College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #461 to #459

461. Peter Schilling, Error in the System (1983)

For someone making arch synth-pop in the early nineteen-eighties, it was probably pretty obvious which established artist could be pilfered from most productively. German performer Peter Schilling muscled his way into the annals of U.S. one-hit wonders with “Major Tom (Coming Home),” a cut that drew its inspiration and narrative from David Bowie’s 1969 rock classic “Space Oddity.” The drifting spookiness and soaring majesty of Bowie’s song was replaced by new wave agitation in Schilling’s reimagining, and the update felt exactly right for its moment. It made it into the Top 20 of the Billboard chart.

The tale of outer space woe appears on Schilling’s debut full-length, Error in the System. Released in his native country one year earlier as Fehler im System, the material on the album was translated from his mother tongue into English. Inevitably, the language shift resulted in some awkward phrasing. More often than not, though, the stiffness of the lyrics worked with Schilling’s suave-robot pop. “Only Dreams” opens with Schilling intoning, “Every day you sit near the TV / Who always get the girl?/ Wish it were me,” and it somehow makes perfect sense. Contradictions abound on the album, as with “I Have No Desire,” which is somehow dreamy and edgy at the same time.

Error in the System if of its moment in every conceivable way. The album includes ill-advised dabbling with reggae beats — on “Lifetime Guarantee” — and agitprop mockery of the United States — on “Let’s Play U.S.A.,” with lyrics that could have been nicked from any one of the scabrous U.K. punk bands flecking their audiences with spittle in London’s direst clubs (“Where oh where is Mickey Mouse/ Live and well in the White House”). And the material is all performed with Volkswagen precision. Schilling was practically a nostalgia act by the time the calendar flipped to a new year. Schilling remained a reasonable success in Germany for years to come, but elsewhere he faded quickly from the scene. Borrowing Bowie’s spaceman is easy enough. Duplicating Bowie’s longevity as a global store is whole other feat of pop engineering.

460. The Beat Farmers, Van Go (1986)

As they recorded their sophomore album, the Beat Farmers were saddled with the perception that they were a novelty act. “Happy Boy,” a cut off the band’s debut, Tales of the New West, was received with love on Dr. Demento’s syndicated radio show of wacky wonders and got picked up by other similarly scampish radio programmers from coast to coast. There was unmistakably a snarky sense of humor to the San Diego band started by Country Dick Montana and Jerry Raney, but there was real musicianship and craftsmanship, too. The surprise success of “Happy Boy” helped get the Beat Farmers signed to Curb Records, the MCA subsidiary that specialized in smart acts with a country twang to them. Whether or not the Beat Farmers felt they had something to prove, Van Go, the first album made under the major label pact, argued they were capable of more than quick-hit comedy.

On Van Go, the Beat Farmers comes across as an aces bar band who get better in the second set, after band and audience alike are little more lubricated. “Riverside” moves back and forth between prowl and romp, a trick Morphine employed with a similar sound years later. “Deceiver” is marvelous rock slop, and “Blue Chevrolet” is built on an irresistibly juicy blues riff. “Road of Ruin” demonstrates such an intricate command of vintage sixties pop that it could be a Smithereens song, and a cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” remarkably makes the Beat Farmers seems like worthy successors to the bard of the backwoods.

Even when the band does tilt towards tomfoolery, the results are more assured and less throwaway than previously. When a track opens with a pogo beat, Montana’s bass vocals are sure to come bounding in, as is the case with “I Want You, Too” and “Big Ugly Wheels.” Both songs are dandy, but the real winner among the less serious fare is the twanging satire of “Gun Sale at the Church” (“Well, we’ll ask the Lord to forgive us of all our sins/ And we’ll look at the latest in gold-plated firing pins/ Well, my two main men are Jesus and old John Birch/ So we’re going on down to the gun sale at the church”). More than before, the comedy connects and leaves a bruise.

The Beat Farmers released two more albums on Curb Records before the band extricated themselves from a contract they deemed unfair. They weren’t long into their next era of recording and playing when Montana fell ill, eventually suffering a fatal heart attack while performing on stage. The other band members brought the group to formal end a few days later.

459. Heavy Metal soundtrack (1981)

Four years after making its debut on U.S. newsstands, Heavy Metal went to the movies. Based on — and sometimes copied directly from — the French publication Métal hurlant, the new magazine introduced a largely unseen style of comic book storytelling to readers far more accustomed to the superhero sagas offered by Marvel and DC. Heavy Metal was filled with science fiction and fantasy stories, rendered with graphic violence and rampant nudity. This sort of material also wasn’t the typical makings of animated feature films, but publisher Leonard Mogel took a look at the box office tally for Star Wars and figured there was an audience ready to see fantastical fiction pitched at adults. Mogel teamed with up-and-coming Canadian filmmaker Ivan Reitman to produce the film and brought in veteran animator Gerald Potterton to direct.

A movie called Heavy Metal obviously needed a soundtrack with properly aligned tunes so an array of yelping, yowling rock acts were selected to contribute songs to accompany the stories adapted from the publication. Largely recorded for the film, the set of songs filled up a double album that appropriately kicks off with Sammy Hagar belting his way through the cut “Heavy Metal.” “Prefabricated,” from the French band Trust, has a classic metal guitar riff that could be used to explain the genre to a novice, and “The Mob Rules” is previously unreleased Black Sabbath demo from the era Ronnie James Dio was at the center microphone. These songs coexist on the soundtrack with drab fusion Donald Fagen (“True Companion”) and the Journey power ballad that would soon dominate school dances (“Open Arms,” taken from the band’s album Escape, released at the same time as the soundtrack). The disparate material is sequenced as well as it could be, but there are still whiplash moments in any listen.

As is almost always the case with an assembled-by-committee soundtrack album, quality varies widely. Because there’s some doubling up on the album, sometimes even a single act races to both ends of the spectrum. Riggs offers both the dreadful hard rock track “Heartbeat” (with the laughably bad lyrics “My pulse is going crazy/ With the touch of your hand/ Ah, c’mon, get out your stethoscope/ And make me feel like a man”) and the chewy glam rock of “Radar Rider.” And Cheap Trick demonstrates how they can be both exhaustingly repetitive (“Reach Out”) and goofily ambitious (“I Must Be Dreamin'”). It’s probably telling that two of the strongest cuts come from artists confident enough to simply do their own thing, the prompt of the film’s title be damned. Stevie Nicks does her casual pop dervish thing on “Blue Lamp,” and Devo gives “Workin’ in the Coalmine” their standard sardonic-art-rock revamp.

Heavy Metal was a tepid performer at the box office, but the soundtrack moved plenty of copies, peaking at #12 on the Billboard album chart. The music on the soundtrack proved problematic in the long haul. Producers didn’t have the foresight to secure rights beyond initial theatrical release and soundtrack, so it would be around fifteen years before the Heavy Metal made it to home video and its soundtrack was issued on CD.

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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