Before they were pop: From Duran Duran to U2, these ‘80s pop/rock acts started out on the disco charts!

(December 7, 2020).  Musically speaking, the 1980s were an eclectic ten years.  The decade began with a disco hangover and ended with big-hair rock bands and freestyle dance-pop acts dominating the charts. 

Somewhere in between came the second British Invasion and an influx of dozens of new wave and techno bands that, thanks in large part to MTV, ushered in the synth-pop era and helped bring a new excitement to a decade that before, say, 1982, had yet to find its musical identity.

But before MTV launched in August 1981, many of the punk, new wave and techno bands that we came to know and love couldn’t get any mainstream attention in the U.S.  Most top-40 pop stations, still smarting over the disco boom that had just ended, stayed as far from uptempo dance music as they could, instead filling their playlists with corporate rock, adult contemporary and even country music fare.

That didn’t stop these bands, however, from creating some great music and finding eager audiences in dance clubs (and discos) across the country.  In fact, in early 1981 when many of these techno-pop, punk and new wave bands emerged here, dozens found their first hits on the disco charts before they even got a whiff of the pop chart (the Billboard Hot 100).

The crack research team at djrobblog (umm, yours truly) has found 25 such bands, most of them British, whose entry into the U.S. market came via the dance club scene.  Many of these acts would have moderate-to-big dance hits on Billboard’s Top 100 Disco chart (or a variation thereof) before making it big on the Hot 100. 

Some of them made flat-out disco music, others made danceable techno-pop or new wave music that club DJs had no problem spinning to fill dance floors.  The thing they have in common is that they all would eventually reach the top 40 portion of the Hot 100 and all of them are still well-known today by ‘80s pop heads like yours truly and many of you reading this.

Before we get to the artists, it’s worth exploring what the disco charts were in the early 1980s when these acts graced them.  Billboard’s disco chart—first published as a national list in August 1976–grew to a 100-position ranking in September 1979, ironically two months after the infamous disco demolition at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. 

After the backlash and subsequent demise of disco, particularly at mainstream pop radio, Billboard reduced the weekly chart to 80 positions on August 1, 1981, ironically the same day MTV launched.  It would remain an 80-position chart until March 1985 when it was reduced to 50.

Because of the changing music styles and the broad range of dance music that graced the charts in the 1980s, Billboard introduced the hybrid “Hot Dance/Disco” chart moniker in March 1982, and didn’t remove the word “Disco” from the chart until 1987.

So, technically speaking, all 25 of the acts listed below really did hit Billboard’s “disco” charts before they reached the more mainstream Hot 100.

So what broke these artists from the clubs and the fringe-y disco charts to the mainstream? Pop historians have pointed to Long Island, NY radio station WLIR, a punk and new wave station which broke many of these bands on American radio before their records were officially released here. Many of the British punk bands on the list below first charted with import singles acquired by club DJs to fortify their playlists.

WLIR, 92.7-FM, was such an important radio station with a huge impact on the United States, far beyond the range of its signal. The public was given access to music and artists otherwise unavailable to the masses.

Beginning in 1982, this widely influential station battled the FCC, faced financial struggle, competed with far stronger signals and faced shutdown. It overcame all those odds and, along with MTV, is largely responsible for the second British Music Invasion of America. WLIR discovered new and intriguing artists, including nearly all of the acts on the list below, and was largely responsible for breaking many of these bands in America.

The incredible story of WLIR and its impact on the American music scene is covered in the 2017 documentary “New Wave: Dare To Be Different,” which has aired on Showtime.

As for the famous acts that dwelled in clubs and discos before WLIR and MTV made them national stars, the 25 that charted on Billboard’s disco charts before hitting pop are listed alphabetically in the table below, along with their first disco chart entries followed by their first Hot 100 chart hits, and the respective dates of each.  The gaps between their first disco and pop chart entries range from just months in some cases to years!

And here’s a fun fact: many of these acts had more disco chart entries over their careers than The Bee Gees, who were largely responsible for the late-‘70s disco pop explosion and only had three disco chart hits: “You Should Be Dancing,” “Tragedy,” and a joint listing of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever” and “More Than A Woman.”  Go figure!

Anyway, let’s see which pop and rock acts had butts shaking on the disco and dance scene—as reflected in Billboard’s Disco charts—before they touched the Billboard Hot 100.  Note: acts in bold charted when the list was solely named “Disco.”  The table is followed by YouTube video and audio clips of each artist’s first disco hit, where available.

