College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 112 – 110

112-start

112. The Jam, “Start!”

“Thinking back on that period between 1980 and 1982, it was pretty relentless,” the Jam drummer Rick Buckler wrote in his autobiography. “We were literally being swept along by the momentum of the success that we were having. And the more success we achieved, the more demanding everything became. All we could was allow ourselves to go with the flow. Much of that period is simply a blur. But we were doing exactly what we wanted to do, and it was great.” According to the band’s lead singer, lead guitarist, and chief creative force, Paul Weller, part of doing exactly what they wanted to do involved avoid complacency at all costs. By early 1980, the band was ascendent on the U.K. charts, nabbing their first #1 single with “Going Underground.” Befitting an act that made their name at a time when punk was more a description of an ethos than a narrow definition of a music style, the Jam saw hitting a pinnacle like that as an impetus to tear it all down. “I thought ‘Going Underground’ was a peak, and we were getting a little safe with that sound,” Weller said at the time. “That’s why we’ve done ‘Start!'” For the song, Weller drew directly and aggressively from others. The track uses a bass line so clearly lifted from the Beatles’ “Taxman” that the band was certain a lawsuit would follow. (It didn’t.) And the lyrics were inspired by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a book built around his reporting from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Weller was most effected by Orwell’s writing about the ins and outs of democratic socialism as it was being practiced in Spain at the time. “There is a lot of talk of an egalitarian society where all people are equal, but this was it, actually in existence, which, for me, is something that is very hard to imagine,” Weller said. The Jam may have been attempting a creative shake-up, but it didn’t phase their growing audience. “Start!” became the band’s second straight chart-topper in the U.K., displacing no less than David Bowie from that position, in the fall of 1980.

 

111-gene

111. Gene Loves Jezebel, “Heartache”

The clear perception of the band Gene Loves Jezebel was that it was comprised of Welsh twin brothers Jay and Michael Aston. The was understandable. The siblings were at the forefront of all promotional efforts around the band, and they did tend to burn through backing musicians. Six years into the band’s career, they were already on their fifth drummer. The Astons tried to push back against that narrative, but the most compelling testimony comes from the other musicians who cycled into the lineup at one time or another, including guitarist James Stevenson. “A lot of the songs started with my guitar parts, my guitar riffs,” Stevenson explained. “That song ‘Heartache,’ and I don’t know how familiar you are with the songs or the band’s material, but that came from my riff in the first place. I mean, I had a lot of freedom in that band to be creative and come up with musical ideas that the twins could play off.” That creative freedom may have stemmed in part from a failed collaboration with one of most famed musical fellow countrymen of the Astons. They attempted to work with former Velvet Underground titan John Cale, but it proved disastrous. “We learned two valuable things, though: to improvise more and push ourselves,” Michael Aston said. While hardly a smash, “Heartache” became Gene Loves Jezebel’s second single to hit the proper U.K. chart (as opposed to the “Indie” chart) when it was released in 1986.

 

110-express

110. Love and Rockets, “Kundalini Express”

It’s entirely understood that head-melting experiences with LSD informed a big batch of swirling rock ‘n’ roll songs in the nineteen-sixties and into the nineteen-seventies, but there were a few artists still turning to the drug for inspiration in the decades that followed. Love and Rockets were surely the most notable trippers turning their addling LSD experiences into pop music for the college radio set in the eighties, in part as a method to decisively distance themselves from the goth music of Bauhaus, the seminal band where most of the members of Love and Rockets got their start. According to David J, bassist and vocalist for Love and Rockets, the track “Kundalini Express” was originally intended to be a sort of history lesson about their drug of choice. “That song originally was gonna be called ‘Dr. Hofmann,’ and it was going to be about Albert Hofmann discovering LSD, but it just sort of mutated into this lyric about kundalini and aligning that with psychedelic experience,” J said. “Just before I started experimenting with psychedelics, I had a spontaneous kundalini experience when I was meditating. I didn’t know anything about kundalini, but I started to hyperventilate, and then I effectively stopped breathing, which was very strange.” J’s experience with the dharmic energy that originates at the base of the spine led to, as he referred to it, as a “cosmic orgasm,” which presumably is a memorable enough occurrence to inspire some lyrics and melody. “Kundalini Express” became the first single from Love and Rockets’ sophomore album, Express, released in 1986.

 

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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