College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 160 – 158

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160. Patti Smith, “People Have the Power”

When “People Have the Power” arrived, nearly a decade had passed without any new music from Patti Smith. She’d been effectively living in semi-retirement while starting a family with the man she married in 1980, Fred “Sonic” Smith, a punk icon in his own right thanks to his tenure in the foundational band the MC5. According to Patti, it was Fred who started her on the road to the song when he marched into the kitchen and said, “People have the power. Write it.” Armed with only that title, Patti embarked on a sort of political and spiritual research process, listening to Jesse Jackson speeches, studying the bible, and poring through news coverage of geopolitical turmoil, particularly in Afghanistan, then still mired in a conflict with the Soviets that had been going on for about as long as the singer’s layoff. Released as the lead single from Patti’s 1988 album, Dream of Life, the track became an enduring fixture among lefty activists, serving as the theme song for the Bruce Springsteen-led Vote for Change tour, in 2004, and being quoted in its entirety to close out a Howard Zinn book. It’s precisely what Patti hoped for in creating the song. She explained, “That’s a gift type of song. I meant it to give some kind of positive energy and hope to people in a very difficult time. The song addresses itself to the various dreams that mankind has and reminds us that perhaps we can achieve those dreams if we work together. It’s not intended to incite so much as to remind people.”


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159. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “The Only Flame in Town”

Elvis Costello has never been one to be delicate in expressing his opinions, including about his own work. To offer a characteristic example, he is bruising in his assessment of the 1984 album Goodbye Cruel World. Years later, he wrote, “to be honest I knew it wasn’t a good record by the time.” Costello was feuding mightily with his backing band, the Attractions, and he’d announced prior to recording the album that it would be his last (a threat that, of course, went unfulfilled to a spectacular degree). Costello noted, “I made [producer] Clive Langer’s life impossible, and I take full responsibility for the failure of the production, ’cause I was asking them one time to do one thing and the next to do another, and changing my mind every 15 minutes and driving everybody in the band mad. And really just getting it as wrong as you can in terms of the execution of what are basically a bunch of really good songs.” Album opener “The Only Flame in Town” is prime example of the distance Costello carried the songs from intent to finished product. Originally conceived as a spare, aching ballad, the song became buoyant and pushy, practically collapsing under the weight of an only-in-the-eighties saxophone part that Costello later derisively tagged “The Italian Traffic Jam.” Despite all the misgivings Costello (and, its worth noting, many of his fans) had about the track, it also became a rare U.S. hit, becoming only his second single to make it into the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #56.


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158. Wire, “Kidney Bingos”

When Wire released their 1988 album, A Bell Is a Cup…Until It Is Struck, they faced criticism from the sort of music fans who are ever vigilant against commercially craven retreats from supposed punk credibility. Though the polished, danceable music found on the album does feel like its a fairly distant cousin of the punchy punk the band crafted at the start of their shared career, bassist Graham Lewis was having none of the complaints. He argued, “Every record that’s been made, the same criticism of being less abrasive has been leveled at it. The abrasion is actually in the content – both lyrics and sound.” There’s certainly no question the album’s lead single, “Kidney Bingos,” is sneakily challenging, taking a giddily effective hook and layering it with strange, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. In a twist tinged with irony, guitarist Bruce Gilbert noted that his original conception of the song was closer to the sonic aggression favored by the more demanding and uncompromising fans. He explained, “I always heard the song in my head as brutal heavy metal track — somehow it just became a pop song! I heard the chords and the edges, but it got softened by the sounds people were using, so it became rather jolly, which worked in the end because the subject matter was not likable, but it had a jaunty, poppy feel to it, and that contradiction can be very attractive.” It’s easy to be abrasive through feats of sheer volume. It’s trickier to create that sense through intellectual frissons within songs. That more complicated approach has always been the province of Wire.


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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