572. Various Artists, Dance Craze (1981)
Although director Joe Massot couldn’t have had particularly warm feelings about working on the Led Zeppelin concert film The Song Remains the Same, having been kicked off the project by the producers, he was still casting around for a similar opportunity at the beginning of the nineteen-eighties. For a bit, he toyed with the idea of a film centered on the band Madness, then at the very beginning of a run that would tally them fourteen Top 10 U.K. hits in the span of four years. Partially at the urging of his son, then attending university, Massot expanded the scope of the film, shooting live performance from a whole batch of band that fell within the ska-heavy 2 Tone movement. The resulting film, Dance Craze, was released in the U.K. in 1981 and in the U.S. the following spring, earning a lukewarm assessment from New York Times film critic Janet Maslin. She noted the film was a largely uninspired series of concert shots with a muddy sound mix, before surrendering: “For anyone interested in this happy, energetic music, that may be more than enough.”
The corresponding soundtrack album provides a nice primer of the sound and verve of the scene, including a few stage banter asides that were likely education for U.S. audiences. “Yet another song dedicated to the Tory government at the shit they’re leading us into,” is the description of one number, reminding the audience that their thrashing around is often done in response to angry political statements. It sounds like a party, but it’s more like a fervent rally. The Specials come across as the most forceful proponents of this slice of the subgenre. Man at C & A” swells with power, and “Concrete Jungle” has enough ryhthmic punch to suggest the Ramones.
The track list scatters the bands so that no one has songs back to back, which prevents any of them from making that much of a distinctive impression and perhaps overemphasizes the sonic unity of the 2 Tone sound. The Selecter do manage to stand out, in part because of the relative novelty of Pauline Black’s vocals. “Three Minute Hero” comes close to delicious weirdness of Lene Lovich, and “Too Much Pressure” has a jabbing beat that adds a welcome tinge of menace. In general, the bands are so tight and precise on stage that the live feel can slip away, which is an attribute or a demerit depending on personal preferences. When the horns grow a little fuzzy on Madness’s “One Step Beyond,” it’s almost startling.
Dance Craze — whether the film or the album — didn’t provoke the fervor suggested by its title. In the U.S., most of the bands featured remained cult favorites at best. The one exception was the group Massot started with. Around a year after the film was released in North American theaters, the Madness single “Our House” started a climb up the Billboard charts, eventually peaking in the Top 10.
571. Shriekback, Care (1983)
Shriekback was formed by guitarist Dave Allen, after he left Gang of Four, and keyboardist Barry Andrews, who’d already chugged through two albums as a member of XTC, the brief existence of the League of Gentlemen (with King Crimson guitar virtuoso Robert Fripp), and a modest solo career. Guitarist Carl Marsh was brought into the fold, and Shriekback started making music that was notably different from anything the musicians made before. Instead of the jagged guitars and assaultive pop music crafted with their preceding outfits, the trio concentrated on icy, propulsive dance tracks. They released a few singles and an EP that did well on the U.K. indie charts on the way to their full-length debut, Care.
In the U.K., Care was released on independent label K Records. Warner Bros. nabbed the rights to the album for the U.S. market, reworking the track listing in part to loop in some of the earlier singles, including the Talking Heads–like “My Spine (Is the Bassline).” Shriekback also bears a resemblance to the already iconic band led by David Byrne in the spirited playfulness and cheerful rule-breaking present on the album. “Lines from the Library” has the sound of a tin soldier army stirring to life, but the track is most distinctive for its simulated choral of voices singing “”Fuck this, and fuck you” in a call and response.
The band shows impressive range within its chosen sound, whether the thick slither of “All Lined Up” or the spare, catchy “Sway.” With its floaty quality, “Into Method” sounds like a funkier Roxette, which is unexpectedly pleasing. “Petulant” withdraws its electronic shuffle until it’s almost faint background, all the better to firmly emphasize the lyrics that demand equality and celebrate diversity (“The waves go splash and they don’t care/ These hard facts indicate to me that/ We’re all built the same way/ Subject to the same laws”). It’s not the sort of overt anti-Thatcher tirade that was all the rage at the time, but there’s a nice assurance to it nonetheless.
Whatever Shriekback thought of the reassembled version of Care, they evidently liked the greater promotional potential they saw associated with major label’s involvement in the U.S. For their sophomore album, the band signed to Arista Records. But that didn’t sit well with Y Records, and the road to the release of that next album, titled Jam Science, was extremely bumpy.
