College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #482 to #480

negativland escape

482. Negativland, Escape from Noise (1987)

Richard Lyons and Mike Hosler had been operating together as Negativland for nearly ten years when they and their collaborators delivered the album Escape from Noise. The group’s first outing for SST Records, a more official outpost of music distribution than they’d ever worked with previously, the album was for many the introduction to a the culture-jamming sound collages that were Negativland’s specialty. Countless snatches of old audio were edited together with similarly unearthed studio sounds and enhanced with new recordings to create material that was somewhere between art rock and performance project, the kind of thing that played in the corner room of a museum as patrons wandered in and out in various states of curious confusion.

As if commemorating the more prominent — if only slightly more prominent — perch the SST label afforded them, Negativland kicks off the album with a track titled “Announcement,” which takes the guise of a private message to broadcasters about the surefire radio hit that has been sent to their stations, complete with reassurances about their integral role in ushering the project to commercial success. That leads directly into “Quiet Please,” a mashing together of disparate synth sounds, vocal samples, and cartoon sound effects. It’s mischievous irony and self-protecting mockery, standing as an invitation to college radio programmers to join in on the joke. As a means of getting airplay, it’s downright brilliant.

Impressive as the heavily edited soundscapes are, especially for the era, this sort of tomfoolery is going to be very reliant on the patience of the individual listener. That’s especially true given the snarky, smutty, and blandly political sense of humor that abounds across the album. “The Playboy Channel” is a decent litmus test. An odd comedy track about an intrusive noise regularly thwarting efforts at self-pleasuring while watched a pornography-branded cable channel, the cut is only a minute and a half and yet feels to me like one of those repetitive Saturday Night Live sketches that is purgatory under studio lights. Other probably find it to be a scampish delight. There’s a similar once-is-enough quality to “Over the Hiccups,” which consists entirely of a child warbling “Over the Rainbow” while gamely enduring the esophageal spasms of the title. But it’s the aimless, lengthy “Time Zones” that perhaps best demonstrates the tedium that is bound to settle in with the band’s sonic approach.

As for political rumblings, Negativland engages in the blunt provocation that was a common strategy in the nineteen-eighties. “Sycamore” jibes gun nuts, and “You Don’t Even Live Here” welds shrieking industrial-style sounds to a woman’s committed cries of social protest. The consensus pinnacle is the controversy-courting “Christianity is Stupid” — with the title phrase repeated generously and joined by the enthused cry “Communism is good” — a song that Negativland falsely claimed inspired a teenager’s murder spree, stirring up untold amount of free publicity from a naive press corps and giving the band an excuse for canceling a tour they didn’t want to go on because it was sure to be a money-losing proposition. In a turn that admittedly represents a master stroke of audacious cultural self-perpetuation, the alarmed news reports about “Christianity is Stupid” became the rugged tundra upon which Negativland built their next album, Helter Stupid.

red hot mofo

481. Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987)

The dynamic, unsettled roster of Red Hot Chili Peppers led to the peculiar result of it taking until the band’s third album before all the founding members appeared together on every track of a full-length release. Lead singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea were — and are — mainstays. On The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, they were joined by original cohorts drummer Jack Irons, making his only appearance on a Red Hot Chili Peppers album, and guitarist Hillel Slovak, who died of a drug overdose less than a year after the album’s release. Whatever else the album might or might not be, it’s the only real representation of the specific quartet that made their debut on stage of the Rhythm Lounge in Los Angeles as Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem.

The recording of the album was fraught with problems, most of them attributable to the drug problems that would lead to Slovak’s premature demise and from which Kiedis would escape. The band initial chose as producer Keith Levene, the guitarist with Public Image Ltd., mostly because he shared an interest in heavy drug use. That in turn led to the diversion of sizable chunk of a record company advance for recording demos into fortifying the drug stockpile. Kiedis moved through sessions in a narcoleptic haze, leading to an intervention that sent him to rehab, and Levene was dismissed, replaced by Michael Beinhorn, who’d recently earned acclaim for helping produce Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock.

