College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #452 to #450

452. Berlin, Pleasure Victim (1982)

No one was really taking the group Berlin seriously at the time they released the album Pleasure Victim, least of all the individuals on the band’s roster. From the time the band formed in 1978, there had been near-constant shifts in personnel, and John Crawford, Berlin’s keyboardist, bassist, and chief songwriter, was preoccupied with his new group, Fahrenheit. Berlin was as an afterthought, basically a side project. But they’d recently reunited with Terri Nunn, the lead singer who was the best fit with the band’s synth sounds, so they decided to scratch together a few songs. Pleasure Victim was jointly released by M.A.O Records and Enigma Records to little fanfare.Then the laughably blatant track “Sex (I’m A…)” became a club hit. Geffen Record swooped it to grab the album, giving it a big rerelease push. Berlin didn’t suddenly become stars, but there was a sense they were on their way.

Pleasure Victim is an album the expertly reflects its moment, as the echoes of European pop, disco, and new wave were combining to form a new, elusive sound, and the emerging influence of MTV was giving it all a sheen of picturesque glamor. At their best, Berlin channeled all that into deeply intriguing music. Splendid single “The Metro” is like Krautrock nicely honeyed up for mass consumption, and “Tell Me Why” shrewdly contrasts a jittery digital rhythm against Nunn’s warmer take on Debbie Harry’s icy seduction. But there all also signs that, as was the case, maybe everyone’s hearts aren’t in it. “Torture” is dull and languid, and “Masquerade” is no better than adequate, sounding more like a lackluster copy of a nineteen-eighties song rather than a true artifact of the era.

Following Pleasure Victim, Berlin was suddenly committed, sensing they just might have the code to greater success. And greater success is precisely what came their way, first with the 1984 album Love Life and then with a soundtrack contribution that became such a massive hit that it helped define the entire decade.

451. The Jam, The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow) EP (1982)

Paul Weller returned from a summer holiday with bad news for his bandmates. Although the Jam were enjoying the greatest commercials success they’d ever known, notching their first chart-topping album early in the year, Weller decided he’d had enough of that particular grind. He wanted to dissolve the band before the calendar year was up. The only remaining discussion was the exit strategy. The Jam’s label, Polydor Records, noted they were still owed a couple of singles, so work got underway. The first song to be release wad the band’s penultimate single: “The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow).”

Recalling the verve and melodic magic of Nick Lowe, “The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow)” was perceived as Weller’s way of slyly proving that he could conjure up the same sort of smooth pop that other artists were enjoying great success with. So it became an especially weird sort of parting shot, a senses-spinning reminder of what the band decisively wasn’t. If it’s meant to have a satirical spin, it fails in its mild mockery because it’s plainly terrific, even if it’s out of step with the other material in the band’s repertoire. It also, perhaps unsurprisingly, forecasts the kind of elder statesman refined rock that Weller would regularly craft years later.

For the EP version, the track is joined by the usual hodgepodge, including an odd, trippy cover of Edwin Starr’s “War” and the inconsequential goof “Pity Poor Alfie,” which segues seamlessly into another cover, this one of well-used pop classic “Fever.” More intriguing is “The Great Depression,” which couples a cheery sound to barbed lyrics of abject misery (“Into the abyss/ By pushing forwards/ It’s always down/ It’s a desperate war”), yet another version of Weller’s nearly peerless skill for delightfully discombobulating contrasts.

Around a month after the release of “The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow),” the Jam made their plans public. They released only one more single, and it was maybe as good as a formal farewell as any band ever had.

450. Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick at Budokan (1979)

The album’s advertisements promised it would be “The Biggest Thing Since Transistors!” As is turned out, that wasn’t mere hyperbole.

By all accounts, Cheap Trick were in a desperate place. After three studio albums, the Rockford, Illinois band had yet to register a hit and were about a million dollars in debt. Japan was the one market where they’d enjoyed a bit of success, so Cheap Trick hoped to shore up their finances by playing a few shows there and recording them with an eye towards a live album that could be released in the country. Two shows at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan arena were put to tape, as Cheap Trick blazed through several songs in front of capacity crowds screaming like they were the Beatles.

Although the original plan held and Cheap Trick at Budokan was released only in Japan, the band’s label sensed there might be broader possibilities. Several tracks were repurposed onto the promotional EP From Tokyo to You, which was sent to U.S. radio stations. When it started garner more airplay than any of Cheap Trick’s preceding albums ever did, Epic Records quickly brought Cheap Trick at Budokan out in North America. It became a smash, heading to the upper reaches of the Billboard album chart and pushing the single “I Want You to Want Me” into the Top 10. That cut — long with “Surrender” — immediately became a fixture of album rock radio.

In general, Cheap Trick at Budokan is a remarkably solid outing, one of the rare instances of a rock band being far better served by a live album than anything they ever did in the studio. It has shortfalls that are typical of the form, such as the indulgent “Need Your Love,” which is presumably meant to be a showcase for the band’s crack musicianship but just comes across as tediously long. More often, Cheap Trick comes up with a full, fabulous sound, obviously feeding off the enormous, enthusiastic crowd. The grandly ridiculous opener “Hello There” almost rivals Kiss in terms of doltishly literal showmanship excess (“Hello there, ladies and gentlemen/ Hello there, ladies and gents/ Are you ready to rock?/ Are you ready or not?”), and “Clock Strikes Ten” is brightly brash as lead singer Robin Zander shouts out party night inanities (“Not stayin’ home gonna stay out late/ Gotta hear some rockin’ music and it feels just great”). The thickened glam rock of “Big Eyes” and the leather-tough cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” reinforce the idea that Cheap Trick, in that startling moment, can go chord to chord with just about any other rock band out there.

Even with a later chart-topper (the utterly insipid ballad “The Flame”), Cheap Trick never quite matched the heights of Cheap Trick at Budokan. But the record blessed them with that dreadfully difficult prize for a rock band: permanence. A group on the edge of folding instead got the golden ticket of making music for friendly fans for as long as they cared to do it. Forty years later, they’re still at it, with largely the same lineup that took the stage in Tokyo, all of them unaware at the time of the complete change of fortune that was on the immediate horizon.

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

2 thoughts on “College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #452 to #450

  1. With the exception of the RnR Hall Of Fame induction in 2016, Bun E Carlos has not played with Cheap Trick or been on any recordings since 2010. Daxx Nielsen has been the drummer since 2010.

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