College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #940 to #937

dead franken

940. Dead Kennedys, Frankenchrist (1985)

Frankenchrist, the third album from Dead Kennedys, should have been a celebratory return to recording for a band that helped define hardcore punk. The group had withdrawn from active engagement with making their own music, largely to nurture along their record label, Alternative Tentacles, which began as a shingle for their own releases, but was quickly growing to accommodate other acts. After a couple years as music biz honchos, Jello Biafra and his crew were bashing on their instruments again.

The album was received with mixed emotions by the band’s most devoted fans, some taking umbrage at the development of sonic textures more complex than the jet engine blast that typified punk rock of the day. The real complications, though, arose from an element of the album’s packaging. Within the benign condescension of the album sleeve depicting Shriners puttering along a parade route in undersized automobiles, a poster print by H.R. Giger awaited like a poisonous prize. A rendering of Giger’s 1973 piece Work 219: Landscape XX — or, more descriptively, Penis Landscape — was presented with the following warning:

The inside fold out to this record cover is a work of art by H.R. Giger that some people may find shocking, repulsive, or offensive. 

Life can sometimes be that way.

Reportedly, the relentless provocateur Biafra originally wanted the Giger work to serve as the album cover, but saner souls prevailed, relegating Penis Landscape to a more hidden locale. That was problematic enough. The trouble started when a fourteen-year-old girl purchased the album from a California record store, intending is as a gift for her brother, who was three years younger. That didn’t sit well with mom. She contacted the authorities, and eventually the vice squad paid a visit to Alternative Tentacles. Biafra and his cohorts were charged with distributing harmful material to minors. Though the charges were beat in court, the legal bills almost bankrupted the label.

The Shriners sued, too. Evidently, Dead Kennedys failed to secure the proper rights to that image.

As for the music on the album, it’s unmistakably the Dead Kennedys, all right, for good and for not-so-good. Their place as seminal practitioners of nineteen-eighties punk — when the tuneful craft of the nineteen-seventies version of the music largely gave way to an angry, adrenalized, headlong variant — is wholly deserved, and there are compelling arguments in their favor on Frankenchrist. The neck jerking momentum of “Helination” and the machine gun drum blasts on “This Could Be Anywhere (This Could Be Everywhere)” demonstrate a fevered command of the form. And “Chicken Farm,” a condemnation of the U.S. attitude toward Vietnamese refugees, holds some of the Dead Kennedys’ experimentation, sounding agreeably like A Flock of Seagulls yanked through a hardcore filter.

But the band could also be blundering in their political and social commentary, especially when it was framed in smug comedy. The gruesome comic mockery of “Jock-O-Rama (Invasion of the Beef Patrol)” is repellently sour, and  “MTV — Get Off the Air” is simply dumb and didactic, and that’s after the embarrassing sketch at the opening. The album closes with the epic “Stars and Stripes of Corruption,” in which Biafra sings about paying a visit to the nation’s capital in order to urinate on federal buildings and generally survey the landscape with disdain (“The Washington monument pricks the sky/ With flags like pubic hair ringed ’round the bottom”). Sometimes it’s tempting to credit older music with a daring for its time, but even in the nineteen-eighties this was insipid.

The ordeal of Frankenchrist clearly took a toll on the band. After only one more studio album, the band broke up and embarked on a decade-plus of acrimonious lawsuits over credits and royalties.


numan telekon

939. Gary Numan, Telekon (1980)

Gary Numan was working hard at the dawn of the nineteen-eighties. Including Replicas, released with the band Tubeway Army, Numan cranked out three full-length studio albums in less than two years. Later, he’d group these records together, referring to them as his “machine” trilogy. Each one of them topped the U.K. album charts. Telekon was the third and final installment.

In the U.S., Numan had a tougher time garnering commercial attention after his first solo single, “Cars,” made it into the Billboard Top 10. Listening to Telekon, it’s fairly clear why audiences reared on disco and similarly eager pop nuggets would struggle to connect with Numan’s efforts. The album is awash in intensely sleepy dance music. It’s complex and intriguing, but also icy and distant. Album opener “This Wreckage” is elegant and elusive, edging up to a recognizable pop song structure only to veer away into jagged synthesizer cadences. It’s wholly typical of the material on Telekon.

