College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 121 – 119

121-talkin

121. Tracy Chapman, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”

Tracy Chapman grew up in Cleveland during the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, a tumultuous time for the city. As options dwindled and the public education system deteriorated rapidly, Chapman got a chance to get out. The recipient of a scholarship through the program A Better Chance, Chapman found herself attending a private high school in New England, many miles and world away. It was there that her talent for music started to evolve into a mission to speak, to challenge the problems she saw before her. The song “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” was inspired by that experience. “I wrote the song ‘Talkin’ Bout A Revolution’ when I was sixteen; I guess I was in my second or my first year of boarding school,” Chapman explained. “It was a really difficult transition for me, being in Danbury, Connecticut. I found that people at the school didn’t really have that much interest. I was really angry about that, and that’s where the song ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’ came from. Meaning that a lot of them thought that… they didn’t think that people’s lives who…, people who didn’t have money or who were working class, their lives weren’t very significant and they also somehow couldn’t make a change. But I feel that’s where change comes from, that’s where people are in most need.” It became one of the songs Chapman took with her when she went to college in Boston, famously playing clubs and coffeehouses on the weekends as she pursued an anthropology degree. After a college cohort got Chapman’s music into the ears of an Elektra Records representative, a recording contract was offered. Chapman’s self-titled debut arrived in the spring of 1988 and hit like a thunderbolt. “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” was the album’s second single. On the surface, it sounds like a fairly typical protest song call to arms, but digging deeper into lyrics reveals the more complex ambiguities (“It sounds like a whisper”). It’s certainly not Chapman’s most famous song, but “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” makes for a handy encapsulation of the singer-songwriter’s primary social preoccupations at the time she rose to fame. “I have a lot of concern over the fact that people are generally very passive in their lives, and for lots of different reasons choose not to act at times when they should — when morally it is their responsibility to do something,” Chapman said at the time.

 

120-refugee

120. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Refugee”

Though he obviously did all right by himself as a recording artist, Tom Petty always had a combative relationship with the industry. He famously scrapped with his own label over inflated prices on his albums and declared bankruptcy rather than let him services be traded like a commodity. It was the latter situation that inspired the lyrics behind “Refugee,” one of the earliest Top 40 hits for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “This was a reaction to the pressures of the music business,” said Petty. “I wound up in a huge row with the record company when ABC Records tried to sell our contract to MCA Records without us knowing about it, despite a clause in our contract that said they didn’t have the right to do that. I was so angry with the whole system that I think that had a lot to do with the tone of the Damn the Torpedoes album. I was in this defiant mood. I wasn’t so conscious of it then, but I can look back and see what was happening. I find that’s true a lot. It takes some time usually before you fully understand what’s going on in a song — or maybe what led up to it.” Officially released as a single in early 1980, the track contributed to the the band’s unlikely status as one of the foundational acts of the music video revolution. They were invited to appear on The Merv Griffin Show to promote the new single, a gig they weren’t exactly enthused about. Instead of lugging their gear into the television studio, they shipped over a clip, believing the daytime talk show would be the only outlet to air it. The band repeated the practice for a quartet of tracks off their next album, Hard Promises, fortuitously creating a comfort with the form that was about to shake the music business. “When MTV came along, I was an old hand at it,” Petty noted. “But I never dreamed those things would be seen repeatedly.”

 

119-chain

119. Pretenders, “Back on the Chain Gang”

James Honeyman-Scott died on June 16, 1982, at the age of twenty-five. Along with drummer Martin Chambers, bassist Pete Farndon, and vocalist and rhythm guitarist Chrissie Hynde, Honeyman-Scott founded the Pretenders. According to all accounts, it was Honeyman-Scott’s lead guitar lines pressed against Hynde’s contrasting chords that gave the band their distinct sound. Honeyman-Scott humbly attributed that his own shortcomings. “I’ve never told them I can’t work out their time at all,” he said. “They are used to me coming in a bar too late. They think that’s the way I play. But it’s because I’ve missed where she comes in! I just bluff it and hope for the best.” Shortly before Honeyman-Scott passed away (of heart failure related to cocaine use), Hynde shared the beginning of “Back on the Chain Gang” with him. “That was a song I was writing and I had shown Jimmy Scott some of the chords, and I was working on this song which he liked, and then he died, and it turned into more of a tribute to him,” Hynde later said. The track saw initial release as a single in October 1982, and it found a place on the Pretenders’ third album, Learning to Crawl. It became the band’s biggest hit in the U.S., peaking at #5 on the Billboard 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.

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