College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #676 to #673

wire kidney.jpg

676. Wire, Kidney Bingos (1988)

With the release of the EP Kidney Bingos, Wire reaffirmed they were back in the business of being a band. Eight long years passed without a significant new recorded release from the band before their 1987 album, The Ideal Copy. The arrival of Kidney Bingos — which is really the lead single to Wire’s album A Bell is a Cup…Until It is Struck filled out with some extra material — signaled another extended layoff wasn’t part of the immediate plan. Wire aimed to remain part of the musical landscape.

And the chiming “Kidney Bingos” also made it clear that Wire’s shift to more electronic-based, pop-orientated fare was equally enduring. As the title of the song implies, the sleekness of the music doesn’t mean overt accessibility was a particularly strong component of the band’s approach. The swaggering lunacy of “Pieta,” clocking in at well over seven minutes, suggests the kind of track Bryan Ferry might come up with if he were an unchecked weirdo. On the EP, those studio cuts are joined by two live tracks, “Over Theirs” and “Drill,” both demonstrating the band’s dazzling melding of post-punk and dance music into something that doesn’t exactly sound like either of its contributing ingredients.

The revived prolificness of Wire suggested by the arrival of Kidney Bingos less than one year after The Ideal Copy was no fleeting trend. In the five year span from 1987 to 1991, Wire released six full-length albums. When it came time to work, Wire didn’t kid around.


ranking radical

675. Ranking Roger, Radical Departure (1988)

By 1988, Ranking Roger had been a prominent fixture of two major bands, the Beat (known in the U.S. as the English Beat) and General Public, contributing to five full-length studio albums and countless other performances and material. But according to his posthumously released memoir, I Just Can’t Stop It: My Life in the Beat, Ranking Roger didn’t feel completely confident in his creative abilities until his debut solo album, Radical Departure.

“It was a case of practice makes perfect,” he writes. “The first Beat record, we went in blind. No one really knew what they were doing. If you were to take The Beat and strip it down to explain it, you would say, ‘It was one big happy jam,’ and everyone what the best thing to play was.”

Further bolstered by the novel experience of not having to work toward compromise with opinionated bandmates, Ranking Roger made an album that duly drew on all his preceding musical endeavors. The material on Radical Departure boasts the incessant energy of the Beat and the slick pop sensibility of General Public. The combination can lead to some real oddities, such as “One Minute Closer (To Death),” maybe the jauntiest song about heroin addiction ever put to tape. More often, Ranking Roger simply delivers infectious tracks: briskly restless “Time to Mek a Dime,” probing “Smashing Down Another Door,” reggae-inflected “I Told You,” and nicely clamorous “Your Problems” are all fine little gems.

The sunny and intricate single “So Excited” epitomizes the unique musical magic Ranking Roger could conjure. It’s bouncy, smooth, and effortlessly catchy. That it is also firmly dated to its time, undoubtedly a product of the late-nineteen-eighties is part of its charm. Ranking Roger wasn’t transforming pop music so much as living comfortably within it and sharing his own vibe in a way that made the air seem a little lighter.


surfers steven

674. Butthole Surfers, Hairway to Steven (1988)

Butthole Surfers didn’t make life easy for college radio DJs. The band’s name already skirted FCC-mandated propriety, and then Hairway to Steven, the fourth full-length studio effort credited to Butthole Surfers, arrived with no track listing and no song titles. Instead, the record label included track numbers coupled to crude drawings that had at best a tangential relation to the relevant song. Most of the material on the album had an established place in the band’s live repertoire, so some devoted fans behind the microphone might have been able to properly identify a song or two. Anyone else was left to maybe introduce, say, the opening track by describing the connected drawing of a naked people simultaneously playing baseball and performing basic bathroom functions.

As later reissues made clear, the opening to track to Hairway to Steven is actually called “Jimi/Cartoon Song.” It starts musically thick, like mud saturated with crude oil, and it’s made more lunatic by heavily doctored vocals. Then the second half has the sound of a meditative Pink Floyd cut and a sound effects record played simultaneously. For good or ill, this is the sonic territory of Butthole Surfers.

The album was actually somewhat controversial among the band’s disciples — and some of its members — for the ways in which it dialed back on the experimental nonsense. For the first time, the band recorded in a state-of-the-art studio, and they laid down songs they knew well rather than dinked around until they had a swirl of abrasive sounds they found amusing enough to declare ready for pressed permanence. That hardly means Hairway to Steven was safe for mainstream sensibilities, even if they almost, kinda-sorta comes across as an earnest rock band at times, albeit one struggling with a creeping perversity. “Ricky” is like “Sympathy for the Devil” on an absinthe bender, and “Julio Iglesias” comes across like Van Halen on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Still, there’s plenty of room for the dopey spoofery of “John E. Smoke.” And “Fast” sounds exactly like a Butthole Surfers song entitled “Fast.” I truly don’t know how else to describe it.

In many respects, Hairway to Steven was the opening salvo for a new era of Butthole Surfers. Within the next few years, they’d pursue opportunities with different labels aiming to get them greater exposure, a pathway that led to the broader commercial success that once seemed a virtual impossibility.


times square

673. Times Square soundtrack (1980)

Directed by Allan Moyle, Times Square is a largely forgotten 1980 movie about two teenage girls who escape from a New York mental hospital and go on adventures through the city streets, soundtracked by a cool radio DJ Johnny LaGuardia, played by Tim Curry, broadcasting from a studio located in a high rise. Judging by the soundtrack, the broadcast outlet employing Johnny is first rate. Not that many stations at the turn of the decade included XTC, the Ruts, and the Cure on the playlist.

Overseen by Bill Oakes, then heading up RSO Records and building a career as a contributor producer to many truly terrible movies, the Times Square soundtrack is a reasonably appealing hodgepodge, mixing artists already approaching iconic status (Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” the Patti Smith Group’s “Pissing in a River”) with talented upstarts (the Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town,” receiving it’s first official U.S. release, and Joe Jackson’s “Pretty Girls”). Since the two-record set was issued by RSO, a few grooves were also reserved for a Bee Gee.

I question how enjoyable the Times Square soundtrack listening experience might be now, especially due to the understandable inclusion of songs performed by the film’s stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado. But a relatively engaged primer of up-and-coming music such as this one would have been a very nice addition to a college radio station’s stacks.

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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