Mastermix Label Manager Richard Lee presents the ultimate guide to programming the music selection for an 80s theme night!
If I had to pick one theme night that I really enjoy programming music for above all others it would have to be the 80s! It’s my most loved decade and includes many of my favourite songs of all time. It’s was such a wonderful era for music with so many tracks standing the test of time to this day. Whilst other theme nights fall in & out of favour, 80s music continues to grow in popularity and with it the 80s theme night.
I’ve performed at many 80s theme nights in my time as a DJ and I’m continually amazed at the age-range of those in attendance. It’s a unique decade that offers not only great music but also a large number of iconic images & styles that help maintain its appeal to a wide audience and shows no sign of letting up any time soon.
Because the 80s appeals to a large age group I find it really important to programme the music very carefully for an 80s theme night…perhaps more-so than most other theme nights. There will be many in attendance who lived through the decade and many who were merely a twinkle in their parents’ eyes. The same could be said for any theme night of course but in my experience it is without a doubt the 80s that attracts the widest age-range. Both will have varying views on what music should be played and as DJs it is our job to cater our set lists accordingly to keep everyone happy. Those who were there, like myself, will expect the usual offering of, shall we say more obvious tracks, as well as a decent sprinkling of those 80s gems we enjoyed back in the day whilst others will be quite happy listening to the ‘usual suspects’ all night!
As with all theme nights I like to structure my set lists to offer the right music blend for each part of the evening. From the moment people walk into a venue to the time they leave, it’s important to me that the music they hear covers a wide range of artists & styles to give a true flavour of the decade. It’s impossible to please everyone of course and there will always be that one guest who expects you to play track 2 on side 1 of the ‘Graceland’ LP because it was “a much better track than ‘You Can Call Me Al’ or the other song everyone plays”. That aside, with a little prep work it is easy enough to structure even the most simplistic of set lists and allow yourself much needed time later in the night to select the right tracks to keep the dancefloor busy.
80s Warm Up Tracks
Selecting the music for the earlier parts of an evening is as important as the main party set…in fact I would go as far as saying even more so as the music you play from the moment guests arrive to the moment they hit the dancefloor is not only setting the scene but is also showcasing you as a DJ. I’ve done many events where I’ve been praised for the music played at various stages throughout a night and work just as hard on those sections as I do for the main party set.
You can really go to town with a Warm Up set and play an eclectic mix of songs & artists and use that period of an event to pick out songs that you wouldn’t otherwise play. Theme nights allow you to play classic hits that perhaps won’t work in the main party set but are perfect to set the mood of the night earlier on. I love exploring my 80s music collection to structure a 2-3 hour playlist for the early part of a theme night including Guest Arrival, Drinks Reception & Food Service with each section increasing in pace gently until around 20 mins before the main party set when I increase the pace, & volume, slightly and start mixing in a few more classic hits that, whilst not seeing everyone run to the dancefloor, will create the required atmosphere among guests in the room. Music has a fascinating way of doing that and if you take the time to select your music then the reaction on the night will be far greater than if you were to stick a random compilation on.
Here’s a selection of tracks that I like to use as part of my 80s Warm Up sets:
90 – 110bpm
- Lies – Jonathan Butler
- The Look – Roxette
- Joanna – Kool & the Gang
- Thinking Of You – Sister Sledge
- Wishing Well – Terence Trent D’Arby
- Hangin’ On A String – Loose Ends
- Clouds Across The Moon – Rah Band
- Digging Your Scene – Blow Monkeys
- Dance Hall Days – Wang Chung
- Self Control – Laura Branigan
- The Right Thing – Simply Red
- Safety Dance – Men Without Hats
- Nightshift – Commodores
- Tempted – Squeeze
110 – 120bpm
- Automatic – Pointer Sisters
- Cambodia – Kim Wilde
- Stay Out Of My Life – Five Star
- Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever – Nick Kamen
- Caribbean Queen – Billy Ocean
- Yah Mo Be There – James Ingram
- Addicted To Love – Robert Palmer
- Tomb Of Memories – Paul Young
- Smooth Operator – Sade
- Everybody Wants To Rule The World – Tears For Fears
- Misfit – Curiosity Killed The Cat
- Can’t Get Used To Loving You – Beat
- I Don’t Want To Be A Hero – Johnny Hates Jazz
- The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow) – Jam
- Riding On A Train – Pasadenas
- Love Wars – Womack & Womack
- Love Resurrection – Alison Moyet
- Big Love – Fleetwood Mac
- Robert De Niro’s Waiting – Bananarama
- Locomotion – OMD
- King Of Rock & Roll – Prefab Sprout
- When Smokey Sings – ABC
- E=MC2 – Big Audio Dynamite
- Too Late For Goodbyes – Julian Lennon
- Stuck With you – Huey Lewis & the News
- Always The Sun – Stranglers
- It’s A Miracle – Culture Club
- Running In The Family – Level 42
- State Of Shock – Jacksons feat. Mick Jagger
- Moonlight Shadow – Mike Oldfield
Some artists have such a large back catalogue that it makes it easy to select a track to play earlier in the evening, safe in the knowledge that you have several of their big hits to play later:
- Raspberry Beret – Prince
- Welcome To The Pleasuredome – Frankie Goes To Hollywood
- I Want It All – Queen
- Here Comes The Rain Again – Eurythmics
- New Moon On Monday – Duran Duran
- Everything She Wants – Wham!
