Reach for your Walkman as we dust off some of the most memorable soundtracks of the 1980s
Nothing stokes the emotions quite like a memorable soundtrack.
Whether it’s an era-defining collaborative piece, a mood-establishing original score or a shameless promotional vehicle, music is as essential to modern film as any visual element. With the rise of the MTV pop culture juggernaut, the ’80s would up the ante in this regard, with an unprecedented number of pop stars getting in on the act. It would also mark the rise of the synth composer, ushering in a new wave of neon-laced classics.
In this article, VHS Revival recalls some of the most memorable movie soundtracks of the decade.
Don’t forget your Wayfarers!
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Okay, so Harold Faltermeyer’s pop culture phenomenon Axel F played a large part in this one, but on closer inspection the album has so much more to offer. In musical terms, Faltermeyer is as synonymous with ’80s movies as Schwarzenegger, and in Axel Foley’s eponymous theme he created his pièce de résistance, a slick synth phenomenon that epitomises Eddie Murphy’s breakthrough star turn. So ingrained in our culture is Axel F that it’s been subjected to various mixes and re-releases and has appeared in so many places it has transcended the era it epitomises—quite the feat for a track whose main purpose was to capture the aura of Foley’s inimitable, streetwise cop.
Other Faltermeyer tracks of note are punchy synth entry Shoot-Out and the bass-heavy, quasi-ominous Discovery, each epitomising Foley’s unconventional yet determined pursuit of retribution, but the movie doesn’t start and stop with Faltermeyer’s distinctive sound.
Beverly Hills Cop also bears a heavy soul influence, with Patti LaBelle, Shalamar and The Pointer Sisters all making notable contributions, the latter responsible for punchy, car chase accompaniment Neutron Dance, a track that solidifies Murphy’s status as one of the leading African-American stars of the era, while encapsulating his character’s roguish, authority defying modus. Incredibly, future Tim Burton stalwart Danny Elfman also makes an appearance with synth-pop effort Gratitude, adding to an LP that is surprisingly eclectic.
But the second standout track belongs to former Eagles frontman and band founder Glenn Frey, whose blistering, sax-heavy crowd-pleaser The Heat Is On epitomises both the movie’s frenetic tempo and the overblown era it has come to represent. A killer anthem in anyone’s book.
There are some real winners here, but nothing tops the slick-sounding Axel F, a track with unlimited replay value that works both as a filmic accompaniment and colossal standalone track. A song as synonymous with the synth revolution as anything I care to recall.
Scarface features yet another synth giant of the ’80s. Perhaps more synonymous with children’s fantasy The NeverEnding Story and tech-orientated romcom Electric Dreams, Italian composer Girogio Moroder had something of a dark side, and never has it been more evident than in Brian De Palma’s Pacino-led gangster epic. A world away from the electro trailblazer’s sweet-sounding collaborations with Human League frontman Philip Oakey, Moroder broadens the scope of his inimitable talents with some gut-wrenching contributions that encapsulate Tony Montana’s ruthless rise and sobering capitulation.
The track that best represents our antihero’s journey is of course Tony’s Theme: an epic, haunting monument to one of cinema’s most memorable characters, one laced with political soundbites, social upheaval and glum inevitability. Just as potent is Gina’s Theme, a gut-wrenching ballad of faux-sentimentality that spells the fate of Montana’s impressionable sister, a character who best represents our antihero’s poison touch.
Described by Screenwriter Oliver Stone as a form of revenge against his own debilitating cocaine addiction, the movie is drenched in the vacuous drug culture of early ’80s Miami, and the rest of the soundtrack is a monument to that. Soulless pop fodder such as Amy Holland’s She’s On Fire and the newly solo Debbie Harry’s Rush Rush paint a vacuous image of a society consumed by image, power and wealth, the latter a carefree ode to Miami’s favourite white powder ‘yeyo’, a drug that Stone admitted was everywhere in Miami in the early ’80s.
