Music from the summer of ’88

It remains one of my missions here to remind readers (especially those too young to remember), that our culture wasn’t always as angry, self-destructive, and generally mucked up as it currently is.

Music often reflects the spirit of the times.  The summer of 1988 was a happy time. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the US economy was booming, and the dominant mood was one of optimism. (You sure could use a bit of optimism nowadays, couldn’t you?)

In the summer of 1988, I was in college. During that summer, I worked as a bagger at Thriftway, a now defunct grocery store chain in the Cincinnati area. (I also did stints in produce and seafood, if you want to get technical about it.)

That was a summer of some great music. No protest music to speak of, just songs about falling in love, getting on a roll, or going for a drive with your girl (or guy) on a summer night. 

Below are some of my favorite songs from that long-ago summer of 1988. These are songs that take me back…and might take you back, too, if you were around then.

‘Major Tom (Coming Home)’ by Peter Schilling: 1980s rock moment

A handful of German musical acts made the US charts in the 1980s. Most of them were in the genre of new wave/synthpop. 

Perhaps the best known was Nena, with her “99 Luftballons”. Then there was Falco, with “Amadeus”, in 1986. 

And then there was this guy: Peter Schilling. The above song, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” has been a bigger deal since the 1980s have been over, than it ever was during the 1980s. The song was used in the 1980s spy drama The Americans, and several other films about the last decade of the Cold War.

Honestly, I was very into music in those days, and I barely remember this song. It peaked at 14 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1983. I should remember it better. Perhaps the two FM pop/rock stations in Cincinnati weren’t very enthralled with it. (I do vaguely recall seeing the above video on MTV.)

That said, this is a song that captures a key part of the musical zeitgeist of the 1980s. Rock musicians in those days were not afraid of doing bombastic songs with overly ambitious themes. This was not only the over-the-top 1980s, it was also the Cold War. Thanks to Carl Sagan, there was a renewed interest in space, and the space shuttle was still a relative novelty.

That all came out in the music. Themes of space travel and nuclear war were therefore common, as well as all manner of futuristic themes.


‘Major Tom’ is a quirky, moody song, with a refrain that I find oddly captivating.

There is no love plot in this song, so far as I can tell. Nor can I tell you exactly what Peter Schilling was trying to say here. But I like the result.

Speaking of Peter Schilling: I understand that he has had a long, successful career in his native Germany. In the US, he is mostly known for this song. 


Note: Before someone emails me…Like all good music fans of the 1980s, I am aware of the Scorpions. But the Scorpions were not new wave. (They were heavy metal.) The Scorpions were the biggest German musical act of the 1980s; but they are in a completely separate category, and in a class by themselves. 


80s rock moment: REO Speedwagon

One of the great bands of my youth was REO Speedwagon. The band’s most commercially successful albums, Hi Infidelity (1980), Wheels Are Turnin’ (1985) and Life As We Know It (1987) were all released in my adolescent/teen years.

REO Speedwagon’s ballad, “Can’t Fight This Feeling” was near the top of the charts throughout the spring of 1985, my junior year in high school.

In the above video, the band’s lead singer, Kevin Cronin, performs the song as a duet with his daughter at a music festival in 2019.

This is a song about falling in love, so nothing original about the theme. But there are a million ways to fall in love, and a million angles on it. The angle here is innocence, commitment, etc. There was something refreshing about this ballad even in the comparatively simple world of 1985. It is especially refreshing now, in these cynical, dysfunctional times of the 2o2os. 

“What started out as friendship has grown stronger…” That would be a good way to fall in love, wouldn’t it?