- Lifeline – Spandau Ballet
- Rat In Mi Kitchen – UB40
- I Missed Again – Phil Collins
- Like To Get To Know You Well – Howard Jones
- Wouldn’t It Be Good – Nik Kershaw
- Rapture – Blondie
- Sometimes – Erasure
- Holiday – Madonna
The above tracks are in no specific order, and there are 100s of alternatives, they simply represent the kind of tracks that can be used as part of a Warm Up set. Music is subjective and I’m sure there are a few tracks in there that some DJs would choose to play as part of their Main Set…that’s what I love about music!
80s TV Themes
Because the 80s is such an iconic decade I have on occasion used a selection of 80s TV Themes as part of my Warm Up sets. I don’t overplay them but using a few carefully selected themes, and playing them at the right times, can often result in some unique audience reactions. You can choose full tracks including:
- I Could Be So Good For You – Dennis Waterman (Minder)
- Hi Ho Silver – Jim Diamond (Boon)
- Because Of You – Dexy’s Midnight Runners (Brush Strokes)
Or use shorter versions including:
I’ve even used gameshow themes including:
Many guests attending an 80s theme night will be wearing some sort of fancy dress and will have totally immersed themselves in the era. I love dropping a few themes in as part of my Warm Up sets and watching the reaction among the guests. It’s also great fun programming the right track to play before & after a selected theme. I’d much rather be doing something than sat waiting for the main part of a night to start and what better way than mixing up a few classic 80s hits with some iconic 80s TV themes…great fun!
All these themes and many more can be found on the excellent TV Sets Collections from Mastermix.
80s Main Set
When it comes to the Main Set it’s down to personal choice again as to what to play & when. Personally I like to use an instrumental track to kick things off which allows me to make any required introductions. There are numerous tracks that could be used but I favour either of these tracks that were both theme tunes to Top Of The Pops in the 80s and immediately evoke memories of that decade when played:
Using an instrumental track like the ones above also allows the focus to move to the DJ & dancefloor. I often work with venues to ensure that the night kicks off on a high. The venue lights are dimmed, I start the chosen instrumental track and my light-show is activated. You can feel the energy in the room grow immediately. A short introduction and then it’s time to play my first track of my main set.
Often guests have been stood around or sat down for long periods of time and getting them on the dancefloor can go one of two ways. As a DJ it’s up to us to sense the mood, build the atmosphere throughout the early part of the event so that when the main set starts your audience are ready to pounce on the dancefloor. Some DJs like to hold back some of the big floorfillers until later whereas I like to hit them with everything I’ve got…well almost everything!
One opening track that I use often is:
It’s got everything! Huge track from a hugely popular act and it’s a favourite among large groups of ladies who are almost certain to be the first on the dancefloor. From there you can go anywhere in the decade and the audience will go with you. There are so many big hits to choose from that it’s almost impossible to list only a few but here are some of my favourite 80s floofillers:
- Relax – Frankie Goes To Hollywood
- A Little Respect – Erasure
- The Only Way Is Up – Yazz & the Plastic Population
- Baggy Trousers – Madness
- Atomic – Blondie
- Town Called Malice – Jam
- Ride On Time – Black Box
- Pump Up The Jam – Technotronic feat. Felly
- Together In Electric Dreams – Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder
- Never Gonna Give You Up – Rick Astley
- You Can Call Me Al – Paul Simon
- Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This – Eurythmics
Grouping tracks into genres / styles will allow you to create innovative sets for your audiences:
New Romantic Tracks
- Tainted Love – Soft Cell
- To Cut A Long Story – Spandau Ballet
- Just Can’t Get Enough – Depeche Mode
- Don’t You Want Me – Human League
- Planet Earth – Duran Duran
- Livin’ On a Prayer – Bon Jovi
- Summer Of 69 – Bryan Adams
- Jump – Van Halen
- Sharp Dressed Man – ZZ Top
- Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns ‘n’ Roses
- Come On Eileen – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
- Uptown Girl – Billy Joel
- Chain Reaction – Diana Ross
- I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) – Whitney Houston
- It’s Raining Men – Weather Girls
If you sense that your audience will go along with you then you can always create a cheesy party section and include tracks like:
- Agadoo – Black Lace
- Atmosphere – Russ Abbott
- Superman – Black Lace
- Birdie Song – Tweets
- Star Trekkin’ – Firm
Whilst those tracks, and a few more like them, were big hits in the 80s it is a brave DJ who ventures down that path!
