18 Of The Most Famous Rock Bands Of The 1980s

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

“Excess” is the word best used to describe the 1980s. From the economy to politics to entertainment and rock and roll, the excesses of the 1980s proved larger-than-life personalities always received attention.

That said, rock bands continued to evolve past the rock legends of the 1970s. Some of those legendary bands continued their success into the next decade.

That is why we decided to show off 18 of the most famous rock bands of the 1980s. This list will help you load up your Spotify account with several bands that should already be there, so let’s get started! 

1. Mötley Crüe

If there was ever a band that defined the 1980s, Mötley Crüe is the poster child. Billing themselves as the “World’s Most Notorious Rock Band,” the Crüe formed in 1981 in Los Angeles.

Made up of members Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, and Vince Neil, the group quickly made a name for themselves in the LA metal club scene, which led to a record deal with Elektra Records in 1982. 

Their debut release, Too Fast for Love, became a rapid-fire success and only made their next album, Shout at the Devil, a monster hit.

The Crüe’s success managed to line up with the growing popularity of MTV, where many of their songs received regular rotation on the music channel. 

Despite drug addiction, a scandal involving Lee and his ex-wife Pamela Anderson, numerous near-death experiences, and even the death of Neil’s young daughter, the Crüe continues to perform after they got back together in 2018.

2. Bon Jovi

Next up, Bon Jovi is a band formed by a couple of New Jersey natives who managed to see arena rock success after their formation in 1983. 

Featuring Jon Bon Jovi, David Bryan, Tico Torres, Phil X, and Hugh McDonald, they released their first two albums in 1984 and 1985, but their third album, Slippery When Wet, catapulted the band into superstardom.

The album sold 40 million copies and spawned two #1 singles in “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name.”

While the 1980s were successful for the band, they reached even greater heights with a comeback album in 2000 called Crush. “It’s My Life” from that record helped the band receive two Grammy nominations.

3. Van Halen

Though formed in the early 1970s, Van Halen had become a successful band by the time the 1980s rolled in. With their bad-boy reputation, they became known for live shows filled with energy thanks to lead singer David Lee Roth.

The band’s 1984 album release, aptly named 1984, led to their only #1 hit single, “Jump,” and three other hits. The album sold 10 million copies alone and cemented the band’s success.

Unfortunately, inner turmoil led the band to part ways with Roth, who started a solo career. Sammy Hagar became the new headman in 1985, and Hagar’s version of the band released two more albums before 1990.

4. Guns N’ Roses

You can’t talk about rock bands in the ‘80s without mentioning Guns N’ Roses. This band was a vision of the future of rock and roll. Gritty, grimy, and full of life, GNR was a glimpse into rock’s next phase: grunge.

Led by the unique vocal talents of singer Axl Rose, the band was formed in Los Angeles in 1985, with a record deal from Geffen Records coming a year later.

The band’s first album, 1987’s Appetite for Destruction, is considered a classic thanks to “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Paradise City,” and “Welcome to the Jungle.” Their sophomore follow-up, G N’ R Lies, was another critical and commercial success.

Like many of the other bands on this list, inner strife between band members soon caused changes in the 1990s, and the band would go 15 years without an album release before releasing Chinese Democracy in 2008. The band is mostly back together these days, touring with most of the members of the original lineup.

5. Metallica

Long before Stranger Things brought Metallica back to the cultural zeitgeist, the band was already famous. Formed in Los Angeles in 1981, Metallica brought a different sound to rock and roll.

Many consider the band one of the pioneers of the heavy metal genre, focusing on hard guitar licks, meaty drums, and the gravelly voice of singer/lead guitarist James Hetfield.

Metallica’s third album, 1986’s Master of Puppets, is of particular note as the band’s most critically acclaimed album. They followed it up with …And Justice for All in 1988, which received the band’s first Grammy nomination.

The band continues to tour and release albums, with another chart-topper, 72 Seasons, recently released in April 2023.

6. Foreigner

Up next is Foreigner, arena rock personified. With enough hard rock and ballads in their catalog, the band could make a living off the nostalgia circuit for decades to come.

