The Musical Impact Of 1984

by Greg Prato

There are certain years that have gone down as being incredibly important and/or memorable in popular music history. And without question, 1984 was one such year, as MTV ruled the land, pop music was as vibrant as ever, and heavy metal conquered the charts while hip-hop and alt-rock were quickly rising up from the underground (and in just a few years, both would dominate).

Author Michaelangelo Matos has chronicled what made this year so special with his book Can't Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year. Matos was up for answering some questions about the book and why 1984 was so extraordinary.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the idea come up to do the book?

Michaelangelo Matos: It came to me on an airplane ride 11 years ago. I wanted to write it then, and attempted to - I wrote a proposal that didn't sell because I didn't know what I was doing yet. So I wrote The Underground Is Massive on a topic I knew well enough to be able to fill in the blanks easily. That showed me how to do the same thing with another sort of topic.

Songfacts: What are some interesting/uncommon facts you uncovered during your research?

Matos: Most of the book is made up of things I didn't know beforehand. You don't write a book because you know everything about a topic; you write a book to learn everything you can. One of the most alarming things I learned was just how badly managed the Philadelphia portion of Live Aid was (it's the book's final chapter), from promoter Bill Graham deliberately fouling up the TV crew's carefully laid plans, out of pure spite, to there being no backstage ramp for Teddy Pendergrass' wheelchair.

Songfacts: Who were some of your favorite interviews for the book, and why?

Matos: The book is much less interview-heavy than The Underground Is Massive - a few dozen for Can't Slow Down, compared to more than 300 for TUIM. But I had a great time talking to Arthur Baker - I can't imagine who wouldn't - and it was great to spend time with Steve McClellan, the longtime general manager of First Avenue, even if we squabbled a lot.

Songfacts: It's quite amazing how many now-classic metal albums were released in 1984 - 1984, Ride The Lightning, Stay Hungry, Powerslave, Love At First Sting, The Last In Line, Defenders Of The Faith, Don't Break The Oath, etc. Was this metal's best year ever? The only other year I could think that possibly measured up to it was 1980.

Matos: I will have to take your word on this - I'm not a huge metalhead myself. That said, one of the great pleasures of writing the book was spending time with the first two Metallica albums, which I'd barely paid attention to before, and discovering just how good they were.

Songfacts: Did 1984 truly signal the arrival of hair metal - Mötley Crüe, Ratt, W.A.S.P., Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, etc.?

Matos: That seems fair to say, though like much of 1984 in pop, generally, a lot of that momentum began in '83, with Quiet Riot and Def Leppard in particular. But Van Halen's "Jump" was the first #1 single in America by a heavy metal band, with all of the above right in there.

One fact that didn't make the book is that 1984 is the year Poison formed - as much a signal of hair metal's arrival as you could ask.

Songfacts: How important was 1984 for hip-hop?

Matos: Highly. 1984 is when it begins crossing over to pop as more than a novelty, and just as importantly, when it begins crossing over to black radio, which did not play much rap then or for a few years afterward. This is around the time KDAY in Los Angeles began emphasizing hip-hop, which is a big shift. And, of course, there are all the breakdanceploitation movies: the two Breakin's, Beat Street, Body Rock, plus the early-'84 wide release of Wild Style, the greatest early hip-hop film.

Breakdancing appeared in all sorts of movies and TV commercials in '84 (both McDonald's and Burger King used breakdancers in their ads), and there were numerous tie-ins, from compilation albums to instructional videos and books.1 As Michael Holman told me, breakdancing was hip-hop's loss leader, the thing that opened the door for everything else. By '85, breakdancing was seen as a fad, but hip-hop was not. Run-DMC may only have done two songs at Live Aid, but that was a breakthrough moment as well.

Songfacts: An album that I missed at the time from 1984 but is now one of my all-time favorites is Meat Puppets II. What are some of the more overlooked albums of that year?

Matos: I played Meat Puppets II for a solid month while writing the indie-rock chapter - it's totally original, reminiscent of so much else but resembling nothing else. But most of my favorite finds were live recordings, like this 67-minute DJ set from Jellybean Benitez, from the NYC club the Fun House, or this blinding Husker Du set from Maxwell's that October.

Michaelangelo MatosMichaelangelo Matos
Songfacts: It's difficult to pick who was the true top pop star of '84 - Prince, Madonna, Bruce, Tina Turner, Phil Collins, Van Halen... who the heck was it?!

Matos: Michael Jackson, easily: Thriller had been #1 for months as 1984 began and would stay #1 for months to come. The Victory Tour was the biggest pop-music story of the year, even if the tour itself was a mixed bag, to put it nicely. Everybody else was big, but Michael Jackson was probably the most famous living American in 1984 besides President Reagan.

Songfacts: Was 1984 "the year of movie soundtrack" - as far as pop music goes?

Matos: It was when movie soundtracks became a market force unto themselves. By 1986, Scott Isler would write in Musician magazine, "A foreigner looking at a 1986 list of bestselling albums would conclude that the hottest act around was a band called Soundtrack."

It also bears mentioning that Talking Heads' best-selling album, to this day, is the soundtrack to the 1984 concert movie Stop Making Sense.

Songfacts: Was 1984 MTV's most powerful year?

Matos: Not necessarily. MTV had been calling the shots for a few years, but by '84 Top 40 radio was so much more robust than it had been for years that it could, and did, break hits irrespective of MTV. But MTV wielded enormous power in '84, as seen in the first VMAs—they hired Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler to host, sidelining the VJs, in a sign that the network was the star, not the hosts. And MTV's power would accrue later, in other ways—the debut of Yo! MTV Raps in 1989, the premiere of The Real World in 1992, the premiere of The Osbournes in 2002.

Songfacts: How did 1984 affect the remainder of the '80s?

Matos: It's the blueprint for late-'80s and early-'90s pop. Unfortunately for us, often what that meant was a severe uptick in sodden power ballads.

Songfacts: In your estimation, was 1984 the greatest year in popular music history?

Matos: Sure. It's my favorite, anyway.

Songfacts: Which were your Top 10 albums of 1984?

Matos: Top of head:

Purple Rain
Born In The U.S.A.
Let It Be
Meat Puppets II
Reckoning
Run-D.M.C.
Aura
New Sensations
Zen Arcade
The Glamorous Life

I didn't count late-'83 albums like She's So Unusual or Eliminator - they'd be in there, too. So would the Jellybean set and Husker Du show mentioned above.

Songfacts: Which were your Top 10 singles of 1984?

Matos: Here's the Top 10 I gave Rolling Stone five years ago when they tallied their Top 100 Pop Hits of 1984 list - the proviso is that they had to make the Hot 100.

Prince - "When Doves Cry" b/w "17 Days"
Tracey Ullmann - "They Don't Know"
Van Halen - "Jump"
The Pointer Sisters - "Automatic"
Sheila E. - "The Glamorous Life"
Billy Ocean – "Caribbean Queen"
Bruce Springsteen - "Born In The U.S.A."
The Time - "Jungle Love"
Cyndi Lauper - "Time After Time"
Elton John - "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues"

December 8, 2020

Get Can't Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year at Hachette Books.

Further reading:

Dan Beck on the inside story of Michael Jackson's "King Of Pop" phase
Fact or Fiction: Prince
Curt Kirkwood of Meat Puppets
MTV: The Early Years

Footnotes:

  • 1] Fun fact: the first music video to show breakdancing was Rod Stewart's "Young Turks" in 1981. (back)

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