College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #884 to #881

del stand

884. Del Fuegos, Stand Up (1987)

Time was running out for the Del Fuegos. Signed by the Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash Records, the Boston band were fully expected to inspire the same fervor from a national audience as they generated in their hometown, where they were the standouts of a local scene which would soon evolve into one of the proving grounds for nineteen-nineties alternative rock. Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp were routinely placing singles in the Billboard Top 10 at the time (they had two apiece in 1987). There was plenty of room for straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll bands on commercial radio. Despite a hearty label push and the mixed blessing of a starring role in a Miller beer commercial, the Del Fuegos hadn’t really broken through with their first two albums. So there was a lot riding on the third effort, Stand Up.

Working with their regular producer, Mitchell Froom (who presided over one of 1987’s most inescapable songs, the Los Lobos cover of “La Bamba”), Del Fuegos cranked out a batch of barroom rockers burnished with a studio sheen. Stand Up is solidly crafted and achingly safe. It’s as if they were hedging their bets, figuring that if they got another soft response from record buyers, at least they had material that could serve as an audition for another beer ad.

On Stand Up, the Del Fuegos are at their best when they keep it relatively simple, as on the bluesy album opener “Wear It Like a Cape.” There’s a comfort there that’s missing on much of the rest of the album. “Long Slide (For an Out)” is so packed with layers and elements that it is reminiscent of the Eurythmics’ “Would I Lie to You,” with Chess Records instead of Stax as the inspiration, and — more problematically —  without the mix of discipline and sly reinvention perfected by Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox. “A Town Called Love” has a similar put-everything-out-there vibe, with similarly drab results. When the album falters most gravely, the result is the bad Tom Waits impression “He Had a Lot to Drink Today,” or the laughable flashes of hard rock posturing on “News from Nowhere”

Except for the most faithful (including, clearly, a decent number of college radio programmers), no one was particularly happy about Stand Up. Following its lackluster rollout, Slash Records dropped the Del Fuegos, and guitarist Warren Zanes and drummer Woody Giessman both exited the band. A reconfigured version of the group released one more album — Smoking in the Fields, on RCA Records — before calling it quits, at least until the eventual siren song of college rock reunion cash-ins unexpectedly arrived a couple decades later.

 

 

easterhouse

883. Easterhouse, Contenders (1986)

There were plenty of bands staking out strong political positions in the nineteen-eighties, enraged to action by the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the ongoing moral crime of apartheid in South Africa, and all the dismaying information shared by Amnesty International as that organization’s prominence rose like mercury on a sweltering summer day. Few groups, though, were as unabashed about laying out their shared manifesto quite like the English post-punk punchers Easterhouse. Within the opening paragraphs of a 1986 Spin magazine profile, the fact that every member of the band was a full-fledged member of the Revolutionary Communist Party was casually offered up as an interesting tidbit. This was miles away from a Teen Beat clip-and-save page revealing that Simon Le Bon’s favorite color is blue.

Contenders, the full-length debut from Easterhouse, puts their politics right at the forefront of their adrenalized sonic assault. The songs sometimes get a little didactic — realistically, how could they not? — but sterling musicianship prevails a laudable amount of the time. The material is catchy and sharp enough that the hooks have already sunk in before the geopolitical lessons elbow their way in. “Nineteen Sixty-Nine” may consider the Northern Ireland riots of the title year with a term paper efficiency, but the enveloping slink of the bands sound — a little Echo and the Bunnymen and a lot of Joy Division — softens the lesson.

The jabbing guitar line of “Whistling in the Dark” evokes political punk forefathers the Clash, and the low rumble thunder of “Cargo of Souls” feels like Easterhouse is just starting to find a way to carry their influences forward into something sharply new. With clamorous authority, “Get Back to Russia” emphasizes the importance of pushing forward with potentially unpopular positions, even in the face of derision (“They tell you in England/ We’re all entitled to a say/ But nothing too extreme/ That’s not the English way”). The title refers to the commonplace dismissive counter to the band’s shared politics, and the song emphasizes the importance in maintaining vigilance in the face of that phrase. When a country is in trouble, the song points out, that’s when you fight the hardest for it.

