College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 18


18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter

When we wrote up the radio scripts for these countdowns, one of the surest topics was the derivation of band names. This was well before an artful Wikipedia search could provide all the information anyone could want, even on the most obscure bands. Obviously, we expend a lot of airtime explaining how, say, The Cult got their name, but when the chart featured bands with handles like Toad the Wet Sprocket and the Close Lobsters, taking to the airwaves like junior etymologists had a certain amount of value. It certainly didn’t hurt our motivation that going through such an explanation took up a respectable amount of airtime, always useful when a vexing number of the acts on the countdown absolutely defied any and all research efforts. While we were usually able to find a reasonable amount of information about the U.K. band the Mighty Lemon Drops, as I recall, we weren’t able to track down the specific inspiration behind their band name.

Thanks to The Trouser Press Record Guide, we knew that the band originally went by the name the Sherbert Monsters, indicating a predilection for atypically powerful sweets. Before this album every crossed the threshold of the station, I also knew that the Mighty Lemon Drops were responsible for the song that, in certain moments of passionate hyperbole, I was willing to call the best single of the nineteen-eighties (it’s also a song that turns up in the strangest of places). So having a new album from the band was a blessing. It always took a surprising amount of willpower to resist playing the same handful of favorite bands or songs on every on-air shift, so it was almost a relief to have a record from one of those bands in rotation. Regularly returning to the band show after show was now acceptable, even encouraged.

I remembered Laughter as a disappointing album. I now think I was confusing it with the follow-up from 1991, Sound, or maybe their final album, Ricochet, which arrived a few months after its predecessor (or maybe both). A fresh listen to Laughter reveals that it’s actually quite strong.

Laughter was a transitional album for the Mighty Lemon Drops. Original bassist Tony Linehan quit the band during the recording process, getting replaced by Marcus Williams, who’d spent time with Julian Cope’s backing band. More importantly, the band was actively trying to shed the sound that had previously defined them. It would take devoted digging to find a review of any of the band’s first three albums that didn’t invoke Echo and the Bunnymen, an artist that lead guitarist and chief song writer David Newton claimed he didn’t even care for, much less want to emulate. Tired of the comparison, Newton pulled the band in a slightly different direction, shedding the swirling gloominess that tinted previous albums for a sharper, bright sound on Laughter. The resulting music probably owed more to the then-emerging Madchester scene than any performers that haunted college radio with their lovely agony in the earlier part of the decade.

First and foremost, Newton crafted terrific pop hooks. Lead single “Into the Heart of Love” is built around a simple but compelling guitar line which largely cedes the verses to the rhythm section then charges back in to accompany the soaring lines “It’s my decision/ And my reason” at the start of the chorus. It’s not the sort of song that grabs the listener the way that “Inside Out” does, but it insinuates itself, generating its addictive qualities through sly, smart repetition. “One in a Million” is reminiscent of the sort of cerebral pop song XTC had recently transitioned to, and “Where Do We Go From Heaven” has an unapologetic lushness to it. The album is clearly enlivened by the band’s collective need to prove something, to set themselves apart from the rigid expectations imposed on them. Luckily, they bring a craftsmanship to the album that backs up those ambitions. At times, it seems like the had the immodest ambition to build the perfect pop album, and, in the throes of certain songs, I can briefly believe they accomplished just that.

Still, after all this time and with all these extra resources, I can’t figure out definitively how they landed on that odd band name.

20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News

17 thoughts on “College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 18

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