College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #455 to #453

455. The Tubes, Remote Control (1979)

It was a pairing destined to take pop excess to new heights. Across the late nineteen-seventies, the Tubes made a name for themselves by going large and bold with their rock pronouncements, like Elton John if the spangled Dodgers uniform and Donald Duck costume were aligned with the creations he put on record instead of standing as mere stage diversions. For the Tubes’ fifth album, production duties were handled by Todd Rundgren, who spent his whole career in pursuit on studio opulence. Whatever else might come from the collaboration, the resulting product was sure to be grandiose.

Rundgren urged Fee Waybill, the band’s lead singer and creative driver, to come up with a concept album. Waybill turned to a favorite novel for inspiration, freely borrowing the theme’s of Jerzy Kosinksi’s Being There (also the subject of an acclaimed, exceptional film adaptation released the same year). The resulting album, Remote Control, fixates on television as an evil entity. It’s the opiate of the masses and a vast wasteland, an easy target for derision, maybe too easy. The lyrics are filled with glib, dopey lyrics that make points in a thudding, didactic way. “Turn It On” is a rubbery rock that finds Waybill declaring, “Got a feeling something’s taken hold/ ‘Cause I’m flying by remote control/ No misunderstanding/ Before I make a landing/ I’ll lose my mind and I’ll trade my soul.” And “TV is King,” one of two songs officially credited as co-written by Rundgren, has all the nuance of an elementary school report written by a kid who’s just learned the concept of a thesis statement: “I really love my television/ I love to sit by television/ Can’t live without my television.”

Tuning out the words and concentrating on the music helps. The Tubes were always populated with skilled, exploratory musicians who could flit in and out of different genres at will. “No Mercy” has an agreeable blues rock structure, “Only the Strong Survive” is a neo-funk workout that anticipates the best of Was (Not Was), and “Prime Time” is a slick pop song that sits just adjacent to disco, boosted by charismatic vocals by Re Styles, a stage performer with the group who was given an occasional turn at the microphone. “Getoverture” is probably the pinnacle, reaching ever higher in its garishly gorgeous synth excess.

The original plan called for the Tubes to take Remote Control on the road with an elaborate stage show. After a few tryout gigs at UCLA, the band decided the stage falderal was distracting from the music, and the idea was scrapped in favor of a more basic tour. Remote Control did as well commercially as any other album from the Tubes up to that point, but it wasn’t good enough for their label, A&M Records. Midway through the recording of their next album, the band was dropped.

454. Camper Van Beethoven, Camper Van Beethoven (1986)

Camper Van Beethoven was at an enviable peak of prolificness. Just a few months after the release of their second full-length, II & III, the San Francisco band was back in the studio, joined by iconoclastic musician Eugene Chadbourne. Working with a restless experimenting heightened similar sensibilities within the band, and the resulting self-titled album is dazzling in its freewheeling spirit. Even the dead ends have the charm of beautifully overgrown cul-de-sacs.

Camper Van Beethoven opens with “Good Guys and Bad Guys,” as strong of a song as the band ever recorded. With chiming tones and a buoyant melody, the track’s lyrics lay out a sweet slacker manifesto: “So let’s get high while the radio’s on/ Just relax and sing a song/ Drive your car up on the lawn/ Let me play your guitar.” Given other lyrical efforts by David Lowery, the frontman of Camper Van Beethoven, there might be a tinge of irony to the laid-back aspirations, but the lines nonetheless so perfectly capture the romantic aimlessness of one’s early twenties to make “Good Guys and Bad Guys” one of the quintessential college radio songs of its era.

Much of the album strays from that easygoing vibe, flashing wild ambition and expansive musicianship. “Surprise Truck” is a thick psychedelic jam, and “Still Wishing to Course” is packed with jumpy, dense lyrics, like a Stephen Sondheim elocution workout rendered as college rock. “Hoe Yourself Down” is an antic bluegrass number, “Folly” has an offhand raga vibe, and “Stairway to Heavan” is experimental tape loop nonsense, like Butthole Surfers without the condescension. Anyone seeking out the goofball humor that previously put Camper Van Beethoven on the playlists of both MTV and Dr. Demento could find it in plenty of place on the album, notably the cheeky “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac and the Deadhead jibing of “We Saw Jerry’s Daughter” (“And the brothers and sisters are free to go where they want/ And be who they want to be/ And nobody wears flowers in their hair/ Cuz flowers are everywhere”). A cover of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” can be heard as another sort of japery or a claiming of a crown. The uncertainty was a major part of the appeal of Camper Van Beethoven at this point.

Following Camper Van Beethoven, the band appealed to a lot of people in the music industry. Not long after the album was released, the major labels came courting. The band signed with Virgin Records and proceeded to make the album that is arguably their finest work.

453. The Call, Reconciled (1986)

After the release of their 1984 album, Scene Beyond Dreams, the Call had a rough couple years. Disenchanted with their corporate home, Mercury Records, the band tried to extricate themselves from the contract. The squabble left them without a label for about two years, and when they finally managed to break away and sign instead with Elektra Records, the Call were motivated to make a big statement of a record. With major guests Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson, and Jim Kerr pitching in, The Call delivered Reconciled.

The album is lead by two strong rock songs, seemingly designed to reverberate off of every cranny of an arena. “Everywhere I Go” and “I Still Believe (Great Design)” are deviously catchy and have the soaring, anthemic quality of Kerr’s main outfit, Simple Minds, or even the standard bearers of grandiloquent modern rock music, U2. The cuts are so good, they seem a convincing rebuke against the former label that could never quite figure out how to position the Call and their unobtrusively pious lyrics. Were they best suited to album rock radio or did it make more sense to go straight for the Christian rock market?

It turned out Elektra Records wasn’t quite sure how to sell the band either. It didn’t help that the remainder of Reconciled is of shakier quality, even when recognizing it’s impressive in a way to pull off impeccable bombast, as the band does on “The Morning.” There’s simply too much schmaltz to material like “Tore the Old Place Down” and “Even Now,” swoon, causing the album to turn into a slog. The Call made one more album for Elektra — Into the Woods, released in 1987 — and then they found themselves again hunting for a new label.

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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