The 1,000 Greatest Songs of the 1980s – 50 to 41
A simple prop to occupy my time.
50. “I Want You,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Songwriter: Elvis Costello; Did Not Chart; 1986. “I Want You” is a brutal look at jealousy and heartbreak from the viewpoint of a spurned lover. For over six minutes, Costello repeats “I want you,” while injecting self-defeating thoughts like “I want to know the things you did that we do too/I want to hear he pleases you more than I do/Did you call his name out while he held you down?” Music journalist David Ford, “The guitar solo consists of the two ugliest notes available in this musical key, hacked out with the tenderness of a lump hammer. It’s dark and disturbing and dirty and utterly compelling.” Costello, “I was on the train from Liverpool to London with a sheet of paper on the table before me filling up fast with the same three words, repeated over and over. ‘I Want You.’ I’d done all those cruel, irrational things people do to test their power, to test their limits, to seek revenge. Those things had served me well, so I suppose it served me right to be on the receiving end for once. I wasn’t halfway to Nuneaton before I completed the song and the sting was pulled out of the skin. Singing that song night after night might have seemed like a punishment to some people, but in the end it just became a play I had to perform.”
49. “Super Freak,” Rick James. Songwriters: Rick James, Alonzo Miller; #16 pop/#3 R&B; 1981. Rick James, on his smash hit about dating the kind of girl who appears in new wave magazines and how much he enjoyed tasting her, “I wanted to write a silly song. I was in the studio and everything else for the album (‘Street Songs’) was done. I just put ‘Super Freak’ together really quickly. I wanted a silly song that had a bit of new wave texture to it. So I just came up with this silly little lick and expounded on it. I came up with the bass part first. Then I put a guitar on it and keyboards, doing the ‘ehh ehh,’ silly keyboard part. Then I found a tuning on my Oberheim OB-Xa that I’d been wanting to use for a long time – it sounds like ghosts. And I put a very operatic vocal structure on it ’cause I’m really into opera and classical music. You probably hear a lot of that in my music. So I put (sings in a deep voice) ‘She’s all right’; very operatic, sort of funny, stuff.” James in the 1990s, reflecting on living his gimmick, “There was a time where I was just trying to live the image wholeheartedly. I mean, Rick James was just a man-made image, the image I created. Just trying to live Rick James almost killed me.”
48. “Here Comes the Rain Again,” The Eurythmics. Songwriters: Annie Lennox, Dave Stewart; #4 pop; 1984. Dave Stewart, “Here Comes The Rain Again’ is kind of a perfect one where it has a mixture of things, because I’m playing a b-minor, but then I change it to put a b-natural in, and so it kind of feels like that minor is suspended, or major. So, it’s kind of a weird course. And, of course, that starts the whole song, and the whole song was about that undecided thing, like here comes depression, or here comes that downward spiral. But then it goes, ‘so talk to me like lovers do.’ It’s the wandering in and out of melancholy, a dark beauty that sort of is like the rose that’s when it’s darkest unfolding and blood red just before the garden, dies. And capturing that in kind of oblique statements and sentiments.” Rock critic Robert Ham, “A marvel of arranging and performance. Surely, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys lamented that Stewart and Lennox beat them to the punch of matching up the trill of arpeggiated Moroder-like synths with Gainsbourg-like string parts. As well, the song feels like it is just one extended chorus, one sustained outpouring of emotion.”
47. “Come on Eileen,” Dexys Midnight Runners. Songwriters: Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson, Billy Adams; #1 pop; 1983. The arrangement of “Come on Eileen” is joyful and ridiculous, like if Queen had become a pseudo-folk Celtic act. Kevin Rowland, “We wanted a good rhythm and we found one. Lots of records we liked had that rhythm: ‘Concrete and Clay’ (a 1965 U.K. hit from the band Unit 4 +2), ‘It’s Not Unusual’ by Tom Jones. Lots of records we liked had that ‘Bomp ba bomp, bomp ba bomp.’ We felt it was a good rhythm. We came up with the chord sequence ourselves and just started singing melodies over it. I remember thinking, ‘We’re really onto something here.’ I came up with that, ‘Too ra loo ra,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is sounding really good.’ You get a feeling when you’re writing a song. Something happens. And in the end it kind of finished itself. It’s about somebody I grew up with. It’s absolutely true all the way. I was about 14 or 15 and sex came into it and our relationship had always been so clean. It seemed at the time to get dirty and that’s what it’s about. I was really trying to capture that atmosphere.”
46. “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” Hall & Oates. Songwriters: Sara Allen, Daryl Hall, John Oates; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1982. Daryl Hall, “I was still sitting at my keyboards, just playing around. I had this primitive drum machine, which had a setting called: ‘Rock 1.’ I pushed the button and out came a rhythm. Then I played the first bassline that came into my head, followed by some chords, and thought: ‘Oh man! There’s something happening here!’ I yelled into the studio: ‘Turn the tapes on!’ Then I shouted to John: ‘Play this line.’ And I hummed something. John grabbed his guitar – and that was it. I basically wrote the song on the spot: it was being recorded as I was thinking of it. In the vocal booth, I sang some gibberish words and wrote some proper lyrics later. We added the alto sax later too. A few years after the song topped the US charts, we did ‘We Are the World,’ the USA For Africa famine relief record, with a lot of other stars. Everybody was in the room without their minders – a really unusual situation. I got talking to Michael Jackson and he said: ‘I hope you don’t mind. I stole the groove from ‘I Can’t Go for That’ for my song ‘Billie Jean.’ I told him: ‘Oh Michael, what do I care? You did it very differently.’” Music journalist Steve Peake, “This unforgettable and very worthy No. 1 pop hit stands as one of the duo’s all-time grooviest and funkiest songs, propelled by a wonderfully spare but tasty guitar lick and an infectious rhythm.”
