College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 172 – 170

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172. The Police, “Message in a Bottle”

By Sting’s reckoning, “Message in a Bottle” was a breakthrough for him as a songwriter. He estimated that he’d been noodling with the guitar riff, mentally and otherwise, for about a year before he started to pull it together with some stray ideas for lyrics. That approach of working on music and lyrics as entirely disconnected properties that eventually converged was very much his preferred process at the time. Placing words against the music began with the title. “Message in a Bottle” was written down in his notebook, causing Sting to free associate on the term, quickly landing on the idea of a bedraggled castaway seeking rescue. Eventually, Sting found his way to a more completely realized story than he’d achieved previously. Sting noted, “As a narrative, it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story actually developed. It wasn’t just, ‘I’m lonely, isn’t it terrible!’ which is what a lot of my other songs were about. If I’m lonely but I realize everybody else is, too, I feel better.” Released as the first single from the Police’s second album, Reggatta de Blanc, in 1979, “Message in a Bottle” became the band’s first to top the U.K. singles chart, a feat they’d repeat four more times. It was less successful in the United States, stalling out at #74, though it’s persisted like few other Police tracks, trading elbows with a couple others for the honor of being Sting’s true signature song.


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171. The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” was the only chart-topping single the Clash had in the U.K. That ascendency to the pinnacle of commercial success didn’t happen in 1982, when the song was released as the second single from Combat Rock, following “Know Your Rights” and actually ahead of “Rock the Casbah,” the latter of which would become the band’s biggest hit in the United States. (Presumably trying to cash in on that success, the band tried again with “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” re-releasing it as a double A-side single with “Straight to Hell” as a follow-up to “Rock the Casbah.”) Instead, the track made it to number one when it was rereleased in the early nineties, about a decade after its initial recording and several years past the end of the Clash as a going concern. Worst of all for those who viewed the Clash as the purest of rock bands, the motivation behind the 1991 single release of “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” was its use in a horrendous and very of-the-time Levi’s commercial. The Clash had previously rebuffed all entreaties to have their songs serve as the background for televised pitches, but when the requested was delivered to use “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” the various members of the band decided to defer to the judgment of Mick Jones, since he was the one who wrote it in the first place. Relying on a laborious rationalization that blue jeans were one of the most enduring symbols of rock ‘n’ roll, Jones agreed to sell off the song, furthering the sense of blatant opportunism by including “Rush,” a new track from his then-current band B.A.D. II, on the resulting single. As for the song itself, Jones countered speculation that it was about his own mounting misgivings with his place in the band or his tumultuous relationship with Ellen Foley, instead claiming it was simply a straight-ahead rock song with little lurking subtext.


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170. The Rolling Stones, “She’s So Cold”

In the common manner of the Rolling Stones, “She’s So Cold” had evidently been kicking around for a little while before the band recorded the final version that landed on the second side of the 1980 album Emotional Rescue. That pass at the song reportedly began with some relatively aimless studio jamming that eventually tightened up into something they could polish into shape. Unfortunately, it’s at least possible that methodology caused them to inadvertently crib from a Willy Nile song of the same title, released in 1978. There is at least a passing resemblance. “She’s So Cold” was released as the second single from Emotional Rescue. While it made it into the Top 40 on both side of the Atlantic, it was a fairly tepid hit, stalling out before climbing too far up the charts. It’s arguably best known for a somewhat more ignominious reason, as it was the song the band was playing during a 1982 tour stop at Wembley Stadium when Keith Richard stalked across the stage and punched Ron Wood in the face because of inattentiveness. Wood had failed to properly cover for Richards, it seems, when Richards had botched some of the changes on the song.

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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