Song 264: The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket” (1979)

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Every time I listen to The Clash’s London Calling, I can’t get over how diverse it is. The record is like an index of musical styles: ska, punk, pop, garage, blues, disco. It’s especially jarring to consider the album in the context of the band’s previous work; The Clash’s self-titled debut is a fast, short punk workout, and follow-up Give ‘Em Enough Rope is a more radio-friendly version of the same.

For their third effort, The Clash seemed to have thrown everything at the wall to see what stuck. This creative method doesn’t usually work out, but in the case of London Calling, which I don’t mind calling a masterpiece, this range works wonders. You’re aware of the stylistic shifts, but the album somehow never sounds unfocused or poorly designed. Instead, it’s whip-smart and tightly wound, even when the songs (such as the loping “The Right Profile” or the swinging “Jimmy Jazz”) have some breathing room.

There’s no denying the greatness of so many songs on London Calling, especially its firestorm of a title track, but my favorite has always been “Lost in the Supermarket.” Like many other Clash songs, it’s both witty and politically sharp. Unlike all Clash songs to date, however, it sounded like the Bee Gees. Those hissing hi-hats and leaping basslines wouldn’t sound out of place at Studio 54. The Clash did a lot of ballsy things over the course of their careers, but making a disco song may have been the ballsiest. I can’t imagine the punk purists who had followed The Only Band That Matters were too happy hearing their heroes make music for leisure suits.

Of course, that’s not what The Clash were doing. Though they tackled the genre genuinely and confidently, they used disco as a backdrop for a song about the effect of consumerism on both our everyday lives and innate characters. “Lost in the Supermarket” starts with a description of a banal middle-class upbringing (“I wasn’t born so much as I fell out” may be one of the best opening lines in rock history) and then describes how those middle-class comforts have made us feeling more and more alone. Perhaps most tellingly, Mick Jones mentions his “giant-hit discothéque album” among the possessions that he expects to provide warmth and identity.

Many people still seem to point to The Clash’s first record as their punk statement, and, great as that album is, London Calling seems to me as their true punk record. They sang about Montgomery Clift, played disco, and featured a bluesy sax solo, all on a double record, without caring about what other people thought. Seems pretty punk-rock to me.

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Song 256: Talking Heads, “Heaven” (1979)

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You guys, I have had the hardest time choosing a Talking Heads song.

They have so many good songs. And it’s funny, I wouldn’t call Talking Heads one of my favorite bands, yet whenever I look over their songs, I mentally check off the ones that are flat-out great. Between his solo work and his years with Talking Heads, I think David Byrne has an incredible musical mind.

I eventually settled on “Heaven” to write about, because as much as I love so many of their other songs—“Once in a Lifetime,” “Don’t Worry About the Government,” and the signature song of my mediocre high school rock band, “And She Was”—“Heaven” is the one that I come back to, time and time again.

Compared to other Talking Heads songs, “Heaven” is stark and seemingly uninteresting. This is fitting, however, for a song about how boring beautiful things can be. Byrne uses a bar called Heaven as a metaphor for the actual heaven, itself a symbol of virtue, happiness, and general perfection. It’s also, Byrne notes, “nothing at all.” He adds, “It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be this much fun.”

I’m not sure how to interpret that last line: Byrne could mean that “nothing at all” really is exciting, and he’s just wondering how that could be; he could also mean that he’s having a hard time understanding why others think heaven is more fun than this, the chaotic, unpredictable everyday life. My hunch is the latter.

“Heaven” closes out the mesmerizing 30 For 30 documentary June 17, 1994, as the backdrop for a summing-up montage about the day that included the NBA playoffs, Arnold Palmer’s final U.S. Open appearance, a New York Rangers homecoming parade, Ken Griffey, Jr. tying Babe Ruth’s home run record, and the O.J. Simpson car chase. As the movie builds its narration-free, footage-only case that June 17, 1994 was one crazy day, David Byrne sings about how heaven, the place where Simpson insisted he’d go if he killed himself in that Bronco, was really not worth the hype. It’s here, and it’s now, that the wins, losses, disappointments and rewards happen. It’s here that everything happens.


Song 231: The Specials, “You’re Wondering Now” (1979)

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Man, I love a good last song. When a record ends conclusively, cleverly, and without calling too much attention to itself, there’s nothing more satisfying. R.E.M. did it with “Find the River” (which ends Automatic For the People), the Beatles with “A Day in the Life” (Sgt. Pepper), and the Specials with “You’re Wondering Now,” the song that finishes the band’s self-titled debut.

“You’re wondering now what to do, now you know this is the end.” This lyric could apply to so many things—a relationship, a career, a life—and it’s to the Specials’ credit that they keep it vague and simple. The line “I won’t return, forever you will wait” makes it a little personal, but we don’t know what happened to prompt the narrator to leave.

This song is funny because the lyrics are so serious (read by themselves, they’re like a sad poem), but the music is easygoing and charming. I like to picture the narrator of “You’re Wondering Now” singing these words as he or she saunters away from a person who has no idea how to fix their situation. Okay, so maybe that’s darkly funny. But still funny.

“You’re Wondering Now” is the last track of one hell of a record. The Specials were the leading band of the British ska scene, and their Elvis Costello-produced debut makes clear why: these songs are punchy and catchy but substantive, with political and social messages thrown in for good measure. It packs a lot of meaning and melody into its 45 minutes, alone an impressive feat.


