Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 1980
This tape documents an extremely important period from my formative years. A time when all synapses were firing, often in all the wrong directions. An explosion of music was coming at me from everywhere and I was quickly realizing the extent of my love of rock & roll music of all kinds. Included are several songs that have not, over time, proven to be cool, innovative, or important. There are a disproportionate number of songs that soundtracked frequent moments of repressed sexuality. I was a young man in 1980. Sure, there is a part of me that wishes I was advanced enough at the time to relate to Joy Division, but there is another part of me that delights in the fact that I still know every lyric from REO Speedwagon’s High Infidelity, too (even off-tracks like “Shakin’ It Loose” and “Out of Season”). While this isn’t a time capsule, and several songs here were discovered after 1980 became a distant memory, most of the songs have an important memory or milestone attached to them—either a part of my life experience or instrumental in my musical development in some way. Hence, many songs which are regularly cited as crucial to the history of rock & roll are missing, in favor of those that remind me of a moment from my past. I’m sure you’d do the same if you made (or have made) your own list. (Songs are listed in descending order of preference for dramatic purposes.)
26 "Jesse" / Carly Simon
This is a great song to sing along with in the car and I like to think it taught me something about the female mind, too. The song’s plot couldn't be more predictable simple:
Chapter One: The Resistance
Carly’s ex-boyfriend’s back and there’s gonna be trouble, so she enlists friends and family to keep her away from her “fatal attraction.” Not only that, she makes a list of things she no longer will be doing for Jesse ever again. The complete list: 1) Cut fresh flowers, 2) Keep the wine cold, 3) Change the sheets, 4) Put on cologne (mainly because perfume doesn’t rhyme with phone—let’s call it artistic license), and 5) Sit by the phone.
Chapter Two: The Surrender
Carly follows the old aphorism “know thyself” and deep down is aware she still wishes to be Jesse’s girl (perhaps she’s played along with the charade, but that doesn’t seem to be a reason to change). From this point forward she rationalizes her lack of willpower. She now makes a list of what she will do for Jesse going forward. The complete list: 1) Cut fresh flowers, 2) Keep the wine cold, 3) Change the sheets, 4) Put on cologne, 5) Sit by the phone, and, newly added, 6) Easily change my mind about you.
In this day and age, such a naive approach to men is discouraged, but keep in mind this was the early-80s, so cut her some slack. That said, had Carly ever dated a man before Jesse? Because she doesn’t have a clue what guys really want. I know what they don’t want, however. The Incomplete List: 1) Cut flowers, 2) Properly chilled wine (just have a 6-pack on hand), 3) Clean sheets, 4) Girls wearing men’s cologne (especially ours), and 5) You sitting by the phone (actually we don’t even realize you’re doing that—we don’t think that way for better or likely worse). If you really want to do something nice for your man, do a little research next time or pick up a copy of Men’s Journal or GQ.
25 "People Who Died" / The Jim Carroll Band
Poet, author, musician, addict—the consummate tormented-artist cocktail. Jim Carroll’s early life in New York City was chronicled in his startling book The Basketball Diaries, and was subsequently made into a movie starring the then ubiquitous Leonard DiCaprio. In 1980, Jim Carroll decided to set his poetry to music (a la Patti Smith) and released his shockingly effective debut record, Catholic Boy. “People Who Died” recounts one tragedy after the next—supposedly a list of people in Carroll’s life who perished prematurely—but what’s striking is how great a rock song it is despite its morbid subject matter.
