In music, the 1980s were a revolutionary and exciting decade, especially for the British scene, which witnessed a boom of varied and significant bands. A wide variety of musical styles were popular during this time period, including the synth-driven sounds of new wave, the expressive jangles of indie pop, the confrontational energy of punk, and the seductive darkness of gothic rock. Every band contributed a distinct taste to the music industry, frequently mirroring the social, political, and cultural trends of the day.
The UK emerged as a hub for innovative music, churning out bands that ruled the charts and had a long-lasting influence on the world of music. In this post, we delve into the top 20 British bands of the 1980s, exploring the distinctive qualities and contributions of each group that made this decade a golden age for British music.
Let’s dive in…
The Police have a one-of-a-kind style – a fusion of reggae, punk, and jazz. Their lyrics have dark and gritty undertones. Many fans consider them one of the greatest bands of the 80s, trailing only Queen.
Their career might not have been too prolific, but it was certainly influential. Think of it this way. Of their five albums, four earned a spot in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of all time. They also made it to their Top 100 Artists of All Times list. With over 75 million records sold, they’re also one of the best-selling groups of all time.
Their Zenyatta Mondatta featured two single hits which topped the charts in the UK. Synchronicity – their last studio album, gave them a few more single hits. The album reached the #1 spot in both the US and the UK, where it stayed for several weeks.
With this string of #1 album, The Police became one of the most commercially successful bands. And not just in the UK but internationally as well.
Key Band Members:
- Sting (Gordon Sumner): Lead vocalist and bassist, known for his distinctive voice and later a successful solo career.
- Andy Summers: Guitarist, known for his innovative guitar work.
- Stewart Copeland: Drummer, noted for his energetic and intricate drumming style.
- Every Breath You Take
- Message in a Bottle
- The Police were known for their blend of rock, reggae, and jazz.
- They won six Grammy Awards during their career.
- “Every Breath You Take” won the Grammy for Song of the Year in 1984.
- Sting’s distinctive voice and songwriting were key to their success.
- They were one of the world’s best-selling artists in the early 1980s.
Started in 1977, Saxon spearheaded the new wave of British heavy metal along with other leading bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. They’re widely regarded as one of the leading classical metal acts from the 80s. They’d later influence bands like Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer which popped up as the new wave of British heavy metal faded.
The dawn of the 80s set in motion their success with the release of Wheels of Steel, which made its way to the top of the charts. Not only did this album secure a position in the top five, but it also sparked an eponymous single hit.
After they released their third album – a fan favorite, Strong Arm of the Law, their popularity sky-rocketed. Fans consider this album their best work.
Fast forward a year…
Saxon releases Denim and Leather, which becomes an instant hit with the fans, so much so that the title is seen as a metal anthem.
As the NWOBHM trailed off, the band released Power and Glory in ’83. An album which sold over 1.5 million copies and would later go on to become their highest selling album.
Towards the end of the decade, the band struggled to gain a foothold in the US. Their fanbase in the UK took a hit too because their tours were on the decline and they couldn’t land a record deal.
Key Band Members:
- Biff Byford: Lead vocalist known for his powerful and distinct voice.
- Paul Quinn: Guitarist and founding member, renowned for his heavy metal guitar riffs.
- Wheels of Steel
- 747 (Strangers in the Night)
- Denim and Leather
- Saxon is considered one of the leaders of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
- They were originally formed under the name ‘Son of a Bitch.’
- The band played a significant role in the 1980s UK metal scene.
- Saxon’s influence extended to many later heavy metal bands, including Metallica.
- They consistently released albums and maintained a loyal fanbase through the decades.
Genesis greatly influenced the 80’s progressive rock scene. They’ve sold over 150 million album copies worldwide, making them some of the best-selling artists of all time.
Between 1980 and 1985, they released three albums: Abacab, Genesis, and Invisible Touch.
Abacab reached #1 in the UK in 1981, and it was received just as well in the US. Genesis also made it to the top of the charts in the UK and to #9 in the US. Invisible Touch, which sold over 6 million copies, was the band’s most commercially successful albums. I say commercially because it received mixed reviews from both critics and the fans.
The band went on their largest world tour from 1986 to 1987. The concert tour was called Invisible Touch Tour after the album of the same name.
