College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #628 to #625


628. Difford & Tilbrook, Difford & Tilbrook (1984)

After the band Squeeze announced plans to dissolve and played an official farewell concert at the Jamaica World Music Festival, there was still a significant amount of interest in the group’s chief songwriting team, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook. The duo stayed with Squeeze’s label, A&M Records, but pushed back on efforts to get them to record under the established band name. Every other member of Squeeze had moved on, so Difford and Tilbrook decided (at that time, anyway) that releasing new music under the old moniker would be unseemly. Instead, they connected with producer Tony Visconti, known for his work on David Bowie’s most revered albums, and got to work on their new material. The result was the self-titled debut for Difford & Tilbrook.

The ongoing partnership of Difford and Tillbrook has a touch of fiction to it. As Difford later recounted in his memoir, the two were barely on speaking terms at the time and were rarely on premises at the same time during the recording process. That might help explain why the album is so lackluster. The spunky inventiveness that characterized the best of Squeeze is almost entirely absent. In its place is dismally rote mid-nineteen-eighties version of pop music, as if reverse engineered from a month of MTV scrutiny. The unctuous lounge pop number “On My Mind Tonight,” the cloying “Hope Fell Down,” and wispy single “Love’s Crashing Waves” are probably the worst offenders, but nothing on Difford & Tillbrook goes beyond merely passable. Sadly, the more ambition shown, the worse the result. “Action Speaks Faster” is an awkward melding of typical Squeeze fare into the post-disco dance agitation of Pet Shop Boys, and “Apple Tree” is like one of XTC’s approximations of John Lennon as a new wave act, without the enlivening undercurrent of lurking menace.

Both Difford and Tilbrook clearly knew the new approach wasn’t working. Luckily, an onramp back to the Squeeze highway soon appeared. Their old bandmate, Jools Holland, orchestrated a Squeeze reunion for a benefit show. Intended as a one-off, the collective decided some old magic was back in place, and they started edging towards a full-scale reunion. The initial dissolution of Squeeze lasted only three years.


627. Dire Straits, Twisting by the Pool (1983)

Mark Knopfler and his band, Dire Straits, delivered four straight hit albums at the start of their career, each placing songs into semi-permanent rotation on rock radio stations. Even so, they were dogged by somewhat dismissive appraisals of their music style, typified by a veneer of overt polish that gave everything an emotional chill. Dire Straits was seen by some as rock ‘n’ roll band without the reckless spirit that animated the true titans of the form, going all the way back to the hip-swiveling danger of Elvis Presley.  Knopfler wanted to prove that he wasn’t some staid square. He could rock, too.

Knopfler later described the material the made up the EP Twisting by the Pool (which was officially titled ExtendedancEPlay, but almost universally referred to by its opening cut) as his concerted attempt to to write songs that were loose and playful, suitable to be recorded in one freewheeling day. “Twisting by the Pool” is at once a perfect realization of a featherweight pop-rock song and a clear measure of Knopfler’s limitations in crafting such fare. The track is bright and fun, and yet it also comes across as a regimented exercise. It’s difficult to discern where it resides on the sincerity meter, between spoof and honest conviction. 

The handful of other cuts are defined by a similar inscrutability. “Badges, Posters, Stickers, T-Shirts” is like the result of John Lennon and Bo Diddley fronting a jazz combo as it forecasts a future Dire Straits hit by shaping lyrics around the inane running commentary of dim bulb music fans (“You were bloody great last time you come/ I thought me ‘ead was stuck in the bass drum/ Bloody loud, me bloody head hurts/ Got any badges posters stickers and t-shirts?”). And “If I Had You” is easygoing throwback pop, with a Bob Dylan tinge to the lyrics and vocal delivery. Maybe Knopfler is testing his range, and maybe he’s mocking the ease of simpler rock music. When listening, it’s difficult to tell.

Knopfler later looked back at the EP with derision, deeming it an experiment that didn’t work. At the time, it seemed to serve as inspiration to redouble his efforts to shape future music in adherence to the established Dire Straits aesthetic. The band’s next studio album, released about two years later, was essentially an echo of what Dire Straits had done before, but honed to perfection. Titled Brothers in Arms, it was an absolute smash, making Dire Straits, briefly but unquestionably, one of the biggest rock bands on the planet.

clash crap

626. The Clash, Cut the Crap (1985)

Befitting the extraordinary mythologizing that was part of the band’s inner being from practically the very beginning, a strong argument can be made that the Clash outdid every other band in rock history in traveling from a stratospheric high point to a gruesome nadir in record time. Beginning with the premise, based on the most conventional of pop culture wisdom, that London Calling, the Clash’s 1979 double album, is one of the greatest studio releases in rock history, it’s astonishing to think that it was a mere six years later that the band put out the mortifying death rattle Cut the Crap. It’s an unparalleled kamikaze nosedive.

