For some reason it always takes a year or two for a new decade to kick in musically, as vestiges of the previous decade cling for dear life before fading or morphing into something else. 1981, for example, maintained a bridge not only to the disco sounds of the late '70s but also some of music's biggest stars of the past. At the same time, the stage was clearly being set for a new era, to be dominated by heavy metal and the emerging music video. We didn't realize it then, but space was being cleared for future legends like U2 and Metallica to take the reins. In many ways, 1981 was truly the first year of the '80s.
1. Tough Month for Eric Clapton
In the midst of his slow recovery from a series of addictions, legendary British guitarist Eric Clapton endured a lengthy brush with mortality starting in March with a hospitalization in Minnesota. Diagnosed with bleeding ulcers, Clapton was forced to cancel his American tour in support of Another Ticket, a record that represented Clapton's move toward more pop-oriented material. After more than a month-long recuperation, Clapton had healed up sufficiently to resume touring, only to appeal to the American health care system once again just days later following a car accident in Seattle. After that, one would presume, Clapton went back to England or at least got the hell out of the apparently hazardous U.S.
2. Eddie Van Halen & Valerie Bertinelli - Signature '80s Celeb MarriageAlthough celebrity couples have always attracted plenty of attention for their novelty and glitz, the marriage of hard rock guitar wizard Eddie Van Halen to famed '70s actress Bertinelli was undoubtedly one of the most prominent such unions of the decade. For one thing, it lasted not only throughout the '80s but resulted in a son (Wolfgang, now Van Halen's bassist) and did not end officially until 2007, a rare celebrity example of a silver (if separated) wedding anniversary. Of course, since this April 1981 union, the proliferation of media through TV and now the Internet has made relationships like this seem a dime a dozen. But this is still an important, lasting instance of stars staying married for a good, long while.
3. The Tragic, Mysterious Death of Bob Marley
May 11, 1981 saw the death of reggae legend Bob Marley after a lengthy battle with relatively untreated cancer, but that was actually a footnote to the gripping yet murky reasons that some believe led to the tragedy. As a Rastafari leader, many within believed, Marley may have appeared as a target to anyone in opposition to the Afrocentric religious movement. Therefore, considerable mystery still surrounds the circumstances that actually caused Marley to be stricken with the cancer that ultimately killed him. Regardless, reggae music and its persistent following around the world owes almost everything to Marley's music as well as his status as a major cultural figure.
4. Changing of the Guard - Diana Ross Leaves Motown
Still a major star and massive draw on the pop charts, former Supreme Diana Ross demonstrated the shifting nature of the music business when she signed with RCA Records in May, leaving the legendary Motown Records label that helped make her a phenomenon. The $20 million terms of the contract made it the most lucrative in music history at the time, revealing the undeniable truth that compensation matters could break the deepest loyalties. On the heels of the tremendously popular "Endless Love," Ross did not sustain her chart presence for very much longer, producing only three more American Top 10 hits during the remainder of the decade and failing to return to that lofty position upon subsequent releases. Still, the deal created shock waves.
5. The Launch of MTV & the New Video AgeBefore August 1, 1981 the music video may have existed in a cursory, usually concert-oriented form, but the visual role of music would never be the same once MTV began providing an exclusive outlet for interpretive clips. Arguably, the music video became an art form, although many of its trends and patterns could hardly be called artistic. Nonetheless, MTV's tiny cable TV operation demonstrated, against odds, that an audience for music videos both existed and could be grown consistently over time. Network and cable outlets copied the format to varying degrees of success, but the timeline of '80s music - from new wave to arena rock to hair metal and rap - would have likely been very different without the once-little cable network that could.
6. Simon & Garfunkel Reunion Concert Draws Massive NYC Crowd
As much as the music world was changing in 1981, music lovers clearly demonstrated a solid allegiance to the music stars of old, responding with enthusiastic numbers to a free concert in Central Park by the temporarily reunited duo of Simon & Garfunkel. The September 19 concert drew half a million fans and extended its life into a popular video release and subsequent world tour. The renewed partnership would last only until 1983, but the music industry seemed to realize that the combination of vintage artists with emerging formats could turn into ratings gold. Later mass concerts like Live Aid and Farm Aid certainly fed off the free concert's success, setting the stage for music festivals as viable cash generators.
7. U2 Begins Its Mutual Love Affair with U.S. Audiences
In 1981, the four members of U2 were barely out of their teens and remained a well-kept secret of the post-punk and college rock underground movements of the period. But with a 1981 slot on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow, the fledgling superstars enjoyed their first American TV appearance, an event that certainly accelerated the band's rise in what would become perhaps its most reliable geographic market. During the next few years, U2 would exert tremendous influence as under-the-radar purveyors of edgy, political rock anthems, but for some reason the group's blend of its Irish background with an affection for American music styles led to unexpected levels of success. 1987's The Joshua Tree would memorably become one of the decade's seminal albums.