Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published May 18th 2020
Lighters in the air
The online writing community, especially amongst those writers who are still "getting there" in terms of sales and popularity, is a surprisingly close one. Advice is sought and often given without the usual over-abundance of trolling, and people will just help out anyone who asks. You get to know who has expertise in what areas, and so can ask them directly, or throw a question out in general. Well, thanks to these columns I write for Weekend Notes, I have gained a smallish reputation for knowing about late twentieth-century music. And that was why I was asked by a fellow writer for some 1980s power ballads her singer character could belt out.
That request led directly to this column.
First, I guess, we need to know what a "power ballad" actually is. By my reckoning, it is a ballad, so a slow song, that builds up in emotion and intensity as the song goes on, leading to a rousing chorus that everyone can sing, then often drops back for a bit before the huge crescendo ending, often after an instrument break. They do not have to be about love, though that does help, but the lyrics have to be over the top and full of more emotion than the human voice can handle (almost). Choruses can be easily screamed by drunks at two a.m. and sung by would-be divas at karaoke bars on Thursday night. They can't just be a ballad with a slightly louder chorus, and can't be bombastic all the way through. Basically, you know a power ballad when you hear one; it brings out the natural instinct to hold a lighter in the air. And the 1980s were probably the most fertile time for the power ballad in popular music.
Most power ballads are sung by rock artists, although some pop ones do crop up. All of these come from my own collection, so there are probably a huge amount that I have missed because either I don't own them or I forgot about them. But these 20 should keep everyone going for a good singalong that the neighbours will surely appreciate. Oh, there's no Guns N'Roses because their best power ballads were from the Use Your Illusion albums in the 90s, and 'Patience' is more straight-forward ballad, plus 'Here I Go Again' by Whitesnake is not really a ballad. And no 'Power Of Love' by Jennifer Rush? Let's call it an honourable mention…
The list. It's 20 power ballads from the 1980s – you know what you're going to get here! But it was really, really hard to get this list down to 20, for what it's worth, even with my rule of one song per artist, so feel free to add more in the comments. (Warning: big hair alert!)
'Alone' by Heart (1987)
Heart went from 1970s classic rock darlings to 1980s poodle rock stalwarts to well-regarded rockers today. In the 80s, they released the sort of bombastic rock that so many others were dishing out. They did not stand out, unfortunately. But then there was this track. 'Alone' was everywhere for a while in 1987. And that's because it is the exact, perfect power ballad. Scream that chorus! "How do I get you alone?!" Fun fact: this is from the first album I was ever paid to review… which shows just how freakin' long I've been doing this!
'Amanda' by Boston (1986)
In Australia, I think I was one of the few to buy this song (on 45), and I assumed it just sort of fell by the wayside. Boston were only going to be known for 1976's 'More Than A Feeling'. But doing some research for this, it was Boston's highest charting song in the US! Still, today it is all but forgotten. Shame. It is a truly awesome power ballad.
Fun fact: this was the name of my first girlfriend in primary school, and yet that was not the reason I bought the song. I genuinely like it.
'Don't Know What You Got ('Til It's Gone)' by Cinderella (1988)
Cinderella… remember them? You do? Are you related to them? Okay, completely unfair, but this is the only song anyone remembers except die-hard fans. Still, if you're going to be remembered for any song, you could certainly do far worse. So stereotypical of power ballads with that huge chorus that you know you'll be singing along to the second time you hear it. What lifts it above run of the mill is the way it's sung. There is just something perfectly cheesy about it.
'Every Rose Has Its Thorn' by Poison (1988)
Poison. Masters of the art of stupid rock. 'Nothin' But A Good Time', 'Fallen Angel', 'Unskinny Bop'… the list is huge. But then they had this, one of the power ballads of the 80s that took over the world. I believe it was their best charting song. The reason for that is its completely catchy, cigarette lighter in the air chorus. And the deep, deep, so very deep lyrics: "Although we both lie close together/ We feel miles apart inside…" Oh, who am I kidding – I know them all and I sing along every time I hear it.
'Flame Trees' by Cold Chisel (1984)
This song has only come up in passing which is strange. It is one of my favourite songs, and quite possibly my favourite ever Australian song (at the very least, top three). Yes, a lot of it is the fact that Barbara and I danced to this song. But mostly, it is one of the greatest songs ever written. One of the few songs I can play on guitar. So wonderful. Cold Chisel are awesome. Though it is possibly pushing the definition of power ballad, this needs to be here and is my favourite song on the list.
'Heaven' by Bryan Adams (1984)
From that classic album Reckless, this song is one of the best known of the Bryan Adams canon. The lyrics are a little cheesy, sure, but this is the sort of song you scream with your significant other when you're together because that chorus feels like it needs to be screamed, and not simply sung.
'I Remember You' by Skid Row (1989)
This song is remembered as the first big hit of 1990, but it was released in November of 1989, so it just fits in the 1980s. (Okay, I know the decade went from 1981 to 1990, but I'm looking at numbers, not mathematical accuracy.) But the one thing about this song is that the lyrics are actually quite good. Okay, they're not Dylan or Springsteen, but they are not bad. Honestly. And, in the end, who doesn't want to hear their ex say, "I remember you"?
'I Want To Know What Love Is' by Foreigner (1984)
This song is one those often put forth as a prime example of how overblown the power ballad can be if left unchecked. Sappy lyrics? Check. Choir at the end? Check. Huge chorus? Check. Do I like this song and belt it out way too often? Check. It's that sort of song, really.
'Keep On Loving You' by REO Speedwagon (1980)
This song is the first of the 80s power ballads, when they left the 70s behind and just decided to say, "Bugger it!" and went all out for the cheese. But… damn, this is a great song. This is where the 80s power ballads started. That chorus… even if you've never heard it before, there's a part of your brain that knows it. Such a cool song.
