College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 220 – 218

220 brave

220. fIREHOSE, “Brave Captain”

“Brave Captain” was the ideal opening salvo from fIREHOSE. Recorded in October, 1986 at Radio Tokyo studios, in Venice, California, Mike Watt and George Hurley put the song to tape less than a year after the tragic death of D. Boon brought an end to their prior band, the Minutemen. Inspired punk rockers still reveling in acclaim showered on the recent double album masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime (though the now rarely invoked 3-Way Tie for Last was the band’s true final statement) at the time of the van accident that claimed the life of their lead singer, Watt and Hurley were initially and understandably reluctant to continue making music. By most accounts, the true impetus to Watt and Hurley soldiering on was the persistent urging of guitarist Ed Crawford, mistakenly informed by members of the band Camper Van Beethoven that the former Minutemen were interested in auditioning musicians for a new outfit. The resulting trio settled on fIREHOSE as a band name, inspired by a single cue card brandished by young Bob Dylan in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” segment of D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal documentary Don’t Look Back. Evidently, Watt found it amusing. “Brave Captain,” the single released in advance of the band’s debut, Ragin’, Full On, directly addressed Watt’s ambivalence about becoming a frontman, couching it in the allegory of a faultily equipped military leader marching men out to the battlefield (“There are doubts in your ability/ There’s too many blanks in your analogies”). No matter the reluctance, fIREHOSE became as valued a contributor the the college rock scene as the band that preceded it, and arguably a more significant part of Watt’s professional legacy.


219. Go-Go’s, “We Got the Beat”

“We Got the Beat” was first released by Go-Go’s as a single for the U.K. label Stiff Records. Following the recording of a five-song demo in late 1979, the band picked up a gig as the support act to the British band Madness when they played Los Angeles. That led to time opening for Madness as they toured the U.K., where the ska-inflected group was enjoying a string of Top 10 hits. About half of 1980 was spent playing show across England, with the demo version of “We Got the Beat” issued by Stiff to capitalize on their burgeoning reputation. While hardly a smash in that iteration, the song did become a minor hit, significantly driving the decision of the hip new label I.R.S. Records to get them under contract. The band’s full-length debut, Beauty and the Beat, arrived in the summer of 1981. The rerecorded version of “We Got the Beat” became the album’s second single and an enormous worldwide success, missing the top spot on the Billboard chart only because of the juggernaut of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which locked down #1 for seven straight weeks. While Go-Go’s were settling for runner-up position on the singles chart, they made history with Beauty and the Beat, becoming the only all-female band that wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to top the albums chart, a distinction that stands to this day. Penned by guitarist and keyboardist Charlotte Caffey, “We Got the Beat” became a signature song and one of those tracks that’s never dropped fully out of pop culture circulation, standing as one of the keystone singles of the nineteen-eighties.

218 waterfront

218. Simple Minds, “Waterfront”

Released late in 1983, “Waterfront” announced a new sound for the Glasgow-based band Simple Minds. Together since 1977, and releasing recorded music by 1979, the group fit snugly into the new wave subgenre. That changed with the album Sparkle in the Rain. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, hot from huge successes behind the board with Psychedelic Furs, Peter Gabriel, and, most notably, the up-and-coming Irish band U2, the sixth studio album from Simple Minds was big and bombastic, infused with aspirations to fill stadiums up with sound. “Waterfront,” the album’s lead single, appropriately plays like a transition. It has the some new wave slink and tinniness to it, but it’s also pulsing and anthemic. It had a big drum sound, which Lillywhite had seemingly packed up and toted over from some of his sessions with Gabriel. The lyrics, written by lead singer Jim Kerr, were inspired by the River Clyde and the economic hardship endured by his hometown. Bruce Findlay, Simple Minds’ manager at the time, explained, “He told me he had been visiting his mum and dad one night and went walking along the Clydeside. He saw the empty docks with no ships, the polluted water, the derelict buildings — all the hallmarks of decline.” Surveying this, Kerr was struck by the endurance of nature up against the sad inconsistency of society.  According to Findlay, Kerr thought, “The city goes up and down but the Clyde just beats on. The river is hope.”

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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