College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #864 to #861


864. Visage, Visage (1980)

The new wave band Visage had their origins in the simple, noble act of trying to bring David Bowie music to the people. Steve Strange and Rusty Egan (the lead singer and drummer, respectively) successively set up shop at the club Billy’s, in the Soho district of London, and then Blitz, located in Covent Garden. They hosted theme nights, including one devoted to Bowie that was popular enough that the genius chameleon himself enlisted several regulars — and the record-spinners — to appear in the music video for “Ashes to Ashes.”  No fools, Strange and Egan also regularly added their own tracks to the playlist, eventually catching the ear of Buzzcocks producer Martin Rushent, who was signing acts for his fledgling label, Genetic Records. Rushert’s shingle didn’t last long enough to issue a Visage record, but the band’s stylishly booted feet were in the door. By the end of 1980, their self-titled debut was released on Polydor.

Visage is a beautiful, charmed artifact of its time, resplendent in seductive synths and pulsing with post-punk focus. A cousin to other British pop of the era, the album is also markedly its own swirling symphony of electronic music techniques. Some of the airy drive of disco is present, but it’s well into the transformation process into the dance music of the eighties. “Blocks on Blocks” prowls along with flinty assurance, segueing smartly into the cascading instrumental “The Dancer.” Befitting the band’s club origins, the record shifts and shuffles like its trying to keep a night going, developing a consistency while also shifting dynamics just enough to add a little sonic spice.

Adding distinction, the lyrics traipse away from more standard pop fare, such as romantic pining or snarling disaffection. “Tar”  is a grooving riff on cigarettes (“Nicotine stain on your finger/ Try to wash off but it still linger/ Cigarette holder just a joke/ Don’t really take bad away from smoke”), and “Visa-Age”  uses the painful punning of its title as a starting point to extol the pleasures of going on holiday (“Leave the trash, of your life behind/ It’s time to move, shake those ties that bind”). Even when sticking with the pleasures and woes of love, Visage opts for a more novel approach. “Mind of a Toy” equates the discarding of a youthful plaything to relationship rejection (“When a child throws down a toy/ When I was new you wanted me/ Now I’m old you no longer see me”).

Visage made some ripples on the U.K. charts (the high drama “Fade to Grey” was a Top 10 hit), but the band may be more notable for the repercussions it spawned. Billy Currie was part of the band during an uncertain period with his main gig in Ultravox, follow the departure of lead singer John Foxx. In Visage, he met Midge Ure, who he then recruited to step in to take frontman duties in Ultravox, leading to a string of influential U.K. hits in the eighties. Guitarist John McGeoch, who previously logged time in Magazine, went on to join Siouxsie and the Banshees, and bassist Barry Adamson — also a Magazine alumnus — found his way to Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds.



skinny mind

863. Skinny Puppy, Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse (1986)

Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse was the second full-length studio release from Skinny Puppy and the band’s first after their label’s freshly inked distribution deal meant the music would get a more robust push. That also meant they were more likely to come under the churlish scrutiny of the self-appointed defenders of youthful music fans’ precarious innocence. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) put the album on their list of the ten most grievous offenders in late 1987, alongside for more prominent recordings, such as The Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls. Evidently the main problem was a cover image including a blurry snapshot of a pornographic movie playing on a television. If the perpetually aghast moral arbiters had slipped the album out of its sleeve and onto a turntable, they surely started to shudder over the abrasive sounds that resulted.

A decent amount of the material on Mind sounds relatively tame now, and not just because a track like “One Time One Place” sounds as if it’s hammering out the template for the Nine Inch Nails offerings that would crossover just a few years later. There’s a lot of fuss to Skinny Puppy’s cacophony of caustic tones. “Stairs and Flowers” is a ratty bird’s nest of sounds, pushing against the safety of pop music, sure, but also becoming an uninspired mash. Then there’s the odd side effect of so much material being shoved into each song that weird echoes come into play, as when “Three Blind Mice” opens with a synth riff that almost sounds as if its waiting for the Thompson Twins to start trilling. The aural mirage drops quickly when Nivek Ogre’s vocals show up instead, of course.