24 "(Just Like) Starting Over" / John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Speaking of people who died in 1980, many still remember exactly where they were when they found out about John Lennon’s murder on the night of December 8, 1980. I heard the shocking news from Howard Cosell during Monday Night Football, of all places. To this day, Lennon’s death is rock & roll’s equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. Roughly three weeks prior, Lennon and wife Yoko had released the album Double Fantasy, which was harshly reviewed by many critics. Almost immediately after his death, a bit of revisionist history was created. The album was suddenly being reviewed in a different, more positive light. Publications redacted previously printed opinions (have some self-respect!) and the public bought the record by the ton. It even won a motherfucking Grammy in 1982! The main knock on the record was that it was too heavily weighted toward sappy love songs. Truthfully, the record is neither bad nor great, but it did feature a few Lennon gems. “(Just Like) Starting Over” is my personal favorite, seemingly the perfect kiss-off to those who blamed Yoko for the demise of the Beatles (We’re still together, bitches!). Truthfully, I’m not sure this song makes the cut here if not for my neighbor, who played the song repeatedly well into the summer of 1981. I distinctly remember hearing the throbbing pulse of the song echoing across his backyard, over our fence, and through our porch windows. Initially, I thought the hot summer winds were playing tricks with the sound waves or something, but then I realized the undulating effect was created intentionally to mimic an old Roy Orbison or Elvis Presley single. I still like the 50s feel to the track and whenever I hear the song, it brings me back to a moment in time, albeit one of the saddest in music history.
23 "Motorbike Beat" / The Revillos
It’s a shame Quentin Tarantino “presented,” but didn’t choose to direct, Hell Ride, the 2008 biker flick that paid homage to the genre made famous in the 50s and 60s. What “Chick Habit” did for daredevil girls in fast cars in his Grindhouse entry, Death Proof, the Revillos could’ve done for a full-throttle, high-revving Tarantino period piece. The Hell Ride soundtrack is loaded with cool shit, but it’s a shame that this 50s-styled firecracker is just idling over here in 1980, waiting for someone to fire up her engines.
22 "Living After Midnight" / Judas Priest
I ran on a few tracks in high school. Not track & field; musical tracks. On track one were the heartland rockers (Springsteen/ Seger/Petty), on track two were the classic British rockers (Who/Stones/Zep/Floyd), and on track three were the 80s metal rockers (VH, Triumph, Judas Priest). The examples are illustrative, not comprehensive—you get the idea. For me, “Living After Midnight” is a cruising, head-banging classic based on its rebellious chorus alone. Word of warning however: the “lyrics” in the verses don’t reward close inspection (“I’m aiming for ya/I’m gonna floor ya/My body’s coming/All night long”). If you were the betting type, the over/under on the time it took to write the verses is 3.5 minutes and I'd take the under if I were you. For me, however, “Living After Midnight” is the metal anthem defined. It will never betray us when we need to spinal tap our inner badass selves.* Thankfully, with that understanding, we get a steady diet of the chorus throughout the song; it wastes no time getting business done. In the first 20 seconds we get the instrumental version and in the second 20 we get the full leather-clad Halford who proceeds to pound it mercilessly or mercifully—take your pick—into our skulls for the duration of the song. And from one fellow priest to another,** I’d be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for these guys to get into the the Hall of Shame pronto. Kick Bon Jovi out and get some real rock & roll into the Hall before it’s too late.
*Actually, Judas Priest was one of the inspirations for the movie This Is Spinal Tap. Director/co-writer Rob Reiner went to see a Judas Priest show to mine for possible material during the writing of the script.
**Other famous priests in music history, none of them pickled: Post-Marley reggae star Maxi Priest, electronic musician LA Priest, NY rapper Killah Priest, and Virginia metal band Burn the Priest. There are countless lesser priests out there as well, but thankfully none of them are pickled.
21 "Girls Are Always Right" / Any Trouble
20 "The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness" / The Feelies
Here are a couple songs I could’ve used back in 1980, but unfortunately didn’t discover until it was too late. The Feelies unwittingly wrote my personal theme song for 1980, but forgot to tell me about it. Any Trouble, led by crack songwriter Clive Gregson (a hybrid of Elvis Costello and Graham Parker), wrote the only song a guy like me really needed to hear in the same year.