 

lucy undone

882. The Lucy Show, …Undone (1985)

Presumably, the writers at Billboard didn’t quite know what to make of a band like the Lucy Show at the time …Undone was released. Though hardly a publication that went long in their record reviews, Billboard‘s assessment of the Lucy Show’s first full-length was strikingly brief: “British quartet debuts with a well crafted but rather dour set of trim rock originals, given urgency by its sober lyrics and taut arrangements.” The same issue offered significantly more words and enthusiasm for the concurrently released Ray Parker Jr. album, which was said to be “Tough enough for the dance floor, but slick enough for CHR.”

The assessment by Billboard was accurate, yet woefully incomplete. The debut by the Lucy Show was perfectly suited to the still-emerging college radio sound. Opening track and lead single “Ephemeral (This is No Heaven)” is emblematic, bringing a dreamy quality to a catchy, chiming track. It’s exploratory, emotionally piquant, and conveys an intellectual assurance. It’s no wonder the record immediately connected with student programmers. As if emphasizing the perfect fit of …Undone“Resistance” has a tingly touch of R.E.M., and both “The White Space” and “Better on the Hard Side” echo the romantic anguish of the Cure.

“The Twister” delivers a dizzying morass of synthesized sounds, coupling the music to fairly oblique social commentary lyrics (“You can laugh/ Don’t you laugh too hard/ We’ll fill you up with confidence/ And pack you off to war”). It can seem as though the Lucy Show is actively trying to figure out who they are, trying on different guises. Rather than resulting in a muddle, the approach gives the album a different sort of vigor. It’s not unpredictable, exactly, since there’s definitely a moody, lush through line to the sound, but there is a sense of rippling nuance from track to track.

The album did well on college radio, but neither it nor its singles (including the peppy “Undone”) made much of an impression on the commercial charts. The Lucy Show likely believed they’d made a good start. The label disagreed. A&M Records dropped the band at the end of the year, leaving the Lucy Show to scramble to find a home for their follow-up album, eventually landing on the Australian independent label Big Time Records.

 

 

10cc_bloody

881. 10cc, Bloody Tourists (1978)

Bloody Tourists is officially the sixth studio album credited to 10cc. It’s more accurate to think of it as the sophomore effort of the group that reconvened after founding figures Kevin Godley and Lol Creme departed, in part because they’re grown frustrated with their bandmates’ comparatively conventional tastes. Godley and Creme wanted to craft operatic pop opuses. On the basis on the 10cc found on Bloody Tourists, the remaining band members were more invested in weirdo pastiches that sloppily poured the wine of diverse music styles into the foggy chalice of upstanding British rock. The album title evidently refers to the band as they traipse blithely, somewhat ironically around the musical globe.

The album’s biggest hit is also its most egregious act of cynical appropriation. “Dreadlock Holiday” adopts a generic reggae sound in recounting the travails of outsiders vacationing among the ruffians on a Caribbean isle (“I heard a dark voice beside of me/ And I looked round in a state of fright/ I saw four faces, one mad/ A brother from the gutter”). The eventual scoring of some high quality weed (“She said I’ve got it you want it/ My harvest is the best”) redeems the vacation in a different eye-rolling deployment of cliche. Although it fell shy of the Top 10 in the U.S., “Dreadlock Holiday” was a chart-topping hit in the U.K. and several other countries.

The musical wanderlust also burbles up in the music box preciousness of “Tokyo” (“Kimonos and geisha girls/ From grade one, down to three/ Oh Tokyo, oh Tokyo/ Oh Tokyo, I love you”) and the quasi-calypso oddity “From Rochdale to Ocho Rios.” Even when there’s a less obvious geographic tie, the tracks meander strange paths. “The Anonymous Alcoholic” opens with just a a touch of woozy country twang before evolving into a disco riff and then back again. Although “Reds in My Bed” doesn’t pilfer any tones from Moscow (if anything, it sounds a little like Squeeze), it takes its own unique side trip into topics of global concern  (“And while the Cold War exists/ I’ll stay warm with the commissar’s daughter”).

And sometimes the explorations are yet plainer. “For You and I” is a clear descendent of 10cc’s major hit “The Things We Do for Love,” which means it’s just a softer version of Steely Dan’s icy, elegant pop. Since the band bops around, they occasionally alight on material that’s slightly more interesting. “Take These Chains” isn’t fantastic, but it could pass for a lesser Dave Edmunds offering. For a band wearing out their passport, that’s a better destination than most.

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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