Recently, I spent 85 minutes on a Saturday morning watching VH1 Classic’s Totally ‘80s.

Why? “It was there” seems like it could be the answer. Or maybe the block’s Tron-esque bumper spots, showing two “speed racers” (with competing red and white streaks) reminded me that what we used to think of as “digital cutting edge” is now something most of us can create on a smart phone.

Either way.

Totally ’80s: “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye

This was the Motown stars last significant hit, a couple years before his death. The concept could be described as “Harlem Renaissance meets ’80s luxury.” The clip switches back and forth between a tux-clad Marvin singing in a smoky club with footage of a woman in a limo watching a movie on a small TV featuring Marvin going to some kind of doctor and then getting his swerve on with her. A love doctor? It features such classy elements as Marvin’s EKG reading going haywire when his doctor bends over and he gets a good look at her booty. In the end, Marvin wraps up his performance and heads out to join the woman in the limo. Because she’s his very own love doctor.

It’s amusing to remember how much of a fuss this song kicked up in the early ’80s. While more forthright odes to sex were becoming common in the R&B world, it was unusual for the pop market to embrace a song whose lyrics didn’t code its thematic intent. Three decades later, “Sexual Healing” seems downright quaint compared to some of the far-less-subtle expressions of carnal desire likely playing on a station near you.

Totally ’80s: “What You Need” by INXS

Okay, this video is like someone got an early generation computer editing package and decided to use every tool it contained in one clip. It’s a migraine-inducing swirl of quick cuts, painterly effects, random colors and shapes superimposed over performance footage and all kinds of fades and transitions. Staring at this video for too long might not be good for your health. This is also notable for the gallery of ’80s hair on display: all kinds of mousse- and gel-based concoctions. Spikes, curls, shaved sides, long backs, top poufs. It could have doubled for one of those cosmetology school ads that were so ubiquitous at the time.

It’s a great song, fortunately, so if the visual onslaught is too much, you can always just look the other way until it’s over. And hey: cool sax solo, bro.

Totally ’80s: “Could You Be Loved” by Bob Marley and the Wailers

You probably know this song from that guy in your dorm. The painfully white dude who just so related to the whole “Rasta thing” and played Bob’s music non-stop while calling people “mon” and proclaiming his devotion to Jah. He might have done things to his hair that don’t look right for a blond dude. Don’t blame Bob for that guy, it totally wasn’t his fault.

This video is an interesting mix of footage of Bob performing in the studio and in concert intercut with street scenes showing actual snippets of inner city life. Take a close look at the performance footage, though, and it’s pretty clear that whatever songs Bob was singing in those snippets, none of them were “Could You Be Loved.” This song is probably one of the handful that listeners not steeped in the Marley catalogue would recognize. It’s a nice bit of variety in this Totally ’80s mix.

Totally ’80s: “Everytime You Go Away” by Paul Young

This one mixes concert scenes and “backstage” footage with stylized close-up shots of Paul singing very seriously into the camera. Feel the depth of Paul’s seriousness, people. And try not to laugh at his very ’80s mullet, poufy on top, short on the sides, trailing down his neck. Sadly, that hairstyle was “state of the art” for ’80s singers. The concert clips feature a parade of unfortunate ’80s fashions. Pirate shirts, track pants and oversized jackets all turn up. In the “Paul sings seriously into the camera” shots, he’s dressed like a background character from The Outsiders.

There are dramatic hand gestures, he drops to his knees and… oh, Lord. He does the thing where he wipes his face with a towel onstage and then tosses it to the crowd. Look, if a towel enhanced by the dry sweat of Paul Young is your prized possession, I’m not knocking you. I’m just saying it’s okay if we remain on our separate tracks in life and never intersect.

Decent song, though Daryl Hall sang it better.

Totally ’80s: “Keep the Fire Burnin’” by REO Speedwagon

Huh. I must have known this song, and yet it really didn’t register with me. Beyond the whole thing where most of REO Speedwagon’s songs sounded pretty similar. Curious. This is another clip featuring the band in a “live” performance. That was a popular style for ’80s videos, even though actual live performances were rarely included in the sound mix. They tended to sub in the audio track of the studio version. And there’s yet another parade of wacky hair and clothes from the ’80s. All of that is more interesting to me than this actual song, which might explain why I probably knew it back in the day but why my brain refuses to acknowledge it.

