536. The Psychedelic Furs, The Psychedelic Furs (1980)
When Richard Butler started seriously making music with his brother, Tim, the original band names adopted glancingly referred to the long history of recorded music. First known and RKO and Radio, the band, it was determined, needed a moniker that would differentiate them from the fleet of other British punk acts that were crowding the clubs with agitated calls for insurrection. Because the Butler brothers took their main creative inspiration from the rock sound of the late–nineteen-sixties, they decided the band name should use “psychedelic” as an adjective, grafting it onto some odd, unexpected noun. After trying and discarding the Psychedelic Shoes and the Psychedelic Shirts, the band was christened the Psychedelic Furs.
Signed to Columbia Records, the Psychedelic Furs recorded their self-titled debut album with producer Steve Lillywhite, who’d just started making a name for himself works with acts such as XTC and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The Psychedelic Furs is slick and booming, borrowing some edginess from the post-punk movement and applying it to rock songs seemingly meant to fill giant, rickety concert halls. “India” thumps and shimmers, and “Sister Europe” settles into an eddy of fetid loveliness. The softened-up punk of “Pulse” is charitably heard as the band’s pushback against the slipshop nature of most music in that scene, arguably demonstrated what could be accomplished with just a little more craft. Cynically, the track an early example of the Psychedelic Furs’ tendency towards laziness posing as disaffection. The more damning theory is backed up by the drowsy “Imitation of Christ.”
“Flowers” is the song that brings all of the group’s instincts together into a snarling, pulsing mass. The lyrics abuse the line between trippy and inane (“His body is upon the wall/ His teeth are sharp and white/ We cut his eyes with razorblades/ And out of him comes foul white light,” and the music is simultaneously lush and propulsive. It ends up sounding like a tamer version of the Soft Boys, which isn’t a bad thing. That model wasn’t especially conducive to broad commercial success, though. In the dilemma of that track, lies the band’s real future: The Psychedelic Furs would go on to spend the rest of the nineteen-eighties figuring out in public if they wanted to be creative ruffians or eager hitmakers.
535. Dumptruck, For the Country (1987)
The members of Dumptruck were in Wales the first time one of their record label’s checks bounced. The Boston band was courted by several labels when their self-released debut, D is for Dumptruck, moved a number of copies impressive for an album without any company backing. They settled on Big Time Records, in part because the label had a lineup of college radio up-and-comers, such as Hoodoo Gurus and Love and Rockets. And Positively Dumptruck, the band’s first outing as part of the Big Time galaxy of stars, got a strong push which yielded reasonably impressive results. Across the Atlantic to record their follow-up, the financial situation started to look dire, but reassurance were given that it was a temporary problem, soon to be rectified.
Dumptruck soldiered on, and For the Country was the result. A batch of slickly produced, toughly played heartland rock songs, the album is solidly aligned with the concurrent output of fellow Bostonians the Del Fuegos, albeit a little less beer commercial–ready. The firm, fiery “50 Miles” and the appropriately rollicking “Carefree” are the sort of that demonstrate the perfection of simplicity in rock songs, while the slightly more ambitious “Wire” makes the band sound like a more jagged R.E.M. Dumptruck is less successful when they slow things down. “Brush Me Back” is downbeat and dull, and “Dead Weight” has exactly the right title. But the album is successful overall, delivering straightforward rock music with assurance.
Big Time Records proved less stable. The band members noticed a distinct downgrade in promotional efforts when the toured to support For the Country, and label bosses were evasive when asked about plans to pick up their option for another album. Eventually, the band members discovered that Big Time was negotiating to sell them off to another label, so Dumptruck decided to negotiated with the interest party of their own, setting off a whole string of legal problems that arguably brought the band to premature end.
