Prog stars pick their favourite 80s prog-pop tunes

A press shot of Japan in the 80s
Japan in the 80s (Image credit: Fin Costello\/Redferns\/Getty Images)

Bruce Soord (The Pineapple Thief)

“Growing up, Quiet Life by Japan had a huge impact on me. I got into the New Romantics after that ship had sailed, and although the band vehemently denied they were ever part of that scene, for me they pioneered it. Quiet Life was drum and bass-led with a bleached blond, make-up-clad frontman. Back in the day, it was essential if you were a muso to go on about David Sylvian, but for me, it was Mick Karn and Richard Barbieri’s unique blend of bass and atmospheric keyboards that set it apart. What Richard was doing with analogue synths back in 1979 was groundbreaking, truly progressive. I just gave the album a spin and it still sounds fresh and relevant today.”

Nick Beggs

“Strangely, and quite by chance, I saw XTC play at the Swan Hotel, Leighton Buzzard, during the late 70s and again at the Hammersmith Odeon some time later. The band had risen to quite a lofty status by this time, but shortly after, due to Andy Partridge’s stage fright, took up their fallback position in the safety of the recording studio. Once ensconced they constructed arguably the most impressive back catalogue of any group.

“Recently I read Neville Farmer’s book XTC: Song Stories, which shines tremendous light on the inner workings of this quirky quartet, focusing on the personalities and song arrangements. I was compelled to dig out my own collection of XTC albums and was reminded of how amazing they are. However, I was unprepared for the shock I received on revisiting Black Sea. My memory failed to serve me as to how influential it had been on my own early songwriting, unlike the XTC song book, which remains unmarred by the passing of years.”

Theo Travis

“There’s one album from the 1980s that towers over others in the art rock/left-field/progressive but not ‘prog’ category and that’s Spirit Of Eden by Talk Talk. Coming after the band’s huge commercial and critical success with The Colour Of Spring, they were apparently given a bottomless budget and spent six months in a big London studio in darkness apart from some lava lamps, improvising and experimenting, bringing in various amazing soloists and exotic instruments before then sculpting the recordings into the masterpiece the album became.

“I believe the album was recorded using only equipment from the late 1960s and 1970s, using none of the new recording equipment and techniques from the 1980s that had that 1980s sound. Maybe that’s why it sounds so good. There’s an air of religiousness about the lyrics and a perfection about the shape of the album. You can hear the heartfelt musical and artistic ambition – progressive in its real meaning. The album is genius and it still floors me.”

Kim Seviour

“There are so many things I love about Enya. The soundscape of her music is beautiful, and it doesn’t feel as though she’s trying to make any sort of statement – she’s just ‘being’ in her music. It’s so calming and relaxing to lose myself in, but at the same time is interesting enough that it just never gets old. My very earliest memory is of Enya when I was living in Australia with my parents, and my mum was playing Orinoco Flow through our apartment – I would have been about three – so Enya has a special place in my heart.”

Jakko Jakszyk (King Crimson)

“Far from the synth pop geek he’s often portrayed as, Thomas Dolby’s music possessed a harmonic sophistication and exploration that might surprise you, should you venture beyond the singles like She Blinded Me With Science and Hyperactive. Indeed, the album that the latter comes from, 1984’s The Flat Earth, still sounds extraordinary and exploratory today.

“The atmosphere and chordal changes of the likes of Screen Kiss, Dissidents and Mulu The Rain Forest are way beyond much of what passed for pop music at the time. It’s experimental, genuinely progressive and thought provoking, with unusual but highly articulate lyrics too. It’s possibly easy to have missed how great he was.”

Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth (Bent Knee)

“Peter Gabriel is the reason I’m a musician, and I also find him to be one of the most progressive musicians ever. The use of grooves from around the world, and the tweaking of sampled sounds in a synth, are commonplace today, but that’s in no small part thanks to Gabriel’s third and fourth solo albums. I still feel like people are trying to catch up to the ideas and directions he presented on that fourth solo album.

“On So he effortlessly blends a mainstream pop sensibility into his sound without making it feel like a watered-down version of his music, and without coming off as pretentious. He paved the way for so many artists to explore weirder avenues of sound, grooves and ideas, and still have a large audience embrace it.”

Andy Tillison (The Tangent)

“It has to be XTC, and that means, for me, Drums And Wires. The band’s third album, this was the one that I was disappointed to hear about (the keyboard player was gone), but delighted to actually hear. It marked a break with the punky stuff, with fuzzy organ (I loved that) and took XTC into the realms of this gorgeous little psychedelic, progressive pop group who would dominate my turntable and Sony Walkman for the next 15 years.

“From the cynical lyrics of Making Plans For Nigel to the bounciness of Helicopter, we were led to the genius that is Millions – a piece where Dave Gregory’s guitar part always made me think of two Tijuana trumpets playing in close harmony, Terry Chambers’ drumming was individual and delicate, the lyrics fascinating. Wonderful.”

Danny Estrin (Voyager)

“I’ll go for ABBA. I remember hearing them for the first time on a German cassette compilation after years of hermetic exposure to classical music only. It blew my mind that a band could write so many consistently earworm-y numbers and still spark my interest. I soon realised why I was drawn to the band – the underlying arrangements and chord structures are enviably complex and simple at the same time. No other band manage to create such simple, catchy pop songs with such a well-thought-out understructure.”

Dave Couper (Caligula’s Horse)

“I am a man of evolution, be it on the life sciences front or in the artistic world. For me, there is no greater embodiment of artistic evolution than Peter Gabriel. As a young man, I was 10 to 15 years late to the Gabriel-era Genesis party, but my parents nonetheless drilled Selling England By The Pound into my ears from the moment I was born. To hear Peter’s soulful voice singing about all things weird, wonderful, humorous and quintessentially British, over the top of such intricate yet enjoyable music, was pivotal to my singing future.

“In 1986, my education was significantly ramped up after Peter released his monumental album So, and 31 years later I am still trying to do it justice (but failing) by soundchecking my backing vocals at gigs with the likes of Red Rain, Don’t Give Up and Big Time. Whether it was quirky prog or slick but experimental pop with the ever-increasing flourishes of non-Western music contained within, Peter’s influence on my life and music will rightly pervade into the distant future.”

Steve Hales (Kepler Ten)

“My choice would be The Police. Their range of styles and influences made them impossible to pigeonhole. Stewart Copeland’s articulation and incorporation of unexpected rhythms (a big influence on Neil Peart), Andy Summers’ creativity and colourful guitar backdrops and Sting’s high melodies and progressive basslines, all delivered live with a high‑energy, punk attitude.”

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