Whether they broke up as the result of artistic differences or were ripped apart by tragedy, many major and essential artists called it quits during the '80s, even if only for a while. Still, most reunions result in rather depressing shadows of former superstars, so in most cases the first break is the only one that really matters. Here's a look - in no particular order - at some of the most notable band dissolutions that took place during the '80s and the particulars of each special case.
1. Led Zeppelin
Regular visitors to this site already know I'm not the world's biggest Led Zeppelin fan. In fact, I'm frequently underwhelmed by the group even as everyone else kneels at the shrine. Still, it's impossible for me to ignore the significance of the band's unplanned dissolution in 1980 upon the alcohol-related death of drummer John Bonham. The remaining band members' unified decision to disband was undoubtedly the right one, even as other bands like the Who and AC/DC soldiered on after similar losses. After all, no rock drummer has ever brought the thunder quite as convincingly as Bonham, whose contributions were always a major element of the Led Zeppelin sound. Occasional reunions or not, this band ceased to exist on September 25, 1980.
So now we go from one of the world's most overrated rock bands to one of its most underrated and criminally unknown. However, perhaps the only thing this eclectic punk rock band from San Pedro, California had in common with Led Zeppelin was that it also came to a sudden, irreversible halt after the accidental death of a member. 27-year-old lead singer, guitarist and primal force D. Boon was the victim of an auto accident at the close of 1985, ending a great American underground band just as it approached its artistic peak. Surviving members Mike Watt and George Hurley have never even attempted a reunion, in full realization that anything subsequent they accomplished musically could be great but would never again be the Minutemen.
3. The Jam
Luckily for the momentum and tone of this list, most '80s band breakups didn't involve death, instead arising typically from band conflicts that grew into far more than mere competitive rivalries. Such was the case with one of Britain's greatest first-wave punk bands, the Jam, a group that distinguished itself through a mod fixation and the singular, eclectic talents of leader Paul Weller. Unfortunately for us, by 1982 Weller felt it was time to leave the group behind for different musical explorations, and it's not like bandmates Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler could even dream of going on without him. The band's relatively brief existence belies its massive influence and staying power, whether Weller would now like to admit it or not.
4. The Police
The Police is the first band on our list that has mounted a full-scale reunion, and most of us thought that would happen about as soon as George W. Bush studied philosophy while waiting for the Shindig for Same-Sex Unions to start at the Republican National Convention. But I guess stranger things can always happen, a statement proven unequivocally when Sting rejoined Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland in 2008 for a lengthy North American tour that actually didn't blow up in anyone's face. Although the revered, beyond-new wave group never officially disbanded, Sting, like Weller, seemed to have moved on forever from his former band by the mid-'80s. But good things sometimes happen to those who wait a very long time, it seems.
5. The Eagles
For many fans, the phrase "when Hell freezes over" has come to describe not just any general unlikelihood but instead feels synonymous with the eventual reunion of '70s superstars the Eagles. Don Henley may not have invented this phrase, but he might as well have. Following 1979's release of The Long Run and its huge success, the group appeared to be headed for serious trouble, fighting constantly and even bickering onstage famously in 1980 while fulfilling contractual obligations for a live album. Like many superstars, the Eagles had many reasons to stay together, mostly green ones made of paper with presidents' faces printed on them. But they hated each other so much at the time that the inevitable payoff would have to wait 14 years.
6. The Clash
So far we've focused on bands that, by choice or not, made a relatively clean break when they dissolved and never looked back for many years, if ever. However, one of rock's most revered groups of all-time, England's first-wave punk, working-class heroes the Clash, actually staged a rather pathetic, cringe-inducing and lengthy collapse. Original drummer Topper Headon had already been ushered out by 1982 for persistent drug problems, and guitarist Mick Jones had also been dismissed by the fall of 1983. Even so, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon tried to continue as the Clash for far too long, struggling, rather embarrassingly, all the way into 1986 before finally throwing their hands up. Somehow, the band avoided much damage to its legacy.
7. Husker Du
This legendary trio helped build the template for alternative rock of the '90s, but it's a wonder they stayed together for any time at all given the tremendous tension, both creative and personal, between leaders Bob Mould and Grant Hart. The notion of warring parties within bands has become a cliche over the years, but these guys took the phenomenon into uncharted territory. Bassist Greg Norton must have the patience of Job to have been caught in the middle for a decade of furor, but the music the three created together bristles with shattering immediacy even when Mould and Hart appeared to be pursuing solo careers within the band as the '80s came to a close. For now Hell remains safely toasty when it comes to a reunion of this band.
8. Bad Company
One of the most successful supergroups of the '70s - and sometimes vilified as the cynical epitome of such unions - Bad Company may not seem like an obvious choice for this list. But the decision by drummer Simon Kirke and guitarist Mick Ralphs to continue as Bad Company after the departure of golden-voiced frontman Paul Rodgers stands to me as one of the most futile attempts to stave off retirement in rock history. Some of the songs the duo produced with Brian Howe at the helm are quite decent, but none bore a recognizable stamp as anything resembling the power and passionate intensity of Bad Company. I would ask why bands refuse to let go of a brand name when they truly should, but we all know a certain green entity always prevails.
Perhaps nothing is quicker or more efficient in ending a band's run at the top than the obvious emergence of one member as darling of the moment, especially when that moment becomes permanent. At her stylish prime, Deborah Harry looked and behaved like a fashion model with a nihilistic streak, so the fact that she would get major attention was no secret from the start, I'm certain. Still, Chris Stein and the rest of the band surely heard more times than they wish to acknowledge some fan or another spreading the rumor that Blondie was secretly dating Lynyrd Skynyrd. What a cute couple! Still, maybe a very solid proto-new wave band with enough toughness to earn the occasional label as punk rock was doomed from the start to a brief shelf life.