The album is strong and prickly, like a glimmering light that beckons an unsuspecting wanderer into a briar patch. “I’m an Agent” has a Bowie-esque shimmy that evolves into high drama, and “Remember I Was Vapour” has a touch of Lou Reed’s plainspoken poetry to it. Arguably the most intriguing track is “I Dream of Wires,” which plays out as a prized artifact from a fantasyland where Giorgio Moroder produced Laurie Anderson and it hit like the Beatles.

Numan might have confused most U.S. listener with Telekon, but some important figures connected with it immediately. Telekon was one of the albums Prince studied like a religious text, and ghostly Numan fingerprints can be detected on some of the purple genius’s most ambitious works in the era. “There are still people trying to work out what a genius Gary Numan is,” Prince once said, a utterance Numan’s advocates never tired of cited.


squeeze cool

938. Squeeze, Cool for Cats (1979)

Cool for Cats was Squeeze’s second album, but it felt like their proper debut for many of the band members. Their self-titled album, released in 1978, was only a moderate commercial success at home in the U.K. More problematically, the recording of it was largely a miserable experience, largely due to producer John Cale’s insistence on reworking material in ways that edged it away from the band’s sound. When it came time for the sophomore release, Squeeze found a studio collaborator who was more amenable to their predilections, which amounted to conjuring up practically perfect pop songs.

From the lyrics, Squeeze were also a bunch of randy fellas. Lead track “Slap and Tickle” is a spirited romp through the messiness of modern courtship, complete with the please “Never chew a pickle,” and “It’s Not Cricket” recounts barroom tales of debauchery with relaxed glee. And “Touching Me Touching You” is possibly the most buoyant paean to masturbation ever recorded. Squeeze presents all this with such good cheer, it’s easy to overlook the bawdy bits. At least radio programmers did enough to make many of the tracks hits. Three different singles made it into the U.K. Top 40, two of them just missing the top of the chart.

It likely also helped that Squeeze were rock ‘n’ roll classicists at heart. One of the bigger hits was “Up the Junction,” which is smartly observant and built on a lovely pop melody, like a “Penny Lane” grappling with modern problems without the relief of nostalgia. “Goodbye Girl” takes a timeless pop hook and applies new wave polish, and the band romps with pure Jerry Lee Lewis honky-tonk on “Hop, Skip & Jump.” Nearly every track on Cool for Cats feels like it could have been lifted from a previous era, yet simultaneously springs with the vividness of pure invention.


devo duty

937. Devo, Duty Now for the Future (1979)

Devo famously received help from art rock titans Brian Eno and David Bowie in recording their attention-getting debut, Q: Are We Not Me? A: We Are Devo! For the tricky act of following that up, they stayed without the same collaborative sphere, enlisted as producer Ken Scott, who had previously served the same role for Bowie on the amazing stretch of records that ran from Hunky Dory to Pin Ups. He helped the band craft Duty Now for the Future.

The resulting album stretched out Devo’s arch, confrontationally deconstructionist pop music without compromising its eccentricities. Any band fishing for mass approval isn’t going to record a track like “S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain),” which uses a pinging beat to ruthlessly escalate anxious body horrors (“Cold sweat on my collar/ Dripping to my boots/ The waves of nauseous pain/ Sets off the pressure pad alarms”). It might not be the Platonic ideal of Devo songs, but it’s close.

On Duty Now for the Future, Devo consistently exploring synthesized soundscapes without ever getting overly precious. Employing bleeps with greater prominence than crunching guitars doesn’t diminish the punk energy. The delightfully intense “Wiggly World” and the thrusting, fervid “Strange Pursuit” are straight out of a sweat-smeared club, albeit one with irritable robots as proprietors. The band also demonstrates an uncommon skill for controlled yet loopy explorations, as on the playful modernized surf rock of “Pink Pussycat” and the electronic percolator “Timing X.”

As usual, the album was merely part of the story, serving as a launching pad for all sorts of postmodern tomfoolery. On the subsequent tour, Devo became advocates for the spoof religion the Church of the SubGenius, going so far as to serve as their own opening act under the guise of Dove (The Band of Love). The plan stood as a sort of wicked opposition to any strategies that would develop popular appeal. But one album later, they stumbled on a huge hit anyway.


To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

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