College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #596 to #593

red wagon

596. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Paint Your Wagon (1986)

By the time they buckled down to record their second full-length album, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry had already gone through enough upheaval to remake half their roster. Guitarists Chris Reed and David Wolfenden were the mainstays, joined by a whole new rhythm section in bassist Leon Phillips and drummer Chris Oldroyd. Though motivated more by the usual interpersonal disagreements, the change also suited the dual guitarists interest in keeping the music raw and unpolished.

“The more we play guitar, obviously we become better musicians,” Wolfenden explained at the time. “But as a reaction against that, we go out of our way to avoid sounding too competent. We always want to sound as though it’s the first time we ever picked up guitars in our lives.”

Paint Your Wagon doesn’t sound amateurish, but the blaring, buzzing mosaic of guitar sounds does imply players who are still joyfully discovering the raucous possibilities of their instruments. The buoyant “Mescal Dance,” the splendid churn of “Which Side,” and the gorgeous sonic sprawl of “Blitz” are invested with a thrilling, anxious energy. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry sounds as though they’re striving to reinvent the very possibility of what they can do as a band, blithely unaware of whatever expectations fans or music biz overlords might have. They show a tight mastery of pure post-punk menace on “Last Train,” and properly rattle the walls on the Cramps-like “Walking on Your Hands.” At all time, the album feels like it’s damn near ready to explode.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry also kept the tumult going in the operation of the band. Paint Your Wagon was their last for little indie label Red Rhino. They jumped to a subsidiary of major tastemaker label Beggars Banquet, and in the midst of the transition risked confusing the masses by briefly rechristening themselves the Lorries and released the goth-drama EP Crawling Mantra.

 

depeche people

595. Depeche Mode, People are People (1984)

The executives are Sire Records were perplexed about Depeche Mode’s inability to crack the U.S. market. The band from Essex enjoyed major success at home in the U.K. from the very beginning, pushing every single from their first three albums into the Top 40. Those same songs barely registered in the U.S., make meager progress on the Billboard dance chart and nowhere else. The 1983 album Construction Time Again never even made an appearance on the U.S. album chart. Sire needed a different approach.

Following a fairly common model for the time, the label cobbled together a batch of Depeche Mode songs that either hadn’t seen release in the U.S. or were likely to be unfamiliar to stateside listeners. The collection was titled People are People, undoubtedly inspired by the fact that the single of the same name had recently become the band’s biggest hit to date in the U.K. Surely this would help fans find the band.

The synth-driven pop Depeche Mode was making at the time was certainly aligned with the material being made by a lot of bands that were having success on the charts and especially on MTV. But Depeche Mode had an airy, sterile quality that maybe explained the difficulty in breaking through. People are People is filled with tracks that are oddly halfhearted. The extra blippy “Love, in Itself” feels firmly stalled in a single idea, and “Get the Balance Right” is similarly bland, offering an disinterest version of dreamy pop. “Work Hard” comes across a goofy Kraftwerk lite with remakrably inane lyrics (“You’ve got to work hard/ You’ve got to work hard/ If you want anything at all”).

Depeche Mode clearly had some skills, though. There are intriguing layers to “Leave in Silence” and the extended version of “Everything Counts (In Large Amounts)” that closes the album is expert in exploiting and sustaining a clever hook. And “People are People” is a dandy single. It also proved Sire Records was correct about which song to place a bet on. Although it took about a year after the release of People are People before it hit, the compilation’s title cut became Depeche Mode’s first Top 40 single in the U.S.

 

raygun jettison

594. Naked Raygun, Jettison (1988)

Naked Raygun formed in Chicago in the early nineteen-eighties, playing a style of tuneful punk rock that seemed to burble up all over the Upper Midwest. Jettison, the band’s third album, is a fierce and wondrous slab of inspired rock music, locking into a style and ably demonstrating all the small yet significant variations that can be generated within a basic guitar-and-drum rock assault. From the album’s opening track, the burning-fuel blast “Soldiers Requiem,” Naked Raygun deliver an object lesson in making tight, focused music.

The avalanche of sound on “The Mule” and quickening pace of the drums on “Hammer Head” show off the band’s punk bona fides, basically giving the impression of amps shuddering and paint blistering off of dingy club walls. Those tracks are definitely joined by others in fulfilling the punk rock mandate, but the most jolting tracks on Jettison are those that bring in a new texture. “When the Walls Come Down” has some of the easy comfort with time-tested rock ‘n’ roll structures that would be a defining characteristic of the band Social Distortion in years ahead, and “Walk in Cold” is unmistakably Naked Raygun while also somehow swiping a bit of the charismatic pop sweep of Close Lobsters. It feels like a reflection of Naked Raygun’s connection to the working class pulse of their hometown that these craftier tracks feel like the band rolling up their figurative sleeves and committing to simply getting a tough, tricky job done.

Jettison closes with an acknowledgment of the company Naked Raygun is proud to keep in the form of a ferocious live version of “Suspect Device,” originally by Stiff Little Fingers. Naked Raygun didn’t invent the kind of music they play, the choice suggests. Instead, they just took something that was already wild and enthralling and did their level best to be solid contributors to the overall endeavor. Their devotion to the cause yields great rewards.

 

other ball

593. Various Artists, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (The Music) (1982)

The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball was staged over four nights at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1981. An extension of the benefit events that had then been happening for several years, partially conceived and organized by John Cleese and raising funds for Amnesty International. Cleese’s conception was to create events that were entirely showcases for British comedy, but the dynamic shifted a bit in the third edition, held in 1979, when Pete Townshend made a show-stopping surprise appearance, playing a few songs on acoustic guitar. When it came time for a follow-up, all agreed that the show should be a more even mix of comedy and music, and director Julien Temple, fresh off the Sex Pistols flick The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, was hire to shoot the event for a concert film.

The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball also lent itself well to a spinoff album, or indeed albums. There was one album devoted to the comedy acts, including Rowan Atkinson, Dame Edna Everage, and Billy Connolly, and another that assembled music performances. Following Townshend’s example, most of the acts opt for stripped down versions of their most famous songs. Bob Geldof and Johnnie Fingers, of the Boomtown Rats, turn in a lean rendering on “I Don’t Like Mondays,” and Phil Collins offers a strikingly tender “In the Air Tonight.” Sting’s solo versions of Police hits “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle” are almost definitive takes on the songs, emphasizing the precision of his songwriting.

Almost inevitably, the album has its less engaging stretches, such as the trio of bland blues cool-downs by Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck (only “Farther Up the Road,” a cover of a Bobby “Blue” Bland song, generates any heat) or Donovan doing his British Dylan thing on “Catch the Wind.” And the requisite big jam to end the album is a tepid, Sting-sung version of “I Shall Be Released” that is like a withering hedge made into song. If the album is only sporadically successful, at least the cause it supports is worthy. It’s nice to think that every play given the record by college radio raised the awareness of Amnesty International in the U.S., even if only a smidge.

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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