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Top 10 Most Tragic & Untimely Pop Music Deaths of the '80s

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The '80s witnessed a number of tragic deaths involving both contemporary artists and musicians who had become legendary during previous decades. Though it's impossible to do justice to the many left off this list, here's a sampling of some of the decade's most heartrending premature deaths of pop music artists. In many cases, these demises not only cut short prodigious talents but larger than life figures who contributed far more than music to a world that still mourns them today.

1. Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Age 23 - May 18, 1980

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Strange Fruit

The death of Ian Curtis may seem particularly sad and senseless because it is one of rock and roll's suicides that appears most self-indulgent or even romanticized. Curtis had always harbored dark obsessions that suggested he may have a less than optimistic worldview, but he certainly didn't wait very long to snuff out the candle. With only about three years as frontman of Joy Division, Curtis and the band exerted an enormous amount of influence on post-punk and alternative music. His death by hanging has generated many rumors and urban legends, most famously that he stood on a block of ice and waited for it to melt.

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2. John Lennon, Age 40 - December 8, 1980

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol

Perhaps it's silly to start anywhere else but here for the heartbreakingly needless loss of a pop musician. Not only did Mark David Chapman shockingly gun down his idol from behind, but he robbed the world of anything and everything remarkable that John Lennon might have accomplished during the '80s and beyond. After all, the release of Double Fantasy just weeks before his death represented an impressive comeback for Lennon and contained some of his best songs in years such as "(Just Like) Starting Over." The assassination of Lennon will always be one of the most significant and tragic moments in rock music history.

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3. Bob Marley, Age 36 - May 11, 1981

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Island Def Jam

As one of rock music's central larger-than-life figures both as related to Rastafarian/African revivalist culture in the West and his reggae music output, Bob Marley has long been one of the world's most popular and controversial musicians. The tragedy of his death from cancer is complicated by the fact that the singer's Rasta beliefs probably led him to refuse most treatments for the disease that might have saved his life. Beyond that, however, some in the Rasta movement, including possibly Marley himself, felt that he was a target of various political enemies and possibly a conspiracy that hastened his death.

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4. Harry Chapin, Age 38 - July 16, 1981

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra Asylum

Harry Chapin was such a sweeping talent and cut such a swath of influence as a human being that his tragic, brutal death in an auto accident on the Long Island Expressway has long resonated deeply for music fans and the world at large. A former documentary filmmaker who lent his musical talents freely during the '70s to many charitable causes, most prominently activism to fight world hunger, Chapin built a legacy quickly that only grew after his death. Though sometimes linked too strongly to his most famous hit, "Cat's in the Cradle," Chapin was a much more complex figure than that both as an artist and as a person.

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5. Karen Carpenter of the Carpenters, Age 32 - February 4, 1983

Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M

Although sometimes lacking proper respect as one of pop music's most distinctive singers as one-half of the duo the Carpenters and regarding her status as an accomplished drummer, Karen Carpenter represents one of the most heartbreaking musical deaths of the modern era. Having struggled with pervasive eating disorders for a good portion of her adult life, Carpenter had seemed to gain some control of her anorexia through treatment in 1982 for what at the time was a little-known disease. But damage done to her body over the years combined with efforts to gain weight may have stressed her heart too much, resulting in her death by cardiac arrest.

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6. Marvin Gaye, Age 44 - April 1, 1984

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia/Legacy

Soul legend Marvin Gaye struggled with substance abuse demons and mental illness up to the day of his shooting death at the hands of his father, a devastating end to a life that changed music forever even as it transcended the world of entertainment. Gaye had always yearned to take an independent musical path but certainly endured years of obsessive outside control while recording for Motown Records in the '60s. When he finally got the chance to explore social concerns on What's Going On and then carnal ones on Let's Get It On, he produced some of pop music's most memorable albums.

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7. D. Boon of the Minutemen, Age 27 - December 22, 1985

D. Boon Pictured at Left - DVD Cover Image Courtesy of Plexifilm

When D. Boon of American underground rock legends the Minutemen was thrown from the van in which he was riding as the result of an auto accident, the world lost one of the most unique American singers and guitarists and one of rock's most intelligent, forceful personalities. In addition, although the band had already released its well-established double-album masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime in 1984, at 27 years old Boon had quite possibly not even begun to reach his peak as an artist before a hard-luck, atypical rock and roll death silenced him. If Boon's death is not mourned at the level of Lennon's, it's only because so many fewer know about him.

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8. Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, Age 36 - January 4, 1986

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Wounded Bird
One of the only black Irishmen to attain worldwide (if unjustly subdued) stardom as a rock musician, Lynott ultimately could not overcome years of drug and alcohol abuse and died of complications brought on by a heroin overdose suffered Christmas night 1985. As lead singer, bassist and primary songwriter for the one-of-a-kind, eclectic hard rock outfit Thin Lizzy, Lynott continued to blaze the trail, forged by Jimi Hendrix, that proved black artists were quite capable of excelling in heavy guitar rock. Though it could be argued Lynott's early death was largely self-inflicted, that does not make his loss less tragic.
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9. Richard Manuel of the Band, Age 42 - March 4, 1986

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Other People's Music
Another sensitive artist who had plenty of struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, Richard Manuel took his own life, seemingly as the result of despair over the Band's dissolution in the late '70s and a reformed lineup's inability to stay relevant. His death by hanging in a Florida motel room after a less-than-earthshaking gig, while perhaps an almost stereotypical rock and roll demise, stripped the world mercilessly of one of its finest, most soulful singers. After Boston's Brad Delp committed suicide more than two decades later for perhaps similar reasons of career strife, Manuel's death seems newly haunting.
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10. Cliff Burton of Metallica, 24 - September 27, 1986

Cliff Burton Pictured Top Left - Album Cover Image Courtesy of Wheezy Multimedia
Automobile accidents have long served as strong imagery in pop music and have claimed their share of musicians' lives over the years, as this list well attests. But perhaps no accidental death seems more stark and brutal than that of Metallica's bass player Cliff Burton. While traveling in Sweden during the European leg of the band's Master of Puppets tour, Burton was thrown from the vehicle as he slept when the bus crashed and overturned, crushing the bassist and killing him instantly. Even for a band that delved into plenty of dark subject matter in its songs, Burton's death was horrific and tragic beyond belief.
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