College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #640 to #637

yes drama

640. Yes, Drama (1980)

Drama, the tenth studio album from Yes, was aptly named. Already icons of prog rock and mainstays of FM radio, the English band was coming off a commercial and critical disappointment with 1978’s Tormato. The fallout was significant enough that lead singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman departed the band, leaving the remaining members — guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, and drummer Alan White — to question whether there was any point to persisting as Yes. They got their answer after engaging in a studio jam session with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, then enjoying success as the Buggles. Horn and Downes replaced Anderson and Wakeman, respectively, as the group got underway with recording new music.

The absence of a couple key contributors doesn’t lead to a major difference in the sound of Yes. Opening with the rolling prog rock storm front “Machine Messiah,” which stretches more than ten minutes, Drama features the band plying all their favorite — and, in some quarters, beloved — techniques. The music booms and simpers and swirls and collapses in on itself, and then does it all over again until it seems it’s going to last forever. Reactions to the prospect of eternal Yes noodling are bound to vary.

The funky bass at the beginning of “Does It Really Happen?” briefly suggests the band might stretch in some different directions, but the usual prog rock swamps its way in. The same outcome happens again and again on the album, though there are occasional swoops of versatility to be found within the anxious and burbly “Tempus Fugit” or the futuristic gypsy carnival traipsing of “Into the Lens.” Whatever its strengths or flaws, Drama is clear proof that Yes might erode here and there, but the band was also a sonic contraption that would outlast the mountains and rivers.

 

chameleons script

639. Chameleons U.K., Script of the Bridge (1983)

The Chameleons formed in the city of Middleton, part of the greater metropolitan area of Manchester, England, in 1981. Earning early support from influential English radio icon John Peel, the band was signed to the CBS Records subsidiary Epic Records and put out a ferocious debut single, “In Shreds.” The relationship between the band and the label was contentious from the jump, and CBS quickly decided the Chameleons weren’t worth the headaches they were giving to label executives. The band was dropped almost as quickly as they were signed, and the Chameleons were forced to shop themselves again, landing with small label Statik Records. The band’s debut album, Script of the Bridge, came out as part of the new partnership.

Continuing the label-based woes, Script of the Bridge was truncated before its U.S. release (on MCA Records), which also required the Chameleons affix “U.K.” to the end of their name because another group had already released music under that moniker. Against the band’s wishes, four cuts were shaved from the album. What remains is still very strong, a fine example of thrilling expansiveness showing up in post-punk music at the time. Single “Up the Down Escalator” is a prime example, jolting pulses with its fidgety energy. “Don’t Fall” is reminiscent of Julian Cope’s work with the Teardrop Explodes, and “Second Skin” feels like a song that might have been crafted by a signficantly less indifferent version of the Psychedelic Furs. Situating themselves solidly within the predominant music movements of the day, “Monkeyland” is layered with quintessentially gloomy goth lyrics (“Does someone somewhere care and understand?/ It’s just a trick of the light”).

However Script of the Bridge might have compromised stateside, the album generated enough interest to justify a North American tour. The Chameleons built on that support and developed a strong college radio following. By the time they went home to record their follow-up, the Chameleons seemed poised to following a similar path of slow-build success then being taken by other U.K. bands. Unfortunately, the Chameleons carried as much misfortune as promise, and the next few years wound up as tumultuous as their beginnings.

 

fleetwood mirage

638. Fleetwood Mac, Mirage (1982)

Following the commercial disappointment of the vibrantly experimental double album Tusk, Fleetwood Mac got back to being a pop-rock band that anyone could love. Never a collection of people who knew how to peacefully coexist with one another, the members of Fleetwood Mac reached the end of the tour to support Tusk barely on speaking terms. Rather than head back into the studio to make a new album, the individual band members scattered, with Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks all releasing solo albums in 1981. Only the beshawled one could claim any amount of notable success with the solo work, though. Nicks’s Bella Donna topped the Billboard album chart and spawned four Top 40 singles.

Perhaps understandably, Nicks was reluctant to return to the Fleetwood Mac fold, but everyone else was game (or at least recognized where their continued professional prosperity sat). The group convened in the Château d’Hérouville, outside of Paris, to work on a new album, hoping for a catalyst from a return to the fraught communal living that had previously fueled their most productive collaborations. In particular, Buckingham was committed to any new Fleetwood Mac material being created as a group effort, possibly in reaction to the dimmed commercial reception that followed after he wrenched Tusk toward his personal vision. The new album, called Mirage, needed to feature a recognizable version of Fleetwood Mac.

