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The 20 Greatest Movie Theme Songs Of The 1980s

The 20 Greatest Movie Theme Songs Of The 1980s

This Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the classic supernatural action-comedy “Ghostbusters,” which hit theaters on Friday June 8th, 1984. One of the most beloved films of its generation, the Ivan Reitman-directed movie is remembered for its sharp, funny, tight script (co-written by the late Harold Ramis), still-superb visual effects, great performances from the likes of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson and Ramis, and being a rare example of the successful blend of blockbuster fantasy and comedy.

It’s also, for better or worse, remembered for Ray Parker Jr’s iconic theme tune, a smash-hit at the time, which earned an Oscar nomination. We’re in an era where the movie theme song is something of a dead art (though the recent success of “Skyfall” and “Let It Go” from “Frozen” might see that change), but in the 1980s, it was in its prime, and many of the decade’s biggest sellers were directly connected to some of its biggest movies.

So, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Ghostbusters” and Parker Jr’s song, we’ve trawled through the archives to select 20 of the best, or at least most memorably iconic, theme songs from 1980s movies, because we ain’t afraid of no ghosts. The only rule: they had to be songs written specifically for the film, and not released prior to the movie, ruling out cover versions and the like. Watch, listen, and disagree below, and for more on “Ghostbusters,” check out our retrospective piece from a few years back.

“Ghostbusters” – Ray Parker Jr – “Ghostbusters”
Essentially inseparable from the film from which it came (try and look at the logo or DVD cover without hearing a snippet from the song), the theme tune to the fantasy comedy smash is undoubtedly one of the best known theme tunes in cinema history, even if it is (whisper it), a bit naff. Penned and performed by erstwhile Raydio frontman Ray Parker Jr, it topped the Billboard charts for three weeks, and was nominated for an Oscar (though lost to Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called To Say I Love You” from “The Woman In Red“). It caused friction with another 80s soundtrack idol: Huey Lewis sued over similarities to his track I Want A New Drug,” the matter eventually being settled out of court).

“Eye Of The Tiger” – Survivor” – “Rocky III” (1982)
When his request to use “Another One Bites The Dust” was turned down by Queen, Sylvester Stallone needed an inspirational theme for the third in his boxing franchise, and turned to relatively little-known rock band Survivor, whose first Top 40 hit “Poor Man’s Son” had caught the writer/director/star’s ear. The band delivered: their inspirational “Eye Of The Tiger” will forever be associated with the franchise, even if it’s the most memorable part of the third film (the one that features Mr. T as the adversary). The song was a monster hit, the second biggest selling of that year, and even went on to inspire its own film, 1986’s Gary Busey vehicle of the same name.

“Call Me” – Blondie – “American Gigolo” (1980)
As with so many of the songs on this list, “Call Me” might not even exist had someone else not turned down work: electronic legend Giorgio Moroder, who was composing the score for Paul Schrader’s “American Gigolo,” initially approached Stevie Nicks to write a song for the soundtrack, but contractual issues prevented the Fleetwood Mac star from coming through. Instead, Debbie Harry and Blondie teamed up with Moroder: the result, “Call Me,” provided the perfect introduction to Schrader’s film, the Doctor Who bassline and growly Harry vocals helping bring viewers into a new 1980s of Jerry Bruckheimer-produced excess. The song also turned out to be the biggest seller of the year.

“Fight The Power” – Public Enemy – “Do The Right Thing” (1989)
Has there even been a more perfect match of movie and pop song than Spike Lee’s classic “Do The Right Thing” and Public Enemy’s furious fuck-you anthem “Fight The Power”? The director wanted a song that would recur throughout the film, most notably when played on the boombox of crucial character Radio Raheem (Bill Duke), saying that he “wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy,” then coming off their classic second record, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. The resulting track, all abrasive Elvis-dissing lyrics, thundering loops and unexpected sax solos, was an all-time classic, topping the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll, and becoming an African-American anthem.

