I have a lot of memories from high school. Not vague recollections but vivid images of events and people and when I recount those memories and stories to people, I get an all too common response: “how in the world do you remember that?” The only answer I can come up with – aside from having a head full of useless knowledge – is that my strongest memories are all tied to music. Music has always been an important part of my life. When I was a teenager, music was my escape mechanism and I always seemed to have music playing. Inevitably, memories and songs meshed together in my brain. Even today, “The Hunter” by Dokken, “Summer Nights” by Van Halen, “Sussudio” by Phil Collins and a host of other songs bring to mind extremely vivid memories from high school.
But I digress. We’re here to talk about the soundtracks of our high school years, aren’t we?
My first year of high school was 1984 right as 80’s music was really hitting its stride, so to speak. I was listening to a lot of top 40 and just starting to dabble in hard rock thanks to bands like Van Halen, Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, and others. I started playing guitar when I was 15 and, even though my close friends at the time were still listening to top 40 radio, I was completely enamored with Brad Gillis of Night Ranger, George Lynch from Dokken and Jake E. Lee of Ozzy Osbourne.
I turned sixteen in March of 1986 and got my first car, a 1971 Matador Red Chevelle Malibu with gleaming Cragar 5-spoke mags (it only had a 307 in it but it had an exhaust system that could be heard blocks away and made it sound mean as hell). This is the year we’re going to focus on: 1986. It’s not only the year I started driving (interesting side note: I got my first ticket driving back to school from my driver’s test) but it’s the year that pushed me into the deep end of the pool that was hair bands, hard rock, and heavy metal.
If you were/are a fan of those genres of music like me, you’ll be amazed at what albums debuted in 1986. The first part of the year gave us The Ultimate Sin from Ozzy Osbourne, Turbo from Judas Priest and The Final Frontier from Keel (I wasn’t a huge Keel fan but my buddy, Mike, was and he got me hooked on that album). It was also the year that Van Halen, with new lead singer Sammy Hagar, produced their first record post-David Lee Roth, 5150. Not to be outdone, Mr. Roth put out his solo offering, Eat ‘Em and Smile, featuring an all-star band that included Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan. That summer was spent blaring both of those albums out of the Malibu windows and there’s not a single song on that Van Halen that I don’t have a story or memory for. That was a great summer.
Other high profile albums that dropped that year were Somewhere in Time by Iron Maiden, Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi (as well as Night Songs by their protégés, Cinderella), To Hell with The Devil by Stryper and Third Stage by Boston. I wasn’t a huge Boston fan but my guitar teacher was and he played it incessantly trying to turn me on to Tom Scholz’s tone and sound. 1986 was also the year I discovered speed metal. Master of Puppets by Metallica debuted early in the year and Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying from Megadeth and Reign in Blood by Slayer dropped later in the fall. Those three albums were the gateway drug to other bands in that sub-genre of metal for me. I couldn’t play it on the guitar to save my life but I spent an obscene amount of time trying.
As I was prepping for this article, I created a playlist of songs from the albums mentioned above. These albums and songs not only evoke great memories, but they were also fuel. As I sat in my room for hours and hours, they fueled my desire to practice guitar and my dreams of being a rock star. They also connected me to people. I found camaraderie with others in the bands we liked and the musicians we idolized.
As luck would have it, I’m currently working through the top 40 charts every week on my Spotify playlist, “80’s – This Week in 1986”. I’ve been seeing all the great pop songs that dropped that year to go along with what I’ve already mentioned (“Sledgehammer”, “Danger Zone”, “West End Girls”, “If You Leave” just to name a few off of THIS week’s countdown). Overall, it was a tremendous year in music but, more importantly, it was an unforgettable soundtrack to my high school year of 1986.