Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “That Thing You Do”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

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Before there was a single note of music, there was a title.

During the lengthy, soul-draining press junket for Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks decided to try his hand at writing. He tinkered with a story about a scrappy rock band called the Wonders that has a taste of fame with a surprise hit song in the nineteen-sixties. The name of the eventual screenplay and the fictional band’s single was the same: That Thing You Do!, with the exclamation mark in place, please.

Hanks used his recently rejuvenated movie star clout to parlay the screenplay into his feature directorial debut. The structure of the story necessitated that the song was going to get played a lot, so it was critical to get the tune right. To do so, Hanks and his collaborators launched a sort of contest within the music publishing community, inviting anyone to submit a contender, with only the title and adherence to the pop stylings of the film’s era as a guideline. Reportedly, over three hundred entrants poured in.

In the end, Hanks selected a song written by Adam Schlesinger, who was then in the early days with his band Fountains of Wayne. Schlesinger had recruited Mike Viola, of the band Candy Butchers, to sing on the demo, and Viola was retained to handle lead vocal duties on the version used repeatedly in the film. (Viola’s credit was buried in order to maintain the illusion of the Wonders, causing some consternation.) The effort to retain as much of the demo’s sound as possible shows just how close Schlesinger came to Hanks’s notion of the song.

“This one was right on so many levels — and right in that it wasn’t, also, the greatest song you’ve ever heard,” Steve Zahn, who played Wonders guitarist Lenny Haise in the film, told Entertainment Weekly. “It had to be right. It had to be something you would believe that these young guys would write, and at the same time, something that was good enough that you would believe that people would be totally into it.”

Although it’s become a premium channel staple in recent years, That Thing You Do! was only a modest hit at the box office. But original songs that were actual central to movies — as opposed to closing credits tack-ons — have long been a rarity. “That Thing You Do!” received an Oscar nomination, losing to a new number cooked up for the film adaptation of the stage musical Evita.

In the film, “That Thing You Do!’ rockets up the charts, reaching at least as high as #7. Out in the crueler real world, the single, credited to the Wonders, peaked at #41 on the Billboard chart.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Top Ten Movies of 2017 — Number Nine

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Christopher Nolan is a masterful cinematic craftsman who compulsively calls attention to his own striking craft. As opposed to Steven Spielberg, his most obvious ancestor, Nolan is largely disinterested in engulfing an audience so completely in the feelings of the piece that the gap between them and the screen magically disappears. Instead, the tense of intricacy of his art — even material as inherently escapist as a superhero movie —  demands close attention. The intellectual outweighs the visceral, even as Nolan ventures into tales that can’t help but stir base emotions. Dunkirk thrives on that teetering contradiction, depicting the events around the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II with a pummeling, frightful authenticity while simultaneously engaging in an ingenious puzzle box of fractured narrative timelines that illuminate the import of the historic moment. Dunkirk represents the first time in his career that Nolan has taken on a topic of genuine gravity. It is to his great credit that he fully honors that seriousness of his subject matter while retaining his clear, sharp voice. Coming from him, the film is both unexpected and — in its riveting particulars — a project only he could make. There is no better way for a filmmaker to move forward.

Playing Catch-Up — A Ghost Story; I Am Not Your Negro; Mudbound

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A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017). There’s been some chatter lately about the divide between film critics and general audiences. I thought about that quite a bit while finally catching up A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s ruminative tale of grief and holding on too long. The feature showed up on plenty of lists tallying up the year’s best movies, but I imagine most viewers would regard the 90 minutes spent with its deliberate, spare storytelling as a form of punishment. I’m somewhere in between. I admire Lowery’s unyielding commitment to his concept, but I don’t exactly warm to it. In depicting a household marked by loss, in which the dearly departed (Casey Affleck) haunts his former romantic partner (Rooney Mara) in a spectral form straight out of a Peanuts strip, Lowery is so reserved that he leaves barely any room for character — and therefore emotion — to infiltrate the proceedings. The result is a movie that’s a fascinating feat, but its ultimately too arid to sustain feature length. As a short, I might very well have been spectacular.

 

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I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016). The spine of this documentary is derived from writing James Baldwin did in the nineteen-seventies, as he tinkered with a proposed book project reflecting on the lives and impacts of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. Raoul Peck’s film takes its cues from Baldwin as it expands from there, endeavoring to take in the whole of the famed writer’s life and influence as more of a thoughtful, exploratory cinematic essay rather than some dutiful trek through career highlights. It is dizzying and powerful, especially in the resonant delivery of Baldwin’s words by a atypically understated Samuel L. Jackson. Mostly, it stirs regrets about the ways public discourse has degraded over the years. It’s only been fifty years or so since Baldwin was invited to go on national television and expound on the issues of the day with profound intellectual force. Even with a vastly expanded landscape, there’s practically no room in the clattering modern discussion for someone who addresses the nation’s shared challenges with such articulate assurance.