Tracks such as Maria Conchita’s Vamos A Bailar give the movie traditional, almost ironic Cuban flavour, as Montana throws off the shackles of communism to become hopelessly Americanised. Paul Engemann’s Push It To The Limit proves another winner, as well as being one of the most endearingly overblown movie anthems of the decade.
There are more memorable tracks, particularly the ever wonderful Moroder’s electro entries, but the prize has to go to Engemann’s Push It To The Limit, which suitably depicts the kind of heartless, power-hungry society that transforms Montana from a desperate thug into an isolated, power-hungry pit-bull with no salvation in sight.
Sorcerer, The Keep, Risky Business — I could have included any number of soundtracks written and performed by the otherworldly, Edgar Froese founded German electro group Tangerine Dream, but in the end I edged towards this mind-boggling epic for Michael Mann’s cruelly underrated neo-noir crime flick Thief. Mann had a knack for featuring memorable soundtracks, but on this occasion he was content in leaving the entire album to one of the genre’s great innovators.
Compared with some of their studio albums (particularly their earlier efforts) Thief produces sounds that are more user friendly, though compared with your typical OST it is positively out there. Thief tells the story of James Caan’s skilled and ill-fated cat burglar Frank, who ends up working directly for the mob after a diamond heist gone sour, and its soundtrack, along with some expert photography, proves the movie’s driving force. As you can see below, the album also benefits from some dazzling artwork.
Michael Mann would become one of the finest action-thriller filmmakers the industry has ever known, and Thief is typically skilled, a movie of style and substance that pulsates through an agonisingly taut series of events, and the soundtrack can be just as excruciating. It can also be surprisingly uplifting — not in the mawkish, family-friendly way we are used to, but in a manner that leaves you staring into the spiritual void.
Tangerine Dream are not to be trifled with. They’re not the kind of group you can listen to casually. They don’t make you want to kick off your heels and dance around the living room. They exist in another galaxy, and their music demands your absolute attention. It can be hard-going for those who can’t hear past a catchy melody or three-chord anthem, but the pain is necessary in understanding the beauty. Without darkness there is no light.
As with all of their work, Tangerine Dream shouldn’t be judged on tracks but on albums. They create journeys that begin and end in the darkest valleys, with the kind of peaks that are truly breathtaking. Listen to this one from start-to-finish and allow every nuance your unwavering attention. You deserve it.
The Last Dragon (1985)
The Last Dragon has one of the most ludicrous concepts of the 1980s. A Kung-Fu, pop video mash-up in the Cannon vein, it tells the story of… wait for it… Bruce Leroy, a young African-American teen who must master a level of martial arts expertise known as ‘the glow’ and rescue love interest Laura Charles (Vanity) from the grip of an obsessed music promoter. Unsurprisingly, the movie has become a bona fide cult classic years after it was slammed by every self-respecting critic on planet Earth, and with good reason.
Supervised by executive producer Berry Gordy, The Last Dragon is a Motown Productions vehicle designed to promote several acts signed to the label, and, much like the World Wrestling Federation’s cross-promotional pro wrestling effort No Holds Barred, the evidence is there for all to see. The divine and ultimately tragic figure known as Vanity had just finished Prince’s Purple Rain and was immediately signed to a four picture contract as The Last Dragon approached, but her featured track 7th Heaven was nominated for the infamous Golden Raspberry award along with the movie’s title track.
It wasn’t all bad news, however. The LP would also feature hit songs from some of the industry’s most popular pop acts, such as Rockwell and DeBarge, the latter reaching number 3 in the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the Billboard R&B charts with pop smash Rhythm of the Night. The Last Dragon would also feature tracks from Motown legends Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, as well as marking the return of label stalwart Willie Hutch, the singer-songwriter given the dubious honour of performing The Glow.
