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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 2

2 end

2. R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

At the time R.E.M. released their fifth studio album, Document, in 1987, the little ol’ band from Athens, Georgia was still adamantly against a practice that was commonplace in popular music. In contrast to most of their musical brethren, R.E.M. abstained from include lyrics sheets with each new album. Because of that, I knew more than one person who made it into a mission to transcribe the stream of consciousness litany that comprised album standout “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” It’s the sort of devotion that R.E.M. inspired back when they ruled college radio like no other act. And this track immediately announced itself as something special in the band’s catalogue.

According to producer Scott Litt, not everyone had a positive first impression, though. Guitarist Peter Buck didn’t even like the song at first, feeling it was too much of a departure from what the band had delivered before. The song was polished into shape while Buck and the other bandmates were out on a dinner break, and they didn’t weigh in with enthusiasm when they returned.

“It was pretty much done by the time they got back, and Peter hated it,” recounted Stipe. “He capitulated finally and it made the record. Thank God we have always had each other to convince ourselves how wrong and right we can be.”

For the lyrics, Stipe said he drew upon his own dreams, noting that he was regularly beset by apocalyptic visions while sleeping. There were more specific dreams that fed into the words Stipe rattled off.

“I’m extremely aware of everything around me, whether I am in a sleeping state, awake, dream-state or just in day to day life,” explained Stipe. “There’s a part in ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’ that came from a dream where I was at Lester Bangs’ birthday party and I was the only person there whose initials weren’t L.B. So there was Lenny Bruce, Leonid Brezhnev, Leonard Bernstein. So that ended up in the song along with a lot of stuff I’d seen when I was flipping TV channels. It’s a collection of streams of consciousness.”

Although Stipe’s subconscious fed the lyrics, Buck noted at least one actual experience fed into the details in the song. In the liner notes to the R.E.M.’s hits collection Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, Buck recounted a 1980 birthday part he and Stipe wound up at, with the legendary music writer also in attendance.

“The guys from Joe King Carrasco and Lester Bangs were there,” wrote Buck. “And all they had was birthday cake and jelly beans, and we were starving and ate that. A random story that popped into a song eight years later. At the time, I was really proud of that song.”

If the resulting song was characterized by propulsive music, Stipe knew he had to deliver accordingly. At the time, the singer was notorious for his withdrawn enunciation. For “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” he pushed himself to a different level.

“I wanted it to be the most bombastic vocal I could possibly muster,” said Stipe. “Something that would completely overwhelm you and drip off your shoulders and stick in your hair like bubblegum.”

Released as the second single from Document, the track didn’t have the same chart success as it’s predecessor, the commercial breakthrough “The One I Love.” It peaked at #69 on the Billboard Hot 100. It did better on commercial rock radio. On college radio, of course, it was nearly peerless. In the span from 1979 to 1989, only one single did better.

But we’ll get to that next week.

 

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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 3

3 new tale

3. Love and Rockets, “No New Tale to Tell”

“This was our ‘getting it together in the countryside’ acoustic album,” David J wrote on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Earth, Sun, Moon, the 1987 release from Love and Rockets.

The third album from the English trio that emerged from the collapse of goth icons Bauhaus, Earth, Sun, Moon was a deliberate attempt to move away from the jagged, buzzy music found on their prior album, Express. That was partially inspired by a desire to keep the audience guessing, but at least some of the band members were willing to concede it was also a matter of getting better at their jobs.

“The songs are more like crafted songs, whereas on the other albums you’ve got chunks of noise,” said David J, at the time.

A couple of years later, David J would go even further in assessing the earlier material, considering it within the framework of withering appraisals of the band’s music in the U.K. press.

“I must say, I think a lot of criticism aimed at us in the past was more than valid,” he said.

It was one of David J’s contributions that delivered a major commercial breakthrough for Love and Rockets. “No New Tale to Tell,” released as the second single from Earth, Sun, Moon, became a MTV staple and found a modest but noticeable place on the U.S. charts.

The inevitable music video had several striking details, including a cameo appearance by the Bubblemen, a sort of performance art band Love and Rockets occasionally masqueraded as, but years down the road, David J noted that one participant in the video shoot was especially memorable. The song included a flute solo at the midpoint, and someone alit upon the idea of giving a pan flute to a monkey and making it appear as if the furry little fellow was delivering the showcase moment. In order to get the monkey to position his mouth convincingly around the instrument, the trainer placed peanuts inside the pipes.

