College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #508 to #505

ramones halfway

508. Ramones, Halfway to Sanity (1987)

The photo shoot that provided the cover art for Halfway to Sanity provides a pretty solid temperature check of how the Ramones were feeling about being the Ramones at the point of their tenth studio album. According to photographer George DuBose, he’d only gone through three rolls of film when Johnny Ramone announced he’d had enough. DuBose assumed Johnny meant it was time to get to another location, but that wasn’t the case. He was completely done, and everyone else just shrugged and acquiesced, despite DuBose’s insistence that he’d been paid too much by Warner Bros. Records to deliver that few shots.

The Ramones were just as impatient in the studio, opting to record the music first and overdub vocals later only because it was the fastest way to get through the sessions. Johnny and Joey Ramone were locked in their ongoing battle — spurred largely by the fact that Johnny took away Joey’s girlfriend and married her — and Dee Dee was screwing around with a solo career as a rapper. There’s plenty of indication across the album that the band just wasn’t into it at the moment, including the tired rehash “Bop ‘Til You Drop” and run-with-the-first-idea mundanity of “Weasel Face” and “Worm Man.” Even a relative highlight such as “I Wanna Live” is made leaden by a nagging sense that the Ramones are simply going through the motions.

Halfway to Sanity briefly jolts alive whenever the Ramones stray from their well-established norms. “Go Lil’ Camaro Go” is significantly sweetened by Deborah Harry’s guest vocals, suggesting a whole album of Joey Ramone duets might have been a smashing success. “I Lost My Mind” is classic Ramones at the core, but it’s nicely rattled by the screaming vocals by Dee. And the band even takes their brand of punk close to the emerging hardcore variant on “I’m Not Jesus.” If none of these tracks truly matches the power of the Ramones in their mid–nineteen-seventies prime, they at least suggest what an engaged, evolving version of the band might have been.

 

sector 27

507. Sector 27, Sector 27 (1980)

After two albums with a band bearing his name, Tom Robinson sought creative and career reinvention. After achieving quick notoriety with early singles — including the gay rights anthem “Glad to Be Gay,” a radical declaration of personal identity for Robinson to make in the late nineteen-seventies — he felt stalled. He broke up the Tom Robison Band and formed the new group Sector 27. Although Robinson’s name was featured prominently on the cover of the band’s self-titled debut album, the goal was collaboration. Working his bandmates edged Robinson away from the fiery political pontificating that filled many of his other songs, resulting in a slick, sensible set of new wave cuts.

Some of the cuts sit so squarely in the prevailing sound of the time that they offer prime evidence of Robinson’s place in helping to invent the new pop sounds. “Not Ready” has a riveting post-punk edge, “Can’t Keep Away” suggests the early, more aggressive efforts by the Police, and “Where Can We Go Tonight?” is quintessential new wave. But there’s also a strong sense that Robinson and his crew could only take their ideas so far, that they’d run up against the boundaries of their creativity before they could really expand their art into something special and transformative. “Mary Lynne” is a good example. It’s rendering is so C-student straightforward it suggests what Joe Piscopo would have created had he pursued music instead of comedy.

If Robinson dialed back the political commentary for the record, that didn’t put an equal damper on his pointed observations. That leads to the oddity of “Looking at You,” a Lou Reed–style tale of urban human squalor delivered as British pub rock. And Robinson nips at the feeding hands of the music business on “Take It or Leave It”: “We’re billed as a brand new attraction/ But it’s business the same as before/ You gradually find in a matter of time/ What’s promised is not meant at all.” As the lyrics imply, Robinson was carrying so pronounced disenchantment with the machinery of making music for a living. That evidently extended to the new band. He quit the group not long after Sector 27 was released, and has stuck with a solo career ever since. The other band members continued on without him, releasing a few singles before officially dissolving in 1985.

 

sweet protect

506. Rachel Sweet, Protect the Innocent (1980)

A diminutive singer with a dynamo voice, Rachel Sweet spent her childhood years flitting around the fringes of showbiz, opening for the likes of Mickey Rooney and Bill Cosby. She was eventually signed to Stiff Records and released her 1978 debut album, Fool Around, when she was sixteen years old. Positioned as a teenybopper for the muckier era of the nineteen-seventies, Sweet couldn’t quite find a foothold, which presumably led to some concerted reinvention for her sophomore release.

The model for Protect the Innocent was evidently Suzi Quatro with a new wave spin. I’m not sure that was the shrewdest move in the hunt for global commercial success, but it makes for a surprisingly strong batch of songs. The range of unique songwriters Sweet borrow from is surely part of the appeal. She covers the Velvet Underground on “New Age,” Graham Parker on “Fools Gold,” and Moon Martin on “I’ve Got a Reason,” sounds on that last one like Pat Benatar’s little sister. On “New Rose,” Sweet even dips into the songbook of the Damned, hardly an act that seemed a source of untapped pop hit potential. “Baby, Let’s Play House,” originally recorded by Arthur Gunter but best known as an Elvis Presley hit, races along with Sweet packing a mountain of personality into her vocals.

The originals are solid, too. Opening track “Tonight” is brash and irresistible. And “Lovers Lane,” one of two cuts for which Sweet takes sole songwriting credit, is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen when he he nostalgically turns his hand to nineteen-sixties pop stylings. There’s even a gleaming, plaintive saxophone solo. Sweet wasn’t going to challenge the Boss for primacy on the arena stage, but she could have presided over a dandy night at the Stone Pony.

My fond assessment doesn’t match the critical response at the time of the album’s release. Protect the Innocent was largely dismissed or derided, and her career coasted to a halt. Sweet did have at least one more droplet of pure delight to dispense, though, co-writing and performing the title song for John Waters’s Hairspray.

 

jackson hold

505. Jackson Browne, Hold Out (1980)

When Jackson Browne titled his 1977 live-ish album Running on Empty, it came across as a wry gag about life on the road for a touring musician. By the time he released his next studio effort, nearly three full years later, critics were starting to grouse that there was more to the metaphor of continuing on when the tank is just about dry. Fans were kinder, buying copies at a steady enough clip to make Hold Out the only Browne record to top the Billboard chart.

There’s some good material on Hold Out, including “That Girl Could Sing” and “Boulevard,” which both became hits and album rock radio staples. But it’s possible that — and wholly understandable if — music writers never quite found their way past “Disco Apocalypse,” the flat, inane recounting of being absorbed into nightlife that opens the album. It’s difficult to discern if Browne is celebrating, condemning, or satirizing  club culture (“When the world starts turnin’ and the floors are shakin’/ And the dreams are burnin’ and the skies awaken/ Through the wind and the fire they will be dancing still”), so it winds up feeling like it’s nothing at all, a song without a point of view. The sense of aimlessness persists across the album.

It’s sometimes worse when the message is clear, as on “Of Missing Persons.” Inspired by the death of Lowell George, Browne signs an ode of comfort to grieving daughter of the Little Feat maestro. The songs comes across as maudlin, condescending, and stupidly chauvinistic (“Your brothers are all older/ And they’ll take it in their stride/ The world’s a little colder/ But manhood’s on their side”). The album finishes with the agonizing marathon “Hold On Hold Out,” which stretches to more than eight minutes. The track is an indulgence Browne hasn’t earned elsewhere on the album. Empty might be too damning a charge to levy against Hold On, but it’s hard to deny that major portions of it are noticeably hollow.

 

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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