The Last Dragon plays out like a hedonistic episode of Top of the Pops, in-between dubious feats of high kickery, and the neon decadence of the mid-80s lights up the screen with consumerist aplomb. As for Vanity, her ticket to affluence would come at a heavy price. After a series of messy, high-profile relationships with industry darlings, she would battle cocaine addiction for the majority of her adult life before finding salvation in religion, finally succumbing to kidney failure in 2016. A tragic end for one of the decade’s true beauties.
A mixed bag of ’80s soul magic and corporate cop-outs, The Last Dragon suffers from a severe lack of quality, and makes this list more for its unique nature. Still, you’d have to be joyless to not be affected by DeBarge’s pop sensation Rhythm of the Night, which perfectly captures the movie’s manufactured glee and dubious sentiments.
I wasn’t kidding when I said Michael Mann knew how to pick them, and for me this is the best soundtrack attached to his work, an eclectic compilation of ’80s goodness and psychological sounds that encapsulate this stifling precursor to Silence of the Lambs, introducing the infamous Hannibal Lecter to the silver screen in what many feel is the superior movie.
Like Thief before it, the Manhunter OST manages a quite unnerving balance of style and substance, encapsulating the decade’s propensity for overblown sounds, while simultaneously slipping into the void — quite the achievement for a movie chronicling the ill-fated journey of a determined cop and psychotic serial killer. With haunting melodies, guitar-heavy anthems and twisted descents into electronica courtesy of pioneering former Tangerine Dream member Klaus Schulze, there is a lot to be admired here. There is also the hugely uplifting Seiun by Japanese composer Kitarô, the kind of track that moves mountains and rearranges stars.
Devastating, uplifting, emotionally stifling and liberating, Manhunter was one of the rarest, most sought after soundtracks on the market until a Waxwork reissue quelled the cravings of a generation drawn to its dubious charms, including the previously omitted Seiun and Freeze, which are arguably the movie’s stand-out tracks.
For those less partial to the murkier sounds on offer, the LP features more accessible, yet equally stifling efforts from the likes of The Prime Movers (Strong As I Am), Genesis/Mike and the Mechanics project Red 7 (Heartbeat) and British punk band Shriekback, whose semi-pop efforts Coelocanth, Evaporation and The Big Hush ooze style, but the track that is truly emblematic of the score’s odd blend of ’80s sensationalism and sinister foreboding is the colossal Graham’s Theme by American composer Michael Rubini. A truly unsettling slice of ’80s synth magic.
An album that can be appreciated as a journey as well as in single track form, the movie’s stand-out composition is Karl Schulze’s Freeze, an intense 7 minutes of electro purgatory that peeps out of the darkened woods like the devil personified. A fitting addition to a soundtrack that is rich in psychological terror.
Transformers: The Movie (1986)
For a generation of kids weaned on Transformers toys and cartoons, news of a 1986 motion picture was music to the ears, but not as much as the film’s accompanying soundtrack, an overblown shot of ’80s heavy metal headlined by Stan Bush’s user friendly power ballad The Touch. This proved the perfect recipe for Nelson Shin’s in-your-face Hasbro derivative, one that kept impressionable young tykes flocking to toy stores in their droves as the post-Spielberg/Lucas cultural marketing revolution took flight like a turbo-fuelled Decepticon.
While the recruitment of groups such as N.R.G., Spectre General and flavour of the month celebrity Weird Al” Yankovic were all savvy marketing decisions designed to complement such a micromanaged venture, the album’s real coup was the addition of composer Vince DiCola, who brings a whirlwind of magic and emotion to proceedings with tracks such as the truly intergalactic Autobot/Decepticon Battle and the euphoric, often dreamlike Escape, but the LP’s heartbeat comes in the form of Death Of Optimus Prime, a transcendental synth ballad that punctuates the movie’s most profound moment.
The fact that an insidious corporate plot would result in two memorable ’80s artefacts is a rare thing indeed — a far cry from the majority of marketing exploits ruthlessly manufactured in the 21st century. If nothing else, this can be enjoyed on a purely nostalgic level, but there is much more to Transformers: The Movie than meets the eye. Even if you missed out on this one as a kid, there is much to be admired here.
