College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #896 to #893

bananarama

896. Bananarama, Bananarama (1984)

The compromises of “Robert De Niro’s Waiting” exemplify the dilemma Bananarama faced during the creative process. In initial conception, the track from the trio’s second album — when was self-titled at the insistence of their label — was about a young woman who mentally escapes into fantasies of a famous boyfriend because of the trauma she endures when sexually assaulted by an acquaintance. As it was developed, though, the darker elements were largely shorn away, leaving it as an innocuous little pop song with only the barest hints of anything more troubling than an unlikely celebrity crush.

In interviews conducted during their nineteen-eighties heyday, there are plenty of signs that the members of Bananarama —Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey, and Keren Woodward — were firm and unapologetic in their viewpoints, especially as related to the most demeaning double standards of the music business. On record, though, it was mostly genteel and pedestrian, presumably because that was the best strategy for finding a lucrative place on the charts. There are sawdust shavings of the music that band wanted to make all over Bananarama, but the tracks are often buffed to safety. “Rough Justice” is clearly a protest song, but it’s unbearably slushy, a quality accentuated by the ghastly mellow saxophone that laced throughout.

Among the album’s high points are the seductive, sprightly amble “Dream Baby,” the bouncy “State I’m In,” and “Hot Line to Heaven,” which hints at trouble under its icy demeanor (“It seems to me that you’ve got it made/ But you never show that you’re afraid/ Now the voices in your head they make you scream/ And drive you mad”). There’s little doubt, though, that the strongest track is the moody bauble “Cruel Summer,” which became a Top 10 hit in the U.S., spurred by saturation airplay on MTV.

In addition to impressive record sales, Bananarama got the group a heightened level of fame. The recognition even extended to subjects of their songs. When “Robert De Niro’s Waiting” had a healthy run on the U.K. charts (in their homeland, it even outpaced “Cruel Summer”), the man in question was filming Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in London. Naturally, he asked to meet the band that was pining for him all over the radio.

 

 

bow last

895. Bow Wow Wow, Last of the Mohicans (1982)

When Bow Wow Wow captured the attention of music fans in the early nineteen-eighties, a sizable amount of the attention was focused on lead singer Anabella Lwin. That was absolutely by design, proof that the strategizing of inveterate impresario Malcolm McLaren was working. The former Sex Pistols manager assembled Bow Wow Wow by stealing Adam Ant’s band away from them and pairing the musicians with Lwin, who’d been discovered, at the age of thirteen, singing along to the radio at a laundromat. Make no mistake, though, it was drummer David Barbarossa who was the true star of the band.

The lead track of Bow Wow Wow’s EP Last of the Mohicans, their third release overall, makes it abundantly clear that Barbarossa’s propulsive, thundering work on the drums was a critical distinguishing factor. A cover of “I Want Candy,” originally recorded by the Strangeloves in 1965, took the first version’s tribal drum sound and made it fierce, crisp, and lean without sacrificing a bit of impact. The track is pretty irresistible, and presumably the accompanying music video’s images of Lwin cavorting in the surf in a soaked tank top carried a certain appeal for some. She was only fifteen at the time, which didn’t discourage McLaren and others from putting her at the forefront of promotional art, usually in a provocative state of undress. The cover of Last of the Mohicans even reused the photo from the band’s debut album, which depicted Lwin naked (if strategically posed) in a copy of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (which translates to The Luncheon on the Grass). Lwin’s mother had already complained about that particular shot, to no avail.

Barbarossa’s drums are again explosive on “Louis Quatorze,” but Lwin does prove her value with commanding vocals on “Cowboy.” Demonstrating that Bow Wow Wow might not have all that much to offer in the long run, the fourth of the EP’s four tracks, “Mile High Club,” strikes me a little more than a wan Blondie impression. The release essentially ends by inadvertently posing a question about Bow Wow Wow’s creative range.

That question was answered in short order. One year later, Bow Wow Wow released their final album, When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going. By the fall of 1983, tensions in the band led to Lwin’s ouster, and the remaining members formed a new group called Chiefs of Relief, exciting no one.

