Top '80s Indie Bands
Ah the '80s, a larger-than-life decade of big hair and bigger shoulder pads, spandex, and Spandau Ballet. (That's the name of a band, in case you didn't know.)
I spent many happy hours (and happy hours, too) doing the club scene in Boston. I was lucky enough to see incredible bands in venues seating less than 500 people. That put me within fainting distance of big name acts like Blondie, the B-52s, the Eurythmics, the Pretenders, the Ramones, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bryan Ferry, and Squeeze. Just thinking about those heady times gives me shivers.
Looking back, the music that really defines the decade for me goes beyond these (and even bigger) internationally famous icons. Any discussion of '80s music, at least for me, has to include some lesser-known songs and artists.
The indie bands below bring back joyous memories of my misspent young adulthood. I hope they do the same for you!
Top '80s Indie Bands
- Cowboy Junkies
- Jesus and Mary Chain
- Violent Femmes
- The Pixies
- The Motels
- Mink DeVille
- Joan Armatrading
- Love and Rockets
1. Cowboy Junkies
Cowboy Junkies is a trio of siblings from Canada with an alternative country sound. Rumor has it that their languid, hypnotic sound is reminiscent of a heroin high.
The Trinity Session is perhaps their best known record, recorded live in a single day on a single microphone in a church in Toronto. The record includes a very cool version of Lou Reed's “Sweet Jane." Reed reportedly liked the Junkies’ version of the song better than his own, so he began performing their version in concert.
I said 'Mama, he's crazy and he scares me
But I want him by my side
Though he's wild and he's bad
And sometimes just plain mad
I need him to keep me satisfied'— Cowboy Junkies, "Misguided Angel"
2. Jesus and Mary Chain
When I first heard the jangly guitar of "Just Like Honey" (and then heard the name of the band behind it), I said to myself, "Wow. This band is really different. And really ballsy." I actually wondered how such a seemingly sacrilegious name could get through the FCC. Silly me!
JandMC is a band made up of two Scottish brothers, Jimmy and William Reid. Their musical influences include Iggy and the Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys, the Shangri-Las, and Phil Spector. Apparently, they told journalists that they had taken their name from a line in a Bing Crosby film, but later recanted. Other accounts suggest that the name derived from an offer on a breakfast cereal box, on which you could order a gold Jesus and Mary chain.
Listen to the girl
As she takes on half the world
Moving up and so alive
In her honey dripping beehive
It's good, so good, it's so good
So good— The Jesus And Mary Chain, "Just Like Honey"
3. Violent Femmes
This band is unique, because they often play with a bass fiddle (you don't see a lot of those on rock band stages). Violent Femmes' music is technically called "folk-punk," a combination of American folk and punk rock.
I remember going to see them play in Boston with a gal pal. We were definitely in the minority. Actually, we might have been the only two females in the audience.
What I didn't know is that the Femmes were discovered in 1981 by James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders. They were playing outside a Pretenders concert and were discovered as the Pretenders were entering the venue. Chrissie Hynde invited them to play a brief acoustic set after the opening act. The rest is musical history.
Femmes songs you've probably heard on the radio include "Blister in the Sun," "Gone Daddy Gone," "Kiss Off," "Please Do Not Go," "American Music," and "Add It Up."
So don't shoot, shoot, shoot that thing at me
Don't shoot, shoot, shoot that thing at me
You know you've got my sympathy
But don't shoot, shoot, shoot that thing at me.— Violent Femmes, "Add It Up"
4. The Pixies
I didn't actually see The Pixies, because they arrived on the Boston music scene in 1986, but I always loved their music. They are another great example of Boston's indie music history. Besides, any band whose lead singer calls himself "Black Francis" is intriguing in my book.
According to Wikipedia, "The Pixies' style of alternative rock music is heavily influenced by punk and surf rock, and while highly melodic, is capable of being tremendously abrasive at the same time. Francis has a distinctly desperate, yowling delivery. He has typically written cryptic songs about offbeat subjects, including UFOs. References to mental instability, violent Biblical imagery, physical injury, and even incest feature in the band's songs.
It's no wonder that Kurt Cobain was a fan.
