The 80s were a weird decade. That made picking the best 80s rock bands a heavy lift.
Between America electing a B-list movie actor President, MTV launching, and music moving from purely analog to digital, it was a heady ten years. It was also the decade I was born, started loving music, and had a cool uncle who would dub copies of cassette tapes to share with his nephews.
Rock history may later say the 80s were the peak in terms of the number of bands breaking out with traditional record companies before the Internet made having an enormous, worldwide audience less of a profitability requirement.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane together and look at 31 of the greatest 80s rock bands ever to take the stage.
What Made 80s Rock Bands So Much Fun
The 80s were a decade of upheaval. Nuclear annihilation was a threat the world over, but you were more likely to die by an IRA bomb than the USSR. Walls were coming down, and mass media was exploding.
There were so many genres of rock breaking out. Small bands from far-flung locations had a significant influence on the powers that be. The Internet wasn’t around yet, but the writing was already on the wall.
Alternative rock, glam rock, and hard rock were all vying for the top spot in the cultural zeitgeist. But, all the while, soft rock, and good old rock N’ roll were trucking along.
Was it fun? Yeah. Was it tough to put a list together? Hell yeah.
There may be some duplicates from our greatest rock bands of all time list because, despite Gen X’s apathy, the 80s were indeed part of “all time.” So we’ll also point out why they deserve to be on this list.
The Australian hard rock band has the best-selling rock album of all time. Of all time. For that reason alone, they make this list. Back in Black, released in 1980, sold nearly 30 million certified copies, which dwarf Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell by almost a third.
They did this after being a wildly successful band and debuting a new lead singer after beloved Bon Scott died before the band recorded the album. As a result, AC/DC has had two of the most iconic singers in hard rock.
They were able to keep Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose gainfully employed for an entire tour when Brian Johnson went down with an injury. That’s something only the best rock bands can do.
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They’re an iconic working English rock band and part of the new British heavy metal movement, who broke out and earned their spot on this list with 1983’s Pyromania. The record would make them a household name in the United States when they played for 55,000 fans in San Diego at Jack Murphy Stadium.
Tracks like “Pour Some Sugar on Me” from the follow-up Hysteria album would cement them on dive bar jukeboxes and karaoke compilations for the following 40 years.
They also became one of the most recognizable bands of the 80s when Rick Allen, the band’s drummer, lost his left arm in a car wreck. However, with the help of a custom electronic drum kit and a tremendous amount of personal determination, Allen would continue as the band’s full-time drummer.
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You can’t have a list of the best bands of the 80s, let alone rock music, without mentioning Queen. So they’re going to make an appearance on this list. By the time the 80s hit, Queen was routinely selling out multiple stadium appearances.
“Another One Bites the Dust,” released in 1980, was their biggest selling single, and their 1981 Greatest Hits record is the all-time best selling record in the UK. That’s where the Beatles are from, you know?
But for the 80s, in a visual era, Freddie Mercury’s dominating performance at 1985’s Live Aid concert required their inclusion in the list of notable bands of the 80s. Unfortunately, Mercury would leave the band due to his battle with AIDS and would pass away shortly after 1991.
But in the 1980s, Queen were the champions of the world.
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This American hard rock band doesn’t get all of the accolades it deserves. But, since forming in 1981 in Los Angeles, California, they would go on to sell more than 100 million records and help define the Hollywood glam metal movement. And just a great American heavy metal band.
The original lineup is legendary both as musicians and exploits off the stage. Drummer Tommy Lee has had some cultural impact, has he not?
Lead guitarist Mick Mars and his flame thrower guitars are legendary. Singer Vince Neil is lucky to be alive, and bassist Nikki Sixx has died from an overdose like 11 times.
Songs like “Girls, Girls, Girls” made them famous, while the album Dr. Feelgood would signal the height of their success in 1989. Glam metal and the music industry was heading for a reckoning in the 1990s. Motley Crue was at the forefront of that trainwreck.
They more or less personified an 80s American heavy metal band. And lead vocalist Vince Neil won’t pass up an opportunity to remind you.
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By the late 1970s, the nation’s enthusiasm for the American hard rock band KISS was waning. This seems odd, but the stage theatrics and costumes of their live shows just weren’t translating to the new medium of music videos.
They tried a few things to right the ship, including recording a disco track, but nothing worked.
They were one of the bands of the 80s stuck in 1979. However, in 1983, KISS was reborn when they stripped off the stage makeup and released Lick it Up. It was the band’s first successful record in several years and set the stage for a run of platinum records throughout the rest of the decade.