45. “The One I Love,” R.E.M. Songwriters: Bill Berry, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck; #9 pop; 1987. After years of rave reviews, R.E.M. finally broke pop with this menacing rocker about psychological dominance. Mike Mills, “I remember Peter, showing me that riff and thinking it was pretty cool, and then the rest of the song flowed from there. We played the whole song as an instrumental until Michael came up with some vocals for it.” Stipe, “That song just came up from somewhere, and I recognized it as being real violent and awful, but it wasn’t directed at any one person. I would never, ever write a song like that. Even if there was one person in the world thinking, ‘This song is about me,’ I could never sing it or put it out. It’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point.” Producer Scott Litt, announcing commercial ambitions that the band would never cop to, “With R.E.M., I thought it was important to show that the music belongs on the radio, that it was every bit as worthy as Whitney Houston or whatever else was on there. It was against my nature to do something murky – as opposed to raw – and basically I wanted to treat their vocals differently on (the) ‘Document’ (album). They weren’t really a great singles band then, but they became one, beginning with ‘The One I Love’ on that album. It’s a very linear song: the vocal stops, then you hear the drums, then the guitar comes in and takes your interest.”
44. “Little Red Corvette,” Prince. Songwriter: Prince; #6 pop/#15 R&B; 1983. Rock critic Jason Ankeny, “Prince notched his first Top Ten entry with one of the most sensual and frankly explicit hits ever to crack the charts. ‘Little Red Corvette,’ a slow-burning funk-pop odyssey which is most definitely not about a sports car, is an after-dark masterpiece, aural soft porn rendered with the inextricable combination of perversity and sophistication which defines virtually all of his best work. Everything about the song is suggestive, from its moaning synthesizers to its bump-and-grind rhythm to the orgasmic squeals which punctuate Prince’s vocals; even the lyrical metaphors are so persuasive — in addition to cars, there are horses (Trojans, in fact, some of ’em used) — that it’s virtually impossible to discuss ‘Little Red Corvette’ without lapsing into double entendres of one’s own. (Really, how else to describe the incendiary coda which closes the song but as a climax?) Making a brilliant case for innuendo as an end unto itself, ‘Little Red Corvette’s triumph is that even while the song — much like the body of its lusty heroine — is ‘just on the verge of being obscene,’ it never succumbs to blatant tastelessness; even as an evocation of pure sexuality, it appeals to the imagination as much as the libido. Not just Prince’s first major hit single, ‘Little Red Corvette’ may be his very best — only fitting that a song about staying power would have so much of its own.”
43. “Strictly Business,” EPMD. Songwriters: Erick Sermon, Parrish Smith, Bob Marley; #25 R&B; 1987. Rolling Stone, “The greatest thing about EPMD’s inaugural single is the duo’s self-produced beat – a cornucopia of blatant samples from the golden age of artistic pilfering, with Eric Clapton’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ busting wild-style moves on the floor next to Mountain and Kool and the Gang. Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith’s laid-back rhymes were revolutionary in their way too. Most rappers in 1988 were still stuck on loud, clear cadences. EPMD’s casual, goofy approach to the mic laid the groundwork for generations of chilled-out – as well as weeded-out – rappers.” Rap historian Jesse Ducker, “It was sonically striking at the time to hear the duo hunt down phony emcees over a rock cover of a reggae track. While Parrish works in references to ‘Land of the Lost’ and villainous cartoon dog Muttley, Erick drops lines like, “It don’t take time for me to blow your mind/Take a second to wreck it because you’re dumb and blind.” My personal fave couplet: “Like a magician, who pulls a rabbit out a hat, son/I pull them all like a .44 magnum.”
42. “Swingin’,” John Anderson. Songwriters: John Anderson, Lionel Delmore; #43 pop/#1 country; 1983. John Anderson, “I knew then I was very, very lucky to have a song that big, especially to have written it as well as published it. I always give the good Lord credit for my music and the songs I’ve written, but I thank Him many, many times for “Swingin’.” Forget Romeo and Juliet, Little Charlotte Johnson inspired the best love story ever. John conveys the wondrous thrill of new romance and the band positively…um…swings with horns and a rock inspired Hammond B-3 organ interlude. Not only a #1 hit, not only the Country Music Association Single of the Year, but this song was best-selling country single in the history of Warner Brothers Records. Happiness is a warm swing.
41. “Bizarre Love Triangle,” New Order. Songwriters: Gllian Gilbert, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner; Did Not Chart; 1986. Andrew Unterberger of Billboard, “’Bizarre Love Triangle’ was an unparalleled head-rush of a synth-pop song, combining classic soul melodies and borderline-gospel lyrical reverence with layers upon layers of spellbinding electronic hooks, crafting an incandescent jewel of mid-’80s computer love in the process. Of course, if you remember ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ for one thing, it’s that wallop of a chorus, hopping up and down the octave: ‘Every time I see you falling/I get down on my knees and pray.’ The quasi-religious wording gives it echoes of Al Green, and the melody is classic Motown, but the imagery of it is vague enough that it doesn’t break the song’s enigmatic spell with lyrical or musical cliché. The pacing of the phrasing is similarly inspired; alternately awestruck and rushed, never comfortable but always enthralled.” Robert Ham of Paste, “Dozens of bands have been chasing down a sound as honeydripping and danceable as this one. All have failed.”