The album cover of the Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms proved that incredible music could be made by people who looked like me. Perhaps these boys sequestered themselves in their bedrooms with stacks of vinyl, too. I wasn't alone. While I would’ve done just about anything to avoid admitting to such a hermetic existence, the Feelies seemed
to embrace their inner awkwardness. And that liberating realization translated into otherworldly rhythms which seemed to mirror the inner jitteriness of socially lost teenage boys everywhere. If there is another album that more effectively complements the social anxiety of a young man trying to find his place in the world, I'd like to hear it. Ironically, they not only accomplished that, but they also made a record now credited as one of the most innovative, not to mention coolest-sounding, albums of any era, not just the 80s. How ironic! On the other hand, Any Trouble’s “Girls Are Always Right” is simply a lost power-pop classic. The album from which it came, Where Are All the Nice Girls*, is a buried treasure that can hold its own against anything of the same era by Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson. And the song is closer to the truth than some of us are willing to admit.
*No question mark
19 "Girl U Want" / Devo
Famously inspired by the Knack’s #1 hit “My Sharona,” “Girl U Want” is another in a long line of teenage lust–related numbers that contributed to the perpetual ache in my loins back in 1980. This variation on the theme, written by oddballs that likely worked in the A/V department of their high school library, includes the Revenge of the Nerds–worthy line “She sends out an aroma of undefined love.”
18 "Keep On Loving You" / REO Speedwagon
There’s a story I like to tell about my youngest son who, when REO lead singer Kevin Cronin played “Shoot the Puck” between periods at a Chicago Blackhawks game back in the day, exclaimed, “Why are they letting a grandmother play shoot the puck?!” OK, so Kevin hasn’t aged well, but his songs have—no matter how many people attempt to dismiss the band as 80s schlock. I submit that REO actually rocked pretty hard at one time (Exhibit A: “Golden Country”) before admittedly going a little soft in later years (that comment also applies to yours truly). High Infidelity was the last album REO made before they jumped the shark. It was a massive hit record, owned by almost every high school kid in the United States in its day, and was stocked with enough rock candy to keep dental hygienists in business well into 1981. “Keep On Loving You” was the record’s monster-smash ballad (although 1978’s “Time For Me to Fly” is still their best). To this day, the opening chords make me a little sentimental. The song clearly had a similar effect on many, likely due to the fact that we’ve all held on to a love well beyond its expiration date at one time or another. Why do we hang on even after another person abuses our trust? REO answers the question with a refreshing simplicity in "Keep On Loving You." Most people can't turn love off and on at will. This song is for those people. And for those who like their rock and roll sung by a guy who makes Liberace look tough.
17 "Games People Play" / Alan Parsons Project
Most of the songs on this list are about girls or were listened to while thinking about girls. It’s not that complicated—I was in my early teens at this time. If not for my high school’s pom-pom squad there’s a chance the highly uncool Alan Parsons Project wouldn’t even be on this list in the first place. But, the squad picked it for a halftime routine once and I was highly invested in the squad’s practice sessions at the time (the sophomore basketball team practiced on the other half of the gym). I wasn’t much of a player anyway, but with ‘Jenny” (name changed) dancing and doing high leg kicks 30 yards away from me all week, my focus on our “motion offense” was non-existent. Truthfully, they could’ve been doing an 11-minute routine to “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and I would’ve loved it, but long after I graduated I found myself seeking out the song again, the melody deep under my skin through repetition. At the time, I didn’t get what it was about, but the subtext of the lyrics eventually became clearer. In retrospect, it’s an odd choice for a dance routine. For one, it’s not really a dance song. Two, it’s actually kind of depressing—about parents who wonder what’s next for them now that “all of the children are growin’ up.” Was this song chosen specifically to remind parents their kids were going to leave them forever in just a few short years? Seems a little cruel. Perhaps they just needed a song people knew and this was in hot rotation on FM radio at the time. Regardless, I do love the multi-tracked vocals and highly atypical chorus and I'll never ever forget the words. Plus, I've got two kids of my own now, both soon to be in college, so I'll see how the song hits me when I become an empty nester in a few years. I have a feeling I'll love it even more then.
