One of the biggest hits of 1982 had a long, arduous journey to the top of the charts and could have easily disappeared into near-complete obscurity. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was originally written and recorded by the British rock band the Arrows, in 1975. They were responding directly to the Rolling Stones track “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like it),” which was a hit on the radio at the time. “I know they didn’t really mean it in a derogatory way,” explained Jake Hooker, the Arrows’ guitarist. “It minimized what I thought about rock ‘n’ roll. My gut reaction on first hearing it was, ‘What do you mean it’s only rock ‘n’ roll but you like it? I love rock ‘n’ roll!’ And it sort of snowballed from there.” The group thought they had a great song, but their producer, Mickie Most, disagreed. He had them record it themselves while he took a lunch break, meaning the original version was somewhat shoddy. The eventually re-recorded it for use on a weekly television show starring the band. Joan Jett caught that program while killing time in her hotel room one night when on tour with her band the Runaways. She grabbed a copy of the single and started advocating that the Runaways should cover it. The group even worked up a take on the song for their 1977 U.K. tour, but the other members of the Runaways weren’t nearly as enamored so it got dropped from the set list. Years later, when Jett was launching a solo career, the song cycled up again, in part because Hooker was urging her to take another crack at it, still convinced “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was a hit that simply hadn’t happened yet. When Hooker heard the version that Jett recorded with her backing band the Blackhearts, he was convinced the song;s destiny has arrived. “That’s exactly the way I always dreamed it would be,” he said. “The minutes I heard it, I had no doubts. I knew it was going to #1.” This time, Hooker was correct. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the major label debut single from Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, did reach the pinnacle position on the Billboard chart, and it stayed there for a might seven weeks, getting knocked from the perch by arguably the least rock ‘n’ roll song to top the charts that year. Over the years, Jett has betrayed some mixed emotions about the prominent place “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” has in her career — she opted against playing it as part of the short set that commemorated her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for instance — but she conceded to Mojo magazine that coming to terms with it was a step she had to take. “I think most people who love some kind of rock ‘n’ roll can relate to it,” said Jett. “Everyone knows a song that just makes them feel amazing and want to jump up and down. I quickly realized, ‘This song is gonna follow you, so you’re either gonna let it bother you, or you gotta make peace with it, and feel blessed that you were involved with something that touched so many people.'”
Music performers typically start as music fans. And sometimes, the fan discoveries they once made can carry over to their later work. Before Peter Buck gained global renown as the lead guitarist for R.E.M., he earned his rent money as a clerk at Wuxtry Records, in Athens, Georgia. Of course, a side effect of earning dollars at a place where one is mightily enticed by the merchandise is that fair amount of every paycheck might be funneled right back into the register. Buck regularly raided the bins of vintage 45s. It was there that he found “Sugar on a Sunday,” a 1969 single by the Houston band The Clique that made it into the Billboard Top 40. More significantly, the B-side was a song called “Superman.” Years later, when R.E.M. was working on songs for their fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant, the idea of knocking out a cover of “Superman” came up, with all expecting it would serve as their own B-side at some point. Singer Michael Stipe was less taken with the song than his bandmates, so he ceded lead vocal duties to bassist Mike Mills. The finished version, though, provoked a widespread change of mind. Instead of filler on a future 7-inch, “Superman” was chosen to close the new R.E.M. album, the first non-original to grace one of the band’s full-length releases. It also served as the second single from the 1986 album. The song was fairly straightforward in most respects, but R.E.M. remained true to form by aided a cryptic bit to puzzle over. The tracks opens with a tumble of barely discernible Japanese. Supposedly taken from a Godzilla toy with a pull-string that triggers recorded messages, the phrases at the start roughly translate to: “This is a special news report. Godzilla has been sighted in Tokyo Bay. The attack on it by the Self-Defense Force has been useless. He is heading towards the city. Aaaaaaaaagh!”
“There’s more of a feeling of place on this record, a sense of home and a sense that we’re not there,” Peter Buck said of Fables of the Reconstruction, the third album from R.E.M., released in 1985. That sense of displacement is arguably at its most explicit in “Can’t Get There From Here,” which was also the album’s first single. It was also notable because the band known for their yearning jangle tried out a more bold, bounding sound, complete with bleating horns. “It’s like a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Ray Charles and James Brown and all the other great Georgia music giants,” Buck said of the song. Given the abundance of influences that fed the creation of the song, it’s appropriate that Michael Stipe tried to channel a whole slew of them. “I was thinking of sounding like Mahalia Jackson,” he explained. “I tried to do as many different voices on the album as possible. On ‘Can’t Get There From Here,’ I can pick out five different voices.” One of those is the voice of Louis Armstrong, though its not found in Stipe’s singing. Instead, that was the prompt he gave to the horn players to explain the withering blast of sound he wanted at the end of the song.
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.