The 1,000 Greatest Songs of the 1980s – 180 to 171
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.
180. “Unchained,” Van Halen. Songwriters: Edward Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth; Did Not Chart; 1981. Chuck Klosterman, ranking “Unchained” as Van Halen’s second best song (below “Eruption”), in Vulture, “The title reflects the band’s lifestyle. The music reflects the power of their reality. Nonchalantly consumed from a distance, ‘Unchained’ merely feels like insatiable straight-ahead rock, but the lick is freaky, obliquely hovering above the foundation while the drums oscillate between two unrelated performance philosophies. It’s as heavy as music can be without being heavy at all. After the solo, Roth chats up Templeman about his suit and the acquisition of leg (singular), almost none of which makes any goddamn sense in any context that isn’t this song. A top-to-bottom masterwork, catapulted beyond-Thunderdome.” Sidebar trivia – David Lee Roth got the “hit the ground running” line from his skydiving hobby.
179. “Hero Takes a Fall,”Bangles. Songwriters: Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson; Did Not Chart; 1984. Vicki Peterson, “We were thinking along very classical lines of classical tragedies where there’s often a flaw to the hero. There’s often an Achilles heel, something that takes him down at some point, and we were interested in that concept.” Rock critic Jim Connelly, “More psychedelic than the Go-Gos and with better songs than the Runaways, on (the band’s debut album) ‘All Over The Place,’ the Bangles deployed a perfect synthesis of stinging alt-rock guitars and girl-group harmonies. And nowhere was it deployed better on the lead single, ‘Hero Takes a Fall,’ in which those aformentioned harmonies and stinging guitars pop in and out of the mix through the entire songs, creating an irresistible combination of melody and noise.” Susannah Hoffs, “When I look back on my writing relationship with Vicki I think that song was kind of a milestone in terms of our collaboration.”
178. “1999,” Prince. Songwriter: Prince; #12 pop/#4 R&B; 1983. Alex Flood of the NME on Prince’s Cold War “I was dreaming when I wrote this” dance track, “Probably the most Prince track out there, ‘1999’ encompasses every bit of his musical genius. From soaring synth riff to funky bass-line to pop-banger chorus it’s got it all. Dancing on the tables is not an option, it’s a necessity. So stick it on, turn up the volume and party like it’s 1999.” Prince might be worried about the upcoming apocalypse, but, in the meantime, baby, he’s got a lion in his pocket that’s ready to roar. Keyboardist Matt Fink, “To some extent, he was trying to make the music sound nice, something that would be pleasing to the ear of the average person who listens to the radio, yet send a message. I mean, ‘1999’ was pretty different for a message. Not your average bubblegum hit.”
177. “Paper in Fire,” John Mellencamp. Songwriter: John Mellencamp; Songwriter: John Mellencamp; #9 pop; 1987. John Mellencamp, “After (the) ‘Scarecrow’ (album), the critics all kinda went, ‘Whoa, now we gotta pay attention to this guy.’ I think ‘Paper in Fire’ is the ultimate John Mellencamp song. I wasn’t trying to be on the radio anymore. Radio was on my side. There wasn’t any Woody Guthrie influence. There wasn’t any Rolling Stones influence. There wasn’t a Bob Dylan influence. I made the decision, much to everyone’s dismay, to use violins and accordions, and incorporate an Appalachian sound of original country. I tried to figure out how to make that work in rock & roll. And then after I did that, there were thousands of fuckin’ bands with accordions and violins.” Journalist David Masciotra, “’Paper in Fire’ is a ferocious song. It is the aural equivalent of a wild beast breaking out of its cage. The exciting swirl of traditional and rock instrumentation creates a sound of struggle, and the shrieking violin sounds like it belongs in a Hitchcock movie. It is a song about inner death—a condition in which no murderer is necessary to destroy someone, only the demons that reside within a man’s own heart.” Little Johnny Cougar was Americana before Americana was cool.
176. “Clean Sheets,” The Descendents. Songwriter: Bill Stevenson; Did Not Chart; 1987. It’s hard to imagine a more disgusted dismissal than, “Even though you’ll never come clean, you know it’s true/Those sheets are dirty and so are you.” Blogger S.W. Lauden, “Driven by the band’s signature mix of straight-ahead punk energy and Beach Boys-worthy hooks, ‘Clean Sheets’ is a devastating tale of betrayal and no-frills road life. In a little over three minutes our protagonist goes from falling in love and letting himself get comfortable, to getting destroyed by infidelity and moving on. He may smash a mirror with his fist in the end, but the moral of this story is clear—even punk legends get their hearts broken when they’re young.”