Artist Disco Chart DebutPop Chart Debut
1.Bryan Adams“Let Me Take You Dancing” – 4/28/79“Lonely Nights” – 3/13/82
2.Adam Ant“Dog Eat Dog”/“Antmusic”/“Kings of the Wild Frontier” – 2/14/81“Goody Two Shoes” – 11/13/82
3.Bananarama“Aie A Mwana” – 12/5/81“Shy Boy” – 7/2/83
4.B-52s“Planet Claire”/“Rock Lobster”/“Dance This Mess Around” 12/22/79“Rock Lobster” – 4/19/80
5.The Cure“Boys Don’t Cry”/“Jumping Someone Else’s Train” – 7/12/80“In Between Days” – 2/15/86
6.Dead or Alive“That’s The Way (I Like It)” – 7/7/84“You Spend Me Right Round (Like A Record)” – 6/1/85
7.Depeche Mode“Dreaming Of Me” – 4/4/81“People Are People” – 5/25/85
8.Duran Duran“Planet Earth” – 4/4/81“Hungry Like The Wolf” – 12/25/82
9.Erasure“Who Needs Love Like That”/“Heavenly Action” – 2/15/86“Chains of Love” – 7/30/88
10.A Flock of Seagulls“Telecommunication”/“Modern Love Is Automatic” – 10/17/81“I Ran (So Far Away)”
11.Human League“The Sound Of The Crowd” – 6/6/81“Don’t You Want Me” – 3/6/82
12.Billy Idol“Dancing With Myself” – 11/22/80“Hot In The City” – 7/3/82
13.Level 42“Starchild” – 5/8/82“Something About You” – 2/15/86
14.New Order“Ceremony” – 5/23/81“True Faith” – 10/24/87
15.OMD“Messages”/“Red Frame, White Line”/“Enola Gay” – 7/12/80“So In Love” – 8/31/85
16.Simple Minds“I Travel” – 2/21/81“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” – 2/23/85
17.Simply Red“Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)” – 8/31/85“Holding Back The Years” – 4/5/86
18.Siouxsie & the Banshees“Israel” – 3/28/81“Peek-A-Boo” – 10/15/88
19.Soft Cell“Memorabilia” – 4/25/81“Tainted Love” – 1/16/82
20.Spandau Ballet“To Cut A Long Story Short” – 1/10/81“True” – 8/6/83
21.SqueezeArgybargy (LP) – 7/19/80“Tempted” – 8/1/81
22.Stray Cats“Runaway Boys” – 2/28/81“Rock This Town” – 9/18/82
23.Thompson Twins“In The Name Of Love” – 3/27/82“Lies” – 1/22/83
24.U2“I Will Follow” – 2/28/81“New Year’s Day” – 4/2/83
25.Wham!“Young Guns” – 3/19/83“Bad Boys” – 8/20/83

Brian Adams: “Let Me Take You Dancing” – 4/28/79

No YouTube clip available.

Adam Ant: “Dog Eat Dog”/“Antmusic”/“Kings of the Wild Frontier” – 2/14/81

Bananarama: “Aie A Mwana” – 12/5/81

B-52s: “Planet Claire” – 12/22/79

The Cure: “Boys Don’t Cry”/“Jumping Someone Else’s Train” – 7/12/80

Dead or Alive: “That’s The Way (I Like It)” – 7/7/84

Depeche Mode: “Dreaming Of Me” – 4/4/81

Duran Duran: “Planet Earth” – 4/4/81

Erasure: “Who Needs Love Like That”/“Heavenly Action” – 2/15/86

A Flock of Seagulls: “Telecommunication”/“Modern Love Is Automatic” – 10/17/81

Human League: “The Sound Of The Crowd” – 6/6/81

Billy Idol: “Dancing With Myself” – 11/22/80

Level 42: “Starchild” – 5/8/82

New Order: “Ceremony” – 5/23/81

OMD: “Messages”/“Red Frame, White Line”/“Enola Gay” – 7/12/80

Simple Minds: “I Travel” – 2/21/81

Simply Red: “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)” – 8/31/85

Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Israel” – 3/28/81

Soft Cell: “Memorabilia” – 4/25/81

Spandau Ballet: “To Cut A Long Story Short” – 1/10/81

Squeeze: Argybargy (LP) – 7/19/80

Stray Cats: “Runaway Boys” – 2/28/81

Thompson Twins: “In The Name Of Love” – 3/27/82

U2: “I Will Follow” – 2/28/81

Wham!: “Young Guns” – 3/19/83

Honorable mention: The THE, Psychadelic Furs, The Clash, Bronski Beat

Hope you enjoyed this dance/disco-to-pop/rock retrospective!  The dancing in some of those videos alone made it worthwhile to research.  Let me know what you think in the comment section below or in the social media feeds where the article is posted.

DJRob

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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4 Replies to “Before they were pop: From Duran Duran to U2, these ‘80s pop/rock acts started out on the disco charts!”

  1. The British invasion is my second favorite music genre of the 80’s! Hey DJ Rob how about a story on the black British invasion?

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