A Journey Back to 1981

In July 1981, American rock band Journey released the album Escape, which included mega-hit “Don’t Stop Believin’”. What else happened in 1981?  Well, quite frankly, a LOT.  It was the beginning of  the decade of excess.  More was more.  More hair, more colourful clothing, more goals in hockey, a rocket launch and a really BIG royal wedding.  But, there was also the continuing threat of nuclear war, assassination attempts and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.


On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th president of the United States.  Sixty-nine days into his presidency, an attempt was made to assassinate him.  Reagan ramped up military support for the War on Drugs in countries that were heavily involved in the illegal drug trade.  However, Reagan’s first term in office is best remembered for the many policy changes he implemented in an effort to increase economic growth, reduce inflation and government spending.

Still in the thick of the Cold War, various nuclear weapons tests were conducted by the USSR, France and the United States.

On the same day that Ronald Reagan became president, the Iran Hostage Crisis that began November 4, 1979 ended.  The remaining 52 hostages that had been held captive for 444 days, since November 4, 1979 were released.  Six American embassy employees who avoided capture by hiding out in the home of Canadian Embassy officials had escaped the previous January.  These events were retold in the 2012 movie Argo, starring and directed by Ben Affleck.

In Canada, Pierre Elliot Trudeau was nearing the latter years of his long tenure as Prime Minister.  For Trudeau, 1981 was the year in between two major initiatives.  In 1980, Trudeau’s input helped defeat the Quebec Referendum and in 1982 he spearheaded the Constitution Act, 1982, which gained Canada sovereignty from the United Kingdom.

Hosni Mubarak became the fourth incumbent President of Egypt – an office he held until 2011 when he stepped down after 18 days of demonstrations during the Egyptian Revolution.

Pope John Paul  II is shot and critically wounded after an assassination attempt on him May 13 in St. Peter’s Square.

Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the first female United States supreme court justice.

Music, Movies and MTV

1981 was a big year for horror films: Halloween II, An American Werewolf in London, Friday the 13th: Part 2, The Howling, and The Evil Dead to name a few.  Other films of note for the year were dramatic films On Golden Pond and Chariots of Fire, which won the People’s Choice Award at the sixth annual Toronto International Film Festival.  Comedies Stripes, Porky’s and Arthur were at the top of their category and the first Indiana Jones movie premiered on June 12.

In television, the Aaron Spelling-produced drama Dynasty premiered on ABC, as did NBC hit series Hill Street Blues.

1981 was the year that Prince became a well-known musical act, appearing on Saturday Night Live in February and in October, his first gig in support of album Controversy was opening for the Rolling Stones on their U.S. tour at the LA Coliseum.

Paul McCartney recorded the song “Here Today” as a tribute to John Lennon who died after being shot outside his Manhattan home the previous December.

Fellow Beatle George Harrison also made music headlines in February 1981, but for a very different reason.  After originally being ordered to pay $1,599,987 for “subconscious plagiarism” of the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” with his tune “My Sweet Lord”, the penalty was negotiated down to $587,000.  The case was still tied up in the courts until 1998 and it set a new precedent for future copyright lawsuits.

Reggae singer/songwriter Bob Marley died on May 11, 1981 from melanoma at the age of 36.  Marley’s musical and cultural influence is still strong today.

On August 1, MTV premiered at 12:01am.  MTV gave rise to the video star, but now unfortunately churns out more reality stars than music.

Toward the end of 1981, Olivia Newton-John’s single “Physical” hit number one on November 21, where it remained for ten weeks.

The Royal Wedding

On July 29, 1981, Lady Diana Spencer married Charles, Prince of Wales. Dubbed the “wedding of the century”, the event was broadcast worldwide to 750 million people.  Although the union would not end happily, this wedding and the entrance of a new princess to the world stage changed the face of the British Royal family forever.  Now HRH Diana, Princess of Wales, she became the most photographed woman in the world.  Diana’s wedding dress caused a sensation of it’s own.  The silk and taffeta ball gown, complete with a 25-foot train of taffeta and lace became the envy and inspiration for wedding dress design for years and decades to come.

Infinity and Beyond

The first orbital test flight of the space shuttle Columbia took place April 12, 1981, with operational flights beginning the following year.


In June 1981, the AIDS epidemic begins after US Centres for Disease Control reports on a “rare lung condition” in combination with other ailments affecting five previously healthy homosexual men in Los Angeles. The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle ran stories about the report, which spurred doctors across the United States into contacting the CDC about patients with similar pneumonia and aggressive skin cancer infections.  The disease was originally called “GRID” (gay-related immune deficiency), but after health officials determined that half of the infected group were not homosexual men, the CDC renamed the disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Hockey … and boxing

January 6 – Canadian NHL player John Tonelli scored 5 goals in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, marking 50 hat tricks in NY Islander club history.

Tonelli went on to win the cup with the Islanders for the second year in a row and they would hoist the cup the following two seasons as well, making them league champions four years straight.  Tonelli’s teammate Mike Bossy became the first player in the NHL to score 50 goals in 50 games.

NHL star Wayne Gretzky became the fastest player to get 100 points in a season, which he accomplished in only 38 games.

Rounding out the year in sports, December 11 marked boxer Muhammed Ali’s 61st and last fight in which he was defeated by Trevor Berbick.  Perhaps Berbick listened to “Don’t Stop Believin” before the fight?

1981.  This is just a mere snapshot of major events that occurred at the beginning of the decade of excess.  Many firsts for politics, space exploration and the music industry … and the journey continues.



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