By 1984, Martha and the Muffins were a very different band than the one that had a international hit single five years earlier, with “Echo Beach.” The lack of similar chart success with subsequent releases caused the group to get dropped by Virgin Records, and they’d shed several band members over the years, including saxophonist Tony Haas, who chose to conduct his exit interview through a series of missives printed in the letters column of Now, the Toronto alternative weekly newspaper. The tumult was so thorough that remaining members Mark Gane and Martha Johnson took the opportunity to shift away from a band name they’d always intended to be temporary, a cheeky lark poking fun at the relentless grim attitudes on the punk scene when they started playing gigs in the late nineteen-seventies. While there was still just enough affection for the group, especially in their native Canada, to prevent them from completely jettisoning the former name, the 1984 album Mystery Walk was billed only to M+M. That album delivered a hit single that finally compared to “Echo Beach.” According to Johnson, “Black Stations/White Stations” was inspired by the backstory to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” as relayed by a radio DJ. As Johnson listened, the DJ explained the song’s original title was “Brown Skinned Girl,” but it had been altered under the belief that radio stations would be reluctant to play it. Johnson said, “I thought this story was so ludicrous, until I started thinking about how not much had changed in music and how it was still segregated into what were called ‘black’ music stations and ‘white’ music stations.” Like their previous couple albums, Mystery Walk was produced by Daniel Lanois, then a relatively untested studio hand who came to the opportunity because his sister, Jocelyn, was the band’s bassist. For the record, M+M employed drummer Yogi Horton, who’d been recommended by Brian Eno. The collegiality that existed there wound up highly beneficial for Lanois. The same year “Black Stations/White Stations” was released, Lanois was enlisted by Eno to serve as co-produced on U2’s The Unforgettable Fire.
“Sultans of Swing,” the debut single from Dire Straits, was inspired by an actual band using that name. According to Mark Knopfler, he was in a largely abandoned pub drinking with his brother and bandmate, Dave, as a schlumpy jazz combo toiled in the corner. Toward the end of the set, the leader of the group announced that they were the Sultans of Swing, and the contrast between the braggadocio of the name and the downbeat reality of the glum, empty club amused Knopfler. Shortly after Dire Straits officially formed, in 1977, they started shopping a demo tape that included five songs. “Sultans of Swing” was included on it, and it took hold, earning significant radio airplay. It was instrumental in getting the band signed to their first recording contract. “Sultans of Swing” also has a special significance within Dire Straits lore, as it was key to Knopfler discovering his signature guitar sound, in part because he didn’t initially like the song he’d penned. Knopfler explained, “I thought it was dull, but as soon as I bought my first Strat in 1977, the whole thing changed, though the lyrics remained the same. It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat which remained my main guitar for many years and was basically the only thing I played on the first album and the new chord changes just presented themselves and fell into place.”
Sting was hiding out from scandal when he wrote the biggest hit of his career. His marriage to actress Frances Tomelty was coming to an end and a new relationship with another actress, Trudie Styler, was starting to bloom. (Though they were separated for some time, Sting and Tomelty weren’t officially divorced until 1984.) Unfortunately for the musician born Gordon Sumner, there was a little too much overlap to those relationships for the British press. Sting fled to Jamaica, where he stated working on songs that would populate Synchronicity, the fifth and, as it turned out, final album from the Police. According to Sting, the darkness he was going through infected the song. He later explained, “Once I’d written and performed it, I realized it was quite dark. My intention might have been to write a romantic song, seductive, enveloping and warm. Then I saw another side of my personality was involved, too, about control and jealousy, and that’s its power. It was written at a difficult time.” As with most songs from the Police, the prevailing perception is that the creative voice is all Sting, but guitarist Andy Summers claims it’s his contribution that really makes the track work. Summers contended, “Without that guitar part there’s no song. That’s what sealed it. My guitar completely made it classic and put the modern edge on it. I actually came up with it in one take, but that’s because Sting’s demo left a lot of space for me to do what I did. There was no way I was just gonna strum barre chords through a song like that.” Released in May of 1983 as the lead single from Synchronicity, “Every Breath You Take” became a true smash, spending eight weeks on top of the Billboard singles chart.
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.