Totally ’80s: “No One Is To Blame” by Howard Jones

I actually really like this song. Teenaged me found it very deep. Shut up.

So, this clip is meant to be high concept, I guess. It starts with a tight close-up on Howard and the hair he stole from that Flock of Seagulls guy. Shots of the inner workings of a piano and other instruments, papers, sheet music, leaves and things of that nature are spliced in between. Then it fades to a cityscape and a band performance, superimposed over Howard and kind of floating past him, like an old reel film. This could be one of the most ’80s songs I saw in this Totally ’80s block.

I still like it. You can still shut up.

Totally ’80s: “That’s All” by Genesis

This is one of those cases where a song’s lyrics and visual presentation have no apparent logical connection. “That’s All” was a decent, mid-tempo Genesis song about a guy being in love with someone who’s into someone else.

And yet the video takes place in a burned-out industrial space after the apocalypse. The band is styled in what we might call “art deco hobo.” The action eventually moves to other post-apocalyptic corners of the city. Apparently the only things that survived Armageddon were Genesis, a piano, an upright bass and an electric guitar. The latter of which presumably was powered by hooking it up to a wheel and then having some mutant rodent run on it to generate electrical current. Music video science is ever fascinating.

The theme of this video (“the only thing to survive the apocalypse were Genesis and cockroaches”) did nothing to answer critics of the band’s music. I’m not mad at the song, though. Except for the fact that the chorus is probably going to adhere to my brain like a remora for weeks.

Totally ’80s: “Angel” by Aerosmith

You’ll never guess, but this video mixes performance footage with highly stylized shots of the band. One moment the band is onstage, the next they’re playing in an alley, or on a desert highway or in some abstract space. And then Steven Tyler’s in bed for the line “sleeping in this bed alone” because why not nail that concept squarely on the nose.

The computer editing effects are present in abundance. Any cheesy fade you can think of is here. There’s a plethora of long, feathery hair, chest-baring jumpsuits and leather jackets. And then for no apparent reason, Steven Tyler is dressed like a ’40s gumshoe for one sequence. Some ethereal woman in white feathers is superimposed over many shots, because apparently the band wasn’t done being too literal. Fortunately the song itself can stand up to everything this clip heaps on it.

I would not be surprised if every person involved in making this video went to rehab at least twice in the years that followed.

Totally ’80s: “Der Kommissar” by Falco

Falco was part of that brief flirtation American radio had with German acts in the ’80s. Nena and The Scorpions scored hits here, too. And of course Berlin, who weren’t German, but were named for a German city, so I’m mentioning them.

This spot features Falco running in place in front of a green screen, featuring footage of various cars and cops. Running. He’ll stop and sing for a moment, then more running. Very aerobic. Falco’s spotting tightly slicked back hair and sunglasses, sort of a “Euro Miami Vice” aesthetic. It’s not that dynamic a clip, to be honest. But points added for using the German-language version instead of the one re-recorded with the English translation.

Totally ’80s: “Refugee” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

This was hands down the best song that played throughout 85 minutes spent with Totally ’80s. It’s no accident this still gets a decent amount of radio play all these years later. It’s just excellent.

So the concept itself is pretty straightforward. Tom and the boys start out playing in an alley and then over the course of the song, they walk inside, wander around the building and eventually wind up in a performance space to finish things off. And they didn’t embrace the fussy, outlandish styles of the day. Jeans, work shirts and hair that was longish, but not noticeably moussed or gelled. Think of it as the ’80s version of the grunge look. I don’t think Tom’s hair would pouf even if he wanted it to. Which he never would.

Tom kicks ass always.

Totally ’80s: “Forever Young” by Alphaville

Okay, this is one of those songs that movies and TV shows trot out when they need to immediately inform viewers that it’s the ’80s. See also: “Sister Christian” and “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”

The clip starts “in space” and then slowly tightens in (via cheese-tastic editing) to some sort of gothic ballroom. There’s all kinds of junk and debris heaped in piles around the room. And yet another singer sporting the top pouf, because the ’80s really wanted men’s hair to look stupid. And then a bunch of random people who apparently were sleeping in the junk heaps just wake up and rise. It’s unclear why they were sleeping in junk piles in a gothic ballroom. Apocalypse? Revolution? Sick all-night rager?

So Alphaville performs in the ruins of the ballroom for awhile and everyone forgets that they were sleeping in piles of junk. And then some cheese-tastic reverse editing takes us back to the stars.