After they released their last album titled, We Can’t Dance, they disbanded. Although the band did a world tour in 2006, they split up again in 2011.
Key Band Members:
- Phil Collins: Drummer turned lead vocalist, known for his distinctive voice and later a successful solo career.
- Mike Rutherford: Guitarist/bassist and founding member, also known for his work with Mike + The Mechanics.
- Tony Banks: Keyboardist and founding member, recognized for his complex keyboard arrangements.
- Invisible Touch
- I Can’t Dance
- Land of Confusion
- Genesis started as a progressive rock band and transitioned to pop in the 1980s.
- Phil Collins, the drummer, became the lead singer after Peter Gabriel’s departure.
- They are known for their complex song structures in their early work.
- Genesis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.
- Their live performances were marked by theatrical and innovative stage designs.
One of the world’s best-selling music bands, Queen, was formed in 1970. They debuted with a self-titled album back in ’73. It had elements of progressive rock and heavy metal and was well-received. A year later, they recorded their second (albeit lesser known) album, Queen II, in the UK.
But it wasn’t until the release of A Night at the Opera and Sheer Heart Attack, that they garnered international praise. These albums featured “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which claimed the top position in the charts in the UK for weeks.
By then the band had absorbed arena rock and pop rock styles, along with hard rock, progressive rock, and heavy metal.
In 1980, they released their best selling single, “Another One Bites the Dust”. This was followed by their album Greatest Hits, a year later. True to its name, Greatest Hits, is the best-selling album of all times in the UK, with 6.3 million copies sold. This also made them one of the biggest stadium rock bands in the world.
In 1982, they released an album titled, Hot Space, which departed from their traditional 70s era style. It favored a blend of rock, pop rock, R&B, dance, and funk.
The very next year though, they opted out of performing live for a while. But their highlight of this decade was their Live Aid performance, in 1985. Queen performed some of their best hits and it was watched by almost 2 billion people.
Owing to their timeless classics, sports anthems, and mind-blowing live performances, Queen is widely regarded as the greatest band of all time.
Key Band Members:
- Freddie Mercury: Iconic lead vocalist, known for his powerful voice and charismatic stage presence.
- Brian May: Guitarist, recognized for his distinctive sound and virtuosity.
- Roger Taylor: Drummer, known for his dynamic drumming and backing vocals.
- John Deacon: Bassist, noted for his songwriting and quiet presence.
- Bohemian Rhapsody
- Another One Bites the Dust
- We Will Rock You
- Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 is often regarded as one of the greatest in rock history.
- Freddie Mercury was known for his powerful voice and dynamic stage presence.
- Their music style combined rock, opera, and complex harmonies.
- They are one of the best-selling music artists of all time.
- Mercury’s death in 1991 from AIDS greatly impacted the music world.
The Smiths, an instrumental band that formed in Manchester in 1982, rose to fame almost immediately on the British independent music landscape. Boasting jangly guitar melodies by Johnny Marr and poetic, sorrowful lyrics by Morrissey, their music reflected the emotions and romanticism of the time. The group’s unorthodox musical approach, post-punk and indie pop fusion, as well as their insightful social critique, connected with their fan base. “Meat Is Murder” and “The Queen Is Dead” are albums that are regarded as classics. Despite their comparatively short existence, which concluded in 1987, The Smiths firmly infused succeeding bands and musicians with their imprint.
This no-nonsense band was known for their witty lyrics and music which could stir emotions. The lyrics were poetic, moving, heartbreaking, infused with metaphor and euphemism. But when they wanted to, they could put a smile on your face. Make you laugh, even. So it comes as no surprise that they have a cult-like fan following.
Though their career was short-lived, critics widely regarded them as the most influential group of the decade. During their 4-year long career, they released four albums. And every single one of them made it to the top five in the UK charts. Meat is Murder climbed to the very top. And it was the only album (save for compilations) to ever top the charts in the UK.
Their style was a union of rock and post-punk of the 60s.
Before they had released their final album Strangeways, Here We Come, The Smiths disbanded.
Key Band Members:
- Morrissey: Lead vocalist, famous for his poetic lyrics and unique singing style.
- Johnny Marr: Guitarist, known for his jangly guitar sound and songwriting.
- This Charming Man
- How Soon Is Now?
