.

Yazoo Don't GoDeutsches Museum

As one of the founding members of Depeche Mode, Vince Clarke quit the band early on by the end of 1981 and founded the duo Yazoo together with his old school friend Alison Moyet. Even as part of this group, he never reached the top. Their first single release from their album Upstairs at Eric's came in at number 2 in the UK charts. Other hits were more successful in the US dance charts. Situation and Nobody's Diary even made it to number 1 there, as well as probably their most famous hit, Don't Go.

Visage Fade To GreyDeutsches Museum

Another song that's now considered one of the most successful and trendsetting hits of the synth pop era and New Romantics wave which never made it to number 1 in the UK charts was Fade to Grey by London band Visage, founded by frontman Steven Strange in 1978 in Billy's nightclub in Soho. It only reached number 8 in the UK hit parade… In Germany, the single climbed the charts from February 23, 1981 and spent seven weeks at the top. The band were also accompanied by Midge Ure as a background singer and Billy Currie on synthesizer and violin. The pair had their biggest-selling success later with Ultravox.

OMD Maid of OrleansDeutsches Museum

Yet another band that never climbed all the way to the top of the charts in their UK home but are certainly a permanent fixture of the history of synth pop in the early eighties is Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Their hit Maid of Orleans, with its unmistakable, almost bagpipe-like mellotron intro, reached number 4 in the UK top 10. The track had more appeal in Germany. It spent four weeks at number one and was even the biggest-selling single of 1982.

Tears for Fears ShoutDeutsches Museum

Even Tears for Fears, one of the all-time famous bands of the synth pop genre of the early eighties, missed out on the top position in the British charts more than once. They placed seven times in the top 5 but were never number 1. Nevertheless, Shout reached the top spot in Germany and the US. Singer Roland Orzabal later said on the meaning behind the song: "It's more related to political protest. The song came out during a time when a lot of people were still worried about the Cold War, and it was an encouragement to protest."

Bronski Beat I Feel LoveDeutsches Museum

Classics of the era also include hits by Bronski Beat, a trio consisting of charismatic frontman Jimmy Sommerville formed in 1983. The band members were open about their homosexuality and would often sing about issues facing gay men in the UK and worldwide. The two biggest hits from their debut album The Age of Consent were Smalltown Boy, an autobiographical song in which Sommerville comes to terms with his experiences of being cast out by his own family after coming out, and Why?, a song condemning the murder of gay playwright Drew Griffiths. In a duo with Mark Almond from Soft Cell, Sommerville also sang a cover version of the mother of all disco hits, I Feel Love by Donna Summer.

Simple Minds Don't YouDeutsches Museum

It was difficult to place Simple Minds in a set genre. Formed in Scotland in 1978 as a post-punk and rock band, they took their name from a lyric from the David Bowie song The Jean Genie ("He's so simple-minded he can't drive his module"). Jim Kerr and his bandmates played small concert venues during their first few years with little success. They first started gathering attention as the support band for Peter Gabriel on his Empire and Dance tour. However, they only achieved an international breakthrough in May 1985 with their hit Don't You (Forget About Me), which reached number 1 in the US charts. They took the top spot in the British hit parade in 1989 with Belfast Child.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood RelaxDeutsches Museum

After the marriage between new wave and synth pop, things started to get a bit hardcore. The hi-NRG genre—electronic dance music injected with the very early sounds of techno—became more and more established around the mid eighties. The first truly big global hit for the style was Relax by Liverpool band Frankie Goes to Hollywood. However, many broadcasters had the song on their no-play list, and the cover, lyrics, and music video were increasingly censored by radio and TV stations due to their sometimes dramatic depictions of the gay scene. This did no harm to the song: in fact, Relax spent five weeks at number 1 in the UK charts.

Pet Shop Boys West End GirlsDeutsches Museum

Significant figures of the late eighties, when new wave sounds were generally on the decline, were London duo the Pet Shop Boys. Although the band was founded in 1981, they only landed their first big hit in fall 1985 with West End Girls. The song reached number 1 in the UK as well as the US charts. By the end of 1987, the band had another three songs that reached number 1 in the British hit parade: It's A Sin, Always on My Mind, and Heart.

A-ha Take on MeDeutsches Museum

Synth pop might have had its roots in England, but there were also big bands outside the isles. Especially, of course, Norwegian trio A-ha for example, Scandinavia's most successful pop export after Abba. From the same debut album Hunting High and Low they released four singles. The first—Take on Me—was also their most successful and became a worldwide hit. The song reached number 1 in the charts in 36 countries. The video also won six awards at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Men Without Hats The Saftey DanceDeutsches Museum

The eighties were also the time for countless one-hit wonders: bands which only had a single song at the top of the charts but could never achieve a fraction of this success afterward. One of these fly-by-nights was The Safety Dance by Canadian synth pop band Men Without Hats. The hit landed at number 2 in 1982 in Germany and number 3 in the US. When asked about its meaning, singer Ivan Doroschuk explained that it had been a protest song against the current ban on pogo dancing in several clubs.

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