534. Bob Dylan, Infidels (1983)
Bob Dylan originally thought he was going to produce Infidels on his own. His first studio effort following an era of more religious-themed music that earned the ire of fans and critics alike, Infidels found the most famous son of Hibbing, Minnesota getting back to his not-so-basic basics, penning songs that combined roundabout storytelling with pointed observations, all to folk melodies that are inventive yet sound like they were birthed shortly after the invention of the guitar. As he considered presiding over the record on his own, Dylan decided he didn’t have enough acumen with more modern studio technology so he sought out a rock ‘n’ roll whippersnapper, feeling out the likes of David Bowie and Frank Zappa before settling on Mark Knopfler, frontman of Dire Straits. Knopfler started by recruiting Dylan a session band full of ringers, including Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, and Mick Taylor.
As if offering reassurance that vintage Dylan was at hand, the album opens with “Jokerman,” which also served as the lead single. With a hint of an island beat behind him, Dylan ambles through more than six minutes of dense, rambunctious poetry (“Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks/ Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain/ False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin/ Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in”), performing with a clarity and conviction that is best described as a fine fettle. Some of that pesky religious symbolism is there, but in service to something with purpose beyond the Bible book reports found on some of his preceding albums from the era.
If nothing else on Infidels quite matches the curmudgeonly spunk of “Jokerman,” the album still boasts superior songs performed well. Dylan is in especially impressive form on “Sweetheart Like You” (They say that patriotism is the last refuge/ To which a scoundrel clings/ Steal a little and they throw you in jail/ Steal a lot and they make you king”), and the punchy “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” and the pointed rumination of “Man of Peace” aren’t far behind. Arguably the finest — and undoubtedly the most important — songwriter rock ‘n’ roll has ever seen still had some creative fire in him, despite suspicions to the contrary.
533. Duran Duran, Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1983)
Duran Duran were still trying to make sense of their sudden stratospheric success when they went into the studio to record their third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger. After a modest commercial start, their previous album, Rio, turned into a major worldwide success, largely attributable to the enthusiastic embrace by upstart cable network MTV. In that record’s wake, the band were skirting taxes at home, starting to squabble amongst themselves, and generally trying to figure out their ongoing creative identity with the newfound pressure of living up to high expectations of the impact they’d make in the marketplace with new material. In the album’s title, “ragged tiger” was a metaphor for success, implying the riches and fame the band achieved was majestic and dangerous at the same time.
The studio thresholds were crossed without much in the way of songs in hand, further evidence that Duran Duran was feeling a little discombobulated and diverted by all the attention they were receiving. Producer Ian Little urged them to vamp around with licks and ideas, employing a technique that worked with previous collaborators, such as Roxy Music. Perhaps expectedly, then, portions of the album comes across as noodling that eventually took just enough shape to justify rolling tape. “Tiger Tiger” is the band’s attempt at art rock by way of fusion prog, and mid-tempo single “New Moon on Monday” is like a nineteen-eighties pop hit dreamed up while lulled by the gentle sway of a strong-silk hammock. Even the otherwise straightforward dance track “I Take the Dice” has a pippity-pop backbeat that resides somewhere in the blurred boundary between inspired and fussy.
Despite the missteps, Duran Duran were still in enchanted territory, with the ability to pull together staggeringly good pop songs as if doing so were a birthright. “The Reflex” is soaring, intricate, and intense, especially once Nile Rodgers got his magic fingers on it, remixing the single version (in modern pop history, Rodgers might the most adept at coaxing out commercial-friendly oddities in pop songs). The track justly became Duran Duran’s first U.S. chart-topper. “Union of the Snake” is icy smooth, despite lyrics that would take leaps of dictionary algebra to add up to anything coherent (“Nightshades on a warning/ Give me strength, at least give me a light/ Give me anything, even sympathy/
There’s a chance you could be right”). And “Of Crime and Passion” is so happily overstuffed with racing drama and abstractly dangerous lyrics (“No don’t look away/ Caught in the crossfire/ And it ain’t no wind of change/ I’m talking of crime and passion’s rage”) that it could have easily been that cut that earned Duran Duran the invite to record a James Bond theme song.
The album was another major hit for Duran Duran. It rose to the top position on the U.K. chart and moved slightly more copies globally than Rio. The ragged tiger was still held firmly by the scruff of its neck.
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.