College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #892 to #889

spandau glory

892. Spandau Ballet, Journeys to Glory (1981)

Determining the quality of Spandau Ballet’s music is a matter of taste, but the band’s adeptness with stealth publicity is worthy of reverential study. Growing out of a group formed by Islington high school chums, Spandau Ballet went through multiple iterations before settling on the Euro-synth sound that prevailed on their recorded work. They were masters of anti-publicity, playing shows announced with a bare minimum of advertising and releasing singles with no forewarning. The band’s debut release, Journeys to Glory, followed the playbook, arriving in shops with a stealthiness that only made it more coveted.

Music journalist Robert Elms was one of the key coconspirators in the band’s myth-making. It was Elms who suggested the name Spandau Ballet in the first place, supposedly after spying it in bathroom wall graffiti in a Berlin nightclub. Elms advocated for the band in print and penned the liner notes for the debut release, indulging in amazingly florid language to describe the band’s sound:

Picture angular glimpses of sharp youth cutting strident shapes through the curling gray of 3-AM. Hear the soaring joy of immaculate rhythms, the sublime glow of music for heroes driving straight to the heart of dance. Follow the stirring vision and the rousing sound on towards journeys to glory.

Music fans were uniquely primed for this sort of hyperbole coming out of the pretentious excesses of the nineteen-seventies, but anyone who read that and immediately opted against even dropping the needle down on the record would have surely been forgiven, or even commended for their good taste. The irony there is that the music of Spandau Ballet was the epitome of tastefulness, tagged the jagged fury of krautrock, the abandon of disco, and the fevered anguish of soul and melding it into a lovely sorbet.

“To Cut a Long Story Short” puts a bounding rhythm and slaloming keyboard lines to the service of a blithely disposable pop song, and “Mandolin” is thumping post-disco could hardly be further away from the sounds drawn from the title instrument. The precise construction of individual tracks can leave them overly mechanical, but it’s also a clear sign of the skill levels of all involved. When it really works, as on the smooth, tight pop song “Confused,” it’s as if Spandau Ballet is inventing eighties music all on their own, right down to the throwaway lyrics (“Face it, boy; you’ve had your time to choose/ Come on now, you got no time to lose”). When they really let their creativity roam, it produces material that even better. “Age of Blows” is an instrumental which sounds like “Paint It Black” imagined by the alternate reality version of Billy Idol who was somehow a founding member of Kraftwerk

Like most debuts, Journeys to Glory sounds a little like a band just on the verge of figuring things out. More than most, the album quivers with a sense of eager opportunism, in the best sense. This was a band with some major hits in them.

 

 

swans love

891. Swans, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” 12″ (1988)

Whatever motivation art rock provocateurs Swans might have had for recording their own versions of the seminal Joy Division song “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” their timing was impeccable. Fresh off the album Children of God, the band punched into a couple different New York area studios in the first month of 1988 and recorded material that was seemingly meant to continue the process of smoothing the edges of their previous work. They recorded more sedate, acoustic-based version of songs from Children of God and also took a turn with the gloomy classic. Two different takes on “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were released: the single with a red cover featured vocals by Swans mainstay Michael Gira, and the single with a black cover put band newcomer Jarboe at the lead microphone. Eventually, a 12-inch single put the two tracks together, along with other material from the January sessions.

Swans’ versions of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” arrived roughly concurrently with Substance, the first career-spanning collection of Joy Division songs. As opposed to constant recycling of back catalogs that happens today, Substance was the first album to bear Joy Division’s name in seven years (except for a pair of Peel Sessions releases that were as strategically elusive as everything released under that banner). Interest in the band spiked, and Swans were right there with a dutiful, loving cover song of the post-punk pioneers’ signature track. Swans parlayed their unexpected tribute band success into a major label contract.

As for the two Swans takes on the song, the black version is arguably a little stronger, if only because Jarboe’s vocals confer an ethereal quality while simultaneously heightening the already beautifully overwrought emotions of the song.  It still makes for an odd match — at once serenely reverential and ironically distant — but that was no deterrent for college radio programmers, happy to have any Joy Division they could get.

 

 

Billy No

890. Billy Squier, Don’t Say No (1981)

Don’t Say No was the second solo album released by Billy Squier. Formerly a central member of the band Piper — which released two albums in the nineteen-seventies — Squier was signed by Capitol Records, who were sure he make a major impact on the rock charts at a time which certain music fans, entirely worn down by the disco revolution, craved the comparative simplicity of a keening vocals leading to fiery guitar solos. As someone who was there, I assure you that the label got exactly what they wished for. For better or worse, Don’t Say No is absolutely the sound of nineteen-eighties rock radio.

