There’s probably no way to overstate the importance and the power a song like “Smalltown Boy” carried in 1984. The first single from the London synthpop band Bronski Beat addresses the difficulty of growing up a gay young man in the era, empowered enough to fully understand his own identity, but also cruelly judged and shunned by those around him, their own levels of enlightenment not up to the decidedly simply task of acceptance. “As hard as they would try/ They’d hurt to make you cry/ But you never cried to them/ Just to your soul,” Jimmy Somerville sang, and countless kindred souls around the world harmonized in solidarity. The band had no doubt that was the case. They heard from the people they reached. “I get a lot of letters from boys,” Somerville said at the time the song became a hit in their home country. “And it does prove that people pick up on it. These boys are having to find the courage to face their own sexuality, and there’s nothing else in society that can help them with that. At that stage they’re very confused, and think there’s no one to turn to. There was no one I could turn to because, as far as they were concerned, I was wrong. So letters like that make me feel it’s worthwhile.” The track become one of three Bronski Beat songs to peak at #3 on the U.K. charts (the others were “I Feel Love,” a collaboration with Marc Almond, and “Hit That Perfect Beat”). It was also their only single to crack the Billboard Hot 100. Though it couldn’t make it into the vaunted realm of the Top 40, it did top the Hot Dance Club Play chart for one week, in between decidedly less meaningful songs by Billy Ocean and Sheena Easton.
“Accidents Will Happen” was written during Elvis Costello’s 1978 North American tour. It was the direct result of a fling with a female cabdriver who Costello had enlisted to take him on a reckless romp to Mexico in between live engagements. The salacious little romp ended quickly and badly, leaving Costello to ruminate about a certain emptiness he was left feeling. “The sun was nearly up,” he later wrote in his memoir. “I hadn’t found anything that I was looking for — only an aching head and a dull, guilty regret.” He turned to the ever-handy solace of his guitar, putting the unhappy self-recrimination to a typically artful melody. He drew inspiration from the song “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, though he acknowledged that particular brand of classic pop was outside of his skill set at the time. “So I wrote a song that I could imagine,” Costello explained. According to Costello, the song was written in Phoenix, coming very quickly. He estimates it took only about thirty minutes to compose. It made its debut a few days later, leading off a concert at Hollywood High School, originally performed with nothing more than a piano accompaniment. Costello especially liked it as the opening song of a show, due to the pleasing, irony-tinged symmetry of starting a performance with the lyric “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin.” He recorded it for the 1979 album Armed Forces, and it served as the release’s second single.
When he wrote “Life During Wartime,” David Byrne was thinking both about the recent past and the dizzying technological advances promised in the future. The music came of some studio jamming Talking Heads undertook as they worked through the process of recording their 1979 album, Fear of Music. Byrne composed the lyrics with the feel and edge of his neighborhood and the more strangely combative elements of nineteen-seventies culture. “I wrote this in my loft on Seventh and Avenue A. I was thinking about Baader-Meinhof. Patty Hearst. Tompkins Square. This a song about living in Alphabet City,” Byrne later explained. He was also anticipating the way these indicators of public dismay would continue to grow, eventually standing at odds with the ease of digital advances. It turns out, he was doing so with a remarkable degrees of accuracy, as can be gleaned by his comments in a 1979 interview with NME. “There will be chronic food shortages and gas shortages and people will live in hovels. Paradoxically, they’ll be surrounded by computers the size of wrist watches,” he said. While the more dystopian elements of Byrne’s forecast haven’t yet come to pass — at least not pervasively — his view of mounting social dismay coexisting with technological wonders sure feels spot on. The same commendation of prescience can be granted to his thoughts on the likely abuses of authority in an information age. “Government surveillance becomes inevitable because there’s this dilemma when you have an increase in information storage,” said Byrne. “A lot of it is for your convenience – but as more information gets on file it’s bound to be misused.”Released as the lead single from Fear in Music, “Life During Wartime” peaked at #80 on the Billboard chart, but it’s had an remarkable afterlife, enduring as arguably Talking Heads’ most famous song.
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.