Pop culture guru David Ferguson is back, this time providing us with a selection of his favourite ’80s hits from queer artists. So, plug your headphones in, and travel back in time to what is often described as the greatest decade!
This piece was originally going to be 10 songs from queer artists that I loved throughout my life. However, as the list kept piling on (I’m old), I realised that the original piece may have led to some backbreaking work for the tech folks at GCN, and I don’t think my editor would want a book-length piece.
On those notes, I have decided to stick to the decade that birthed yours truly with the vague promise of future instalments. Splitting the decades means I can repeat artists too – a win-win situation.
Despite my best efforts, the piece still ended up being pretty long, but read on to see and listen to my top 10 favourite ’80s hits from queer artists.
‘I’m Still Standing’ – Elton John (1983)
This iconic anthem was the second single from Elton John’s 1983 album Too Low For Zero (the first was ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’). Aided by the promotion of a brilliant music video choreographed by Arlene Philips, the song became a big hit across both sides of the Atlantic, with a number 2 spot on the charts in Ireland.
A remastered version of the video, with star Taron Edgerton rotoscoped in, served as an appropriate ending to John’s 2019 biopic, Rocketman.
‘Karma Chameleon’ – Culture Club (1983)
Somewhere in my parent’s house is a picture of me wearing a jumper that has Boy George’s face on it. Boy George could have been somewhat of a controversial choice for your young son’s wardrobe in the early 1980s, what with his androgynous look and his admission that he liked both boys and girls in a 1983 interview with Joan Rivers (he later clarified he is gay and not bisexual).
I wondered why my mother chose to buy it, and her matter-of-fact Irish mammy response when I asked was, “Because you liked him.” I don’t know if this was because of his music or his appearance on the A-Team in 1986, where he and the rest of Culture Club performed this song.
I could have chosen 1982’s ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?’ but I think I prefer this more upbeat track, albeit about “the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It’s about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren’t true, if you don’t act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that’s nature’s way of paying you back.”
A number one in Ireland for those keeping track.
‘I Want To Break Free’ – Queen (1984)
I don’t think you get more of an iconic queer anthem than this, for me, at least.
The music video was a concept proposed by Queen drummer Roger Taylor: the band all dressed in drag and parodying Coronation Street. The video was not an issue in the UK, but the drag aspect sparked controversy in the US (some things never change), with the result being a number 45 place in the charts.
The song was the second single from Queen’s album The Works (the first being ‘Radio GaGa’). It reached number 2 in the Irish charts.
‘Careless Whisper’ – George Michael / Wham! (1984)
I could probably pick a number of songs from George Michael to add to my list of queer ’80s hits, but I think this is one of his most beautiful performances. Co-written by Andrew Ridgely, it appeared on the Wham! album Make It Big.
In North America and some other places, it was credited to Wham! featuring George Michael, but some, like the UK, credited it to just George Michael as it seemed obvious that he would be going solo.
The music video shows the guilt of a man (played by George Michael) over an affair and his acknowledgement that his partner is going to find out. After watching the video, you may forgive me for originally thinking this was a solo outing for Michael.
Epic saxophone – a number one in Ireland.
‘Underground’ – David Bowie (1986)
A perhaps controversial choice for my list of queer hits from the ’80s, as there is some debate over Bowie’s sexuality. Also, readers may find the track a weird pick because they may actually not have ever heard of it. If not, please go and watch the 1986 movie Labyrinth and see the artist in an interesting choice of attire. I think it’s a brilliant film, and Bowie is fabulous as Jareth, the Goblin King.
The music video portrays Bowie as a nightclub singer who walks into an ominous alleyway where he encounters various puppet creatures from Labyrinth. It was the only real promotion he did for the movie, which he recorded five songs for.
‘Underground’ opens and closes the soundtrack. The first version is played over the opening sequence, while the second is played in full. It reached number 6 in Ireland.
‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’ – Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield (1987)
I could’ve picked a number of songs from Pet Shop Boys’ 1980s discography but had to opt for their duet with queer icon and artist Dusty Springfield.
The song is the second single from their album Actually (after ‘It’s A Sin’). It led to a revitalisation of Springfield’s career, and the Boys would go on to produce the singles ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ and ‘In Private’, which appeared on Dusty’s 1990 album Reputation.
Nick Levine of NME called the track “possibly the best pop song in history”, and The Advocate named it in its list of top 10 queer duets.
A live performance can be seen from the 1988 Brit Awards. Since Springfield’s death, Pet Shop Boys have performed it with a number of artists, including Lady Gaga at the 2009 Brit Awards, where they received their Outstanding Contribution To Music award.
The single reached number one in Ireland but was kept from the top spot in the US by a song from another queer artist, George Michael’s ‘Father Figure’.
‘The One I Love’ – R.E.M. (1987)
R.E.M., with its queer lead singer Michael Stype, were always going to feature on my list as they’re my favourite band. My fandom is almost certainly due to one of my mum’s brothers and his watching music videos on a Sunday when we had our weekly visit to my grandparents.
This song, which, before my research, I had thought was from the ’90s, is one of my favourites. It is from the album Document, which also produced the single ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’.
Interpretation tends to focus on the lyrics “This one goes out to the one I love”, but it has a darker, manipulative edge with “A simple prop to occupy my time”.
Michael Stype has said, “It’s very clear that it’s about using people over and over again.”
I had taken the positive interpretation growing up. Ah, youth.
It reached number 5 in Ireland during its 1991 re-release.
‘Crying’ – Roy Orbison and k.d. lang (1987)
When Roy Orbison was asked to do a duet version of his 1961 hit, ‘Crying’, he struggled. That was until he heard a tape of k.d. lang. Orbison has an iconic voice, so it says a lot about lang and her own talents that she was more than equal to the task of doing the duet.
The collaboration did a lot to boost her career, and the song won a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals in 1989. Due to the track’s success (a number 2 in Canada), lang received the Entertainer of the Year award from the Canadian Country Music Association. She has stated it was a “joy” to work with Orbison.
The music video is a simple black-and-white affair that lets the song be the focus. ‘Crying’ reached number 9 in Ireland in 1992.
‘Baby Can I Hold You’ – Tracy Chapman (1988)
This song appeared on Tracy Chapman’s eponymous 1988 album, which also featured the singles ‘Fast Car’ and ‘Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution’. I’m sure many readers would have chosen the latter for their list, but I think this is a wonderful song of yearning that will resonate with many queer people.
The video is another understated affair that lets the emotion of the track shine through. I feel it didn’t get the appreciation it deserved at the time. Boyzone’s 1997 cover, which some people may be more familiar with, fared much better, reaching number 2 in the Irish charts versus Chapman’s number 22 spot.
‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ – Marc Almond & Gene Pitney (1989)
My list of favourite ’80s hits from queer artists ends with what, again, some people might consider an odd choice.
Marc Almond could have very easily started this list with Soft Cell and their 1981 song ‘Tainted Love’. However, there is something hauntingly beautiful about this duet version of a song Gene Pitney first recorded in 1967.
Almond originally recorded it as a solo song for his album The Stars We Are. Pitney heard his version and offered to re-record it with him. Though recorded after the album was released, the duet version replaces the solo version on some LPs.
The single reached number one in Ireland.
I hope you enjoyed the list of my favourite queer hits from the ’80s. Let us know your picks, and I may be back with a 1990s selection sometime soon!
For more of David Ferguson’s work, click here.
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