- There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
- The Smiths were critical darlings, known for their jangly guitar sound and Morrissey’s poetic lyrics.
- They were influential in the indie music scene of the 1980s.
- The band’s music often addressed social and personal turmoil.
- Johnny Marr’s guitar work was innovative and highly influential.
- Despite their short career, their music remains hugely influential.
In 1978, a band named Duran Duran changed the way music was styled and marketed. One of the leading bands of MTV in the 1980s, this band consisted of lead singer Simon Le Bon, Guitarist Andy Taylor, Keyboard Nick Rhodes, John Taylor the bassist and drummer Roger Taylor. Famous as inseparable, the group remained intact until Andy and Roger got separated, having then included Warren Cuccurullo and Sterling Campbel as the new guitarist and drummer.
With more than 100 million records sold around the world, this band gave its viewers 14 singles that were part of the top 10 UK Singles Chart. In the beginning, the band was positioned as part of the New Romantic movement but soon they changed their genre and came up with several hits including Rio, Like the Wolf, Union of the Snake and Hungry.
The original band reunited in the beginning of the year 2000 and since then except for their Guitarist Dom Brown all are still together. Duran Duran has been on the receiving end with Hollywood Walk of Fame, two Grammy Awards, two Brit Awards, Video Visionary Award from the MTV Europe Music Awards and MTV Video Music Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Key Band Members:
- Simon Le Bon: Lead vocalist, known for his charismatic presence and voice.
- Nick Rhodes: Keyboardist, recognized for his distinctive electronic soundscapes.
- John Taylor: Bassist, noted for his groovy bass lines.
- Roger Taylor: Drummer, known for his solid and stylish drumming.
- Andy Taylor: Guitarist (until 1986), known for his rock-oriented guitar riffs.
- Hungry Like the Wolf
- Save a Prayer
- Duran Duran were a leading band in the New Romantic movement of the early 80s.
- They were known for their stylish music videos, particularly on MTV.
- The band was named after a character from the sci-fi film “Barbarella.”
- Duran Duran became synonymous with the 1980s fashion and lifestyle.
- They had a resurgence in popularity in the early 2000s.
One of the most famous bands of the New Romantic Era, Spandau Bullet was formed in 1979 in London. This post-punk inspired band has so far given 23 hit singles and sold more than 25 million albums across the world. In the 80s, if there was any band that gave competition to Duran Duran, it was Spandau Ballet.
The band hit the charts from their debut single “To Cut a Long Story Short” and received the BMI award for the most played song in the history of the US with four million airplays. The band involved guitarist Gary Kemp, on bass Martin Kemp, drummer John Keeble, saxophonist Steve Norman, and vocalist Tony Hadley.
The band took off from the floor for 19 years in 1990 and reformed in 2009 for The Reformation Tour. The featured a documentary biopic, Soul Boys of the Western World in 2014 which premiered at SXSW Film Festival and screened at many other film festivals including Rome and NYC Doc film festivals. In the year 2017, Hadley, the lead vocalist left the band and a year after, famous actor and singer Ross William Wild joined them. In the recent tweets by Wild, he has also announced his disassociation with the band which was later confirmed by Martin Kemp.
Key Band Members:
- Tony Hadley: Lead vocalist, known for his strong and soulful voice.
- Gary Kemp: Guitarist and chief songwriter, known for his melodic guitar work.
- Martin Kemp: Bassist, also known for his acting career.
- Through the Barricades
- Spandau Ballet were part of the New Romantic movement, like Duran Duran.
- They were known for their sharp suits and stylish image.
- The band had a bitter split in the 1990s but reunited in 2009.
- “True” became one of the defining songs of the 80s.
- Their music shifted from synthpop to a more soulful pop sound.
Ultravox started performing at Tiger Lily in 1972 and renamed their band as Ultravox in 1973. The band with John Foxx as the lead singer was the main man behind all the success and hard work. With Vienna as the most successful hit of 1981, Ultravox also produced seven albums, all ranking in top ten and 17 singles that stayed in the top 40 singles.
In 1979, Foxx quit the band to pursue a solo career in music, with Midge Ure, taking the lead as the frontman, singer and guitarist. The band was in full swing until 1988 when it got separated.