“Worked out pretty well,” David J recalled. “But when the little bugger wasn’t trying to get at the peanuts, he was wanking. Endlessly. For hours. Hours and hours. And staring at us. It was quite impressive, actually! And a little terrifying. No one wanted to go near the filthy thing.”

The individual members of Love and Rockets have made it clear that there’s no chance of any further reunions of the band, which means no more live performances of this college radio staple. But, if you play your cards right, David J just might come and play it in your living room.

 

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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 4

4 burning

4. Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House”

The highest-charting single of the Talking Heads’ career came about because drummer Chris Frantz attended a Parliament-Funkadelic show at Madison Square Garden. Energized by the propulsive sound he heard coming from the stage — and the enraptured reception to it of his fellow concert-goers — Frantz figured a similar sound could be created by his own group, then more typically characterized by a restrained, almost icy type of post-punk.

Talking Heads had recently finished an extended tour that included musicians Bernie Worrell and Busta Jones, provided a more funk-driven undercurrent to the music. That gave Frantz confidence the main quartet — also comprised of bassist Tina Weymouth, guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, and guitarist and lead singer David Byrne — could effectively push into similar territory on their own. In a jam session that was an integral part of the band’s creative process, Frantz drew inspiration from the thunderous concert and drove his cohorts to a fuller, more soulful sound. The sonic exploration gave the band the basic instrumental track that would become “Burning Down the House.”

“We gradually get the musical structure of the song set, so that when we went into the recording studio we just play about four-and-a-half, five minutes of it,” Byrne told NPR around the time of the song’s release. “We think, ‘Well, that’s enough. That’s long enough for a song.’ We leave it at that.”

When it came time to add the words, Byrne sang improvised lyrics, intuitive finding sounds and verbal rhythms that seemed to work with the music. That could lead to some odd steps along the line, including a little stretch in which the main repeated line was “Foam Rubber, U.S.A.” He eventually settled on “Burning Down the House,” a loose interpretation of the “Burn down the house” chant Frantz carried over from the P-Funk show. Despite the improvisational development process, the lyrics were built upon pure randomness.

“I’d have loads and loads of phrases collected that I thought thematically had something to do with one another, and I’d pick from those,” Byrne noted in the NPR interview.

Still, the lyrics remained abstract enough that plenty of listeners decided they were just plainly nonsense, an instinct compounded by the fact that the track appeared on an album Speaking in Tongues, released in 1983. The album title’s borrowing of a term describing people so moved by religious experience that they shout out jagged, basically indecipherable syllables led to a suspicion that Byrne was basically doing the same.

“The words in this particular instance don’t mean anything, do they?” David Letterman asked after Talking Heads played “Burning Down the House” on Late Night.

“They do, but not if you try to figure them out,” responded Byrne.

In the NPR interview, Byrne distinguished that a lack of an explicit expression of intellectual intent isn’t the same as offering no deeper thoughts in the song.

“I felt the meaning, but it wasn’t put in in a conscious way,” he said. “I think the meaning was put in in a more intuitive way. My assumption was that it might have a deeper meaning, or a meaning that was more universal, or spoke to more unconscious feelings in people, than one in which I just told a story.”

More specifically, Byrne saw the burning of the house as symbolic of the personal reinvention process people often go through.

“It symbolized rebirth and destroying oneself or destroying some sort of transitory personality, and shedding a shell and coming out with a new one,” Byrne told the BBC.

If some might be confused by the song, Byrne realized he had a new tool to convey his artistic intent. Other musicians chafed at the sudden influence of music videos, but Byrne was all for it. For one thing, he quickly figured out that the new form provided an avenue to get his music heard while radio programmers were perplexed by it.

“MTV and they were starving for content; they’d play pretty much any decent material they were handed,” Byrne wrote in his book How Music Works. “Not too many had cable TV back then, so mTV had no hesitation about playing the same videos over and over. Hard to believe, but at the time, if you made almost any halfway interesting video you possibly could have it up and running on cable TV almost instantly. For me it was a godsend — a way to reincorporate my art-school roots into the music side of things.”