570. Neats, Neats (1983)
Neats hailed from Boston and played a brand of straightforward rock ‘n’ roll that surely helped them maintain crowd enthusiasm in boozy, snowbound clubs in the gruff and grumpy city. They favored Vox instruments, which inevitably gave their music a nineteen-sixties feel. Though light on the psychedelic flourishes and more prim and polished than vintage garage rock, the material on Neats self-titled debut LP is charmingly retro, as if it was discovered in a musty consignment shop rather than nestled among new wave records on the new releases shelf.
Neats initially moved in the same circle as R.E.M., their similar fuss-free styles inspiring comparisons and occasionally landing them on the same bill. “Another Broken Dream” even recalls the band from Athens, Georgia that was already asserting themselves as the standard-bearers of college rock. Mostly, though, Neats sounded like they were jockeying for a place on the stage of West Hollywood’s Troubadour circa 1967. “Sometimes” could have blasted out the amps of the Sonics, and “Now You Know” is a little like Nazz if they had more of a surf rock influence. Offering a reminder that Neats had more than a decade’s worth of pop music development to draw upon by the time they recorded the album, “Do the Things” lands somewhere between the Zombies and the Modern Lovers.
Neats was released on the Boston label Ace of Hearts, but it was strong enough that others came calling. Thought a few major labels flirted with the band, Neats wound up signing with Coyote Records, which made them labelmates with the Feelies, another band widely cited as a peer, and another band that eventually outpaced them. Neats recorded two more albums before calling it quits as the nineteen-nineties dawned.
569. Pete Townshend, White City: A Novel (1985)
There were solo releases from Pete Townshend before White City: A Novel, but the loose concept album was officially his first without a more famous day job to fall back on. After a contentious few years with the band members at odds about basic business strategies — most notably how much attention should be given to world tours that required cycling through old hits on stage — the Who were officially over, following Townshend’s aborted attempt to write new songs for a contractually obligated album. He paid his way out of the contract and announced he was leaving the Who, effectively ending the group.
Two years later, while he was also moonlighting as an editor at Faber & Faber, Townshend released White City: A Novel. Drawing on his upbringing in the White City district of London, the album aligns with Tommy and Quadrophenia in positioning a set of songs as a unified story, only this time the corresponding visual and dramatic rendering of the record was released more of less concurrently. Besides basic reminiscing, Townshend’s thesis was difficult to discern, mostly because it was, even in his earnest explanation of it, an odd muddle. Initially titled The Tragedy of the Boy, the album is partially concerned with an examination of what’s now commonly referred to as toxic masculinity. The pressures felt by men are driven by, as Townshend told Spin, the way they historically “gained power through traditionally reward acts of heroism, self-sacrifice, and at the most mundane level…by doing a hard day’s work and bringing home the money.” But Townshend’s theorizing also skews perilously close to the self-serving logical fallacies of modern men’s movements which justify cruel, hateful opinions as a reasonable outcome of their sense of persecution. In the same Spin interview, Townshend opines that “domestic violence is the last resort of men who are lost and emasculated” and notes the contradiction in punishing abusers when “for millions of years violence has been the way we’ve run our countries and protected our causes.”
Perhaps luckily, Townshend’s meandering manifesto of marginalized masculinity is largely held in reserve by lyrics that seem more loosely rendered than refined to perfect clarity. And the connecting tissue is perilously thin, making the collection seem like just a batch of rock songs with the occasion recurring motif, such as opening the album with the galloping call to arms “Give Blood” and closing it with “Come to Mama,” a molasses-thick, quasi-fusion track that includes a pulsing heartbeat sound in the background. Mostly, the songs seem like they could have landed just about anywhere, the classic girl group pop of “Brilliant Blues,” the zippy “Face to Face,” or snarling modernized blues-rock number “Secondhand Love” (“He’s been leaving his scent on you/ I can sense it from a mile/ And all my money is spent on you/ But you’re still selling your smile”) neither requiring nor particularly benefiting from their placement in a larger narrative.
If the working theory was White City: A Novel represented the start of an era of prolific creativity away from the Who, that’s not actually the way Townshend’s career played out. Over the course of the next few years, Townshend released two additional solo albums — The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend, in 1989, and Psychoderelict, in 1993 — with no more to follow. The performer who was tired of mining his own past to stay viable has been stuck doing precisely that in the decades since, led by the endless recycling of Tommy.
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.