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The 1,000 Greatest Songs of the 1980s – 150 to 141

Give the past the slip.

150.  “Jack the Ripper,” LL Cool J.  Songwriters: Rick Rubin, J.T. Smith; Did Not Chart; 1988.  “Jack the Ripper” is a response to Kool Moe Dee’s insults toward LL Cool J on “How Ya Like Me Now,” as a continuation of their old lion/young cub feud.  LL Cool J cut Kool Moe Dee to ribbons on “Jack the Ripper,” proving he could hit much harder and faster than his old school counterpart. Best representation of their different career paths – “How ya like me now?/I’m getting busier/I’m double platinum/I’m watching you get dizzier.” Rick Rubin ensured the music hit as hard as the cold blooded attitude.

149.  “The Message,” Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five featuring Melle Mel and Duke Bootee.  Songwriters: Edward G. Fletcher, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Sylvia Robinson, Clifton “Jiggs” Chase; #62 pop/#4 R&B; 1962. Chuck D of Public Enemy, “’The Message’ was a total knock out of the park. It was the first dominant rap group with the most dominant MC saying something that meant something.” Rolling Stone, “It was the first song to tell, with hip-hop’s rhythmic and vocal force, the truth about modern life in inner-city America. Over seven minutes, atop a Seventies P-Funk jam, rapper Melle Mel and co-writer Duke Bootee, a member of the Sugar Hill Records house band, traded lines and scenes of struggle and decay, with a warning at the end of each verse: ‘Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head.’ The Furious Five’s pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash later said that ‘The Message’ proved their music could ‘speak things that have social significance and truth.’ Yet, when they first heard Bootee’s demo, they were worried that hip-hop clubgoers would not dig the subject matter and slowed-down beat. As Melle Mel recalled, he was the member who ‘caved in’ and agreed to record it. Sugar Hill Records head Sylvia Robinson got him to write and rap more lyrics, and Sugar Hill studio player Reggie Griffin added the indelible synthesizer lick.”

148.  “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” The Georgia Satellites.  Songwriter: Dan Baird; #2 pop; 1986. Southern rock as a commercial proposition was quickly dying by the mid-1980s, but was momentarily resurrected by The Georgia Satellites pre-matrimony celibacy number “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.”  Dan Baird, “We were a rock & roll band that the NASCAR people picked up on. The death of Ronnie Van Zant left such a gaping hole that could fit in Jason and the Scorchers, the Kentucky Headhunters, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and us.” The song would quickly be picked up by country artists and audiences.  Baird, “Somebody made the comment that it was the song that saved rock & roll and ruined country music at the same time (laughs). It meant, it brought rock & roll back to its roots for a few minutes, but it turned the corner on country being afraid of dumb loud guitars.” The ever quotable Baird describing his droll hit to the New York Times in 1986, “A little piece of cornpone, like finding a long-lost Chuck Berry song on the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

147.  “Something to Believe In,” Ramones.  Songwriters: Dee Dee Ramone, Jean Beauvoir; Did Not Chart; 1986. “Something to Believe In” was an anthem about finding hope from a band who had given their audience something to believe in for a decade by 1986.  Music journalist Andy Schwartz on the band’s legacy, “They were the great Johnny Appleseed pioneers of punk rock. They were the first band to leave New York and play anywhere and everywhere in order that this music could get past the barriers of radio and mass media.” Robert Christgau, “They did conquer the world, if changing rock and roll utterly counts. And they gained and/or created a following far closer to the idealized rock and roll audience they’d imagined than anyone knew existed.” The Pretenders covered “Something to Believe In” for the 2003 album “We’re a Happy Family: A Tribute to Ramones.”

146.  “The Waiting,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  Songwriter: Tom Petty; #19 pop; 1981.   Tom Petty, “That was a song that took a long time to write. Roger McGuinn swears he told me the line – about the waiting being the hardest part – but I think I got the idea from something Janis Joplin said on television. I had the chorus very quickly, but I had a very difficult time piecing together the rest of the song. It’s about waiting for your dreams and not knowing if they will come true. I’ve always felt it was an optimistic song.”  Music journalist Andrew Unterberger, “The ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ of the ’80s? Maybe not – less God-plagiarizing, and lower-charting – but it certainly got the guitars and the chorus right, with a beautiful lyric about the difficulty of staying patient through romantic frustration.”

145.  “Head over Heels,” The Go-Go’s.  Songwriters: Charlotte Caffey, Kathy Valentine; #11 pop; 1984. Charlotte Caffey, describing her piano work that jumped out of radio speakers in 1984, “I played piano and I had never utilized it, really, in the Go-Go’s and I thought, ‘Well, maybe it would be a cool idea to try something with the piano, just get a little different tonality happening other than just guitars.’ I sat down and came up with the hooky part in the beginning, the 8th note-y part.” Rob Harvilla of Rolling Stone, “It should be illegal to buy a keyboard in this country without testing it via the peppy, wrist-dislocating riff that kicks off ‘Head over Heels.’ It narrowly tops the decade’s other big pop song named “Head Over Heels” (by Tears for Fears) on infectious charm alone. Best clapping sound effects this side of ‘Jack and Diane,’ too.”  Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s, “I just think it’s a classic. Like a little pop truffle of chocolate that’s just completely delicious.”

