College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 148 – 146

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148. Eurythmics, “Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four)”

There was no way the big bosses of the entertainment business were going to let the calendar year 1984 pass without doing their level best to capitalize of the fact it corresponded to one of the most famous titles in 20th century literature. Given the need to heavily prioritize timetables over creative decisions, there was equally little chance they were going to avoid bungling the whole endeavor. While respectfully reviewed upon its release, the 1984 film version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was not the sensation, critically or commercially, that the producers expected. Even its place in film history as the home of the final screen role for the great Richard Burton doesn’t especially boost its regard. (There was also a 1956 film version, but that’s even more thoroughly erased from the cinematic memory by now.) There was strain and confusion during the production process, exemplified by the bizarre tussle over the film’s music. According to director Michael Radford, who would nab an Oscar nomination years later for fulfilling the same duties for Il Postino, claims he always intended Nineteen Eighty-Four to have a more traditional orchestral score, and he’d hired Dominic Muldowney to compose it. Evidently, Virgin Films, the chief financial backers of the production, had different ideas. They solicited the services of Eurythmics, then less than a year removed from the global smash “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and already the standard-bearers of arty, futuristic pop. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox delivered a music score and a batch of songs, fully expecting they provided every bit of music that would be used in the finished movie. It didn’t turn out that way. “The first we heard that our music wouldn’t be used was at the premiere of the film,” Lennox said at the time. The version of the film that eventually played in theaters had a rough patchwork of both sets of music, an unhappy compromise that Radford successfully sought to eradicate in later home video releases. Even though there was some dispute about putting Eurythmics music in the film, the reticence didn’t go both ways, compounding the frustration of the band. “We though, Oh well, we’d rather not have our music on the film if somebody doesn’t want it; we’ll keep it for ourselves,” Stewart noted at the time. “Then they agreed to give us the film to put in our video, and then I was really confused, and I thought, hello, the director doesn’t want to our music in his film, but he wants to put his film in our video in order to sell the film. And at that point we just stopped talking to them.” The video for “Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four)” did incorporate footage from the film, though somewhat sparingly. Following up the band’s second Top 5 hit in the U.S., “Sexcrime” fared poorly on the Billboard charts, peaking at #81, three places higher than those who enjoy happenstance symmetry would prefer.


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147. The Human League, “Don’t You Want Me”

The initial inspiration for the 1981 single “Don’t You Want Me” came from a story Human League lead singer Philip Oakley saw in a teen girl’s magazine. As he tinkered with it, he incorporated some of the psychodrama elements of the much-remade film A Star is Born, eventually deciding that the song was best served by becoming a duet. He looked to the band’s backup singers, ultimately opting to give the shared lead to Susan Ann Sulley, a decision he acknowledged was almost arbitrary. The result is that Sulley wound up a central contributor to one of the tracks that essentially defines nineteen-eighties music. “Don’t You Want Me” topped the charts on both side of the Atlantic, becoming the first #1 for the Virgin record label and the top-selling single of the year in the U.K. Proving that indie rock animosity towards pursuing success has existed for a good long time, the band was against making “Don’t You Want Me” a single. “We didn’t want to release that song, we tried hard to get Virgin not to release the record,” Sulley later explained. “We thought it was too commercial.” As for the production of the song, it was marked by ingenuity and good fortune. Oakley recorded his vocals in the studio bathroom, a process that was complicated by bandmate Jo Callis pranking him with repeated, surreptitiously instigated flushes of the toilet. And the famously off-kilter melody of the chorus was the result of an error caused by the relatively new technology being employed. “That came about because the computer screwed up and played the line a half-beat out of time,” Martin Rushert, the producer on the song, explained years later to NME. “The moment we heard it, Jo and I went, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!'” Like many hit songs throughout the eighties, “Don’t You Want Me” benefitted from heavy, appreciative airplay for its music video, directed by Steve Barron, one of the trailblazing masters of the form. It was one of the earliest videos — if not the very first one — to be shot on 35mm instead of 16mm. “At the time of ‘Don’t You Want Me,’ I was really into the Truffaut movie Day for Night,” Barron said. “I was intrigued by his idea of a film within a film, and I thought, We have to go further? What about a film within a film within a film?'” There were other motivations for strolling down this particular creative avenue. The female character in the video spends time working in an editing room because of Barron’s own whirling affections. “She’s basically playing a girl I had a crush on, one of the assistant editors where I was working,” he said. Though Oakley and many of his Human League bandmates still don’t especially care for the song, it’s developed into a pop music standard. And the long afterlife of the single has brought about some especially unique and inspired derivations.


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146. Thomas Dolby, “Airhead”

Thomas Dolby is considered one of the pioneers of synthpop, largely on the basis of the 1982 single “She Blinded Me with Science.” By the end of the decade, however, even he was growing weary of the hyper-produced material he helped spawn. Ahead of his third album, Aliens Ate My Buick, released in 1988, Dolby developed a band to take on the road and help work through his new material. Through that process with the backing group, dubbed the Lost Toy People, Dolby felt he had all the arrangements to the individual songs solidly worked out before he ever went into the studio. His goal was no longer to tinker and stitch, which led him to seek out some different technical support than he’d had in the past, when he’d handled most of the production duties on his own. “I needed to find an engineer who was really able to capture the energy of Lost Toy People and get it down on tape,” Dolby later said. That led him to Bill Bottrell, a studio technician who got his start working with Jeff Lynne on ELO records. The resulting album betrayed a strong funk influence, up to and including a George Clinton cover. The album’s lead single, “Airhead,” seemingly took disparaging aim at superficial young women. As with many songs that traffic in satire, “Airhead” was widely misunderstood, with plenty of listeners catching the seeming misogyny of the primary lyrics and missing the scathing turnabout delivered by the closing lines: “If she’s an airhead it has to be said/ It was men made her that way.”


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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