62: Daryl Hall and John Oates – “I Can’t Go for That” (1981)
Blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates seemed to define the ‘70s more than the ‘80s, and their me-decade chart comeback may have simply been an attempt to fine-tune their sound to chase a trend. Whatever the motivation, with “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” the second single released from the 1981 album Private Eyes, they came up with pop magic.
Even if you dismiss the bulk of their ubiquitous catalog, it’s hard to deny the minimalistic, spacey guitar line that was the best riff they ever made. Their most successful crossover hit was something of an anomaly. Unlike pop craft like “Your Kiss is on My List” or even “Maneater,” it doesn’t give you a particularly hummable melody. The duo scored one of their biggest hits with, of all things, a modern funk riff.
“I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” was written not about a relationship, but about the music business—a backstory it shares with unlikely bedfellow “The Boy with the Thorn in his Side,” which you’ll find earlier on this list. Musicians apparently aren’t fond of the corporate dealings behind the scenes. Fortunately, lyrics about contractual grievances with big labels often sound like a bad romantic relationship, and they make a great hook at that.
It’s a hook you don’t forget, and it all starts with a bass line that turned up in another ‘80s classic. Hall has said that at the sessions of “We Are the World” (no, not that), Michael Jackson approached him and admitted that he took the bass line for “Billie Jean” from the Hall & Oates hit.
Good enough for the King of Pop to lift, “I Can’t Go for That” went on to become a frequently-used sample, borrowed by De la Soul and Public Enemy and, more recently, The xx. It’s an impressive afterlife for an act usually seen as pop lightweights. – Pat Padua
61: The Clash – “Rock the Casbah” (1982)
Though London Calling might be punk’s most apocalyptic album, it also cannily showed off The Clash’s pop chops. You don’t write a track as catchy as “Train in Vain” without a little bubblegum sticking in your amps. The album Combat Rock wasn’t exactly the London boys’ top 40 moment, but there’s a reason M.I.A. would end up sampling “Straight to Hell.” And “Should I Stay or Should I Go” has been implanted in a thousand films and TV shows. But the most delicious moment on Combat Rock was undoubtedly the insidiously danceable “Rock the Casbah.” Despite the band’s pedigree and the song’s title, the political connotations take a backseat to the rhythm. That makes sense, as, in a break from tradition, this was drummer Topper Headon’s baby. The piano line he created and the thumping drum work were the bedrock for Joe Strummer’s surreal tale of rebellion and rock’n’roll in the Middle East. Shuddering and choppy guitars added to the chorus’ instantaneous effect, and the gang-style shouting of “ROCK THE CASBAH” assures the song will drill into the deep recesses of your brain.
Addled by a healthy bit of cynicism, Strummer and co. outline a king of an unnamed country who outlaws any sort of rock music, even going so far as setting jetfighters on teenage rebels, “Drop your bombs between the minarets!” “Rock the Casbah” was, of course, heavily influenced by the then still fresh Iranian revolution. As irreverent as the song was in the face of their discography, Iran has, since, not really been the best on rock’n’roll rights, with modern artists – like Ash Koosha – fearing jail time thanks to their music. So, despite the fluffy nature of it all, “Rock the Casbah,” like most Clash songs, might have become more relevant as time went on. – Nathan Stevens