John Lydon, formerly known as Johnny Rotten, is not someone who most would instinctively refer to as a folk musician, but that’s exactly how he sees himself. “What I mean by folk is that what I sing is from the heart and soul,” Lydon explained. “I’m not trying to imitate any other genre or style of singing. I’m singing as I feel it. I’m trying to be as truthful to myself as I possibly can. And hopefully that communicates to others.” With that established, it becomes a little more clear that “Rise,” the 1986 lead single from Album, the fifth full-length studio effort from Public Image Ltd., is a fiercely committed protest song. During the writing process, “Rise” was simply called “South African Song,” and it drew many of its lyrics from the testimony of those who suffered through that nation’s brutal policy of apartheid. “I read this manual on South African interrogation techniques, and ‘Rise’ is quotes from some of the victims,” said Lydon. “I put them together because I thought it fitted in aptly with my own feelings about daily existence.” Lydon also drew from his own heritage, building the song’s chorus around a modification of “May the road rise up to meet you,” the first line of an old gaelic blessing. Melding the reports of those persecuted for political purposes with his own sense of history closer to home was ultimately Lydon’s way of making a universal statement about the folly of the most destructive human conflict. “My message is there’s no political cause worthy enough that people should die for it,” he said. “Once you start murdering your fellow human beings it’s over. ‘Rise’ is about the stop of that.”
In the annals of woefully misunderstood hit songs, Timbuk 3’s “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” is an especially notable entry. There may be no clearer indication of a devastating inability to understand irony by certain planners of academic graduations and idiot politicians than the repeated blindly cheerful invocation of this buoyant folk-pop song about donning sunglasses to witness nuclear holocaust. “Yeah, the misinterpretations were frustrating and embarrassing sometimes,” conceded Pat MacDonald, one half of the then-married duo that comprise the full lineup of the Madison-by-way-of-Austin band. Despite the quirky nature of the track, which set it distinctly apart from any of the other songs it rubbed elbows with on the pop charts, MacDonald claimed he always knew if had the stuff to become a hit. “The song felt like a radio song from the moment I wrote the lines, ‘I study nuclear science/ I love my classes/ I got a crazy teacher/ He wears dark glasses,'” MacDonald said. “Something about the rhythm of the words and the imagery sounded very current and listener-friendly.” The title came from an offhand remark by Barbara K. MacDonald (one-half of both the marital and musical partnerships), who was in fact originally using it without irony, offering a optimistic assessment about days ahead. It was Pat MacDonald who immediately spun it around when he started filling in lyrics. Though the 1986 single felt like it was everywhere, it peaked at a surprisingly modest #19 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Released as the lead single from All Over the Place, the 1984 debut album from the Bangles, “Hero Takes a Fall” was a monumental song for the Los Angeles quartet, in a myriad of ways. For one thing, Susanna Hoffs maintained that it marked a creative breakthrough with her bandmate Vicki Peterson. “When I look back on my writing relationship with Vicki, I think that song was kind of a milestone in terms of our collaboration, where we just we sat down with an idea in mind to do something that had a good beat and would really be fun to play live,” Hoffs noted years later. “We ended up releasing it as a single and it got a lot of airplay on the college radio circuit. Having been playing on the club scene in L.A., we started to kind of elevate from playing smaller venues up to small theaters.” The requisite music video also snagged the band an especially notable fan. That promotional clip inspired the fervent interest of Prince, who would attend their shows, occasionally joining them onstage to gild the song with a characteristically ferocious guitar solo. “It was really astounding and awe-inspiring, actually, to stand next to him on stage and hear him play and see him play,” said Hoffs. “It was great.” Of course, when one of the true musical geniuses of the era takes a liking to a band, there are other fringe benefits. He also offered to give them a song he’d written. The resulting track was nothing less than a worldwide smash.
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.