Postscript: In case you’re wondering, I did eventually take “Jenny” to a Homecoming dance. I wore a tan corduroy suit with a green shirt and even kissed her goodnight, but the “romance” didn’t last much longer.
16 "What I Like About You" / The Romantics
I must admit, I put this one on the back-burner after college. It got played everywhere, all the time, at every party, and we loved it. But too much of a good thing can burn it out forever if you’re not careful. There’s no denying the cataclysmic impact this song had at college parties. The opening guitar riff is capable of filling a dance floor in two seconds flat. It's also one of the greatest ice-breaker songs of all-time. For me, it provided an open invitation to tell a girl through music, under the pretense of singing along with the lyrics, that I was really into her. It was also a non-threatening way to gauge a girl’s interest. If she sang along looking at the ceiling or floor with no defined target, perhaps she just wanted to dance and really wasn’t interested in much more. But if she was singing the song directly to you, perhaps making eye contact or pointing her finger at you as she sang the chorus, then you might be on to something! Sadly, the song is sub-three-minutes so there was very little time for you to plot your next move. Thankfully, it got played at every fucking party, like Groundhog Day, so you had more than enough opportunity to try again if it didn't work out the first time. If you've filed this away in the "overplayed" section of your mind, I urge you dust it off and reassess. It's a power-pop masterpiece.
15 "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" / Squeeze
If I asked you what this song was about, would you know? Have you paid close enough attention to grasp that it’s about activities at a seaside holiday resort? Would you discern that the title is a British euphemism (albeit a highly unappealing one) for sexual intercourse? Yuck. Even if you answered “no” to any of those questions, there’s still a good chance you love the song anyway because of its ingenious, off-kilter melody, its sly buildup to an infectious chorus, and its delightfully oddball lyrics (William Tell? Maid Marian?—huh?).
14 "And the Cradle Will Rock…" / Van Halen
If you were in high school and in a metal band back in 1980, you were instantly cool, no questions asked. The lead singer of a band named Hat Trick went to our high school and was, at least in his mind, already a rock star. That’s the way he carried himself, at least. He wore black jeans, his shirt unbuttoned, and had a feathered haircut that cascaded over his shoulders just so. He was often seen strutting around the school with Van Halen albums tucked under his arm. The classrooms didn’t have a phonograph, maybe there was one in the library, but the librarians weren’t going to cue up a Van Halen album for you, so I’m not sure what he was doing with them—I assume showing them off (Hat Trick was not a VH cover band, which I knew because I asked once and received a dismissive “all originals, man” response.) He clearly fancied himself as our high school’s David Lee Roth, but I wasn’t buying it. He looked much more like Michael Anthony to me, barrel chest and all. I’d be lying if I told you he didn’t deserve some credit for steering me in the direction of Van Halen during my high school years. I had to hear what he was always going on about. I remember him being a burnout and troublemaker, so when I first heard “And the Cradle Will Rock…” (ellipsis theirs, which was a nice touch), he immediately became the wayward kid in the song’s lyrics for me. He was also a poor student so when my favorite interlude, perhaps of all time, kicked in, that only embedded the image further, “Have you seen junior’s grades?” What an inspired moment in a great VH song.
Postscript: Despite coming up with a cool logo for the band (a winking rabbit sitting in a top hat), Hat Trick never went anywhere and I assume they broke up, and as far as I know, without an album to their credit.
