College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 238 – 236

238 absolute.jpg

238. The Jam, “Absolute Beginners”

Paul Weller reclaimed the title for the The Jam’s 1981 single “Absolute Beginners” from the Colin MacInnes novel of the same name. The second book in the British author’s London Trilogy, Absolute Beginners was first published in 1958. Though already a revered work, it was experiencing a bit of a revival around the time the nineteen-seventies slipped tumultuously into the eighties, partially tied to the nostalgic interest in mod culture that followed the release of the film version of Quadrophenia, in 1979. Most of Weller’s cultural compatriots had read the book. Funny enough, Weller himself hadn’t at the time, though he would eventually rectify the gap in his literary consumption, connecting deeply enough with the work that he’d name it as the book he’d have with him if stranded on a desert island. Further demonstrating the MacInnes book hadn’t stirred Weller’s creativity from the jump, the track began life as a song called “Skirt.” Even if it had a shaky foundation as a book report, the track was a sincere and pointed expression of Weller’s dissatisfaction with the backwards priorities and resulting exacerbation of economic disparity in his home country. That statement even extended to choices related to timing in the recording process. He was working on it in the studio on July 29, 1981, a date when much of the rest of London was completely shut down, the citizenry rapt before the lavish pageantry of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. That defiant unwillingness to cave into the hype of the event surely provided Weller an added layer of satisfaction when he sang lyrics like “Come see the tyrants panic, see their crumbling empires fall.” Though the single reached #4 on the U.K. charts, it was viewed as a disappointment, in part because it dropped precipitously from that peak. The band’s label, Polydor, was convinced they’d made a misjudgment, retroactively deciding they would have had better results flipping the record and releasing “Tales from the Riverbank” as the A-side.

 

237 ages

237. R.E.M., “Ages of You”

There wasn’t much patience required of R.E.M. fans during the nineteen-eighties. The band’s first six studio albums were released on basically a yearly basis. The longest wait that needed to be endured was roughly fourteen months (the span between both Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction and later Document and Green). And that already prolific output didn’t even represent the sum total of their studio efforts. R.E.M. had a slew of B-sides and other spare material that they were able to pull together into a hearty fifteen track playlist for the 1987 collection Dead Letter Office. Of all the songs on the record, arguably none had a more anguished history than “Ages of You.” Initially recorded with the intent that it lead off Chronic Town, the band’s debut EP, it was instead excised from that release entirely, largely at the behest of I.R.S. Records label head Miles Copeland, who felt it simply wasn’t a strong enough song, at least in that pass at it. R.E.M. kept tinkering with the tune, including some fresh recordings. Different versions of the song were considered for both their debut full-length, Murmur, and its follow-up, Reckoning. The take recorded with Reckoning in mind finally saw the grooves of vinyl on the B-side of “Wendell Gee,” the third, final, and least durable single from Fables of the Reconstruction. “Ages of You” got fresh life on Dead Letter Office (it’s the second song on the “Script Side”), mostly as the song I.R.S. pushed in conjunction with the album’s release. R.E.M. had a reputation for reluctance in discussing the genesis and meaning of their songs (not entirely justified, given the sheer number of interviews they granted throughout their shared career), which made the inclusion of explanatory liner notes on Dead Letter Office notable. Even then, the background information, penned by guitarist Peter Buck, was heavy with churlish indifference. Buck noted that “Ages of You” was a “kind of companion piece” to “Burning Down,” an early track nestled on the “Post Side” of Dead Letter Office. Buck added, “When we got tired of that song, we kept the two pieces we like and rewrote the rest to come up with Ages of You. We got tired of that one also.”

 

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236. Love and Rockets, “All In My Mind”

At the time Love and Rockets released their second studio album, Express, they were still dogged by endless discussion of Bauhaus, the seminal goth band that spawned them. Even though it was becoming clear that Love and Rockets was destined to outpace Bauhaus, it terms of commercial success if not heady influence, every interviewer was preoccupied with questions about the earlier group. That included all sorts of speculative discussion of Peter Murphy, the one Bauhaus member who couldn’t also put Love and Rockets on his resume. Understandably, queries of that sort seemed to rankle Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins, and they took great pains to distinguish the newer group from its pre-history, including listing off influences that surely were anathema to their prior fan base. While there is likely a straighter line between the Doors and late-seventies goth music than those who bought black hair dye by the gallon would have been inclined to admit, it was surely difficult for some listeners to buck up their enthusiasm in the face of other decidedly non-rebellious named influences, such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As if tirelessly demonstrating precisely how different they could be, Love and Rockets went so far as to demonstrate their versatility (or maybe indecision) with the Express song “All in My Mind.” It shows up in two different versions on the album, both the flushed, brusque production that served as a single, and a dreamier take, complete with modified lyrics, officially listed as an “acoustic version.”

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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