The album was co-produced by Reinhold Mack, who was in the midst of a long run with the band Queen (including their most ridiculous contribution to the broader culture). The result is a big batch of rock songs that are so polished and buffed that they cast a blinding reflection. Album opener “In the Dark” is the benchmark, combining grinding but undeniably tuneful guitar-driven music with lyrics that are flatfooted in their simplicity and yet weirdly inscrutable (“You never listen to the voices inside/ They fill your ears as you run to a place to hide/ You’re never sure if the illusion is real/ You pinch yourself but the memories are all you feel”). It’s a track designed to accompany a shirtless guy washing his sports car in the driveway.

To its credit, Don’t Say No often sounds like a career-spanning hits collection. Squier deviates just enough from track to track that it seems as if its the result of years of mildly engaged explorations. “My Kinda Lover” has just the right amount of glam rock genial sleaze, and “Whadda You Want From Me” is strident with express lane momentum. As much as Squier’s own sensibility, a clear influence of Led Zeppelin unifies the album. It’s beneficial when it inspires Squier to loosen up, as on the title cut‘s echoes of the rambunctious freedom of Physical Graffiti. Elsewhere, the sonic resemblance is a little problematic. On “You Know What I Like,” Squier’s vocals veer into the zone of pure impersonation.

The requisite ballads are less successful, even if “Nobody Knows” gets some odd, morbid poignancy points for being about John Lennon, written before his death, but released just a few months after he was shot outside his home. And the fact that “The Stroke” is unquestionably the album’s biggest hit — and Squier’s first foray in the Billboard Top 40 — doesn’t prevent it from sounding horribly dopey now. It actually didn’t sound all that great then. To Squier’s credit, the low points on Don’t Say No are atypical. It’s a far more solid rock album than many of his direct peers were crafting at the time.

 

 

cope nation

889. Julian Cope, My Nation Underground (1988)

Julian Cope’s reputation as a cantankerous iconoclast is solid enough that it’s a little jarring to hear him kick off an album with a cover of a chipper nineteen-sixties hit. The Vogues’ “5 O’Clock World” wasn’t as well known circa 1988 as it would be a few years later — after it received prime placement on the hit sitcom The Drew Carey Show —  but it was still the former leader of the Teardrop Explodes belting out cute lyrics about the allure of the quitting whistle with unabashed commitment. For good measure, he expertly threaded in a some modified lyrics from Petula Clark’s “I Know a Place.” Cope, it seemed, was interested in playing nice for a while.

There was incentive to putting his shoulder into creating music with wider appeal. Some uncommon commercial and critical love accompanied the release of his previous album — Saint Julian, from 1987 — and Cope surely thought he could ride that crest a little higher up the charts. Ron Fair, the Island Records A&R man who signed Cope, was recruited to produce the new album. There were limited previous production efforts on Fair’s resume, but his shared responsibility in future atrocities by the Black Eyed Peas provides adequate insight into the sensibility he brought to the project. My Nation Underground was meant to be Cope’s breakthrough, but it’s more akin to the prior year’s Psychedelic Furs misfire, Midnight to Midnight, in its repurposing of a complicated artist into an audience-friendly form that’s the most ill of fits.

In keeping with the Midnight to Midnight model, on which the stellar “Heartbreak Beat” transcended the clumsiness, Cope’s album had a tremendous lead single. “Charlotte Anne” sounds at first like any number of pop songs that put a female name in the title, but the lyrics gradually reveal themselves to center on more sinister wonderings, specifically false messiahs, which becomes even more clear when the original title, “Charlatan,” is revealed. Cope’s largely disowned My Nation Underground (while taking full responsibility for its faults), but he’s still willing to concede “Charlotte Anne” is the album’s “one good song.” Supposedly, a BBC Radio 1 programmer immediately gave the track a repeat spin the first time he played it on air.

The instant encore wasn’t likely to happen with anything else on My Nation Underground. The strain is evident across the album, notably on the sprawling title cut, the fervently insistent “Easter Everywhere,” and “I’m Not Losing Sleep,” which sounds like something Cope found while rummaging through the dumpster outside of Peter Gabriel’s So recording sessions. It’s all clearly straight from the mind from the Cope, but also confused and watered-down.

If the record was ultimately unsatisfying for both the artist and his fans, it at least got any delusions of unlikely crossover out of Cope’s head. After My Nation Underground, he was free to wander his own weird pathways.

 

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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