540. Re-Flex, The Politics of Dancing (1983)
Formed in Birmingham, England in the early nineteen-eighties, Re-Flex was a band that wanted to have its chart success and simultaneously scoff as pop ate itself. With regular Roxy Music studio collaborator John Hunter behind the boards for their debut studio album, The Politics of Dancing, the group spat out robotic, danceable tracks that had the feel of ready made hits, or at least hit-adjacent, too-cool-for-the-masses cult favorites. The jabbing “Hitline” is emblematic of their art, sarcastically assessing the state of the pop music industry while cozying up to its conventions. Those are wildly difficult acrobatics to pull off.
Proving that they were properly paying attention to other practitioners of stealth pop deconstruction, “Praying to the Beat” seems directly inspired by Devo, but lacking in the fearless weirdness that set those esteemed predecessors apart. Across most of the album, Re-Flex tends to lock into a distinctive element or two, building a fairly rote dance track around it. “Jungle” buries a lilting reggae beat inside disco fervency, and “Keep in Touch” makes it mark by defaulting to a shouty approach, like a bully attempting to win the argument by loudly outlasting everyone else who wants to interject. In truth, the latter approach is a solid strategy for a slice of music hoping to become a persistent dance floor soundtrack.
It’s the title cut, though, that’s clearly the most enduring nugget of The Politics of Dancing. Since the album is realistically the only proper full-length release from the band (revival records happened, as they now do, around thirty years later), that means “The Politics of Dancing” is their real legacy. There are certainly worse one-hits associated with fleeting wonders. Ostensibly a pointed piece of commentary, the track instead combines an inspired hook with gleefully dopey lyrics (“The politics of dancing/ The politics of — ooooh! — feelin’ good”) to become a proper plug of juicy, double-grape bubble gum, irresistible even as it inspires a bit of sickened dizziness. That makes it a quintessential piece of early-eighties pop music.
539. Rickie Lee Jones, Rickie Lee Jones (1979)
Everyone who circled around the L.A. music scene was talking about Rickie Lee Jones’s demo tape. A singer-songwriter who started performing in area clubs around the middle of the nineteen-seventies and was known as a pal (and sometimes paramour) of both Chuck E. Weiss and Tom Waits, Jones recorded a batch of songs and spurred a bidding war among the labels. She signed to Warner Bros., in part because she thought the way they’d nurtured and honored the iconoclastic Randy Newman boded well for her. In an era of disco grooves and booming prog rock, Jones was set to offer up a notably different sound.
Jones’s self-titled debut is smooth and sleek, jazz-inflected without being particularly jazzy. In her erudition, ingenuity, and clarity of purpose, she was indeed akin to Waits at that point in his career, but entirely lacking in the dank-saloon destitution that could turn a song into a sullen slog. Jones was instead the refined soul at the end of the bar, never quite losing her poise no matter how many scotches were downed, always fully in command and capable of rallying others to the cause of her choosing with little more than a smirk and a gentle upward jut of an eyebrow. Listening to Rickie Lee Jones is to become convinced that only she could perform a song such as “Coolsville” and make it come across as an expression of truth rather than a needy transposing of self into a lithe, danger-stricken milieu.
“Chuck E’s in Love,” inspired by her time with Weiss, was the album’s hit, making its way into the Billboard Top 5. It’s flinty and smart, with a hook that sneaks up before mercilessly taking hold. “Night Train” is like less glossy, more resigned version of the ballads that sold millions of Linda Ronstadt records, and both “Easy Money” and “Danny’s All-Star Joint” employ vocal riffs that suggest Ella Fitzgerald as a nineteen-seventies Laurel Canyon troubadour, making it seem like Jones is committed to reinventing modern pop on the sly. Reflecting the country rock and singer-songwriter tracks that ran through the decade, “The Last Chance Texaco” sets the template for some of Maria McKee’s balladeer moments to come.
