College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 1

1 tenderness

1. General Public, “Tenderness”

The Beat had just had their biggest hit in the U.K. when the breakup happened. A cover of the pop standard “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” a song first elevated to hit status by Andy Williams, carried the ska-driven Beat all the way into the British Top 5. That success didn’t stop the erosion of their unity, a devastating turn for a group that took pride in a sterling egalitarian ethos.

“We were still trying, still kicking, but we weren’t kicking in time with each other,” guitarist and vocalist Dave Wakeling explained at the time. “The work became harder and harder for less and less.”

Wakeling and fellow vocalist Ranking Rogers departed the band, citing the pressures of a U.S. tour as the culprit in expanding the fissures already breaking the surface of the Beat. Establishing a new outfit, the pair filled out the roster with evacuees from Dexys Midnight Runners and the Specials, while also getting a special assist from Mick Jones, then recently excused from his duties with the Clash. The called the new group General Public.

“We were outside the House of Commons, and there were all these little signs on the gates saying, ‘No Admittance to the General Public,” said Wakeling. “And then, of course, they’re always referring on the telly news and documentaries to the ‘general public,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean.”

Since the new band released their first music in 1984. Wakeling added that the calendar catching up with the title of George Orwell’s most famous novel — and the rampant reintroduction of concepts like doublespeak and Big Brother — made him think of how the term “general public” was foreboding in its own way, like some benevolent dictatorship of democracy.

“Now, any name that has three different meanings has got to have something going for it,” said Wakeling.

General Public’s debut album, All the Rage, was released in January 1984. A few months later, a track called “Tenderness” was chosen to be one of its singles. Sweet at first listen, the lyrics of the song are infused with melancholy, the product of songwriting conducted on the road, away from family and other loved ones. Wakeling said he spent time chatting via CB radio with the truck drivers that were out on the highway while he traveling similar roads on a tour bus late at night.

“And the notion was that you were driving around in there in America searching for the tenderness, whereas, of course, it’s in your heart all the time,” he noted many years later. “So it’s like you’re looking in the outside world for something that can only be discovered in yourself, because love is a verb, not a noun. That was the notion of it.”

At the time “Tenderness” was released as a single, Wakeling’s assessment was even more direct, noting it was simply one of the strongest songs on the album, essentially the culmination on everything he’d worked toward in his creative efforts.

“What we’ve been trying to say in the song is very serious,” said Wakeling. “It’s been enough to make me cry on a number of occasions, but if you can say that while making it sound poppy and cheerful, then that’s really what I’ve been aiming for since we left the Beat.”

Back in the U.K., the single was a dud, stalling out in at #95 on the charts. It had a far different fate on the other side of the Atlantic, taking a place of repeated prominence on MTV, then coming into its own as a musical tastemaker.

That success might not have happened if the band had stuck with their original vision for the music video. In the U.K., the clip emphasized the forlorn attempts at escaping loneliness hidden in the lyrics, depicting Wakeling stumbling into a tryst with a female bodybuilder in a hotel distant from his wife and child. The band members thought it was dandy in its twisted, cynical depiction of life as traveling musicians. Their U.S. label, I.R.S. Records, voiced a different opinion.

“We brought it over and showed it to I.R.S.,” Wakeling told Mother Jones. “‘Good video, eh? What do you think?’ And they just stood there horrified. So we had to make another video for the American audience that makes us look very pretty. My mum thinks the American video is fantastic.”

Wakeling’s mum wasn’t the only person to hold that opinion. The video of “Tenderness” helped garner General Public their first Top 40 hit in the U.S. On the college charts, the single was a smash, and Wakeling later acknowledged it was the label execs taking their honed skills with promoting to student programming — and the money they were starting to make — and effectively transferring those strategies to the commercial end of the dial that led to the track’s success.

“If you look at the history of I.R.S., you can see there’s a certain point right about the time when ‘Tenderness’ came out — just before — where all of a sudden songs on I.R.S. were starting to enter the top 40,” Wakeling told Popdose. “And I think that they’d had enough success with the college charts and the independent charts that they could now afford to enter the Top 40 lottery game.”

Chuffed with chart success or not, General Public didn’t last long. There was only one other full-length album before Wakeling and Ranking Rogers each went on to middling solo careers. Reunions happen, though, and General Public, in some ways, had one of the stranger ones. They got back together to record a cover of the Staple Singers’ song “I’ll Take You There,” which was featured on the soundtrack to Threesome, a now-blessedly-forgotten attempt at daring cinema starring Lara Flynn Boyle, Josh Charles, and — help us all — Stephen Baldwin. Bizarrely, the cover song stands as officially the highest-charting General Public single in the U.S., outdoing “Tenderness” by five places.

 

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.