College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 205 – 203

205 survive

205. Los Lobos, “Will the Wolf Survive”

While the track “Will the Wolf Survive” provided Los Lobos with the title, slightly modified, for their major label debut, it was the last song written for the album. According to the band members, the impetus for the song came in part from Dave Alvin, undoubtedly hanging around because of his personal and professional connections with the album’s co-producer, T Bone Burnett. Alvin surveyed the material Los Lobos had assembled for the 1984 release and suggested that what the band really needed was an anthem, something that truly and properly represented the their musical and cultural outlook. The worrisome question at the heart of the song was stumbled upon while percussionist Louie Pérez was taking some downtime with a magazine. Guitarist David Hidalgo explained, “Louie was looking through a National Geographic and he found the article ‘How Will the Wolf Survive?’ And he flipped the page, and there was another story that fit right with it. There was a picture of a gaunt old guy who was hitchhiking on the highway with his dog. There it was.” The wolf became a metaphor for Latino migrant youth desperately trying to make their way into America, beset by hardship and persecution. Though most of the members of Los Lobos are native-born Americans, they had direct knowledge of the prejudice faced by immigrants, both through their own experience and those they encountered in their East Los Angeles home base. By all accounts, “Will the Wolf Survive” was a transformative song for Los Lobos. Multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin noted, “In everything prior to ‘Wolf,’ our influences were pretty obviously on our sleeves. I would say that ‘Wolf’ was the first song where we had built something out of those influences that was uniquely ours. It was just us being us.”

204 what

204. INXS, “What You Need”

Most of INXS’s 1985 album, Listen Like Thieves, had already been recorded when the dreaded “I don’t hear a single” concern was invoked by producer Chris Thomas. The band was instructed to bring forth whatever else they had, leading guitarist Andrew Farriss to turn over a handful of demo tapes. One of those, labeled “Funk Song No. 13,” immediately caught Thomas’s attention. He later related, “I thought, ‘I could listen to that groove for ten minutes!’ I said, ‘Let’s work with that groove.'” Following that decision, “What You Need” was written and recorded over the course of a weekend. By some accounts, the recording process was essentially finished immediately before the whole album was scheduled to head out the door. The last-minute urgency certainly yielded positive results for the band. Not only was the performance on the song considered one of the sharpest they’d ever delivered in studio, the song became their breakthrough, climbing all the way to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the band’s second Top 40 hit and the one the clearly primed interest in their music that led directly to the enormous success of their next full-length album, Kick.

203 birds

203. Icicle Works, “Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)”

The Liverpool trio Icicle Works, who took their name from the Frederik Pohl short story “The Day the Icicle Works Closed,” literally had something to prove when they recorded the song that would become their breakthrough hit. Beggars Banquet Records signed to band to record one single, essentially a test run to determine if it made sense to sign the group to a more generous contract. According to Ian McNabb, the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, the recording process was problematic. He said, “it was cobbled together and there’s a lot of edits on it.” Though McNabb assesses it as a good record, he also concedes, “the lyrics are nonsense.” The single was hardly an immediate sensation in the U.K., making a long climb up the charts, even starting to slip downwards once or twice before the band secured television guest spots that gave the song a boost. It eventually wound up a hit on the other side of the Atlantic, as well, nudging into the Billboard Top 40, the band’s only single to do so. The track went through an odd though relatively minor transformation ahead of that 1984 single release by their U.S. label, Arista Records. Labels execs insisted on flipping the title from “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)” to “Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly),” reasoning that the repeated words of the chorus needed to be most prominent in order to help radio listeners find the record in stores.

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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