The Number Nines: Yet Another Four Records That Barely Cracked The Top Ten

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After covering the high ‘70s last week – including my first overall pick for this list – it’s time to dive into:

The first half of the 1980s: One of the all-time greatest explosions of pop-music invention.

Two of today’s songs are absolute new wave classics, while the other two songs are relentlessly joyous singalongs that overexposure may well have ruined for you.

I think they’re both absolutely transcendent, but this is the installment where I expect the most disagreement.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you!


Cars
Gary Numan
1980

What might be the most credible bridge record between the pop music of the 1970s and the 1980s.

It began its life on a congested London street. Gary Numan had unwittingly angered the driver in front, and the man was now trying to get in his vehicle to beat him up. Numan locked the doors and drove onto the sidewalk to escape, but the experience got him thinking about how he felt safest of all when he could lock all his doors.

After two years as the frontman of the Tubeway Army, a nominally post-punk outfit with a penchant for Minimoogs, Numan had earned fame from a cool UK chart-topper, and struck out as a magnetically robotic solo star.

“Cars” was the first song he’d written in the hopes of landing a hit. But for someone that arch and robotic, this was probably the best thing he could have done for his first solo single. The four-note riff that kicks in after the otherworldly synth intro is a monster, and the synth perfectly syncs up with the bass to keep the groove sleek and propulsive.

Numan himself sounds completely detached, as if he’s afraid of opening himself up to anyone for fear of encountering the unnamed horrors outside his car.

The comparatively upbeat bridge still sounds fierce and unflagging, and Numan never stops finding catchy, goosebump-inducing ways for synths to harmonize.

With such a danceable beat, America finally found synthpop it could embrace, setting the stage for a plethora of made-up art-school Brits in the next few years.


Don’t Stop Believin’
Journey
1981

They might be the only band that could challenge Nickelback in the “gleefully disrespected rock band” stakes.

But I maintain that Journey were definitely important, and sometimes even great. And whether you love it or you hate to love it, “Don’t Stop Believin’” has absolutely continued to resonate.

When a crowd of people hears that keyboard riff, how many of them imagine themselves as Steve Perry (and inevitably fall short) is only a matter of chance.

I’m not going to pretend I admire Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain, but I definitely have empathy for his struggles as an up-and-coming musician on the bou-le-vard.

He often called his father, ready to give up the career, but would always be told the same thing: “Don’t stop believing or you’re done, dude.”

It’s not terribly sensitive – but it’s memorable,

And somehow inspirational.

The bassline came next, and Perry was reminded of a train leaving a hometown, going a-ny-where, so he sat down and wrote some kind of Americana-infused travelers’ love story, complete with a gratuitous “south Detroit” (also called Windsor, Ontario).

None of this, of course, matters when the guitar solo is wailing away. Or when Perry is holding a beautiful money note, or when the song slowly but surely builds to the climactic chorus.

It probably didn’t matter when David Chase dropped it into the finale of The Sopranos and gave the song a more modern resonance.

But every lyric sticks with you, and so does the supercharged optimism. I couldn’t ever deny that, and America hasn’t after four decades.


Burning Down The House
Talking Heads
1983

In one of his all-time greatest articles for his The Number Ones column, author Tom Breihan chronicled the strange, transcendent beauty of “This Must Be The Place”, and called it “the Speaking In Tongues track that has resonated the longest”. I’m not going to disagree with him; that would be too tall of an order. (I’m only 6’6”.)

That said, “Burning Down The House” is a great song, and one that streamlines their funkiest, artsiest tendencies into a package ready for the 1983 pop-music scene.

In a break from their duties as the band’s husband-and-wife rhythm section, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth went to a Parliament-Funkadelic show at Madison Square Garden.

They noticed that the audience kept chanting “Burn down the house!” before the band would play “The Roof Is On Fire”, sort of like in the “Hot in Herre” music video.

David Byrne came up with a bunch of nonsense phrases, assembling the ones that fit his inimitable yelp best into the backbone of the song.

The groove is full of ‘80s-ready synth lines, some grand and bloopy and others jittery and funky, from keyboardist Jerry Harrison and Beninese-French synth wizard Wally Badarou of Level 42.

Paired with a music video with superimposed faces that MTV couldn’t get enough of, the band finally attained success outside of their traditional fanbase, and soundtrack placements have cemented its status as an art-rock classic. (Also, the Tom Jones/Cardigans version is so good.)


Walking On Sunshine
Katrina and The Waves
1985

A Mount Rushmore of horn deployments in pop music would be a fun project: “Crazy In Love,” probably “I’m Your Boogie Man…” what else?