“Fame” – Irene Cara – “Fame” (1980)
Most movie musicals have a track that’s most associated with them, but not all have theme tunes as such. Alan Parker’s 1980 stage-school tuner is certainly the exception, with a title track that helped the film to… wait for it… live forever. Penned by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford for the film (though within the story, written by Lee Curreri’s shy composer Bruno), it scores probably the film’s most iconic sequence, where Bruno’s proud dad plays it in the streets, inspiring much dancing on cabs. Performed by the film’s star Irene Cara, it hit number four in the Billboard charts, and won the Oscar and the Golden Globe that year.

“The Power Of Love” – Huey Lewis & The News – “Back To The Future” (1985)
Patrick Bateman favorites Huey Lewis & The News had their best known hit with wedding-disco staple “The Power Of Love,” penned for Robert Zemeckis’ mega-smash “Back To The Future,” but what’s less well known is that it was their second attempt at writing a song for the film: the track “Back In Time,” which actually refers to the film and its characters explicitly (“Get back, Marty!”), was the original plan, but rejected by Universal. They were much keener on “The Power Of Love,” which features in the film both in an original version and as a hard-rock cover rejected by Lewis himself in a cameo, and went on to crop up in both of the film’s sequels.

“Danger Zone” – Kenny Loggins – “Top Gun” (1986)
Through to the 1990s, when he inflicted the likes of Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live” (from “Con Air”) and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” (from “Armageddon”) on all of us, Jerry Bruckheimer was a pioneer of melding soft-rock soundtrack hits to his blockbusters, and the nine-times platinum soundtrack to “Top Gun” might have reached something like his peak. Along with Berlin’s ballad “Take My Breath Away,’ “Danger Zone” is probably the most enduring musical contribution from the movie. Co-written by Giorgio Moroder, it was turned down by Toto, Bryan Adams and REO Speedwagon before 80s soundtrack superstar Kenny Loggins stepped up. The track’s Tony Scott-directed video was once described by the U.S. Navy as “the most effective recruiting poster ever produced.”

“Kiss” – Prince – “Under The Cherry Moon” (1986)
Prince’s second starring movie role, in “Under The Cherry Moon,” is no “Purple Rain” to say the least: ill-advisedly directed by the superstar himself, with a paper thin plot that sees him romance a young Kristin Scott Thomas (!) despite the disapproval of her father Stephen Berkoff (!!), it’s basically terrible from start to finish. But the film’s soundtrack, Parade, is terrific, one of his best records, and not least because of its biggest single, “Kiss.” Winning a Grammy, proving the artist’s third number one record, and once named by the NME as the fourth greatest single of all time, it’s an effortlessly sexy, incredibly cool cut that even survived a Tom Jones cover version. There aren’t many reasons to be thankful for the existence of “Under The Cherry Moon,” but this is one of them. (No video available, sorry)“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” – Simple Minds – “The Breakfast Club” (1985)
The curse of so many bands is despising the song that proved to be your biggest hit. That’s the case with Simple Minds. After Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff penned “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for the soundtrack to John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” Cy Curnin, Bryan Ferry and Billy Idol all turned down the chance to record, as did the Jim Kerr-fronted band, only to eventually relent, putting the track to tape in just three hours. Despite it being their only U.S. number one, they never came to love it (leaving it off their subsequent album), but it’s become iconic nevertheless, now summing up not only John Hughes movies (which often had weaker soundtracks than we remember), but also subsequent teen movies, earning references in the likes of “Pitch Perfect.”

“Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” – David Bowie – “Cat People” (1982)
Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake of “Cat People” ultimately can’t hold a candle to the great Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton 1942 original, but it’s still fascinating stuff with a lot that’s worthwhile in it, just one element of which is the theme song, performed by David Bowie. The thin white duke’s contribution is actually fairly minimal: the track was mostly composed by the 80s-soundtrack-omnipresent Giorgio Moroder, who wrote the score, with Bowie lending only lyrics. Nevertheless, it’s a moody treat that fits the film beautifully, even if it went on to be put to even more impressive use, albeit anachronistically (and WITH GASOLINE!) in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”

