College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 211 – 209

211 mondays.jpg

211. The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays”

I suspect every last one of my college radio cohorts back in the day knew the backstory of the most notable single the Boomtown Rats ever released. At the very least, they had the basics. The band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, Bob Geldof, composed it after encountering a news story about Brenda Spencer, a sixteen-year-old in San Diego who opened fire on a neighboring schoolyard from a window in her family home. When a reporter got her on the telephone, she explained her motivation by blandly noting, “I don’t like Mondays.” (Spencer later denied making that statement.) Geldof said he heard about it after sitting for an interview with an Atlanta-based college radio station. It came over their wire service. He went back to his hotel room, still preoccupied with the story. After noodling around on his guitar with the chords to Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army,” Geldof found his way to the tune that would top the U.K. charts, the band’s second straight single to pull off the feat. While Geldof started with Spencer’s senseless crime, he intended it to be a more general commentary of what he saw as a pervasive negative trend in a certain region, later explaining, “The song is less about a specific incident and more about what I used to think was a a peculiarly Californian psychosis — not needing a reason for anything, even murder. Vacant modern life.” The track would surely be Geldof’s chief claim to fame, if not for the activism he took up in earnest a few years later, earning him more widespread fame and even the occasional grand honor.

210 brick.jpg

210. Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”

Besides the swarm of artistic reasons “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” looms large in the Pink Floyd discography, it has a special significance on the business side of the music industry. As detailed in Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men, the single, the first released from the 1980 double album The Wall, was used as a test case by Columbia Records executives hoping to eliminate costly independent promoters from the process of getting a song to make headway on the Top 40 charts. Even before the 45 was pressed, stations coast to coast were aggressively play “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” making the label certain it would earn spins whether or not it was the beneficiary of outside advocacy. Columbia opted to forgo the independent promoters’ services is Los Angeles, figuring at least one of the city’s four Top 40 stations would play the song without the prompting from a hired intermediary. Even as the single was rapidly climbing the charts, ultimately settling in the #1 position for full weeks, none of those L.A. stations played it, an undeclared boycott that ended when Columbia finally relented and hired on one of the promoters. The song itself had a arduous journey to completion, typical of Pink Floyd, especially as leader Roger Waters grew into an ever more uncompromising artist. As he worked on the track, he insisted on keeping it sparse and coldly simple, even as various collaborators tried to convince him the song had the spine of a potential hit. Given the lyrics offering a dismal assessment of the education system, Bob Ezrin felt the song could be filled out nicely with a chorus of singing schoolchildren (Ezrin also had experience with such embellishments, as producer of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”). Waters basic approach to most of Ezrin’s overtures was to tell him to waste his time however he liked. The final product was going to match the song Waters heard in head, with no deviations. That adamancy fell away once Waters heard the actual multi-tracked chorus Ezrin put together, and the sonics of the song started to shift to the version that became the band’s biggest hit by far.

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209. The Nails, “88 Lines About 44 Women”

The Nails began life as the Boulder, Colorado band the Ravers, arguably more notable for the identity of their roadie (a young man named Eric Boucher, who later claimed the performing name Jello Biafra and formed the Dead Kennedys) than anything they did on stage or on record. When they moved to New York City, in 1977, the presence of a competing band simply called Raver necessitated a name change. “88 Lines About 44 Women” was written in the band’s Manhattan loft apartment, in a process that Nails lead vocalist Marc Campbell later called “so simple it was uncanny.” The band used one of the preprogrammed rhythm tracks on a new Casio keyboard, pulling together a track of undulating riffs that lasted around five minutes. Campbell figured out that length would accommodate about forty-four couplets, or eighty-eight lines, quickly becoming enamored with the numeric symmetry with other music touchstones, such as the number of keys on a piano and the wide crediting of “Rocket 88” as the first rock ‘n’ roll song. The lyrics came easily, too. Campbell noted, “The way the songwriting works for me is it’s always a trance type state. I really believe that most good writing kind of takes the writer by surprise. And that’s what happened. It just came flowing through me, one line leading to another. Some of the women are real, some are made up. At that point I don’t know if I’d actually had 44 really important women in my life.” While limited in its ability cross over to the pop charts, largely thanks to some raunchy lyrics, the song has endured, later being pressed into service to move Mazdas. The Butthole Surfers also ripped it off, fairly transparently, for the track that made them one of the unlikely acts to ever slide into the Billboard Top 40.