Song 228: Kermit the Frog, “The Rainbow Connection” (1979)

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I take a weird amount of pride for things that happened the year I was born, as if I had anything to do with them. London Calling. Life of Brian. Off the Wall. Apocalypse Now. The establishment of Micronesia as a self-governing nation.

Despite the greatness of those landmarks, I think I’m most excited about sharing a birth year with The Muppet Movie. My sister and I loved the Muppets when we were little, and we still do. The fact that the Muppets continue to appeal so strongly to both adults and kids is a testament to Jim Henson’s respect for his craft, and for everyone who got to experience it.

And The Muppet Movie, are you kidding me? It must have been incredibly scary for Henson to match the wit and chaos of The Muppet Show, but he pulled it off in spades. The movie is funny, heartfelt (no “felt” joke intended), and full of great music, and it features one of my favorite Steve Martin moments ever, which is saying something.

Allmusic points out that “The Rainbow Connection” serves the same purpose as “Over the Rainbow” does in The Wizard of Oz, “with nearly equal effectiveness: an opening establishment of the characters’ driving urge for something more in life.” That now seems so obvious that I can’t believe I never noticed it before. In addition to being a beautiful, sad, and hopeful song, it also perfectly sets up the film as a story about hope and sadness. Not bad for a movie featuring a bunch of puppets.

“The Rainbow Connection” was written by Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams, the latter of whom was basically Mr. Seventies Pop Music (so much so that he was featured on Daft Punk’s seventies pastiche Random Access Memories earlier this year). Because previous heartbreaking Muppet ballads were so consistent with this one, I assumed Ascher and Williams wrote them all, but they didn’t. Henson’s vision was just so consistent that he was able to get incredible songs from many talented people. And Muppets.


Song 202: Cheap Trick, “Voices” (1979)

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For years, my knowledge of Cheap Trick consisted of “I Want You To Want Me,” that radio stalwart whose introduction (“I want you … to want … ME!”) sounded less and less fresh every time (making the rapturous applause from the audience increasingly strange). After hearing “Surrender” much later, I realized that this was a band I could love. Sure enough, “Voices” came along soon after.

I first heard “Voices” because of Jon Brion’s version of the song. When I heard Cheap Trick’s version, I could see why Brion liked it: those sunny and complex harmonies, the heartbreak of a melody, the way that “I remember every word you said” bridge comes out of nowhere but immediately makes complete sense.

It amazes me that a song could be so ornate, so shiny, and so massive, yet also sound so personal and intimate. “Voices” sounds like plastic, yet it also sounds like a man pleading his case, genuinely and emotionally. The contrast works in its favor, as if the narrator knows how artificial his pleading sounds but can’t stop himself.

In many ways, too, “Voices” is about pop music, and the way we need bands like Cheap Trick without even knowing it: We didn’t know what we were looking for until we heard their voices–shiny plastic voices–in our ears.


Song 136: Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb” (1979)

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I write songs, and one thing I’m not terribly good at is matching a song’s lyrics to its musical mood. I’ve got plenty of sad songs with happy musical feels, and happy songs that sound like cry-in-your-beer ballads. That kind of thing can work great for certain songs, but I don’t think I often strike the right balance.

Songs like “Comfortably Numb” are the ones I wish I could write. The chords to the verses are all about paranoia, fear, and recklessness. Like the chords in the verses of “Anyday,” these go down, down, down—in this case, starting at B-minor and going down to A, G, and E-minor, before returning to B-minor. Then (again, like “Anyday”), the chorus, airy and tranquil, brightens with a major chord.

Of course, the tranquility is both ironic and short-lived. The Wall’s protagonist, rock star Pink, is steeling himself (emotionally, chemically) before facing the masses. The peace is entirely manufactured, and it’s not going to last. I’ve never done any drugs (unless you count alcohol, which I suppose you should), but I imagine this song is as accurate as any other about the experience. When heroin kicks in, it must seem like the chords are changing from minor to major, and like string-like synthesizers are playing beautiful arpeggios.

The Wall is my favorite Pink Floyd record. It’s kind of a mess, but I find it a lot more satisfying than Dark Side of the Moon or my second favorite of theirs, Wish You Were Here. The songs are just gorgeous, even the ones that are so dark you feel imposed upon when hearing them. Pink Floyd gets lots of deserved recognition, but I don’t think they get enough credit for their songs. For a band that specialized in abstract ideas, they kept things pretty restrained, even on double albums about many things at once.


Song 12: Fleetwood Mac, “What Makes You Think You’re The One” (1979)

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Sometimes you absolutely love a song and, for some reason, nobody else does. That’s the way I feel about “What Makes You Think You’re The One.”

The song comes from Tusk, one of those albums that is supposedly an unheralded classic, but it’s been called an unheralded classic so many times now that the term doesn’t really apply anymore. Fleetwood Mac released the record on the heels of the blockbuster Rumours, and yes, it’s a weirder album than its predecessor, full of moodiness and strange arrangements. But it also has punchy little pop songs like this one, songs that may have sounded strange to Fleetwood Mac fans in 1979 but sound radio-ready today.

So why do I love this song? I’m not sure I can even explain it. I love how the drums seem to be dropped in arbitrarily, which, paired with Lindsey Buckingham’s weird vocal tics, make the narrator sound a little desperate and crazy. But what I love most is the melody, which is so simple. This almost sounds like a long-lost Motown track, the kind of question song Diana Ross might have tackled after “Where Did Our Love Go?”. It wasn’t one of the five singles the band released for Tusk, which I find bizarre.

I’m prepared to remain alone in my love for this song, but I’d rather not. Give it a try.