In the early nineteen-eighties, Roland Gift was filling up some of his evening hours performing as the lead singer for a ska group called Akrylix, schlepping through the clubs of Northern England. When the Birmingham band the Beat (known as the English Beat between U.S. shores) broke up, in 1983, guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele were in need of a vocalist for the new outfit they were looking to start up, carrying over the punchy ska-tinged rock of their previously band while adding a hearty swirl of soul. By some accounts, the pair listened to over five hundred demos provided by other singers before settling on Gift. Dubbing themselves Fine Young Cannibals, the new group emerged fully formed on their 1985 debut single, “Johnny Come Home.” Even with the lineage Cox and Steele carried, the British press greeted the band like a surprising phenom, helping drive the song into the upper reaches of the charts, though the band largely steered clear of clubs and other promotional venues to concentrate on pulling together a full-length album. “We did do one live show around the time of ‘Johnny,'” Steele noted at the time. “It went quite well. It was at the Wag Club, and people seemed to like what we were doing.” Tapping into a newsy zeitgeist of the era, “Johnny Come Home” is about the perils faced by a teen runaway, the title referring to his parents’ anguished pleas for his return. That wasn’t the original intent of the song, Gift later explained. “‘Johnny’ started off about being black in a white man’s world, but it evolved into something more inclusive and better,” he said.
Slash Records viewed Violent Femmes with some amount of consternation when the trio from Milwaukee was preparing to record their third album. While the band’s duly revered 1983 self-titled debut had turned into a cult sensation, their sophomore album from the following year, Hallowed Ground, largely jettisoned its predecessor’s brilliantly twisty teen angst in favor of spooky, gospel-influenced tales of rural woe. This was not, the label determined, the best approach for selling records to twenty-year-olds. Mark Van Lente, producer of the first two albums, was pointedly not invited back to preside over the third. Instead, label head Bob Briggs secured the services of Jerry Harrison, of Talking Heads fame, perhaps hoping that the fellow native of Wisconsin’s largest city could build some Dairyland rapport with the Femmes. That Harrison previously found the band’s music to be, using his exact language, “offensive” didn’t strike the label as an impediment. In addition to strong label oversight, the push to deliver a more commercial product entailed band adding a cover song to the track list. They took a pass at T. Rex’s 1972 hit “Children of the Revolution,” and it was deemed satisfactory enough to serve as the lead single for the resulting album, The Blind Leading the Naked, released in 1985. It worked well enough. The single was a hit on college radio, and the album became the band’s first to make an appearance on the Billboard chart. And while it might not have exactly represented the surge in sales Slash longed for, a few months after the album’s release Violent Femmes even played Carnegie Hall.
It should come as no surprise that Pretenders leader Chrissie Hynde is candid about the inspiration behind “Middle of the Road,” one of the band’s biggest hits. Well, maybe “inspiration” isn’t a forceful enough word. “That’s a real rip-off,” Hynde said. “That’s a total Stones rip-off. I probably shouldn’t say that, but fuck them. They ripped off so many people in their time. That was kind of my version of ‘Empty Heart.’ Same chords. But there’s only four chords anyway.” So that’s the music. The title refers to the Chinese philosophical text Tao Te Ching. The presiding personal credo Hynde drew from it focused on the need to find balance, to seek out a middle way rather than slaloming between extremes. Released in 1983, the song was partially Hynde’s response to the greater public recognition she endured as the main face of the Pretenders. “I wanted it all, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” she wrote. “You take the bitter with the sweet, but it’s still hard to swallow; like sucking the sugar coating off a pill but not being able to spit it out, and having to keep sucking indefinitely.” Issued as a single from Learning to Crawl, the third full-length from the Pretenders, “Middle of the Road” became the band’s third to make the Billboard Top 40.
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.