College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #556 to #553


556. Guadalcanal Diary, Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man (1984)

The members of Guadalcanal Diary claimed that the title of their debut album derived from some misheard lyrics from a gospel groups performance at a street festival. The assumption across college radio, however, was that Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man was a direct reference to R.E.M., the Athens band that was a mere two albums deep into their career at the time, but already held sway over the left end of the radio dial like no one else. Especially for a band from R.E.M.’s broad neck of the woods — Guadalcanal Diary’s home base of Marietta sits about eighty miles due west of R.E.M.’s Athens, gee-aye launching pad — and with a touch of jangle to their sound, there was no avoiding the comparison. Guadalcanal Diary also had Don Dixon, co-producer of the first two R.E.M. albums, on board, so they probably never passed more than five minutes with a music journalist without that certain set of peers being invoked.

In truth, the geography and behind-the-boards personnel set a misleading narrative about Guadalcanal Diary. On Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man, they’re definitely doing their own thing. And they haven’t quite mastered it yet. The band played with jubilant energy, tongues firmly in cheek. They brought in diverse and divergent sounds into a strange pop-rock stew that, heard with current sensibilities, has a touch of privileged blitheness to it. “Watusi Rodeo” is still quite joyful in its jokester amalgamation, but lyrics such as “Monkeys in the trees just thumbing their nose/ At the bull-riders riding on rhinos/ Warriors standing with spears in the hands/ Wondering what’s next from a crazy white man” are a little too close to a misbegotten attempt to have a slab of appropriation cake and ravenously eat it, too. In a less problematic but maybe more telling example, the band closes the album with a maybe-mocking, maybe-serious cover of “Kumbayah,” the campfire classic no less annoying because it’s deliveed with a college rock, tattered Chuck Taylors aesthetic.

Across the rest of the record, Guadalcanal Diary is obviously feeling their way toward something better. “Sleepers Awake” is murky and drowsy, “Ghosts on the Road” has an adrenalized verve, and “Gilbert Takes the Wheel” is a punchy, probing instrumental. Maybe the best indicator of the level of craft lurking within the band is “Pillow Talk,” which comes close to a Smithereens-like command of pop trappings. Even if the tracks don’t all land gracefully, there are at least signs of a band strengthening their abilities. Sometimes it simply takes a few more steps to emerge from the shadow.


ultravox rage

555. Ultravox, Rage in Eden (1981)

Ultravox made a determined shift into electronic-based dance music on their 1980 album, Vienna, which yielded a worldwide hit with the title cut. So Rage in Eden was a test as to whether they could sustain and build upon the approach that helped them break through the mass of post-punk artists. The band reconvened with their regular producer, Conny Plank, at his home studio, located in West Germany. The synths were put in place, lead singer Midge Ure tuned up his voice, and Ultravox laid down a new batch of slick, soaring pop songs, all meant to make glum youths helplessly shift their shoulders to the rhythm.

Ultravox were quick masters of this somewhat-new-to-them craft, but the state of the craft itself had some limitations. Opening track “The Voice” suggests the grandeur Ultravox was aiming for was fated to always sound a little tinny. That doesn’t mean fashioning nifty dance tracks was beyond the grasp of the band. The airy, spooky title cut is impactful, as is “The Thin Wall,” which is pitched in the middle ground between icy German electronica and British soul. “Accent on Youth” deserves to be as emblematic of early-eighties new wave as the hits of A Flock of Seagulls or Soft Cell, and “Your Name Has Slipped My Mind Again” is similar both locked into the moment and fairly prescient, sounding like the products of a Depeche Mode after a handful of sedatives.