Foreigner was formed in New York City in 1976 with Mick Jones, Ian McDonald, and Lou Gramm at the forefront. Their first self-titled album was released in 1977, becoming an instant hit.

They had released three albums by the time 1981’s 4 was released, leading to hit songs like “Urgent,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” and “Juke Box Hero.” But their biggest release, “I Want to Know What Love Is,” came in 1984. The song was a monster hit, topping charts in the US, Canada, and Australia. 

Now with over 47 years into their career, Foreigner shows no signs of stopping, with planned tours in the horizon for fans to look forward to.

7. Journey

Yet another arena rock band that found tremendous success in the 1980s is Journey, largely thanks to the vocals of lead man Steve Perry. Formed in San Francisco in 1973, the band released seven albums to varying degrees of modest success until 1981’s Escape.

Escape became the band’s most successful album at the time thanks to “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Open Arms,” and “Who’s Crying Now.” “Don’t Stop Believin’” is still one of the most successful rock ballads of all time — the first lyrics alone get any bar patrons ready to start crooning to the rest of the song.

In 2022, the band just released its 16th album, Freedom. A year later, they celebrated their 50th anniversary with a tour.

8. ZZ Top

While they were formed in 1969 by Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard, and Dusty Hill, ZZ Top achieved popularity during the decade of excess thanks to their very unique style. 

With long beards, sunglasses, and spinning guitars, ZZ Top crafted a look tailor-made for the MTV generation. With three albums released during the 1980s — El Loco, Eliminator, and Afterburner — the band struck gold with several hits. 

Thanks to MTV, “Legs,” “Sharp-Dressed Man,” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’” received regular rotation on the network and made their Afterburner tour one of the most successful of the decade.

Sadly, Hill’s death in 2021 left a void in the band. Still, ZZ Top released the live album Raw (“That Little Ol’ Band from Texas” Original Soundtrack) in 2022.

9. The Bangles

We cannot have this list without some girl power. The Bangles formed in Los Angeles in 1981 — crazy how so many of these bands came out of the City of Angels — with four women headlining the group.

The Bangles soon made waves across California thanks to their lineup and musical stylings. In 1984, the band had a hit written by Prince called “Manic Monday.”

That success also translated to their next hit, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which drew upon the Ancient Egypt craze of the 1980s thanks to King Tutankhamun’s tomb going on tour.

However, the band’s most successful hit, “Eternal Flame,” was not released until 1988. The band would break up in 1989 but reform in 1998.

10. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

Next, we have Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, who formed in 1976 with singer-songwriter-guitarist Tom Petty at the forefront. With sounds inspired by Bob Dylan, Petty’s group hit musical heights with four album releases in the 1980s. 

With hits like “You Got Lucky,” “Change of Heart,” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” Petty and the band had greater credibility than ever before, even being invited to tour with Dylan in 1986. 

Petty had numerous hits during solo outings and extended his career into the 1990s. However, Petty passed away in 2017, leaving the band without its leader and no chance for a reformation.

11. Poison

What happens when big hair meets hard rock? You get the band Poison. With 50 million in album sales worldwide, this group has become one of the most successful hair and glam metal stories of the 1980s. 

The release of 1986’s album Look What the Cat Dragged In spawned three hit songs: “Talk Dirty to Me,” “I Want Action,” and “I Won’t Forget You.” You can thank MTV for those, as all three videos received plenty of play on the network during the decade.

Poison’s follow-up release, 1988’s Open Up and Say…Ahh!” featured their #1 hit “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” In 2022, the band took up touring with fellow 1980s acts Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard.

12. Def Leppard

Heading over the pond for the next band on our list, Def Leppard formed in England in 1977. Modest success soon followed for the English band, but the release of 1983’s Pyromania fostered an enduring legacy.

Pyromania featured “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages,” both hits on Billboard’s rock charts. A follow-up album came with 1987’s Hysteria, which spawned six hits, including “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Love Bites.” 

Fast forward to 2022, Def Leppard released a new album, Diamond Star Halos, adding another chapter to their enduring legacy. They continue to be active and engage with their fans, showcasing their timeless appeal and talent.