Fun fact: One of my favourite Australian cover versions is Lizard Train's version of this song. It's pretty straight forward with added grunt, but I really like it. So sue me.
'Love Bites' by Def Leppard (1987)
I've spoken of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal at times before, but if one band made the cross over into the world of popular music out of the NWOBHM scene, it was Def Leppard. And this song was one of the big reasons they managed it so successfully. (That, and having a drummer with one arm – Rick Allen rocks!) It is so gloriously powerful and listening to everyone on a dance floor at a Blue Light Disco scream, "Love bites!" is something to hear. Def Leppard are still wonderful; this song is still great.
'Midnight Blue' by Louise Tucker(1982)
I have mentioned this song before because it is one of my favourites, based on Beethoven's 'Sonata Pathétique'. The mix of male and female voices, leading to that soaring chorus – this song is brilliant. There's not much more I can say – my second favourite song on this list (tied with another one a little later on). This is one of the best songs I have heard.
'Open Arms' by Journey (1981)
When people think of Journey nowadays, the only song that comes to mind tends to be 'Don't Stop Believin''… and little else. Which is a damn shame because they had a heap of other really good songs, and one of them is this power ballad that just screams for people to sing along, showcasing Steve Perry so wonderfully. This is a great song, but is forgotten nowadays because the cast of freakin' Glee didn't do a stupid, emotionless cover. I hate modern TV karaoke shows. I love Journey. Listen to 'Open Arms'; avoid (alleged) talent shows and… (*urk!*) Glee.
'Read 'Em And Weep' by Meat Loaf (1981)
We have the first of the songs written by Jim Steinman. Oh, come on! You knew he had to be in a list with OTT power ballads! Meat Loaf delivers a typical Meat Loaf performance and this is one of his more under-rated songs. His voice, of course, carries it to wonderful heights and you believe he means what he's singing. Meat Loaf is more than the Bat Out Of Hell albums. This is proof of that.
'Suddenly' by Angry Anderson (1987)
To a generation of Australians, this song has come to be associated with one thing and one thing only – the wedding of Kylie and Jason. I did not watch the show, and yet even I knew the Neighbours thing it was talking about. As such, like so many people who could not stand the show, I ignored the song. Then, a year or so later, I saw an interview with Angry where he said it was the song he was proudest of. So I gave it a listen away from the TV wedding hype. Guess what? It's a great song. I can see why it was chosen. Proof that Australian pub rockers could do power ballads with the best of them.
'The Night Is Still Young' by Billy Joel (1985)
This was one of two new songs recorded for Billy Joel's Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2, and is the one I prefer, and, apart from those on the An Innocent Man album, is one of my very favourite Joel tracks. The truth of the matter is, he rarely did power ballads – he did regular ballads. But this one is worthy of the appellation. He just hits that closing chorus bit so magnificently. Such a great song, and it needs to be better known.
'Total Eclipse Of The Heart' by Bonnie Tyler (1983)
Do I really need to say anything about the second Steinman song here? This is the song in a tie for my second favourite on the list, I scream it too often, and it is probably the most stereotypical power ballad ever written. Every single power ballad following takes its structure from this song. And rightfully so. Steinman is a genius; Tyler is one of the greatest singers; together it's magic. Full stop.
'Vienna' by Ultravox (1981)
Despite being considered a one-hit wonder (okay, they were in the USA), Ultravox had a string of top 20 hits in the UK and a few in Australia. But there is no denying the fact that this track has come to define them. While it's hard to think of a pop song as a power ballad, how else do you describe this track? I have heard it butchered – especially those sustained notes – too often at karaoke. No-one can match Midge Ure. This song is awesome. Deal with it.
'Wanted Dead Or Alive' by Bon Jovi (1986)
Oh, there were a number of Bon Jovi songs I could have chosen, so I went for the one I like the most. And this song is truly awesome. The whole "steel horse" motif is actually decently done, and I considered this song a guilty pleasure. It was the only song I admitted to liking off the Slippery When Wet album at the time. Looking back, it held a number of other good songs… and a number that have not aged well. But this song – this is still a great song.
'When I See You Smile' by Bad English (1989)
This, again, might be seen as just another power ballad, but the delivery of John Waite just lifts it above the average. He was always a great singer, and Bad English just confirmed that. I know quite a few people do not like this song. Don't care. I do. It's a power ballad and it's got Waite's awesome voice and it's worth having a go at at karaoke. Honestly.
'You're The Inspiration' by Chicago (1984)
And we finish with Chicago. Again, if you were around in the 80s, you were probably expecting a Chicago song… or at least a solo single by lead singer Peter Cetera. There were actually a number of songs I could have chosen, and I picked this one because it is the one I have not heard too much of. But, really, there could easily have been three or four Chicago songs on this list. I think the reason I do like this is the nice key change and lyrics that are slightly different to the normal power ballad words. Sort of. Hey, look, I like it.
Twenty power ballads. Sorry, I got carried away, but I honestly could not keep leaving songs out. I have the strangest feeling my neighbours are going to go on holiday again. Having me belting out songs like this all day must be close to the sort of torture they use to make people who are holed up somewhere give up and come out, begging the 'music' to stop. Okay, my singing is bad, but when it comes to songs like this, I do not care. I don't smoke, but these songs make me want to go out and buy a lighter.
Power ballads are big and cheesy and over-the-top. That is part of their charm and part of the joy they give us. The other part is that they invite us to sing along. It is so hard not to when you hear songs like these.
Yes, I do like this style of music.
Oh, and for the record, the person who asked for the list received around fifty songs, and apparently (so she said) used three of the ones from this list. It even introduced her to a few songs she had never heard before.