College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #532 to #529

lene flex

532. Lene Lovich, Flex (1980)

A resolute oddball, Lene Lovich is an unlikely figure to have heightened commercial expectations attached to one of her projects. That was precisely the case, though, with her sophomore album, Flex. Her debut, Stateless, was difficult and strange. It was also a surprise success in the U.K., logging two singles in the Top 20. Stiff Records, Lovich’s tastemaker label, was floundering a bit as the end of the nineteen-seventies loomed, and they had high hopes that Lovich could again break through the din. With many of her favored players departed to the Sinceros, Lovich assembled a new band and got to work on a set of songs, including a couple penned by Judge Smith, who’d helped found Van der Graaf Generator about a decade earlier.

Whatever mainstream aspirations might have been set for the album, Lovich’s trademark vivid weirdness prevails on Flex. The album leads with the amazing high drama of “Bird Song,” which includes Lovich hiccuping out mutant caws that reportedly came to her in a dream. “What Will I Do Without You” is similarly an expression of beautiful yelping madness, and “The Freeze” tempers the surges just enough to settle into a grandly spooky vibe. Unique as Lovich’s sound was, she wasn’t entirely out of step with her contemporaries. “The Night,” a cover of a Four Seasons song, sounds like Patti Smith rapturously caving in to madness, and “Wonderful One” builds to a jagged disco swirl, albeit one that would send most club denizens skittering away in confusion.

There were no more hit singles (“Bird Song” flitted in and out of the U.K. Top 40), and Flex had a far shorter stay on the album chart than its predecessor, though it peaked higher. Released in the U.K. in 1979, the album hit the U.S. the following year, and she undertook a successful North American tour. But it was becoming clear that there were limits to what she could achieve as a pop star, leading Lovich to explore some other pursuits, notably a stage production she co-created with Smith in which she played Mata Hari. By the time Lovich got around to her next full-length studio album, the situation at Stiff Records had grown yet more dire, and her creative experience was negatively impacted, nearly putting her off music for good.

 

eddie life

531. Eddie Money, Life for the Taking (1979)

Released late in 1977, Eddie Money’s self-titled debut album kept him busy throughout 1978. Somewhat unexpectedly, the working man’s rock ‘n’ roll slapped out by Money and his band proved mighty successful. The still-emerging album-orientated rock radio format took a shine to Money, for obvious reasons, be he also registered hits on stations more inclined toward pop music, placing two singles in the Billboard Top 40. Eager to capitalize, Money’s label kept him on the road for much of the year while simultaneously prodding him to come up with new material. Money’s sophomore effort, Life for the Taking, hit store just a little more than a year after its immediate predecessor.

As if providing reassurance to the masses that enjoyed Money’s first album (which was eventually certified double platinum), Life for the Taking is largely more of the same, with mild feints in different directions: disco, on “Maybe I’m a Fool,” and Bruce Springsteen–style story songs on “Gimme Some Water.” Aligning himself with another practitioner of safe, skilled pop-rock, “Nobody” sounds like the missing link between Billy Joel’s 52nd Street and Glass Houses. And “Maureen” finds Money adopting a slightly retro style, with a loping rhythm made for crooning along beneath a street corner lamppost.

Mostly, though, Life for the Taking is big, empty, entirely nondescript rock songs, exemplified by the squalling title cut or the dumb-as-mud “Rock and Roll the Place.” Accordingly, the excitement for Money faded somewhat, the album selling about half as many copies as his debut and only “Maybe I’m a Fool” generating enough airplay to make the Top 40, where it petered out after peaking at #22. Money was just getting started, but he already established a firm status as a workmanlike toiler in the hinterlands looking in at true, enduring rock ‘n’ roll stardom.

 

ultravox vienna

530. Ultravox, Vienna (1980)

The presumption was that Ultravox wouldn’t continue. The band’s third album, Systems of Romance, released in 1978. was a commercial flop, and the group’s label, Island Records, celebrated New Year’s Eve by dropping them. The first three records were left to go out of print, replaced by a half-hearted “hits” collection. Ultravox undertook a U.S. tour in 1979, but that only delivered another fatal blow when founding singer John Foxx decided his time with the band was up. His departure was followed in short order by a similar exit by guitarist Robin Simon, who’d only recently replaced original member Stevie Shears. With most of the roster vacated, it seemed difficult to for Ultravox to persevere, except keyboardist Billy Currie knew a guy.

Currie had worked with Midge Ure in a band called Visage. After some encouragement from fellow Visage veteran Rusty Egan, Currie approached Ure about joining Ultravox. As a bonus, Ure was equipped with the skill set needed to cover the duties of both band members who left. The group started shaping a new set of songs as they went into the studio with returning producer Conny Plank. The resulting album, Vienna, is a vibrant slab of synth-pop, with echos of the fading prog rock movement. “Western Promise” might intend to pay tribute to Asian cultures, but its enraptured descriptions sound more like they were inspired by the same verdant territory where Jethro Tull took their hallucinatory trips (“Your temples’ gardens, old world charm/ An ancient culture, torn and scarred”). Spacey and grand, “Astradyne” similarly tilts in the direction of the effusively epic.

Vienna serves as a proper bridge to the pop music to come, helping to define new wave. “Passing Strangers” is airy and elegant pop, “All Stood Still” is zingy and bright, and “New Europeans” seems to anticipate every trick other similarly minded bands would use in the few years. The album’s deepest impression is made by the amazing title cut, which is almost operatic in its precisely calibrated drama. All by itself, the track justifies Ultravox as an ongoing concern. Accordingly, the song also became the band’s first big hit, topping charts in several countries and just missing the peak position in the U.K. Ultravox was more than revived. Creatively and commercially, they were stronger than ever before.

 

leather force

529. The Leather Nun, Force of Habit (1987)

Choosing a name that reflected the convergence of innocence and shame, Leather Nun formed in Sweden in the late–nineteen-seventies. Across the eighties, the band put out a series of a rough, raw records that earned them a cult following across Europe, especially in the U.K., where influential DJ John Peel championed their work. North American distribution was limited to imports until I.R.S. Records decided the band might fit with their lineup of acts aimed at the college radio market. Leather Nun got signed, and I.R.S. Records pulled together a compilation release, given darkly punning title Force of Habit and graced with provocative cover art shot by legendary rock photographer Mick Rock.

Kicking off with the one-two roundhouses of gnarled “I Can Smell Your Thoughts” and glammy “Jesus Came Driving Along,” Force of Habit showcases a band with talent beyond the instictive conformation of their titles. The influence Leather Nun drew from dark predecessors the Velvet Underground occasionally comes to the forefront, notably on “Desolation Avenue,” which could have snuck over from a Lou Reed solo album, but, as would be hoped of an album that draws from nearly a decade’s worth of output, there’s a solid demonstration of range. Unfortunately, the quality is nearly as unpredictable. The lizardy lounge number “Have Sex with Me” is probably the least excitable version of a song with that title, and the requisite cover of a hit by fellow Swedes Abba is more gimmicky than clever. I should probably level similar complaints against the drippy ballad “For the Love of Your Eyes,” but I’ll instead sheepishly note the song is exactly the sort of slickly produced wounded romanticism I routinely fell for in college (“My life was dark and my life was empty/ There was nothing happening at all/ But then one night you came in through the door/ I couldn’t believe just what I saw”) and let it pass.

If there were hopes for Leather Nun to break big in the North American market, they didn’t pan out. Although the band continued into the mid–nineteen-nineties (and, of course, eventually revived after a twenty year layoff, as is now the expected course), it appears Force of Habit was their only officially U.S. release.

 

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s