The themes of the song were underscored by the music video, which found the band members being sporadically replaced by others as they performed. MTV gave it saturation airplay, helping to elevate the single into the Billboard Top 10. And it’s endured as a staple of the rock radio stations that were originally reluctant to play the song.

“I guess it was a good title, because I heard it on classic rock radio twice today,” Frantz later told Rolling Stone. “Hey, it was a classic title…. What we really wanted to do was rock the house.”

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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 5

5 how

5. The Smiths, “How Soon is Now?”

“What is Johnny doing? That’s just noise.”

Geoff Travis, the founder and chief of Rough Trade Records, wasn’t pleased with “How Soon Is Now?” when he first heard it. As lead singer Morrissey later recalled, Travis heard the distorted, artfully wobbling guitar lines Johnny Marr recorded for “How Soon Is Now?” and immediately determined that the only suitable use for the track was deep, discarded filler, relegated to a B-side. That’s exactly where it first wound up, on the flip of the 1984 single “William, It Was Really Nothing.”

Marr wrote the music for “William, It Was Really Nothing” and “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” in relatively quick succession. In a sense, he was in a dialogue with himself, starting with a brisk, bouncy song and countering it with more of a loping waltz, in order to create different dynamics in the music the band was putting out. In the extended writing session, there was yet another song in him, and he once again took an attempt at contrast as inspiration.

“On Sunday night, I kicked back and treated myself to writing something completely different from both those songs,” said Marr. “I had a short, upbeat one and a short, sad one, so I decided to write a long, swampy one with a groove. I always wrote songs in batches of three and usually still do.”

Once the music was complete, it was time for Morrissey to add the words. He pulled out his notebook full of potential lyrics and went to work, beginning with lines (“I am the son, and the heir, of a shyness that is criminally vulgar/ I am the son and heir, of nothing in particular”) adapted from the weighty nineteenth century George Eliot novel Middlemarch (“To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular”).

Once complete, Morrissey evidently didn’t care to use any of the lyrics to serve as the song’s title. Marr had dubbed the track “Swamp” as an instrumental demo, but that also wouldn’t do. So Morrissey instead looked to another book. He borrowed a phrase from Marjorie Rosen’s 1973 feminist pop culture treatise, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies & the American Dream, in which the author ruminated on the culture associated with nineteen-sixties beach party movies: “How immediately can we be gratified? How soon is ‘now’?”

“How Soon is Now?” likely would have stayed a minor curiosity within the Smiths’ catalogue if not for the advocacy of Britain’s most influential radio personality. Based on listener feedback, John Peel named “How Soon is Now?” the best song of 1984, which immediately sent the label scrambling to properly release it as a single. There was a new problem, though. Morrissey was already bored with “How Soon is Now?” and instead pushed for “Shakespeare’s Sister” as a single. A compromise was reached. “Shakespeare’s Sister” would indeed get a push from the label, but “How Soon is Now?” had to be first.

In the U.K., the single tanked, largely because devoted Smiths fans already owned the song, both on the “William, It Was Really Nothing” single and the 1984 compilation Hatful of Hollow. In a way, the homeland reception was irrelevant to the label bosses. They thought the slightly rougher edges of “How Soon Is Now?” made it the ideal choice to help the band make headway into the U.S. market. Signed to Sire Records for North American distribution, the Smiths were prepped for a surge onto new shores in conjunction with the release of their 1985 album, Meat is Murder. According to the band, Sire Records bungled the job from the beginning.

“They had no intentions of the Smiths ever meaning anything on a mass level,” Morrissey told Creem magazine at the time. “And they still don’t. And they’ve made several marketing disasters which have really been quite crippling to us in personal ways.”

One of those misjudgments that left Morrissey feeling personally affronted was a new sleeve created for the U.S. single release. The original packaging in England featured an image of actor Sean Barrett in the 1958 film Dunkirk, his head bowed and his hands clasped in prayer. Since the photo made it vaguely look as if the young man was cradling his crotch, Sire Records got squeamish about repeating the art for the evidently more sensitive and impressionable U.S. audience. (To be fair, it was the era of the Parents Music Resource Center’s rabble-rousing over ever-so-lurid material landing in the record collections of America’s youth.) Sire released the single with big dark blue printing on a putrid yellow background, remarkably managing to create a sleeve that was simultaneously bland and an eyesore.

