68: Wham! – “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” (1984)
George Michael later described Wham!’s first American hit single as “stupid” and “silly,” but let’s not allow him get away with such good-natured humility. It’s true that the concept of the song was not achieved through high art: Andrew Ridgeley scrawled a note to his parents upon a late-night return to his flat. “Wake me up up…” he wrote accidentally, and upon realizing the error, finished it out “… before you go go.” And so it was that this toss-away little moment in life inspired one of the sunniest pop songs of the ‘80s (and beyond).
“Wake Me Up…” invites in the brightest elements of songcraft from decades past: a soulful flutter of keyboards, an infiltration of flashing brass, bubbles of girl group “hoo hoo”s and “yeah yeah”s,” fingersnaps and falsettos (“I don’t want to miss it when you hit that high”). Lyrical references to retro goodies like the jitterbug, go-gos and ‘50s icon Doris Day recall parties of the past to propel this one forward.
For all the decades-mingling, the visual impact of this chart topper was quintessentially ‘80s—at the time, a spot in the MTV rotation was of equal importance to the frequency of radio play. Michael and Ridgeley sport their Katharine Hamnett “CHOOSE LIFE” tees, a sentiment the artist attributes to a Buddhist-inspired stance against war and destruction. (And not anti-abortion, as modern eyes might read.) The black and white outfits are swapped for a palette of Hubba Bubba fluorescents, saturating everything from short shorts to fingerless gloves. The scene then turns to Day-Glo, as this sugar rush has our eyes seeing ultraviolet as we’re dancing away in the dark. It’s pop art in motion.
Though Michael’s legacy would have more to do with R&B-flecked songwriting and vocal performance, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” proves he could compose confectionary singles with equal finesse and deliberation. We expect greatness in the serious; Michael knew well not to underestimate perfection of the playful. – Stacey Pavlick
67: Run-D.M.C. – “Walk This Way” (1986)
Run-D.M.C .had made a couple of records before 1986’s Raising Hell, but that album would come to define the New York hip-hop act’s career. Its major single, “Walk This Way,” would also help breathe new life into one of the quintessential American rock bands of all time. If Run-D.M.C. was on the way up, Aerosmith struggled to maintain its place in the lower-middle ranks of the music scene. Though its original lineup had reunited and recorded an album of mostly new material in 1985, there wasn’t much creative spark.
Upon producer Rick Rubin’s insistence, Run-D.M.C. teamed with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Steven Tyler to remake a song that had been a hit a decade earlier. Its impact was perhaps more widespread than any involved could have imagined. Hip-hop, which had been largely off-limits to kids in rural America who found it an affront to rock’s sensibilities, became acceptable. The reinvention of faded stars who still had voice and heart would become one of the essential rock storylines in years to come.
The track didn’t stray too far from the original but just enough that listeners could sense something different. Tyler may have been recalling the blues when he sly-talked his way through the song some years earlier, but he’d also come to predict one of the dominant forms of American music at the close of the last century. There would be other rock/rap collaborations, including Anthrax teaming with Public Enemy, and, within less than 10 years there would be a new hybrid sound that played upon the sensibilities heard in “Walk This Way.” The Run/Smith rendition has aged well because the composition is sturdy and universal, but it’s retained its spark because the need to succeed found its way into the record’s grooves. These were two acts hungry for success, boosting each other up to some new height that could carry them far into the future.
Few could have predicted Aerosmith’s meteoric rise the following year with Permanent Vacation, nor could we have imagined how quickly the tail of Run-D.M.C.’s time in the spotlight would come. Listening to “Walk This Way” now, none of that matters. In the end, there’s no rock, no rap, no dreams of chart success, only an ace song. – Jedd Beaudoin