Bands beholden to major labels are often told they need to buckle down and try to write a hit song. As they were prepping material for their 1985 album, Songs from the Big Chair, Tears for Fears were given even more specific instructions than that. They were charged with writing a single that would appeal to the U.S. market. That single was “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” “We did the song to have an American hit,” Roland Orzabal, guitarist and vocalist for the band, conceded at the time. “It’s got the right beat and feel.” When pressed about whether or not that route to creativity was crassly opportunistic, Orzabal replied with logic that’s difficult to totally discount. “If you’ve got the talent to do it, why not do it?” he posed. Even though the song was penned with the U.S. market in mind, the band initially disagreed with the label’s decision to make it the lead single. “Which is interesting in retrospect, because it was one of those times when the record company was right and we were wrong, because for America, yes, it was a better first single,” Curt Smith, the other half of Tears for Fears, conceded later. Of course, it would be crazy to argue otherwise. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” topped the Billboard chart for two weeks in the summer of 1985, and was a mighty driver to Songs from the Big Chair going platinum five times over. It’s all pretty impressive for a song that’s hardly a chipper pop confection. “The concept is quite serious — it’s about everybody wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes,” Smith noted.
Irish songwriter John O’Neill had only recently departed from the band the Undertones and started the band That Petrol Emotion with his brother Damian when he heard the song “Naked as the Day You Were Born,” by the Weather Prophets. The first line of that song — “Sometimes you have to make a big decision” — hit him hard. “I thought, ‘God, that’s a great name for a song,'” O’Neill recalled. He was further inspired by realizing the same line appeared in the Velvet Underground song “Heroin.” By O’Neill’s admission, he nicked the basic sound of the Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It,” and he was off. The resulting song from That Petrol Emotion offered a spirited call to arms for those who wanted to agitate for change. “The 1981 hunger strike had happened, and I had become more politicized,” O’Neill explained. “I was fully behind Sinn Féin.” He noted that his prior band had avoided politics, but the time seemed right to take advantage of the natural platform he had a performer who could command at least a little swatch of the airwaves. The track was released as a single in 1987.
The sillier a pop song, the more music fans and observers are going to rush in to impose supposed profundities on it. That helps explain why “The Safety Dance,” by Men Without Hats, has been tagged by outsiders as a metaphor for nuclear war or other highfalutin’ topics. The bands members, though, insist it’s about something simpler and right in line with arguably the most enduring theme in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about the broader concept of nonconformity. Perhaps appropriately, it began with the attempts to clamp down on a ruckus in a rock club. Supposedly it all began with the band members taking umbrage with bouncers who tried to shut down pogoing shows. “I was telling people, ‘It’s OK, you can slam dance if you want to,'” explained Ivan Doroschuck, the lead singer of Men Without Hats. Released, in 1983, as the second single from the band’s debut album, Rhythm of Youth, it became a worldwide hit, making it to #3 on the Billboard singles chart and — appropriately enough — topping the dance chart.
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.