We break down the top moments of the decade, including R.E.M., MTV, Michael Jackson, and more

By EW Staff
Updated May 28, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The 1980s, if we are to believe the spinners of conventional wisdom, represent an era of ”greed” and ”glitz.” On the surface, there was plenty of spangled, Gordon Gekko-style opulence and avarice under the dynasty of Reagan and Ringwald. Monster albums like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., and Prince’s Purple Rain turned into marathon ATMs, spewing out six or seven lucrative singles at a stretch. David Byrne slipped into a gargantuan white suit, a winking emblem of livin’ large, while the Beastie Boys, in a more overt manifestation of bloat, spruced up the stage with a huge inflatable phallus. Even hair got hubris: Everywhere you looked, from the sleaze-metal merchants in Motley Crue to the synth-pop dandies in A Flock of Seagulls, follicles were reaching for the stars.

But those who pooh-pooh the ’80s as a shallow age need to look beyond its new prophet-for-profit, MTV. Lurking in the shadows of the ’80s like a prowler in a mansion were the rogues of college radio and hip-hop. For the millions who couldn’t swing with spandex, these were the bands who meant everything — and whose noisy basement clatter would blossom into grunge, gangsta rap, and Brit pop: Husker Du. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. X. Meat Puppets. Public Enemy. R.E.M. The Cure. The Replacements. The Go-Betweens. The Smiths. The Pixies. N.W.A. The Stone Roses. Yeah, Thriller was, in the P.T. Barnum parlance of the decade, the Biggest Album in History, but to these rebels it was Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation that captured the snore of a sleeping giant.

Two worlds coexisted. For every Madonna, there was a child kicking to be born.

R.E.M. play their first gig: 4/5/80
For her 20th birthday, Kathleen O’Brien wanted her favorite local band — just months old and still nameless — to play the dilapidated church where she lived with the singer, guitarist, and drummer. Hundreds came — in sleepy Athens, Ga., what else was there to do? The set list: songs by the Monkees and the Velvet Underground. The verdict: ”A solid pop band,” says local record store owner Dan Wall, adding that the singer ”had charisma.” Encouraged, the band sought a name. Slut Bank? Cans of Piss? The Male Nurses? R.E.M.? The American post-punk revolution had begun. Rank 60

John Lennon is assassinated: 12/8/80
The report was blunt: ”Man shot. One West 72nd.” When the police arrived at Manhattan’s Dakota apartment building, they found John Lennon bleeding profusely from seven bullet wounds; his wife, Yoko Ono, desperate to save his life; and the murderer, 25-year-old Mark David Chapman, calmly reading The Catcher in the Rye. In a way that now seems prophetic, the news of Lennon’s shooting broke to much of America on Monday Night Football. At 11:07 p.m., he was pronounced dead. Rank 32

MTV begins broadcasting: 8/1/81
As revolutionary moments go, it wasn’t particularly glamorous. ”We were in a bar in Fort Lee, N.J.,” says MTV Networks CEO Tom Freston. ”[None of us] had cable. Our friends didn’t even believe we had jobs.” If you were one of the lucky few watching (along with original programming head Bob Pittman and the suits at Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment who put up the seed money), the first thing you saw was the MTV logo superimposed over the flag an astronaut is sticking into the moon. ”It was public domain,” Freston recalls. ”We said, ‘Hey, let’s rip off man’s greatest moment.’ It seemed a rock & roll thing to do.” Then came the debut clip, the Buggles’ ”Video Killed the Radio Star,” one of the most prophetic three and a half minutes in pop history. Eighteen years later, it’s hard to quantify MTV’s effect on the music and movie industries — or to imagine life before it. Among other things, the channel accelerated film-editing techniques, attenuated attention spans, and foisted Jesse Camp upon us. ”Records probably still break more from radio,” says Sire Records honcho Seymour Stein, ”but nothing has the reach of MTV.” Rank 13