THE EIGHTIES. Van Halen. Dire Straits. Three’s Company. Knight Rider.
Nights in White Castle captures a bygone era, and the thrills of new adulthood during the decade of big hair and rock’n’roll. Acclaimed author, Steve Rushin, transports you back to the nights of his early teens in Bloomington, Minnesota hanging out at the local White Castle with the ultimate playlist of the best rock hits from the 1980s.
Why these songs? Steve Rushin shares how each of these 1980s hits made their way onto his playlist:
1. “Jump,” Van Halen
If you were in the Class of 1984 at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minnesota, you had to read George Orwell’s 1984, when the only 1984 anyone cared about was Van Halen’s album of the same name. This song, from that album, with its diabolical synth intro, was inescapable my senior year, as I describe in Nights in White Castle, my memoir of high school, college and leaving home in the 1980s.
2. “Life in a Northern Town,” Dream Academy
They’re English, describing life in the north of England. But growing up in a northern town in North America, where the mornings lasted all day, I claimed this song as mine, too.
3. “Steppin’ Out,” Joe Jackson
This song is made for driving around at night, something we did a lot of in a powder-blue Pontiac Bonneville—aimless journeys down the 494 Strip that almost always ended at White Castle. As Chuck Berry put it: “Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio, with no particular place to go.” Hail hail rock and roll.
4. “The Look of Love,” ABC
My brother Tom, a year older than me, was into New Wave: Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Thompson Twins and the insuperably named Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark. I frequently heard this song coming from the twin bed opposite mine.
5. “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More,” Steely Dan
As I say, Tom and I shared a room and many nights we fell asleep to a cassette of Steely Dan’s 1975 album “Katy Lied.” This song, more than any other, fueled my dreams of wanting to live in New York City.
6. “That’s Entertainment,” The Jam
Another song that Tom turned me onto and the band became one of my all-time favorites. Years later, Tom and I were in London and thought we saw Paul Weller on a Vespa. It probably wasn’t him.
7. “1999,” Prince
The album, song, and movie “Purple Rain” were released in 1984, when Minnesota’s very own Prince was ubiquitous, and “When Doves Cry” became the number one song of the year on the Billboard Hot 100. But it was “1999”—from 1982—that summed up my twin apocalyptic fears— of nuclear war and impending adulthood.
8. “The Message,” Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
My high school buddies and I would listen to this on my Panasonic boom box, often while playing basketball, and imagine that our suburban playgrounds were somehow part of the urban hellscape described by Grandmaster Flash.
9. “Dancing in the Dark,” Bruce Springsteen
The video was filmed in the summer of 1984 by Brian DePalma at the St. Paul Civic Center. My brother Tom was there, watching Bruce pull an actress named Courteney Cox out of the audience in the same arena where, just a few months earlier, I had played in the state high school basketball tournament.
10. “Money for Nothing,” Dire Straits
I woke to this song, played by dorm neighbors, every day of my sophomore year in the M. Carpenter Tower at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Even now, when I hear it, I have a sudden panic that I’m late for class.
11. “I Melt with You,” Modern English
This remains one of the great songs of the decade, undiminished by its 21st-century role as a commercial soundtrack for Burger King and Hershey’s.
12. “Heartbreak Beat,” The Psychedelic Furs
Another quintessential song that reminds me of being young in the 1980s, though I could have just as easily subbed in “True” by Spandau Ballet or New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
13. “Shake Your Rump,” Beastie Boys
I did eventually move to New York City, straight out of college, and with what little money I had I bought “Paul’s Boutique” on CD and listened to this song repeatedly on a Sony Discman that I bought in Tokyo while on assignment for Sports Illustrated.
14. “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Guns N’ Roses
Any ‘80s mixtape requires a hair-metal band and GnFnR will do nicely.
15. “Ask,” The Smiths
The line “Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to” sums up my high school and college existence, as does the line: “Spending warm summer days indoors, writing frightening verse.”
16. “Roam,” The B-52s
When I finally did move to New York after college, “Roam” seemed to play at every party, and in every other bar.
17. “(Nothing But) Flowers,” Talking Heads
This song is about a modern suburban sprawl reverting to a Garden-of-Eden-like utopia, and its narrator is longing for what is lost: “I miss the honky-tonks, Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens.” That’s what I grew up with, and I would miss them too. (Bonus: That’s Johnny Marr of The Smiths on lead guitar.)
18. “Southtown Girls,” The Hold Steady
The only song on this list from the 21st century, “Southtown Girls” recalls 20th century Bloomington in vivid detail. I sneaked into movies at the Southtown Theater and experienced the same suburban ennui “in front of the fabric store.” The song opens with what are essentially directions to my childhood home: “Take Lyndale to the horizon, take Nicollet out to the ocean . . .”
19. “Can’t Hardly Wait,” The Replacements
I can’t make an ‘80s Minnesota mixtape without The Replacements. That “Hurry up, hurry up, ain’t you had enough of this stuff,” has always felt to me like those years when you’re waiting for the rest of your life to begin, which in many ways is what Nights in White Castle is about.