Rage in Eden was a success, but it was also an album that took a toll on Ultravox. In part because the new songs weren’t road-tested, a departure for the band, the recording sessions were arduous and went on far longer than expected. For their next outing, Ultravox parted ways with Plank, who’d been on board with them from nearly the beginning. Among other motivations, there were grander ambitions afoot, and, by then, a legendary producer ready to help them out.


mojo frenzy

554. Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, Frenzy (1986)

The weird, warped carousel that was nineteen-eighties pop culture is exemplified by “Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin,” a track on Frenzy, the sophomore effort from raucous and ribald duo Mojo Nixon and Skip Roper. A loping screed against cable network MTV, then a mere five years old, the track features Nixon lasciviously lusting after on-air personality Martha Quinn and grousing that the platform for music videos will never play his offerings. Nixon ultimately concludes that the channel “Should be covered in jism.” It’s crude, decisively antagonistic, and a weirdly compelling statement of proud outsider principle. Within a few years, in part because a cult hero notoriety of which this track was a cornerstone, Nixon was all over MTV, appearing in promotional bumpers given heavy prominence during the broadcast day. Even when rebellion wasn’t a pose, it could be craftily coopted by a revamped media machine ravenous for content.

A North Carolinian by birth, Nixon launched his music career in earnest in San Diego. He teamed with Roper, a multi-instrumentalist who most visibly scratched away at a washboard as accompaniment to Nixon’s tuneful, comic diatribes. Nixon and Roper hadn’t been at it all that long by the time of Frenzy, but they already had the act down. The antiestablishment bona fides are laid out on “I Hate Banks,” set to a nifty Bo Diddley riff, and “Ain’t Got No Boss,” which is Nixon’s more fiery approach to the workingman’s  battle cry found on Johnny Paycheck’s famed “Take This Job and Shove It.” Railing against the scoundrels who withhold earned wages from earnest toilers is also at the core of the touring musician lament “Where the Hell’s My Money?,” Nixon’s version of a saga song (an entertaining track sullied by Nixon’s rendering of a club owner as lisping and effete).

The odder experiments on Frenzy are also nicely effective, whether it’s Steve Wynn, of the Dream Syndicate, guesting to gently spoof Dylan on “Feeling Existential” or Nixon ceding lead vocals to Roper for a lean cover of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which keeps  the infamous rock epic to a crisp minute and a half, making the song sound cooler than ever in the process. Nixon’s brand of comedic tomfoolery isn’t exactly built to endure, but a surprising amount of Frenzy still sounds good almost twenty-five years later. Unlike many other practitioners of confrontational, snidely satiric rock from the era, Nixon clearly and accurately considered his material a loopy romp, reclaiming the fun of the musical form that was stripped away by the ponderous prog and concept-album pretensions of the preceding decade. He approached Frenzy accordingly, and the playfulness is still present in album’s grooves.


red freaky

553. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Freaky Styley (1985)

For their sophomore release, the Red Hot Chili Peppers decided to embrace the most common comparison they received while touring and promoting their self-titled debut. The band’s combination of funk and crunching hard rock naturally led to evocation of George Clinton’s various stage-straining musical collectives, so Red Hot Chili Peppers suggested to their label, EMI, that the Prime Minister of Funk himself be recruited to preside over new recording sessions. Clinton agreed, and sessions for Freaky Styley soon got underway.

Clinton knew how to bring a big funk sound to the album. His own collaborators the Horny Horns were brought as guests, and true ringer Maceo Parker also played a bit. The expertise and disciple is clearest on the album’s cover tracks. The Red Hot Chili Peppers deliver a spirited take on the Meters’ “Africa,” coolly reworked into “Hollywood (Africa).” And a pass at Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay” is lithe and simmering, marred only by overly mannered vocals by lead singer Anthony Kiedis. But Clinton clearly had little interest in bringing similar disciple to the band’s originals, at least in improving the embarrassingly juvenile lyrics. Tracks such as “Jungle Man” (“I am a jungle man I am a jungle man I am a jungle man/ I get all the bush I can”) and snarled funk title cut (built around the repeated lyric “Fuck ’em just to see that look on their face”) are pure tedium in their middle-school-boy approach to dirty talk. And that’s before the album completely peters out on the second side, with a bunch of half-ass joke songs and the absolutely repellent “Catholic School Girls Rule” and “Sex Rap.”

Like the Replacements with heavier bass lines, the Red Hot Chili Peppers at this stage in their career were basically running from their own talent, afraid that really trying to make a good record would expose them to painful rejection. The easygoing funk of “The Brothers Cup” hints at what the band could pull off when they weren’t preemptively setting up the excuse that they weren’t really trying and whoever didn’t like them just didn’t get the joke.


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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