College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #407 to #405

407. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Southern Accents (1985)

Tom Petty thought it was time for a concept album. With his backing band, the Heartbreakers, Petty had made five albums of solid rock ‘n’ roll with a slew of radio hits. But he was also dogged by the perception that he never really got personal in his songwriting. Aiming to counter that narrative, Petty, a native Floridian, set himself on the task of making a record about the U.S. South. Working in his Los Angeles home studio, Petty thought the record could be his solo debut and yield enough material to stretch to double-album length. Instead, he gradually brought all the Heartbreakers into the process and largely abandoned the attempt at cohesion, casting aside some of the songs that spoke most specifically to his initial concept.

There are certainly vestiges of that album Petty started to make on the resulting album, Southern Accents, notably “Rebels,” in which a stereotypical good ol’ boy attributes his misbehavior to heritage (“Yeah, with one foot in the grave/ And one foot on the pedal/ I was born a rebel”), and the defensive title cut. It’s mostly Petty in his normal mode, though, albeit with glossy, mid–nineteen-eighties production values. He keeps pace with his kindred artists at the time, bringing a Sprinsteen-esque romp to “Dogs on the Run” and positioning him somewhere between Jackson Browne’s melodic yearning and Bob Seger’s elegiac romanticism on “The Best of Everything.”

The most distinctive tracks on Southern Accents are those that take on an uncommon collaborator, and, by extension, a notably different sound. Because he liked the song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” Petty suggested to his pal and frequent collaborator Stevie Nicks that she enlist the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart to help out on one of her solo albums. Petty was drawn into the recording process, tinkering with a song Stewart started after hearing Nicks decisively inform her ex-lover Joe Walsh that he was no longer welcome in her abode. Petty wound up adopting the song in question, layering it with steely psychedelic elements, in part because he liked the way Prince was playing with similar sounds at the time. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was released as a single and became the seventh Top 40 hit for the band. Stewart also pitched in on two other tracks, dueling disco hangovers “It Ain’t Nothin’ to Me” and “Make It Better (Forget About Me),” further scrambling the sound of the album.

Although Southern Accents lost its unifying motif, Petty and his cohorts still leaned into the Dixieland symbolism when the went on tour to support the album. Most notably, the Confederate battle flag was featured prominently, a choice Petty soon regretted. According to Petty, by the next tour he felt obligated to chastise the crowd for continuing to brandish it at his shows.

“Again, people just need to think about how it looks to a black person,” Petty wrote at around the time the state of South Carolina belatedly decided to refrain from flying the Confederate flag at their capitol. “It’s just awful. It’s like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person. It just shouldn’t be on flagpoles.”

406. The Romantics, The Romantics (1980)

Formed in Detroit, the Romantics took their creative and style cues from their hometown. When they were starting out, the band members wore matching outfits because that’s what they’d seen Motown acts do to successfully establish a visual signature, and they looked to preceding area acts, such as the MC5 and the Stooges, that took classic rock ‘n’ roll sounds and played them with a headlong brashness. They developed a strong fan following with local shows and quickly got a deal to record a full-length studio album for Nemporer Records, then operating as an effective subsidiary of Columbia Records. This was a prize they were aiming for, and they made every effort to make sure they had an assemblage of strong songs ready to go.

The Romantics is like a sixties garage rock record polished up to compete with the slickness of disco. The quarter roars through songs that have the confidence snap of early material by the Kinks. “When I Look in Your Eyes” and “First in Line” could fool the uninitiated into think they were taken from the Ray Davies songbook, and, as if emphasizing the kinship, “She’s Got Everything” is a Kinks covers that fits against the others as snugly as pristine Lego. They deliver bright pop on “Girl Next Door” and an enticing ballad with “Till I See You Again.” “Little White Lies” is a punchy bop. If there’s a slight air of the derivative about the album, there’s little doubt the Romantics are skilled practitioners, as best evidence by the near-perfect single “What I Like About You,” which practically positions them as a version of the Ramones just tame enough that they won’t scare the parents.

Although The Romantics was a strong bow, it didn’t make quite the dent in the national scene that everyone was expecting. “What I Like About You” might be one of those songs that’s dragged out as a classic hit, but it peaked outside the Billboard Top 40, and the band’s next couple albums sputtered on the charts. It took a few years before the breakthrough finally came, with the 1983 album In Heat. By then, it was starting to dawn on the band that they on their way to becoming one of the music businesses’s many cautionary tales, contractually cut out of the a sizable chunk of the money their records were earning.

405. The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, Distressed Gentlefolks (1986)

As he’s wont to do, Pat Fish, the creative heart and soul of the Jazz Butcher and all its many variations, offers an unguarded assessment of Distressed Gentlefolks, the group’s fourth full-length album.

“A Sri Lankan gentleman once sat down beside me in a bar in Bremen, asked me to sign his copy of this record, and then, even as I wrote messages of good luck and global harmony, announced sternly ‘This is a very…bad record,” notes Fish on the Jazz Butcher website. “He was a berk, but he had a point. Alan McGee and a number of people in France, America and The Music Business have called this one a ‘classic album.’ People do, of course, say much the same about Dark Side Of The Moon. Can you hear my flesh creeping? Germans, on the other hand, despise it almost universally.”

Fish reckons he was problematically indiscriminate at this point, recording every song that he wrote. Of course, when a songwriter is as clever and esoteric as Fish, even the dross is interesting. And, despite Fish’s withering appraisal, Distressed Gentlefolks is hardly dross. With crisp, clean production, the album traipses through a set of quietly assertive songs, from the sprightly amble “Falling in Love” to the album closing fulsomeness of “Angels.” Like Robyn Hitchcock, Fish has the uncanny ability to make deliriously oddball lyrics sound like little profundities. On the bouncy “Domestic Animal,” he sings, “He won’t make an exhibition/ He won’t watch your television/ He won’t drink your new French wine” and somehow makes it evocative. Maybe nothing on the album exemplifies this quality like “Hungarian Love Song,” which turns courtship into cherry gluttony (“We eat like porkers and drink like hell/ So let’s just sit in bed and talk/ And you can bring a knife and fork/ And bite bits and chew them well”).

Musically, the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy sometimes edges up to the genre included in its name, as on the sleepy swing number “Who Loves You Now?” More commonly, they’re essentially inventing the indie pop that would grow far more dominant on college radio several years later. “Still in the Kitchen” is basically a blueprint for all of Jarvis Cocker’s lush dramatics inside and outside of Pulp. And “Nothing Special” is like the Magnetic Fields at their jauntiest, right down to the wry joshing: “And I refuse point-blank to understand your jokes/ So I ain’t gonna move again/ I’ve seen the writing on the engine and it says/ The name of the train is The Nothing Special.”

Germans might not be right about this one.

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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