They’re considered a 70s juggernaut primarily, but the 1980s were kind to the unmasked iteration of the knights in Satan’s army.
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Southern California’s Van Halen were two separate rock bands in the 1980s, and either one or both should make this list of best bands of the 80s.
Until 1985, they were the original Van Halen, with the iconic vocalist David Lee Roth belting out some of hard rock’s most sing-along rock tunes.
The American metal band formed when guitarist Eddie Van Halen and drummer Alex Van Halen started jamming together in Pasadena, quickly recruiting bassist Michael Anthony and Roth.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Eddie and Roth was rocky at best, and Roth left to pursue a solo career in 1985.
Roth’s departure ushered in the Van Hagar era when Sammy Hagar took over on vocals and guitar. They would release 4 number one records together, solidifying them as one of the bands of the 80s.
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The 80s were the golden age of Irish rock band U2. They may have fallen off pretty hard in the 90s and 2000s, but they made the greatest bands of all time list based on the strength of their 1980s catalog.
While they didn’t precisely come storming out of the gates with Boy in 1980 and October in 1981, they hit their stride with War in 1982. That produced the singles “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” about the conflict between the IRA and the UK and “Under a Blood Red Sky.”
The political themes and Edge’s innovative, shifting guitar styles would make the band iconic in the 1980s. Their performance at Live Aid was impressive and would push Bono into activism’s limelight.
The remainder of the decade would see The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum released, setting the stage for their antics in the 1990s.
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Guns N’ Roses
Great rock bands need a few ingredients.
Lead guitarist Slash and rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin are about as solid a guitar duo as 1980s hard rock produced. Bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler made up a tight rhythm section. But it wasn’t until you added the unmistakable, shrieking falsetto of 1980s vocalist Axl Rose, that this band gelled.
They never really came together, but that’s when they were at least explosive. They sneak in under the wire in 1987 with Appetite for Destruction because the record is just that good. Easily one of the best rock records of the decade, and on the power of that studio album alone, Guns N’ Roses makes the list.
They’d do a few other things before they blew up, but rock bands can’t contain that much raw power. Guitarist slash would later enjoy the most mainstream success outside of Guns N’ Roses with his iconic hair and top hat.
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Punk rock was as much about experimentation with music as it was politics. It was a large umbrella, and the Pogues make this list, not for their commercial success but for the impact they would have on rock bands to come.
They would play aggressive punk rock with a Celtic influence and as much substance abuse as you’d expect from a pub band of their caliber. The band formed initially after vocalist Shane MacGowan and Spider Stacy met in the toilet of a Ramones show.
MacGowan would drink himself out of the band, but Joe Strummer (yeah, that Joe Strummer) and Spider Stacy would go on recording several more records taking over vocal duties.
Their punk rock attitudes, coupled with traditional Irish instruments, were something different that would spawn and influence decades of post-punk bands.
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The English new wave band The Buggles would usher in the music video era with their aptly titled single “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
The Buggles were sort of a band, as rock bands go. From the earliest iterations through their success, it was a commercial marriage of studio musicians forming rock bands.
They were a part of the band Yes for a while and would go on to form Asia. They weren’t the best band of the 80s and never toured, but the debut album will forever be known as featuring the pop-rock single that single-handedly ushered in the MTV era.
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While the English progressive rock band Genesis had been around for more than a decade by the time 1980 rolled around, it wasn’t until the middle 1980s that Genesis and, especially, lead singer and drummer Phil Collins hit their strides, becoming one of the biggest bands of the 80s.
Collins released No Jacket Required, which made him more prominent than his band for a time. Awkward. But they pressed on and would crush the latter half of the decade with Invisible Touch, and We Can’t Dance.
Invisible Touch released five singles. Those are Michael Jackson numbers. Not a number for famous rock bands. Shortly after, Phil Collins would leave the band and have a monstrously successful solo career before retiring after one final tour with Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks.
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The music video era can’t exist without the contributions of the new wave group A-Ha. That video is too iconic. The animation and live-action combination would push the boundaries of what a video could do, thereby propelling the song into orbit.
Would that song be as legendary and well known without that video? Would the band have achieved success and cult status without the visual medium? Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure.
They’d never reach that level of success again, but that hit alone and the lasting cultural impact they have left is enough to make them one of the best bands of the 80s.
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Some of these rock bands sail onto the list of best 80s rock bands based almost entirely on the back of one catchy synth riff.
Europe has been around since 1979 and is still an active rock and roll band. However, until 1986’s The Final Countdown, the band hadn’t achieved enough accolades and success to make it onto this list.
