The Arena Rock Explosion- 8 Bands That Dominated Stadiums in the 1980s

Since the 1970s, it’s been a universal truth that if a band plays stadium after stadium every night, they’ve made it big. The 1980s is considered to be the golden age of arena rock, stadium rock, glam rock, and hair metal—or whichever preferred label—meaning countless bands were amassing hundreds of thousands of attendees at their live shows. And with good reason—many of these bands had big, loud, bombastic sounds that couldn’t possibly be contained to small, or even mid-sized, venues. Here’s a look back at some of the greatest of the decade to command an arena stage.

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1. Queen

This one’s a no-brainer—Queen is one of the best bands to ever do arena rock. After all, their music still plays in stadiums globally, even when they’re not present. Just putting on songs like “We Will Rock You,” “We Are The Champions,” or even “Bohemian Rhapsody” over the speakers is enough to get sports and concert crowds riled up.

Queen, when they were performing live, however, was a truly magical experience, in large part due to Freddie Mercury at the helm. The band’s live presence only grew after their first performance in 1970, and by the 1980s, they’d mastered their formula. Mercury would get the audience involved, calling for chants, and the other members would spontaneously improvise.

Their 1985 Live Aid performance is one of their most notable crowds. Not only were they performing to approximately seventy-two thousand people at London’s Wembley Stadium, but the performance was broadcast internationally, so that added another estimated two billion people in remote attendance. Even without assistance from pyrotechnics, or other stage theatrics, Queen kept the crowd’s undivided attention, thanks to their command over the crowd. Afterward, they received nothing but praise, including from the likes of Elton John and David Grohl.

2. Journey

Another band whose music has transcended live arena rock into ever-present stadium anthems, Journey was a staple of the arena rock boom. Their songs “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Any Way You Want It” are certified crowd-pleasers, sure to be recognized, and enjoyed, by people of all ages.

Journey first performed together in 1973, and by 1975, people saw the appeal and they began performing in arenas, starting with Long Beach Arena in Long Beach, Calif. Their 1981 Escape Tour is looked back on fondly, as it even received a live album. Journey still performs to stadiums nationwide.

3. AC/DC

With their energetic sets, it’s hard to overlook AC/DC’s strength in an arena setting. Their live presence can best be described as animated and loud, but all the more engaging. Even when they were performing in mid-sized venues, they immediately rope fans in with pitch-perfect renditions of “Back in Black” and “Highway to Hell.” Vocalist Brian Johnson is sure to address the crowd, and not just through words. He motions for them to get up, get louder, and move their bodies. By the ’90s, their venue sizes would only grow, and on an international level as well.

4. Blue Öyster Cult

One of arena rock’s lesser-spoken gems, Blue Öyster Cult had an on-stage presence that was both simple and resonant. Performances of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” were sure to transport listeners, between the opening riff and the vocal harmonies. This is to be expected, as they have been touring together since 1971, and were performing at the Rose Bowl by 1982.

The band is actively touring across the country, and across the globe, to this day, still bringing the same vigor to their sets.

5. Bon Jovi

By 1984, Bon Jovi was performing to a massive international audience, going to show the hold they had on rock spheres during the 1980s.

The band had very humble beginnings, though, with Jon Bon Jovi and David Bryan performing whenever they could with their band, Atlantic City Expressway. Jon was also taking jobs in the music industry where he could get them, such as local radio stations and Power Station Studios in Manhattan. While working at the radio station, Jon put forth his song “Runaway” to be played on air as part of a local talent showcase. Bon Jovi would explode from there, coming up alongside acts like Van Halen.

6. Van Halen

Speaking of which, Van Halen is another band synonymous with stadium rock. Known for big, long hair and flashy yet rugged outfits, the band also helped usher in the “hair metal” image and sound.

They had the on-stage personalities to match, performing each show as if it were their very first. In the mid-1980s, before David Lee Roth had left the band, he delivered an infectious energy, dancing along to the music and joining the other members on their mics. This would only energize the crowd, leading them to anticipate more surprises or bursts of energy.

7. Boston

Boston was an industry titan by the time the 1980s rolled around. In 1987, they would begin touring to promote their third studio album, Third Stage. Their blend of soft and hard rock tantalized listeners and made for dynamic live performances. Songs like “Hitch A Ride,” and “Amanda,” which the band began performing in 1985 to build hype for Third Stage, were massive hits off their setlist. That’s not to mention classics like “More Than a Feeling” and “Peace of Mind.” The band pays close attention to their craft while performing, not opting for theatrics and instead a soothing, stripped-down show.

8. Styx

Styx, based on their own mission statement, embodies the spirit of a stadium rock band, with their motto of ‘Harmony. Chemistry. Balance. Grit. Dexterity. Determination. Solidarity,’ equating their bond to that of a football team.

Styx is best known for their songs “Renegade” and “Come Sail Away.” Their live sets often mix rock with on-stage storytelling, making them one of the most theatrical rock bands of the decade.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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