 

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Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017). A fantastic example of serious-minded, large-scale filmmaking, Dee Rees’s adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound is an emotional powerhouse. Set in small town Mississippi shortly after World War II, the film concentrates on two different families. The McAllans, who have purchased a downtrodden farm, and the Jacksons, who work that lands ostensibly as employees, but really under the imposed servitude of a bigoted South. The film’s dense complexities are reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime — and the underrated 1980 film version, directed by Milos Forman — and Rees rises to meet the challenge, handling the overlapping and intersecting plot lines with astonishing skill. The cast is terrific across the board, with especially strong performances by Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, and Garrett Hedlund. And Rachel Morrison’s cinematography — which has already earned her a place in Academy Awards history — is a pure artistry, tapping into the natural majesty of rural America. It calls to mind Haskell Wexler’s Days of Heaven photography, but with a dose of brutal realism, like a heavy leather bible that gives off a certain glow, but is rough to the touch.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #992 – #989

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992. T Bone Burnett, Proof Through the Night (1983)

In the early nineteen-eighties, T Bone Burnett was a musician of high regard who hadn’t yet broken through. A few years earlier, Burnett earned his keep as a guitar-slinger on Bob Dylan’s much-loved Rolling Thunder Revue. That helped him get enough industry buzz to record and release a couple of solo records, neither of which fully clicked commercially. For many in his sphere, there was an inkling that Proof Through the Night was going to be different.

Taking a distinctly literary approach to his lyrics, Burnett crafted a batch of sober, gently moralizing songs. They yearn to have a stripped down, similar to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, released one year earlier. That’s not really how it worked for an unproven artist at the dawn of the MTV era, though. To Burnett’s dismay, the songs were glossed up by producer Jeff Eyrich, whose sole behind the boards credit to that point was the single “A Million Miles Away,” a minor hit for the Plimsouls. All across Proof Through the Night, it’s very evident there’s a misguided attempt to fluff Burnett’s stark transplanted fictions into something more slickly radio-friendly.

For enough listeners (including Rolling Stone critics, who awarded Burnett Best Songwriter honors in their year-end poll), Burnett’s voice comes through. “When the Night Falls,” written with Roy Orbison in mind, is fairly indicative, coupling evocative lyrics to a melody and song structure that betray a deep appreciation for classic rock ‘n’ roll styles. “Pressure” is a fine honky tonk stomper, and “After All These Years” has a touch of Burnett’s old tour bus compatriot Dylan in its wistful, romantic remembrance.

Elsewhere, the skinned knuckle short story approach of Burnett’s songwriting is a little more troublesome. “Fatally Beautiful” delivers its lyrics about a female who stirred amorous attention her whole life, receiving predatory attention in the process (“She was born in the back of ’34 Ford/ Raised in a foster home/ Her guardian made sexual connection with her/ Before she was even grown”) with an unsettling jauntiness. There’s also the odd spoken word song “Hefner and Disney,” in which Burnett takes particular pleasure is making the latter into a figure of lurid tastes.

Burnett was disappointed enough with the finished product that it took years — decades, really — for Proof Through the Night to make its way onto CD. In the more immediate aftermath, he committed to the idea that, when it came to producing, he knew better. The first Burnett solo records had been self-produced, but now he was ready to serve in that capacity for other artists, signing his name to albums from Leo Kottke and Los Lobos before the year was out.

 

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991. Lime Spiders, Volatile (1988)

“Volatile,” the opening track and title cut on the Lime Spiders’ 1988 album, opens with a bellow straight out of the Arthur Brown playbook. To those with a working familiarity with the half-crazed output of the English singer, there could be few better signals as to the blazing, boisterous music to come across two vinyl sides. “I’m out to lunch/ And you know I got a real short fuse,” Mick Blood sings, and it is both warning and conspiratorial celebration.

The Lime Spiders were an Australian band that looped a barbed wire lasso around garage punk and dragged it ruthlessly through the blood-dappled mosh pit of punk rock. The band had already gone through a whole batch of iterations — complete with messy breakups and perilous rejuvenations — by the time they released their debut full-length, The Cave Comes Alive!, in 1987. Less than a year later, Volatile hit record racks.

Given that so much of Volatile is angry rock ‘n’ roll that roars along like a turbo-charged bulldozer, it’s downright jarring — in the best sense of the word — when the music tilts ever so slightly toward a gentler vibe, as on the “The Odyssey,” which is what the Monkees would have dished out had they been a smudged carbon copy of the Who instead of the Beatles. And it’s no surprise that “The Other Side of You” was a single complete with a polished music video. It has the melodic jangle so common in the era, when labels were convinced the easiest way to get their products onto college radio was to make certain the songs could segue comfortable into or out of a chiming R.E.M. jam.