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.

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Posted in Music

From the Archive: Being John Malkovich

malkovich.png

The intent of this feature is to post something I’ve written that hasn’t previously shown up in this digital space, but I make exceptions on rare occasions. This is one of them, just so I can put a caboose on the train of Trivia Kickoff Movie writing. After I posted about Swingers earlier this week, a different Trivia disciple mentioned he thought that was the best Kickoff Movie that ideally suited the event, but that the best overall movie to fill that role for the station over the years was The Ice Storm. Without double-checking the list of films that have held down the Kickoff honors, I agreed with him on both counts. It’s a close call, but I’d say the highest quality film was this one.

Charlie Kaufman has his screenwriting Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and he has plenty of swooning admirers ready to step forward and declare either of his metanarrative Möbius bands, Adaptation. or Synecdoche, New York, the purest distillation of his own unique form of absurdist existentialism. There are things to admire in all of those works, to be sure. Kaufman concocts crazy, complicated cinematic puzzles, and the offbeat invention that is seemingly second nature to him gives him one of the most distinct voices in modern movie-making. But from my viewpoint, he’s never gotten it as wonderfully, perfectly right as he did with his first produced feature screenplay. Being John Malkovich is as willfully bizarre as anything else sprung from Kaufman’s mind. It’s also shrewd and spirited and emotionally insightful. More importantly, it’s the one time that Kaufman didn’t write himself into a corner he couldn’t quite get out of.

Part of the film’s success is the perfect pairing of script with director. This was also the feature debut for Spike Jonze, then known best for dependably demonstrating that genius could be channeled successfully into music videos and commercials. He took all the lunacy of Kaufman’s screenplay–the bland office environment crammed into a half-sized building floor, the domestic apartment crawling with animals, and, of course, the portal that allowed anyone to briefly slip inside the psyche of actor John Malkovich before being mysteriously deposited on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike–and treated it with deadpan acceptance, as if nothing in the film were any stranger than a lawyer arguing a case or a police officer examining a crime scene. It is because it is, in the same way that any number of films gladly traffic in the implausible. By not getting enamored with the oddities of the story, and thereby avoiding the inevitable glad-handing of the audience that follows when a director wants to signal that they’re in on the joke, Jonze is able to concentrate in the deeper, sounder truths that anchor the whole thing.

Given the way that people line up to pay a fee for the chance to experience a moment or two in the life of John Malkovich, the film is clearly about the desire for escape from self, the chance to put away personal identity to seek the greener grass of another person’s day-to-day. All is drudgery, but there’s got to be something better through that portal. Maybe Malkovich is just puttering around his kitchen, calling in an order from a flimsy catalog, but it’s something still something different, and tinted with the added allure of celebrity, even if it’s modest enough that few of the people the actor encounters can quite pin down where they know him from.

Though he always liked the script, it reportedly took John Malkovich some time to commit to playing himself. He was convinced the script should be reworked for another actor, but it’s hard to imagine the film without the balmy tour de force of his performance, which expertly plays upon his onscreen persona which interweaves relatability with a lurking sense that he’s just a little off. In other words, he has an inherent quality that matches the film like a mimeographed image. Like John Malkovich himself, Being John Malkovich might be strange, unpredictable and a little head-spinning, but the overall quality that sticks is how real and human it is.

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Posted in Film

One for Friday Encore: Mollie Donihe, “Come on Eileen (Cover)”

It is now a longstanding tradition that the Friday that ushers in the annual staging of the World’s Largest Trivia Contest by my broadcasting alma mater, WWSP-FM, is a day on which I post a version of “Come On Eileen.” As everyone knows, it is the official theme song of the Trivia team I play on. Really, everyone knows it, even Wikipedia:

But the thought of hunting down a new take of this familiar song seems pointless to me when I already have a favorite cover version. This is my friend Mollie:

modonihe

She’s fantastic in countless ways. I could provide specifics, but I’m certain she’d prefer I refrain. For context, it is important to note that she’s a supremely talented musician with a lush, lovely singing voice. Go spend some quality time on her YouTube channel. You’ll see that I’m correct in that assessment. Two years ago, she was kind enough to record this song for me. I posted it at that time, and then I posted it again last year. And here we are once more.

