The 100 Best Singles In My Head
My second British Invasion -- those enchanted years at the end of the 70s and dawn of the 80s, when punk and New Wave were busy duking it out for musical supremacy. This was music that just crackled with fresh energy; every Tuesday held the promise of some new amazing LP that would blow my mind.
[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]
21. "Pump It Up" / Elvis Costello (1978)
By the time Elvis Costello burst onto the scene, I had become an album buyer, not a singles buyer, and hardly ever listened to the radio; MTV hadn't yet materialized to propel singles with catchy videos to the top of the charts. But I need at least one token Elvis Costello single -- he's such a musical hero of mine -- so I'll choose "Pump It Up" in honor of his second album, This Year's Model, the LP that first introduced me to his spiky charms. In general I'm a deep-tracks album fan when it comes to Elvis,* but "Pump It Up" was widely played in the fall of 1978, at least in the bars I frequented; some clubs even played this primitive video. As a newly-minted Elvis* fanatic I was proud to watch him storm the shores of America. What a tight little rocker this is! It starts out emphatically, with brisk drums and bass, then layers on Telstar twangs of guitar, a barrage of funhouse organ, and finally Elvis's* vocals, a nonstop assault of aggression and malice. We couldn't decipher everything he spat out, I'll admit -- many evenings were spent with ears patiently bent to the stereo speakers, trying to work it all out. (New Wavers would never do anything so retro as print lyrics on album covers.) But certain phrases came through loud and clear: "She said that's that / I don't want to chitter-chat"; "There's nothing underhand / She wouldn't understand" ; or "She's been a bad girl / She's like a chemical / Though you try to stop it, / She's like a narcotic." (Watch out ladies, the skinny nerd in the glasses sees right through you.) Melody was replaced with a terse morse code of repeated notes and thrusting jabs of drums, bass, and guitar. When all else failed, we could certainly join in the head-banging chorus: "PUMP IT UP! when you don't really need it/ PUMP IT UP! until you can feel it." I didn't know what I was singing about -- drugs? sex? -- but I knew it had to be sung loud. Maybe not a feel-good singalong, but exhilarating? You bet.
22. "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" / "There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards" / Ian Dury and the Blockheads (1978)
My first couple of years in New York was a charmed era, musically speaking; riding the crest of the New Wave, we had so many clever, catchy bands to listen to. But I was always seduced by the wordsmiths, and there were some days when even Elvis* took a back seat to the razor-sharp wit of Mr. Ian Dury.
23. " A Message to You Rudy" / The Specials (1979)
With Elvis* as their godfather, the Specials got a shortcut onto my playlist in 1979. But it wasn't just the Elvis Connection; one listen to this track and we had to love this band, with their slappy ska rhythm, punk attitude, and pointed social commentary. How much had changed in the 10 years since The Foundations broke onto the charts; by 1979, all the cool bands rallied to the Rock Against Racism agenda, and times were ripe for a ska revival. What better trailblazers than this black-and-white band from Coventry, with their pork-pie hats and mohair suits? For at least a month after we discovered this album, my office mate Susan Roberts and I would drop this onto the turntable the minute we got home from work. That intro accordion would start its lazy wheeze, and we'd kick off the work heels and collapse gratefully onto my sway-backed sofa. I had no idea who "Rudy" was -- only later would I learn it was short for "rude boy," the 60s Jamaican equivalent of a hip-hop gangsta. The context made it clear, though: "Stop your messing around / Better think of your future / Time you straightened right out / Creating problems in town." (I could just picture a scene from that Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come.) Despite a snappy horn section, the Specials' version sounded just amateur enough to be a credible voice from the slums. Terry Hall and Lynval Golding sing the lead together, but not quite together, and lay on the rude boy accent; the backing singers sound like they're way across the alley, kicking at cans; then the whole joint swings when the trombonist lays into his solo in the middle eight. (That would be guest star Rico Rodriguez, who played the same bit on Dandy Livingstone's 1967 original.) Yeah, yeah, the politics were there -- two years later when Brixton burst into riot, I instantly thought of this song. But who am I fooling? What I really loved about this track was simply that ska beat. That happy-go-lucky looseness was the best thing about this track -- how brilliant of producer Elvis* to just say no to slickness.
24. "Rock the Casbah" / The Clash (1982)
In theory, yes, I thought punk music was a great liberating force for popular music. In reality, most punk bands were too crude for my taste. (I'm thinking of a Stranglers show at the Roundhouse in 1977 . . . ) But I always had to make an exception for the Clash.
25. "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" / Dusty Springfield (1964)
Okay, so Dusty had nothing to do with New Wave or punk -- but then, she wasn't really British Invasion either, not in the classic sense. She was just one of the greatest girl singers ever, her voice pure Motown housed by accident in a nice Irish Catholic convent girl. For years, there was a funny sort of competition going on between Sandie Shaw, Dusty Springfield, and Dionne Warwick to see who could be the foremost interpreter of Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs. (Later even Elvis* would give it a shot.) To me, though, there's no question that Dusty won that competition hands down. Memorable as their melodies may be, the point of a Bacharach/David song is always the tortured emotions -- break-ups, separations, dissolving marriages, stealthy lust. And come on, nobody did tortured emotions like Dusty did. The scenario here is all too familiar: Dusty's moping around the house after losing her lover. (Pair this with Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight" if you're really in the mood for self-pity.) "I just don't know what to do with myself," she sighs. " I'm so used to doing everything with you / Planning everything for two / And now that we're through . . . " I love how the lines get progressively shorter, until the final line weakly peters out; it perfectly mirrors how her life is closing in on itself. Even that little trumpet riff that punctuates the verse is a compressed version of that same melodic phrase. Yet she flings her voice into the crest of each line as if there's no tomorrow. "Going to the movies always makes me sad," she wails, "Parties make me feel as bad." She's out there, trying, but it's no use. And now, verse three, here comes the kicker, and it's quintessentially Dusty: "Baby, if your new love ever turns you down / Come on back, I will be around / Just waiting for you . . . " Only Dusty can make crawling back such a noble romantic gesture. The production is exquisite, with just enough strings and backing vocals to underscore the operatic shimmer of Dusty's voice. Oh, and that flagellating kick-drum! This is no time for half-emotions, my friends. Pull out all the stops.
* NOTE: On this blog, the single name "Elvis" will ALWAYS refer to Costello, not Presley.