College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, #247 – #245

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247. Pretenders, “Message of Love”

Led by the magnetic Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders flared to massive popularity quickly enough in the U.K. that the demand for new music started to outpace the band’s ability to deliver it. Hynde moved to London in the early nineteen-seventies, in part because she saw a greater likelihood of getting involved in the music scene she adored. Before long, she landed a gig with the magazine NME and started connecting with local musicians. The Pretenders formed in 1978, and they were charting U.K. hits by the following year, when their self-titled debut was also released. By 1980, they’d reach the top of the U.K. singles chart, with “Brass in Pocket.” While the United States market was a little more tepid in its collective response, their audience on the other side of the pond was clamoring for more. Luckily, the record store culture there was more amenable to individual singles, a format that had largely fallen out of favor, at least when it came to making purchases, in Hynde’s homeland. “Message of Love,” the second of a pair of singles released between the Pretenders’ first two albums, arrived in February, 1981. Several weeks later, the material from both singles (along with a live version of the debut release’s “Precious”) was pulled together for U.S. record buyers on an EP entitled, clearly enough, Extended Play. Along with its immediate predecessor on the band’s singles discography, “Message of Love” also wound up on Pretenders II, the group’s sophomore release. It was the first song from the Pretenders to make any real headway on U.S. radio, peaking at #5 on Billboard‘s then relatively new Top Rock Tracks chart. By now, it’s one of the group’s signature songs, well known enough that it can provide the name for a San Francisco Pretenders tribute band, proving there are countless ways to measure a song’s lasting influence.

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246. Echo & the Bunnymen, “New Direction”

One of the things that excited me about college radio, arguably all out of proportion to the actual merits of the practice, was the tendency to dig deeper onto albums, effectively declaring a defiant disregard to the official singles pushed by the record labels. In practice, we were plenty prone to sticking with the anointed “hits,” but other cuts could receive generous airplay, too. As far as I can tell, “New Direction” was not one of the three official singles culled from the 1987 self-titled album by Echo & the Bunnymen. Despite that, it obviously caught the attention of enough student programmers to register noticeably on the CMJ charts. Knowing the eager excitement that accompanies figuring out a hook to use in talking about an artist or song on the radio, there were likely more than a few deejays who gravitated to this track because it provide an easy entry to discuss some of the shifts going on within the band, especially if the broadcasters in question were privy to some of the backstory around the recording of the album, including unsettled personnel concerns and growing discontent within the ranks because lead singer Ian McCulloch was increasingly being singled out as the star of the group. Then as now, delivering a self-titled album late in an act’s run — Echo & the Bunnymen is the band’s fifth full-length studio album — was viewed as a statement of beginning anew. Interestingly enough, the song is rife with religious imagery (“All my evils would be blessed/ If to God I did confess/ Wipe the slate and see if I/ Ate the bread and drank the wine”) of the sort that college radio kids inclined towards anti-social pushback didn’t usually embrace. McCulloch’s vocals are nestled fairly deeply into the mix. Maybe the rabble-rousing youth didn’t notice.

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245. Eurythmics, “Missionary Man”

A touch of critical grouchiness dogged the Eurythmics as the second half of the nineteen-eighties unfolded. One of the first bands that jumped from obscurity to sensation in large part from the attention bestowed upon them by upstart cable channel MTV, the duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart were too restlessly creative to continually, repeatedly deliver exactly what was expected of them. The icy dance pop that earned their fame wasn’t set aside, but it was melded with other sonic preoccupations, most notably Stewart’s interest in the classic R&B sounds of U.S. labels such as Stax Records. That shift significantly informed the band’s 1985 album, Be Yourself Tonight. By the time of Revenge, released the following year, the Eurythmics’ sound was swinging back somewhat to their roots, leading to a fascinating conglomeration of everything they’d created up until that point. The lead single in the United States (and fourth single released from the album in the U.K.), “Missionary Man” has the slinky churn of old school soul and the propulsive drive of early eighties electronic dance music. It also has an uncredited assist from no less than Bob Dylan, who visited Stewart’s home while he was working on the track. Stewart played pieces of the song for Dylan, and the rock legend improvised lyrics. Simultaneously, Stewart wrote his own reactions to Dylan’s words in a notebook, later transforming the material into the final lyrics. “Missionary Man” was the last Eurythmics hit of note in the U.S., peaking at #14 on the Billboard chart.

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.

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