Sometimes when focusing on singles released in the nineteen-eighties, it is illuminating to look at their music videos. By the time R.E.M. released their fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant, in 1986, MTV was approaching the peak of its powers as the tastemaker for U.S. music charts. Although R.E.M. had a somewhat strained relationship with the promotional art of music videos, lead singer Michael Stipe took the lead on creating a clip for the album’s lead single, “Fall on Me.” Its cryptic imagery was in line with the band’s image as inscrutable icons of college rock, but the video also included the lyrics spelled out word by word on the screen. That technique was an announcement that the band wasn’t going to hide behind the mumbling of Stipe at the microphone, a left turn that was at least partially instigated by producer Don Gehman, the man behind the boards on John Mellencamp’s biggest hits in the eighties. Romantic as it may have been to scuffle around on the outskirts of success, R.E.M. was ready to translate their cult stardom into the something more lucrative. ““I think Don came at the perfect time for the band,” bassist Mike Mills said at the time. “He works with the radio in mind and concentrates on getting the best, biggest sound.” Gehman thought Stipe’s vocals should be more prominent. Even with the lyrics popping up on the screen and the singing’s crisper enunciation and prominence, there was still a little bit of confusion. That mixed messaging was due in part to guitarist Peter Buck’s casual sharing that the song had its origins in Stipe ruminating about the scourge of acid rain. The song went through a complex evolution before it was finally pressed to record. The finished version had a more imprecise but still pointed message, according to Stipe. “It’s a general oppression song about the fact that there are a lot of causes out there that need a song that says, ‘Don’t smash us,'” explained Stipe.
Perhaps only Bono could start out trying to write a simple love song and finish with a paean to the Polish Solidarity movement. The lead singer of U2 had recently wed his high school sweetheart, Alison Stewart, and he tried to pen a tribute to their mutual affection. When it came time to really work through the lyrics, he evidently had something else on his mind. “We improvise, and the things that came out, I let them come out,” Bono told Rolling Stone. “I must have been thinking about Lech Walesa being interned. Then, when we’d recorded the song, they announced that martial law would be lifted in Poland on New Year’s Day. Incredible.” Bono maintains the love song intent lingered, because the emotional grounding of the song is in thoughts of being separated from one’s loved ones while locked away as a political prisoner. The song served as the lead single from War, U2’s third studio album, which was released in 1983. It became U2’s first Top 10 single in the U.K. and delivered their inaugural appearance on the Billboard chart, where it peaked at #53. For anyone who’s found Bono’s political piousness over the years to be tiresome, it was the commercial success of “New Year’s Day” which ratified that thread of his creative personality. “It just appears that people are getting disillusioned with the usual sort of ‘snap, crack, and pop,’ and they want something different ,” Bono said at the time.
When the Welch band the Alarm released the album Strength, in 1985, they were making a concerted effort to push back against a perception they found limiting. Although it was only their second full-length studio effort, the band was already feeling a disconnect between their intent and the impact of the music, at least as it was reflected back to them by the music press. “With this album, we’ve tried to make the lyrics more articulate,” lead singer Mike Peters said at the time, noting that the complexities of the band’s debut, Declaration, left listeners a little confused. “So this time, I went home and tried to write about my own little world and my life and make it very direct,” Peters continued. “So you can read every song on this new album and think, ‘Yeah, I know exactly what that song is about from start to finish.'” That clarity included the title track, with its plainspoken hopes for fortified inner bearing to stand up to the challenges of life. The relatively simplicity of the lyrics not only helped the song to be better understood. It also served to allow for it to grow over the years, especially for Peters himself. The performer has gone through a string of weight health challenges, spurring him to reflect on how valuable the song feels to him decades after its creation. “Certainly a song like ‘Strength,’ with the opening line ‘Who will be the lifeblood / coursing through my veins’ — I mean, I wrote that 30 years ago and that was really just a line that came out in the birthing process of the song and just sounded good and fit well with the song,” Peters said. “But I don’t think that I really understood it until I found myself in need of that very same thing when I was diagnosed with leukemia and would need someone’s lifeblood to come into my own, to give me a chance to live.”
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.