Popularity increasing the financial base is cool, but it seems plenty of rock's best songwriters would like to cut out the insidious middleman by eliminating radio, with all its limitations and outright corruption, from pop's success formula. Others go so far as to denounce their industry, baring their teeth and chomping heartily on the hand that feeds them.
The idea of kicking the gift horse - the record company sharks along with the radio remoras - isn't new. But it seems to be growing more common. Lately the Top-40-as-God bashing has gone from foot to mouth in a 13EEE way. Maybe this shows great courage and gumption on the part of the artists, maybe it's hypocritical. Either way, it has almost evolved into a genre unto itself. Here's our list of the twenty all-time best songs that bash the biz:
"So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" by the Byrds
The standard-setter. Included here because it's a great song, and so you get the idea.
"Have a Cigar" by Pink Floyd
See above. Oh, and by the way, which one is Pink?
"Hit Single" by Joe Jackson
Jackson's always maintained a cockeyed view of himself and his place in the pop lexicon, and the radically split vote on Laughter & Lust is probably a result of interpretations rather than intent. This cut is written from the point of view of the song, which has led to critical confusion over lines such as "Before you know it I'll be there right under your skin." Some critics call that egomania, when in fact it's a simple slant on the way hit songs work on the psyche.
"Hitsville UK" by the Clash
More than an industry protest, but proof the Clash didn't take rejection well. And it includes the classic lyric, "No slimy deals with smarmy eels." Sign here and have a cigar, boy.
"Leave This Off Your Fu*king Charts" by Public Enemy
No lyrics, just DJ Terminator X in the spotlight on Fear of a Black Planet. The title says it all.
"Radio Song" by R.E.M.
The Athens gods are so clever - they waited until they signed to a major-major-major label (Warner Bros.) before expressing their discontent musically. From Out of Time, which contains plenty of commercialism ("Shiny Happy People," for example), this tune features KRS-1, which makes sense only in the sense that rap in general defies every rule of commercialism and sells like mad. Then again, maybe R.E.M. just likes Kris Parker's initialized stage name. But they're right - the world is collapsing.
"T.S.D.H.A.V." by Loudon Wainwright III
The initials stand for "This Song Don't Have a Video." This is the only Wainwright song that does, in fact, have a video.
"Wake Up All You DJ's" by Rock Michaels Pastorius and the Warning
Groovy bass lines, wild tempo shifts, and sarcastically soft vocals mentioning corporate-sponsor types ("we eat our Life like Mikey") makes this ultrasmart and confidently sassy track a total winner. Any DJ who doesn't play the hook-loaded infecter is an idiot. No DJs play it.
"EMI" by the Sex Pistols
Such well-behaved lads. The punk progenitors were a contradiction of themselves - how could an act whose stance was essentially fuck-everything sign a recording contract? Well, they signed to EMI on October 10, 1976, and were immediately lambasted for doing so. "Anarchy in the U.K." so shocked the tea drinkers across the pond that EMI had second (and third) thoughts. After much bickering between band and label, EMI dumped the nascent act. So the Pistols wrote a song dumping on the label.
"Workin' for MCA" by Lynyrd Skynyrd
"This Is Not a Love Song" by Public Image Ltd.
Years after the EMI war, Pistols front man Johnny "Rotten" Lydon and PiL struck again with "This Is Not a Love Song," which used general and subtle language to say that artistic compromise sucks.
"Music for Money" by Nick Lowe
Just one of the Nickster's swipes at an industry that keeps people like him out on the fringes. The American version of the album was called Pure Pop for Now People. In Britain the title was Jesus of Cool. 'Nuff said.
"Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Part 1)" by Neil Young
An infamous, industry piss fight indirectly involved Young. In 1988 Atlantic wanted to release a CSN&Y reunion album, but David Geffen demanded a cut of the cake, and the whole spat ended up in Fredric Dannen's book Hit Men. Young, who can sometimes be as big a brat as David Geffen, has always been a butcher of sacred bull, and he devoted an entire verse (ahem) of this elaborate eight-minute wonder to sonic corruption. The scenic segment sets a producer against an artist during the recording of a "perfect track" that lacks only "a vocal" and "a song." Somebody bring that producer the new Rolling Stone. Neil "Forever" Young gets extra credit for his "This Note's for You," which skewers MTV, marketing, corporate sponsorship, and anything else he could think of that puts money over music.