Equally inevitably, some elements are arresting and cool. I’m fond of the way the anxious Twilight Zone samples fit up against the faulty ignition rhythms of “200 Years.” And the grinding guitar of “Dig It” puts hard rock muscularity into a excitingly different context. The industrial grind of Skinny Puppy could get tedious quickly, but there was always just enough murky inspiration in there to make something stand out.



slick dreams

862. Grace Slick, Dreams (1980)

It’s admittedly exhausting to track the membership shifts of Jefferson Airplane and its many offshoots. The Wikipedia page for Jefferson Starship currently lists twenty-seven different members over the years and lists twenty-six distinct lineups. By all appearances, Grace Slick was in between two separate tours of duty with the band when she recorded and released Dreams, her second solo album. It’s probable that she expected this to be beginning on an ongoing, uninterrupted path forward as her own performer. Instead, she was back with her compatriots within a year, which was mere precursor to yet more dire collaborations to come.

As heard on Dreams, Slick is a competent, but relatively indistinct performer. The album is somewhat of its time, seemingly trying to vaguely replicate the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s bazillion selling records without have the tumultuous energy to really pull it off. Roughly the first half of the records was crafted entirely by outside songwriters, which probably contributes to the sense of the drift. The album opening title cut sounds like an audition to provide songs for The Greatest Showman, just forty years too early.Written by Sean Delaney — who was a go-to creator for the members of Kiss as they cranked out albums at a headlong page in the nineteen-seventies — the song is theatrical, eager, and a little numbing.

Slick’s own compositions begin with “Seasons,” the last track on side one. (It’s sometimes credited online as the handiwork of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, but their own “Seasons” is a very different song.) It sounds a little like Slick is trying to merge the fulsome folk rock of her heyday with the tangy Eastern European flavors of a Bolshevik novel (“Then the sun comes high and the spring rains come and go/ The summer air so hot it melts the Russian snow/ The fields are brown there’s no rain to make them grow/ And the old ones sigh, the heat has made them tired and slow”). It’s odd, but at least it feels unique. The rest of Slick’s writing is piled up on the second side. The mild blues rock number “Do It the Hard Way” is agreeably reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s seventies work, but a lot of material blurs together. And then “Garden of Man” arrives and tips the album over into full-scale meandering hippie mode (“Harmony is in your hand/ If we will believe/ Sweet Promises of fantasy/ That comes from every land”).

Slick delivered two more solo albums in the next few years, but it appeared her heart wasn’t really in it. From the outside, it seemed she was more comfortable as a co-pilot.



washington squares

861. The Washington Squares, The Washington Squares (1987)

In the New York City of the nineteen-eighties, still hungover from the bludgeoning jabs of punk and the stimulated extravagance of disco, the retro stylings of a genial folk trio must have felt like a cool compress on a throbbing headache. Playing around the city, the Washington Squares donned matching striped shirts and rakish berets while strumming out their spirited ditties. The band’s official bio emphasizes a lightly ironic, post-modern tone to their music, but it’s difficult to discern in the actual material on their self-titled debut. Whether refreshing or stale, they sound like they were scooped up from the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early nineteen-sixties and dropped without provisions into the pop war zone of hair metal and post-post-punk that existed twenty-five years later.

“Can’t Stop the Rain” offers solid folk pop with a touch of eighties studio polish, and the easygoing “You Can’t Kill Me” bears a resemblance to Bob Dylan’s material when he’s at his flinty loosest. In general, the Washington Squares keep the music upbeat, quick strumming all the better for foot-tapping singalongs, I suppose. “Samson & Delilah” revs like a humming motorcar, and “Lay Down Your Arms” has some of the jaunty charm that defined the best of the Housemartins. The Washington Squares was produced by Mitch Easter, the master of crisp college rock records, and the record has a eager, warm quality that couldn’t be faked.

The Washington Squares released their sophomore album, Fair and Square, in 1989. That proved to be their last release, in part because of looming tragedy. Band member Bruce Jay Paskow was a recovering heroin addict, and he discovered he’d contracted AIDS, presumably from shared needles years before. He died in 1994. The remaining members recruited some fellow musicians and played one last show in tribute to their fallen friend that year.



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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