Quest for 1981 [1981 Week]

It’s 1981 week! This is sort of an anniversary theme week because about a year ago I had the first theme week about 1980, the year I was born, and now, one year later (and one day short of my birthday) we’re in 1981. I was one year old and don’t remember all that much. It’s the seventh theme week already and we still haven’t been to the 30s, 50s, 60s or 90s. We’ll get there eventually, but for now we’re in 1981, also known as the year Pitbull was born (and Britney Spears. And Beyoncé. And Natalie Portman. And other people.) Let’s go!


The hostages in Iran are finally released. Bobby Sands starts his hunger strike and dies for it, along with other strikers. President Reagan is shot by John Hinckley Jr. Columbia, the first space shuttle, launches. Pope John Paul II is shot by Mehmet Ali Ağca. Ziaur Rahman, the president of Bangladesh is assassinated. The first cases of AIDS are discovered in Los Angeles. The Wonderland murders happen in Los Angeles. Several riots in England happen. Poland becomes a military state. Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first woman in the U.S. Supreme Court. Israel bombs apartment buildings in Beirut. Prince Charles and Lady Diana are married. Between 500 and 800 people are killed following a coup in Gambia. MTV is launched. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is assassinated and succeeded by Hosni Mubarak. 900 civilians are killed in a massacre in El Salvador. There is a strong peace movement with the biggest protest of 400,000 in Amsterdam. There are many disasters: earthquake in China (150 dead), passenger ship in Indonesia (580 dead), nightclub fire in Ireland (48 dead), earthquake in Greece (22 dead), train accident in India (500-800 dead), skywalk collapse in the U.S. (114 dead), earthquake in Iran (about 3,000 dead), mine explosion in Czechoslovakia (65 dead), boat accident in Brazil (300 dead), mine explosion in Japan (93 dead) and a plane crash in Corsica (180 dead). Also Bill Haley, Joe Louis, Bob Marley, William Wyler, Paddy Chayefsky, Albert Speer, William Holden and Natalie Wood die.

That’s a lot of assassinations and assassination attempts in one year and the disasters also pile up, though that seems to be the case in every year. The rioting in England is interesting because unrest in “civilized” countries is still an exception. With HIV, darkness creeps upon the end of the sexual revolution. The Cold War keeps going. Happy times? As usual, no. We’re moving further away from the 70s and into the 80s, so there is no reason for optimism. The only glimmer are the peace and anti-nuclear movements in Europe, which had some lasting effects, especially in Germany.


If you’re still not sure what to think about 1981, Tainted Love by Soft Cell was the second most successful song of the year. Many John Lennon songs were floating in the charts after his death. But there is also happy songs like Celebration by Kool & the Gang or The Tide Is High by Blondie. There is also Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, The Specials, The Police, Queen & David Bowie, New Order, Billy Idol, XTC, AC/DC, The Jam, Depeche Mode.

Some significant albums were Phil Collins’ Face Value, The Cure’s Faith, Echo & The Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here, Kraftwerk’s Computer World and The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You.

There is basically no album from this year I really know well or like that much. Some songs are familiar of course, but this doesn’t feel like a standout year in music to me, more like a step in-between the old and the new.


The most significant event in television certainly was the launch of MTV, but what new things can I say about that? Hill Street Blues and Falcon Crest, two archetypal 80s shows for me, started this year while Charlie’s Angels ended. In Germany we get the first Wetten, dass…?, Schimanski and Löwenzahn.


I did something different with movies this time: instead of picking 3-4 movies I watch and plan to write about, I watched a big number of movies from that year to get a feeling for what 1981 was like. This was interesting and while I didn’t watch all the most important 1981 movies (because I wanted to get a broad perspective), I learned a lot.

So, if we look at the movies of 1981, there is Raiders of the Lost Ark and then there is everything else. In the U.S. it made almost twice the amount of money as the 2nd ranked film, On Golden Pond. The third film is Superman II and after that most people wouldn’t even recognize any of the titles. Chariots of Fire won the important Oscars and has one of the most popular movie scores, by Vangelis. There are lots of horror/slasher movies, lots of comedies, but let’s face it, aside from Indiana Jones, not much will be remembered from this year. Which won’t stop me from writing about those forgotten movies.

An attempt at a personal ranking for this year:

  1. Blow Out
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  3. Mad Max 2
  4. The Evil Dead
  5. An American Werewolf in London
  6. Escape from New York
  7. Thief
  8. On Golden Pond
  9. Stripes
  10. La guerre du feu (Quest for Fire)


As expected, I didn’t read many books from 1981. My favorite is probably Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, to me clearly the best of the Hannibal Lecter books. John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire is also worth reading. Cujo is not Stephen King’s best book, but still pretty suspenseful and uncomfortable. That’s all I can come up with.


1981 saw Jim Shooter writing The Avengers, which worked out fine, in my opinion. Frank Miller started his run on writing Daredevil, which would get even better in 1982 but is still one of Miller’s best work. Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum switched to Uncanny X-Men, which was fine too, including the classic Days of Future Past. It seems I haven’t read anything not-Marvel from 1981.

Because of my streak of movies I watched from this year, my expectations are to find aspects I saw there also in other media, like music and maybe comics. These will mostly be a certain amount of disillusion, detachment and hopelessness, coupled with sexism and misogyny. Welcome to the good times of 1981!