The Smiths were further angered by the music video Sire Records put together for “How Soon is Now?,” largely consisting of near-random visuals and a little bit of grainy footage of the band. According to Morrissey, the group’s minor presence in their own video supposedly caused them to be “swamped with letters from very distressed American friends.”

Although the label rejected accusations of working directly against the band’s wishes, they acknowledged that all was not rosy.

“We did not do it without their permission, but they did not exactly applaud us,” Sire Records told Spin magazine. “We felt we needed a video to make promotion more effective.”

The band that courted grievance and misery found yet more to make them upset. They were angered that “How Soon is Now?” was tacked on to the U.S. release of Meat is Murder. At the time, the Smiths operated with a basic lack of understanding about the difference between record store sales in the U.K. and the U.S. There was a brisk singles market in the nation the Smiths called home, but those releases were more promotional in the States, used to move albums. Later, the members of the Smiths would allow they retrospectively understood the decision, and the tampering with the Meat is Murder track list wasn’t really a big deal. Reflecting on the situation, Marr alighted on another unique upside.

“Years and years later, I know that people are vegetarian because ‘How Soon is Now?’ had been snagged on the front,” he said.

 

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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 6

6 rock

6. The Clash, “Rock the Casbah”

In many respects, “Rock the Casbah” was the beginning of the end for the Clash. The third single off the of the album Combat Rock, which was released in 1982, “Rock the Casbah” first stirred into existence as a result of the fracturing cohesions of the band. The Clash went to New York City’s Electric Lady studios to toil away at the recording their follow-up to the sprawling, three-album set Sandinista!, but they weren’t working together all that often.

“We’d lost that unity and had stopped hanging out together as friends, and would all turn up at the studio at different times, writing stuff as and when it came up,” drummer Topper Headon told Mojo magazine, years later. “The sessions were supposed to start at two in the afternoon, though by the time everyone turned up it was seven. I got there early, and what else was I going to do except put down an idea?”

Without his bandmates, Headon began laying down tracks for a song he’d been noodling with. He took advantage of the time alone in the studio to create a full version of the song than the average demo, largely because it was the easiest way to convey his ideas for the song.

“I don’t actually know what notes I’m playing, so rather than try to tell everyone what to play, I went and recorded piano, and then the drums, and then the bass,” said Headon.

The intent was to present the resulting recording to the band as a guideline, but all agreed that the music track was excellent as it was. It was the lyrics that needed some help.

“He had really pornographic lyrics for it if I remember correctly,” Kosmo Vinyl, the occasional manager for the Clash, told Rolling Stone. “Very, very pornographic lyrics.”

Vocalist and guitarist Joe Strummer set to fixing the words. In keeping with the spirit of the band’s fraying sense of community, the catalyst for the lyrics of “Rock the Casbah” was Strummer’s frustration with much of the music the Clash was creating.

Strummer was getting frustrated with the length of the individual tracks being recorded for Combat Rock, blaming the sprawl on the tendency for the band to lean on raga riffs.

“I got back to the hotel that night and wrote on a typewriter, ‘The King told the boogie men/ You gotta get that raga drop,'” Strummer told Rolling Stone. “I looked at it and for some reason I started to think about what someone had told me earlier, that you get lashed for owning a disco album in Iran.”

Strummer expanded that thought to come up with a song about citizens of the Middle East defying those repressive laws to play music. It is meant to be celebratory and empowering. So when it was later co-opted to become a rallying soundtrack for U.S. military forces dropping bomb to the dropping of bombs in the Gulf War and other brutal skirmishes in the region, Strummer was incensed.

It’s likely that the song would have never had the chance to be so horribly misunderstood if not for its status at the biggest hit the Clash ever had in the U.S.  “Rock the Casbah” became the band’s second Top 40 single in the U.S. and their first to cross into the Top 10. For Strummer, that also was a sign the end was near. He felt it was impossible to keep up the Clash’s necessary rebel spirit when they were chart-anointed rock stars.

Even before they reached that elevated point in popularity, the Clash were already imploding. Shortly after the tour to support Combat Rock got underway, Headon was dismissed from the band, the result of a mounting heroin addiction that was making his presence untenable.