175. “Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen. Songwriter: Bruce Springsteen; #9 pop; 1984. Caryn Rose of Billboard, “’Born in the U.S.A.’ opens with majestic synth chords, soon accompanied by Max Weinberg’s snap-to-attention snare rim shot, reminiscent of (and influenced by) the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” And that voice: Springsteen snarls straight out at you: ‘Born down in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground / You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just covering up…’ The E Street Band comes in like a bulldozer after the first chorus, turning this song into a powerhouse.” Of course, many pop radio fans thought this tale of a hopeless Vietnam vet was a fist pumping patriotic anthem due to the power of its chorus. Springsteen in 2005, describing his cool rockin’ daddy contradictions, “In my songs, the spiritual part, the hope part is in the choruses. The blues, and your daily realities are in the details of the verses. The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I got from Gospel music and the church.”
174. “Panic,” The Smiths. Songwriters: Johnny Marr, Morrissey; Did Not Chart; 1986. Morrissey has always generated strong emotions from his listeners and was accused of flirting with racism (not for the last time) on this “Hang the DJ” anthem. Joe Lynch of Billboard, “For a song railing against pop radio pabulum, the Smiths’ punchy, sing-song single ‘Panic’ certainly sounds like it was created with Top of the Pops in mind. One of the band’s most accessible entry points, ‘Panic’ probably would have been a bigger hit in the ’80s if not for its uncompromising lyrics: ‘Burn down the disco/Hang the blessed DJ/Because the music that they constantly play/It says nothing to me about my life.’ Still, it reached No. 11 in Britain.” Gary “Mani” Mounfield of The Stone Roses, “I’ve always seen Morrissey’s songs as great pieces of social satire. I can’t think of anyone else in the ’80s who wrote songs that reflected my life and my mates’ lives so well. He didn’t grow up in the same area of Manchester, but he spoke to us in our language and completely captured the loneliness of someone who can’t get a girlfriend and is stuck in a bedsit with nothing to look forward to. The fact he managed to make these brilliant statements about poverty, class and growing up in Thatcher’s Britain sound so joyous and uplifting is just astounding.”
173. “Beyond Belief,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Songwriter: Elvis Costello; Did Not Chart; 1982. Costello on his swirling look at alcoholism that kicks off the “Imperial Bedroom” album, “The big change of ‘Imperial Bedroom’ was giving yourself more space to try things. We had never been in the studio for 12 weeks. We were also moving into the period of big open-spaced music — U2, Echo and the Bunnymen — and suddenly our tight little songs were out of step. This is a ranting kind of song. I was consciously writing words that didn’t make sense — to make a blurred picture, because I was living a blurred life. But Pete Thomas’ drumming is so insane. I felt if I let him have his energy, the rest of us played more orchestrally and I sang quietly, it would be much more persuasive. It was the closest we came to that big music — and we never did that again. I didn’t want to sound like we were trying to catch up with the young guys.” Music journalist Chad Clark, “The song drops you into a suspended, swirling reverie with a single bass note, a faint and floating organ sound, and a jazz-like drum rhythm that keeps the floor slipping beneath your feet. Most notably: There is no guitar. The music seems to hover and float mid-air. Nobody knew The Attractions could do this.”
172. “’B’ Movie,” Gil Scott-Heron. Songwriter: Gil-Scott-Heron; #49 R&B; 1981. “The first thing I want to say is – mandate, my ass.” Gil-Scott-Heron was no cheerleader for Jimmy Carter, who he derisively referred to as “Skippy,” but he saw something much more concerning about the militaristic rhetoric and back to the future posturing of the Reagan era. Scott-Heron, “The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia/They want to go back as far as they can/Even if it’s only as far as last week/Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards.” The result of the John Wayne style marketing, “The ultimate in synthetic selling: A Madison Avenue masterpiece, a miracle, a cotton-candy politician.” Well, hey, nobody’s perfect.
171. “Express Yourself,” Madonna. Songwriters: Madonna, Stephen Bray; #2 pop; 1989. Madonna hit the scene as a teen fashion icon, but won respect from the rock press as the decade continued. The disco hangover ended by the end of the decade and listeners became more open minded about dance music. Also, she brought a new brand of feminism, one that celebrated her sexuality, into the mainstream. Music journalist Erica Peplin, “A manifesto of female empowerment, ‘Express Yourself’ solidified Madonna’s image as the priestess of sex-positive feminism. The song was intended as a tribute to Sly and the Family Stone and the funk band’s influence can be heard in the song’s saxophone, percussion and backup chorus. Its use of handclaps and brass instruments set it apart from much of Madonna’s more overtly pop dance numbers. The nod to soul was also in part an effort to expand her audience, reaching beyond the teen appeal. The song was an exuberant reminder to be honest and true to oneself and according to critics, it was revolutionary in1989. Nowadays it goes in one ear out the other, which is all that’s needed from a dancehall classic.”