It didn’t start with a picture of the Pope on live television. Sinéad O’Connor was at war from the beginning. “I had no illusions that there were such things as record deals — I just happened to be lucky enough to get one,” O’Connor noted shortly after the release of her 1987 debut album, The Lion and the Cobra. “I didn’t realize there were such bastards in this business.” Her famously shaved head — a look especially out of step with late-eighties fashion trends — was O’Connor’s rebuttal to label attempts to impose a more MTV-friendly style on her. Her dramatically coiffure choice wasn’t a foolproof defense, though. When “Mandinka” was released as the third single from The Lion and the Cobra, adjustments were made to the image that graced the sleeve. “That was the art director in the English record company who decided that a woman should have nice pink lipstick,” O’Connor told Musician. “He decided that in the original photograph the lips were too dry. He went down and asked one of the secretaries in the A&R department if she thought my lips were too dry, and she said, ‘Oh, yes, I do.'” The attempts at post-shoot makeovers didn’t matter to most listeners, who realized that O’Connor was offering something intensely special. As for the meaning behind the song “Mandinka,” O’Connor preferred playing it coy in those days. “Mandinkas are an African tribe,” she said. “They’re mentioned in a book called Roots by Alex Haley, which is what the song is about. In order to understand it, you must read the book.”
The Godfathers released their debut album in 1986, but most college radio programmers got their first exposure to the U.K. band when their sophomore release exploded with the perfect song to speak to the romanticized pessimism that is — or least was — endemic to those hovering around the age of twenty. The title of the band’s major label debut, issued in 1988, offered a savagely bleak reduction of the life experience: Birth, School, Work, Death. The album’s title cut also served as its lead single. It featured vocalist Peter Coyne snarling out the individual experiences of the title, surrounded by equally succinct and simple lyrics, such as “And I been high and I been low/ And I don’t know where to go.” It wasn’t exactly deep, but that was the point. The Godfathers were going straight for the gut. “It’s about a feeling rather than a political view,” guitarist Michael Gibson said of the song at the time. “Seeing people in the audience shouting along — they’ve all been through similar things, but to each one of them the song means something different.” Even though it provided a grim recitation of the march through human existence, the latitude within the lyrics gave the song a universality that helped it spread and endure. “‘Birth, School, Work, Death’ has been covered in about seven or eight different languages — French, Spanish, Japanese, Finnish,” Coyne reflected recently. “All kinds of things have come up as just a result of that one number. I supposed the question in ‘Birth School Work Death’ is ‘Is that all there is to life?’ The answer to that surely is ‘No.’ And then you fill in the dots yourself.”
By the time the Screaming Blue Messiahs released their third album, Bikini Red, the veneer of self-seriousness had already hardened around college rock. With the likes of Mojo Nixon and the Dead Milkmen finding spots on left of the dial playlists, there was certainly room for a little mockery, but most bands were supposed to play it straight and intense. That’s how U2 sold a kajillion records, after all. When the Bikini Red first hit, in 1987, Screaming Blue Messiahs band members felt a need to urgently justify one track in particular to the ever-judgmental U.K. music press. “It’s supposed to be funny,” lead singer Bill Carter insisted about the song “I Wanna Be a Flintstone.” There simply weren’t that many rock bands that felt they could hang onto their cool guy reputation while simultaneously delivering a raucous ode to the preeminent modern Stone Age family. “We have a lot of fun, it’s not deadly serious — I don’t think,” Carter continued. “It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek. It’s only music.” Although the song’s eventual and inevitable inclusion on the soundtrack to the 1994 live action film version of The Flintstones undoubtedly makes it the band’s most lucrative track, bassist Chris Thompson and drummer Kenny Harris later groused that releasing the song as a single led to nothing but terrible experiences. “It was one of the biggest mistakes we ever made and we ended up doing Top of the Pops, which was fucking horrible,” they said in a joint interview.
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.