The album’s lead single, “Hold Me,” achieved the goal of reassurance. Penned by Christine McVie, in collaboration with Tusk opening act Robbie Patton, the track feels like every band member merging together: Christine McVie’s smooth pop, Buckingham’s flares of self-conscious edginess, the jazzy clockwork of John McVie and Fleetwood as a rhythm section, and even a tingle of Nicks’s witchy wonderment (though she’s such a faint presence on the song that the music video has to resort to nothing more than a few shots of her reclining on a chaise lounge). Forget the bristling adventure of Tusk, the single reassures, this could have appeared on Rumours.

It’s surely no coincidence that another Christine McVie composition, the simple and sweet “Love in Store,” opens Mirage, ushering listeners in the new-old era of Fleetwood Mac. Shrewdly, Nicks is also featured prominently, with her distinctive songs spread evenly across the track listing. And her contributions are especially strong. “Straight Back” is partially about the mixed feelings Nicks had stepping back to the band when her solo career was taking off, and “That’s Alright,” which Nicks had in her back pocket for about ten years, has a pleasing country music tinge. “Gypsy,” the album’s second single, plays like an unapologetic extension of the Nicks’s solo music.

If Buckingham was one of the strongest advocates for a full band approach to Mirage, it might be because he wasn’t interested in bringing his best efforts to share. That a reasonable inference to make given the lackluster quality of his songs. “Eyes of the World” is a slovenly mass of elements, and “Empire State” might be the dumbest of many dumb rock tributes to New York City over the years (“Big Apple, takin’ a bite of me/ Whole world movin’ below my feet/ Not like, not like we do in L.A.”). Between his songs here and the mediocrities found on his 1981 solo outing, Law and Order, it was growing very clear that there was a faulty premise behind Buckingham’s occasionally posturing that he was the sole innovator within Fleetwood Mac. He needed the band to even approach his best work.

Positioned as a commercial correction after Tusk, Mirage successfully reestablished Fleetwood Mac as hitmakers, even if it didn’t really outpace its unfairly maligned immediate predecessor. Mirage went double-platinum, just like Tusk, and its three Top 40 singles also represent a match. Perception matters, though. Within the music industry, Mirage was a statement that Fleetwood Mac was not going to challenge anyone too much any more. They were prepared to put their all into making nice, safe hits.

 

t bone talking

637. T Bone Burnett, The Talking Animals (1988)

A music industry survivor who earned plenty of respect and suffered from a lack of broad success, T Bone Burnett finally had a stretch of attention-getting work in the mid nineteen-eighties and he seemed ready to capitalize. He was a fairly prolific solo artist through the decade, but it was his work as a producer that started to set the scales askew in his favor. He’d presided over well-regarded albums by Los Lobos, BoDeans, and Elvis Costello, and then cemented his reputation by overseeing the Roy Orbison comeback effort A Black and White Night. Orbison enjoyed a revival almost unheard of in pop music, and Burnett was seen as a minor miracle worker in some quarters. Largely on the basis of A Black and White Night, Burnett was signed to Columbia Records.

The Talking Animals was Burnett’s first album for his new major label, and it features some of the lean rock ‘n’ roll classicism that was the hallmark of his work. It’s also a surprisingly ramshackle affair, full of songs that go wandering and don’t quite find their way back from the wilds. It’s all well and good when Burnett is leaning into the loose and flinty “The Wild Truth” or “Dance, Dance, Dance,” which sounds like an updated Carl Perkins song. It’s far shakier when he experiments on the odd, theatrical “Image” and the limp story song “The Strange Case of Frank Cash and the Morning Paper.” Burnett’s obvious sense of play is better served by “The Killer Moon,” which is reminiscent of John Lennon without sounds like a knockoff. Burnett seemingly takes a stab at jaunty college rock on the tuneful travelogue “Euromad,” which sounds like Hoodoo Gurus with the energy drained away. He’s more firmly playing to the kids with “Purple Heart,” simply because it’s co -written with U2’s Bono, who of course pitches in with some background yelping,

The Talking Animals didn’t turn into a hit for Burnett, and its tepid performance perhaps pointed him to career options that largely involved more work behind the scenes. He released another solo album in 1992, and then nearly fifteen years would pass before his next effort under his own name.

 

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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