The barroom brawl quality of their music was undeniable, but Lime Spiders also demonstrated a strong command of general tunefulness. “My Main Attraction” is reminiscent of the great pop songs nested in heavy buzz that were Hüsker Dü’s bread and jam, and even the swampy grind of “Test Pattern” slyly shows off a lot of craft.

 

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990. Laurie Anderson, Big Science (1982)

There are many roads an artist can travel to a comfy major label contract. Befitting the resolutely avant-garde music she created, Laurie Anderson surely had one of the oddest routes to become a member of the Warner Bros. galaxy of stars.

Primarily a performance artist through the nineteen-seventies, Anderson routinely had music as a central component of her pieces, such as Duets on Ice, which found her playing her modified, electrified violin while wearing skates embedded in two blocks of ice.  She even released a few singles with tiny press runs. One of those offerings was inspired by a performance of “O Souverain,” from the 1885 opera El Cid. With a chipper cheekiness that would become a trademark, Anderson created “O Superman,” an abstract rumination on American military force set to a pulsing sample of her own voice. She used a small grant — a mere five hundred dollars — from the National Endowment of the Arts to release it as a single. To surprise of the few people who were paying attention, “O Superman” became a hit, especially in the U.K. where it made it all the way to the runner-up position on the singles chart.

Amazingly, the strange sensation Anderson generated was enough for Warner Bros., which gave her a multi-album deal. Anderson took the money and plunged it into her art, developing the material that would comprise Big Science, her debut album.

Even decades later, Big Science is spectacularly bizarre. Album opener “From the Air” repeats the technique of building Anderson’s vocal samples into a unnervingly unshakable rhythm track. And then she adds swerving horns, as if Anderson found a classic New Orleans brass band on a night of high revelry and corralled them into the studio, keeping them unbalanced with strobe lights as they played. And all that’s before Anderson comes in playing a airline pilot, using blandly lackadaisical tones to instruct the passengers to prepare for a crash landing: “This is your captain, and we are going down/ We are all going down, together/ And I said: ‘Uh oh, this is gonna be some day.”

Understandably, the album lives in a space somewhere between challenging art piece and fun record to play on a Saturday night. No matter where it sits on that continuum, it boasts tracks of grand pop invention (including, of course, “O Superman”). “Born, Never Asked” generates poignant delicacy out of Anderson’s sparking violin, and “Example #22” is spectacular cartoon theme reeling from a gulp of questionable acid.

It remains unclear to me whether or not Warner Bros. knew what they were getting into by bringing Anderson under their banner. There’s got to be some pride, though. There can’t be too many other releases in label history afforded a honored place in the Museum of Modern Art.

 

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989. Madness, Absolutely (1980).

Although their day would come on the U.S. pop charts, the English ska band Madness was met with a strong dose of resistance on this side of the Atlantic as they dished out their early albums. Around the time of the group’s sophomore album, Absolutely, the churlish tastemakers at Rolling Stone mustered up the most scathing insult they could, deeming Madness “the Blues Brothers with English accents.”

Without leveling a judgment on the quality of Absolutely, it’s easy to hear why the songs would hit American ears with a clang. There’s something deeply English about the songs, mostly in the way they seem firmly grounded in the life of row houses and Teddy Boys. Often, the allusions are right there in the lyrics (as with the jittery pop reminiscences of “Baggy Trousers” or the loping “On the Beat Pete,” about a constable with size ten feet). Even when the references aren’t so overt, there’s a prevailing sense that it belongs to a very specific culture, albeit one that blithely appropriated the sound from elsewhere.

Taken on its own terms, there’s dandy material across Absolutely. “Close Escape” boasts an opening so bouncy it should be sung from a careening pogo stick, and the rockabilly pastiche “Solid Gone” taps into London’s retro scene as effectively as other more celebrated artists did.  The loose swing of “Not Home Today” could be an outtake from The Clash’s Sandinista!, which I consider a nosebleed-high compliment. “Shadow of Fear” is arguably the cheeriest song about ghoulish happenings ever recorded, and “You Said” is a splendid shrug of a breakup song (“You said you’re leaving, well that’s okay/ You said you’ve had enough, what can I say?”).

Aside from college radio, none of these songs registered on U.S radio at all. At home in the U.K., Madness racked up a bunch of Top 10 singles. To the blokes in Madness, it probably didn’t matter all that much that the U.S. music writers were slow to find the joy and invention in Absolutely.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

 

From the Archive — Animaniacs

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I’m dusting off this old pile of words in commemoration on the recent announcement that the Warner brothers — and the Warner sister, of course — are on their way back. This was originally posted in my former online home.

