College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #437 to #435

437. Fabulous Poodles, Mirror Stars (1978)

For reasons that are hard to discern, Epic Records thought the Fabulous Poodles had the potential to become a major rock band in the U.S. The quartet certainly had the chops, playing tight renditions of well-crafted songs grounded in the structures perfected by nineteen-sixties British Invasion acts. They were sharp enough musicians that they were recruited by the legendarily cantankerous Chuck Berry to serve as his backing band on the road for a time. Epic signed the band and shuffled together tracks from their first two U.K. albums — a self-titled effort, released in 1977, and Unsuitable, from the following year — and called the new disc Mirror Stars. Epic invested in a major promotional push, including full-page ads in Billboard that specifically called attention to the scampish personality embedded in the songs. “The Poodles combine mature musicianship with gross juvenile humor” was one of the quoted culled from the British press for inclusion in the ad.

There’s not all that much evidence of gross juvenile humor, at least compared to later college radio practitioners of the form such as Dead Milkmen and Butthole Surfers, but the mature musicianship can clearly be heard. It’s quite an achievement that the Fabulous Poodles so often call to mind the Kinks, who maybe did smart, saucy, sardonic rock ‘n’ roll better than anyone else during the era. “Mirror Star” wrings wry charm from the story of forlorn teen who transforms into an arena-rock guitar hero in front of the reflecting surface in his bedroom, and “B Movies” even shares the romanticization of U.S. cinema that was central to a striking number of the Kinks’ songs. “Work Shy” might be the most Kinks-like, due to its irritated rebellion against nine-to-five doldrums and Tony de Meur’s braying lead vocals.

The Fabulous Poodles bring nice energy across the album. “Mr. Mike” is a jaunty ode to the allure of lead singers, and “Roll Your Own” celebrated self-twisted smokes, sounding like a fun throwaway from the Rolling Stones. “Oh Cheryl” has the retro drama of one a nineteen-sixties breakup song, complete with a murmured conversation in the middle, and “Cherchez La Femme” is just a strong, punchy rock song.

Aspirations for U.S. stardom didn’t pan out for the Fabulous Poodles. Despite some modest play on album rock radio stations, Mirror Stars never really took off. The band released one more album, 1979’s Think Pink, before shutting down for good.

436. Heart, Bébé Le Strange (1980)

Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson went into the recording of Heart’s fifth album, Bébé Le Strange, newly certain that the band belonged to them. Following the sizable success of Heart’s previous album, Dog & Butterfly, the band entered a tumultuous time, which included the eviction of founding guitarist Roger Fisher from the roster. Prompted in part by Fisher’s excessive partying and in part by the end of his romantic relationship with Nancy (who more of less simultaneously dated his brother, Mike, because the nineteen-seventies rock star lifestyle was messy), the change left the band without a distinctive shaper of their sound and one of their contributing songwriters. So the Wilsons doubled down on their songwriting collaboration with lifelong friend Sue Ennis.

“The writing process, which can be really hard sometimes, was so much fun for Bebe with the three of us together,” Ennis later reflected. “Ann and Nance were contractually obligated to write an album, so why not make it a joyful experience that can also be familial and exhilarating, as opposed to writing with the band.”

There’s definitely a sense on Bébé Le Strange that the Wilson’s don’t feel obligated to recreate past successes. The title cut has a fierce glam-rock undercurrent, and “Break” quivers with new wave agitation.The freedom also results in off-putting indulgence, though, as on the completely overworked “Rockin Heaven Down” and cluttered “Raised on You,” the latter a sprawling showcase for Nancy Wilson, who plays every instrument except the drums and takes a rare turn on lead vocal duties. The expanded scope comes closest to balancing ambition with honed rock song craft on “Even It Up,” a Top 40 hit that benefits from a guest appearance by the Tower of Power horns.

There’s some moments of more familiar Heart fare on the album, such as the slight, simple instrumental “Silver Wheels” and requisite power ballad “Sweet Darlin.” No matter how much restless creativity came forth in the Wilsons, wholesale reinvention wasn’t on the agenda, at least not yet. It would be a few more years before Heart underwent the major, MTV-era makeover that brought them the biggest hits of their career.

435. Ramones, Subterranean Jungle (1983)

The Ramones were in a state of disaster. After overt attempts at making pop hits — on the 1980 album End of the Century and the 1981 album Pleasant Dreams — proved to be predictably fruitless, the band members were barely on speaking terms, individual stubbornness the only thing preventing a declaration of resignation that would effectively end the group. Embittered by the disappointment of the preceding records, they started from a place of anger and mistrust, confronting their new producer Ritchie Cordell, the man behind some of the biggest hits of Tommy James and the Shondells, as soon as he walked in the door.

“I was so upset after fifteen minutes that I tried to leave and walked into the closet,” Cordell told Rolling Stone. “They didn’t trust me for over a week, but then they were open to suggestions.”

The clear goal, according to all involved, was to make a real Ramones record again, to try to recapture the bruising energy of the band’s earliest albums. As if emphasizing their recommitment to their roots, the Ramones open the album with two borrowed songs: “Little Bit O Soul,” a hit for the Music Explosion, and “I Need Your Love,” written by Bobby Dee Waxman. They’re just garage-rock guys, bashing out songs they love, the sequencing argues. They want to play their instruments as loud as possible and shout their way to the end of each song. The lyrics of “Somebody Like Me” lay out the credo: “I am just a guy who likes to rock and roll/ I am just a guy who likes to get drunk/ I am just a guy who likes to dress punk/ Get my kicks an’ live up my life.”

If the material on Subterranean Jungle rarely pushes into Ramones classic territory, it’s at least consistently solid. The lean “Outsider,” the petulant kiss-off song “What’d Ya Do?,” and the Joey Ramone–penned oddity “Everytime I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Thing of You” are suitably charging and chewy. The band reclaims their mantle as proper punk rockers on the furious “Psycho Therapy” and “Time Bomb,” the latter featuring lead vocals by Dee Dee Ramone, marking the first instance Joey stepped away from the microphone on a Ramones album. Only a cover of “Time Has Come Today” suffers from the bloat that marred the album’s immediate predecessors.

If most agreed that Subterranean Jungle put the Ramones back on the track that suited them best, the dysfunction dogging them wasn’t lifted. Most of the band members were dealing with some level of drug or alcohol abuse issues, and drummer Marky Ramone was handed his walking papers after he missed a gig because he was on a bender with retired baseball slugger Roger Maris. Getting bombed with a Yankee is a very Ramones way to smash up a career.

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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