“Axel F” – Harold Faltermeyer – “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984)
A rarity on this list as it’s entirely instrumental, “Axel F” nevertheless managed to be a smash hit (twice over!) without a single lyric. The theme from German synth composer Harold Faltermeyer’s score to Martin Brest’s action-comedy smash hit “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Axel F” (named, of course, after Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley in the film) became an instantly recognizable, simple little earworm, and when released as a single, became a worldwide hit, hitting number 3 on the Billboard charts, and number 2 in the U.K. More horrifically, it became a smash again two decades later thanks to Crazy Frog, a hideous ringtone creature that, due to unexplained insanity (Chernobyl??) that swept Europe, saw the track get to number one in many countries.
“Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” – Phil Collins – “Against All Odds” (1984)
Phil Collins’ discography sometimes reads more like the charge sheet at a War Crimes tribunal at the Hague than a list of musical classics, but he did sneak in a couple of belters over time, not least this song, one of those movie themes that’s actually better known than the movie from which it comes, Taylor Hackford’s middling Jeff Bridges-starring remake of noir classic “Out Of The Past.” Hackford approached Collins while the film was still in the edit room and asked him to contribute a song, and Collins adapted an unused demo from the sessions from his first solo album, about the end of his first marriage. The track was at number one on the Billboard charts for three weeks, and won Collins a Grammy, along with Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.

“Crazy For You” – Madonna – “Vision Quest”
There is perhaps a parallel universe in which Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino are massive, massive stars, and struggling musician Madonna was super grateful to get the call to be included on the soundtrack for their Harold Becker-directed blockbuster romance “Vision Quest,” but this ain’t it. A coming of age story detailing the brief affair between a high school wrestling champ and an older woman, the film is consummately forgettable, but for its soundtrack—the Tangerine Dream score and this Madonna megahit which actually led to the film being retitled “Crazy for You” in some territories. A presumably Madonna-less remake was mooted in 2009 for Taylor Lautner—let’s be thankful for small mercies like the fact that that never happened.

“When Doves Cry” – Prince – “Purple Rain” (1986)
So we’re confining ourselves to songs that were written specifically for movies, but what of the movies were written specifically to showcase the songs? That’s undoubtedly the case with extended-music-video-turned-cult-featurePurple Rain” in the which the pain of the plotting (Prince, in his film debut, plays a talented musician attempting to leave his abusive family behind while falling for the beauteous Apollonia) is only offset by the original tracks which are, thankfully, frequent, and almost all terrific. “When Doves Cry” is no doubt the pinnacle, yielding Prince his first US number one, but “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U” and “Let’s Go Crazy” are also great. The less said about 1990 sequel “Graffiti Bridge,” however, the better.

“If You Leave” – OMD – “Pretty in Pink” (1986)
If there’s one thing that focus groups got definitively wrong (and obviously there are a lot more than that) it was rejecting the initial ending of John Hughes’ teen romance pic “Pretty in Pink” in which Andie ends up with Duckie as is clearly so obviously meant to happen the whole time, forcing Hughes to change it so she scores spineless rich asshole Blane instead. But if there’s anything good that came out of that change, it’s that Hughes also needed a new track, so OMD turned around this terrific slice of glossy pop in just 24 hours, as they were heading off on tour. A prime example then, of not overthinking your instincts and how delivering to deadline can sometimes work out well for everyone, the song went on to be one of the British New Wave band’s biggest hits.

“St Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” – John Parr – “St Elmo’s Fire” (1985)
Apparently written in honor of Canadian wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen, whose world tour was indeed called the “Man in Motion” tour, this David Foster-written track was actually first recorded, by British musician John Parr, for Joel Schumacher’s unbearable Brat Pack navel gazing orgy “St Elmo’s Fire.” So one wonders when the lyric regarding the titular weather phenomenon was included. Whatever the case, the song is now a prime cut of ’80s power rock, all irony-free Big Chords and constant key changes, and even if it’s not something we’re likely to listen to that often, we cannot deny its pretty much iconic status. The film it comes from, not so much, though the hairstyles continue to fascinate to this day.

