R.E.M. made their U.S. network television debut on Late Night with David Letterman, in October 1983. The band’s debut album, Murmur, had been in stores for about six months, and it naturally made sense for them to play “Radio Free Europe,” the single that became a smash on college radio and even managed to — somewhat inexplicably — cross over into the Billboard Hot 100. They did, but there was time for them to run through another song. After Letterman briefly interviewed the band about their hometown music scene (“Why all of sudden Athens, Georgia? Not that it isn’t a fine community — or is it? Is it a fine community?”), he asked for the name of the song they were about to play. “It doesn’t have one,” bassist Mike Mills replied. “It’s too new.” Then Michael Stipe, who had been conspicuously hiding out from the interview, stepped back up to the microphone, and the band played the song that would eventually become “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry).” The song started life as a chord sequence concocted by Buck that he kept noodling with until his collaborators — including producer Don Dixon — helped him hone the music to its finished state. As usual, the lyrics were left up to the free association verbal wanderings of Stipe. Given the elusive lyrics across the first R.E.M. record, the piercing directness of Stipe repeatedly crying out, “I’m sorry” on “So. Central Rain” was impactful, though everyone, including his bandmates, remained oblivious to what personal travails may have inspired the lament. “I never asked him, but it felt really strong, really emotional, and good to play,” recalled Buck. “We hadn’t decided it would be a single, but we knew it would go on the next album.” That sophomore release, Reckoning, arrived in the spring of 1984, and “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” was the lead single, probably in part because the Late Night bow of the song had created a clamor for it that the band’s label, I.R.S. Records, well remembered.
Peter Gabriel was quick to concede that the biggest hit of his career owed its chart-topping success to the music video that maintained a steady orbit through MTV’s ongoing playlist through much of 1986. “I think the song would have fared OK, ’cause it did seem to work well on the radio,” he said. “But I’m not sure it would have been as big a hit, and I certainly don’t think the album would have been opened up to as many people without the video. Because I think it had a sense of both humor and of fun, neither of which was particularly associated with me.” The video might have been fun to watch, but it would be a stretch to say it was equally enjoyable to film. To accommodate a blizzard of stop motion animation around his noggin, Gabriel had to suffer through several multi-hour days lying beneath a large sheet of glass with his head held in place by a metal pole. The resulting clip was striking, but the track itself had already rattled the senses of execs at Gabriel’s label, who found it to be an agreeable embrace of more commercial elements from the famously esoteric artist. The sound was a modernized take on the classic R&B and soul songs that had inspired Gabriel to become a musician. One night in the audience at a 1966 Otis Redding performance was particularly life-changing. Gabriel recruited Wayne Jackson of the famed Memphis Horns to lead a similar ensemble on the recording. There was also a cheeky attempt to replicate a stealthily salacious element of the bygone hits Gabriel loved. “The lyrics of many of those songs were full of playful sexual innuendo, and this is my contribution to that songwriting tradition,” he said.
No one in the J. Geils Band thought “Centerfold” should be a single. As they were prepping for the imminent release of their 1981 album, Freeze Frame, there were dueling notions over which track should serve as the first promotional shot. Lead singer Peter Wolf favored the title cut, and keyboardist Seth Justman, who wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album, preferred “Angel in Blue.” Initially, Justman won out, and the band was in the midst of shooting a music video for the song when they received a call from the head of their record label. According to Wolf, they were told to “finish it up and get started on ‘Centerfold,'” with little justification offered beyond a vague inkling that the best lead single for the album was the catchy recollection of discovering an old classmate crush gracing the glossy pages of a dirty magazine. The notion proved to be inspired. This band that had never pushed a single higher than #12* on the Billboard Hot 100 found themselves all the way up at the top, a position “Centerfold” held for six weeks. It was an enormous turnaround for an act that was as much as a half-million dollars in debt just a couple years earlier. Though the group was happy to get out from under that financial burden and enjoyed the influx of eager new audience members after years as a cult hero touring act, Wolf maintained it was still the pride in creative accomplishment that they valued most. “See, we still feel we’re students in the College of Musical Knowledge,” he said at the time. “Right now, we’ve got our master’s, but we’re hoping to get our doctorate in the College of Musical Knowledge, not to be confused with the University of Perversity.”
*Originally, I erroneously wrote that the J. Geils Band never previously got higher that #30 on the main Billboard chart. A commenter kindly offered a correction, and the piece has been changed accordingly.
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.