13 "Romeo and Juliet" / Dire Straits
“Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity…”
-Blue Oyster Cult “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”
If you’re going to adapt material from The Bard, you’d better make it good. There have been countless references to Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers in songs over the years, but few have actually created something that did justice to the source material. One of the most successful was “Romeo and Juliet” from Dire Straits’ classic album Making Movies. The album title is exactly what they accomplished, too—they made the song unfold like a screenplay, with vivid images and characters driving the plot forward. Mark Knopfler modernized the classic tragedy, bringing it convincingly to life by stripping out the melodrama courtesy of his forever deadpan vocal style and signature guitar tone.* Despite being inspired by Knofler's own doomed romance, “Romeo and Juliet” isn’t set in any specific time, but I’ve always placed it in the early 60s, when street corner boys harmonized over fiery dumpsters and the girls were still innocent, but open to negotiation. No matter where you place it in time, the song has proven itself over the last four decades as the definitive rock & roll street romance. Like Romeo & Juliet and later West Side Story, which the song references, there’s something universal in the words to this six-minute one-act play. When you think about it, at some point all love affairs, whether they last one night or for eternity, start with a variation of one simple question: "You and me, babe, how about it?"
*Lou Reed’s “Romeo Had Juliette” pulled off a similar feat on New York in 1989—complete with deadpan vocals. See also: The Reflections’ 1964 hit “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” or a great cover of the same song by former Dictators/Del-Lords guitarist Scott Kempner from 1992’s Tenement Angels. Not to mention the Blue Oyster Cult classic referenced above. And there are countless references to the couple throughout rock history, from Costello to Swift and beyond. Too many to list.
12 "Precious" / The Pretenders
Someday, when we make our own list of "Best Album One/Track Ones" (á la the staff of Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity), this is going to be on it. It was pretty startling when I first heard it, and it still sounds cutting-edge over thirty years later. Chrissie Hynde, a tough (vegan) cookie on her slow days, snaps off line after line about “shitting bricks,” doing “it on the pavement” (all night, no less) and then, as if cages needed more rattling, she adds the best “Fuck off!” in rock history. Not bad for the first three-and-a-half minutes of a band’s career.
11 "I Got You" / Split Enz
New Zealand’s own Split Enz were perhaps best known in the states as the launching pad for Crowded House lead singer Neil Finn and to a lesser degree his brother Tim (who also joined the House for a short time). The Finn brothers, some of the best pop songwriters this planet has ever spawned, were local legends, first in their home of New Zealand and later in Australia. If you want a great set of immaculate pop songs, I beg you to invest in a Split Enz Greatest Hits collection. It will be loaded with songs that will have you wondering how on this earth they were not huge hit singles. Neil Finn wrote the band’s greatest hit “I Got You” for the 1980 record True Colours and it has one of the most perfect choruses of any song from its era. Positively, absolutely, absopositutely wonderful. They don’t make them like this everyday. Neil Finn could flat out write a pop song unlike just about anyone. The only other person that I can think of in the same league are Difford and Tilbrook from Squeeze. And that is rare air indeed.
10 "Ace of Spades" / Motörhead
Lemmy was the quintessential rock and roll badass—there’s wasn’t a mutton chop hair or a mole on his face that was orchestrated for effect. They didn’t subtitle Lemmy, the must-see 2010 documentary about him, 49% Motherfucker 51% Son of a Bitch for nothing. He was the kind of guy who defied convention, did what he wanted, and made no apologies for anything left in his wake. He had plenty of ripping songs in his arsenal, but no card was more powerful than the almighty “Ace of Spades.” He won every time he played it. Actually, what made Lemmy such a badass was he didn’t go out of his way to be one. He was an affable guy by all accounts, loved his fans, lived a relatively modest lifestyle with normal hobbies (a big Civil War buff) and interests (video poker at the Rainbow Bar in West Hollywood where he spent so much time they erected a statue of him after he passed!). Oh, and he happened to drink a bottle of Jack Daniels every day in the process. How he lasted 70 years is anybody’s guess. I assume he came from the same indestructible genetic pool that spawned Keith Richards. There’s a great scene in the documentary, I believe an interview with Dave Grohl, where Grohl tells the story of his visit to Lemmy’s apartment. Lemmy offers up a round of drinks to a few guests and when they take him up on the offer, he hands each his own bottle of Jack without it even registering with him that it’s an unusual act. I can only imagine the horror of trying to keep up with him shot for shot, swig for swig. There are things that aren’t going to happen with 100% certainty in this life and this is one of them. See the documentary, put the song on your mix, and up your inner badass quotient about ten style points in the process. But don’t even attempt the leather hat. You’ll never pull it off.
