College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #836 to #833

john fool

836. John Cougar, American Fool (1982)

John Cougar was frustrated with the music business grind when he toiled over his fifth album, American Fool. In truth, the singer-songwriter who was born with — and would soon readopt — the last name Mellencamp spent almost his whole career feeling cantankerous about his interactions with the business people who ran his corner of the entertainment industry, but the dissatisfaction was especially profound in the early nineteen-eighties. Mellencamp’s label, Riva Records, was giving him plenty of money and ample studio time to make his albums, but they were expecting back a very different sound than what the heartland troubadour was interested in providing. According to both Mellencamp and producer Don Gehman (a regular collaborator of Mellencamp’s who worked with his for the first time on American Fool), the label was actively hoping that the finished product would sound something like the earthy soft rock of Neil Diamond.

It’s almost inconceivable that Mellencamp might pop out songs similar to Diamond’s material of the same era. But the two artists do have some characteristics in common: directness, clarity, and a knack for devilishly insinuating hooks. Those descriptors get at the heart of the appeal of “Jack & Diane,” the single from American Fool that changed the trajectory of Mellencamp’s career. Just a little ditty about “two American kids/ Doing the best they can,” the single topped the Billboard chart for four weeks, easily the biggest hit of Mellencamp’s career, and quickly established itself as the sort of rock ‘n’ roll standard that was going to live forever on radio and in the public consciousness. It defined Mellencamp as an earnest chronicler of lowkey Midwestern lives, right down the most minute details.

Mellencamp would eventually push further into that sort of territory (most notably on the terrific 1985 album Scarecrow), but much of the rest of American Fool is surprisingly generic, just modest little rock songs expressing familiar rock song sentiments. “Hurts So Good” and “Hand to Hold on To,” the album’s two other Top 40 singles, are right out of Bob Seger’s well-worn playbook of nondescript rousers. Even the scruffy ne’er-do-well’s defense delivered in “Close Enough” ultimately concludes that all his accumulated failings are acceptable because he’s “Close enough for rock and roll.” Mellencamp evolved into someone uncommonly open and clear-eyed about the needs and pains of the world around him (and then admirably outspoken in conveying what he saw), but he was still creatively locked into fairly basic platitudes on American Fool.

There are indications of the poor outcomes that might have resulted if Mellencamp’s success didn’t allow his to embrace authenticity (his real last name was affixed behind Cougar on the front of his next studio album). “Can You Take It” takes the ill-advised approach of pushing Mellencamp’s vocals well beyond his comfortale range to some sort of Joe Cocker rasp, which only renders the words nearly indecipherable. And “China Girl,” a rare instance of Mellencamp performing someone else’s song on one of his records, illustrates the value of his personal touch. American Fool isn’t a great record, but it’s invaluable in one way: It gave Mellencamp the confidence and authority to start shoving Johnny Cougar to the side.



poodles pink

835. Fabulous Poodles, Think Pink (1979)

Think Pink is technically the second album for the U.K. group Fabulous Poodles, but it was their sophomore effort in the perception of U.S. audiences. Perhaps more impressively, it was their second album in the span of roughly a single calendar year. Thegroup’s first two releases, a self-titled effort and Unsuitable, were combined to form Mirror Stars, releases at the tail end of 1978. Around a year later, Think Pink hit with another batch of sardonic, willfully subversive power pop. It was bratty and assertive. It was also confused and, ultimately, not very good.

The wavering tone is set by the album opener, a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Man with Money” pumped up with Costello-style brash dramatics. The band is rambunctious in taking a swing at a nineteen-sixties drab of squeaky clean pop, layering on punk attitude without finding a way to be truly cutting. “Any Port in a Storm” also evokes bygone styles, albeit more through an appropriation of the adoring homages of Nick Lowe or Dave Edmunds. Without finding a distinct, memorable personality, the band engages in jokiness that only seems a fearful rejection of ambition, like the Replacements without the hangdog poetry. It’s admittedly kinda fun when “Pink City Twist” segues into “Vampire Rock”, but the unpleasant comedy of “Anna Rexia” is more characteristic.

Think Pink proved to be the band’s last album. Unlike many of their brethren, there are no records of any reunions, fleeting or otherwise.




834. Feargal Sharkey, Feargal Sharkey (1985)

Although he was the voice of the band and the individual who had the best chance to quickly capitalize on launching a solo career, it took Feargal Sharkey a while to get his own material rolling after the dissolution of the Undertones. The band formally broke up in 1983, and Sharkey’s self-titled solo debut arrived two years later. That doesn’t seem like a long time, but in the quick-hit eighties, when bands catering to more esoteric tastes routinely put out at least one full-length per year, it seemed like a lifetime.

Appropriately, then, Feargal Sharkey was a reinvention. Whether it was for the better is a matter of taste. The Undertones trafficked in a punk-infused power pop, but Sharkey’s solo bow cleaves hard to the completely generic pop that blanketed the charts — especially the U.K. charts — at the time it was released. Homeland hit “A Good Heart” is lacquered to an indistinct smear, and the dopey “Ghost Train” is a mere whimper. Maybe the unkindest observation I can make is that “It’s All Over Now” takes the Bobby Womack penned classic and renders it with a heavily produced gentleness, like a post-modern Rod Stewart.

At least the album is kind of all over the place in its musical affronts. “Love and Hate” carries some of the jazz-inflected noodling of Sting’s early solo career, and “Someone to Somebody” is a ballad that practically defines the word treacly (“I wanna be someone to somebody/ And that someone is you”). There’s at least some heft to it when Sharkey leans into the excess, as on “You Little Thief,” which gets bigger and bigger and then bigger yet.

Sharkey didn’t last long as a solo performer. He releases three albums under his own name, then moved over to the business side of the music industry.



motors steps

833. Motors, Tenement Steps (1980)

It was already looking bleak for the Motors when Tenement Steps was released. The band’s lineup had been cut in half with the departures of drummer Ricky Slaughter and, more notably, vocalist and guitarist Bram Tchaikovsky. Remaining members Nick Garvey and Andy McMaster held out hope they could keep the group going, building on the little bit of notoriety they enjoyed from their 1978 album, Approved by the Motors, including the Top 5 U.K. single “Airport.”

The Motors were taking a strange creative pathway for the time, crafting mildly orchestral pop songs that aspired to a level of polish the band wasn’t likely to achieve. That led to unsettled hybrids, such as “That’s What John Said,” which sounded like Queen filtered through the Grease soundtrack, or the marauding calliope music of “Metropolis.” Given the era, they almost couldn’t help but pick up a little bit of punk posturing. On “Nightmare Zero,” the refrain “We’re laughing the face of love” is delivered with just enough verve that it could come from Public Image Limited. More often, though, the tracks have that withered quality of Broadway rock operas. The title cut particularly sounds like an outcast from a some properly forgotten Andrew Lloyd Webber frippery.

Predictably, Tenement Steps wasn’t a commercial or critical success. The Motors didn’t make another album, and the band was officially ended in 1982.

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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