Play that riff on any instrument, including a high gain guitar, and you’ll instantly have the room singing along with you. It’s a song that spans genres, generations, and musical tastes. I don’t care that they aren’t in the rock and roll hall.
They make the list, dammit. It’s the final countdown… of the 80s.
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We are Scorpions!
That should be enough, right there, to get this heavy metal band onto the list of best 80s rock bands. However, this German hard rock band produced great proto-metal music in the German tradition of metal music before they reached commercial success.
That success came in 1984 when the band released Love at First Sting and the singles I don’t even have to tell you: “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” “Big City Nights,” and “Still Loving You.” On the power of those singles alone, the band would tour for years and earn a reputation as one of the hardest working bands of the 80s.
One unique bit of trivia is how big a Russian fan base Scorpions have. They were one of the only Western rock bands to play behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, and that has endeared them to the Russian people to this day.
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Morrissey or Johnny Marr?
Any fan of bands of the 80s has an opinion on this question. I’m in camp Marr, while my wife is at least lightly in camp Morrissey. It’s caused problems. A schism between rock music fans.
Infighting aside, The Smiths were one of the most prominent and influential alternative rock bands or post-punk to come out of Manchester. The English rock band formed when Marr, who was 14, met the 19-year-old Morrissey. They bonded over art, literature, and music.
Marr and Morrissey would eventually have a substantial falling out and a nasty dispute over royalties that would render it impossible for either one to play the entire Smith’s catalog for the rest of their respective careers.
The 80s came to a close without The Smiths, but their legacy for indie rock cannot be ignored.
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Capitalism makes strange bedfellows.
The Police formed to be a punk band with all the energy and musical incompetence that implies. That was until they discovered they were, each in their way, about the best musicians on the face of the planet. Their studio albums are layer upon layer of genius.
Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland, as a trio, were, by 1983, one of the best rock bands in rock history. Beyond rock bands, they were influenced by reggae and New Wave. The three would blend seamlessly, directly influencing countless alternative rock bands in the 90s.
The egos in the band would be its undoing, but the few reunions they’ve had have been spectacular and exactly what every fan was longing for.
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Coming out of Sussex in the UK, I’ve always wanted to see how they did that trick. The one that made countless fans smile.
The Cure has always been a project Robert Smith, the artistic powerhouse behind “the band,” always hated. The band is in quotes because there is no Cure without him, but it was a commercial project with musical styles he never really liked.
If that sounds like an apathetic goth kid or self-deprecating emo band, it’s because it should. In particular, the Cure and Robert Smith are why those genres exist today. Sometimes commercially successful, always just slightly under the radar, and with a self-aware self-hatred that was relatable to every teenager worldwide.
That’s The Cure in a nutshell. One of the most influential bands of the 80s was meta ironic.
From the ashes of Joy Division came the alternative rock band New Order. Or were they synthpop? Or post-punk? The 80s saw English bands take advantage of the cramped geography and produce genre-bending compositions that are hard to draw a neat box around.
What’s certain is that after Ian Curtis’ death, New Order would be one of the best bands of the 80s.
They fused techno with guitar rock to produce the basis for a sound that we’d all hear throughout the 90s. Bush’s second album doesn’t exist without New Order. Likewise, Moby’s sound doesn’t exist without New Order.
Their legacy is palpable.
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Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton formed Husker Du as a hardcore punk band at the dawn of the 1980s. As the group progressed and the vocals improved, they would stray from the hardcore punk beginnings and earn themselves a spot in the alternative rock pantheon.
In the punk spirit, they were one of those rock bands that would tour extensively and eventually land themselves on a major label.
They took chances and pushed themselves to be one of the great rock bands. They wrote a well-received concept album, Zen Arcade, at the end of the decade that would come in at 33 on Rolling Stone’s top 100 records of the 1980s.
To say that Husker Du has had a lasting impact on alternative rock is an understatement. If you mix “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Zen Arcade,” you have Green Day’s “American Idiot.” Likewise, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl has cited Husker Du as an influence forever. They’re a legendary American rock band.
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They were scientists and artists at the same time.
Playing something called “noise rock,” Sonic Youth has remained a primary influence on just about every subgenre of alternative rock under the sun. They used alternative tunings and tools to play their instruments.
They wrote odd original compositions and did excellent covers. Sonic Youth could play commercially popular music but chose to bring popularity to their unique brand of rock. The result was they were one of the best rock bands of the 1980s.
When they burst out of the No Wave art scene, they would win over several new fans by the end of the decade. Including some of the most influential rockers of the next decade.