144.  “Chivalry,” The Mekons.  Songwriters: Jon Langford, Tom Greenhalgh, Susie Honeyman, Lu Edmonds, Dick Taylor, Tommy Greene; Did Not Chart; 1985.  The Mekons kicked off their 1985 “Fear and Whiskey” album with a particularly bleak look at personal despair, as Tom Greenhalgh declares, “I was out late the other night/Fear and whiskey kept me going.” Mark Desroirers of PopMatters, “’Chivalry’ begins with Sue Honeyman’s stoic fiddle, sawing itself into history with its minor-key hook. Tom Greenhalgh mutters inaudibly a couple bars, then begins singing, a quavering warble that sounds punk, soused, and vulnerable. (Indeed listening to this song makes you newly aware that, along with Mark E. Smith, Shane MacGowan, and Paul Westerberg, Greenalgh was probably one of the definitive post-punk vocalists.)  It is a lonely, sad, detailed song, like the best country tunes. But aside from the fiddle, it has no genre. As it fades out with mourning violins, you know you’ve been held captive by a strange classic.”

143.  “Whip It,” Devo.  Songwriters: Gerald Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh; #14 pop; 1980. Jerry Casale, “I think a lot of Devo is in ‘Whip It.’ There’s Americana mixed with something menacing, there’s irony and humor, there’s a hook and a big dance beat, there are interesting synth parts, lyrics that aren’t the typical lyrics about getting laid or losing your baby. Although we weren’t trying, it was a pretty concentrated dose of Devo in ‘Whip It.’” Richard Buskin of Sound on Sound, “’Whip It’ was based on the kind of mid-tempo, 4/4 ‘motorik’ beat favoured by German bands such as Neu! and Kraftwerk, as well as a lead guitar riff inspired by the one that Roy Orbison plays on ‘Pretty Woman.’ The lyrics are cynically mocking how Americans often resort to violence in order to overcome adversity or claw their way to the top.” Producer Robert Margouleff, “Although the chorus is catchy, it’s actually less melodic than the verses, and that was a precursor of rap.”

142.  “Brainbox (He’s a Brainbox),” The Three Johns.  Songwriters: Jon Langford, John Hyatt, John Brennan; Did Not Chart; 1985.  Jon Langford of The Mekons has been involved in many side projects to include the alt-country groups the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, The Waco Brothers, and the post-punk trio The Three Johns.  “Brainbox (He’s a Brainbox)” is a decidedly weird song, with an arena rock opening (“Whoa-Oh-Oh-WHOA-OHHHHHH!”), a dance beat, and a chorus that sounds like The Clash.  Oh, and the lyrics are supposedly a thumb nosing exercise at yuppies.  Music journalist John Dougan, “Perhaps the most subversive thing about the Johns is that, despite Langford’s and John Hyatt’s goofy vocals, they were, in their own weird way, pure pop for now people, especially those who hated Thatcher. With collective tongue planted firmly in cheek, the Johns took on British and American obsession with materialism, the diabolical Reagan-Thatcher lovefest, the machinations of the pop music industry, all of it done with a great sense of humor mixed in with genuine fear and horror.”

141.  “Running Up That Hill,” Kate Bush.  Songwriter: Kate Bush; #30 pop; 1985. Kate Bush was a major pop star in the U.K., writing “Wuthering Heights,” a 1978 #1 hit, when she was still a teenager.  “Running Up That Hill” was her only U.S. Top 40 single.  Bush, “I was trying to say that, really, a man and a woman can’t understand each other because we are a man and a woman. And if we could actually swap each other’s roles, if we could actually be in each other’s place for a while, I think we’d both be very surprised! (Laughs) And I think it would lead to a greater understanding. And really the only way I could think it could be done was either… you know, I thought a deal with the devil, you know. And I thought, ‘well, no, why not a deal with God!’ You know, because in a way it’s so much more powerful the whole idea of asking God to make a deal with you.” Nate Patrin of Stereogum, “It’s hard to pin an archetypal signature song on an artist with more than her share of candidates right from the get-go, ‘Running Up That Hill’ might just be it: booming enough for the dance charts, but still infused with a fearless experimentation, given a hook that’s delivered with an insistent power to latch itself onto your mind. And its lyrics, based around the struggles of love and the idea of swapping the identities of a man and a woman in an effort at bringing empathy into a relationship fraught with an uncontrollable power, are run through with a raw-nerved openness that seems intimate and anxious at the same time.”

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