"Dear Mr. Geffen" by Rooster Head
David Geffen is an industry legend, the boy wonder of the biz. He owns Jack Warner's famous palace in L.A., he used to do the horizontal bop with Cher, he's had a hand in so many major moves that the historians have lost count. He's either a true genius or a real jerk, depending on how he's treated you. It's reasonable to guess he doesn't have a clue who Rooster Head is, which lends credence to the jerk theory. So the Head writes a musical letter to him: "Dear Mr. Geffen greetings from the band/Mr. Lampshade and the boys would love to shake your hand/We get so excited when you play our songs/We'd be so ecstatic if you took us on." If Geffen released rock this good on his label, he'd be certified a genius.
"Stuffin' Martha's Muffin" by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper
A good case for these musical darts often being hypocritical. Mighty Mojo stuck it to MTV vid-jock Martha Quinn, and later sold his soul to MTV. Elvis isn't the only one who's everywhere.
"Pull My Strings" by the Dead Kennedys
The DK's career skidded to a halt after Jello Biafra and others were busted for including a poster in the Frankenchrist album. The art, Penis Landscape by H.R. Giger, was an especially unattractive, close-up depiction of coitus, although it wasn't easy to tell what it was. Before that, the Kennedys were SRO-ing theaters such as the Cameo, and Frankenchrist was among the band's best work. (That album also included "M.T.V. Get Off the Air.") Nonetheless, Jello and company were angry long before the poster incident, as this track from the Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death compilation evidences. The chorus consists of the word "drool" repeated and followed by the phrase "my payola." The song attacks sell-out dreams ("I ain't no artist/I'm a businessman"), concert shortcomings ("You pay ten bucks to see me/On a fifteen-foot-high stage/Fat-ass bouncers kick the shit/Out of kids who try to dance"), and the way rock stars need big penises and small brains, and concludes, "And when I'm rich/And meet Bob Hope/We'll shoot some golf/And shoot some dope."
"History of Rock n' Roll" by XTC
Only 22 seconds long, this number contains nothing but a few words and four millisecond riffs. And it says plenty. Tagged onto the end of the compilation Rag & Bone Buffet, Andy Partridge covers four decades, just as the title promises. When it comes to industry scheming, airplay inequities, and the business of rock, sometimes the less said the better. Thank you, and good night.
"Mercury Poisoning" by Graham Parker
A somewhat obscure 1979 single, this is hardly the best work of Parker's colorful and prodigious career. But of all the songwriters in the world, none more deserves to be on this list than Mr. Angry. Cursed by inconsistency and an unwillingness to sell out, Parker has chewed the fuzzy end of the lollipop more times than any other major artist. After recording several Seventies albums of mixed worth for Mercury, Parker got out of his contract with the label by turning in The Parkerilla, a double album with three live sides and other superfluity. A few minutes after switching to Arista, Parker issued this hate letter to his former bosses. Interestingly, Arista declined to put its imprint on the promo twelve-inch.
"Zanz Kant Danz" by John Fogerty
No, but former manager Saul Zaentz can sue, forcing the Centerfield album to be recalled so the title of this cut could be changed to "Vanz Kant Danz." When Big John performed live in Miami behind this "comeback" album, he played no CCR songs, thereby making certain Saul wouldn't get a dime of performance-rights money.
"Invasion Hit Parade" by Elvis Costello
With a couple of exceptions during his horns-aplenty period, Declan MacManus has always challenged radio to play his music, and he's always been happy to stick a thorn into the finger of his bosses. When he left Columbia for Warner Bros., his debut for the latter, Spike, featured a stabbing cover: Elvis the Great Entertainer's painted face protruding from a stylized Warner Bros. logo. "Invasion," from Mighty Like a Rose, takes up where "Radio, Radio" left off. Always brash, sometimes snotty, he might not be lovable, but judged by the ability to make excellent records, Costello's aim is usually true. He can be forgiven for Blood & Chocolate, because when it comes to biting heads off, Elvis Costello has the sharpest teeth of all.