January – Nearly a year after the suicide of Ian Curtis, the surviving members of Joy Division plus Gillian Gilbert, now under the name New Order, release their debut single “Ceremony”; the single and its B-side, “In a Lonely Place”, are both re-recordings of songs originally written and performed by Curtis. The single’s release marks the band’s first public use of the “New Order” moniker, which they would retain for the remainder of their career.
10 January – A revival of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance opens at Broadway’s Uris Theatre, starring Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith.
18 January – Wendy O. Williams of The Plasmatics is arrested in Milwaukee for simulating masturbation with a sledgehammer on stage. In a scuffle with the police Williams is pinned to the floor and receives a cut above the eye requiring twelve stitches.
24 January – Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler is injured in a motorcycle crash that leaves him hospitalized for two months.
9 February – Phil Collins releases his first solo album, Face Value; while the album would end up a smash success, Collins would remain a member of Genesis until 1995.
12 February – Rush release the highly regarded album Moving Pictures which eventually becomes the band’s sixth platinum album.
14 February – Billy Idol leaves the band Generation X to begin a solo career.
14 March – Suffering from bleeding ulcers, Eric Clapton is admitted to United Hospital in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA. Clapton’s 60-city tour of the US is cancelled, and he remains in hospital for a month.
27 March – Ozzy Osbourne bites the head off a dove at a CBS record label gathering in Los Angeles.
1 April – The Go-Go’s sign to IRS Records.
4 April – British pop group Bucks Fizz wins the 26th Eurovision Song Contest, held at the RDS Simmonscourt Pavilion, Dublin, with the song “Making Your Mind Up”.
11 April – Van Halen’s lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen marries actress Valerie Bertinelli.
18 April – Yes announce that they are breaking up. (They would reunite frequently in years to come).
20 April – The Mamas & the Papas’ John Phillips is sentenced to five years in jail after pleading guilty to drug possession charges. Phillips’ sentence would be suspended after thirty days in exchange for 250 hours of community service.
22 April – Eric Clapton is taken to the hospital suffering from bruised ribs and a lacerated shin, following a car accident in Seattle, Washington.
27 April – Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach marry, in London, England.
2 May – British vocalist Sheena Easton hits No. 1 in the US with “Morning Train (9 to 5)” following a swift rise to fame as the result of a reality TV show.
14 May – Diana Ross signs with RCA Records (EMI internationally), leaving Motown Records, her label of two decades. The $20,000,000 deal is the most lucrative recording contract in history at that time.
15 May – A riot breaks out at The Ritz rock club in New York when Public Image Ltd plays behind a videoscreen while completely different music plays over the club’s speakers.
4 June – U2 appears on the Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder, their first U.S. television appearance.
5 June – The TV series Night Flight, a variety show featuring music documentaries and videos, is premiered on the USA Network.
6 June – Kerrang! magazine publishes its first issue. Angus Young of AC/DC is on the cover.
30 June – Jerry Lee Lewis is rushed to hospital in Memphis for emergency surgery for a tear in his stomach. Despite being given less than a 50% chance of survival, he eventually pulls through.
MTV broadcasts for the first time on cable television in the United States, playing music videos 24 hours a day. First to air is “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles.
the success of Stars On 45 leads to a short-lived medley craze. The most successful imitator of the Stars On 45 format is, rather unexpectedly, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra whose “Hooked On Classics (Parts 1&2)” reaches number two in the charts.
23 August – The Violent Femmes are discovered by members of The Pretenders busking outside a Milwaukee venue and are invited to play a 10-minute acoustic set as a second opening act in the Pretenders’ show that night.
11 September – Iron Maiden fires lead singer Paul Di’Anno.
19 September – Simon & Garfunkel perform a free reunion concert in New York City’s Central Park attended by over 500,000 fans.
25 September – The Rolling Stones open their US tour in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
26 September – Iron Maiden hires Samson lead singer Bruce Bruce AKA Bruce Dickinson to replace Paul Di’Anno, Dickinson will finish off the last 7 dates of the Killer World Tour.
26 October – Iron Maiden plays its first show with Bruce Dickinson as the new lead singer in Bologna, Italy.
27 October – The British Phonographic Industry takes out newspaper ads unveiling its new slogan: “Home Taping Is Killing Music”. The ads advocate a levy on blank cassette tapes.
31 October – Punk band Fear makes a memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live. A group of fans storm the stage and damage TV equipment while moshing, resulting in the show cutting to commercial.
18 November – While sitting in Tom’s Restaurant in New York City, Suzanne Vega composes the song “Tom’s Diner”.
18 December – An estimated 35 million people around the world watch a live satellite transmission of a Rod Stewart concert at the Los Angeles Forum. It is the first broadcast of its kind since Elvis Presley’s “Aloha from Hawaii” special in 1973.
31 December – The tenth annual New Year’s Rockin’ Eve special airs on ABC, with appearances by Four Tops, Rick Springfield, Barry Manilow, Alabama and Rick James.
Also in 1981
The organ at the famous Heinävesi Church in Finland is renewed, using locks from the original organ.
Alice Cooper drastically changes his appearance, leaving behind his trademark make-up and donning a military uniform.
Synthpop enjoys mainstream popularity in the UK, with groups such as Ultravox, Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and The Human League releasing hit singles and albums.
Menudo’s golden era (1981–1985) begins in Latin America, parts of Europe and Asia.
Brad Whitford leaves Aerosmith and is replaced by Rick Dufay.
Hal Willner “invents” the modern tribute album with Amacord Nino Rota.