There are dozens of reasons, many of them probably obvious, while I love this particular cover. At the pinnacle is the levels of friendship and affection that I draw from Mollie’s voice. That’s what this weekend means to me: friendship in its purest, most reviving form. And this cover also gives me a reminder of one of my most valued friendships outside of my joyfully boisterous question-answering crew. Thank you again, Mollie.

Listen or download –> Mollie Donihe, “Come On Eileen (Cover)”

(Disclaimer: As I noted, I’m going to keep posting this every April, at least until Mollie tells me not to. For real, go to her YouTune channel and luxuriate in the music. She can also be found on Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Some of the music is for sale, so think about sending a few dollars her way. She’s about to graduate college and head out into the mean ol’ world. I’m sure she can make good use of the funds.)

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Posted in Music, Uncategorized

Trivia Answer of the Day: Magic Carpet Airlines

This coming weekend, I’ll participate in The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM. As per tradition, this week is filled with idle reminiscing about memorable answers in past years. For this go-around, I’m further commemorating an anniversary. The weekend before the contest, the radio station sponsoring Trivia holds a midnight movie screening as a kickoff event, a practice that just celebrated its twenty-fifth straight year. Though it had been done a couple times prior to my tenure at the student-run radio station, I was the one who revived the practice, drawing upon my dual status as an on-air movie critic and a popcorn slinger at one of the local theaters. I booked Richard Linklater’s Slacker in April of 1992. The event has been happening ever since.

magic

Certainly any event is bound to change over the course of twenty-five years, and I’ve already noted a few challenges that cropped up in the booking process for the Trivia Kickoff Movie as time went on. Toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, it was becoming clear that sneaking an otherwise unavailable new film into town was impossible. No matter how obscure the title plucked from the festival circuit, teams could raid the various bays of pirates and have the full feature downloaded onto their hard drives before the radio station got around to selling a single ticket. Complicating matters further, the theaters in our humble Central Wisconsin town were laggards when it came to converting to digital projection, and there simply weren’t 35mm prints available for the smaller titles. So a shift was made. Instead of recent indies, the Kickoff Movie was programmed with classic films, presumably of the sort that people would be happy to see on the big screen. The title of the film was kept secret, announced only the night of the first midnight screening, to further encourage teams to attend.

Being honest, I’ve been less enthused about the new selection methodology, if only because one part of the event’s original mission — introducing the Trivia players to independent films they likely wouldn’t see otherwise — was now completely gone. Still, as I’ve continued to help select the film, there have been little personal pleasures, such as the instance when I pushed for a title that currently stands as the only one to play as a Trivia precursor in two different years, showing in both 1985 and 2014. And I largely pushed for it on behalf of one of my teammates.

My friend and teammate Shannon is known for her titanic levels of enthusiasm, more than her question-answering acumen. Given that, it was a little bit of a surprise when what seemed like a relatively difficult question about the film American Graffiti was met by her spouting off the correct answer as casually and confidently as if someone had asked her for a piece of deeply embedded personal information, like her address or the name of a beloved pet. The George Lucas film, it seems, was such a favorite in her household while she was growing up that even the name of an airline, glimpsed only briefly toward the end of the movie, was locked into her brain forever. It represented something that I love about our silly little contest: that no matter how much prep is done, sometimes a major answer (and it netted us a lot of points) comes from one person’s predilections and personal history.

And one of these years, I’m going to ask Shannon to write about the time she spent the whole afternoon on the phone with the parents of a Mad TV writer. That will be the great “Trivia Answer of the Day” post of them all.

(image borrowed from elsewhere)

More info about 90FM’s Trivia can be found at its official website or at the radio station’s online home. There’s also a feature documentary about the contest, but it’s fairly hard to come by these days. To see how my team is faring over the weekend, Twitter is probably the best bet.