It wouldn’t be complete without the dopamine-rush of a horn riff that gets this song going. That riff wouldn’t be out of place at all on a Motown hit, and the song already kind of sounds ‘60s-revival. But unlike many other British attempts at ‘60s-style R&B in a decade of big drum sounds and shiny synths, “Walking on Sunshine” finds its own kind of power:

Going against the grain.

And choosing music to fit the lovestruck joy of the song.

I somehow never knew this, but the first version of the song, released on their first album in 1983, didn’t even have those horns. That feels totally wrong. The rest of the song is perfectly constructed, with hard-thumping drums, even funkier guitar riffs and a softly humming organ.

Katrina Leskanich howls the (great) lyrics out with brio and lovesick joy, adding great ad-libs everywhere.

But the horns hold everything together. And were worth transposing the song down so that the players could match the beat. The music video may not have any sunshine, walked-on or otherwise, but the band look like they really love each other’s company.

Shout out to that Tufted Duck at 2:27.

More music videos should have diving ducks in them.

I don’t need to tell you that the song has absolutely endured.

But I can tell you that the Waves make $200,000 a year from commercials licensing the song alone, and that Katrina Leskanich thinks it will outlive her. As long as we have dizzy, cathartic joy in our lives, why shouldn’t it?

Oh, we’re halfway there… tune in next time!

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Phylum of Alexandria
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September 5, 2023 8:28 am

Some all-time classics here.

I do wonder why it was Gary Numan’s “Cars” that kick-started the synth pop craze on radio and not, say, OMD with “Messages.”

Not to mention, I adore “Cars,” but why didn’t people warm to other Numan tunes, like “Me, I Disconnect From You” or “We Are Glass?” To say nothing of kindred spirits like Ultravox with “Slow Motion.” I guess the true pop stuff didn’t really start until Vince Clarke started to release material with Depeche Mode.

I think if Katrina and the Waves had been a US band, the video for “Walking on Sunshine” would have been filmed in Miami, with the band all in beach wear, bronzed with bleached hair, galavanting in the sand while well-physiqued young men and women cavort in the waters. Just to beat the song’s metaphor into the audience’s head, to sell them a desirable fantasy. I love that the band let the sunshine of the song ring out against a foggy industrial gloom instead of going for that more simpleminded take.

Phylum of Alexandria
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September 5, 2023 9:10 am

Ah, it seems that “Messages” simply came after “Cars.” They had “Electricity” out in mid 1979, but I can see why that didn’t have the same popular appeal.

Virgindog
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September 5, 2023 9:24 am

“Classics” is the right word. These are all great. Well done, Napoleon!

Virgindog
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September 5, 2023 5:31 pm

Well, can’t say I’m a fan but there’s no denying how many people love that song. In that regard, it’s definitely a classic.

Looking forward to the next installment.

cappiethedog
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September 7, 2023 6:39 pm

What kind of b-side is “Metal”?

It could’ve been the second single.

“Complex”?

“Metal” should have been re-released as a single.

“Electricity” was the opening track on The Best of OMD. I liked it right away. That was a great sampler.

JJ Live At Leeds
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September 5, 2023 9:52 am

Four great choices. Three performed better in the UK (eventually).

Cars was Gary Numan’s 2nd #1 and has charted another three times since in various remixed forms.

Walking On Sunshine made #8 here which feels very low considering how its positive infectiousness has been ubiquitous ever since. Katrina might have had a #1 in the 90s but WOS is what most remember.

Don’t Stop Believin’ only reached #62 in 1982 but thanks to The Sopranos and then Rock of Ages it grew in popularity so much that it was performed on the 2009 season of X Factor after which downloads got it back into the charts, rising to #6.

And then there’s Burning Down The House which managed not to chart at all. Road To Nowhere was their sole top 10 here, #6.

mt58
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mt58
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September 5, 2023 10:00 am

Is this data from “Official Charts?”

Is the UK OC analogous to Billboard, with the same kind of legacy, or is it a newer thing? Can you give us a primer sometime?

JJ Live At Leeds
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September 5, 2023 11:44 am
Reply to  mt58

This is Official Charts data. I think an Official Charts primer may be in order. The UK singles chart predates the Billboard Hot 100 but its gone through a lot of changes. What is now regarded as the first official single chart started in 1952 by the New Musical Express (NME) magazine. The actual music industry chart didn’t start until 1960 with the previous 8 years of the NME chart retrospectively co-opted into official chart history.

Most obvious difference that people may well be aware of is the UK chart has no airplay element. Used to be able to say it was purely sales based but it takes streaming into account now.

