College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 13 – 11

13 alex

13. The Replacements, “Alex Chilton”

It’s probably fair to say that “Alex Chilton” remains the most iconic song ever delivered by the Minneapolis band the Replacements. There is probably comparable safety in declaring that the song would not be nearly as enduring had it maintained its working title: “George from Outer Space.” By the time Paul Westerberg, the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, determined the song wasn’t working, he found himself fortuitously toying around with a different idea. “I just thought it would be fun to write a song about a living person,” Westerberg said. He found inspiration in Alex Chilton, the former leader of the cult hero Memphis band Big Star, even cribbing from his first encounter with mini-legend to find some of the key lyrics. When Westerberg first met Chilton, at CBGB in 1984, he fumbled in trying to name his favorite Big Star song, saying something to the effect of “I’m in love with that one song of yours — what’s that song?” Westerberg remained uncertain about “Alex Chilton” as a song, but bandmates Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson offered encouragement. In the end, Westerberg confirmed his reticence was a good omen. “If there’s a sense of ‘Oh God, what if this is looked on as being stupid of weird?’ — that’s usually a tip-off that its worth doing,” he explained. “Those are generally the best songs, and I had that feeling about ‘Alex Chilton.'” The track was released as a single from the band’s 1987 album, Pleased to Meet Me. Westerberg even learned to embrace the embedded advocacy in the song. “We want people to know who Alex is,” he said. “He doesn’t need our help, he doesn’t want our help, but, dammit, he’s gonna get it, whether he likes it or not.” As for what Chilton actually thought, his response was mildly combative and a little muddled (and surely Westerberg and other true blue Chilton fans wouldn’t have it any other way.) “Uh well, I didn’t feel any way about it,” he told Buzz magazine, in 1987. “I mean I’m so used to having these kind of fawning, imbecilic fans you know. To have it take on some coherence is refreshing.”


12 was

12. Talking Heads, “And She Was”

Leave it to David Byrne to prove that songs about transcendent drug trips weren’t the sole province of psychedelic bands slumping through the late-nineteen sixties. For the lead track and third single from Talking Heads’ 1985 album, Little Creatures, Byrne took his songwriting inspiration from a tripping acquaintance. “I used to know a blissed-out hippie-chick in Baltimore,” Byrne wrote in the liner notes to the greatest hits compilation Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads. “She once told me that she used to do acid (the drug, not music) and lay down on the field by the Yoo-hoo chocolate soda factory. Flying out of her body, etc, etc. It seemed like such a tacky kind of transcendence… but it was real! A new kind of religion being born out of heaps of rusted cars and fast food joints. And this girl was flying above it all, but in it, too.” Since this was the mid-eighties, it was understood that an eye-catching video was necessary, a priority that fully aligned with Byrne’s growing multi-media sensibility. For the video to “And She Was,” Byrne recruited Portland filmmaker Jim Blashfield, who’d sent the Talking Heads leader one of his short films utilizing an animation technique termed Xerography. Although Byrne providing some initial sketches, he let Blashfield take the creative lead on the clip. And it was a painstaking process. “Basically, you can see the black and white sequences for David’s lip synch — those are shot on 16mm film,” explained Blashfield. “But all the rest were photographs. I’d set up a still photograph, like when David holds his head up. I’d take a picture, then we’d do another pose, so we’d do about ten pictures of his head moving. Then we’d take those slides, put them in the photocopy machine, actually going down to the photocopy place, and bring those back, and we had people cut them out with X-ACTO knives.” The resulting video became an MTV mainstay, helping “And She Was” become the only single from Little Creatures to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.


11 shout

11. Tears for Fears, “Shout”

The members of Tears for Fears made no secret of the ways in which Arthur Janov’s primal therapy technique inspired and fed into much of their creativity, including the band’s very name and a huge chunk of the material on their debut album, The Hurting. So it was only logical that most attributed their 1984 single “Shout” to the same inspiration source, especially since primal screaming was arguably the most famous of Janov’s innovations. According to Roland Orzabal, that assumption is faulty. “It is actually more concerned with political protest,” he said. “It came out in 1984 when a lot of people were still worried about the aftermath of The Cold War and it was basically an encouragement to protest.” Orzabal said the bulk of the song was written in his home with a synthesizer and a drum machine, with the initial version built around a mantra-like repetitiveness. he also conceded that the backbone of the song was borrowed from the Talking Heads track “Listening Wind.” The instrumental bridge and the rhythm — we sort of put in a Linn drum, and then wrote ‘Shout,'” said Orzabal. “Some elements of that we kept, but sort of made it slightly heavier and a little bit more hip-hop.” In much of the world, “Shout” was the lead single from the album Songs from the Big Chair, but label execs decided U.S. audiences needed a different introduction to Tears for Fears, opting for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” over the band’s objections. Regardless of the dispute, everything worked out well. Both songs went to the top of the U.S. singles chart, with “Shout” spending three weeks in the position.


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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