Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Singles of 1985

The music scene had gotten pretty rough by 1985. Top-notch artists like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Rolling Stones, and Stevie Wonder were making the most appalling music of their respective careers, while Foreigner, Chicago, REO Speedwagon, and USA for Africa were otherwise shitting up the charts. Yet, as in every year since the dawn of Rock & Roll, great singles could still be detected amid the muck. Here are ten…

10. “Bastards of Young” by The Replacements

With Tim the constrictions of ‘80s pop production started to have their way with The Replacements, who had recently made the leap from small time Twin/Tone records to bigger time Sire. Well, you can gate Chris Mars’s drums all you like and you can shoot a spiffy MTV-ready music video (and the accompanying video was mighty spiffy), but you can never tame Westerberg’s whiskey yowl. It is in furious form on “Bastards of Young”, perhaps the most insightful teen anthem of the ‘80s.

9. “So Far Away”by Dire Straits

Some seven years had past since square British Blues combo Dire Straits had a hit in the US. As we all know, that changed most assuredly when they dropped the ultra-slick, DDD monster Brothers in Arms in ’85. That year you couldn’t blow your nose without having “Money for Nothing” blare out of your nostrils. However the truly great single from the band’s comeback triumph was its first. “So Far Away” barely sneaked into the top twenty, but it’s as hooky and alluring as anything Dire Straights ever did, their taut rhythm section pulsing beneath an utterly sublime guitar lick. Mark Knopfler’s six-string impersonates a Hawaiian pedal steel and fools me completely.

8. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

So many of the most obnoxious mid-‘80s gimmicks are in full effect on “Don’t Come Around Here No More”: the superfluous back-up singers, the drum machines, the synths, the glossy, antiseptic sheen. The only thing missing is a big, farty sax solo. Is this what we wanted from neo-roots rockers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers? I guess so, because the single became an inescapable hit, although that probably had as much to do with its disturbing, inventive “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired music video as the song itself. But let’s not sell that song short, because even as that backing track borders on off-puttingly polished, Petty’s petulant delivery of a most petulant lyric provide the track with true grit, the double-time end-of-song vamp gives it real Rock & Roll spirit, and the sitar gives it a sitar. Sitar makes everything better.

7. “Cities in Dust” by Siouxsie and the Banshees

This is not your terrifying, avant-garde, swastika-sporting Siouxsie, nor is it your icy Goth Siouxsie. This is the new Siouxsie of 1985, and from the sound of it, this Siouxsie wanted a great, big hit record. Never before had she and the Banshees delivered anything as straight-up hooky, dancey, and delicious as “Cities in Dust”. The maddeningly infectious chorus is the stuff of which spontaneous dance parties are made. Alas “Cities in Dust” wasn’t much of a hit on either side of the Atlantic, but it most assuredly sounded like one.

6. “Close to Me” by The Cure

“Close to Me” is a masterpiece of controlled tension overlaid with spectacular release. The bassline is unwavering, locking in with the drumbeat, spinning out identically over and over for the entire 3:41 duration of the track. Robert Smith huffs and grunts and whispers the lyric without ever quite raising the pitch. Tension worthy of Hitchcock. But as the song progresses, ecstatic squeals of ragtime brass emerge through the din, and by the end of the track, it’s bouncing all over the beat like a rubber ball sailing from the paws of a coked up chimp. Joyous release. The version of “Close to Me” included on the Head on the Door album lacks that brass, making it far less satisfying than the single.

5. “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears

Is this the greatest love song of the 1980s? The construction is perfect: a dramatic opening, the brilliantly arranged call and response of Roland Orzabal’s throaty gale and Curt Smith’s teary falsetto, a powerful chorus, and a fantastically phased, elliptical finale. The lyric is equally brilliant. The first verse captures the thrill and ache of potential new love as well as any other, before drifting into dark premonitions on the second: the singer goes from imagining himself married to the object of his obsession, to chastising her for lack of ambition, to imagining himself with a gun in his hand. Is it pointed at himself? At her? At a bank teller? Perhaps “Head Over Heels” belongs in the same file as “Every Breath You Take” as one of the most misunderstood love songs of the 1980s.

4. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” by The Smiths

Well, there’s no ambiguity to the darkness of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”. Morrissey was a master of conveying teenage lovesickness for his own smirking amusement. The hilarity of his lyrics tended to be lost on the lovesick teens that were his primary audience. But the joke in “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” really isn’t very funny. This is a crushing song about cruel rejection that musically morphs from swooning romanticism to absolute blackness without undergoing any major changes in arrangement. It’s Morrissey’s voice that truly transforms. His shift from breeziness in the song’s opening passages to the lump-throated despair of the repeated refrain “I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives and now it’s happening in mine” is devastating.

3. “Strawberries Are Growing in My Garden (And It’s Wintertime)” by The Dentists

Up from the Paisley Underground The Dentists deliver a cool wave of neo-psychedelia. If the title suggests The Beatles, the track itself is more reminiscent of moodier groups like The Left Banke and The Zombies. The lazy guitar jangle, the heavenly harmonies, the way the track sort of slumps from one section to the next, the cacophonous coda. Magnificent.

2. “Grimly Fiendish” by The Damned

With their 1985 album, Phantasmagoria, The Damned fully succumbed to Dave Vanian’s fascination with the Goth movement he helped create and bad ‘80s production. There are some very good songs on the record that are sunk by the usual dated studio crimes of the decade. The one track that emerges unscathed is both the best on the record and the best of The Damned’s psych tributes. The clear influence here is The Who circa ‘67. The monster-mash lyric, inspired by a British comic-book villain, could have been penned by John Entwistle as his follow up to “Boris the Spider”, and the old Edwardian vibe recalls “Silas Stingy”. The “Bad lad, bad boy” chorus is lifted straight out of Townshend’s “Our Love Was”. The definitive version is the “Bad Trip Mix” from the extended 12” single, which features a fabulous Peter Lorre impression.

1. “Raspberry Beret” by Prince and the Revolution

And yet another track that owes much to mid-‘60s psych but couldn’t have been made at any time other than the mid-‘80s. Prince’s genius fully flowers with his most refreshing pop melody and an absolutely splendid arrangement that introduces Beatlesque strings to the Revolution’s mix. The lyric has a Summer of Love freshness and color that never falls into retro-pastiche because Prince maintains his signature sexiness (“If it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more…”). The bridge is just as grand as the unforgettable verses and choruses, and may actually provide the most inventive moment in the song as those strings really spring out of the mix. Above all else “Raspberry Beret” is proof that Prince really could do anything he wanted to.

Ten More Great Singles from 1985

“Just Like Honey” by Jesus and Mary Chain
“Rise” by PIL
“Pop Life” by Prince and the Revolution
“Driver 8” by R.E.M.
“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds
“Fortress Around Your Heart” by Sting
“Give Blood” by Pete Townshend
“Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday
“Marlene on the Wall” by Suzanne Vega
“Autumn Girl” by The Watermelon Men
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