College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 232 – 230

232 cars

232. Gary Numan, “Cars”

Officially, “Cars” is the debut single of Gary Numan. Born Gary Anthony James Webb, the musician took his stage name as the leader and chief creative force of the U.K. band Tubeway Army. According to Numan, he wanted to formally transition to a solo act fairly early on, but the label felt a band was more likely to crack the charts. Though bassist Paul Gardiner was also part of the Tubeway Army lineup through it’s entire existence, by the time they were making records in the late nineteen-seventies, it was realistically Numan under a different name. Only after delivering a U.K. chart topper with the 1979 single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” did Numan have the clout to put his name front and center on a record. “Cars” made for a helluva solo bow. Numan again reached the top position on the U.K. chart and made it into the United States Top 10. The song itself came to Numan with remarkable ease. He wrote it on bass guitar, largely as a means of learning the instrument better. Looking back, he reported that it took him no more than thirty minutes to compose the entire song. Though it’s considered one of the touchstone electronic tracks, providing an essential pivot point from disco to new wave, Numan didn’t even own a synthesizer at the time. He needed to rent the instrument when it came time for the recording process. The icy simplicity of the lyrics might make it seem like they’re pulled together practically at random, or maybe intended to send up pop music’s longstanding preoccupation with motorized vehicles. Numan, though, was dead serious, asserting in a 1980 interview, “I feel very safe in cars….You can lock the doors and they can’t get to you. I don’t like people gettin’ to me. Bein’ in a car keeps me safe. It’s a cocoon.” He’d sometimes so far as to compare a car to a personal tank. Part of the inspiration for the song’s lyrics came from using his vehicle in just that way, when he was attacked on the street by a couple of other motorists. Ultimately, though, the lyrics are less significant that the amazing hook and accompanying music Numan conjured up for the song, which he acknowledges by noting it’s “almost an instrumental.” All the singing happens in the first minutes with the remaining three-fourths of the song largely nothing but music, leading Numan to complain that it’s a fairly boring song for him to play live. Of course, as by far the biggest hit of his career, “Cars” cannot be omitted from the set list.

231 girls

231. Duran Duran, “Girls on Film”

The title for Duran Duran’s breakthrough single originated with Andy Wickett, the singer with the band in 1979. He used the term “girls in films” all the time, usually to enthuse on the how much prettier they were that the birds he saw simply walking around in the wild. Nick Rhodes and John Taylor changed the term to “girls on film” because they felt it sounded better that way. After Wickett left the group, Jeff Thomas took over lead singer duties. The fragment of a song was given to him and he composed the chorus, which remained largely intact when it progressed forward to yet another lead singer: Simon Le Bon. The newcomer to the band to shift the song away from pining for glamorous beauty and invest it with more edgy commentary. According to Le Bon, “It’s about the exploitation of women by the fashion industry, what they have to do to sell bathing suits and toothpaste.” (In a supreme irony, the song is now routinely used to score exactly that sort of exploitation, sometimes with the band’s active participation.) The process of recording it was arduous, with multiple takes and pressure from the band’s management to modify the melody, under the impression, proven incorrect, that it simply wasn’t strong enough. The band had a different impression of the song than those music business suits. They knew the track was a hit in waiting, fighting with the label about releasing it as a single, finally getting their way after the label’s preferred song, “Careless Memories,” fizzled on the charts. “Girls on Film” became the third single from Duran Duran’s self-titled debut album and their first to reach the Top 5 in the U.K. That success can be traced somewhat to the band’s lengthy music video, released at precisely the time the freshly launched cable channel MTV was desperate for content. With its scantily clad models, the video was banned in some quarters, which of course only stirred greater interest in it. Le Bon knew that all along, As he explained to Billboard, “A lot of people are going to slag us off. A lot of people will try to get us banned from this place or that. I’m dying for that. When they try to ban us, that means we’re making an impression on people.”

230 everywhere

230. Translator, “Everywhere That I’m Not”

Translator was known as a San Francisco band, but they actually formed in Los Angeles. Lead singer Steve Barton was part of a highly successful Beatles cover band, essentially playing the part of John Lennon (though he was originally hired to fill the role of George Harrison). In a humorous, inadvertent commitment to mirroring the lore and legend of the revered band they were aping, the tribute outfit made the determination they needed to sack their drummer. Dave Scheff was brought in as a replacement, and he and Barton quickly determined they were simpatico enough to form a group that would play their own music rather than trade off lingering Beatlemania (or, for that matter, still active Beatlemania mania). Deciding that San Francisco might be more hospitable to a new group than the always packed L.A. scene, they moved north. “Everywhere That I’m Not” was the catalyst for all of the band’s success. A demo version of the song made it to local college radio station, KUSF, where Howie Klein was taking a regular shift. Fortuitously, he was also the founder of the local label 415 Records. When he noticed the song was stirring heated interest with the listenership, he went to see the band play live and offered them a contract. In turn, the independent label’s distribution deal with the mighty Columbia Records got the band’s music to a national audience. While there was a popular interpretation that the song was Translator’s tribute to John Lennon, whose death was still a fresh wound on the music scene (Translator’s debut album, Heartbeats and Triggers, was released in 1982), that mournful duty was actually fulfilled by the similarly titled track “Everywhere.” Instead, “Everywhere That I’m Not” was informed by that most fruitful of pop music subjects: Barton wrote the song while a romantic relationship was coming to an end.

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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