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100 Best Songs of the ’80s (#80-71)

These are the top 100 songs of the 1980s.

72: The Smiths – “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” (1985)

They had the most ordinary name and the most ordinary cover art. Their simple guitar-bass-drums sound ran counter to the prevailing lush synth pop. Their frontman was then as now kind of insufferable, but he had a gorgeous croon, and with a guitarist who had a natural gift for the hook, Steven Patrick Morrissey and Johnny Marr were perfect foils for each other, parts of a songwriting team whose unerring alchemy proved elusive in their respective solo careers. And “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” was one of the greatest hits of a band that helped define the decade.

Reportedly inspired by a music industry that Morrissey felt was neglecting the band, its lyrics were quintessential Morrissey self-pity. But thanks to one of Marr’s most light-hearted riffs, the signature drama came off as so much fey charm: “A murderous desire/ For love” indeed. Marr’s circular melody had a crisp ring that set him up as Hank Marvin to Morrissey’s Cliff Richard, a Joe Meek production updated for the fabulous ‘80s. Yet The Smiths did right to buck the bombastic trend of their peers; while their music may send anyone who lived through it hurling back into the ‘80s, its sound is timeless.

Naturally, Belle and Sebastian covered “The Boy with a Thorn in his Side,” and both Morrissey and Marr have performed it in live shows (the latter with a reformed Dinosaur Jr. on one occasion). But in a world where nearly every band that ever existed will come together for a lucrative reunion, it is unlikely we’ll ever hear The Smiths again. Some years after their breakup, band members Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke sued for royalties. A judge called Morrissey, “devious, truculent and unreliable,” which sounds like a good Smiths lyric. Morrissey and Marr kept each other in check musically, and while each has sustained a successful solo career, they’re simply not as good apart as they were together. – Pat Padua

71: The Replacements – “I Will Dare” (1984)

The Replacements may have claimed that they weren’t reaching for a hit single or wide commercial appeal with 1984’s Let It Be but the songs on that record suggest otherwise. “I Will Dare” opens the LP, bounding its way from the speakers with buoyant mandolin figures, an impossibly memorable guitar solo from the man least likely to play guitar solos who wasn’t even a member of the band. Lyrically, it’s about that most tried-and-true rock ‘n’ roll subjects: breaking on through to the other side. The dare in question lives in the shadows of suggestion but one might infer that it’s vocalist Paul Westerberg wondering if his band was finally on the precipice of success and, maybe, on the precipice of throwing all its hard-earned momentum away.

The words juxtapose all the major Mats’ concerns: young against the old, primitive against intellectual, the refined with the crass. Though we tend to believe that this band of misfits will side with the loser, the guy who throws it away at the finish line, the answer isn’t always so clear. Why place so much effort in losing when not trying proves just as easy?

Tommy Stinson’s bass rarely sounds as alive and brilliantly manic as it does across this romp through adolescent alienation and emotions. Chris Mars’ drumming, though never flashy, does just the right trick here. Westerberg, meanwhile, would find better vocal technique in the coming years. He’d learn to sound controlled, focused and sincere but none of that would top the unbridled energy of “I Will Dare.”

The song does reveal a shift in ambitions. Peter Buck’s lead playing captures our attention, not Bob Stinson’s. Buck was apparently tapped to produce the record, though his ultimate gift would be contributing a musical hook that would help define the record. Stinson would be out not long after Let It Be’s successor, Tim, but he would still play with fire on Let It Be. His wailing wall of pain elsewhere on the record may not be as pleasing as what Buck offers on “I Will Dare” but it’s no less artful and no less true.
If you can track down the bootlegged version from what was, for many years, the group’s final performance on July 4, 1991 in Chicago, you can hear that, for everything else, “I Will Dare” remained a source of pride for the quartet and their fans. – Jedd Beaudoin

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