The Anatomy of a Great ’80s Pop Rock Song

There’s a reason no one in music makes songs like the pop rock ballads of the 80’s anymore. It’s not because that kind of organized noise is out of style or because it’s difficult to recreate the sound of obsolete synthesizers and early ’80s, electric Yamaha drums, but because I don’t believe there is anyone in the pop music world right now with the vision, skills or intellectual wherewithal to come up with the classics that were bred from the likes of Toto, Journey, Styx, Foreigner, et cetera. 

What makes those ’80s rock songs so great though? Sometimes, it’s hard to pinpoint. Fear not, though, because Kale is here to give you the breakdown on what makes these  ’80s pop rock songs so perfect. To illustrate this, I will dissect The Alan Parsons Project tune “Games People Play”.

Why this song? Well, you may only know of The Alan Parsons Project from the Chicago Bulls or from the second Austin Powers movie, but they were a top-notch progressive rock group in the early ’80s; one of the pioneer bands of the time that took the fading classic pop rock sound of the ’70s and helped transition it to a more then-contemporary synthesized conglomeration.

“Games People Play” was a hit of the band’s in 1980 and ’81. Right out of the decade’s gate, Alan Parsons Project was at the forefront of creating a sound that would be a staple for many other bands through the Reagan years.

Let’s get to it. How to create a great ’80s pop rock hit!

That’s the song! Use the times under each heading to follow along. Wanna make a pop rock hit as good as “Games People Play”? Here’s what you’ll need:

A GRIPPING, SYNTHESIZED OPENING WITH UNNECESSARILY CRYPTIC LYRICS

0:00

When you’re creating an ’80s pop rock song, you want to have the opening of your song reach out to your listeners. You want it to scream, “I’ve got something to say, so listen up!” so that said listener doesn’t have a choice but to keep listening. Alan Parsons Project does it so well here with “Games People Play”. They had the right idea. You want to start out with some broken chords played by an indistinguishable synthesized instrument to get that other-worldly feel right from the beginning. Let those broken chords play solo long enough that the listener has enough time to realize it doesn’t sound like any practical instrument, but not too long that they want to turn the song off. Once you’ve found that middle ground, this is where you’ll want to introduce your first set of cryptic lyrics like so:

Where do we go from here?
Now that all of the children are growing up?
And, how do we spend our lives?
If there’s no one to lend us a hand?

Yes! Those are the kind of ’80s pop rock lyrics that are easy to comprehend and are relatable to many people but that will also have your fanbase debating its meaning decades down the road. To accentuate your first verse, sing it without drums and have a piano riff going on in the background that plays the same melody right on top of your lyrics.

A DELIBERATE RHYTHM SECTION AND BASS LINE

0:20

For the second part of your first verse, and for the chorus, you’ll want to throw in a really deliberate drumbeat and a simpleton bass line to accompany it. This will work in stark contrast to the operatic beginning of the song that you introduced your audience to.

You know what really helps with this aspect of ’80s pop rock? Yes, the cowbell. Add some in there, even if it’s subtle. If you don’t, you’re doing no one a favor.

A CATCHY BUT NOT TOO COMPLICATED CHORUS

0:43

Alan Parsons Project kills it here; the chorus, using the song’s title, is catchy and fun. It makes you want to roll down your windows and start yelling with the band. One of the key components here, though, are the generic, very simpleton lyrics that use the same word to rhyme with. This is a common attribute in the ’80s pop rock genre. Alan Parsons Project rhymes two different lines with “it”  in this song. But it happens everywhere. Take Journey’s “Separate Ways”, for example. One of my favorite songs of all time. This is the chorus:

Someday, love will find you
Break those chains that bind you
One night, we’ll remind you

Genius.

SEEMINGLY RANDOM ’80S WAILING

1:16

You’ll need it. It seems unnecessary, but if you don’t throw some wailing into your ’80s pop rock song, you’re just not trying. It’s well known that in ’80s, there was something up with the earth’s oxygen because male singers could hit notes that they couldn’t hit in the decades before or the decades after. 

AN AMBIGUOUS, NOISY BRIDGE

1:51

At this point in your ’80s pop rock song, you’ve already done so much, you’d think the listener would be exhausted, so what can you do to keep things interesting? Well, the obvious…

Jungle noises. 

Yes, what’s an ’80s pop rock song without jungle noises? Ya know what? Let’s up the ante. 

Echo-y jungle noises. 

Yeah, get that reverb going. And keep it going. Yeah! Let’s do—

A MINUTE AND TEN SECONDS OF ECHO-Y JUNGLE NOISES. 

This is sure to make your ’80s pop rock song a sure-fire hit, and the jungle sounds will add to the mystery of the song’s lyrics. What is Alan Parsons Project trying to tell us? Are we all like the animals in the jungle? Are those the sounds of dying creatures, like the dead hopes and dreams of our song’s narrator? Or do people walk through life like a game—a game in the jungle? These are the kinds of questions that will keep your song relevant 30 or 40 years down the line. Just because of those jungle noises. 

A GUITAR SOLO, AND A HARMONIZED GUITAR SOLO

2:56

You’ll want a guitar solo after your bridge. Make sure it’s not anything too interesting. If you can, just have a guitar solo that plays the melody of the song’s chorus over and over again. On the third or fourth time through the melody, it’s absolutely essential that another guitar is added in over the solo to provide a harmonized guitar solo. If you’re making an ’80s pop rock songs without harmonized solos, well, you’re gonna have less hits than Lou Bega. 

Add in some jazzy funk to the end of the solo just to show off you mad skills. 

REVERT BACK TO THE BEGINNING

4:10

At the end of your song, you’ll want to fade out the vocals and lead back into that ambiguous-sounding synthesized broken chords you had going at the beginning of the song, just to remind everyone of where we came from and how we got there. 

Put it all together and you have created the perfect ’80s pop rock hit; a style of music that has, unfortunately, dissipated from this Earth. Don’t believe my formula works? Test it on another ’80s pop rock song and you tell me:

Perhaps every song doesn’t have jungle noises, but you get the point.

About Kale

Kale is a proud MSU Detroiter with filmmaking and social media aspirations. Currently in Production Assisting Purgatory, Kale has two goals in life: (1) Have a million followers on twitter and (2) Never pay a mortgage. So help Kale reach one of those goals, follow him @kaledavidoff
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One Response to The Anatomy of a Great ’80s Pop Rock Song

  1. rush coil says:

    Nice. I am going to try to make a song based on these rules.