9 "Games Without Frontiers" / Peter Gabriel
8 "She’s So Cold" / The Rolling Stones
These two songs will always go together for me. One cannot be heard without the other one coming to mind. Let me explain. For Christmas in 1979, I got one of the most significant presents in my personal musical development—a pretty fancy clock radio. Until this time—pre-iPod/iPad, pre-Walkman, pre-intelligent life on this planet—I had no way to listen to music in private. I lived in the family basement, too. Imagine a family basement without music. It wasn’t meant to be. I should’ve been down there rocking out with a coffee can of weed hidden amongst a pile of old paint cans my dad left down there. Now that I had music, I could finally hang out officially without anyone complaining about the volume, criticizing my taste, or cramping my style. I thought the sound of that clock radio (I called it, pathetically, my “stereo”) was pretty good, but I’m sure it was total shit. I distinctly remember falling in love with these two songs in 1980 and patiently waiting for them to be played by the Loop (aka WLUP, thee rock station in Chicago at the time).
My attraction to the Stones “She’s So Cold” was easy to diagnose: it was about a hot chick playing hard to get. Since all girls at the time, let alone the hot ones, were hard to get for me (painfully shy) I could identify with the song all too well (even Mick Jagger was having the same problem!) “Games Without Frontiers,” however, was simply an oddity—possibly the most bizarre rock song I’d ever heard. I wasn’t sure exactly what the title meant, but I delighted in singing lyrics like “Suki plays with Leo / Sasha plays with Britt / Adolf builds a bonfire / Enrico plays with it” and then breaking out into an extended whistling solo. Foreshadowing big time: the rest of my life, I’ve delighted in finding similar type songs—those songs that are simultaneously weird and accessible. Equally beguiling was the interlude in the song where Gabriel sings “Jeux sans frontieres.” What the fuck did that mean? None of us knew. To quote Kid Rock, “we didn’t have no internet” back in 1980, so there was no quick way to find out. We didn’t even know it was French. My best guess at what he was singing was “She’s so fuck-a-ble,” which, considering my state of mind then, isn’t surprising. (Listen to it again and you’ll see how a young boy might get that thought in his head.) Both of these songs benefited from being about wanting to fuck girls! I’m not sure when I found out definitively that “Jeux sans frontieres” was french for “Games Without Frontiers” (doh!). On a side note, I now sing along with the song using the proper French pronunciation, but occasionally switch back to my explicit original version for nostalgia’s sake.
I realize this is turning into quite the dissertation, but I do want to add one more clock radio-related tidbit. I unceremoniously traded my clock radio to my brother for his beat-up combination record player/stereo a couple months later because I wanted to play my growing vinyl collection in private, too. It was the best trade I ever made, even though the sound was shitty and the crappy needle positively gouged my records like a farmer’s plow tilling soil in preparation for planting season. All that mattered is that I could now play my records as many times in a row as I wanted with minimal interruption (laundry day being a notable exception) and that was all the liberation I needed. That clock radio, and the songs that spewed from it, gave birth to the record-addicted, anti-social introvert that I am today. We had so little time together Mr. Clock Radio, but you had a major impact on my life, and I thank you for your service.
7 "This Beat Goes On/Switching to Glide" / The Kings
Speaking of songs that go together, Vancouver’s the Kings were among the very first bands to create a hit song that combined two distinct titles that shared the same central nervous system (can you think of another?). You will never hear one without the other, like conjoined twins that no surgeon would ever attempt to separate due to the potential complications involved. “This Beat” introduces us to a hyperactive and presumably privileged young adult male (he drives a Mercedes) in desperate need of a heavy dose of Ritalin. And in “Switching to Glide” that’s just what he gets (or whatever they used at the time): “Energy can be directed / I’m turning it up, I’m turning it down…” In a year when Billy Joel sang “You may be right / I may be crazy / But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for,” the Kings are the band that wrote the definitive anthem on the subject. This one-hit wonder (or is it a two-hit wonder?) now seems way ahead of its time, the more you think about it.
