The 1,000 Greatest Songs of the 1980s – 990 to 981
The John Hughes edition.
990. “Der Kommissar,” After the Fire. Songwriters: Robert Ponger, Falco; #5 pop; 1983. “Der Kommissar” was a major international hit in 1982 for Falco, the Austrian singer (born Johann “Hans” Hölzel) who topped the U.S. charts in 1985 with “Rock Me Amadeus.” The London new wave/rock act After the Fire released an English language cover of “Der Kommissar” in 1982 and had disbanded by the time the chocked full of shiny ‘80’s kitsch tune became an American pop hit. Rock critic Stewart Mason on this lyric of police paranoia, “The unforgettable chorus and Andy Piercy’s gruff but memorable vocals (gotta love the ‘Ja! Ja! Ja!’ middle eight) make it a guilty pleasure for generations to come.” Keyboardist Peter Banks, “We tried to merge the ideas of pop music and rock music. This was a deliberate policy: to not be too heavy and not be too light. What we did with ‘Der Kommissar,’ that was originally a hit track, the one by Falco, but it was quite lightweight. We tried to really beef it up, give it some guts and energy, and yet retain that kind of modern hip hop feel, which at that time was quite a daring thing to do.”
989. “1st One 2 The Egg Wins (The Human Race),” Bootsy Collins. Songwriter: Wes Boatman, Bootsy Collins; Did Not Chart; 1988. I’m not sure why this wasn’t sequenced after “(I Wannabee) Kissin’ U” on the 1988 “What’s Bootsy Doin’?” album; Bootzilla chronicles a bizarrely funny sperm race to reach the egg first, taking P/Funk from the dance floor to the sex ed class. The consequences? “Lookin’ like tadpoles with tiny tails/They must swim their fastest or be left in hell, baby.” Bootsy, describing his own DNA, “I come equipped with stereophonic funk producin´ disco inducin´ twin magnetic rock receptors.”
988. “Kern River,” Merle Haggard. Songwriter: Merle Haggard; #10 country; 1985. After releasing six consecutive #1 singles, you would think Haggard would have received some appreciation from his record label. Instead, CBS executive Rick Blackburn let Haggard know how much he hated the song “Kern River.” Haggard’s reaction, “Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.” Blackburn was obviously proud of his bad taste. “Kern River,” a tale about a man who can’t move forward after losing his lover to the water, is one of Haggard’s most gripping compositions. Almost sounding like the surviving spouse of a murder ballad, the narrator is wrestling with a memory that he will never be able to overcome. Haggard had 37 #1 singles before his air clearing session with Rick Blackburn. He had one afterwards.
987. “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” Deniece Williams. Songwriters: Tom Snow, Dean Pitchford; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1984. Deniece Williams was a backup singer for Stevie Wonder during the mid-1970s, before becoming a pop star in her own right. Williams took Johnny Mathis back to pop radio in 1978 with the #1 duet “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” and scored her second/last #1 pop hit with the exuberant puppy love romance number “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” which was used in the what-decade-are-we-in Kevin Bacon film “Footloose.” Williams, “I read a lot of articles that were saying that I was an incredible balladeer, and I wanted to show the world and show myself that I could do an uptempo pop song – and we succeeded!” Williams quickly disappeared from the pop charts after “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” but her four octave vocal range resulted in four Gospel Award Grammys in the 1980s and 1990s.
986. “Shock the Monkey,” Peter Gabriel. Songwriter: Peter Gabriel; #29 pop; 1983. Peter Gabriel, “This song is about jealousy and a sort of animal nature.” Author Ryan Leas, “It became his first Top 40 hit Stateside. But make no mistake, it is still a WEIRD pop song. It has an unnatural propulsion, like it wants to keep lurching back and forth while it still moves unerringly forward, mostly thanks to a main riff that’s some kind of bleed that could just as easily be synths or horns or guitars.” Gabriel’s discography is interesting in that he released three eponymous albums successively. Gabriel, “The American record company Geffen got so fed up with me that they said they weren’t going to release my fourth record unless I gave it some title. So it was called ‘Security’ in America and had no title in the rest of the world.”