I know the nervous walking
I know the dirty beard hangs
Out by the box car waiting
Take me away to nowhere plains— Pixies, "Here Comes Your Man"
5. The Motels
Fronted by Martha Davis, a singer with incredible range, The Motels have been described as new wave, pop rock, and alternative. Originally from Berkeley, the band moved to LA, and that's where they got their start. Sources say The Motels shared rehearsal space in LA with the Go-Gos.
The songs "Only the Lonely" and "Suddenly, Last Summer," "Whose Problem," and "Days are Okay" received major radio play. My favorite song of theirs is "Total Control," which includes a sultry saxophone solo.
Always certain any moment
Maybe you maybe you
Maybe even you
Recline complete dream too sweet
I can't do it not with you
Not even with you
Maybe never with you— The Motels, "Total Control"
6. Mink DeVille
Mink DeVille? Willy DeVille? Is it a band? Is it an artist? Yes. I knew him/them as Mink DeVille (although, these days he goes by Willy... again). I saw him many many times in the early 1980s. How can I explain the dangerous undercurrent that emanated from him? Luckily, I found a perfect description: "With his pedantically trimmed pencil mustache he looked like a cross between a bullfighter and a Puerto Rican pimp. The tightest black suit clung to his thin frame; he wore a purple shirt, a narrow black tie and shoes with six-inch points. A Pompadour jutted out above his forehead like the lacquered hull of a submarine."
Combining blues, latin, cajun, creole, R&B, and doo-wop, Mink DeVille's music is heartfelt, rhythmic, and melodic. Some of his better known songs include "Mixed Up Shook Up Girl," "Spanish Stroll," "This Must Be the Night," "Lipstick Traces," and "Slow Drain," as well as covers of "Cadillac Walk," "Hey Joe," and "Bad Boy." Simply put, "bad boy" perfectly describes this unique singer-songwriter.
Like so many others who came out of the NYC punk club CBGB, Willy DeVille battled for 20 years with heroin addiction.
Candle lit, and my eyes are slits
Jumpin' now, paper clip.
Make a move, sail a ship,
Tap it in, tap it in, ruby lips.— Mink DeVille, "MIxed Up, Shook-Up Girl"
7. Joan Armatrading
The word prolific is the best word to describe St. Kitts-born British singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading. She started penning music and lyrics at age 14, and since 1972 she has put out 24 albums and compilations. Joan's style has evolved have evolved over the years. She went from being a primarily blues and folk singer to being a major pop and rock singer.
Songs that you may know include "Love and Affection," "Willow," "Me, Myself, I," "I'm Lucky," "Walk Under Ladders," and "Show Some Emotion," just to name just a few.
Brand new dandy
First class scene stealer
Walks through the crowd and takes your man
Sends you rushing to the mirror
Brush your eyebrows and say
There's more beauty in you than anyone— Joan Armatrading, "Down to Zero"
Another Wisconsin band, the BoDeans entered the music scene in the late 1980s, but they didn't hit the the big-time until their hit 1993 song, "Closer to Free," was used as the theme song for the TV series "Party of Five."
Before they were famous, I heard their songs "Only Love," "She's a Runaway," and "Fadeaway," and knew that I liked them. Originally, the band's name was Da BoDeans, but in 1985 they "shortened" it to simply BoDeans.
I see you from my window
In the shadows of the night
You're standing on Love Street
On the beat, of better things— Bodeans, "Fadeaway"
9. Love and Rockets
Love and Rockets formed in 1985, featuring three former members of the goth rock band Bauhaus, including Daniel Ash (guitars, saxophone, and vocals), Kevin Haskins (Drums, synthesizers), and David J (bass, vocals).
The band's first hit was a remake of the Motown hit "Ball of Confusion." Other L&R songs you may recall from the '80s include "All in My Mind," "No New Tale to Tell," "Mirror People," "Lazy," and their 1989 hit, "So Alive."
Prior to forming Love and Rockets, Ash and Haskins were briefly involved in a musical project called Tones on Tail. The band's claim to fame is a song called "Go!"
Walk around so cold
So cold and lonely
Or lay in bed wondering what
To do with time
You've got no sense of fun
Until you know you've won again
And yet you feel so much
You feel so much inside— Love and Rockets, "All in My Mind"
Living it up. It's a big kick
It's good for you
Watch the big freeze slip
Crack the jackpot, get out of control
If you put yourself down
You'll never win, get out of that hole
Keep your mind open, your head up
You'll never, ever get old— Tone and Tail, "Go!"