College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 226 – 224

226 peace

226. 10,000 Maniacs, “Peace Train”

Ahead of recording In My Tribe, 10,000 Maniacs was noticeably struggling to get a foothold on commercial success, enough so that guitarist Robert Buck reported it stirred somewhat unique worries among his family: “My uncle Charlie read somewhere that we were a cult band so he thought we were playing for the Moonies. He even confronted me with it; he said, ‘Are you giving your money to the Moonies? Is that why you don’t have any money?'” The band’s label, Elektra Records, wasn’t worried about that particular problem, but they were anxious enough to see their signees rattle the charts more forcefully, suggesting the inclusion of a more familiar song on their second album under the major’s umbrella (and third album overall). It was at the label’s urging, then, that 10,000 Maniacs recorded the track that would later cause them such regret that it was removed from all future pressings of the album. In its original incarnation, “Peace Train” was the first United States Top 10 hit for Cat Stevens. The second single from Stevens’s 1971 album, Teaser and Firecat, is about as hippie-dippy as they come, enough so that it made for a slightly odd choice for 10,000 Maniacs, despite a certain similarity in the two acts’ chiming folk rock. For anyone listening past the lilt of the music and the mellifluous sound of lead singer Natalie Merchant‘s vocals on In My Tribe, the discrepancy was clear. As the Trouser Press Record Guide noted, the cover “offers a utopian alternative to Merchant’s more realistic originals.” Released as an early single from the album, the song went nowhere for the band. The real problem arrived later, though. In 1989, two years after the release of In My Tribe, Stevens, by then known as Yusuf Islam, offered public support for the death fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, in response to the author’s novel The Satanic Verses. Islam would later attempt to downplay his comments, in a not altogether convincing fashion (he claimed, for example, that he was a relatively “new Muslim,” although he’d converted to the Islamic religion over a decade before his troubling statements), but the significant damage was done. Operating in solidarity with the countless other boycotts of Stevens’s music that sprung up in response, 10,000 Maniacs insisted the song be struck from the track list on any subsequent copies produced of In My Tribe. The songs hasn’t been eradicated wholly from the band’s catalog, however, showing up in later compilations, including Campfire Songs, released in 2004.

225 hourglass

225. Squeeze, “Hourglass”

It’s reasonable to surmise that someone in the twelve tracks of Singles – 45’s and Under resides the biggest hit Squeeze ever had in the United States. First issued in 1982, the compilation is the sole release from the band to be certified platinum on this side of the Atlantic, and it contains all of the songs that a more casual fan is likely to recognize, thanks largely to retroactive airplay affection offered to the likes of “Pulling Mussels From the Shell” and, especially, “Tempted.” Using the measure of the Billboard pop charts, though, Squeeze’s commercial peak arrived a full five years after that beloved collection. Indeed, until the band released “Hourglass” as the first single from their 1987 album, Babylon and On, it would be a stretch to say Squeeze ever had a hit in the U.S. According to Glenn Tilbrook, the single was a true product of the times, in that it was largely written using the persistent assistance of a drum machine. Primarily a guitarist, Tilbrook typically alternated between his primary instrument and the piano in writing songs, but he arrived at “Hourglass” by experimenting with a freshly purchased piece of rhythmic technology. As he described it, “I thought it would be fun to feed a lot of chords into the drum machine and play it without the knowledge of what they were. The freedom of the knowledge of what they may do is actually very liberating. I think writing is always about tricking yourself into doing something different, and that’s just one way you can trick yourself.” Also befitting the era, the success of the single likely owed a lot to MTV, as the band starred in an eye-catching music video. The clip was packed with enough visual trickery to nab the 1988 MTV Music Video Award for Best Special Effects in a Video.

224 stigmata

224. Ministry, “Stigmata”

The Land of Rape and Honey was the third album billed to the band Ministry, but it may as well have been the first. The 1988 album from Al Jourgensen’s primary creative outlet took a hard spin away from the angular, airy dance pop that had been created under that moniker previously, presenting a feverish confrontational blast, marked by jackhammer guitars and heavily distorted vocals. “Stigmata,” the lead single, offered an ideal introduction to this new, puncturing sonic style. The obvious comparison was the industrial music that served as the blackened edge of the electronica scene, but Jourgensen insisted the influence went back to something older and weirder, citing Roky Erickson’s penchant for distortion with the 13th Floor Elevators. “Stigmata” became Ministry’s signature song, much to Jourgensen’s dismay. He felt the song was overly simplistic, noting that it was a throwaway track meant to help fill out the album, even claiming at points that it was written in a matter of minutes. In his memoir, Jourgensen wrote, “I never thought it was going to be big or do anything. I thought other songs had better potential for selling records. But I’m usually the last one to know what people are going to like.” Jourgensen’s aversion towards “Stigmata” was so significant that he would routinely leave the stage during the obligatory live performance, letting the band pound through the instrumental regimen of the back of the song while slipped back to the dressing room for a drink, preferably in a quiet state completely at odds with the raucous sounds being hurled elsewhere at a heartily moshing crowd.

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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