College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 223 – 221

223 no.jpg223. Lou Reed, “No Money Down”

By the mid-nineteen-eighties, there were two surefire ways to stir up extra interest in a single: make a attention-getting video that MTV couldn’t resist playing, or make an attention-getting video that MTV rejected from their cable-waves for one squeamishness-based reason or another. When Lou Reed released his 1986 album, Mistrial, he was in a strange, unsettled place professionally. Thanks to his creative leadership in the Velvet Underground and a edgy nineteen-seventies solo career that could be used as a shorthand introduction to that decade’s drug-addled grittiness, Reed was approaching the status of legend, albeit one that was notable more for influence than fame. But the prevailing sentiment of the era was still that rock ‘n’ roll was for kids, meaning there was a lot of knee-jerk skepticism directed at those performers who were able to talk about the recording careers in terms of journeys of around twenty years. Though there probably aren’t many willing to stand up and stump for the bulk of Reed’s eighties output as anywhere near the artist’s creative peak, he was productive, consistently interesting, and managed to play with more current techniques without seeming desperate about it. Still, critical support was waning, and, one bizarre exception notwithstanding, commercial radio was never going to embrace his gutter poetry. It’s an open question as to whether or not the music video for “No Money Down,” one of two singles released from Mistrial, was a deliberate act of provocation. Regardless, it worked. Directed by Godley & Creme, the former 10cc band members whose reasonably successful music career as a duo was dwarfed by their shared side job creating content for the booming music video market, the clip featured an animatronic version of Reed tearing apart its own face as it rigidly mouthed the lyrics to the song. MTV aired the video a few times, but ultimately cut it, feeling it was too violent and disturbing. Reed, on the other hand, thought it was hilarious, a sentiment he reported wasn’t shared by family members, such as his wife and mother. Either way, the mild hubbub around the music video didn’t make “No Money Down” didn’t deliver Reed a hit, nor did recording Mistrial at the pricey Power Station studio in Manhattan, then especially famous as the birthing center for Madonna’s smash Like a Virgin. In many ways, he was stalled. It would be nearly three years before his album, the longest gap in his solo career to that point. Of course, that next album wound up as one of the finest to which he ever signed his name.

222 what.jpg

222. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, “What I Am”

For some time in the nineteen-eighties, New Bohemians were just another band in the booming Dallas neighborhood of Deep Ellum. Then one night, a tall young women who exuded a hippie-tinged loveliness asked if she could join them onstage to sing a song or two. Her courage bolstered by her first ever shot of Jack Daniels, Edie Brickell took to the microphone and delivered improvised lyrics while the group eschewed their usual ska tendencies to play loose, jazzy riffs behind her. After a couple more guest appearances, Brickell was formally invited to be a full-fledged member of the band. Undoubtedly spurred by a record executive correctly determining there was a touch of star quality to her, Brickell got prime billing. At the time of the band’s 1988 debut album, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, she was a mere twenty-two years old, perfect for stirring up crushes among dumb boy college programmers, which naturally led to airplay. Initially, Geffen Records had planned to stick with a college radio push, but they quickly figured out that the record had broader potential that that, or at least that the makings of a hit resided in the lead single, “What I Am.” The song’s airy, approachable lilt reflected the band’s creative process. According to guitarist Kenny Withrow, “‘What I Am’ was written after about ten minutes of doodling around in the garage.” Fittingly, the song is fairly straightforward, with no tricky, intricate deeper meanings. At around the time the track was climbing all the way up to the Billboard Top 10, Brickell explained her inspiration for the lyrics: “I’d rather die than be thrown into some heavy conversation. I don’t like heavy conversations where everybody’s so deep all the time. Spirituality, beliefs, the whole big picture — I don’t think you can make anybody see things the way you see them. It’s just so weird.” A fairly modest person who early on occasionally struggled to connect with the audience while onstage, Brickell sometimes seemed a little uncomfortable with her sudden fame, for which she had little frame of reference. The surge in popularity clearly exceeded that of her father, pro bowler Eddie Brickell (1988 inductee, Texas State USBC Association Hall of Fame). There was only one more album with New Bohemians before Brickell went off to marry Paul Simon and embark of a half-hearted solo career. Only recent collaborations with Simon’s pal Steve Martin enlivened her creativity.

221 silk.jpg

221. Wire, “Silk Skin Paws”

In a 1988 issue of Melody Maker, music journalist Paul Mathur reviewed a concert that took place at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl. Depeche Mode were the headliners, and the bill also included Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Thomas Dolby, and Wire. Mathur didn’t have especially kind words for most of the acts that night, but he did find reserves of sardonic respect for the group that had only recently returned to recording after nearly a decade-long hiatus following a trio of spectacularly challenging albums in the late-nineteen-seventies. He wrote, “Wire have probably not played to 100,000 people in total as they’ve skimmed their precious stones across the edges of a strange pop history. And yet here they are in a place larger than Wembley Stadium cranking the din up loud, playing all the notes that sound wrong, but seduce with criminal ease, bewildering the Californians. It might have been ‘Silk Skin Paws’ that turned the event upside down, sounded like a dyslexic Springsteen, touched. There. Awesome or something.” I can barely piece together what he’s trying to convey there, which makes it the ideal description for a Wire song. “Silk Skin Paws” was the second single released from the band’s 1988 album, A Bell is a Cup…Until It is Struck. In addition to a more conventional single, the song was also issues as as part as a full fledged EP of the same name, adorned with a sticker declaring it a “specially priced mini-album for the Wire connoisseur.” Though technically reunited, the band was largely dismissive of their own history, seeing their work under the Wire name as more of a converging extension of the various solo and side projects undertaken by various members after their 1979 splintering. Their embrace of newer sounds, such as drum machines and other electronic enhancements, was so complete that even choose to ignore their back catalog while touring, instead enlisting a skilled Wire cover band to serve as the opening act.

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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