Eighteen Rocking Ladies of the (Early) Eighties


Growing up in the early 80s certainly left an indelible mark.  The “M” in MTV actually meant music back then, and you could tune in any time to catch imagery to compliment the song. And there were there lots of sexy girls (and some not so sexy) singing just for me, just when I was first discovering girls in general.  In a way, I think the MTV platform and its impact on music – were both good and bad, but in the end I think things all worked out for the best.

At the same time, with few exceptions (Debbie Harry of Blondie and Joan Jett with The Runaways), many of these female artists used MTV as a springboard.  For example, Belinda Carlisle and The Go-Go’s were the first all-girl rock band (meaning “playing all instruments”) to be nominated for a Grammy.  Obviously there had been successful female artists in the 60s and 70s, but it seems that MTV opened floodgates for female bands and artists that haven’t closed since.  Just as Annie Lennox and Debbie Harry owe much to artists that came before them like Diana Ross and Janis Joplin, so do Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears owe to artists on this list.

Before you read further, press “play” on the player below, and listen to some great tunes that made the 80s… well, made the 80s the 80s!


“Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett

In 1981 – somewhere between The Runaways and The Blackhearts – Joan Jett (who totally rocks) released her solo debut album “Bad Reputation”. Although it wasn’t commercially successful like some of her other tunes, I chose its title track, “Bad Reputation”, to head up my list because it’s bad-ass, just like Joan, who clearly could care less about her “Bad reputation”.  The Punk/Rock sound of Joan Jett is grittier than many of the female acts to follow, and retains more of a pure rock feel, directly influenced by artists like Suzi Quatro who came before her.

“Call Me” by Blondie (Debbie Harry)

With three big hits in 1979, one could almost call Debbie Harry and Blondie a 70s band, musically, one could argue the 80s decade began to rear its New Wave head in the late 70s, and Blondie’s lead singer was/is iconic in that capacity. “Call Me” – from the Richard Gere movie “American Gigolo” – was Blondie’s second number one hit (of four), and although perhaps remembered as more of a Disco tune, it unquestionably rocks.  Blondie, like Joan Jett, almost pre-date the MTV era, while still being recent enough to have a huge impact on the years to follow.

“Heartbreaker” by Pat Benetar

According to Fred Bronson – writer for Billboard Magazine – Pat Benetar scored her first chart hit in February of 1980 with “Heartbreaker”, which peaked at #23. Although she is best known for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, which charted later that same year, “Heartbreaker” is far more raw and driving (IMHO), bordering on Arena Rock. Regardless, Ms. Benetar would go on to win and unprecedented four consecutive Grammy Awards… Not too shabby.

“Vacation” by The Go-Go’s

This may be the hardest choice I had to make, and it came down to four; “We Got the Beat”, “Get Up and Go”, “Head Over Heels” and this one. Such a hard choice!!! I finally chose “Vacation” simply because of how Belinda Carlisle and The Go-Go’s were able to take such a light and fluffy subject and make it rock as hard as they did, truly a sign of a rocking all-girl band.

“Kids in America” by Kim Wilde

The first Brit to make our list, Kim Wilde burst on the scene in 1981 with her debut single “Kids in America”, peaking at #25 on the U.S. Billboard charts in the summer of 1982, accompanied by a sexy music video. Kim charted at #1 later in the 80s with a cover of The Supremes hit “You Keep Me Hanging On”, but it was more pop than rock, and lacked the punch of this early 80s New wave/Rock hit.

“The Metro” by Berlin (Terri Nunn)

I wasn’t quite a teenager when I first saw the video for “The Metro” on MTV, but old enough to know that it rocked (in a techno-pop kind of way), and that Terri Nunn was very, very sexy. Although Berlin’s claim to fame is “Take My Breath Away” from the 1986 Motion Picture Top Gun, their real edge can be found in “The Metro”, which missed the Top 40, charting at #58.

“I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow (Anabella Lwin)

In 1965, “I Want Candy” was recorded by a male act – The Strangeloves – and charted at #11. Almost two decades later, the Bow Wow Wow cover of the 1965 hit barely scraped the Top 50, but yet is the more enduring cut. The Mohawk haired Anabella Lwin was still a teenager in 1981 when the video became an MTV classic.

“99 Luftballons” by Nena

In 1984, this German song charted at #2 on the U.S. Billboard Charts. Although the single had an English version on the flip side, it was the German version that dominated MTV and the radio waves. Nena went on to record music through 2012, but – although popular in Germany – never again cracked the U.S. Charts.

“Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” by The Eurythmics (Annie Lennox)

Even though this tune shot to #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, and still performed by Annie Lennox on tour, this one is all about the music video.  Opening with the short-haired men’s suit-clad androgynous Lennox in black gloves was both bizarre and strangely erotic… until the cows came home.  There could be no list of ladies from the 80s without Annie Lennox.

“She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper

Perhaps the most controversial song on this list, “She Bop” – a song about masturbation – is one of fifteen songs attributed to the creation of the Parental Advisory labels on CDs and records.  Lauper claims to have recorded the vocals of this #5 hit in the nude.  And here I always thought “Bop” meant to dance.

