181 coma

181. The Smiths, “Girlfriend in a Coma”

It is a splendidly fitting contradiction that the single widely credited as the one that precipitated the inevitable end of the Smiths also provides a convincing demonstration of the intense value to be found in the fierce collaboration between Steven Patrick Morrissey and Johnny Marr, shimmering pop proof that they would never transcend apart what they accomplished together. To be accurate and thorough, it wasn’t “Girlfriend in a Coma” itself that made Marr finally walk away from the band, but Morrissey’s insistence on releasing it as a single backed on the b-side by a cover of Cilla Black’s “Work is a Four Letter Word.” Disparaging that recording and noting that he hadn’t started a band to perform updated versions of such drivel, Marr said, “That’s the drop of water which overflowed the vase.” The lyrics to “Girlfriend in a Coma” were partially inspired by the famous and tragic case of Karen Quinlan, a twenty-one year old woman who permanently lost consciousness after a night of drinking and drug use. It provoked a famous right-to-die court case and was prominent in the news when a young Morrissey made his first visit to the United States, in the mid-nineteen-seventies. Following his typically downbeat muse, Morrissey spun the true life story into a multifaceted and sneakily ambivalent rumination on romantic loss. It was Marr who decided that song needed a more buoyant rhythm to contrast against the gloom of the lyrics, landing on the 1970 Bob & Marcia reggae song “Young, Gifted, and Black” as musical inspiration. The creative strategy unlocked a dark humor in the song. Bono once reported that he almost crashed the car he was driving the first time he heard the song, all because he was laughing so hard. That mordant quality also earned the track more than a few detractors, with some in the music press grousing it was in bad taste. BBC Radio 1 refused to play it, which didn’t stop the track from becoming the highest charting U.K. single from the band’s 1987 album, Strangeways, Here We Come, which was also, of course, their final studio effort.


180 start

180. The Rolling Stones, “Start Me Up”

According to Keith Richards, there are upwards of forty takes of “Start Me Up,” dating back to the sessions for the Rolling Stones’ 1976 album, Black and Blue. In its original conception, “Start Me Up” was a reggae tune, but the band could never quite land on a version they liked using that approach. Then, in a forecast of the business plan for the decades ahead, the Stones decided they wanted to mount a major tour, and they needed a new album to serve as an excuse for the globe-spanning jaunt. Lacking the time (and maybe the inspiration) to create new songs, the band began sifting through their stockpile of unused material, hoping to cobble together enough that was workable to fill up two sides of a record. Richards later explained that their shifting tastes led to the prosperous reinvention of “Start Me Up.” He said, “We’d obviously gotten pissed off with reggae. We just hit it that one time — rock ‘n’ roll — and there it was lying there, like a little gem.” It was a gem all right, and just as lucrative as a glimmering precious stone. “Start Me Up” peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts, kept from the pinnacle by “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” by Christopher Cross, and “Private Eyes,” by Hall & Oates, two of the most unavoidable songs of 1981. The Stones never got quite that close to the top of the U.S. charts again, though they had a couple more Top 5 songs to come. Besides standing as one of the most iconic songs in a catalog that has no shortage of tracks reasonably deserving of that descriptor, “Start Me Up” has had loads of ongoing earning potential for the band. They famously sold it to Microsoft for the unheard of sum of $3 million, for use in ads promoting Windows 95, the first time the Rolling Stones deigned to allow one of their songs to be used in a commercial, though they did have at least one prior dalliance with the world of jingles.


179 devil

179. INXS, “Devil Inside”

According to Andrew Farris, “Devil Inside” began life on the road. The band was on tour, playing in London, and Farriss started working out the music in his hotel. He later explained, “That’s where I wrote the riff – I put it on a demo in my room. I worked out the chords, played everything for Michael, and he said, ‘That’s really good. Let’s run with it.’” Though the album that is home to the song, 1987’s Kick, was polished into shining shape by producer Chris Thomas, “Devil Inside” was basically the band playing live together in the studio, with just a few overdubs added to it. Released as the second single from the album, “Devil Inside” had the daunting task of following up the band’s first (and only) U.S. chart-topper, “Need You Tonight.” Though both Billy Ocean and Whitney Houston boxed INXS out back-to-back #1 songs, “Devil Inside” had a comfortable tenure in the runner-up position. As was the usual case with the band’s hits, the single benefitted immeasurably from generous MTV airplay of a stylish music video. In this case, the hazy, sultry spot was directed by Joel Schumacher, fresh off the Corey-packed hit film The Lost Boys, which featured an INXS song on its soundtrack. The mere inclusion of the word “devil” has led those who never tire of railing against any signs of encroaching godlessness to occasionally target the song. For example, The New Yorker reported that Muzak removed it from their service “after a devout Christian complained.”


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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