When I was a little kid, watching Saturday cartoons with the focused strategy of a battle-hardened general, I was certain that I’d never give up on the things I loved. Yes, I’d grow up, but I’d never outgrow the happy anarchy of these colorful adventures that I pumped into my brain as often as I could. I didn’t follow through on that conviction very well, but there have definitely been times when I’ve been drawn to material that doesn’t fit properly into my age bracket. One of those times was the fall after my college graduation, when I took advantage of new idle hours to become crazily devoted to the second product of the high-powered collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. Animation.

They’d previously put their stamps of creative ownership on Tiny Toon Adventures, which reimagined fairly familiar characters from the Looney Tunes stable as spirited youths. For their second outing, the creators opted for something more original, but in the same spirit as the wildly inventive cartoons that were part of the enviable heritage of Warner Bros. animation. The result was Animaniacs, presented in syndication as a daily half-hour show collecting shorts featuring an array of new characters. The main drivers of the show were the Warner siblings, Yakko, Wakko and Dot. They lived in the water tower on the Warner Bros. studio lot and got into varied misadventures, at least when they weren’t relating the contents of a world atlas in ludicrously catchy fashion.

There were other segments, including fiercely cantankerous Slappy Squirrel, the splendid pairing of Rita and Runt and, speaking directly to my movie geek heart, the amazing sight of a Martin Scorsese masterpiece rendered in cartoon pigeon form. Undoubtedly the crowning achievement of the show was the ingenious creation Pinky and the Brain, a pair of lab mice bent on world domination. Besides their usual antics, the characters allowed room for brilliantly off-kilter bits, such as spoof of an obscure incident involving The Brain’s voicesake Orson Welles.

Since my crew of friends was especially adept at peppering movie, music and TV quotes into our daily conversations, there were all sorts of bits from Animaniacs that made their way into our shared vocabulary, including Mindy’s standard valediction or the Warner Brothers’ helpless shout when they spotted a gorgeous woman. To this day, I can’t hear Dana Delany’s name without immediately imagining Yakko Warner waggling his eyebrows lasciviously while dropping her name in one of the variations of their opening theme.

So maybe I didn’t keep watching cartoons relentless, but at least I watched the right ones.

One for Friday — The Fall, “Big New Prinz”

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When I arrived at the college radio station where I grew up, I discovered a strange, wonderful, boldly enlivening world. That’s hardly a new observation for me to tap out in this space, but I truly can’t repeat it enough. I had a glancing knowledge of some of the major artists of college rock, but there were legions of seminal acts I’d never previously heard a note from. Usually, it was a thrilling revelation with each introduction. Occasionally, a band rattled my senses with their blazing audacity and edged willingness to disregard any instincts toward making music that the uninitiated might find approachable.

That preamble brings me, of course, to Mark E. Smith’s band the Fall.

I was mere weeks into my tenure when the station’s new music rotation was graced with I Am Kurious Oranj, one of two albums from the Fall bearing a 1988 release date. I have a foggy memory of the single “Big New Prinz” arriving first, but that would have been somewhat atypical for my radio home. Still, it’s the song that can transport me back into that on air studio, listening as the bounding, bizarre music spills out of the speakers, Smith yelping out the mesmerizing, repetitive lyrics with seeming ease.

It was a track that defied me to try to make sense of it. I wasn’t going to be able to slot it into my simple little concepts of how pop music was supposed to work. In that sense, hearing the Fall for the first time provided an ideal orientation into the way my long trek through college radio was going to work. Surprises were on the way, as was music that was going to be difficult to warm to, by design. Rules were different, and those who broke the few rules that were in place were worthy of reverence. It was a good lesson to learn.

Listen or download —> The Fall, “Big New Prinz”

(Disclaimer: I’m not sure if I Am Kurious Oranj is still in print as a physical item that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that properly compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. There is so much music from the Fall that’s available, though. The track shared here is meant to be a sample that encourages commerce, not takes the place of it. Regardless, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove the track if asked to do so by any individual or entity with sue authority to make such a request.)

Top Ten Movies of 2017 — Number Ten

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Director Sean Baker is committed to using his art to give voice to the members of society who are too easily diminished. That’s what he did with the marvelous Tangerine, from 2015, and that’s what he does with The Florida Project. In depicting the day-to-day grind of people living in poverty in a motel close to the pricey fantasies peddled by Walt Disney World, Baker rejects the maudlin and manipulative. Instead, with care and respect, he shows the aching survival mechanisms everyone must construct in a place and time where hope is the snowball that keeps melting away before it can build on a downhill roll. The films seems episodic, briefly catching moments with a disarming intimacy. But all those shards of narrative add up to a complete picture, emphasizing the way lives accumulate even when they seem to be sitting painfully still. Lovely, heart-rending, and casually funny, The Florida Project honors the characters it depicts by meeting their heavy troubles and briefly blissful triumphs with bruising truthfulness.