Iris Hewson died in 1974, when her son Paul was fourteen years old. Understandably, the pain and loss stuck with him for years. But what better tribute could a boy provide than to make a song about his mother — indeed, a song written from the perspective of his mother — the first track on the first album from his rock ‘n’ roll band, especially if that group in question goes on to become one of the biggest acts in the world? Leading off the 1980 album Boy, the first from U2, “I Will Follow” is about the unconditional love a mother feels for her child. Despite that, the process to craft the track wasn’t all gentile sweetness. “‘I Will Follow’ came out of a screaming argument in the rehearsal room,” explained the lad once known as Paul and later known an Bono. “I remember trying to make a sound I heard in my head and taking Edge’s guitar from him and hammering away. It was literally coming out of a kind of rage, the sound of a nail being hammered into your frontal lobe.” Subsequently released as a single, the song was and is a sturdy presence in the band’s repertoire. That was especially true in the group’s early years, when the relative modesty of their catalog meant it was one of the most likely offerings to get deployed for cross-media promotion, even such oddities as an appearance on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show and inclusion alongside Journey and REO Speedwagon on the soundtrack to the teen sex comedy The Last American Virgin. It is the latter example that perhaps created some discomfort for the nice Irish Catholic boys in the band, given that the track prominently accompanies a sequence in which a teen girl tearfully gets an abortion.
As common as it is for music artists to maintain a cloak of secrecy around the intent of their individual creations, arguing that they don’t want to disrupt the interpretation of listeners with too much back story, they are also regularly dismayed when those songs are drastically misinterpreted. There are exceptions, such as Michael Stipe, whose notorious penchant for crypticness across the first part of R.E.M.’s shared career paid off by essentially recalibrating a song he found unpleasant. Since the song in question just so happened to be the band’s first Top 40 hit, “The One I Love,” it wasn’t going to be easy to ignore. “I didn’t like the song to begin with,” he told Mojo magazine. “I felt it was too brutal. I thought the sentiment was too difficult to put out into the world. But people misunderstood it, so it was fine. Now it’s a love song, so that’s fine.” The brutal message was about people who callously, repeatedly abuse the faith others have put in them. “It’s about using people over and over again,” Stipe said. “That’s probably a sentiment everyone has felt at one point or another, so you can apply it to yourself, but it’s not an attractive quality.” Even if Stipe had reservations about even recording the song, everyone else was satisfied enough with the finished product that it became the lead single from R.E.M.’s 1987 album Document. And Scott Litt, who produced the album, believed early on that the song would be a hit. “With ‘The One I Love,’ I would say to the guys, ‘I hear this alongside a Whitney Houston song on a Top 40 radio station,'” Litt said. “I thought that the execution of this type of music could be just as big.” That speculation was correct. The week that “The One I Love” peaked it #9 on the Billboard chart, Houston’s “So Emotional” was at #8.
According to Howard Jones, he was feeling a sense of responsibility when it came time to craft songs for his sophomore album, Dream Into Action, released in 1985. He’d enjoyed significant success with his first full-length release, Human’s Lib, registering two Top 40 hits in the U.S. and pushing three songs into the Top 10 in his U.K. homeland. “I thought, ‘People are listening to me, so what can I give them that is really going to help?'” Jones later said. “And everyone goes through shit. Everyone goes through bad times. Every single person on the planet goes through bad times. And it’s great sometimes to have somebody say to you, ‘Come on, even if it gets so you lose everything and everything goes horribly wrong, you can still pick yourself up and go forward, and you can make it right, you can make things get better.'” If the purposefulness of Jones strikes as something that a person conjures up with the bolstering benefit of hindsight, it’s worth noting that the stated artistic credo matches what he was saying at the time, too. “I want to contribute to moving forward, away from barbaric attitudes,” he told Smash Hits in 1985. “I don’t want to be a politician — records are my tools, and I know it’s a very powerful force. Yes, I am on crusade, if you like. I’m deadly serious about what I do.” That stridently upbeat sentiment turned into “Things Can Only Get Better,” a pop promise that became his biggest U.S. hit to that point, peaking at #5.
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.