The band with Currie, Ure and Warren Cann came together in 2008 to perform reunion shows and later in 2010 released a studio album by the name Brilliant. In 2013, the band went on a four-day UK arena tour with Currie and Ure’s announcement that this tour was their last performance.
Key Band Members:
- Midge Ure: Lead vocalist and guitarist from 1979, known for his powerful voice and songwriting.
- Billy Currie: Keyboardist and violinist, recognized for his classical influence on the band’s sound.
- Dancing with Tears in My Eyes
- Ultravox were pioneers in the new wave genre.
- Their hit “Vienna” is considered one of the greatest songs of the 1980s.
- The band was influential in the synthpop movement.
- Midge Ure’s tenure as frontman marked their commercial peak.
- Ultravox’s music combined electronic with traditional rock instrumentation.
One of the most famous and successful bands Wham! had none other than the heartthrob George Michael and Andrew Ridgley. With more than 30 million albums sold, Wham! produced music that was funky yet touched the soul. They also addressed several social issues via music and their album Fantastic was based on UK’S unemployment and adulthood.
In 1984, Wham! gave another blockbuster hit ‘ Make It Big’ and later ‘Everything She Wants’, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Careless Whisper were singles that topped the charts and are still part of the playlists. In 1985, Wham! took a 10-day tour to China, helping both China and the West establish friendly relations.
Michael soon realized that his aspirations in music were beyond what he was producing and hence, both Michael and Ridgley announced a formal breakup in 1986. The duo gave their final goodbye in the Wimbledon stadium on 28th June 1986 in an 8-hour concert with 72,000 people.
George Michael died on 25th December 2016 from heart and liver disease.
Key Band Members:
- George Michael: Lead vocalist and songwriter, known for his soulful voice and later a hugely successful solo career.
- Andrew Ridgeley: Guitarist and co-founder, played a key role in the duo’s image and success.
- Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
- Last Christmas
- Careless Whisper
- Wham! was formed by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley.
- They became one of the most popular British acts of the 1980s.
- “Last Christmas” is one of the most played Christmas songs every year.
- George Michael’s solo career post-Wham! was highly successful.
- Their music was a mix of pop, soul, and funk.
Tears for Fears
Formed in 1981, Tears for Fears consisted of Roland Orzabal and curt Smith. The band’s basic genre was rock and pop. Their debut album the Hurting was ranked number one of UK Album Charts followed by Songs from the Big Chair, their second album which scored top ranking on the US Billboard 200. Tears for Fears after their third, platinum-selling album The Seeds of Love decided to part ways. This was the year 1991, however, Orzabal later continued the band name as a solo project and produced Elemental and Raoul and the Kings of Spain. Orzabal brought back Smith in 2004 and together they released Everybody Loves a Happy Ending.
Since 2010 till date, Tears for Fears has collaborated with Spandau Ballet for around the world tours and has given a number of smashing hits to their lovers.
Key Band Members:
- Roland Orzabal: Co-founder, vocalist, and main songwriter, known for his deep and emotional vocal style.
- Curt Smith: Co-founder and bassist, known for his smooth voice and the balance he brought to the duo.
- Everybody Wants to Rule the World
- Mad World
- Tears for Fears were known for their thoughtful lyrics and polished production.
- Their name was inspired by primal therapy, reflecting deep psychological themes.
- The band enjoyed international success, particularly in the US and UK.
- Their music style evolved from new wave to more mainstream pop.
- They were part of the second British Invasion of the US music charts.
Depeche Mode, founded in 1980 in Basildon, Essex, became one of the most influential and successful electronic bands in music history. Their sound evolved significantly over the decade, becoming a pioneering blend of synth-pop, new wave, and dark electronic music. With hits like “Enjoy the Silence” and “Personal Jesus,” they amassed an extensive following. The band’s inventive use of synthesizers and sampling, paired with Dave Gahan’s distinct voice and Martin Gore’s contemplative lyrics, distinguishes them in the music industry. Their music has remained relevant and impactful, frequently tackling themes of human relationships, emotion, and societal challenges.
Key Band Members:
- Dave Gahan: Lead vocalist, known for his deep, haunting voice and magnetic stage presence.
- Martin Gore: Key songwriter and keyboardist, known for his melodic and sometimes dark compositions.
- Andy Fletcher: Keyboardist, known for his steady presence and management of the band’s affairs.