Offering a sliver of redemption, it’s highly questionable as to whether Cut the Crap should even be credited to the Clash. By the time recording got underway, two of the band’s principal members — drummer Topper Headron and and guitarist Mick Jones — had been ousted, and a third, bassist Paul Simonon, toiled unhappily throughout the project only to have the record stripped of any sign of his playing. Cut the Crap, then, is a Joe Strummer solo album in every respect other than where record shop proprietors were instructed to file it. The album’s title was a dig at Strummer’s former bandmates, especially Jones. The creative yin to Strummer’s yang, Jones favored sonic experimentation that tugboated the band away from their punk roots. It was Jones’s crap that Strummer was presumably eager to cut.

If Strummer wanted to recapture old glories, he was soon confronted with the monumental difficulty of that task. “Dirty Punk” is the emblematic track. It sounds like a the sort of thing a culturally disconnected major label would cook up in hopes of replicating that Clash feeling, but with more commercial zing. To spring forward a decade in search of an example that’s damning enough, it’s the Bush to the Nirvana that was The Clash. Presumably when Strummer leads his ad hoc committee of part-time bandmates through pop-metal-adjacent track “We are the Clash,” he’s trying to convince himself, as much as anyone else, of the accuracy the sentiment.

“Cool Under Heat” is a mess of unfocused experimentation, its drum machine sounded as if it was infected with an early version of malware. “North and South” is equally messy, its musical palette marred by glitter sweepins from new wave. It sounds disturbingly close to Tiffany’s cover version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” that became a hit two years later. In comparison, the relatively modest “Do It Now” starts to seem like a highlight. On any earlier Clash album, it would have been no more than an afterthought. “This is England” comes the closest to respectability, putting seething commentary against a loping Caribbean beat. But even that song feels stale, its litany of complaints against Margaret Thatcher’s government already the oldest of hats in U.K. punk.

Reviews of the album were savage, but Strummer knew the product was subpar before a single contentious word was printed. Strummer refused to promote the record and even suggested he might sue the label to stop it from being released. Not long after Cut the Crap was release, Strummer made it official: The band was no more. Though Strummer and Jones occasionally worked together again, the Clash name remained permanently dormant. Perhaps hoping to make up for his significant part in the band’s ugly demise, Strummer sometimes floated the possibility of a reunion, but Jones always shot it down. “Mick had more occasion to be proud because of what happened and the way it had ended,” Strummer conceded to Uncut. “I had to eat humble pie. I deserved to.”

joe there

625. Joe Walsh, There Goes the Neighborhood (1981)

Joe Walsh only played on two studio albums during the original incarnations of the Eagles, but he logged plenty of time in the studio with the band. Recruited to replace guitarist Bernie Leadon, Walsh showed up just in time for the sessions that led to the 1976 album Hotel California. The band worked on the album for about a year and a half, but it also reaped enormous rewards. Hotel California was certified platinum within a week of its release and has gone on to sell over twenty-six million copies in the U.S. The Eagles’ next album, The Long Run, again took around eighteen months to finish, and again moved millions of units. The Long Run also broke the band, leading to a dissolution that sent the individual members scattering to solo careers.

Among the musicians who could freshly be considered former Eagles, Walsh was one of the more seasoned solo acts. He’d already put out three albums under his own name, including two during his tenure with the band. And the most recent of those, 1978’s But Seriously, Folks…, produced a Top 20 hit with the novelty-skirting single “Life’s Been Good.” Walsh was ready to make his own music. He even had a batch of songs all ready to go. “Life of Illusion” was originally written for So What, Walsh’s 1974 solo debut, and “Rivers (Of the Hidden Funk)” was submitted for, and rejected from, The Long Run.

The album Walsh put together, There Goes the Neighborhood, plays like Jackson Browne with a touch of vaudeville. “Things” catalogs the meanderings of Walsh’s mind, “Bones” takes a familiar bluesy crawl and makes it loopy, and “Down on the Farm” is a goofball hoedown (“There was cows and horses and sheeps and pigs/ They was tired of the daily routine/ They was plannin’ on havin’ themselves a bash/ Gonna throw a great big wing-ding”). The material on the album is more agreeable than inspired, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And following time in the stultifying musical environs of the Eagles, it even sounds a bit liberating.

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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