Headon’s ouster happened so quickly, in fact, that he wasn’t even included in the eventual music video of “Rock the Casbah,” a sad turn since he was so central to the song’s creation. Terry Chimes, the Clash’s original drummer, took Headon’s spot in the music video.

As for that music video, it was directed by Don Letts, who shot with the band in Austin, depicted an odd scene with culturally conflicting individuals bonding over burgers while road tripping through the Lone Star State.

“Can you imagine?” Letts marveled. “I’m in the middle of Texas, a Dread, filming an armadillo, a Jewish guy, an Arab, and a limo with cow horns on the front. It really was the most talked about thing in Texas for that whole week.”

 

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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 7

7 peek

7. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Peek-A-Boo”

One of the biggest hits ever crafted by Siouxsie and the Banshees began as a mistake. Following a string of splendid studio efforts through the the late-nineteen-seventies and the first half of the eighties, the iconic group decided to make a covers album, working with producer Mike Hedges. Entitled Through the Looking Glass, the record largely bypassed instantly recognizable songs (the band already had experience with trafficking in that area, thanks to their hit cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence”) in favor of far more esoteric selections. Among them was a lively take on the John Cale song “Gun.”

“When we were recording it I turned it over — which you can do on analog tape — and it sounded amazing,” Hedges later explained. “We recorded forward drums over the backwards track –—crunchy and loopy, kind of hip-hoppy. Then we added accordion and bass, although there’s only one piece of bass on the entire track. It was all very quick. From turning the tape over it probably took the best part of a day and a half to finish the song.”

The original notion was that the resulting new original could serve as the B-side for the planned single, the band’s cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” Quickly, though, everyone realized the track being developed was too good to be relegated to an afterthought. Quite the contrary, the song, entitled “Peek-a-Boo,” would become the lead single to the next Siouxsie and the Banshees album, Peepshow, released in 1988. Utterly dominant on the college charts through that fall, “Peek-a-Boo” had the distinction of being the song atop the inaugural Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.

Though a clear commercial success, the song wasn’t tame or otherwise buffed into something comfortable for listeners. Hedges insists that it was more daring that anything he’d worked on up to that point.

“It was one of the most experimental things I did at the time that actually worked,” Hedges said. “The Banshees were very, very experimental, and at that time in the music business you could be experimental. There was no pressure to do anything in a straight style, which isn’t really the case any more.”

The song has a buoyant sense of fun about it, in part because of the way the chorus directly borrows from the snappy wordplay of the jazz standard “Jeepers Creepers,” written by the famed team of Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. (Once the similarities were point out, Siouxsie and the Banshees retroactively added Warren and Mercer to the songwriting credits on “Peek-a-Boo.”) The other lyrics are a little darker, because Siouxsie Sioux was delivering a strong, angry message about the state of the culture.

“The stereotype of a woman is perceived and felt, forever projected,” Sioux told MTV at the time of the single’s release. “And I just think with the advent of more and more video being used, I’m sort of just very disappointed with the way it’s so limited how people are projected. It reminds me of the Stepford Wives films. I just think everyone’s becoming so modeled to the perfect ideal of what even a woman or a man should be like. It really disgusts me, and ‘Peek-A-Boo’ is really a reaction against that kind of control that I think is coming through in the media.”

Since “Peek-a-Boo” had its origins in an inadvertent bit of sampling, it’s perhaps appropriate that it later served to undergird another song. Years later, the tracks was sampled in a Sir Mix-A-Lot song.

“I remember Geffen sending us the Sir Mix-A-Lot version for our approval,” Sioux said. “We approved it with no fuss. We’d never heard ourselves sampled in anyone else’s material before, which was an amusing novelty.”

 

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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 8

8 blinded

8. Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me with Science”

Ray Milton Dolby was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1933. A sound engineer by training and by trade, Dolby spent the early nineteen-sixties working as a technical advisor for the United Nations, lugging recording equipment around India and surrounding areas. As he trundled through long bus rides, he turned over a problem in his head. What steps could be taken, he wondered, eliminate the hiss that invariably marred tap recordings? As he told it, the solution struck him on one of those journeys. Split the recordings into two separate channels of varying volumes, and the hiss would drop away. His idea worked, and, within a few years, the engineer launched an eponymous company, making the Dolby name synonymous with high-quality recordings.