- Enjoy the Silence
- Personal Jesus
- Just Can’t Get Enough
- Depeche Mode was a pioneer in electronic music and a key influence in the synth-pop genre.
- Their music often explored dark and introspective themes.
- They have a huge global fanbase and continue to be influential.
- The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020.
- Depeche Mode’s sound evolved significantly over their career.
The Cure, which formed in the late 1970s and achieved iconic status in the 1980s due to their distinctive style that fused post-punk, gothic rock, and new wave, came into existence in the late 1970s. This band was distinguished by the distinctive vocal qualities, poetic lyrics, and visually appealing aesthetic of frontman Robert Smith. Showing their versatility, albums such as “Disintegration,” “The Head on the Door,” and “Seventeen Seconds” contained everything from sadness, thoughtful tracks to upbeat musical anthems. Devoted to capturing intricate sentiments such as grief, love, and despair, The Cure’s music gained them an everlasting following and a significant place in the annals of alternative music.
Key Band Members:
- Robert Smith: Lead vocalist and guitarist, known for his distinctive voice, guitar style, and iconic image.
- Simon Gallup: Bassist, known for his solid and creative bass lines.
- Friday I’m in Love
- Boys Don’t Cry
- Just Like Heaven
- The Cure is known for their gothic rock sound, although their style varied greatly over time.
- Frontman Robert Smith’s distinctive voice and look became iconic.
- They were part of the post-punk movement and later influenced the gothic rock genre.
- The Cure’s music often explored themes of love, despair, and existential angst.
- They are revered for their influence on alternative rock music.
One of the key bands of the initial wave of British punk rock, The Clash was founded in London in 1976. They were well-known for their politically charged lyrics, rebellious demeanor, and varied musical styles, which included ska, rockabilly, and reggae influences. Records such as “London Calling” and “Combat Rock” demonstrated their wide range of inspirations and innovative approach to music. The band, which had Mick Jones and Joe Strummer as its frontmen, was well-known for its social criticism on topics like racism, social injustice, and political unrest. Beyond just music, The Clash had an impact on fashion, society, and the punk subculture.
Key Band Members:
- Joe Strummer: Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, known for his intense energy and political lyrics.
- Mick Jones: Lead guitarist and vocalist, noted for his melodic guitar work and songwriting.
- London Calling
- Should I Stay or Should I Go
- Rock the Casbah
- The Clash were a key band in the original wave of British punk rock.
- They were known for their politically charged music and rebellious image.
- The band incorporated various styles like reggae, funk, and ska into their music.
- “London Calling” is often cited as one of the best albums ever made.
- The Clash’s influence extended beyond music to fashion and political activism.
The Human League
The Human League, a Sheffield-born band, was among the first in the 1980s synth-pop scene. They were founded in 1977, and their 1981 album “Dare,” which included the songs “Don’t You Want Me” and “Love Action,” helped them become well-known. Pop music changed by their inventive use of synthesizers and electronic production, as well as Philip Oakey’s unique baritone voice. The group’s popularity was increased by its memorable songs, futuristic look, and use of female supporting vocals from Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall. The Human League was one of the decade’s key bands because of its sound and style, which impacted pop and techno music.
Key Band Members:
- Phil Oakey: Lead vocalist and songwriter, recognized for his deep voice and androgynous image.
- Joanne Catherall: Vocalist, known for her backing vocals and stage presence.
- Susan Ann Sulley: Vocalist, also known for her backing vocals and contributions to the band’s image.
- Don’t You Want Me
- (Keep Feeling) Fascination
- The Human League were pioneers in synth-pop music.
- Their album “Dare” is considered a classic in the electronic music genre.
- The band underwent significant changes in lineup and style throughout their career.
- They are known for their avant-garde music videos.
- The Human League influenced many future electronic and pop musicians.
The 1980s were a golden era for British music, showcasing a remarkable diversity and innovation that continues to influence the music industry today. It reached its peak in the 1980s, exhibiting a tremendous range and inventiveness that still has an impact on the business today. These bands not only created classic songs, but they have also paved the way for new musical genres and influenced cultural movements. An experimental spirit and a fearless determination to try new things characterized this period of British music, producing a rich legacy that speaks to nostalgia and eternal relevance at the same time.