BBC as the national broadcaster carries the Official Chart. Whereas commercial stations provide what is typically referred to as the network chart and was based on a mix of sales and airplay – I think it now works on streaming/downloads/airplay. To makes it more confusing the network chart show is carried by stations around the country and actually has a bigger listenership than the BBC Radio 1 chart show.

Plenty more to pack in though. I’ll get onto it…..

PeiNews
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September 5, 2023 6:01 pm

I thought the Official Chart was from 1969 onwards and the 60-69 one was Record Retailer?

JJ Live At Leeds
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September 6, 2023 3:12 am
Reply to  PeiNews

There’s official and there’s ‘official’.

Record Retailer was the industry publication and from 1960 their chart was recognised as the ‘official chart’. It wasn’t until 1969 when Record Retailer and the BBC revised the process by commissioning a third party to compile the chart on their behalf that it became referred to as the official chart.

That’s according to the Official Charts website. All means that for the period 1952 to ’60 the Official Chart statistics are drawn from the NME, from ’60 to ’69 they’re from Record Retailer and from ’69 they’re from the chart compiled for and published by Record Retailer. Only slightly confusing then.

lovethisconcept
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September 5, 2023 2:34 pm

Wonderful bunch of songs. I know Journey is often criticized for a variety of reasons, many of them valid. But Steve Perry’s voice could not be denied.

rollerboogie
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September 5, 2023 5:28 pm

“Don’t Stop Believin’ and that whole album was a big part of my high school experience and back then, it wasn’t overplayed. That happened more recently. As far as them being gleefully disrespected along the lines of Nickelback, I was not aware they were shunned to that level, but I’m too close to the flame to know, I guess. Critics may have felt one way, and maybe older crabbier rockers, but everyone I knew totally dug them.

Cars totally kills and takes me back to freshman year of high school, and Burning Down the House, freshman year of college. These selections work for me!

LinkCrawford
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September 5, 2023 6:54 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

It wasn’t overplayed, because it was just an ‘also-ran’ song off the Escape album. Less popular than “Open Arms”, more popular than “Stone in Love” (sadly). That’s what always amazes me about that song. I still think of it as just a random ok-ish song from Journey that suddenly became turbo-charged popular.

Zeusaphone
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September 5, 2023 11:08 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

I was also in high school when “Don’t Stop Believin'” hit, though that wasn’t what I was really listening to at the time. For me 1981 will always be the summer of the Double Dutch Bus.

I don’t remember Journey being as disrespected as Nickelback. That reserved for Winger. Maybe Warrant got close.

LinkCrawford
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September 7, 2023 10:21 am
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Gimmie a HO if you got your funky bus fare!
.
That song is my go-to example of songs that I never would have heard if I hadn’t listened to American Top 40. I bought the 45 because of it.

LinkCrawford
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September 5, 2023 6:59 pm

I love “Cars”. It was probably one of the first 4 or 5 singles that I ever bought for myself when I was 9 years old. So good.

“Don’t Stop Believing”…well, it’s fine, I suppose.

I loved “Burning Down the House” then and still do. That video is exhibit #1 proving that you don’t have to have much money to make an amazingly compelling music video. It seems so very on-the-cheap, and yet I just want to keep watching it.

It’s funny, your opening description of singalongs that overexposure may have ruined made me think of two songs: “Come On Eileen”, but I knew that couldn’t be it because it went to #1, not #9. The other was “Walking on Sunshine”. Overexposure is right. It is so well done, and I really liked it back then, but I maybe can only handle once every 6 months now.

I love these articles.

Wait, you’re 6’6″? Seriously?

Pauly Steyreen
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September 5, 2023 11:40 pm

Stone cold classics, each and every one. Would’ve made far better Tom columns than Will to Power or Timmy T!

cstolliver
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September 6, 2023 5:35 am

That’s quite a foursome! Not sure there’s a stronger set out there.

As far as DSB goes in this decade, the Sopranos are the pop culture reference for the adults. Shift one generation younger and you’ll get the four-letter word reviled by some TNOCS folks: Glee.

blu_cheez
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September 6, 2023 5:26 pm

Relevant:
https://youtu.be/V41ajt3euYQ

(oh, and: great article!)

Aaron3000
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September 8, 2023 10:33 pm
Reply to  blu_cheez

Casey Kasem doing the voiceover on that ad, and I’ve never heard him sound quite like that.

DanceFever
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September 8, 2023 4:23 pm

Had to Google it to make sure my facts were straight.
“DSB” was the song of choice for the 2005 Chicago White Sox when they won the World Series. Steve Perry sang it before the clinching game and also at the victory parade!
Always thought “DOS”would be an appropriate theme song for some major league team (any sport).

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