CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 79 – 77

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79. Joe Jackson, “Steppin’ Out”

Joe Jackson was a seasoned veteran by the time he released the 1982 album Night and Day. Although his debut, the splendid Look Sharp!, had hit record stores only three years earlier, Jackson was on his fifth studio album with Night and Day, and the learned cynicism that often showed up in his songs was confidently leveled against the section of the entertainment industry in which he was employed. “Rock ‘n’ roll is degenerating into a big circus, and videos and MTV are very much part of that,” he noted around that time. “People who are seriously interested in making music as an end in itself are going to have to split away and forge a different path.” Jackson offered these observations as a beneficiary of the big circus. For the lead single to Night and Day, the elegantly intoxicating “Steppin’ Out,” Jackson submitted himself to music video Steve Barron, one of the first individuals who was fairly considered an innovative auteur of the form. Arriving in the MTV mailroom when the cable network was still stretching its limbs after emerging from the eggshell, the video for “Steppin’ Out” received ample airplay, which surely helped the song become the biggest hit in Jackson’s career, reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

 

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78. J.Geils Band, “Freeze Frame”

“Freeze-Frame,” the title cut to the J. Geils Band’s 1981 breakthrough album, was written by lead singer Peter Wolf and keyboardist Seth Justman. “It was, I think, a riff that started on the B3 that Seth was messing with, and [we got to] this title ‘Freeze-Frame,'” Wolf explained. “And we ended up throwing out all these photographic terms and trying to embed them in the song. And it’s basically that freeze-frame moment of love at first sight …. when you’re freeze-framed on someone, that decisive moment.” The resulting track was Wolf’s choice for the first single from the album, but the label opted for “Centerfold” instead. It proved to be an astute choice. The song about discovering a youthful acquaintance all grown up and starkly exposed in the pages of a magazine was a major smash, topping the charts for six weeks. “Freeze-Frame” then had the daunting task of serving as the follow-up single. It couldn’t compare to its immediate predecessor, but it still outpaced every other single in the band’s career, making it into the Top 5 on the main Billboard chart. Once again, the music video surely helped. Directed by Paul Justman, Seth’s brother, the clip caught the band at a messy moment that Wolf acknowledged held a bit of catharsis. “By the time an album is finished, there’s less pressure on you and the video serves as a kind of release,” he said. “Hence, us throwing paint all over each other in the ‘Freeze-Frame’ video.”

 

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77. The Clash, “Police on My Back”

There’s an admirable bravado to the Clash’s decision to follow the resounding commercial success of their London Calling with a sprawling three-album set that careened through just about every stylistic twist they could conjure up. Released in late 1980. Sandinista! wasn’t the band’s first notion for a follow-up, however. “I remember at the beginning of 1980 we planned to have some fun with singles: a Clash singles bonanza, fire them off like rockets all through the year,” guitarist-vocalist Joe Strummer said. The band’s label, CBS Records, wasn’t so keen on that plan, leading to a temporary shutdown in communication between the musicians and their corporate overlords before the former went ahead a delivered a product that would be even tougher to market. When there was still some uncertainty over how the Clash would release their next set of recorded music, they went into New York City’s Power Station studio to lay down tracks. The original plan entailed taking a pass at a couple cover songs as a sort of warmup. They chose to try a cover of “Police on My Back,” originally recorded by Eddy Grant’s old band the Equals. Meant to be a lark, the Clash felt so good about the result that they immediately sought out more studio time, moving over to the famed Electric Lady. Eventually given a halfhearted push by the label as a promotional single from Sandinista!, “Police on My Back” become a hit for the Clash, especially on college radio, where its lyrics fed nicely into the band’s rebellious, outlaw image.

 

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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Posted in Music

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