13. Devo

The new wave band Devo used the 1980s obsession with style and imagery to spawn a hit song with “Whip It.” Thanks to the video’s unique look and the band’s presentation, it became a regular video spotted on MTV.

Brothers Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, Gerald and Bob Casales, and Alan Myers formed the group in 1973, using costumes and their own unique brand of humor to write songs and release albums.

The band’s 1980 release, Freedom of Choice, gave the world “Whip It,” which was a top 40 hit regardless of MTV airplay.

14. Aerosmith

Formed in 1970, Aerosmith was already a success by 1980. Drug use and conflicts among members put them on the brink of collapse. After several members left for a brief spell, the original lineup returned in 1985 for the Done with Mirrors album, which was not a commercial success.

However, a crossover collaboration with the hip-hop group Run DMC brought the band back to mainstream success. The remake of the previous hit, “Walk This Way,” gave the band the fuel they needed for a massive comeback.

These days, Aerosmith is the best-selling band of all time in America with chart-topping hits, critically acclaimed albums, and a remarkably consistent lineup with frontman Tyler Perry leading the way.

15. Queen

We cannot have a list of the most famous bands of the ‘80s without Queen. Queen was another successful ’70s rock band with legions of fans in the ’80s and beyond.

Releasing six albums during the decade, including working the soundtracks for Flash Gordon and Highlander, Queen achieved their biggest success with 1980’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”

The band’s most crucial moment, however, was reserved for 1985’s Live Aid concert, where lead singer Freddie Mercury had the Wembley Stadium crowd eating from the palm of his hand. Many publications consider this to be the greatest rock performance of all time.

Unfortunately, Mercury would pass away six years later after he revealed he was diagnosed with AIDS. The band continues to perform with various lead singers, but Mercury’s presence is missing.

16. R.E.M.

Hailing from Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. was formed in 1980 and consists of four members: Michael Stipe (lead vocals), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass guitar and backing vocals), and Bill Berry (drums).

The band gained popularity in the 1980s with their debut album Murmur. This led to a string of successful albums in the following years, such as Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and Document, before receiving mainstream success with Out of Time in 1991.

This album received a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, and in 2007, R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sadly, the band separated in 2011.

17. AC/DC

Founded by brothers Malcolm and Angus Young, AC/DC is a legendary rock band from Sydney, Australia, that formed in 1973. The band’s lineup has changed over the years, but the most well-known members include Bon Scott, who was replaced by Brian Johnson after Scott’s untimely death in 1980, and Phil Rudd.

AC/DC is famously known for its energetic performances and signature sound, which is a powerful mix of hard rock and blues rock. They’re also recognized for their schoolboy-uniform stage outfits, courtesy of Angus.

Their breakthrough came with the release of their fourth album, Highway to Hell, in 1979. However, it was their 1980 album Back in Black, dedicated to the memory of Bon Scott, that solidified their place as rock legends. This album is one of the best-selling in music history.

18. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

Closing this list is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, an American rock band that originated from Gainesville, Florida. Formed in 1976, the band started gaining popularity at the turn of the decade.

One of their most notable albums from this era is Damn the Torpedoes, released in 1979, which led to their continued success in the 1981 Hard Promises. The band’s fame soared even further with the release of Southern Accents in 1985, featuring the memorable track “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”

Throughout their career, they received numerous accolades, including an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Despite Tom Petty’s passing in 2017, the band’s music continues to be celebrated.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous 1980s Rock Bands

There you have it: our list of the best rock bands of the 1980s. Groups like Metallica, Mötley Crüe, and Guns N’ Roses showed the evolution of hard rock from the 1970s, breaking the genre into mainstream popularity.

Sold-out arenas and world tours were the norm during the decade, and count yourself lucky if you managed to see any of these acts during this period. 

Still, plenty of rock’s biggest bands of the 1980s continue to tour, offering old and new fans an opportunity to rock out just like it was 1984 again. Just be mindful of the acid-wash jeans and over-teased hair — those are never coming back into style. 

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.