8 Iconic Rock Songs That Defined the 1980s

The 1980s were peppered with soft rock, hard rock, glam and hair metal, and whatever fit in between.

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Kicking off the decade, Motörhead forged in with “Ace of Spades,” AC/DC entered their new era with “Back in Black,” and Pat Benatar was striking back with “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” In the mid-’80s, Prince got reflective on “When Doves Cry,” while Simple Mind‘s “Don’t You Forget About Me” suited the soundtrack of a generation.

By the late 1980s, U2 exploded with Joshua Tree, metal continued to rule with Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Guns N’ Roses jumped off the Sunset Strip and into the mainstream with “Welcome to the Jungle,” and Appetite for Destruction, all while Tom Petty was about to release his solo debut.

A loftier heyday of rock, the decade was powered by big hair (and personalities) and even bigger riffs that spilled over in dozens of stadium-ready anthems.

Here’s a look at eight iconic rock songs that came out during the decade.

1. “Another One Bites the Dust,” Queen (1980)

Off Queen‘s eighth album, The Game, “Another One Bites the Dust” remains one of the band’s biggest classics. Penned by bassist John Deacon (who also penned the band’s “You’re My Best Friend,” “I Want to Break Free,” and more) “Another One Bites the Dust” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1980 where it spent three weeks. The song served as the perfect anthem to kick off the new decade.

“Freddie how it should be and Fred just went in there and hammered and hammered until his throat bled,” said Brian May. “He really was inspired by it and took it to a new height, I think.”

2. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Joan Jett (1981)

Originally released by British rockers, The Arrows as a B-side in 1975, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” became Joan Jett‘s breakthrough solo hit. Jett first saw The Arrows perform on their weekly U.K. television series while on tour with The Runaways in the mid-1970s. After The Runaways split in 1979, Jett began working on her solo album, I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200.

The title track went to No. 1 on worldwide charts, including with the Billboard Hot 100.

Read the full story behind “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ HERE.

3. “Hungry Like The Wolf,” Duran Duran (1982)

Duran Duran‘s second album Rio was transformational for the band with the title track hit and pop ballad “Save a Prayer,” and the more tantalizing “Hungry Like The Wolf.” The latter song was a slick yearning for someone — In touch with the ground / I’m on the hunt, I’m after you / Smell like I sound, I’m lost in a crowd / And I’m hungry like the wolf.

“Hungry Like The Wolf” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and in 1984, the video won the first Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video.

4. “Every Breath You Take,” The Police (1983)

Written by Sting for The Police’s fifth and final album Synchronicity, “Every Breath You Take” was not the average rock love ballad. Its gentler sway covertly hides a more sinister story, one seeped in an obsessive-possessive relationship — Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.

“I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song,” said Sting, “when it’s quite the opposite.”

“Every Breath You Take” hit No. 1 on the charts and won two Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

5. “Jump,” Van Halen (1984)

1984 was the final album featuring all four original members of Van Halen —David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Michael Anthony, and Alex Van Halen. It gave the band several top 20 hits, including “I’ll Wait,” “Panama” “Hot for the Teacher,” and their first No. 1, “Jump.” 

Known for telling some tall tales behind the meaning of “Jump,” Roth said he wrote the song while driving around Los Angeles in his vintage 1951 Mercury convertible. He also linked the song to a stripper (jump!) and also referenced a news story he saw about a man who was trying to jump off a building.  

Reading into the lyrics, “Jump” is about perseverance, of moving forward in the most difficult of times — I get up and nothin’ gets me down / You got it tough, I’ve seen the toughest around / And I know, baby, just how you feel / You got to roll with the punches and get to what’s real.

Read the many meanings behind Van Halen’s hit “Jump” HERE.

6. “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Bon Jovi (1986)

Written by Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora and Desmond Child, “Livin’ on a Prayer,” off Bon Jovi’s third album Slippery When Wet marked the band’s second No. 1 Billboard Hot 100.

Today, “Livin’ on a Prayer’ is Bon Jovi’s signature song, but at first, Jon Bon Jovi didn’t think much of it.

“I remember walking out of the room with Richie and I said, ‘Eh, it’s okay. Maybe we should just put it on a movie soundtrack,’” said Bon Jovi in 2021. “Richie looked at me and said, ‘You’re an idiot. It’s really good.’ I said, ‘I just don’t know where it’s going.’ But it didn’t have that boom-boom-boom bass line yet, so it sounded more like The Clash.”

7. “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” Def Leppard (1987)

In 1988, Hysteria reached No. 1, and the tracks from Def Leppard‘s epic release remain rock classics — “Rocket,” “Love Bites,” “Animal,” “Women,” and “Armageddon It.” Along with their hit title track, Hysteria also birthed one of Def Leppard’s biggest hits, “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” which hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

Check out our 2022 interview with all five members of Def Leppard HERE.

8. “I Won’t Back Down,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1989)

Released as the lead single on Tom Petty‘s 1989 solo debut, Full Moon Fever, “I Won’t Back Down” was co-written by Petty and Jeff Lynne, and peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and topped the Album Rock Tracks for five weeks.

While recording “I Won’t Back Down,” Petty was suffering from a cold. George Harrison, who plays guitar on the track, picked up ginger root, boiled it, and had Petty stick his head in a pot of the steaming brew. Petty went back and laid down the track.

Check out the entire story behind Tom Petty’s hit “I Won’t Back Down” HERE.

Photo: Peter Noble/Redferns

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