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Posted in Film, Uncategorized

Trivia Answer of the Day: The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus

This coming weekend, I’ll participate in The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM. As per tradition, this week is filled with idle reminiscing about memorable answers in past years. For this go-around, I’m further commemorating an anniversary. The weekend before the contest, the radio station sponsoring Trivia holds a midnight movie screening as a kickoff event, a practice that just celebrated its twenty-fifth straight year. Though it had been done a couple times prior to my tenure at the student-run radio station, I was the one who revived the practice, drawing upon my dual status as an on-air movie critic and a popcorn slinger at one of the local theaters. I booked Richard Linklater’s Slacker in April of 1992. The event has been happening ever since.

tribute

As I noted yesterday, it was getting increasingly difficult to find movies that worked for the Kickoff event. Once DVD sales exploded in the late nineteen-nineties, that task got even more difficult as studios raced to the bring their releases to the suddenly lucrative home video market as quickly as possible. Luckily, I’d found a fresh avenue into the obscure. In 2001, I relocated to just outside of Orlando, landing there at just about the same time the annual Florida Film Festival was being staged. A scrappy, smaller festival, it was benefitting at the time from some serious championing by Film Threat founder Chris Gore, who cited at as a rough equal to better known equivalents, but with a willingness to get a little funkier in its selections. And funky was what the Trivia Kickoff Movie was made for. After my wildly enjoyable Florida Film Festival screening of Tribute, a documentary about the culture surrounding low-level tribute bands, I knew it needed to be shown at midnight for a bunch of Trivia mavens getting fired up for the contest. I made the suggestion, and so there it played for the 2003 Kickoff Movie. If I’m remembering correctly, this was the film that caused the writers of the contest to scrap their longstanding rule of no more than two questions per contest from any one media source, including the Kickoff Movie. There were a whole batch of questions from Tribute, including a whole slew that my team couldn’t answer, despite my direct involvement in securing the film. I had the contact information for the incredibly filmmakers (the film was booked directly from them), but it didn’t seem right to call and frantically ask them to recall the rock ‘n’ roll poster that hung behind a band member during an interview. We probably should have. It was worth a lot of points.

More info about 90FM’s Trivia can be found at its official website or at the radio station’s online home. There’s also a feature documentary about the contest, but it’s fairly hard to come by these days. To see how my team is faring over the weekend, Twitter is probably the best bet.

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Posted in Film, Uncategorized

Trivia Answer of the Day: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy

This coming weekend, I’ll participate in The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM. As per tradition, this week is filled with idle reminiscing about memorable answers in past years. For this go-around, I’m further commemorating an anniversary. The weekend before the contest, the radio station sponsoring Trivia holds a midnight movie screening as a kickoff event, a practice that just celebrated its twenty-fifth straight year. Though it had been done a couple times prior to my tenure at the student-run radio station, I was the one who revived the practice, drawing upon my dual status as an on-air movie critic and a popcorn slinger at one of the local theaters. I booked Richard Linklater’s Slacker in April of 1992. The event has been happening ever since.

swingers

It was a tough problem of movie algebra every year. The movie needed to be broadly appealing for a wide swath of Trivia players, and the model required it be difficult to see unless tickets were bought for the station screening. So the film was ideally an idea, but also a comedy that wasn’t too dark or too kinky. And it needed to be something that had largely expended all the energy of its theatrical run, since studios were reluctant to spare a print for only a midnight show or two if they could book it for a full slate of screenings somewhere else. As the window between cinemas and home video was rapidly shrinking through the nineteen-nineties, it was increasingly challenge to find the title that hit the event’s sweet spot. The Kickoff Movie of 1997 was one of the instances when the tumblers fell into place perfectly. I knew Swingers was the right movie for Kickoff from the moment I saw it, the preceding fall. It was even a boon that the film was released by Miramax, which was one of the more accommodating studios to work with (there was a sense that they would have been happy to ship a print to someone planning to project the film on a screen door as long as any amount of payment was going to change hands). The actual Trivia fodder in the film might have been a touch light, but what was there was choice. I still remember the pure delight my teammate had in shouting out the answer “Big Bad Voodoo Daddy” when the on-air announcer asked for the name of the band that performed in the film. Sometimes answers are satisfying because they represent the culmination of hard work or the chance to plumb deeply embedded knowledge. Sometimes answers are satisfying for no other reason than they’re fun. I suppose that answer qualifies as all of the above.

