College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 193 – 191

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193. Blue Öyster Cult, “Burnin’ for You”

Naturally the process of trekking through a two hundred and fifty songs was going to lead to a few discoveries that would have been useful for me earlier. Almost exactly two months after retiring the “Top 40 Smash Taps” feature on this site, acknowledging that my collection of posts was probably not comprehensive (but was also “good enough, to be sure”), here I find another one that meets the qualifications for inclusion. “Burnin’ for You,” the lead single from the Blue Öyster Cult’s Fire of Unknown Origin LP, became their second to cross into the Billboard Top 40, following classic rock radio mainstay “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” released five years earlier. Where the earlier hit threatened to push into the Top 10, “Burnin’ for You” stalled out at #40, holding the odd distinction of spending three weeks at that position. Though it was one of the band’s most significant commercial successes, “Burnin’ for You” nearly wasn’t even part of their repertoire. Guitarist Buck Dharma brought the song to the group during an earlier recording session, and they rejected it outright. He then planned to record is as part of the sessions that would eventually populate his 1982 solo album, Flat Out. That didn’t work out either, but he’d evidently done enough tinkering with the song in the process to spur his bandmates to a change of heart. When he presented the composition again during the recording of Fire of Unknown Origin, the results were quite different. Percussionist Albert Bouchard later recounted, “Dharma brought the song back and he had changed the arrangement, it had a more heavier rock sound and we were like, ‘Oh yeah, we got to do this now.’ I kind of felt like it was a hit but that wasn’t the main thing. It was going to fit on the main record.” Released as a single mere weeks (if not days) before MTV went live, “Burnin’ for You” got a significant bump from its music video, thanks in no small part to the new cable network’s desperate need to fill twenty-four hours of daily programming with limited material available. Vocalist and guitarist Eric Bloom noted, “We went out to California, and our management found a video company, and we did two videos in 24 hours: ‘Burnin’ For You’ and ‘Joan Crawford.’ MTV wouldn’t show the ‘Joan Crawford’ video, because there was something about it that was too racy for them. But ‘Burnin’ For You’ got a ton of airplay on MTV in 1981 and 1982.”

 

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192. Scruffy the Cat, “Mybabyshe’sallright”

Scruffy the Cat was a band that had to spend a lot of time explaining themselves. First, there was the unique name, which was always the subject of questions whenever the band was interviewed, inspiring the instinct to concoct elaborate fictions about its genesis, though they usually caved and admitted it was simply drawn from the real moniker of a feline owned by the relative of a former band member. Then there was the need to push back against the perception that they were part of a musical trend making headway in college radio in 1987, when their debut album, Tiny Days, was released. The easy categorization led multi-instrumentalist Stona Fitch to say, “We’re a roots rock band in some ways, but we’re a lot gutsier and raucous than most of these revivalist bands.” Of course, that Fitch mainly played the banjo mightily contributed to the reductive notion. Tiny Days, including lead single “Mybabyshe’sallright,” was produced by Chris Butler, formerly a member of the Waitresses. According to lead singer and chief songwriter Charlie Chesterman, the album was “created from scratch in a chilly loft in New Jersey.” Exhibiting a fine smart aleck streak that also showed up in the band’s songs, Chesterman also described Tiny Days and its EP predecessors as “Real nice records. They’re round, flat, and they have grooves in them.” Chesterman also had a great affection for the touring life. He noted, “It just never gets dull. I can’t think of anything better, as far as a job or a lifestyle. I’m sure there is, but you can travel and see stuff, and you get to hear good music and meet girls and drink beer, and they pay you at the end of the night. Top that!” That joy evidently didn’t last. Scruffy the Cat disbanded in 1991, citing weariness from endless hours on the road as part of the cause. Chesterman passed away in 2013, felled by colon cancer.

 

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191. Ultravox, “Reap the Wild Wind”

According to Midge Ure, there’s not much to the Ultravox track “Reap the Wild Wind.” More specifically, he called it “a song about absolutely nothing.” The song began life as an instrumental, and the lyrics were built with more concern for the words’ rhythm than carrying any sort of deeper meaning. That bit of hollowness didn’t hurt the song’s popularity. When it was released as the first single from the Ultravox’s 1982 album, Quartet, “Reap the Wild Wind” became the band’s only song to reach the Billboard Hot 100. The sixth studio album from Ultravox, Quartet was produced by George Martin, a major get for the band that came about because the famed Beatles collaborator had a daughter who was a major fan of the pop band’s lush music. Bringing in Martin was also an attempt to push into unpredictable creative realms following a series of albums overseen by Conny Plank. The ornate sound that the producer helped craft for “Reap the Wild Wind” caused Ure some problems years later. When Ure mounted an acoustic tour, including a bevy of Ultravox songs on the nightly playlists, “Reap the Wild Wind” was one of the hits he reported he couldn’t quite figure out how to bring to the stage in a stripped down arrangement.

 

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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