College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #464 to #462

doves vice

464. Thrashing Doves, Bedrock Vice (1987)

“I loved it,” Margaret Thatcher announced after watching the video for Thrashing Doves’ jagged pop-rock single“Beautiful Imbalance” on the children’s television show Saturday Superstore. “I liked the constant music. I liked the color. There’s always something going on. I’d give it a four.”

By 1987, the iron-willed British Prime Minister had spent the whole of the decade inspiring protest songs, so getting her endorsement was hardly a boon for a pop act on the way up. The band members laughed it off at the time, insisting everyone knew she was full of bollocks. Years later, though, the incident was cited as the beginning of the end of their fledgling career, the disdain for Thatcher so total among U.K. record buyers that her endorsement was toxic. At least one columnist referred to the phenomenon of conservative politicians inadvertently torpedoes the careers of bands by simply expressing interest and affection for them as The Curse of the Thrashing Doves.

To give a bit of a break to Thatcher, the Thrashing Doves’ music might have had something to do with the precipitous fall as well. The material on Bedrock Vice, the debut album from which “Beautiful Imbalance” sprung, is slicked-up, soulless synth-pop, not far removed from that of other practitioners of disposable grooves such as Curiosity Killed the Cat and Johnny Hates Jazz. The bland, mid-tempo “The Grinding Stone” is a typical example, as is “Magdalena,” which is almost smarmy in its artificiality. It occasionally seems as if they’re trying to invent something new. If college rock is a thing, they perhaps reasoned, maybe there could be college disco, too, and out comes “Killer for You.”

Led by brothers Ken and Brian Foreman, the London-based band also knows just enough of a knack for deeply embedded hooks to suggest they could have evolved past the scene they were already a little too late for. “Northern Civil War Party” sound similar to the Wonder Stuff, a better band that started around the same time, albeit without the difference-making bravado. On a less promising tack, “Jesus on the Payroll” makes them sound like a version of the Hooters or the Rainmakers from the other side of the Atlantic. Whatever challenges Thrashing Doves faced, they weren’t prepared to meet them. There was only one more album under that name — and a futile attempt at rebranding on a third record — before the band folded for good.

 

joan secret

463. Joan Armatrading, Secret Secrets (1985)

A&M Records was convinced they could turn Joan Armatrading into a commercially viable artist. After pushing her to come up with some additional, radio-friendly songs on the album The Key, Armatrading delivered “Drop the Pilot,” which became her first song to crack the Billboard Hot 100. For her follow-up, there was hunt to get Armatrading a producer who could expand on that modest success. They settled on former Gong bassist Mike Howlett, who was enjoying a mounting reputation as a producer of refined pop thanks to work with the likes of Berlin and A Flock of Seagulls. Howlett later conceded that Armatrading didn’t really need his help. Sure enough, the album he worked on, Secret Secrets, would be Armatrading’s last that employed an outside producer.

Armatrading’s songs on the album are packed with emotional heft in the lyrics, but the obvious attempt to burnish them for Top 40 constantly threatens to undermine the material. The thinned-out power ballad “One Night” and the overly dramatic “Persona Grata” comes the closest to swamping out Armatrading’s artistry. Elsewhere, her inspiration prevails: “Moves” is plainly a slick, effective rock song, and the title cut has a restless forcefulness that’s arresting. “Love By You,” which features Joe Jackson guesting on keyboards, is like Elton John of the era, but with more grit. The trend-chasing pop of “Thinking Man” best shows how Armatrading is able to transcend the smothering production on a song, as the track grows larger and bolder in assertiveness as it goes, until the performer has overtaken the packaging.

Nothing from Secret Secrets repeated the brief success of “Drop the Pilot.” In fact, Armatrading never places a single on the pop chart again, instead settling into a determined career in which she kept making music and doing her own thing. Not more than a couple years have gone by without a new album, her most recent being Not Too Far Away, released in 2018. Her reputation solidified along the way as one of those rare artists who was simply too good for the music business, which makes it a gratifying relief that she found her own way rather than faded to anonymity.

 

dolby aliens

462. Thomas Dolby, Aliens Ate My Buick (1988)

Thomas Dolby didn’t make albums quickly, but there’s no denying that he put a lot into them. Aliens At My Buick was Dolby’s full-length effort and it trailed its predecessor, The Flat Earth, by more than four full years. Layered and gratingly grandiose, the album is like Dolby’s attempt to position himself as the proper successor to Frank Zappa. With self-satisfied stabs at distinct musical genres and a snarky sense of humor, Dolby continuously pushes himself forward as a sort of huckster artiste.

The hollow showmanship inflates to bursting right from the opening track. “The Key to Her Ferrari” is antic modernized swing music, as if created by a malfunctioning robot that had one Fred Astaire movie loaded backwards into its CPU. It’s a bad sign if Robin Leach bellowing nonsense is the least obnoxious part of a song. Dolby tries out Prince’s squawking guitar soul on “My Brain is Like a Sieve” and borrows a song from George Clinton — evidently a leftover from Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends, the 1985 Clinton album Dolby pitched in on — to give funk a go on “Hot Sauce.” On “The Ability to Swing,” he offers a jazz pastiche so limp and inauthentic that it makes Sting’s similar dabbling at around that time sound like John fucking Coltrane. The album closes with the pure tedium that is “Budapest by Blimp,” which is like the elegant pop of the Blue Nile as performed by someone with a more limited attention span but the same committed to filling up several minutes on the side of a record.

Dolby enjoyed a modest MTV hit with this album’s “Airhead,” and I’ll admit that the track’s hook is insidiously catchy, all the better to tune out the progression of bad jokes that make up the lyrics (“My friends say she’s a dumb blonde/ But they don’t know she dyes her hair”). It’s still a long, long way from the irresistible showmanship and brimming comic energy of Dolby’s signature hit, “She Blinded Me with Science.” Maybe Dolby himself knew he was stalling out. He only released two more albums after Aliens Ate My Buick, largely diverting his energies toward other endeavors, including, for much of the last decade, working as an educator.

 

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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