More info about 90FM’s Trivia can be found at its official website or at the radio station’s online home. There’s also a feature documentary about the contest, but it’s fairly hard to come by these days. To see how my team is faring over the weekend, Twitter is probably the best bet.

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Posted in Film

Trivia Answer of the Day: The S.S. Cooney

This coming weekend, I’ll participate in The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM. As per tradition, this week is filled with idle reminiscing about memorable answers in past years. For this go-around, I’m further commemorating an anniversary. The weekend before the contest, the radio station sponsoring Trivia holds a midnight movie screening as a kickoff event, a practice that just celebrated its twenty-fifth straight year. Though it had been done a couple times prior to my tenure at the student-run radio station, I was the one who revived the practice, drawing upon my dual status as an on-air movie critic and a popcorn slinger at one of the local theaters. I booked Richard Linklater’s Slacker in April of 1992. The event has been happening ever since.

1993 Wrestling Ernest Hemingway shirley mcclain richard harris

I had two goals when I pushed for the return of the Trivia Kickoff Movie: I wanted a different “fire up” precursor event than the ones we’d been staging to dwindling interest, and I wanted to coerce my fellow Central Wisconsin residents into watching independent film. In the years when streaming video and online file sharing were tall tales of the future, no more or less plausible than the jetpacks we’d been promised for decades, booking a movie that was otherwise unavailable in town or even the area basically required Trivia teams to attend our screenings. The year of the first Kickoff Midnight Movie, 454 teams participated in the contest. Providing the guarantee that questions would stem from the flick meant the event was guaranteed to be a hit. And it was, selling out the largest auditorium in town. I took immense satisfaction in filling the house for showings of Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Hal Hartley’s Simple Men, but I was having difficulty coming up with a appropriate art house offering for the third year. Desperate and running out of time, I called Warner Bros., figuring the bookers for that major studio would have no interest in working with a college station in a dinky Midwestern college town. To my surprise, they were the easier to work with than the indies from the prior years. They had a few stray Oscar-grab films from late 1993 that had had bombed and, importantly, hadn’t made their way to home video yet. After mulling the options, I settled on Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, starring Richard Harris, Robert Duvall, and Shirley MacLaine, probably remembering the bang-up business the superficially similar Grumpy Old Men did in the same movie theater a couple months earlier.

In my memory, I was pretty glum as I stood in the back of the theater, observing as Wrestling Ernest Hemingway was clearly received with greater appreciation and immediate affection than the more challenging fare I’d nabbed previously. There was nothing egregiously awful about the film, but it was the same tepid cinema that slunk in and out of area theaters all year long. I didn’t even do my duty as a first-time participant in the contest. Even though I was slated to play on the radio station alumni team after years of helping to run the contest while I was an undergraduate, I neglected to take notes on the trivial details in the film. (It’s also entirely possible I was distracted from the task by the super-cute up-and-comer playing a diner waitress.) Luckily, one of my coworkers at the theater was looking out for me. At the end of the screening, she handed me a piece of scrap paper, announcing, “I took a note for you.” I looked at it. The only thing written on the page was “S.S. Cooney,” the name Richard Harris’s character uses to christen a new air conditioner in his dumpy living space. When I pointed out that it was useful to take more extensive notes, she countered by explaining that she didn’t need to because she was certain that would be the question. Of course, she was correct, and we wouldn’t have gotten the points without her. I learned my lesson. Ever since, I’ve done my best to make sure we have proper notes on the Kickoff Movie.

More info about 90FM’s Trivia can be found at its official website or at the radio station’s online home. There’s also a feature documentary about the contest, but it’s fairly hard to come by these days. To see how my team is faring over the weekend, Twitter is probably the best bet.

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Posted in Film
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