A Kind Of Magic” – Queen – “Highlander” (1981)
Inspired by a line of dialogue from the film, and frequently referencing its plot in its lyrics (“no mortal man,” “one prize, one goal” “there can be only one”) Queen’s “A Kind of Magic” was directly written for the Russell Mulcahy cult film, but since no soundtrack album for “Highlander” was struck, it was Queen’s own 1986 album A Kind of Magic which served as the unofficial soundtrack: six out of the album’s nine tracks appear, albeit in slightly different arrangements, in the film. (The clip here is of the actual cut from the film, with added magicky effects at the beginning). It was also, sadly the last album that the full band would tour with as just the following year Freddie Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS, from which he died in 1991.

“Together in Electric Dreams” – The Human League – “Electric Dreams” (1984)
And again we feel the long shadow cast by 80s synth wizard Giorgio Moroder, as this classic track was written by the Italian maestro, who then asked Philip Oakey, himself a composer and a founding member of The Human League, to record it. The story goes that Moroder liked Oakey’s first take so much that it was only under pressure that he allowed him to lay down a second, with Oakey later remarking on how ironic it was that a song that took ten minutes to record would go on to become one of The Human League’s biggest ever hits (after “Don’t You Want Me”). The song is also pretty much the poster boy for a soundtrack eclipsing a movie—Virginia Madsen vehicle “Electric Dreams” is now largely forgotten (and reports of its similarities to Spike Jonze’s “Her” are rather overstated).

“For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton – “For Your Eyes Only” (1981)
While nowhere near the torch song heights of the Bond franchise’s all-time-highs (of which “All Time High” is probably not one either), Easton’s contribution to the canon is as close as we get to the peerless genius of “Goldfinger” or (greatest song ever written) “Nobody Does it Better” in this decade. Mind you, there was vocal support for “A View to a Kill,” “License to Kill” and even the rather turgid “The Living Daylights” among the staff too. Easton’s track is a little screechier than we’d like, but it’s got the basics down, and she also has the distinction of being the only Bond song singer (pretty enough) to feature visually in the opening credits.

“(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” – Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes – “Dirty Dancing” (1987)
Embarrassing admission: as a thirty-something female, I have a total lack of critical objectivity when it comes to “Dirty Dancing” to the point that I’m late with this blurb because I had to watch this clip all the way through again. The biggest single off a wildly successful soundtrack, this song is one of several—along with “Hungry Eyes” and “She’s the Like the Wind”—that could have taken a spot. But the weirdly effective anachronism of how it’s used (an 80s song Baby and Johnny dance to in the 60s) and the climactic moment it soundtracks gives it the ribbon. A second Warnes cut could also have appeared (“Up Where We Belong” with Joe Cocker for “An Officer and A Gentleman”) but tough calls have to be made, and there’s really only one duet we’d carry a watermelon for.

Honorable Mentions: If you were looking for a Volume Two of a 80s Movie Theme Song compilation, there’s plenty more to choose from. Along with some of the movies that we featured above that had multiple options (“Dirty Dancing” with “She’s Like The Wind” and “Hungry Eyes,” “Top Gun” with “Take My Breath Away”), there are a few other obvious options that we couldn’t quite bear to include – Kenny Loggins‘ “Footloose” from the same name, and Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What A Feeling,” from “Flashdance,” along with “Maniac” from the same film.

Bond themes “Licence To Kill,” “The Living Daylights” and “A View To A Kill” divided Playlist staff a little, so missed the cut, while Bangles cover “Hazy Shade Of Winter” from “Less Than Zero” and “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” from “The Blues Brothers” fell foul of our rules. Also not making the cut: “The Wind Beneath My Wings” from “Beaches,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome,” “The Goonies R Good Enough” from “The Goonies,” “Glory Of Love” from “Karate Kid II,” “Arthur’s Theme” from “Arthur,” “Live To Tell” from “At Close Range,” “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from “Mannequin,” “Xanadu” from “Xanadu,” “9 To 5” from “9 To 5,” “Let The River Run” from “Working Girl,” “The NeverEnding Story” from “The NeverEnding Story,” Bowie’s “Magic Dance” from “Labyrinth” and both “Two Hearts” and “Groovy Kind Of Love” from “Buster.

Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments section, or by posting a mixtape on cassette to the usual address.

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