College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #592 to #589

that petrol emotion

592. That Petrol Emotion, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues (1988)

That Petrol Emotion recorded their third album knowing that a major change was looming. At the outset of their time in the studio, guitarist and co-founder John O’Neill announced his intention to leave the band. A former member of the Undertones and a sharp songwriter, O’Neill’s fingerprints were all over That Petrol Emotion’s music, and his presence was a major factor in the band receiving attention in the first place. In addition to the uncertainty about where the band could go in the future, everyone had to deal with the awkwardness of working with someone who’d already declared his intention to walk away, like waiting out an apartment lease with an ex-boyfriend whose already started dating around.

Unsurprisingly, the music press at the time largely declared the resulting album, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, to be a confused affair. Some deep knowledge of the band’s troubled waters backstory might have held some sway on opinion, because the album is a perfectly fine assemblage of chattering pop-rock, bearing influences from the British and Irish scenes of the time, with a dash of the more bubbly U.S. acts romping across college radio playlists. And several tracks — incuding “Sooner or Later” and “Here It Is… Take It!” — sit nearly on the leading edge of the emerging Madchester sound that would soon make flaring stars out of the likes of the Farm and the Charlatans. “Tension” has nifty bullfrog synths to open the song, followed by a jabbing beat, and “Goggle Box” is frothing pop lunacy.

For many, the most notable song on the album was one of O’Neill’s parting shots. “Cellophane” musically employed an Irish folk lilt and lyrically addressed the conflicts in Northern Ireland (“In a world and in its sounds/ In any street in any town I go/ There’s a wreckage of desire/ Of feelings never hired or sold”). It was a topic O’Neill had largely avoided previously, disappointing those who sought fiery points of view from their Irish rock. It was as though his expectation that he’d no longer be a part of That Petrol Emotion mandated the creation of the one song that had previously been missing.

 

metro music

591. Martha and the Muffins, Metro Music (1980)

Placeholder band names can stick around. After Ontario College of Art classmates David Millar and Mark Gane assembled a band, they looked to their lead singer, Martha Johnson, and opted for the name Martha and the Muffins, believing it to be temporary. It wasn’t. Within a couple years, Millar left the band and a second Martha was added to lineup (Martha Ladly, who played a few different instruments and contributed vocals). The group was six members strong when they recorded their debut full-length, Metro Music.

The album’s lead single, “Echo Beach,” positions Martha and the Muffins as prime practitioners of new wave music. As the title suggests the track is tinged with a touch of surf rock, and there’s even a forecast of R.E.M.’s probing intricacy in the music. Johnson comes across as a cousin of Debbie Harry, intoning her lines with a sense of chilly enticement. Echo Beach” has the undeniable hit shimmer, at least for those territories with a more adventurous pop bent. (The single went Top 10 in the U.K. and didn’t even touch the Hot 100 in the U.S.). It’s even a fine representation of new wave because of the way all sorts of blissful pop invention is stuffed into one song, making it hard for the rest of the album to live up to the pinnacle of the opening track.

If the rest of Metro Music is inevitably a bit of a let down, the drop isn’t all that steep. The restless “Hide and Seek” and the jaunty “Monotone” are winners, and “Revenge (Against the World),”  is appropriately pointed (“I’m thinking of the times that I’ve looked around/ Searching for the great ideal/ But the human race wears an ugly face/ And cosmetics wash off in the rain”) as saxophonist Andy Haas sends notes zipping around liken drunken bumblebees. Sometimes the album suffers from some era-specific wandering around different genres, as on “Sinking Land,” which is like a ponderous prog rock epic condenses to new wave size. Mostly, though, Metro Music is a zingy charmer.

 

general hand

590. General Public, Hand to Mouth (1986)

To a degree, General Public got tripped up by their own success. Emerging from the dissolution of the Beat (or the English Beat, as they were commonly known in the U.S.) the group co-lead by Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger achieved commercial success beyond their expectations with their debut album, All the Rage, released in 1984. In particular, the single “Tenderness” became a major hit with an era-defining presence that exceeded its actual chart peaks. The tour to support All the Rage just kept going and going. And then the process of recording a follow-up album was slowed when both of the band’s principal members became fathers. General Public’s sophomore album, Hand to Mouth, didn’t exactly have a Chinese Democracy–style gestation period, but the once-hot iron was starting to cool.

As if anticipating the need to ingratiated themselves, the album opens with the vibrant, showbiz-y dervish “Come Again!” It’s a mere wisp of a song, but it also moves with a chipper friendliness that’s difficult to resist. “Cry on Your own Shoulder” is similarly smooth, while also serving as prime example of the limits of thin songwriting paired with eager-to-please production. At a certain point, the glittery charm can’t disguise limitations. There’s also a common mismatch between music and lyrics, which could create a welcome friction. Instead, the result is usually a muddled, purposeless song. “Murder” joins sickly sweet pop with lyrics about toxic relationships (“No time for cheap excuses like/ ‘He can’t help it,’ ‘She can’t help it’/ Jump out of the bed and straight into the fire/ How are you meant to stand it”) and the effect is the wrong kind of dizzying. “Forward as One” fares better by putting sharp political lyrics (“Forward as one/Not marching as to war’) to a sweet, easy beat.

General Public seem too disengaged to pull off the more complicated maneuvers of their songs. As a result, Hand to Mouth is best on a track such as the relatively simple “Love Without the Fun,” which recalls the retro swing of Nick Lowe. The impression is that the band is trying to have a good time and nothing much more, and that spirit extends to the listener. But that’s clearly not where General Public was at. Shortly after the album was released, the band called it quits.

 

rats grass

589. The Boomtown Rats, In the Long Grass (1984)

“The Irish answer is ‘I’ve been lying in the long grass,’ which means I’ve been around, but I may not have been visible,” explained the Boomtown Rats’ frontman, Bob Geldof, to Spin magazine at the time his band’s sixth studio album was released.

The title In the Long Grass was an open acknowledgment of the dire state of the Boomtown Rats’ place in the culture, and there was undoubtedly a touch of exasperation to the sentiment. The album was initially rejected by their U.K. label, and the release was held up for months in the U.S. Only after Geldof’s profile was raised considerably by his efforts spearheading the Band Aid charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” did the Columbia Records consent to releasing In the Long Grass, and then only with a revised track list and a mandated re-recording of the single “Dave” to make it “Rain.”

If the jerking around suffered by the band seems especially rough, a listen to In the Long Grass can almost inspire one to take the side of the label executives. The songs are all over the place, from the strutting new wave of “Tonight” to the pushy “Hard Times,” which finds Geldof trying for David Bowie but coming closer to Oingo Boingo. “Up or Down” is somehow fevered, jittery, and listless all at the same time. “Drag Me Down” comes across as a misguided attempt to craft a hit and winds up sounding like some ungodly combination of Elvis Costello and Duran Duran.

Between the music biz frustration and Geldof’s burgeoning status as the activist saint of rock ‘n’ roll, the Boomtown Rats were basically doomed by the time In the Long Grass hit U.S. record shops. Though the band took the stage for Geldof’s Live Aid concert, there wasn’t much future left for them. The band broke up in 1986, and In the Long Grass was their final album.

 

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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