“I Know What Boys Like” by The Waitresses (Patty Donahue)

“I Know What Boys Like” peaked at #62 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it’s likely the band is better known for their seasonal hit “Christmas Wrapping”.  Yet for those of us who grew up in the 80s, this pseudo-sexy hit and its tart-like lyrics it’s a stand out.  Sadly, singer Patty Donahue died of lung cancer at 40 in 1996.

“Walk Like An Egyptian” by The Bangles

The song that Toni Basil (“Mickey”) turned down shot to #1 in the United States for The Bangles.  Three Bangles – Vicki Peterson, Micki Steele and Susanna Hoffs sang the first, second and third verses of this tune (in that order). Released in 1985, it was nominated for Best Group Video in the MTV Music Awards.  The BBC listed this as a “record to be avoided” during the Gulf War.

“Voices Carry” by til’ Tuesday (Aimee Mann)

The 1985 debut single of Til’ Tuesday went to #8, and gave the world it’s first glimpse of the gorgeous Aimee Mann, who would go on to have an amazing solo career.  Originally written to be sung from a woman to a woman, it was changed to be sung to a man in the music video due to record company pressure.

“Words” by Missing Persons (Dale Bozzio)

According to research, this song never charted in the U.S. – (although my sources could be wrong).  It was “Destination Unknown” that charted at #42 for Missing Persons, yet “Words” is the 80s MTV standout, with Bozzio’s strange and shrieking vocals (more so than Cyndi Lauper’s voice in my humble opinion) making her unique amongst her peers on this list.

“Only The Lonely” by The Motels (Martha Davis)

With a Gatsby-styled music video, this Motels tune seems to have had the luck of coinciding with the launch coinciding with the launch of MTV, getting much airplay on the fledgling music video channel, and helping The Motels break the U.S. Top 10 with this melancholy 80s classic.

“Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash (Rindy Ross)

The group’s only Top 10 single, “Harden My Heart” embodies all of the necessary elements – including a strangely unrelated music video – to make it an 80s classic.  The song peaked at #3, but lives on in television, movies and even video games (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City).

“Mickey” by Toni Basil

Toni Basil’s one hit wonder “Mickey” went to #1 on the U.S. Billboard charts, but Toni was around long before that, with her choreography (yep, she was a choreographer first) dating back to The T.A.M.I. Show, and having worked with Frank Sinatra.  “Mickey” is perhaps one of the “poppiest” tunes on this list, and perhaps the most recognizably timeless.  Yet it only scratches the surface of the accomplishments of this 80s lady.

“Borderline” by Madonna

Okay, you had to know this one was coming.  Not necessarily a case of “saving the best for last” but more of a conflict of song choice between this of Madonna’s earlier chart-hit “Holiday”.  I’m not even certain why “Borderline” won out, or even why I didn’t look further to her first #1 hit “Like a Virgin”.  “Borderline” reached #10 in 1984, and the rest is really history.

I hope you enjoy this playlist as much as I enjoyed compiling it, and for those of you who – like me – grew up in the eighties, feel free to chime in on the comments below and share your thoughts. I began this list with the intention of it being eight to ten tunes, but as I compiled it more and more ladies came to mind, ending up at a total of eighteen. I’m confident that had I dug deeper this list could have been greatly expanded, but overall I think these eighteen artists and tunes are representative of the early 80s sound, and the girls behind the music.  I don’t mean to suggest that these choices are better than another, or example, The Go-Go’s and Blondie had so many to choose from that it was difficult to narrow down with so many great hits, but decisions had to be made none the less.  Madonna and Toni Basil were almost omitted as I feared they were too “Pop”, but their impact – as Pop as they may be – were undeniable.


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9 Responses

  1. Jon Dranoff

    Nice list. I think that the Go-Gos and Bangles hold up well. Both had good harmonies, strong rhythm sections, and great lead singers. Have you ever heard “Under the Covers”? It is a ’60’s covers record by Hoffs and Matthew Sweet, with some eclectic choices.

  2. Yes Jon, I’m very familiar with “Under The Covers”, and there are actually two volumes (1 & 2). Great stuff.

    Also agreed that the Go-Go’s and Bangles are both amazing all-girl rock bands, who (musically) have really stood the test of time.

  3. Great Playlist, I’ve been jamming to it all day!

    The Metro by Berlin, Voices Carry by Til Tuesday ( Aimee Mann- who Jerry Garcia was having an affair with at the time which is not well known), and Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics are some of my all-time favorite songs.

    Although not technically an “80’s” band, I think you overlooked Heart on this Playlist, they had a big comeback in the 80’s and were certainly part of those grand “Good ‘Ole Days” of MTV!

    I ran home from school everyday excited to see all these women on MTV… Hey, I was 15, what else was I going to do? I wanted my MTV ( and every girl in staring in every video, lol).

  4. Eric Horohov

    Nifty list Craig, Allen said it- rushing home from school to watch MTV.

    The thing is I got a problem with your Go-Gos song choice, I think “We Got the Beat’ or ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ are better representations of the go-gos rawer punk/new wave sound that they started with.

    This list is making me want to think of more… guess I’ll post if i come up w some.

    Oh and good call Kim on Scandal.

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