College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #470 to #468

red rockers good

470. Red Rockers, Good as Gold (1983)

By the time Red Rockers started work on their second full-length album, Good as Gold, they had undergone an evolution in their sound. Formed in New Orleans as an act essentially trying to duplicate everything about the Clash, Red Rockers eventually signed to San Francisco–based 415 Records. The rare artist that wasn’t California-grown on the label’s roster, Red Rockers spent a lot of time on the road with their fellow twinklers in the 415 galaxy of stars, the likes of Translator and Romeo Void. The band’s sophomore effort bore that influence, a shift that was carried even further by producer David Kahne.

Kahne was the head of 415 Records and commonly took on production chores for his acts. On Good as Gold, Kahne reportedly worked with an especially heavy hand, pushing the band to get smoother and slicker. They spent hours upon hours in the studio perfecting the glossy new wave track “China,” which was released as a single and got the band within fifteen places of the Billboard Top 40, the closest they ever came to a mainstream hit. The track now sounds less like an enduring classic and more like a woebegone artifact of the era when newly emerging production tools were sometimes used to drown solid pop songs in sugary studio syrup.

In general, Red Rockers get lost on Good as Gold, which plays as a a set of generic tracks balanced awkwardly between straight-ahead rock and shiny new wave. Only the occasional element — such as the chewy guitar parts on “Dreams Fade Away” — asserts itself as memorable. More often, the material is in a limited range from the resoundingly mundane “Answers to the Question” to the hollow grind of “Running Away From You.” Besides “China,” the song that probably points more clearly to what Red Rockers and Kahne strove for is “Till It All Falls Down,” which is close to what U2 would have sounded like had they stumbled into the 415 Records stylistic car wash.

All this sonic shifting was stirring discord within the band. Red Rockers had undergone a change behind the drum kit around the time of the making of Good as Gold, and guitarist James Singletary left after touring behind the album. The band stuck with 415 Records, but got their wish to employ outside producers on their third album, Schizophrenic Circus. A commercial and critical disappointment, the album proved to be the band’s last, and the members went on to other endeavors. Most notably, frontman John Thomas Griffith went out and formed the band Cowboy Mouth, which still plays to rabidly adoring crowds to this day.

blues briefcase

469. Blues Brothers, Briefcase Full of Blues (1978)

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Universal Amphitheatre,” Dan Aykroyd intones, as a set of crack musicians behind him roars through Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” “Well here it is, the late nineteen-seventies, going on 1985. You know, so much of the music we hear today is preprogrammed electronic disco. You never get a chance to hear master bluesmen practicing their craft anymore. By the year 2006, the music known today as the blues will exist only in the classical records department in your local public library. So tonight, ladies and gentlemen, while we still can, let us welcome, from Rock Island, Illinois, the blues music from Elliot Jake and Elwood Blue: the Blues Brothers.”

With origins in a Saturday Night Live filler performance as members of the ensemble introduced, by Buck Henry, as Howard Shore and His All-Bee Band, the Blues Brothers were the joint brainchild of Aykroyd and his comedy soulmate, John Belushi. For Aykroyd, it was an opportunity to celebrate his lifelong passion for blues music. Interest in the blues was more recent for Belushi, but the rock star posturing obviously suited his ravenous appetites. Recognizing the opportunity in his clients’ sideline, manager Bernie Brillstein pitched the idea of a Blues Brothers record to Atlantic Records, quickly nabbing a $125,000 contract. He called in a favor to Steve Martin’s agent to get the ad hoc act a spot opening for the comic, then at the height of his stand-up fame, during his nine-night stand at the Universal Amphitheater, in Los Angeles. To record the shows, Belushi cracked open his checkbook to pay the $100,000 required to do the job right.

