Dire Straits’ biggest hit came about because Mark Knopfler eavesdropped in a New York City appliance store. According to the singer, guitarist, and chief songwriter for the band, he was browsing toward the back of the building, where an imposing row of televisions were all set to MTV, back when the cable network was still a sensation and took seriously the programming focus implied by the first letter of its name. An employee of the shop watched whatever music video was playing and offered a real-time, highly derogatory, and fairly offensive editorial reply. Knopfler reported grabbing a pen and paper to transcribe what was said and eventually transformed it into the primary lyrics to “Money for Nothing,” which became a single from Dire Straits’ 1985 album, Brothers in Arms. It was the “fairly offensive” part of the song that eventually stirred up controversy, when Canada banned it from the radio, over twenty-five years after the single’s release. (The prohibition didn’t last all that long.) Though a songwriting credit arguably could have been granted to the unwitting store employee, it was a different person who claimed that honor, making “Money for Nothing” the only track on Brothers in Arms not solely owned by Knopfler. Sting was evidently vacationing in Montserrat when Dire Straits were there recording, in the regularly utilized AIR Studios. (Sting would have been somewhat familiar with the facilities, since the Police recorded there for both Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity.) He stopped by to visit and noted the track should include someone singing the famed slogan “I want my MTV.” Sting’s suggestion was taken, and he was enlisted for the task. Somewhat fittingly, then, the cable network was absolutely instrumental to the success of the song, through their loving embrace of the groundbreaking computer animation music video. That was no easy sell for the band, however. It took a concerted sales job on Knopfler by the video’s director, Steve Barron. In the end, he didn’t convince Knopfler so much as he convinced Knopfler’s girlfriend at the time. She argued that the concept sounded significantly more interesting that the bulk of the material that played on the network, and Knopfler’s lack of contradiction through his silence was taken as all the assent the director needed. Thanks in no small part to that video, “Money for Nothing” spent three weeks on top of the Billboard chart.
144. Blondie, “Rapture”
Famed as the first song featuring rapping to top the Billboard singles chart, Blondie’s “Rapture” was a direct response to the burgeoning music scene in New York that the band was privy to given their place as a certain kind of city royalty. According to lead singer Debbie Harry, she and bandmate Chris Stein were the ones who decided to incorporate this vibrant new sound they were hearing. “Rap was a local phenomenon that had been going on for about four or five years in the Bronx and Brooklyn,” Harry said. “We used to go up to these rap parties, DJ sessions, and Chris said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this song that would be great for a rap song. Let’s do it.'” Harry said it was a true collaboration, as she and Stein kept trading lyrics during the writing process. Comparing handwriting on the original sheet of paper used in the creative process was the only way to know for certain who contributed what. (Harry was usually quick to note that the loopy nonsense of “You go out at night, eatin’ cars/ You eat Cadillacs, Lincolns too/ Mercurys and Subarus/ And you don’t stop, you keep on eatin’ cars” was one hundred percent Stein.) Though the rest of Blondie was initially reluctant about the song, Harry and Stein pushed it through, in part by arguing that it was comfortably in line with their other material, despite this strikingly new music form deployed in the second half of the track. (Harry saw it as sonically similar to Blondie’s “The Attack of the Giant Ants,” released four years earlier.) Released, in early 1981, as the second single from Blondie’s 1980 album, Autoamerican, “Rapture” was not only a sizable hit — the band’s fourth and final Billboard #1 — but it was also the first exposure to rap music for countless listeners. Harry later learned that introduction even applied to some future titans of the genre, such as members of Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan. That bit of legacy undoubtedly helped Blondie recruit a handful of rap performers when they decided to revisit the style for the title cut to the their 1999 reunion album, No Exit.
“It is about somebody, a girl that I grew up with, basically, and it’s absolutely true all the way along,” explained Kevin Rowland, the lead singer and bandleader for Dexys Midnight Runners. “And there was a time, about fourteen or fifteen — it was a funny thing, sex came into it, and our relationship had always been so clean. It seemed at that time to get dirty, and that’s what it’s about. I was really trying to capture that atmosphere.” Lyrically, it might have been all about Rowland’s Catholic repression, but musically it drew on the singer’s Irish heritage and, perhaps more egregiously, on the old Jimmy James song “A Man Like Me.” Released as a single from the band’s 1982 album, Too-Rye-Ay, “Come On Eileen” initially struggled a bit on the U.K. charts, but it eventually took hold with listeners, becoming a global smash, including a week atop the Billboard chart that was bookended by multi-week runs for the two #1 songs Michael Jackson generated from Thriller. A hit was precisely Rowland’s goal, even though a member of rock’s ruling class warned him against it. “I mean, somebody like Van Morrison is genuinely not interested in success,” Rowland said at the time. “I met him lately, and he asked me, ‘What are you up to, Kev?’ I told him I was trying to get a single into the charts. He said, ‘Aye, I used to do that years ago, but it’s really not worth it. You end up getting your audience to wanting to hear that same song in five years’ time.'” Morrison probably should have elaborated on just how demanding those audiences could be. During live shows, Rowland had a propensity for slowing down a song to engage in a little improvised vocal meandering, but audiences wouldn’t have it with “Come On Eileen.” While still touring on Too-Rye-Aye, Rowland would indulge in that trick only to have the audience effectively overrule him, drowning out the band by collectively singing the song at their preferred tempo.
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.