Four women would form the Bangles in 1981 in sunny Los Angeles’ “Paisley Underground” scene. Their style would blend 1960s California rock ‘n’ roll with new wave power pop to create an upbeat, danceable sound that was instantly approachable.
As such, the band would record several massive singles.
- “Manic Monday”
- “Walk Like an Egyptian”
- “Hazy Shade of Winter”
- “In Your Room,” and
- “Eternal Flame”
They would have a lasting impact on alternative rock bands and power pop groups into the 90s and 2000s. In addition, the danceable songs the Bangles wrote in spades would go on to directly influence bands like Veruca Salt and That Dog.
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The 80s also saw an overtly Christian metal movement gain mainstream popularity. Stryper led the pack among Christian rock bands. The American rock band formed in 1983 as an antidote to the message bands like Van Halen were promoting. They loved the sound of hard rock bands but hated the message.
They’d integrate into the arena rock scene and spread the gospel. They opened for both Ratt and Bon Jovi at times when the latter was releasing records like Slippery When Wet. They were popular in their own right, and their second record would go double platinum.
It was a challenging square to circle, but Stryper was making songs everyone seemed to like with a transparent Christian message. Whether people were overlooking that for the music or there was a market, Stryper would capitalize and help the Christian metal scene blow up in the 80s.
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It’s just impossible to separate Los Angeles hair metal from Poison.
Bret Michaels and C.C. DeVille on guitars and vocals, Rikki Rocket on drums, and Bobby Dall on bass would be synonymous with the glam metal movement.
There would be others, but few bought in as hard as they did. Admittedly, the band at times consisted of more hairspray than songwriting. But that’s not to say they didn’t significantly impact glam rock and rock music history in general.
They were the personification of the American rock band that Nirvana would be railing against just a few years later. Propelled by singles like “Talk Dirty to Me” and the ballad “Every Rose Has its Thorns,” they would be everywhere throughout the 80s.
The work hard, play hard motto made them a dangerous band to book into any hotel, and maybe it was a good thing the energy between Michaels and DeVille (along with copious drug use) would break up the band in the early 90s.
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Dee Snider showed up at the US Congress to embarrass Tipper Gore on deviance in rock and roll. That’s the kind of American rock band they were, and they weren’t going to take it anymore.
By the mid-1980s, Twisted Sister had expanded their popularity beyond the metal scene and was just about everywhere. The videos for “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “ I Wanna Rock” have become part of every guitar player’s cultural upbringing.
They even got a mention in Flight of the Navigator. Twisted Sister would move away from their hard rock sound to more of a pop-metal sound towards the latter part of the decade, which hurt them commercially.
Hey, it happens.
People grow up; rock bands burn out. But not before becoming one of the biggest bands of the 80s.
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This hard rock band formed in 1983 when singer and occasional rhythm guitarist Jon Bon Jovi, and co-songwriter Richie Sambora on lead guitar, started strumming chords in Richie’s Mom’s basement in New Jersey.
Just as all rock bands should start… in someone’s garage or basement. Add in local kid and drummer Tico Torres to play a kit with baseball bat-sized sticks, and you’re well on your way to hard rock.
Once they got some competent management in the form of Doc McGhee, even the band’s early songs started to chart and find some mainstream success. By the time they got to the mid-80s, they were part of the royalty of arena rock bands.
They toured relentlessly throughout the late 80s on the success of Slippery When Wet, playing sold-out arena shows, festivals, and even playing in the USSR. Their fourth album, New Jersey, was one of the first western records legally released in the Soviet Union.
Then they kind of burned out, changed lineups, and started moving towards pop rock and country. But until then, they were a huge 80s American metal band. Weird.
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Although Styx formed way back in the 60s, it wasn’t until two decades later, in the 80s, that they achieved real mainstream success.
Between their albums Cornerstone and Kilroy Was Here, the band had two handfuls of hits.
- “Why Me”
- “Borrowed Time”
- “Boat on the River”
- “The Best of Times”
- “Too Much Time on My Hands”
- “Heavy Metal Poisoning,” and
- “Mr. Roboto”
Thank you, Mr. Roboto, for providing countless nights of karaoke bliss. The mid-80s would see the band lose steam and break up. That’s understandable in rock music, with the egos and the 20 years of touring.
That kind of relentless energy begins to wear on people. And despite protestations otherwise, Styx is, in fact, made up of people. They’re still working today under a different lineup, but you can bet some old gems will keep this one in the biggest bands of the 80s.
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Men at Work
Hailing from a land down under and fronted by Englishman Colin Hay, Men at Work incorporated local flavors into their otherwise straight-ahead new wave sound.