6 "Ah! Leah!" / Donnie Iris
I cannot adequately convey the ache of a young teenage boy in mere words—and I was one in 1980! That’s why we have pop songs and teen sex comedies, I suppose. That’s why John Hughes is considered such a genius—he held the elusive typewriter keys to that ignition. That’s why Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” still a year away from release, was a smash #1 hit—it struck a chord with everyone who has ever suffered an unrequited lust. But before either of those two masters of their craft emerged, Donnie Iris (who looked a lot like a young Eugene Levy) gave us “Ah! Leah!” the first song, I believe, to give me a boner based on its lyrical content alone!
“Yeah it’s been a long, long time, such a sight
You’re lookin’ better than a body has a right to…”
I was so sexually repressed back then I could probably ejaculate farther than I could hit a golf ball. And I was a pretty good golfer.
5 "Against the Wind" / Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
Springsteen has overtaken him since, but Bob Seger was my first post-Kiss (aka post-pubescent) obsession. It all started upon hearing “Katmandu” on the radio (from Live Bullet, still one of the best live albums ever made). Then came “Night Moves” shortly thereafter and I was hooked. Against the Wind was the first album of Bob’s I actually bought in its original release year. While I’ve always loved the song “Against the Wind,” I never expected then that the song would grow old with me, gaining more and more resonance as the years passed. (“Ooh La La” by the Faces is another great example). I’ve seen Seger perform the song numerous times live, but the last show in the early 2010s was the most stirring—mainly because Seger seems to feel the same way about his old friend. It’s like an old pair of leather shoes, infinitely better after being worn for years. The last time I saw him play it he did so sitting down, like he was on his front porch playing for his grandchildren. He was no longer the road warrior rock star that he was on Live Bullet. He was human now, dressed like he might coach a girl’s soccer team after the gig, but the performance was moving to the point of tears. Some seem to file the song away as another “medium” Seger song—nothing special. I disagree. Read the lyrics the next time you play it. The song, similar to “Night Moves,” joins Bob in the midst of a full-on life review. What better song, then, to accomp’ny his fans on their paths as well? The reason it gains power over time (p/t) is its pliability—just add more and more memories and/or regrets and season to taste. Interestingly, it provides a striking contrast to the aforementioned “Ooh La La,” whose refrain is “Wish that I knew what I know now / When I was younger” and proposes an alternate view, “Wish I didn’t know now / What I didn’t know then.” I’m willing to bet most would fall into Bob’s camp if given the choice.
4 "You Shook Me All Night Long" / AC/DC
No need to go into too much detail here. This is one of the most universally loved rock songs of all time. I challenge you to find someone who doesn’t like it. Plus, there may be no greater start to a rock song in music history:
“She was a fast machine
She kept her motor clean
She was the best damn woman
That I’ve ever seen”
3 "The Spirit of Radio" / Rush
Rush never needed vindication from anyone. That’s why Alex Lifeson’s uncomfortably long Hall of Fame induction speech (like listening to a baby cry, it seemed longer than it was) consisted of nothing but the word “blah” for its entire duration. Rush fans craved their induction more than the band did. And you can make fun of their fans all you want* but true Rush loyalists are immune to your hipster affectations. Every time I hear “The Spirit of Radio” I have the same reaction. I crank the stereo as high as it will go and sing along, no matter how complicated the lyrics get. And, as always, the magic music makes my morning (afternoon, evening) mood with the exact same impact it had on me forty years ago.
*It has become a running joke in movies to lovingly mock Rush fans, as in the movie I Love You, Man with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, two unabashed Rush fanatics.