Around the time Ray Dolby was traversing South Asia, Thomas Morgan Robertson came into the world, in London. A jet-setter in his boyhood, due to his Oxford professor father’s archeological excursions, Thomas found his calling in youth choirs, eventually teaching himself various instruments and joining his first band at the tender age of fifteen. In no time at all, he decided to drop out of school and pursue music full-time, eventually securing a spot in Bruce Woolley’s band Camera Club. Thomas Robertson decided to adopt a stage name. Since he was constantly tinkering new electronic tricks in making his music, he settled on a name that represented technological advancement in recording. He became Thomas Dolby.

According to Dolby — meaning Thomas rather than Ray from here on in — the success of “New Toy,” a song he wrote for Lene Lovich, convinced him that he was a strong enough crafter of music to go out on his own. His earliest attempts at securing a record deal didn’t go well, an Dolby eventually took a lucrative gig playing with Foreigner. He took the earnings and started his own label, Venice in Peril. Through that endeavor, Dolby finally got his deal with a major label, signing an agreement with EMI that included an advance to make his first album.

Part of the advance went toward an intricate digital synthesizer that Dolby referred to as a “wave computer.” Mostly, though, he called it Henry. With his electronic boon companion, Dolby worked in the material that made up his debut full-length, The Golden Age of Wireless, released in 1982.

Since Dolby felt like a technological pioneer with his various gizmos, he toyed around with an image of himself as a mad scientist, playing amidst test tubes in a sterling white lab coat. The field of music video was emerging at this point, leading Dolby to adapt this persona to the form, sketching up an idea for a faux silent film adventure that suited the part he was already playing. “I thought I could do a silent film with a soundtrack,” Dolby later said. “I was being identified as a bookish geek, so I decided to embrace it. I thought, ‘If I’m gonna be a geek, I’ll be a cool one. I need a hot Japanese lab assistant and a nice, vintage motorcycle.'”

After the music video concept was in place, Dolby set about writing an accompanying song. He started with a title he thought would work nicely: “She Blinded Me with Science.”

“I very often come up with the title first,” Dolby explained. “I have a notebook filled with potential song titles, and I work backwards from there. I visualize an empty stage with a spotlight, and a guy walks into the spotlight and starts to sing a song called ‘She Blinded Me with Science.’ What does it sound like? What’s the groove? What are the words? What’s the chord sequence? I fill in the blanks from there, and it becomes like a crossword puzzle.”

In the case of “She Blinded Me with Science,” the pop music charts argue that Dolby’s puzzle-solving worked. The track is by far his biggest hit, making it to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 — Dolby’s only song to register in the U.S. Top 40 — and enduring as the unofficial theme song of all things even mildly scientific in the world. Dolby has been game about the song’s long reach — performing it alongside the likes of Buzz Aldrin, for instance — despite his conviction that it’s one of the most frivolous works he’s ever created.

“When I play it now, I still get a big kick out of it,” said Dolby. “I mean, I’m perfectly proud of the song, and it’s got a great groove and loaded with hooks. And when I play, it’s iconic, I think, for many people. Especially people who were around the first time. It makes people very happy.”

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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 9

9 driver

9. R.E.M., “Driver 8”

According to guitarist Peter Buck, no song better epitomizes the early era of R.E.M. than “Driver 8.” Released, in 1985, as the second single from Fables of the Reconstruction, the band’s third album, “Driver 8” was the chiming brilliance of the band’s music, rendered in just over three minutes.

“The chord changes, melodies, and harmonies are very representative of what we were doing then,” Buck later reflected.

Before long, Buck even felt it too clearly represented the R.E.M. sound.

“I can write that kind of stuff in my sleep,” he told Rolling Stone, in 1991. “I can write ‘Driver 8’ every day of the week. We all can. In rehearsal, it’s always easy to fall back on a mid-tempo, minor-key rock thing. And we try not to rely on that.”

The actually songwriting that led to “Driver 8” didn’t take place during a band member’s slumber, but it did come together with relative ease. In the liner notes to the R.E.M. “hits” collection Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011, Buck recounted how the song had its genesis in the casual creative sessions he undertook with drummer Bill Berry while the two were living together in a dumpy apartment building primarily populated by troubled souls in the midst of the transition process out of group home environments.

