College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #756 to #753

Fans

756. Malcolm McLaren, Fans (1984)

Malcolm McLaren’s career as a musical provocateur took a strange turn in the nineteen-eighties, when he moved from behind the scenes promotional manipulations for the likes of the Sex Pistols, Adam Ant, and Bow Wow Wow into releasing albums under his own name. In some ways, that was entirely reasonable. McLaren’s touch might not have been entirely golden, but it certainly had a shimmer to it. And among the British music press, he was at least as famous as the artists he championed. There was, however, a significant argument against McLaren moving from management to performing.

“I’m not a musician,” McLaren told Billboard upon the release of his sophomore album, Fans. “I can’t play a bloody thing. I’m only on this record for contractual reasons.”

As was almost always the case with McLaren’s projects, Fans is an impudent testing of limits. McLaren takes a cockeyed notion — in this case, merging classic opera with post-disco pop sounds — and cavorts forward with it, craning his neck around to see if anyone is going to rush in and stop him. As was consistently the case, no one did, and McLaren winds up with a decidedly odd album. Opening track “Madam Butterfly” is wholly representative, borrowing from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, adding pop pieces reminiscent of Deniece Williams’s nonthreatening R&B, and dropping in McLaren reciting lines like a kid doing a mediocre job of pretending he doesn’t like reading aloud in class.

McLaren’s innate impresario nature means the album is never boring, even as it pirouettes into the outer atmosphere of confusion. “Boy’s Chorus (Là Sui Monti Dell’Est)” is like Pink Floyd’s The Wall as adapted by Yahoo Serious, and the bizarro hip hop hybrid “Carmen” is the kind of think Baz Luhrmann might have cooked up for Moulin Rouge! II while on a five-day bender. None of that means the material is good, exactly. But it’s definitely attention-getting.

elfman so

755. Danny Elfman, So-Lo (1984)

According to billing, So-Lo is the first album by Danny Elfman. In its true derivation, it’s the fourth full-length from Oingo Boingo, the Los Angeles band in which Elfman made his name. When the album was recorded, the band was in the midst of a prolonged and messy process of extricating themselves from obligations to A&M Records, in large part because their new manager — former A&M executive Mike Gormley — wanted to get them into a better deal with MCA Records. Contracts were signed, but there was evidently enough lingering legal uncertainty that it was deemed prudent to set aside the band’s name. Releasing the new music as an Elfman solo record was the simplest option.

Accordingly, So-Lo exhibits and the strengths and weaknesses found across the Oingo Boingo discography. It is dulled down party music. All the individual elements are performed capable — even skillfully — but they rarely cohere, as if plucked from random out of a bin of track and laid atop one another until it sounded thick enough to fill a groove. Sometimes that yields fine results, as on “Lightning,” which is so busy that it becomes admirably colossal. More often, it’s plainly wearying. The caffeinated “Sucker for Mystery” might as well be static, and “Gratitude” is typical leaden funk further damaged by Elfman’s mistaken notion that singing louder is the same as heightening emotional expression. The latter track wound up in millions of record collections because of its place right in the middle of the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack.

In the final analysis, So-Lo is filled with sonic ambition, but short on the sort of insight and inspiration that can elevate the work. “Tough as Nails” is like a Talking Heads discard with surface-level exploration of ugly masculinity in the lyrics (“Now it’s time for football and a bout with heavy drinking/ Holding so much liquor makes him feel like a man/ As he drifts out on the sea on a ship that’s slowly sinking/ Quietly salutes himself and the courage he once had, he once had”). It offers the briefest jolt of excitement before settling into a deadening sameness. It doesn’t really matter whose name is on it.

doctor pieces

754. Doctor and the Medics, Laughing at the Pieces (1986)

Officially named on the record as “The Doctor,” London-based DJ Clive Jackson pulled together several cohorts in the early nineteen-eighties to form a band that took a big, theatrical approach to their music-making and performances. If the trend of the day was about creating pop music that was lean and icy, Doctor and the Medics were resolutely committed to a different approach. By the time of their debut album, Laughing at the Pieces, the band was delivering bazooka blasts of glitter-dappled molasses in song form. The material on the album is neither intricate nor refined, but it’s occasionally irresistible.

The band had a chart-topping hit in the U.K. with remarkably faithful version of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” which is probably the least distinctive cut on the album. It’s far more energizing when Doctor and the Medics follow their own loopy groove. “Fried Egg Bad Monday” plays like a more roughly hewn version of the Madchester sound that emerged a few years later, and “Moon Song” is what might have resulted if INXS had gone down a sixties psychedelia path. At their very best, the band hints that they could really pull off any style they’d like, setting expectations only to quickly dash them. “Smallness of the Mustard Pot” opens with the tinkling gentleness of a Cat Stevens song before being overtaken by a crashing wave of Redd Kross-style punked-up glam rock.

Laughing at the Pieces is probably too freewheeling to be unassailable. “Watermelon Runaway” proves the limits of the group’s wackadoodle free association in crafting lyrics (“Swimming sea green/ Dead sardine/ Acrobatic teen”), as does the almost indecipherable tepid tap water funk number “No-One Loves You When You’ve Got No Shoes.” In those passages, the music of Doctor and the Medics can seem like a mere put-on, a mischievous masquerade of rock band excess. Maybe it is that, maybe it’s sincere, or maybe it’s both.

motels st

753. Motels, Motels (1979)

Led by Martha Davis, Motels were fixtures on a Los Angeles music scene that was just starting to boom as the nineteen-seventies gave way to the eighties. They were sharing rehearsal space with the Go-Go’s and playing local clubs with such regularity they were practically full-time employees of certain venues. Labels were were happy to mine the veins of talent found closest to the West Coast offices, and Motels were handed a handsome contract by Capitol Records. John Carter, the A&R man who signed them, was so committed to the band that he personally produced their self-titled debut album, a hand on approach he also took with acts such as Sammy Hagar and Bob Welch.

Motels is a fine pop album, spotlighting a band with sensibilities perhaps a little soft for the disco and punk era, but redolent of classic song structures that recurred on the charts for good reason.  The enviable trick of Davis’s songwriting and performance style was to sound retro and fiercely modern at the same time. The jazzy shuffle “Love Don’t Help” or the slinky pop of “Closets and Bullets” feel like they could have come from Chess Records sessions one studio down from Etta James, but also as if 1979 was the only conceivable copyright date for the tracks. There’s an atypical comfort in slowing down, which makes the spare “Celia” notably gripping. And the band knows when some reinforcement is needed, as with the thick rhythm giving more heft to ballad “Total Control.”

The cheerily wild “Kix” echoes a Bye Bye Birdie number, and “Porn Reggae” features the one of the slowest Caribbean beats ever committed to record. These cuts are prime examples of a band finding ways to explore within a clearly formulated sound. Motels and its singles might have performed mediocrely on the U.S. charts, but there were indications all across the album’s two sides that the band was capable of a major breakthrough given enough time and attention.

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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