2 "Once in a Lifetime" / Talking Heads
The Brian Eno-produced original studio version of “Once in a Lifetime” from Remain in Light emerged in 1980 and it was just weird enough to completely baffle commercial radio programmers. Two years later, the song was back again, featured on the double-live The Name of This Band is Talking Heads. Two years after the two years after, it appeared yet again in the now legendary Jonathan Demme concert film/soundtrack masterpiece Stop Making Sense (in my opinion the greatest music film of all-time). Each version has its own merits. Those who appreciate the original studio version will espouse the virtues of Brian Eno’s meticulous production—literally sounding like a life swirling down a drain. A lesser amount of fans might opt for the 1982 incarnation, which captures the band’s raw live energy that was missing from the studio version (although I think this version sounds a little rushed). Most, including me, prefer the version from Stop Making Sense—mainly because it captures the best of all worlds. Equal parts stage show, freak show, and rock show, it’s so captivating and indelible, it has now become the definitive version. But it all started here, in its natural state, same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.
1 "The River" / Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
I love 1980 for many reasons, but first and foremost because it was the year I discovered Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t have a subscription to Time or Newsweek in 1975—Sports Illustrated, maybe—so I wasn’t yet aware of the double-dose of hype that built up around Bruce upon release of his breakthrough record, Born to Run. And I forgive myself for not discovering Darkness on the Edge of Town three years later, too. Like most young boys, I was all Kiss all the time in 1978, and I had no capacity for a dark album about the unrealized hopes and dreams of working-class America. I initially wrote off The River in 1980, too, mainly because this ditzy girl in my geometry class (the obligatory Donna) wore a Bruce pin on her cheap, fuzzy, pink sweater. She was a spectacular sight, and not in a good way—oversized furry boots, unflattering skin-tight jeans, and bleach-blonde hair held in place by copious blasts of ozone-depleting Aquanet. How was I to know the man looking at me from her button would go on to be my favorite musician of all-time? Was I wrong to assume her music taste was as bad as her taste in everything else in her life? She probably went on to become a respected rock critic, for all I know. Bottom line, she was clearly at least one step ahead of me as far as Bruce is concerned. The song that alerted me that I couldn’t use one of my peremptory challenges on Bruce was, predictably, “Hungry Heart,” the first Top 10 single of his career. After one radio play, I had to have the album—I remember being a little
irritated that to get the song I had to spring for an expensive double-album. I carted the record home, pulled out the lyric sheet per my normal protocol, plopped the LP on my dad’s Montgomery Ward turntable, and followed along attentively—amazed at the sheer density of lyrics he generated! Most of side one was pretty accessible (“The Ties That Bind,” “Two Hearts,” “Sherry Darling”). Then came “Independence Day”—the song that pinned me to the proverbial wall and told me there was much, much more to Bruce than I ever expected. From that first listen my life changed—at that very fucking moment!—and I remember it like it was yesterday. By the end of the song, I felt like I had matured substantially (no additional pubes, however). Side two was even better than side one. “Hungry Heart” bested “Ties That Bind” of course; “Out in the Street” was more substantial than the goofy “Sherry Darling”; the rocking duo “Crush on You” and “You Can Look” fought to a draw with “Two Hearts”; “I Wanna Marry You” beat out the mercurial “Jackson Cage” as well. And, shockingly, even the seemingly untouchable “Independence Day” was challenged by “The River” for best song on the record. It was nothing less than the most beautiful, conceptually perfect,
emotionally powerful song I had heard to that point in my life (and probably since). It was some time later that I heard that the song was about his sister and her husband, and that after hearing Bruce sing it his sister broke down in tears and hugged her little brother in tears (my brother understands me!). I cannot imagine having any part of my life—let alone the most desperate and soul-shattering moments—brought to life in any song, let alone a song with the staggering power of “The River.” Right from the iconic opening harmonica, this song about the life of two ordinary people trying to survive changed mine forever.
Bruce with sister
We went down "The River" on this list, but into which year will we dive next? If you have a suggestion send us a note. See you soon in another time and another place.