211. The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays”
I suspect every last one of my college radio cohorts back in the day knew the backstory of the most notable single the Boomtown Rats ever released. At the very least, they had the basics. The band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, Bob Geldof, composed it after encountering a news story about Brenda Spencer, a sixteen-year-old in San Diego who opened fire on a neighboring schoolyard from a window in her family home. When a reporter got her on the telephone, she explained her motivation by blandly noting, “I don’t like Mondays.” (Spencer later denied making that statement.) Geldof said he heard about it after sitting for an interview with an Atlanta-based college radio station. It came over their wire service. He went back to his hotel room, still preoccupied with the story. After noodling around on his guitar with the chords to Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army,” Geldof found his way to the tune that would top the U.K. charts, the band’s second straight single to pull off the feat. While Geldof started with Spencer’s senseless crime, he intended it to be a more general commentary of what he saw as a pervasive negative trend in a certain region, later explaining, “The song is less about a specific incident and more about what I used to think was a a peculiarly Californian psychosis — not needing a reason for anything, even murder. Vacant modern life.” The track would surely be Geldof’s chief claim to fame, if not for the activism he took up in earnest a few years later, earning him more widespread fame and even the occasional grand honor.
Besides the swarm of artistic reasons “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” looms large in the Pink Floyd discography, it has a special significance on the business side of the music industry. As detailed in Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men, the single, the first released from the 1980 double album The Wall, was used as a test case by Columbia Records executives hoping to eliminate costly independent promoters from the process of getting a song to make headway on the Top 40 charts. Even before the 45 was pressed, stations coast to coast were aggressively play “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” making the label certain it would earn spins whether or not it was the beneficiary of outside advocacy. Columbia opted to forgo the independent promoters’ services is Los Angeles, figuring at least one of the city’s four Top 40 stations would play the song without the prompting from a hired intermediary. Even as the single was rapidly climbing the charts, ultimately settling in the #1 position for full weeks, none of those L.A. stations played it, an undeclared boycott that ended when Columbia finally relented and hired on one of the promoters. The song itself had a arduous journey to completion, typical of Pink Floyd, especially as leader Roger Waters grew into an ever more uncompromising artist. As he worked on the track, he insisted on keeping it sparse and coldly simple, even as various collaborators tried to convince him the song had the spine of a potential hit. Given the lyrics offering a dismal assessment of the education system, Bob Ezrin felt the song could be filled out nicely with a chorus of singing schoolchildren (Ezrin also had experience with such embellishments, as producer of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”). Waters basic approach to most of Ezrin’s overtures was to tell him to waste his time however he liked. The final product was going to match the song Waters heard in head, with no deviations. That adamancy fell away once Waters heard the actual multi-tracked chorus Ezrin put together, and the sonics of the song started to shift to the version that became the band’s biggest hit by far.
The Nails began life as the Boulder, Colorado band the Ravers, arguably more notable for the identity of their roadie (a young man named Eric Boucher, who later claimed the performing name Jello Biafra and formed the Dead Kennedys) than anything they did on stage or on record. When they moved to New York City, in 1977, the presence of a competing band simply called Raver necessitated a name change. “88 Lines About 44 Women” was written in the band’s Manhattan loft apartment, in a process that Nails lead vocalist Marc Campbell later called “so simple it was uncanny.” The band used one of the preprogrammed rhythm tracks on a new Casio keyboard, pulling together a track of undulating riffs that lasted around five minutes. Campbell figured out that length would accommodate about forty-four couplets, or eighty-eight lines, quickly becoming enamored with the numeric symmetry with other music touchstones, such as the number of keys on a piano and the wide crediting of “Rocket 88” as the first rock ‘n’ roll song. The lyrics came easily, too. Campbell noted, “The way the songwriting works for me is it’s always a trance type state. I really believe that most good writing kind of takes the writer by surprise. And that’s what happened. It just came flowing through me, one line leading to another. Some of the women are real, some are made up. At that point I don’t know if I’d actually had 44 really important women in my life.” While limited in its ability cross over to the pop charts, largely thanks to some raunchy lyrics, the song has endured, later being pressed into service to move Mazdas. The Butthole Surfers also ripped it off, fairly transparently, for the track that made them one of the unlikely acts to ever slide into the Billboard Top 40.
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.