College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 244 – 242

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244. The Suburbs, “Love is the Law”

The inner sleeve of the full-length studio album issued by the Suburbs in 1984 states, “The title ‘Love Is The Law’ is the opinion of The Suburbs, stands alone and has no connection whatsoever with Aleister Crowley.” They may not have drawn direct inspiration from the foundational tenet of Thelema, as laid out by the upstart religion’s crackpot founder, but disavowing any relation whatsoever would require parsing the intent of an unidentified Minnesotan with access to spray paint and a blank horizontal surface. As Chan Poling, vocalist and keyboard player for The Suburbs, later explained, “I was walking down the street, just like the first line of the song says. I was walking down Lyndale towards downtown and Loring Park, and on the overpass that goes up to Hennepin over Lyndale was spray-painted with ‘Love Is The Law.’ This was in 1981.” He added, “Pretty straight-ahead story, the song. It’s me, walking down the street, thinking about people suffering and needing things and seeing that sign and being enlightened, and that’s the whole damn song.” The track served as the title cut to the band’s proper major label debut (the label in question, PolyGram, reissued one of their EPs ahead of the new full-length), following a notable run on the Minneapolis-based Twin/Tone Records, which included the dual distinctions of standing as the first artist to release music on the label (a self-titled EP, from 1978) and claiming the shingle’s best-selling album to that point (Credit in Heaven, from 1981). Love is the Law was also the band’s only album for PolyGram. When crossover riches didn’t immediately materialize, the label dropped them. The song “Love is the Law” proved to have a long afterlife, though, at least in the Suburbs’ Midwestern hometown, where it was claimed as theme song to Minnesota’s marriage equality movement. The song’s enduring greatness was even championed by at least one member of the Mondale family, left-leaning royalty in the true blue state.


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243. Garland Jeffreys, “96 Tears”

Arguably, the cover of “96 Tears” released by Garland Jeffreys, in 1981, was more beneficial for the song’s original artist than it was for the venerable R&B performer. Originally recorded and released by the willfully obtuse garage rock band ? and the Mysterians, the song made it #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the fall of 1966, in between chart-toppers from more familiar hit-makers. Largely defunct since the early nineteen-seventies, no doubt due to their inability to come anywhere near their commercial pinnacle again (though tagging the band as one-hit wonders ignores that the follow-up single, “I Need Somebody,” also made the Top 40), ? and the Mysterians were revived by the man behind the punctuation mark, Rudy Martinez, in part because he felt he could capitalize on the revived interest in his band the Jeffreys cover created. For Jeffreys, a devoted toiler in the music business since the late nineteen-sixties (including memorable guitar work and one songwriting credit on John Cale’s solo debut), “96 Tears” represented the most immediate success he’d ever experienced. Even then, it peaked at a somewhat underwhelming #66 on the Billboard chart. Still, the track probably runs neck and neck with the 1973 single “Wild in the Streets” as the most famous release from Jeffreys, and even that is better known for cover versions adopted by thrashin’ skate punks than its soulful original. “96 Tears” is the one he gets perform with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at arena shows. (Fair’s fair: Jeffreys has also joined Springsteen and his crew for the occasional rendition of “Wild in the Streets,” too. The Boss likes him some Garland Jeffreys.)


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242. David Bowie, “China Girl”

David Bowie brought a few songs with him when he joined Iggy Pop to work on the solo debut of the former Stooges frontman. One of them was called “Borderline.” Pop transformed the song into “China Girl” through his wholesale reworking of the lyrics, creating a story of romance and heartache based on his lusty interest in Kuelan Nguyen, a Vietnamese woman who was dating French pop singer Jacques Higelin at the time Pop was pursuing her, reportedly with some success. (It’s very likely that Pop’s switch of the pined-for female’s nationality wasn’t an example of an westerner’s ugly cultural ignorance, but was instead him simply taking liberties to find a better lyric, which is exactly how Betsy became Candy in the singer’s highest charting single.) Pop reportedly came up with most of the lyrics for the song spontaneously, while singing in front of the microphone, a talent that amazed Bowie. As producer, Bowie brought some unique creativity to the track as well, urging Pop to sing the song “like Mae West.” The song was the second single from Pop’s eventual album, The Idiot, making little to no impact, at least at the time. Year later, when Bowie was filling out his 1983 studio album, Let’s Dance, he recorded his own version of “China Girl,” in large part to insure that Pop, as the song’s co-writer, could net some heartier royalties that he was receiving for his own releases. Bowie’s version is notably slicked-up, including the somewhat cringe-inducing guitar riff that trades on the sort of “Oriental” motif that for decades underscored the arrival of a Asian character onscreen in Hollywood movies and television shows. Nile Rodgers, co-producer and performer on the album, came up with the new guitar part. Rodgers expected Bowie to hate it, explaining, “I thought I was putting some bubblegum over some great artistic heavy record. I was terrified. I thought he was going to tell me that I’d blasphemed, and that I didn’t get the record and that I didn’t get him, and that I’d be fired.” Instead, Bowie thought it was terrific. So did most fans. “China Girl” was the second single from the album, and missed giving Bowie back-to-back chart-toppers in the U.K. only because it was boxed out by the monthlong run at #1 enjoyed by the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” (Bowie had to settle for a peak of #10 in the United States.) In true rock star fashion, Bowie got a little extra action out of the song, spending some time in the intimate company of Geeling Ng, who essentially played the song’s title character in the requisite music video.


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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