“I remember Bill came up with the verse to ‘Driver 8,’ and after he showed it to me he said, ‘I need to run to the market, I’ll be right back.’ I think he went to get some beans or rice or something,” wrote Buck. “In the meantime, I came up with the chorus and the intro riff. Bill came back in about five minutes, and it was done. So I played it for him and he went, ‘Alright, that’s great!’ Bill was totally excited.”

When it came time to build out the lyrics, the song seemed to draw its perspective from one of lead singer Michael Stipe’s chief fascination at the time: the American storytelling culture in the South.

“I was fascinated by the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on these legends and fables to the grandchildren,” Stipe said.

Perhaps part of the reason Fables of the Reconstruction (or Reconstruction of the Fables, for those looking at side two) is so awash in melancholy Southern lore is the displacement the members of R.E.M. were reportedly feeling while recording their third album on the other side of the Atlantic. After working on their first two full-lengths much closer to home, the band went to London’s Livingston Studios to work with the legendary producer Joe Boyd. By most accounts, the experience wasn’t a happy one. A certain pining for home seeped into the grooves of the record.

“It’s a very wistful, nostalgic thing,” bassist Mike Mills noted. “Like trains—when you think of trains in the night, that tugs at your heart a little bit…. The songs remind me of sitting in my room, fixing to go to bed, and hearing a train a few miles off.”

 

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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 10

10 beds

10. Midnight Oil, “Beds are Burning”

Diesel and Dust, the sixth album from the Australian band Midnight Oil, had in origins in a tour they had undertaken the year before. In 1985, a group called the Warumpi Band released a song titled “Blackfella/Whitefella,” their one and only single from the album Big Name, No Blankets, their debut release. Although the group had several indigenous Australians in the lineup, it was a white member, Noel Murray, who chiefly wrote the song, basing it on his experiences working in a community primarily populated by the people who had the longest lineage in the country, but had been largely displaced and cast aside.

“Blackfella/Whitefella” wasn’t a hit in Australia, but it did catch the attention of certain, politically-minded people. The members of Midnight Oil were among that contingent, and they were equipped to transform their fandom into action. While they were still largely unknown away from their homeland, Midnight Oil enjoyed a great deal of success in their main stomping grounds. Their 1984 album, Red Sails in the Sunset, topped the chart, and they’d registered a Top 10 single with the 1982 song “Power and the Passion.” So it was a boon for the Warumpi Band when Midnight Oil suggested the two groups tour together, mounting a series of free concerts in indigenous Australian communities. They called it the Blackfella/Whitefella tour.

The tour was transformative for Midnight Oil. They certainly had an awareness of the pains suffered by indigenous Australians, but seeing it up close made a different impact. And it spoke to the band’s ethos of directly addressing the social and political problems they saw in the world. “There’s a feeling in Midnight Oil that the band should be involved in doing these things, or lending itself to doing these things, that it should not be unaware,” lead singer Peter Garrett explained around that time. “There’s a feeling that to have the kind of audience and long-term success that this band has had is a privilege: it’s not a right.”

The result was Diesel and Dust, an album that fiercely rages against the injustice leveled against the indigenous Australians. The passion of the political statement is exemplified by “Beds are Burning,” the album’s second single. Specifically addressing the travails of the Pintupi people, who were some of the last to be displaced from their desert home to settlement camps. The message of the song is direct and plain: the land belongs to the Pintupi and the Australian government should give it back to them.

“There was a sense of hopelessness about the issue at the time,” guitarist Jim Moginie said later. “It felt like screaming into a fog of indifference. When the album was ready to be released, we were prepared to be shouted down by every closet racist in the country. The issue of Aboriginal dispossession had been effectively ignored up to that point.”

“Beds are Burning” became Midnight Oil’s first global hit, including a trip to the Billboard Top 40 in the U.S., the band’s sole appearance in that chunk of the chart. And it has remained arguably the biggest, most famous rock song to hail from Australia, holding a place of such significant notoriety and esteem that Midnight Oil was asked to perform it during the closing ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, held in Sydney. Since it was already an unlikely venue for angry protest rock, he band made certain to emphasize the pointed fury of the song. They dressed all in black with the word “SORRY” emblazoned across their clothes in popping white.

 

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.