We all have days when we want to do nothing apart from sink into a pint of ice cream and tear into a box of kleenex. On days like those, happy, shiny songs have no business being on the radio. Sad, soulful songs, on the other hand, most definitely do. Because let’s face it, we all like to wallow from time to time. If your misery wants some company, grab a tissue and get ready to weep as we count down the 10 saddest rock songs of the 80s.
10. Def Leppard – Love Bites (1987)
In 1987, record producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange bought ‘Love Bites’ to the attention of English rockers, Def Leppard. At that point, it was a sweet little country balled. By the time the band had added some R&B backing vocals and a few power chords, it was a different beast entirely. Emotive, tinged with nostalgia, and deliciously evocative, it was a hit, peaking at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and giving the band a guaranteed tear-jerker to add to their live sets.
9. The Smiths – I Know It’s Over (1988)
The first, but not the last, song from The Smiths to make our list is ‘I Know it’s Over.’ Morrissey, aka the King of Misery, is in a particularly foul mood, something that not even Johnny Marr’s jangly guitars can shake him out of. The lyrics are masterful, combining searing honesty with the subtlest of black humors. It’s desperate, it’s despairing, and it speaks to everyone who’s ever asked themselves ‘If you’re so clever/Then why are you on your own tonight?’
8. Cheap Trick – The Flame (1988)
Legend has it, Cheap Trick didn’t originally want to record ‘The Flame.’ Even after they’d recorded it, they still weren’t happy. Guitarist Rick Nielsen apparently hated it so much, he pulled it out of the tape player and ground it to pieces with his boot. In the end, they relented, scoring themselves their first (and only) number one and giving us one of the saddest songs of the 80s in the process. It’s not necessarily the most ‘Cheap Trick’ sounding Cheap Trick song of all time, but the heartbreaking lyrics and lonesome vocals more than compensate.
7. XTC – Dying (1986)
As pastemagazine.com notes, the majority of XTC’s bassist and occasional songwriter Colin Moulding’s lyrics concern themselves with death, decay, and aging. Sometimes, you have to dig deep to find the hidden meaning. Other times, it’s right there in front of you. ‘Dying’ sees Moulding at his least ambiguous. Written about the experience of watching a loved one pass away and not wanting to share the same fate, it’s a dark, miserable journey into the depths of human despair. The haunting piano and tremulous vocals do nothing to relieve the tension.
6. David Bowie – Ashes to Ashes (1980)
By the late 1970s, David Bowie was jaded, numbed by drug abuse, and broke from his recent divorce. What he wasn’t was over. In 1980, he gave us Ashes to Ashes, a glorious, poignant gem of a song that dealt with everything from addiction to death. The accompanying music video, in which he quite literally laid his former selves to rest, was equally spellbinding. The 80s may not have been Bowie’s best decade (the less said about “Dancing in the Street” the better) but you wouldn’t know it from this little masterpiece.
5. Bruce Springsteen – The River (1980)
Named by ultimateclassicrock.com as one of the 25 saddest songs ever made, ‘The River’ gives us The Boss at his most human. Told through the eyes of a 19-year-old kid who gets his girlfriend pregnant, gets married, gets a factory job, and gets depressed, ‘The River’ will make you question every decision you ever made. With lines like “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” it’s no pretty little lullaby. It is, however, one of the greatest, bleakest, and best songs Springsteen has ever written – considering this is the same man who gave us ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ that’s no idle claim.
4. The Cure – Disintegration (1989)
If there was one thing you could never accuse Robert Smith of being, it was the life and the soul of the party. 1989 found him and the rest of The Cure in an even gloomier mood than usual. “Disintegration’ was the bleakest album from one of the 80s bleakest bands. It was dark, it was tense, and it was packed with dark classics like ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Picture of You.’ But the saddest of them all was the title track. Less a tear-jerker than a major depressant, the eight-minute epic detailed the derailing of a relationship. By the end of it, you can’t help feeling a little derailed yourself.
3. New Order – Ceremony (1981)
Following the death of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, there was a tear-shaped hole in the market. Joy Division had turned bleakness into an art form – could any band hope to match them? They could. In 1980, the remaining Joy Division members regrouped, reformed, and came back stronger than ever as New Order. Their thrilling blend of post-punk, electronic and dance music would eventually make them one of the most influential and acclaimed bands of the 80s. Before they got there, they still had a few demons to lay to rest. Prior to Curtis’ death, the group had been working on two songs. ‘Ceremony’ was one of them. New Order’s decision to release it as their first single was a beautiful tribute to Curis, and a very big reminder to the rest of us of the talent, the bond, and the musicianship the band shared. The resigned lyrics, the small, bright spark of hope, the nervy hook, the sorrowful vocals… it was sad, it was beautiful, and all these years later, it still resonates.
2. The Smiths – How Soon is Now? (1984)
Morrissey might be a contentious figure these days, but back in the 1980s, he was a god. At least to the followers of The Smiths. He wasn’t, however, all that thrilled about his status, not if his lyrics were anything to go by. Even his habit of wafting a gladioli around on stage couldn’t make them anymore uplifting. The biggest and bleakest of all The Smiths songs is ‘How Soon is Now.’ Johnny Marr’s signature guitar riffs are muted, Morrissey’s baritone is spine-tingling, and the lyrics (which include lines like “There’s a club if you want to go/You could meet somebody who really loves you/So you go and you stand on your own/You leave on your own/You go home and you cry and you want to die’) are nothing short of tragic.
1. Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart (1980)
If ever there was a band that deserved a place on a list like this, it would be Joy Division. Their earliest recordings may have been heavily influenced by punk, but as lead singer Ian Curtis descended further into depression, so their songs became increasingly sparse, sad, and in some cases, frankly harrowing. Released just a month before Curtis’ suicide, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is a tear-jerker on an epic scale. The lyrics, which drew inspiration from Curtis’ marital woes and struggles with mental illness, are emotional enough, but when you hear them sung in Curtis’ soulful baritone, it’s heartbreaking.
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