College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #604 to #601

green gravity

604. Green on Red, Gravity Talks (1983)

Green on Red formed in Tucson, Arizona, but it didn’t take long for them to head further west, setting up shop in Los Angeles just as the city’s Paisley Underground movement and punk scene were in a competitive race to see which could garner more love for area record executives. Snapped up by Enigma Records, Green on Red recorded a self-titled full-length debut. Gravity Talks was the band’s sophomore effort and the release that differentiated them from their peers.

Gravity Talks was produced by Chris D., the former music writer who helped launch the L.A. punk scene as a central member of the Flesh Eaters. Beginning right from the album-opening title cut, a splendid slice of jangly rock, Green on Red establish an earnest style marked by unfussy instrumentation and keening vocals. “Over My Head” has a lyrics echo of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” released one years earlier, with frontman Dan Stuart croaking, “I got debts no honest man can pay,” and the temptation to place Green on Red on a continuum squarely between the Boss and, say, Afghan Whigs becomes not only tempting but almost self-evident. Whatever the band’s aspirations, Green on Red comes across as a pure rock band, firmly pushing back against the splintering of genres across the nineteen-seventies.

“5 Easy Pieces” sounds like a version of the Doors if they’d fired Jim Morrison and raided the Chocolate Watchband for a new lead singer. “Snake Bit” effectively wallows in bluesy snarl and menace, further connecting the band to longstanding rock ‘n’ roll tradition. “Brave Generation” has the feel of a backyard singalong at the point the all-night party is hitting its stride, and “Cheap Wine” explicitly names the point that arrives a few hours later (“It’s late at night/ All the booze is gone”). With little evident studio boosting, Green on Red makes each song land with pinpoint accuracy.

Green on Red had the goods, but mainstream taste was still looking for something far more slick than they were ever likely to deliver. The band released one more full-length album with Enigma before bouncing around to different labels, trying to make a career work in the face of mounting indifference. They broke up in 1992. Like many bands of the era, distant reunions loomed.

 

flash pan

603. Flash and the Pan, Flash and the Pan (1979)

Harry Vanda and George Young spent the nineteen-sixties in the Easybeats, an Australian band that was a true one-hit wonder in the U.S. The Easybeats’ 1966 single “Friday on My Mind” was their second straight chart-topper at home (following the Who-like “Sorry”), and it become their sole Top 40 hit in the States. When the sixties ended, so did the Easybeats. Vanda and Young continued working together, mostly producing other Australians acts, most notably AC/DC, featuring Young’s younger brothers, Angus and Malcolm. Vanda and Young eventually decided they wanted to take another spin with making their own music. They pulled together some of their favorite studio musicians and got to work, dubbing the new outfit Flash and the Pan.

Flash and Pan was always intended to be a studio-only band, and the group’s self-titled debut album is an exercise in experimentation. It features arch performed poetry, such as “Walking in the Rain” and “California,” similar to the material soon to be heard on Jim Carroll records. “The Man Who Knows the Answer” is similar, though closer in style to Lou Reed, albeit a version of the former Velvet Underground frontman who became overly enamored with a cheesy organ sound. “Hey St. Peter” is like a stray that wandered away from a rock opera, and “Lady Killer” is bounding pop-rock. At times, Flash and the Pan is notably prescient, inadvertently offering an accurate prediction of the near future of pop. Musically, “Down Among the Dead Men” sound like it wants to turn into “Flashdance,” but with with the lyrics of uplift replaced by an awkward tale of haunted seafaring.

Flash and the Pan was likely undertaken as a lark, but the band proved to be surprisingly long-lasting. The group released six albums in total before ceasing operating in 1993, collecting a few hits in their Australian homeland and, oddly, topping the album chart in Sweden.

 

big heavens

602. Big Dipper, Heavens (1987)

After signing Boston band Big Dipper, Homestead Records gauged the interest of music fans by releasing the EP Boo-Boo. At least at college radio, Big Dipper was a hit, and the band and label pushed for a quick turnaround on a full-length record. Big Dipper’s debut LP, Heavens, arrived later that year, offering another fine benchmark example of the solidifying college rock sound.

On Heavens, Big Dipper demonstrates an easy versatility without getting too far away from a core. There’s the fabulous clatter of “Easter Eve” and the earthy appeal of “Humason.” On “She’s Fetching,” the band locks in a tight hook and a slightly, pleasingly unorthodox expression of affection, building a track that soars without growing overly precious, especially as it wraps up in about two and half minutes. “When Men Were Trains” deploys the sort of catchy nonsense that Robyn Hitchcock routinely pulled off throughout his career, and “Lunar Module” has such a distinct indie rock trill that its jarring to remember that the album arrived several years before the became the default for bands aiming at winning the affections of student broadcasters.

“All Going Out Together” is perhaps the album’s strongest song, if only because it feels like the ramshackle elements of college rock all gelling together, as if for the first time. The hook is irresistible, the lyrics plain yet precise, the musicianship somehow both tight and marked by a hangdog unease. The honed proficiency of club-hardened players is evident, but so is a charmed amateurism. All the secrets to the magic of college radio’s true heyday are found in the grooves of this song. And the rest of Heavens has a heaping dose of the some enchanted wonderment, too.

 

ministry honey

601. Ministry, The Land of Rape and Honey (1988)

Under Al Jourgensen’s guiding hand, there was always a tinge of darkness to the music Ministry. Even when the group was registering dance hits in the early nineteen-eighties, there was a sense that storm clouds could encroach at any moment. One of their most notable songs of the era is a pledge of eternal Halloween because of the cherished presence of eerie bits of business (“Well I live with snakes and lizards/ And other things that go bump in the night”). And yet none of the lead-up can be said to be adequate preparation for the hard, screeching turn that brought the band to The Land of Rape and Honey.

Ministry hardly invented industrial music, but few of their ancestors in the form plied the style with the same commitment to relentless aggression. At a time when the recording industry was skittishly affixing warning labels to records that had the teensiest amount of adult content, The Land of Rape and Honey was the album a student broadcaster could bring home on their first college break to scare the hell out of their parents. The screaming fury of “Stigmata” could achieve that goal all on its lonesome. The fevered “Deity” makes for a fine chaser.

The wildness of The Land of Rape and Honey doesn’t mean the music-making is reckless. Jourgensen sets off explosions only to contain them. Every piece of every song gives the clear sense that it’s there for a reason. That’s even the case with the elements that are so eagerly confrontational that they start to feel a little silly, such as the samples of occultist Aleister Crowley and other similarly spooky invocations on “Golden Dawn.” Tastes can certainly vary, but there’s a propulsive energy to the music that shouldn’t be rejected wholly, whether the grinding gear intensity of  “You Know What You Are” or the lava smoothie that is “Flashback.”

If the transformation of Ministry was shocking, it was also complete and enduring. Jourgensen regularly said he considered The Land of Rape and Honey to be the first true Ministry album, and he spent the following decades routinely revisiting the template he set on it. And all these years later, it still sounds scary.

 

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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