College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 196 – 194

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196. The Psychedelic Furs, “All That Money Wants”

Richard Butler intended “All That Money Wants” to be his closing statement on the Psychedelic Furs. The song was written as a direct response to his dismay over the heavy commercial push given to the band’s 1987 album, Midnight to Midnight, which Columbia Records touted as “The Psychedelic Furs’ Masterstroke” in advertisements. Throughout the supporting tour, Butler found that he was growing increasingly detached from the lyrics he was singing onstage. In explaining “All That Money Wants,” Butler said, “It was about the success of Midnight to Midnight and how people began to look at me as this commercial commodity, and that’s all they were interested in. I found out that wasn’t very satisfying.” The recorded track was included on All of This and Nothing, released in the fall of 1988, serving as the requisite new song on a greatest hits compilation, forcing the most fervent fans to buy an album that was approximately ninety-three percent comprised of music they already owned. Of course, it also served the purpose of giving radio something to play in order to promote the full-length release. Programmers eagerly acquiesced, lifting the song to the top spot on the relatively new Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, where it became the first to log a multi-week stretch in that pinnacle position (Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Peek-a-Boo” could claim two weeks at #1, but its interrupted tenure served as bookends to Big Audio Dynamite’s “Just Play Music” taking a turn at the top.)

195 radio

195. R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe”

The story of R.E.M. begins in 1980. Drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and lead singer Michael Stipe played their first show together in the spring of that year, taking the stage at St. .Mary’s Episcopal Church using the name Twisted Kites. There were a few originals scattered in amongst covers of the likes of “God Save the Queen” and “Roadrunner,” those standard touchstones of the cool bands of the day, but R.E.M. really started writing in earnest later in the year. Included in that productive flurry, right as it was nearly time to officially swap out one calendar for another, came a song called “Radio Free Europe.” The title came from Buck, scribbled into a notebook well before he had these kindred collaborators. In a fashion true of much of R.E.M.’s output, the writing process was a team effort. Buck noted, “Mike brought in that ascending part of the song — where the chords go up and down. I edited it a bit and said, ‘Hey, try this as a chorus,’ and Bill put in this other part, the verse. I threw in the bridge and suggested we call it ‘Radio Free Europe.'” Stipe contributed the melody and a set of lyrics that were simultaneously evocative and nearly indecipherable, the latter a vexing and deliberate choice that contributed mightily to the alluring mystery of the band in the early going. In the spring of 1981, R.E.M. took their first crack at recording songs, a troubled, frustrating process that eventually led to the release of “Radio Free Europe” as the band’s debut single on the modest Hib-Tone label. The version pressed onto that vinyl, though, wasn’t the band’s preferred take on the song. They squabbled with label head Jonny Hibbert, who eventually decided that the fact he was financing the whole endeavor meant that he got to cast the decisive vote. Still, the success of the single with college radio, especially on local WUOG-FM, quickly stirred broader attention for R.E.M. It also earned them prominent fans willing to champion their cause, like Atlanta DJ Mark Williams, who helped get them signed to I.R.S. Records when he sent a copy of the single to a label vice president. An independent label suddenly flush with cash and industry influence, thanks to the runaway success of the Go-Go’s’ Beauty and the Beat, I.R.S. was reportedly R.E.M.’s first and only choice. When it came time for the band to record their first full-length, after the release of a moderately successful debut EP, the label suggested they take a fresh pass at “Radio Free Europe,” which was readily agreed to, in part because of certainty that their added experience would lead to a stronger version. While “Radio Free Europe” became the first official single from 1983’s Murmur, the band eventually found that track lacking, too. A few years later, when given the chance to offer the definitive version of the song, for the compilation Eponymous, they went back to the producer Mitch Easter’s mix that was turned down by Hibbert, asserting in the liner notes that it “crushes the other one like a grape.”

194 hands

194. Modern English, “Hands Across the Sea”

Sometimes, nothing is more daunting than success. After Modern English hit with the 1982 single “I Melt with You,” they found themselves on the road for what seemed like an endless tour, doing their best to support the record and take advantage of surging interest in their music. According to producer Hugh Jones, their regular collaborator, that meant they arrived in the studio for the recording of the follow-up with little more than the bones of a couple of songs, one of which was “Hands Across the Sea.” Jones also reported the pressure to generate an equally popular follow-up to “I Melt with You” exacted its own toll, leading to a brief interruption of the recording process when he needed to step away because he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown as things simply weren’t coming together. The stress continued after the release of the resulting album, Ricochet Days, with another lengthy tour that didn’t quite have the desired effect of prompting a big radio hit, although “Hands Across the Sea” managed to become Modern English’s second song to register on the Billboard Hot 100, topping out at #91. Following the tour, keyboardist Steve Walker and drummer Richard Brown were kicked out of the band, and there was only one more tepidly received album, Stop Start (released in 1986), before the Modern English broke up, although the first of multiple revivals would occur just a couple years later, including, in the launch of another recurring trend, a new recording of “I Melt with You.”

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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