10 Best 80s Rock Trios –  When Rock Became ‘Modern’

The 80s were the decade that saw every face of rock rise to fame while others slowly drifted away into the realm of rock dinosaurs. Prog, Punk, and singer-songwriters were no longer the hype of the youth; synths came in strong, guitars followed by becoming heavier, and rock became flashier. 

For better or worse, the industry ‘figured’ out the formula of the rock popstar, with glam groups reaching commercial peaks and Punk not being ‘cool’ anymore. Music moved fast, yet the classic power trio broke through, with some bands topping the charts and others leaving a legacy while never reaching massive commercial success.

Considering that much has been said about the ‘revival’ of the 80s sound in today’s pop charts, but not much is being said about the power trios of the era, here’s my list of the ten best rock trios of the 80s in the hope of paying tribute to the greats and even introduce you to new music.

Some Rules First: How I Made My Choices Here

Sonic experimentation and the blend of unlikely genres defined 80s rock: no rules bound the bands, yet a few bound me on my pics.

  • The bands must have made an essential contribution to the 80s sound but not necessarily be formed in the 80s
  • Commercial success is important, but the band’s legacy comes first
  • Considering that some bands underwent multiple line-up changes, I will focus on the formation that impacted the 80s decade most.

The Melvins (1983-present)

  • Members: Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover, Steven Shane McDonald
  • Essential Listen: Houdini

Arguably the most influential band of the late 80s in the heavy scene, The Melvins inspired what was to become the sound of the 90s: Grunge.  

Buzz Osborne’s slow, filthy riffs laid the backbone of the Seatlee sound and metal subgenres, like sludge metal and stoner rock. If there had been no Melvins, there would have been no Nirvana, and who knows what popular music would have looked like even today. 

No music in the 80s sounded more ‘offensive’ than the mid-tempo, downtuned, and chaotic Melvins sound. As expected, though, commercial success was not immediate, but the sound quickly caught the ears of the new generation of rockers.

Besides Osborne and Clover, who stayed true to the line-up since the late 80s, The Melvins saw tens of bass players coming and going, perhaps explaining the continuous evolution of the band’s sound that keeps going in 2023.

Wipers (1977–1989, 1993–1999)

  • Members: Bob Mould, Greg Norton, Steve Plouf
  • Essential Listen: Youth of America

The 80s were not the most punk-friendly, but that didn’t stop different parts of the world from developing their own sound, thus giving birth to ‘post-punk.’ 

The ‘post-punk’ version of the Wipers differed significantly from The Police’s interpretation of the genre. They were heavy, fuzzed out at the maximum, with a visceral garage feel to the records.  

As with The Melvins, Wipers were critical to the inception of Grunge but never got the latter’s commercial success. You don’t need to know that Kurt Cobain cited them many times; listen to their track D-7, and you will understand. To continue the similarities in true Buzz Osbourne style, Greg Sage was the last man to stand among a line-up of everchanging members, especially drummers, until the band’s dismissal in 1999.

Motörhead (1975–2015)

  • Members: Lemmy Kilmister, Phil Taylor, Phil Cambell
  • Essential Listen: Ace of Spaces

I included Lemmy and the gang in my list of best trios of the ’70s, yet the 80s were when the heavy sound they started gained true commercial success due to their lead and the general push of the Metal movement that picked up on it. 

Motörheard injected the fast adrenaline rush into Metal. The ‘Overkill’ element that was missing in the scene – they were loud, fast, and ruthless on stage for over 40 years, rightly marking the threshold where Rock n’ Roll turned into something heavier and wilder.

For most of the world, Lemmy was Motörheard; the Metal community and faithful fans, though, recognized the contribution of all the bassists and guitarists on the band’s 23 studio albums and countless shows until Lemmy died in 2015.  

The Police (1977–1986)

  • Members: Sting, Andy Summers, Stewart Copeland
  • Essential Listen: Synchronicity

String, Copeland, and Summer were not just the most successful trio of the 80s but effectively became the biggest band in the world with consecutive nr. 1 hits on all the five albums they released.

The Police started in the late 70s, as Copeland invited Sting to play in his ‘punk’ band with the songs the drummer had written – it wasn’t until the much more experienced Summers got involved that the trio got established and their debut album Outlandous D’amour.’

Reggae groove, jazz chords, a rock attitude, ska snare delays, landscapes, and world music combined with Sting’s genius songwriting and fine honing of Copeland and Summers. The trio left no genre out of their music and no stadium unfilled through multiple world tours.

From the first BBC performance of ‘Roxanne’ to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, there is no mountain the band didn’t climb with only a decade’s worth of music.

The Police are the only band that quit while on Top. Right at the peak of their fame, as told by Copeland, it was apparent that they couldn’t work together anymore and that Sting was heading for an equally successful solo career.

Learn more about the history of The Police by clicking here!

Hüsker Dü (1979-1988)

  • Members: Grant Hart, Bob Mould, Greg Norton
  • Essential Listen: Zen Arcade

Once the Ramones started Punk in the U.S., there was no stopping bands from picking up their lead and refining the genre.

Hüsker Dü started late in the 70s in Minnesota, and even though they kept the hardcore essence of Punk, they gradually started adding alternative rock elements that detached them from the sound of the time. 

As the first band to be fast, heavy, but melodic, the trio convinced the world that Punk could be ‘more’ than chaos, successfully becoming the first indie band to sign a major record deal and achieve commercial success in the 80s.

