82: Echo and the Bunnymen – “Bring on the Dancing Horses” (1985)
While it was never a hit single in the United States, these Liverpudlians’ best-known song had what in the ‘80s may have been the next best thing: a prime spot on the soundtrack for a John Hughes movie. Recorded for Pretty in Pink, “Bring on the Dancing Horses” played the role of so much quintessential ‘80s pop, soaring synths and purple imagery fueling any number of romantic teenage dreams.
Hughes’ movies provided the coming-of-age narrative for a generation, and this song was the sound playing in the head of that generation when it fell in love. From the moment it opens with a guitar burst and synth fanfare, the song sounds just like being a teenager in the ‘80s. As with The Cure and other goth-canon bands of the era, songs like this exemplify these bands’ ability to craft wondrous pop without selling out their music. That was part of the era’s magic; it was a time when weird kids could do their thing and still get on the soundtrack of one of the most iconic ‘80s movies.
Built on a constant, shimmering guitar tremolo, the song has the desperate drive of its “brittle heart, threatening to break at any moment. Will Sergeant’s shiny, happy lead guitar has the perfect tempo for Les Pattinson’s laidback bass to hold the song together. Gorgeous harp glissandos foreshadow a chorus in which the late Pete de Freitas’ off-beat snare drums form a magical alchemy with anthemic lyrics, but front man Ian McCulloch keeps his vocals relaxed, never overselling it.
After breaking up in 1988, Echo and the Bunnymen reformed in the ‘90s, and released their most recent album in 2014. “Bring on the Dancing Horses” has been covered by Flaming Lips and The Decembrists. You can hear echoes of the band’s sound in groups like M83. But the song’s most enduring legacy may well be the electric charge it strikes in the brain, vividly invoking a memory of spiked hair, neon-colored clothes and youthful optimism that anything was possible. — Cedric Justice
81. The Pogues – “Fairytale of New York” (1987)
What may be the prototypical Pogues song is certainly the one most people are familiar with, thanks to its seasonal rotation as a most unlikely Christmas classic. A gorgeously arranged piano ballad at the outset, “Fairytale” follows a straight narrative that touches on the immigrant experience in a way seen frequently during the ‘80s, in television, film and literature. Its title borrowed from Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy’s 1973 novel A Fairy Tale of New York, the song’s lyrical approach relies more on the narrative structure of Sergio Leone’s 1984 film, Once Upon a Time in America. The Pogues coopted Ennio Morricone’s score for the song’s opening bars, and the movie was said to be a tour bus staple for Shane MacGowan and whistle player Spider Stacy, who used its immigrant experience as a thematic jumping off point for this story of Christmas Eve in the drunk tank.
Originally optimistic thanks to MacGowan’s soused, balladic bray and stately string-and-piano led arrangement, the song quickly devolves into an extended lovers quarrel performed as a spot-on call-and-response set to an appropriately Irish melody. Featuring some of MacGowan’s most vividly cinematic lyrics and a fine vocal turn by Kristy MacColl as the song’s female protagonist, “Fairytale” offers a rousing rejoinder to the often empty optimism of the holiday season. After all, are there any more perfectly iconic, satisfyingly anti-Christmas lyrics than, “You’re a bum, you’re a punk/ You’re an old slut on junk…/ You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot/ Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last”?
The song gets off a few pointed barbs, particularly when MacGowan opines that he, “could have been someone,” to which MacColl quickly answers, “Well so could anyone/ You took my dreams from me when I first found you.” This back-and-forth helps root the song’s more poetic moments – the NYPD choir singing “Galway Bay,” for instance – in a gritty reality that helped to show that, while often billed as the land of opportunity, America is often far from it, the realization of which magnifies its problems. Thanks to the song’s yuletide association, it has enjoyed multiple reissues over the years, reentering the Irish Top 10 nearly every year since 2005 and making a handful of “Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time” lists. – John Paul