“I fear the wounds are… fatal.”
As fun as this soundtrack is, particularly to those of a certain age, nothing comes close to Vince DiCola’s Death Of Optimus Prime, an emotional deluge that left a generation of tykes questioning their own mortality.
Till All Are One… Goodbye, old friend.
The Running Man (1987)
Another winner from legendary German composer Harold Faltermeyer. By 1987, Arnold Schwarzenegger was well on his way to becoming the most recognisable star on the planet — this less than a decade after being told he would never make it in the industry. Following smash hits with James Cameron’s The Terminator and John Mctiernan’s jungle-bound classic Predator, Arnie would continue to hitch a ride on the sci-fi rocket ship with Richard Bachman adaptation The Running Man.
Bachman was the one-time pseudonym of prolific horror writer Stephen King, and if Paul Michael Glaser’s adaptation had stayed loyal as initially planned, the likes of Tangerine Dream may have proven a more suitable choice, but the director’s gaudy take on American Gladiators was something more akin to pro wrestling hyperbole, and the innovative Faltermeyer captures that overblown landscape perfectly, while also providing the movie with a grimy, dystopian vibe that is otherwise absent.
In The Running Man, Faltermeyer produces arguably his most epic work, a seething synth-rock classic that grows richer with every listen. While intro Bakersfield sets the dreary, oppressive tone of a society squirming under the thumb of private power, Buzzsaw/Dynamo Attack really ramps up the voltage. As a reminder of the film’s genre flamboyance, there is also the beautifully derivative quasi-classical synth number Valkyrie, which borrows sparingly from Richard Wagner’s The Valkyrie. Even more satirical is the brief and wonderful commercial ditty Captain Freedom’s Workout, which takes a cute potshot at the aerobics craze of the ’80s, proving the perfect theme for pro wrestler Jesse Ventura as the eponymous Captain.
If you like your ’80s soundtracks brimming with power ballad bravado, there is also John Parr’s Restless Hearts (Running Away With You) to end things on a high.
Since this is a soundtrack that works better as a complete album, it’s impossible for me to choose. However, if you’re feeling really indulgent, there’s a Running Man Suite that blends the movie’s most dramatic tracks into a seamless journey courtesy of one of the decade’s synth giants.
Conceptually, Adrian Lyne’s big-haired, romantic comedy Flashdance was a real innovator, though its influence was relatively short-lived. For a brief period during the 1980s, movie fans were treated to a spate of feature-length pop video productions as the MTV marketing machine began to pick up speed. Movies such as Footloose, Purple Rain and Top Gun may be more iconic in the eyes of many, but Flashdance got there first, sparking a mini revolution that represents the decade in all of its superficial glory.
As with those other movies, Flashdance was tied to a plethora of pop acts looking to make their mark on the music television medium, and to a degree the songs featured were given more importance than the movie itself, particularly the Academy Award–winning Flashdance… What a Feeling by Irene Cara, its accompanying pop video focusing on some of the movie’s most iconic dance scenes. The story of an eighteen-year-old Pittsburgh welder with aspirations of becoming a professional dancer, the movie’s narrative provided wish-fulfilment for MTV zealots across America, turning millions of living rooms into imaginary dance studios as celebrity culture exploded in a parade of shallow exhibitionism.
As well as the movie’s spectacularly uplifting marquee track, Flashdance benefits from a whole host of ’80s pop royalty, including Laura Branigan, Joe Esposito, Donna Summer and Kim Carnes — a mighty line-up for such a revolutionary marketing vehicle, and the film’s legacy lives on. The movie’s famous dance audition has been paid homage to by the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Geri Halliwell, and there was even a Broadway musical proposed with none other than Giorgio Moroder set to be involved, though the project would ultimately fail to materialize.
An ’80s classic in anyone’s book.