 

 

toni word

894. Toni Basil, Word of Mouth (1982)

Toni Basil’s debut album was a long time coming. The performer released her first solo single in 1966, the same year she choreographed the dances for Head, the oddball cinematic showcase for the Monkees directed by Bob Rafelson and co-written by Jack Nicholson. In the film, she joined Davy Jones to dance in the number “Daddy’s Song.” That movie led directly to acting gigs in Easy Rider (which earned Nicholson his first Oscar nomination) and Five Easy Pieces (directed by Rafelson and featuring Nicholson’s second performance to earn Academy attention). Through the nineteen-seventies, Basil continued choreographing, acting, and performing, including several instances in the early years of Saturday Night Live.

Basil’s career started on its turn to brief pop stardom when she discovered a song called “Kitty,” performed by the band Racey. After a reworking that necessitating a title change to “Mickey,” Basil recorded the song and conceived of a music video — before the time that such promotional accompaniments were common — in which she performed it while wearing the cheerleader uniform she’d kept from her days as a student at Las Vegas High School. The opening track and lead single on Basil’s debut album, Word of Mouth, “Mickey” went on to top the Billboard chart and become one of the songs that defined the rise of the MTV era of pop music.

The rest of Word of Mouth is a true musical hodgepodge, relying on covers such as Basil’s exceeding weird take on David Essex’s “Rock On,” which finds it spruced up, it seems, for the emerging breakdance culture. “Little Red Book” is more successful, if only because Basil trilling about heartbreak is more convincing. She also leans on her pals in Devo, covering several of their songs (including “Pity You,” which is remodeled as “You Gotta Problem”).

There’s greater satisfaction in the more original material. “Shoppin’ from A to Z” is one of Basil’s proper co-writing credits on the album, and it gets a surprisingly amount of mileage out of chanting a alphabetical grocery list.  On “Nobody,” Basil offers propulsive testimony about ambivalence between the party life and solitude (“Where’s that energy coming from?/ Can I afford to rest from my fun?/ Part of me is leaping, leaping about/ Part of me is dying, dying to get out’). It might also be about cocaine.

Basil’s time as a denizen of the pop charts was short-lived. A self-titled album followed in 1983, but that was the end of her recording career, except one more collaboration with Devo. She provides lead vocals on the track “The Only One,” which the band recorded for the now-forgotten (and then-barely-noticed) late-eighties horror film Slaughterhouse Rock.

 

 

godafthers hit

893. The Godfathers, Hit By Hit (1986)

I suspect most music fans who know of the U.K. band the Godfathers think of the 1988 release Birth, School, Work, Death as their debut album. I certainly did for ages, certain that the slate-hard rock that banged out of its grooves was always their insolent introduction. That’s not entirely inaccurate, at least to the degree that an album is a start-to-finish statement, recorded with the intention of hanging together. Technically, though, the Godfathers’ first full-length, Hit by Hit, arrived two years earlier. Cobbled together largely from singles the band had released on their own label, it’s bruising, brash, insistent. The Godfathers were one of the few bands who could open an album with a song called “I Want Everything” and still make it seem like they were introducing themselves with the most demure version of their collective being.

“This Damn Nation” is typical of the band. It takes a clear, unequivocal, and fairly nihilistic stand, then delivers its argument with brutally simplistic lyrics (“This Damn Nation/ This frustration/ This Damn Nation/ This frustration”), obscuring the more basic qualities with the sheer force of the music. It’s made for slamdancing and punching the air, with only the barest whiffs of thought requested or required. That can be wearying, especially on those tracks, such as  “I’m Unsatisfied,” that simply push along with bludgeoning indifference to nuance.

Some of the redundancy can be forgiven. This is a first release, after all. But the real promise of the band is found in the places where they deviate at least a little bit. “I Want You” has a nifty nineteen-sixties psychedelic tinge without sounding retro or derivative, and the instrumental “John Barry” sounds like an audition to fulfill the named film composer’s role in a cooler take on James Bond (a long-running film franchise that was then mired in its brief Timothy Dalton nadir). Early as it was in the band’s career, the need to be more playful was already evident. The application of their blunt force treatment to the handiwork of a far more prickly artist — on a cover of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” — is the evidence that cements the case.

 

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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