College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #434 to #432

434. Brian Eno/David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)

In between making the second and third albums by Talking Heads, David Byrne and Brian Eno took a side trip. Two restless explorers, the Talking Heads frontman and the band’s producer starting experimenting with found sounds, from radio broadcasts, world music records, and other obscure sources. They took the recording of different verbalizations and matched them up with deep, intricate electronic music, emerging with soundscapes the skirted around the edges of pop without taking a solid step into the form. Because they borrowed from distant shores, the collaborators also looked far afield when determining their title, eventually taking a name directly from a 1954 novel by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola. At the time, neither Eno nor Byrne had read My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, but the title felt to them like a proper reflection of what they’d just created.

There are spots on the album where echos of sounds crafted for Talking Heads records are clear, such as the freak-out ambient funk number “America is Waiting” or the jittery workout “The Jezebel Spirit.” More often, the album is a gentle head trip, as if a dozen half-remembered tones are conjured up at the same time, sometimes echoing of one another. A Lebanese mountain singer caresses a soulful groove on “Regiment” and then returns on the more ethereal “The Carrier.” At its wildest, the album seems to be trying to invent a new form of music while simultaneously showing up the schematics being used to mount the task. That can be messy, even off-putting, but it can also result in “Come with Us,” which like a computer going through the agonizing process to transform into Bootsy Collins.

Sorting through rights for audio samples was still a relatively new concept for record companies, and it took some time before the album was released. When it arrived, it was strikingly successfully for a deeply complicated piece of work. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts peaked at #44 on the Billboard album chart, which wasn’t that far below the mid-twenties range Talking Heads records were reaching at about the same time. It also became a widely celebrated album, routinely held up by critics as a unique achievement of the era. The accolades didn’t spur Eno and Byrne to eagerly team up again. More than thirty years passed before the next album billed to the duo, 2008’s warmly received Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.

433. Blondie, Parallel Lines (1978)

Chrysalis Records co-founder Terry Ellis gave producer Mike Chapman a clear charge when he was brought onboard to oversee Blondie’s third album.

“On Parallel Lines, I was given the responsibility by Terry Ellis to put this band at the top of the charts,” Chapman later explained. “He knew they could achieve that, and I knew it, too, but I also knew, given how they were when I began working with them, that it might never happen.”

Formed in New York City and reared in the local punk scene that played out largely in legendary clubs Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, the members of Blondie were used to bashing out songs and moving on. Chapman, taken aback by what he assessed as woefully inadequate musicianship, forced the band to tirelessly toil on material. He wasn’t after adequacy. He wanted Blondie to make the great album that he, and others, suspected they had in them. A slapdash approach wasn’t acceptable any longer.

The improved level of craft is thrillingly evident on the album. Just as Ramones drew on the garage rock of a decade earlier and amped it up into something bold and new, Blondie made callbacks sound vividly alive and freshly invented. “Pretty Baby,” “11:59,” and “Sunday Girl” all have a slickly retro feel, recalling girl group pop of the nineteen-sixties while simultaneously vibrating with modernity. On the album, Blondie delivered big pop cacophonies, such as “Picture This” and “Fade Away and Radiate,” and punk-influenced jabs of convincing toughness, on “One Way or Another” and “Hanging on the Telephone,” the latter originally by Los Angeles band the Nerves. The album closes with “Just Go Away,” the one track on which lead singer Debbie Harry has sole songwriting credit, which manages to bundle all the established qualities in one place, with Harry delivering bristling attitude on the brash lyrics (“You got a big mouth and I’m happy to see/ Your foot is firmly entrenched where a molar should be/ If you talk much louder you could get an award/ From the federal communications board”).

As for the mandate to reach the top of the chart, it was a song that the band presented to Chapman as almost an afterthought that accomplished the feat. After they’d shared everything else in their songbook, Chapman asked if there was anything else. All that was left was a tune they’d been tinkering with for a couple years that was officially called “Once I Had a Love,” but that everyone in the group referred to as “The Disco Song.” Chapman encouraged them to embrace the disco element, which aligned with Harry’s recent affection for the music created by Italian artist Giorgio Moroder. Leaning in the mirror-ball rapture, Blondie worked the song to pure perfection, dubbing the finished product “Heart of Glass.” Released as the album’s fourth single, “Heart of Glass” was the first Blondie song to crack the Billboard Hot 100. And it was also their first to climb all the way to the pinnacle of the chart.

432. Squeeze, Babylon and On (1987)

When Squeeze tried to mount a comeback after an initial breakup, the results were lackluster. Not long after, the band’s frontman, Glenn Tilbrook, thought he knew why.

”On Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, the music was intricate for intricacy’s sake,” Tilbrook told The New York Times. “I had the burden around my neck of being called a great songwriter, and it made me very self-conscious about my writing. My best work has always been intuitive rather than analytical.”

For the band’s next album, Babylon and On, Tilbrook and his cohorts, including his longtime songwriting partner, Chris Difford, pointedly took a different approach. Rather than recording the album bit by bit, Squeeze played together in the studio, doing their best to capture the energy and assurance of their live performances. And the forever feuding Tilbrook and Difford even managed to write together in the same room on occasion. The product of one of those sessions was “Hourglass,” a jaunty tune about the band’s dwindling opportunities to make good on their early promise (“The hourglass has no more grains of sand/ My watch has stopped, no more turning hands/ The crew have abandoned ship/ The lights are on but now one is in”). Amusingly, the song about running out of time to make it big became Squeeze’s first Top 40 hit in the U.S.

The remainder of Babylon and On improves on the band’s previous album, even if the material is still miles away from Squeeze’s early-eighties creative peak. Many of the songs stick to the Difford-Tilbrook norm of relating tales of workaday woe and regrettable human impulse in shimmering pop song structures. “Trust Me to Open My Mouth” is a bouncy tune about inadvertently revealing an affair (“I need a gobstopper/ To keep my trap shut”) and “The Prisoner” uses an incarceration metaphor to describe a woman’s escape from a bad marriage. “Tough Love” is a plodding carnival trudge with lyrics about alcoholism and an abusive relationship. Heartbreak reverberates with every new encounter with an answering machine message on “853-5937.” And Squeeze gets more political than usual on the McCartney-esque “Some Americans,” which was inspired the U.S. bombing of Libya.

Babylon and On looked like a breakthrough, but it was only a fluke. By the band’s next album, 1989’s Frank, U.S. fans were again largely indifferent to new music from Squeeze. A&M Records dropped the band not long after its release.

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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