College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #494 to #492

neil rust

494. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Neil Young had a record to promote when he went on the road in 1978. With backing band Crazy Horse sharing the bus, Young undertook a monthlong trek meant to draw attention to Comes a Time, a collection of understated, largely acoustic guitar–based songs. But fans who were hoping to enjoy the singer-songwriter operating exclusively in the mode of Harvest, the early–nineteen-seventies album that was — and still is — his greatest commercial success were nudged from that expected path by a true iconoclast deep in his lifelong exploration of creative oddity.

Young had lately been working on a film project, barely released a few years later under the name Human Highway, that included a collaboration with Devo. It was during a jam session with the art rock band that the term “Rust never sleeps” was intoned by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, quoting a Rust-Oleum slogan he remembered from his days working in the advertising industry as a graphic artist. Young liked the sound of it, and basically adopted it as a credo of constant creativity. If rust never sleeps, he better not either. The tour was emblazoned with that name, as was the album that followed it. Rust Never Sleeps was recorded in concert, pulling from both the solo acoustic sets that typically opened the shows and the hard rocking workouts with Crazy Horse that usually comprised the second half of the gigs, all of it supplemented by props, costumes, and other theatrical accouterments. According to the critical consensus of the time — which hasn’t shifted much in the decades since — the result was one of Young’s best albums.

Although a live album (overdubbed in the studio), Rust Never Sleeps is stacked with new songs, all showing Young at peak of his formidable powers. “Pocahontas” is a dreamlike exploration of the historic and ongoing hardship endured by Native Americans, and “Powderfinger” tells the story of a young man facing down a warship, punctuating with a squall of guitar rock that’s simultaneously ferocious and easygoing. The music goes glammy on “Welfare Mothers” and resoundingly lovely on “Sail Away.”  The intricate ballad “Thrasher” uses farmland imagery to extoll the satisfying feeling of seeking personal liberation, the simplicity of concept made transcendent through Young’s phenomenal songwriting (“It was then I knew I’d had enough/ Burned my credit card for fuel/ Headed out to where the pavement/ Turns to sand/ With a one-way ticket/ To the land of truth/ And my suitcase in my hand”).

The dual pinnacles of the album are also its bookends. The spare “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” opens Rust Never Sleeps, and the thundering “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” closes it. The overlapping message of the songs provides more detail to Young’s overall manifesto. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” is the lyric that provides the bumper sticker version of the philosophy, but the magnificence of the songs together is the overall statement of endurance, the promise of legacy to those who give it their all, who invest in the power of music as a matter of defining belief. It’s a collective statement of aspiration and responsibility. Young showed — and still shows — the value in living that principle.

 

positively dumptruck

493. Dumptruck, Positively Dumptruck (1986)

The Boston band Dumptruck was enjoying the college rock version of a four-ace hand. Their debut album, D is for Dumptruck, had generated enough attention to get them signed to the emerging independent label Big Time Records, an investment that led directly to band landing in Mitch Easter’s Drive In studio with producer Don Dixon at the soundboard. Thanks to the benchmark success of R.E.M., who’d worked with the Easter and Dixon team on their first two albums, securing this combo of collaborators was absolutely the dream. And the resulting album, Positively Dumptruck, shows precisely why that was a worthwhile dream to have.

Chiming and crisp, the music on the album hits the perfect balance of rough yet polished, tuneful and raucous. Album opener “Back Where I Belong” establishes the Dumptruck musical personality: Americana with a funkier undercurrent and a warm, appealingly workaday guitar, bass, and drum sound. The tight, swirling rock song “Walk Into Mirrors” is more of the same, as are the chewy “Secrets” and the loping, almost hypnotic “7 Steps (Up).” The hangover-tinged lament “Autumn Light” has an opening couplet that approaches the evocative descriptions of Paul Westerberg, the poet laureate of regretful insobriety: “Woke up this morning in a foggy autumn light/ I don’t remember anything I did last night.” None of the material is groundbreaking, but it’s all admirably sturdy, the product of a band that clearly had to make their way on the rough, ungenerous club circuit that demand nightly proof of mettle.

Positively Dumptruck is a record full of promise. But maintaining a band is hard work, especially when there’s just a teeny touch of success that doesn’t yet include financial prosperity. Not long after the release of Positively Dumptruck, guitarist and singer Kirk Swan and bassist Steve Michener separately left the band, and there were questions about whether Dumptruck would continue. The remaining member eventually decided to keep going, in part because of the urging of label executives. But their next album, For the Country, came with its own considerable problems.

 

bram

492. Bram Tchaikovsky, Strange Man, Changed Man (1979)

Born Peter Bramall, the guitarist and singer Bram Tchaikovsky first gained a bit of fame with a brief tenure as the frontman for the pub rock group the Motors. He moved on from that band, recruited drummer Keith Boyce and bassist and keyboardist Micky Broadbent, and lent the resulting trio his own distinctive, memorable stage name. After securing a deal with Radar Records, Bram Tchaikovsky released their debut album, Strange Man, Changed Man. Modest yet propulsive, the album is nice representation of the end of the nineteen-seventies, when pop was splintering in countless directions and mastery of basic rock mechanics was its own sort of revolution.

That’s not to imply that there’s no edge to the tracks. The title cut almost makes the band sounds like the new wave version of Gang of Four. But Bram Tchaikovsky mostly comes across as a more rough and ready version of any number of rock ‘n’ roll true believers who were poking the heads out in the waning days of the disco era, checking to see if it was safe for guitars again. “Girl of My Dreams,” a U.S. top 40 single for the band, is like one of Tom Petty’s instant rock standards, “Lady From the U.S.A.” resembles the work of Jackson Browne, albeit at his blandest, and “Bloodline” could have been lent out to Humble Pie.

Strange Man, Changed Man is thoroughly enjoyable in its eager torch carrying. “Robber” has some guitar licks right out of nineteen-sixties British rock, and “Turn On the Light” is like a nineteen-fifties barnstormer, Eddie Cochran made current. The most significant misstep is when they reach to the past explicitly on a cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” which is obnoxious in its sloppy bar band aesthetics. At this stage, Bram Tchaikovsky was too good to simply throw away a song like that. The rest of the album implicitly argues that they could have found their way to a new classic with that one, too.

 

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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