College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #784 to #781

aerosmith ruts

784. Aerosmith, Night in the Ruts (1979)

Well before their unlikely mid-nineteen-eighties comeback, Aerosmith was band that didn’t just court disaster. It got down to one knee and gave disaster a full-hearted proposal of marriage at first sight. The Boston band certainly enjoyed hits in the nineteen-seventies, but they’re approach to business side of things was shaky enough that they were burdened by significant debt. Aerosmith was so far in the red that they’re record label pulled them out of the studio midway through the recording sessions for their sixth studio album, A Night in the Ruts, sending them out on the road to raise some bread.

The tour turned out to raise as many problems as it solved, mostly in the form of exacerbating animosities welling up within the band. Before Aerosmith could make it back into the studio, guitarist Joe Perry quit. Many of his guitar parts had already been lain down, but there’d be no additional takes or other finessing. Not that a fresh strum of the six string was likely to fix the material on A Night in the Ruts.

Album opener “No Surprize” might be a raucous recounting of the gig where the band was discovered, but any sense of nostalgic celebration is undercut by lyrics of thundering idiocy (“Midnight lady/ Situation fetal/ Vaccinate your ass/ With a phonograph needle”). “Cheese Cake” could be a Spinal Tap son, and the dreadful cover song  “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” heaves on thick layers of weird hard rock portent. “Three Mile Smile” is solid enough, and the album ends with requisite power ballad “Mia,” which may be marginally redeeming for those who simply want to hear variants of “Sweet Emotion.”

A Night in the Ruts didn’t fare well, and the band’s descent started to resemble a full-on nosedive. More ups and downs would follow in the years ahead. The true rescue mission was still quite a ways off.

 

 

thought

783. The Thought, The Thought (1985)

A Dutch band formed from the remnants of a punk group called the Rousers, the Thought were signed to MCA Records. With their new label, the Thought released their self-titled sophomore effort (following a self-titled debut, to consternation of cataloging completionists, no doubt), a collection of tuneful tracks soaked in a post-punk and new wave marinade. “Stranded with a Stranger” is a proper example of the band’s approach: gentle pop punctuated with understated buzzy guitars, like the Jesus and Mary Chain on a beach holiday. Crossover appeal may have been limited, but this was a crew making music that was going to fit into just about any college radio playlist in the middle of the eighties.

There’s a Peter Murphy swagger to “The Rise and the Fall” and the band’s pop churn is splendidly impressive on “Rapture,” somehow managing to heighten the intense biblical imagery of the lyrics. In the manner of the day, a cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” undergoes full scale transformation into a loopy eighties jam. And the Thought perhaps deserves some credit for anticipating left of the dial trends to come with the sludgy original “Maggie MacColl.”

In general, the material on The Thought is agreeable. That didn’t translate into an enduring legacy. It seems MCA dropped them, and there was only one more album released back home in the Netherlands: The Dream is Me, in 1986. The nondescript band name even makes it peskily difficult to find information about them now. It helps to include the more distinctive names of the band members, such as vocalist and guitarist Cock de Jong. I’m sure there are no problematic outcomes associated with Googling him.

 

 

human hysteria

782. The Human League, Hysteria (1984)

As a rule, bands didn’t let a lot of time pass between albums in the nineteen-eighties. To keep the attention of music fans always eagerly seeking out the shiny and new, bands needed to keep shuttling new tunes into the marketplace. Labels were especially eager to have acts with major hits keep putting out fresh material, while record buyers were presumably at their most susceptible. All that makes it a little remarkable that three years passed between the third and fourth albums by the Human League, especially since that third album included the massive hit “Don’t You Want Me.” There were EPs in between — including Fascination!, which included the hit of the similar name — but there was still a significant amount of pressure on the Human League to finally produce a more full-fledged follow-up.

The pressure had its impact. The recording sessions didn’t go well, which helped inspire the band to choose Hysteria as an album name. That’s how they were feeling. “I’m Coming Back” opens with lyrics that seemingly allude to the impediments causing the album’s delay: “Funny sometimes how you let/ The little things get in your way.” While sticking firmly to the zingy, unorthodox synth pop that brought them enviable success, the band struggles in reestablishing their creative voice. “The Lebanon” finds the group trying on political commentary, and finding it ill-fitting. And the vague air of self-parody to “Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again and Again (Six Times)” doesn’t really excuse its emptiness.

“Louise” takes a shaky stab at recreating the story song success of “Don’t You Want Me.” “Life on Your Own” is far more successful on that front, due to a gentle, absorbing melody and a strong sense that it’s offering a more intricate examination of the heavy weight of tricky personal histories. The earlier smash is invoked in an entirely different way on the album closer. It’s impressively brazen to title a song “Don’t You Know I Want You,” and then pushing it a good distance from the what a listener might reasonably expect. The track builds nicely, coming close to the sort of kitchen-sink-included boisterous romp routinely kicked out by Oingo Boingo.

Hysteria was seen as a disappointment, and not just relative to its predecessor. None of its singles cracked the Billboard Top 40. There were more recording studio agonies to come, but the Human League also had one more big, big hit in them. That was on the way, too.

 

 

peter lights

781. Peter Wolf, Lights Out (1984)

It was no surprise when Peter Wolf struck out on his own in 1984, following about fifteen years as the lead singer of the J. Geils Band. Freeze Frame, the band’s tenth studio album, was a major breakthrough, and Wolf got plenty of the attention that came from it, including the cover of Rolling Stone all to himself, John Warren Geils, Jr. nowhere to be seen. Freeze Frame was released in 1981, its single “Centerfold” spent six weeks on top of the Billboard singles list in 1982, and Wolf was officially out of the band before 1983 came to a close.

Wolf later explained his creative clash with the other band members stemmed from their desire to stick with the more pop-friendly tack taken on Freeze Frame and his preference for the more straight-ahead, blues house rock they’d all but perfected earlier. But Lights Out, Wolf’s solo debut, is right in line with Freeze Frame‘s MTV-friendly polish. The sharp title cut accordingly made it into the Billboard Top 20, one of two singles that year with lyrics that hinged on the phrase “dancing in the dark.” It’s “Here Comes That Hurt” that represents the true core of the album: vintage rock ‘n’ roll with a shiny coat of eighties on it.

“I Need You Tonight” finds Wolf trying to cram every new wave song he ever heard into a single track, and I think “Crazy” is the song you’d get if Bruce Springsteen and Kiss engaged in a marathon songwriting session together. “Mars Needs Women” is a bad idea that, in a baffling happenstance, made it all the way to the record pressing plant without anyone intervening. And “Oo-Ee-Diddley-Bop!” may be the platonic ideal of a Wolf song, all boogie woogie and mildly inscrutable nonsense (“Oo-ee-diddley-dop/ I’m about to blow my top/ Ha, ha, don’t give a damn/ Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha/ Thank you, ma’am”).

Wolf had success striking out on his own, but the band he left behind struggled. Roughly three months after Lights Out, the J. Geils Band released You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd, their first album without Wolf. The album was a commercial dud, and the band broke up the following 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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