All that tumult might suggest that The Uplift Mofo Party Plan was destined to be a mess. It is, though it’s so thoroughly in keeping with the misguided white-funk slop of Freaky Styley, the band’s prior album, that the shortcoming is probably less attributable to the discord than simply standing as a marker of where the band was in their shared development. There’s pleasure to be found in the steady groove of “Walkin’ On Down the Road” and the metal-adjacent fury of “Backwoods,” the latter putting Flea’s distinctive rubbery bass playing to good use. And “Behind the Sun” forecasts the kinder, gentler, altogether better version of the Peppers to come. Those are fleeting highlights in a morass of officious, thumping junk. “Love Trilogy” sounds like a Dead Milkmen castoff, and “Funky Crime” is just plain grating in its artless collapsing of hip hop and hard rock. It’s reasonably clever to rework Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” into a posturing rap song, but it’s botched into a stupidly unrecognizable snarl, like an ink drawing scribbled over in frustration.

If Red Hot Chili Peppers needed a sense of purpose to refine their material, there was a least a sign that it was coming soon. On the flight back from rehab, Kiedis penned the lyrics to a song called “Fight Like a Brave,” which wound up leading off the album and serving as its first single. The lyrics have their ups and downs (“You want to stop dying the life you could be livin’/ I’m here to tell a story but I’m also here to listen/ No I’m not your preacher and I’m not your physician/ I’m just trying to reach you I’m a rebel with a mission”), but there’s at least a newfound sense that Kiedis is trying to say something with greater meaning, and the propulsive, tightly played music meets that intent. There were more growing pains to come, but Red Hot Chili Peppers was starting to assert themselves as a band worth paying attention to.

jim catholic

480. The Jim Carroll Band, Catholic Boy (1980)

I’d wager more than a few college radio kids came back from the winter break of the 1980-1981 school year with paperback copies of Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries in their knapsacks. Originally published in 1978, the memoir of the poet’s youthful experiences with sex, drugs, and dribbled balls was a countercultural sensation, the kind of book brandished by those who identified with its salacious details and even more who claimed an unearned veneer of danger by proclaiming disingenuously that they identified with its salacious details. The student broadcasters who clung to Carroll’s book (or maybe one of his poetry collections) like a countercultural bible were surely overjoyed to find their hero residing in the new music stack, with the debut album of the band that bears his name.

Catholic Boy is kindred to albums by other archly cool denizens of the complicated, intermingled New York City art scene of the nineteen-seventies, notably Patti Smith, a one-time roommate of Carroll who encouraged him to give rock ‘n’ roll a spin. It’s deadpan and detached, bounding and blithe, filled with traditional rock song structures that have clear been taken through the decompression process provided by punk. The album’s centerpiece, and the song that wound up as Carroll’s most famous contribution to pop culture, is “People Who Died,” a bleakly comic litany of various cohorts and acquaintances who met early ends in an era marked by romanticized self-destruction.

The remainder of Catholic Boy flows in parallel tributaries. “Three Sisters” is the clearest cousin of the unlikely hit, employing a similar cadence and attitude. Elsewhere, Carroll seems to be forming his musical identity by borrowing from other artists who share with him the sensibility of the hiply verbose. Carroll echoes Elvis Costello’s unsteady croon on “Day and Night” and tries out Lou Reed’s urban ennui on “City Drops into the Night.” It’s tempting to deem the glammy “I Want the Angel” as more wholly original, but the track is probably what the New York Dolls would have sounded like had they recorded a third album during their original iteration.

Little about Catholic Boy suggests that playing rock ‘n’ roll was anything more than a convenient sideline for Carroll. Records sold more than poetry books. It was likely as simple as that. If it was just a diversionary hobby, it still makes for decent listening.

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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