Problems with drug addiction and fights among band members were not rare, yet the synergy between the contrasting voices of  Mold and Hart became deeply engraved in the 80s music scene.

ZZ Top (1969-Present)

  • Members: Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard, Dusty Hill
  • Essential Listen: Eliminator

Even if you have never heard of ZZ Top, you still know how they look. The trio is iconic in multiple ways, becoming synonymous, along with SRV, with Texas rock and blues.

Rooted in the blues but living on hard rock, Gibbons effectively blended the two in his guitar playing while being locked into the groove by Dusty Hill and Frank Beard. When Tres Hombres was released in 1973, commercial success came, and it became apparent that no one sounded as tight in the rock scene.

The 80s saw them bring in the Beards, now riding the wave of being a ‘Top’ band leading the hard blues rock scene while experimenting with synthesizers and programming at the edges of rock. 

Fifteen studio albums and 50 million album sales don’t give Billy and Frank a good enough reason to call it quits, recruiting Elwood Francis on bass after Dusty died in 2021. 

The OutFields (1984-2014)

  • Members:  John Spinks, Tony Lewis, Alan Jackman
  • Essential Listen: Play Deep

It’s not unusual for U.K. bands to ‘invade’ the U.S.; most aim to do so. The Outfields took the concept to the extreme, getting moderate success in their home country while reaching triple platinum across the Atlantic. 

The Outfields started as The Baseball Boys and, true to their name, sounded more American than British. This unique style got the New Wave band record deal with Columbia in 1984 and 3 highly successful and sonically rich albums.

The Outfield sound is the marriage of the Beatle’s hooks and Journey’s arena rock. Melody was everything for the band, which many have heard while driving, but not many can now name it, mainly due to their slowly fading from the American scene with Grunge taking over violently.

Violent Femmes (1979–2009; 2013-Present)

  • Members: Gordon Gano, Brian Ritchie, Blaise Garza
  • Essential Listen: Why Do Birds Sing?

When Folk and Punk get together, an edgy band name for a trio is needed. Violent Femmes stood between modern and traditional in the 80s, and even though they may often not be mentioned, they were a cornerstone of the decades folk scene.

The trio started one of the many ‘overnight’ successes of being up while busking on the street. Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders spotted them and invited the trio to open for here. From there, the initial debut album made them big in the country and folk scene and, afterward, commercially by adding fun Punk and new wave elements to acoustic music.

The trio went through multiple breakups, yet the latest line-up, now a four-piece, is one you can still enjoy in 2023.

Beastie Boys (1981–2012)

  • Members: Ad-Rock, M.C.A., Mike D
  • Essential Listen: Licensed to III

The Beastie Boys are iconic in rock and hip-hop, taking in the best of both worlds, reaching the peak of commercial success and even a spot on the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

The New York trio had heavy punk riffs and a rock attitude but didn’t ignore what was happening in the American rap and Hip Hop scene. They never sacrificed one for the other, giving birth to Rap Rock and being the first to dare to bring a D.J. to the stage.

Singing with Def Jam got them to tour with Madona, the pop star of the day – the push the initially punk band evolved into a rap group needed to start the streak of charting albums.\

They were among the few bands that Grunge didn’t ‘kill’ labeling them as old-fashioned, a merit of the ever-evolving sound of the trio that officially disbanded after the death of Adam “M.C.A.” Yauch in 2012.

Rush (1968-2015)

  • Members: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart
  • Essential Listen: Moving Pictures

Rush is the ultimate power trio that never went silent decade after decade. The three virtuoso Canadian musicians shone a light on Prog when no one else dared to do so in the Poppy and Glamy 80s.

Already having achieved the status of prog gods in the mid-80s, Rush had no pressure to express all their creative and technical might, starting with the innovative Moving Pictures and ending the decade going back to the hard rock basics with Presto.

The mighty prog trio truly pushed the limit of what three instruments could do on stage and in the studio; they didn’t fall prey to becoming ‘old’ or repetitive and were only cut from Neil Peartá passing in 2015.

How is the 80s Sound Coming Back?

Much has been about the 80s comeback. The 808 drum machine and synths take up much of today’s charting songs, with The Weeknd helming this comeback, but in the rock scene, something different is happening. There’s no comeback of the anthemic commercial rock, yet the indie and ‘Modern Rock’ scene, which started in the 80s, seems as powerful as ever. Experimenting now is at its highest, and if you pay attention to the list, you’ll notice that even the bands that didn’t get commercial recognition were crucial in creating the sound of the 90s.

Perhaps we are living in that transition era in rock again, and rock will hit the chart at the end of 2020s from the sound that is being honed by bands worldwide as you’re reading this.

Learn more about the best rock trios by decade with our following guides:

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Who was the best-selling artist of the 80s?

Answer: Michael Jackson, the king of pop, was the best-selling artist of the 80s, followed by Madonna and Phil Collins.

Question: What was the best-selling album of the 80s?

Answer: Thriller, released in 1982 by Michael Jackson, was the best-selling album of the 80s, followed by Back in Black by AC DC and Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen.

Question: Why Were The 80s Called ‘The Second British Invasion’?

Answer: On the 7th of April 1984, 40 of Billboard U.S. Top 100 singles charts were from British artists, a phenomenon that had not happened since the late 60s with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Artists like Phil Collins, David Bowie, Bananarama, The Cure, Duran Duran, Eurythmics, The Pet Shop Boys, The Police, and many others were continually challenging Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen for the Top of the U.S. Charts.

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