As with most things Australian, they were huge in America. They were easily one of the biggest bands of the 80s. They would spawn hits like:
- “Down Under”
- “Who Can it Be Now?”
- “Be Good Johnny”
- “Overkill,” and
- “It’s a Mistake”
They were so popular in the US that they were the first Australian group to have a number one record and a number one single at the same time. In the entire history of Australia, up until the 1980s, that had never happened. Not pop stars, not rock bands, and not didgeridoo.
Colin Hay is still touring as Men at Work, though none of the other original members are included.
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Another Australian group to make this list is INXS. Lead singer Michael Hutchence would front one of the most influential new wave rock bands to dominate the rock music scene in the 1980s.
They would seamlessly move from new wave pop to more straight-ahead rock. This transition would be an often-cited influence on later alternative rock acts.
The band itself was great, but Hutchence would make the band a global phenomenon and one of the best bands of the 80s. They thrived in the visual medium of music videos and swept the MTV music video awards in 1988. If you had cable TV in the 1980s, you knew who INXS was.
Which is to say, who they were. Not who they are. Following Michael Hutchence’s suicide in 1997, the band would have the first-ever reality music competition (Rockstar: INXS) to find their new vocalist. Instead, it was a disappointment for fans.
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The late 70s did show The Cars gaining traction, but it wasn’t until Rick Ocasek started experimenting with the band’s sound in the 1980s that they’d find real success. It was the 80s that cemented their legacy.
They were another band that would embrace the video format, and when they released Heartbeat City in 1984, they were primed for MTV success. “Drive” was easily their biggest hit from this era, and it would push the band to their apogee.
Their success would fade until the band took a break in 1988 to work on solo projects. But by that point, they had already made themselves a staple influence in what would evolve into alternative rock, thus making them one of the most influential bands of the 80s.
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Jesus and Mary Chain
The British punk rock band was formed in the late 70s by Jim and William Reed while they were on the dole. In true punk fashion, they played the instruments they had, not the instruments they wanted.
Their early 80s recording sessions were short and spotty. Still, the band garnered enough attention to put out a few singles and, in doing so, set themselves up as one of the most famous rock bands and one of the most influential rock bands in a budding indie rock scene.
By the time Psychocandy was released, the Reed brothers had the energy fused to the melody, and the Jesus and Mary Chain was officially an influencer.
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Red Hot Chili Peppers
With singer Anthony Kiedis on vocals, iconic bassist Flea, a drummer who looks a good deal like Will Farrel, and an on-again, off-again relationship with John Frusciante, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been one of the best rock bands of the last 40 years.
Their earlier work was a blend of hard rock and funk that was unlike anything else on the radio at the time. So funky that George Clinton himself would join in on some studio sessions.
The band achieved a more melodic sound on the songwriting prowess of Kiedis and Frusciante as time went on and helped the Red Hot Chili Peppers reach arena-level success.
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Who Can It Be Now?
Who can be crowned the best rock band of the 1980s? That’s a tricky question to answer. The introduction of the music video made pure album sales, perhaps, not the right metric. These are some iconic bands of the 80s, but this can’t be all of them.
Who’d we miss? Who else would you place in this esteemed company?
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AC/DC image: Wendy Collings from Wellington, New Zealand, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Def Leppard image: Kevin Nixon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Queen image: Mark James Miller is the original photographer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Motley Crue image: Bjornsphoto, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Kiss image: Nashville69, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Van Halen image: bella lago from USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; U2 image: Paul Jones, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Guns N’ Roses image: Ed Vill from Caracas, Venezuela, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; The Pogues image: Aaron Fulkerson from San Diego, CA, US, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; The Buggles image: Rouserouse, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Genesis image: Bingola, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Europe image: Aphasia83, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Scorpions image: Lebrac72, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; The Smiths image: AmaryllisGardener, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; The Police image: Lionel Urman, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; The Cure: Christian Córdova, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; New Order image: swimfinfan from Chicago, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Husker Du image: English: Photograph by Daniel Corrigan. Distributed by Warner Bros. Records., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Sonic Youth image: Cortando El Aire, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; The Bangles image: Gsashburn, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Stryper image: Justin Higuchi, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Poison image: Weatherman90 at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Twisted Sister image: dr_zoidberg, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Bon Jovi image: nandinhazinha, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons; Styx image: Ralph Arvesen, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; INXS image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vivaiquique/, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; The Cars image: no lo se., CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Jesus and Mary Chain image: Avodrocc, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Red Hot Chili Peppers image: Raph_PH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Featured image: Kasuusnaps, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.