College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #428 to #426

428. The Boomtown Rats, A Tonic for the Troops (1978)

The Boomtown Rats were getting big in the U.K. and it was time to conquer the bigger, more lucrative market on the other side of the Atlantic. A Tonic for the Troops, the band’s sophomore album, holds a batch of songs there were hit singles in the U.K. Among that list is “Rat Trap,” which became the first rock song from an Irish band to take the top spot on the U.K. charts. Since the song sounds a little bit like Jim Carroll fronting the E Street Band, there was entirely reasonable speculation that the group had the potential to make headway with U.S. audiences, too. With a slightly rejiggered track list, Columbia records gave A Tonic for the Troops a spirited push, touting it as an “album full of pep and vinegar” in advertisements. Unfortunately, Mercury Records, which also had a piece of the album, opted for a more unorthodox, and ultimately counterproductive promotional method, shipping double-bagged dead rats to radio station, record stores, and music journalists. The gimmick was not well-received.

It’s possible that the Boomtown Rats’ momentum was slowed by the ill-advised mailing, but it’s more likely that the album was discombobulating to North American radio programmers. Sure, there were those elements of the bold-showmanship rock that Bruce Springsteen was slinging to slowly mounting mainstream attention (in addition to previously mentioned “Rat Trap,” the thumping “Joey’s on the Street Again” could have made the most jaded Stone Pony audience beam). More of the record twisted up punk snarl with power-pop theatricality in a manner that wasn’t exactly revolutionary but still stood out as an oddity. “Me and Howard Hughes” has the hard-candy verve of a Rocky Horror number, “Don’t Believe What You Read” is boisterous and sassy, and “She’s So Modern” is best described as greasy glam. Even the cuts most obviously indebted to punk, such as “Blind Date,” operate on their own, scene-immune plane.

A Tonic for the Troops might have been a disappointment in the U.S., but the Boomtown Rats were an emerging force back home. They kept plugging away making barbed, pointed music. In fact, the next single they released after this album was one of those songs that secures an act a permanent place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll.

427. Bruce Woolley & the Camera Club, Bruce Wooley & the Camera Club (1979)

Bruce Woolley was having a difficult time finding his place in the music industry. A precocious songwriter, Woolley had a frustrating stint as a writer for a publishing company that farmed out his compositions to other artists. Feeling his tunes were being butchered, he joined up with other musicians to set up a band, working with a couple different crews simultaneously. The group he stuck with was dubbed the Camera Club, and they released their debut album in 1979, billed to Woolley with the Camera Club as his backup group. Titled English Garden in Woolley’s native U.K., Columbia Records decided that there weren’t enough Anglophiles buying records in the U.S. The album became a self-titled effort in North America and was adorned with a sleek, new wave–style cover.

Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club could be proffered as a means of explaining new wave music to the uninitiated. The pogoing “You Got Class,” brisk and nervy “Johnny,” and race car–sleek “You’re the Circus (I’m the Clown)” are textbook examples of the way smartly attuned artists were refining pop music with precision, discovering edgier, bolder approaches that still respected — reveled in, really — the appeal of a really, really good hook. “English Garden” is a slice of artful space age pop, but the bulk of the album has a razor-cut directness to it. It clicks and sparks with delighted invention.

The most famous song on the album was taken from the other band Woolley briefly worked with at about the same time he launched the Camera Club. Woolley teamed with Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes as they were developing a band called the Buggles. Though Woolley parted ways with the duo, he figured the material he worked on with them was fair game for his other group. One of those songs was about performers getting pushed by new technologies that didn’t necessarily play to their strengths. Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club deliver their version of “Video Killed the Radio Star” with a bounding energy and slight undercurrent of punk brashness that recalls the music of the Cars from about the same era. The Buggles decided to record their own version of the song, with a little more polish, and it worked out fairly well for them.

426. Game Theory, The Big Shot Chronicles (1985)

“I always consider myself doing something weirder than any band on Earth,” Scott Miller told Spin magazine at around the time that The Big Shot Chronicles, Game Theory’s third full-length album, was released.

It might be true that no one else at the time was framing a love song the way Miller does on the piercingly beautiful album closer “Like a Girl Jesus” (“Brightness as pure as December sunshine/ And like a girl Jesus she makes it mine/ Without a doubt, puts herself down on the line/ And like a girl Jesus she’s undefined”), but most listeners likely heard the material on The Big Shot Chronicles as well-established pop forms rendered with exquisite expertise. The band went through major tumult, and Miller, the frontman and chief songwriter, wound up as the only original member left. He reformed the group to suit the directions he wanted to go in, and went about crafting jangly, bright tunes with dazzling hooks. Elevating the songs further, the Miller and the rest of Game Theory worked with producer Mitch Easter, the moment’s undisputed master of presiding over college rock classics, to make a spinning treasure.

The Big Shot Chronicles is a survey of every sound college radio programmers found irresistible in the middle of the nineteen-eighties. “Here It is Tomorrow” swirls and careens with power-pop energy, “Never Mind” unleashed delicious dueling guitars, and “Regenisraen” has a gloomy, moony vibe, like the Church without the hint of slightly haughty mysticism. “I’ve Tried Subtlety” is a chunk of great bar rock, and “Erica’s Word” lopes along with marvelous, head-bobbing verve. Both “The Only Lesson Learned” and the tender-hearted ballad “Too Closely” sound like they could have slotted onto a less ambitious version of Fables of the Reconstruction, the R.E.M. album released that year that was their first outing without Easter at the helm.

The album drew rave reviews and quickly outpaced earlier Game Theory albums in sales. Like other artists claiming lots of college radio airplay at the time, Game Theory seemed poised for a breakthrough. That fed into a major burst of ambition when time came to record the follow-up. For their next record, Game Theory would go big.

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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