If you want to ramp up the tempo there are plenty of tracks to help you do so, including:
- Swing The Mood – Jive Bunny & the Mastermixers
- I’m Still Standing – Elton John
- Making Your Mind Up – Bucks Fizz
- Footloose – Kenny Loggins
- Goody Two Shoes – Adam Ant
- This Ole House – Shakin’ Stevens
- You Can’t Hurry Love – Phil Collins
- Wake Me Up Before You Go Go – Wham!
- Walking On Sunshine – Katrina & the Waves
- Take On Me – A-Ha
- The Heat is On – Glenn Frey
- Walk Like An Egyptian – Bangles
There is also a brilliant mix from Mastermix that captures many of these tracks perfectly:
The 80s is a unique decade for music. You could DJ an entire 80s night playing only number one hits… The Number Ones Collection features every UK chart-topper of the decade and, not only features loads of big hits, is a brilliant reference product for those DJs who need a little inspiration for what to play.
By carefully programming a Start, Middle & End to your Main Set you can ensure a cross-section of styles allowing most guests to go away from the venue satisfied with their night. The ladies will almost always dominate the dancefloor and there is a temptation to play a certain style of music to keep them happy all night. Nothing wrong with that at all but I always look around the room and see who isn’t dancing and ask myself…why? Some people just don’t dance but often it’s because the music isn’t working for them. Adding some Rock, Ska or New Wave is an option as well as taking time to ensure each year from the decade is represented in some form.
In 1980 the charts were still reeling a little from the Disco influx of the 70s but the New Romantics were soon to dominate. The middle section of the 80s was predominantly pure pop with hit after hit gracing the Top 40 and towards the end of the decade, Stock, Aitken & Waterman aside, the dance music scene was really pushing through.
Eventually you’ll arrive at the final section of your 80s theme night and you have many options of what to play. If there are lots of couples in attendance then you can play a few slow songs like:
- True – Spandau Ballet
- Careless Whisper – George Michael
- I Want To Know What Love Is – Foreigner
- Drive – Cars
- Endless Love – Diana Ross & Lionel Richie
You could decide to end on some Power Ballads or Soft Rock:
Power Ballads/Soft Rock
- Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now – Starship
- Don’t Stop Believin’ – Journey
- Africa – Toto
- You’re The Voice – John Farnham
- The Best – Tina Turner
Or a mix of classic hits:
End Of Night
- It Must Be Love – Madness
- All Night Long – Lionel Richie
- (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life – Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes
- I Just Called To Say I Love You – Stevie Wonder
- Theme From ‘New York New York’ – Frank Sinatra
Personally I like to end on a high and have yet to fail with the 1983 classic ‘Gold‘ by Spandau Ballet.
As with all theme nights it’s down to personal choice regarding what to play & when. Theme nights can be great fun and taking a little time to research & programme your music will make it an even more enjoyable experience for you & your audiences!
Where possible I’ve linked to the DJ Beats version of each track mentioned in this post, the radio edits which contain added 8 bar intro and outro beats to making live mixing seamless!
You can use individual tracks to programme your sets or take advantage of a range of mixes that have been created by Mastermix. Here are a few suggestions:
- Mastermix presents The Warm Up Mixes: 80s Soul
- Grandmaster Warm Up: 80s
- Pat Sharp presents The Golden Years – features a range of mixes from each year of the 80s
- Mastermix presents Retro Mixes: 80s
There are a range of individual mixes that appeared on the monthly Issue that could also be used:
Plus a large range of other 80s mixes that cover wide range of music styles.
And for a comprehensive collection of 80s classics the following products are essential:
All the biggest floorfillers of the 80s, given the DJ Beats treatment and packaged into this 50 track compilation!