With a whole host of pop favourites on offer, you can really take your pick, and though superior number Flashdance… What a Feeling probably deserves the accolade, Michael Sembello’s frenetic synth classic Maniac is just as memorable.
Due to its timeless qualities, Vangelis’ miraculous Blade Runner soundtrack hardly wears the ’80s on its sleeve, but makes up for it by being one of the most influential movie scores ever realised. Only available in bootleg form until 1994 due to a creative disagreement involving Scott and Vangelis, the original’s absence would only increase the mystique surrounding it, and the LP has since become a firm fixture for any vinyl collector worth their salt.
The Blade Runner soundtrack is just as important for establishing the mood and tone of Scott’s bleak and beautiful adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s most famous novel. Gently sobering and beautifully arranged, Blade Runner is the kind of compositional journey that allows psychedelics a whole new dimension. So emotionally uplifting is the synth master’s opus that it has taken on a life of its own away from the director’s neo noir masterwork. Regardless of the movie’s colossal impact on science fiction cinema, the album stands on its own merit.
Vangelis is a master arranger, and Blade Runner plays out like a dystopian synth opera. From the the towering scope and iron oppression of Main Titles, blending sumptuously with the dialogue- sprinkled Blush Response, to the devastating, neo noir elegance of Rachel’s Song, this is a gut-wrenching ode to beauty itself, and none more so than Memories of Green, a track that fuses lush piano sounds with hopeless, oddly comforting sci-fi sound bites that capture the very essence of Scott’s world with astonishing acuity.
A healthy jazz influence also helps in fleshing out the director’s neon cityscapes, particularly the noir-heavy Love Theme, while tracks such as End Titles and Blade Runner Blues instil a synth sound entrenched in speculative themes that have become intrinsic to the genre. A true masterpiece.
This is a case of different moods for different days, though the album works best as an emotional journey, particularly tracks 1-5 and 7-12. If I had to pick one track it would be the astonishingly empathetic Memories of Green, which never fails to leave me breathless.
Rocky IV has two dimensions, and either one is enough to top a list of ’80s soundtracks. The first of those is Vince DiCola’s triumph-inducing original score, here taking over from original composer Bill Conti, who would shun the third sequel to work with Rocky director John G. Avildsen on The Karate Kid Part II, and he doesn’t disappoint, delivering an era-specific time capsule that arguably outdoes the work of his Oscar-winning predecessor.
DiCola’s variation on the Rocky theme is suitably overblown, and though less heartwarming than the original, the composer would make up for that in other ways. The quietly introspective Gym is just the vibe for Rocky’s remorseful superstar, while perplexing electro snippets such as the infamous Paulie’s Robot are simply irresistible. There is also the masterfully sentimental Apollo’s Death, the legendary Training Montage and the monumental War, the most anthemic Cold War accompaniment to ever grace American soil, and we’ve only just begun.
On the flip side, Rocky IV produces the kind of pop music juggernaut that makes it arguably the most iconic musical time-capsule the ’80s ever produced, bringing back series anthem Eye of the Tiger and introducing us to one of the most overblown, quasi-fascist pop songs ever produced in one of three Survivor tracks Burning Heart, a song superbly complemented by John Cafferty’s similarly extravagant Hearts On Fire. Even James Brown makes an appearance with the über-patriotic Living In America, a fitting swansong for the brash and cocksure Apollo Creed.
Another movie inspired by the MTV revolution, you’d be hard-pressed to find another soundtrack that singularly represents American mainstream movies during the 1980s, and why would you want to? Brash, politically dubious and saturated with Reaganite ethics, this compilation promotes the ‘bigger is better’ sentiments of a society daubed in the decadence of Red, White and Blue.
Any one of the aforementioned pop tracks could snatch the prize here, but DiCola works wonders in Conti’s absence, and War’s bombastic histrionics are enough to inspire even the most lethargic naysayer. Suddenly that snow-covered mountain doesn’t look so impressive.