When Frankie Goes to Hollywood released their second single, in 1984, they faced the burden of following up a major smash. “Relax,” their debut, was one of those songs that grabbed pop culture by the shoulders and gave it a good shake, topping the charts in the U.K. despite (or maybe in part because of) its status as a track banned by the BBC. It just barely crossed into the Top 10 on the other side of the Atlantic, but it certainly seemed more ever-present than that peak suggests. For the next single, the band dove straight into the spirited Cold War protest rock that was surprisingly prevalent in the mid-eighties.”‘Two Tribes’ is just about peace, peace,” lead singer Holly Johnson said at around the time of the single’s release. “There’s two elements to the music — an American funk line and a Russian line,” he added. “It’s the most obvious demonstration of two tribes that we have today.” The original inspiration came from the opening narration of George Miller’s second Mad Max film (known in the U.S. as The Road Warrior), in which Harold Baigent intones, “For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.” Despite the band’s evident commitment to taking on weighty issues in their music, that was hardly their driving force. Even as “Two Tribes” was climbing the charts, Johnson insisted it wasn’t “a Clash politico type number.” Quite the contrary, when the band was at their popular peak, Johnson regularly advocated for hedonism over introspection or any other deep reading of their songs. “People shouldn’t take us too seriously,” he said. “We say try to have a good time every minute of the day. We just want to give pleasure, entertain, and have fun doing it.”
By 1983, Elvis Costello was on his eighth album and was considered a major figure in rock ‘n’ roll. And yet he’d never had a Top 40 hit in the United States, which registered as more of an embarrassment for American culture than any sort of shortcoming on the part of the artist. In fact, he’d never even touched the Hot 100. The 1979 single “Accidents Will Happen” had skimmed the chart at #101. “Everyday I Write the Book,” released as a single from Punch the Clock, was the song that ended the drought. For Costello, the song was little more than a goof. “It was a song I wrote in ten minutes almost as a challenge to myself,” he later noted. “I thought, maybe I could write just a simple, almost formula song and make it mean something.” For Costello’s collaborators, the song’s relative simplicity was precisely the element that made it intriguing. “I was really excited by the idea that Elvis could make a calculated pop record,” said producer Clive Langer. “I wasn’t very interested in recording the band, you know as just a band. I was interested in the whole idea that Elvis could make incredible pop music.” The original notion was that the song would play like a modernized riff on the old Merseybeat sound, but when it came to record it, a new inspiration had taken hold. Costello had been listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye records and suggested the track skew towards a more soulful style. “Everyday I Write the Book” peaked at #36 on the main Billboard chart.
Billboard took a crack at reviewing the first single from the 1985 album Oil & Gold: “Shriekback’s ‘Nemesis’ is a weird mix of rock and electro, as all of their records have been; its also very catchy and cute, and endlessly repeatable, like a work song.” That is relatively accurate, though “cute” seems an odd descriptor for a song that hinges on lyrics like “Priests and cannibals, prehistoric animals/ Everybody happy as the dead come home.” According to vocalist and keyboardist Barry Andrews, the song had its genesis in Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, particularly the half-mad philosophizing of Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. Andrews let his mind spin to other similar moral merry-go-rounds in the culture, including a couple of different figures who went by the name Nemesis. One was the Greek goddess who brought down retribution on the arrogant. The other was a beastie from the British comic book series 2000 AD named Nemesis the Warlock, described by Andrews as “an upright-standing deerlike alien with a nose like a harpoon.” That led to a characteristically blunt explanation from Andrews regarding the methodology of his songwriting. “I decided to conflate the Greek goddess of cosmic retribution with him because, let’s face it, while she embodies an important principle, she doesn’t have a nose like a harpoon,” he said.
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.