985. “Thanksgiving,” Loudon Wainwright III. Songwriter: Loudon Wainwright III; Did Not Chart; 1989. Loudon Wainwright, backed by an understated Richard Thompson, suffers through a depressing holiday while remembering better times, when the complete family unit was still intact and “nothing bad had happened,” on “Thanksgiving.” Despite the complicated emotions, Loudon still manages a solid punchline, “On this auspicious occasion, this special family dinner/If I argue with a loved one, Lord, please make me…the winner.” Wainwright, “I’ve written songs about things outside myself — although I’ve never tried to hide the fact that some are about me. And I’ve dragged family members and ex-wives kicking and screaming into some — and I’m probably going to do that to the very end. This is probably why nobody comes to Thanksgiving at my house anymore.”
984. “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy),” Information Society. Songwriters: Paul Robb, Kurt Harland; #3 pop; 1988. The Twin Cities synthpop act Information Society released two Top Ten singles with “Star Trek” soundbites in 1988, the #1 dance hit “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy)” and the follow-up “Walking Away.” Synth player Paul Robb in 2016 on their signature song, “When you look back at it now, it’s a clear narrative about the difficulty that people have communicating with each other. At the time, we weren’t writing it with that in mind.” Blogger Bonnie Barton, “Information Society merged the style and electronic sound of Thomas Dolby, the beat and sampling of the Beastie Boys, and the melody and pop-sensibilities of the Pet Shop Boys to create their own brand of music along the alternative scene spectrum.” Despite no mainstream airplay since the 1980s, Information Society continues to tour and release new music.
983. “If You Leave,” Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Songwriters: Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys, Martin Cooper; #4 pop; 186. OMD singer Andy McCluskey on writing under a tight deadline for the film “Pretty in Pink,” “We went in the studio and completely off the top of our heads did the song, which I think we finished the rough demo of at about 3 o’clock in the morning. We just got together a piece of music that seemed like it made sense for that sort of coming to the end of high school moment.” Blogger Niall McMurray, who has a sense of humour, “This song takes me back to the time I wanted to go to the high school prom but I didn’t think I was good enough compared to all the rich kids. My dad bought this really lame dress in a thrift store and I pouted a lot, but eventually I learned a valuable lesson about inner beauty and the dress ended up being ok after a cool montage and everything turned out great…maybe it’s the way it was used in the film and my age at the time (fourteen) but I don’t think there’s ever been a song that better encapsulates intense teenage yearnings – not especially in the lyrics, but in the fizzing, building nature of the production. It’s like a huge fireworks display going off in your head, and by the time the big key change arrives you just want to run over and kiss the nearest reasonably attractive person.”
982. “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Simple Minds. Songwriters: Keith Forsey, Steve Schiff; #1 pop; 1985. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was a #1 single that nobody wanted – it was rejected by The Fixx, Billy Idol, Bryan Ferry, and Simple Minds, until Chrissie Hynde convinced her then husband/Simple Minds lead singer Jim Kerr to record it with British producer/songwriter Keith Forsey. The song was prominently featured in the John Hughes teen angst drama “The Breakfast Club,” giving the Scottish band their first commercial success in the U.S. Guitarist Charlie Burchill, “I ramped up the intro with these massive power chords. It was almost a caricature – I associated power chords with American AOR. But it worked.” Jim Kerr, “I added the big ‘la, la-la-la-la’ ending because I didn’t have any lyrics. I said I’d write some, but Keith said: ‘Over my dead body. We’re keeping that.’”
981. “Thirty-Nine and Holding,” Jerry Lee Lewis. Songwriters: Jerry Foster, Bill Rice; #6 country 1981. Jerry Lee Lewis, rock ‘n’ roll’s original id driven savage, was only forty-six years old in 1981, but he seemed much older and it would be his last year as a significant charting artist. “Killer Country” was his final album for Elektra Records, his relationship with record executive Jimmy Bowen ended with allegations of wiretapping and death threats. “Thirty Nine and Holding” was another one of Jerry Lee’s middle age angst numbers, where being a year from forty seems like the precipice of death. In addition to this aging hell raiser tune, Lewis had a Top Ten country hit with his cover of “Over the Rainbow.” His version of Judy Garland’s signature song sounds like blues, jazz, classic pop, and rock ‘n’ roll, all at the same time. As you know, the man is a stylist.