With five prominent deaths of major rock music figures, 1980 can seem like a tragic and unfortunate year for pop and rock music. But beyond that obvious impression, the transition from '70s styles like singer-songwriter, progressive rock and disco to new wave, synth pop and arena rock was often a chaotic one, and the seeds of MTV and an increased emphasis on the images projected by musicians were quickly planted. Here's a look at some of the most memorable and arresting musical moments of 1980, a year of transition and cold reminders of the passing of eras.
1. Paul McCartney Tossed from Japan After Drug Arrest
Former Beatle Paul McCartney had spent the '70s as leader of Wings, taking a pop-oriented path many expected but also feared in the years following the Beatles' well-publicized breakup. Still, McCartney had been at the forefront of the '60s counterculture at one time, a fact that probably lessened any possible resulting shock when the singer was arrested January 16 in Tokyo for possession of a healthy amount of marijuana. Not only was McCartney's tour cancelled, but Japanese authorities held him in jail more than a week before releasing him and summarily dismissing him from the country. It was a jarring moment for McCartney's softer Wings image, revealing that the '80s were likely to be full of both the expected and unexpected.
2. AC/DC's Bon Scott Dies from Alcohol Poisoning
Having never strayed from both an image and genuine practice as hellraiser, charismatic AC/DC frontman Bon Scott surprised relatively few but dismayed many when he turned up dead February 19 in London after a night of alcoholic revelry. It seemed like the end for the Australian hard rock combo, not only because of Scott's death but also because the demand for simple hard rock was waning in the wake of punk rock and the rise of new wave. But although the surviving members seriously considered disbanding, Scott's mother helped convince the group to carry on in an effort to memorialize their bandmate properly. By summer the release of Back in Black ushered in AC/DC's greatest success yet, with Brian Johnson filling in admirably for Scott.
3. Casey Kasem Hits the Tube with 'America's Top Ten'As far as I'm concerned, '80s music would have never acquired the legitimacy it now enjoys without the voice (and ultimately the face) of Casey Kasem, whose America's Top 10 syndicated TV show debuted in May 1980 and helped pioneer the music video a full year before cable upstart MTV emerged. And for those of us living outside the reach of cable all the way into the late '80s, Kasem's visual supplement to his long-running American Top 40 weekly radio show served as a finger on the pulse of '80s music happenings like no other. I remember many a Saturday afternoon waiting with anticipation for Kasem to count down the biggest hits in America, and the man formerly known as Shaggy's voice on Scooby Doo rarely disappointed his audience.
4. Suicide of Joy Division's Ian Curtis
One of post-punk's earliest bright lights, England's Joy Division pioneered a brooding style of rock that literally no one had ever heard before. That's one of the reasons why the May 18 suicide by hanging of the group's frontman, Ian Curtis, hit the music world so hard. Of course, the troubled but brilliant artist's painfully young age of 23 added plenty of poignancy to the tragedy, especially because Curtis often hinted at such a demise in both his life and work. Joy Division's surviving members formed New Order and achieved plenty of success all their own, but the former group would ultimately stand as one of the most influential acts of the era. Romanticized though it may have been, the death of Curtis was a major '80s music flashpoint.
5. Led Zeppelin Disbands After Drummer John Bonham Dies
Timing can be an extremely mysterious thing, and with each musical death 1980 became progressively cruel and merciless. Unlike its predecessors earlier in the year, the September 25 death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham spelled the sudden end of one of rock music's most visible and beloved groups. The band did not formally announce its breakup until December, but it is a dissolution that has remained nearly constant for the last 30 years. If nothing else, Bonham's death officially patented a monster cliche that the typical "rock star" way to die involved overconsumption of alcohol and vomit-related asphyxiation. This Is Spinal Tap may have been produced without Bonham's death, but it may well have lost some of its resonance.
6. Henley Hits Bump in the Road of Life in the Fast Lane
By the end of the '70s one of that decade's biggest-selling bands, the Eagles, had reached a point of no return in terms of the group's ability to get along with each other and move forward artistically. Having written critical songs about the lure and damaging nature of life in the southern California spotlight, Henley may have set himself up for a stumble as the '70s age of excess melted into a new decade... of perhaps even more excess. That moment came on November 21, 1980, when Henley was arrested in his hotel room with various drugs and a 16-year-old prostitute who had apparently suffered a drug overdose. Whoops. Henley would soon release his solo debut, but not before some minor criminal charges stemming from this incident.
7. Darby Crashes & Burns, as Promised
By December 1980 rock music fans had probably had enough death. But this was to be the worst month of all, initially when legendary but completely underground punk singer Darby Crash committed suicide by heroin overdose on December 7. Mainstream news outlets probably wouldn't have covered this particular death anyway, although certainly some notoriety was bound to emerge from the suicide pact the Germs' Crash had made with a friend (who actually survived). The troubled singer had suggested this kind of flashy demise for himself many times before, but the fact that he made his pledges into reality at such a young age certainly lent the incident further tragic heft. A day later, however, the world's attention would be drastically diverted.
8. John Lennon Senselessly Murdered During Resurgence
1980 had been somewhat of a breakthrough year for ex-Beatle John Lennon's solo career, as Double Fantasy was released to great anticipation and eventual acclaim. But unfortunately most of its success came posthumously after unstable fan Mark David Chapman shot Lennon in the back multiple times as the latter made his way back to his apartment at the Dakota in New York City. In the years leading up to December 8, 1980, America had not necessarily exhibited a great degree of innocence, as a result perhaps of the ongoing fuel crisis and the uncertainty still swirling from the Iranian hostage crisis. But any remaining naivete in the country expired along with Lennon, whose assassination still hurts desperately three decades later.