Following her debut, Jones kept putting out albums, but she never quite duplicated the success — artistic or commercial — of that first outing. Fresh air is never quite as pleasing as the first time its drawn in.
538. Warren Zevon, Stand in the Fire (1980)
Look, live albums happen. It’s an unfortunate fact of rock ‘n’ roll life, and the truism especially held in the bygone days when putting out new records was a primary component of the business model rather than a grudgingly accepted nuisance. Warren Zevon was three studio albums deep into his career (four, if the ancient history 1969 release of his album simply under the name Zevon was counted, but nobody counted that one at the time), so it was obviously time for a live release. That his most recent studio effort, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, was widely considered a bomb surely helped bolster the notion that it would be good to have some new product in the record shops that reminded music fans why they’d liked him so much just a couple years earlier.
Stand in the Fire was patched together from recordings taken during a five-night stand at The Roxy Theatre, in Los Angeles. He was backed by Boulder, a Colorado band that, like Zevon, was signed to Elektra Records. With the bar band veterans behind him, Zevon gets a little rougher than he does on album, but that rarely strengthens the songs. “Mohammed’s Radio” gets brasher without necessarily getting better, and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” just sounds sloppy. Zevon also covers Bo Diddley, which only demonstrates what happens to the rock pioneer’s songs when the have all the liveliness knocked out of them. And Zevon already sounds a little irritated about the obligation to run through “Werewolves of London,” though I guess it’s nice that posterity has an official recording of Zevon’s alteration to name “Brian De Palma again” as the culprit behind the little old lady’s late-night mutilation. Two new Zevon compositions make their debut on Stand in the Fire, including the thudding song that gives the live album its title. “The Sin,” the other new song, is better due to its dose of punk energy, as if Zevon had just discovered the Buzzcocks.
Stand in the Fire didn’t have the desired effect of returning Zevon to the forefront. Released right after Christmas, the album spent only ten weeks on the Billboard chart, climbing no higher than #80. The nineteen-eighties, it was becoming clear, we’re going to be tough on the excitable boy.
537. Bananarama, Deep Sea Skiving (1983)
Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward grew up together in Bristol before moving to London. There, they met Siobhan Fahey, and the trio started performing together, largely picking up fairly impromptu gigs backing other acts on stage. Shortly after they moved into recording their own songs under the name Bananarama, a kinship with Fun Boy Three raised their profile, especially when the the two acts were co-billed on the single “‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It).” A cover of an old jazz number, the single made it into the Top 5 on the U.K. charts, and Banarama were on their way.
Deep Sea Skiving, officially the debut album from Banarama, is a like a lot of similar records of the era from U.K. acts. It’s less a cohesive album than an assemblage of singles that clicked off the assembly line in the prior year or so, and the whole thing got jumbled like the pieces in a well-shook jigsaw puzzle box before it was issued in the U.S. It also evinces a charming, carefree approach to making pop music, with absolutely any notion worth exploring, putting down on tapes, and dancing joyous away from, on the way to a new adventure. “Shy Boy (Don’t It Make You Feel Good)” takes nineteen-sixties girl group sweetness and updates it into a gleaming new model, and a cover of the Velvelettes’ song “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’,” retitled to “Really Saying Something” and with Fun Boy Three pitching in, makes the refurbishing approach that much more overt.
Reflecting the sounds of the scene around them, “Hey Young London” has the propulsive, chant-inspired singing and wild rhythms used to great effect by Bow Wow Wow. But there are also indications that Bananarama are pushing to the limits of their creativity across the album. Their cover of “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” is surprisingly lifeless, and “Wish You Were Here” is so repetitive that it becomes a sort of endurance test, even at only a shade over three and a half minutes. These are less dire shortcomings than hints that there is room to grow. Even the least generous assessment would have to conclude that these women had some more major hits in them, waiting for the confluence of inspirations required to allow them to emerge.
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.