I feel like a deeper person just for having watched this.

Totally ’80s: “Missing You” by Diana Ross

I’m not sure if this was deliberately included in the same block as “Sexual Healing” or if the Totally ’80s random video selector just picked both of these coincidentally. This was Diana Ross’s tribute to Marvin Gaye after he was killed. It includes vintage footage of Marvin and Diana from throughout their Motown years and mixes it with scenes of a very serious, dramatic Diana performing against a “roiling dark clouds” background. Which was very ‘80s.

But this also might be Diana Ross’s most genuine performance of that era. She and Marvin had been friends since the ’60s and had often performed together. Her grief always seemed real. That comes across here. 30 years down the road, this song and clip are still oddly affecting.

Totally ’80s: “Wrap It Up” by The Fabulous Thunderbirds

God, how to explain the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Okay, imagine that a bunch of suburban dads started a garage band because their wives wanted an hour to themselves three evenings a week. And then imagine that band of suburban dads and their “retro” rock sound somehow landed a record deal. And that radio stations started playing their songs, because pacts with the forces of darkness are a real thing. All of their songs sounded like the same song, but with barely different words. Hello, mass market success.

The concept for the video found the Thunderbirds performing amongst a bevy of privileged trophy wives. Hanging at some mansion’s pool. At a luxury car dealership. A fancy party. And then the ending suggests that these rich women cannot help but want to bone the various Fabulous Thunderbirds. This is what we might call “a fantasy” or possibly “total bullshit.”

I feel diminished for just having watched this video.

Totally ’80s: “Allentown” by Billy Joel

Nylon Curtain era Billy Joel. It’s a Trojan horse, because that album simultaneously contained some of Billy’s best and worst songs of the era. He got “experimental” and was musing about socially relevant stuff. Sometimes it didn’t work, but sometimes it did.

“Allentown” was probably the best song from the album. The video concept mixes some real world vintage footage that aligns with the lyrical themes (war, industrial shutdown, hard times) with some highly stylized depictions of some of those things. Including one of the oddest dance breakdowns you will see in any video. I can’t even do it justice with words. Throughout, Billy, dressed in khaki and sporting a retro hat, just hangs around and strums a guitar and sings while people go about their business around him.

And yes, I knew every word and sang along as the video rolled. I possess not one iota of shame or remorse for that.

Totally ’80s: “One More Night” by Phil Collins

I’m sure if you told today’s young’uns how Phil Collins was one of the biggest music stars of the ’80s, they’d probably have you committed. But he just kept alternating solo hits and Genesis hits and was everywhere. We all listened to him. Some of us still might.

So this clip was an attempt to go “cinematic.” Phil’s playing piano in an empty club while the bartender cleans up. He’s emoting this for all it’s worth. He’s sporting a boxy, ’80s style suit, including a tie with a fat knot. Phil’s hair, however, was absolutely resistant to any ’80s styles. It was like a not especially useful super power. Phil keeps emoting. The whole thing isn’t quite in black and white. More the footage has been washed out in some kind of sepia tone effect. There’s an empty glass on the piano and of course some random sax player was just hanging around, waiting for Phil to need him, because God forbid he had somewhere else to be when Phil was emoting. Then he dons a huge overcoat, ambles down the stairs and walks off down a rainy street, alone. Of course.

Well, that was uplifting.

Totally ’80s: “Say Say Say” by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson

In the early ’80s, Michael Jackson was the world’s biggest pop star. Paul McCartney was a certified legend. Both were at solo peaks, creatively and commercially. This was the second duet they did in as many years and is probably the better of the two. It conquered everything. Resistance was futile.

The concept has Paul and Michael as old timey snake oil salesmen, traveling the land in a pickup truck. Paul’s the hype man. Michael is the plant who swigs the elixir and then beats a huge dude (also a plant) at arm wrestling. Then the guys skip town before anyone realizes they’ve been had. They travel from town-to-town. Paul’s woman is with them, too. Michael flirts with a girl in some town they hit. Where instead of fleecing the locals with snake oil, they stage a Vaudeville show and do some pool hustling. And then skip town, because you don’t let people get away with perpetrating Vaudeville.

The budget for this video probably dwarfed that of the other 15 songs on this list combined. And it was a perfect way to end our time with Totally ‘80s.

Originally published at on November 18, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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