Taking the task seriously, Aykroyd and Belushi assembled a first-rate band to back them up, obscuring the enthusiastic amateurism of their own performances. Belushi’s limited but committed vocals are perfectly fine on “Hey Bartender” (and there were few performers at that time who would be more convincing in delivering lyrics about ordering glasses of beer in escalating quantities) and “I Don’t Know,” the latter playing to his unerring instincts as a comic actor. The panache Belushi lacked is more apparent on tracks such as “(I Got Everything I Need) Almost” and “Shot Gun Groove,” which require a performer who can find and convey the wrenching emotion in the words. Aykroyd takes the lead on “Rubber Biscuit,” a jabbering doo-wop scat peppered with groaner jokes that became an unlikely Top 40 hit for the Blues Brothers, one of four the act collected in their career.

As far as vanity projects go, Briefcase Full of Blues is surprisingly admirable in its intent. Although they put themselves right up front, the strong impression on the record is that Aykroyd and Belushi are truly trying to celebrate the musical form of the blues rather than appropriate it to boost up their own creative heroism. (That generosity would expand further with the eventual Blues Brothers movie, which, for all its mayhem and quotable comedy, often seems like little more than a stealthy means of ceding the screen to stellar performances by blues icons.) The borderline minstrelsy of reggae number “Groove Me” is the only abject embarrassment on the record, but it’s “‘B’ Movie Box Car Blues” that exemplifies the mixed blessing of the Blues Brothers revue. When the band is doing their masterful work on the Delbert McClinton number, it’s scintillating. When Belushi steps to the microphone, he’s just in the way.

men cargo

468. Men at Work, Cargo (1983)

Cargo sat on the shelf for a long time before it was released. That’s generally a bad sign, indicating the record label has misgivings about an album’s quality and accompanying skepticism about its chances for success. In the case of Men at Work’s sophomore album, the opposite is true. The album was delayed by the band’s extended, slow-burn development into a major international act. Their debut album, Business as Usual, was released in their homeland of Australia in 1981, immediately yielding major hits there. Unconvinced of the material’s capacity to cross over to different audiences, Columbia Records waited around six months before releasing the album in North America, and it took another few months for the band to register with U.S. audiences. As soon as they did, they made skyrockets look like pokey dirigibles. The singles “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under” both topped the Billboard Hot 100, and Business as Usual took up residence at the apex of the album chart for fifteen straight weeks, only ceding the position when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came along. Cargo was held back because Columbia was still making so much money off its predecessor.

When the album was finally released, the rollout didn’t start auspiciously. “Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive,” a dopey, rock-scene riff on the classic Robert Louis Stevenson invention, was selected as the first single and performed tepidly. Prospects turned around with the next two singles: “Overkill,” tuneful and yearning, and “It’s a Mistake,” which has vague echoes of “Down Under” as it offers a withering assessment of geopolitical brinksmanship in the waning days of the Cold War. Both reached the Top 10, suggesting it was indeed business as usual for the band.

Although there are undoubtedly high points on Cargo, it’s overall a pretty soft album. “No Sign of Yesterday” is too languid, stretching to more than six minutes. It feels more like filler than proper musical exploration. And the band sounds a little lost when they do strike out in search of a new ripple to their sound. “Blue for You” adopts a reggae lilt, and “No Restrictions” has a moss of fusion on the instrumentation, both missteps common symptoms of the era. “Settle Down My Boy,” which features a rare lead vocal turn by guitarist Ron Strykert, and “High Wire” are more interesting, if only because they suggest Men at Work could have transformed themselves into a less anxious — and less brilliant — version of XTC.

Though a solid success with over three million copies moved in the U.S., Cargo was a disappointment when compared against its smash-hit predecessor, which managed twice that. Years later, lead singer Colin Hay thought he could pinpoint why Men at Work’s support started to fade with the album.

“I think we made the classic mistake of releasing Cargo too soon in America,” Hay reflected. “But we were being loyal to all our fans. We’d been loyal to our Australian fans, ’cause our first album had been out for a long time. We felt we should release the second album because people wanted it.”

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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