College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #395 to #393

395. Madness, Madness (1983)

The ska band Madness delivered a series of Top 10 at home in the U.K., but that similar success eluded them on the other side of the Atlantic. After both their debut, One Step Beyond…, and its follow-up, Absolutely, underperformed in the U.S., Madness was dropped by their North American label, Sire Records, and couldn’t find any takers for their next couple releases. Then John Kalodner, an executive with relatively new label Geffen Records, was in the U.K. providing some support to the supergroup Asia and they prepped for their sophomore album.

“We in the car and ‘Our House‘ came on the radio,” Kalodner recalled. “And we turned to each other and said, ‘That’s a hit for anybody. For Madness, that’ll be a hit in America.’ Madness has never sold any records in America, but I just knew that they could.”

Geffen quickly signed Madness to a deal. Rather than simply plop the group’s latest album, The Rise & Fall, into U.S. record bins, Geffen took advantage of unfamiliarity with Madness in the market, pulling together material from a variety of entries in the band’s discography, creating a loose best-of collection with “Our House” right at the front. The self-titled album allowed for the inclusion of previous U.K. chart hits such as the lilting “It Must Be Love,” jaunty “Shut Up,” and the bouncy prowl of “Night Boat to Cairo.” Perhaps most emblematic of the band’s predominant style, “House of Fun” is loose-limbed ska that was Madness’s sole U.K. chart-topper.

Even with the selective track list, U.S. listeners still needed to stretch a bit and adapt to Madness’s determination to write songs about the specific challenges they saw in the culture around them in the U.K. The workaday lament in “Cardiac Arrest” might be broadly relatable if not for the exceeding British details in the lyrics: “Papers in the morning/ Bowler hat on head/ Walking to the bus stop/ He’s longing for his bed.” And the swanky, buzzy “Blue Skinned Beast” satirized Margaret Thatcher and her questionable leadership choice that resulted in the Falklands Islands War. Johnny and Janey USA might still find it catchy, but they were going to need to do some outside reading to properly grasp the lyrics.

Whatever challenges might have existed for Madness — and Madness — within the Thirteen Colonies and their thirty-seven geographic cohorts, the Geffen suit was completely right about “Our House.” Bolstered by heavy play on MTV, the song was a major hit in the U.S., making it all the way to the Billboard Top 10. As predicted, they sold some records in America.

394. Eurythmics, Revenge (1986)

Annie Lennox was coming off a rough couple years when she and Dave Stewart made Revenge, their fifth studio album as Eurythmics. The group was unable to tour in support of their prior album, 1985’s Be Yourself Tonight, because Lennox developed nodules on her vocals chords, a terrifying diagnosis for a performer who made her fame on the power of her singing. At around the same time, Lennox’s first marriage, to Radha Raman, ended in divorce, and her father was felled by stomach cancer, dying in his early sixties. Beset with pain and grief, Lennox followed the self-healing course taken by many artists, diving into the creative process. Stewart circled back from the outside production work he took on to fill the time while Lennox was unavailable, and the duo got to work.

If Revenge was a catharsis for Lennox, the emotional potency translated to record only infrequently. That “Take Your Pain Away” is about her intense desire to soothe her father’s suffering doesn’t change that its music and production unfortunately suggest the result of Stewart presiding over the Huey Lewis and the News album Sports. “A Little of You” is pop so limp it comes across like a reject from the Legal Eagles soundtrack, and “When Tomorrow Comes” is about as close as an act as instinctively esoteric as Eurythmics can come to sounding generic. “Let’s Go!” has Lennox belting with R&B authority, but it’s also hampered by fussy studio tricks and an intrusive harmonica solo.

There’s too much talent in Lennox and Stewart for any collaboration between the two of them to be all misfires. The album’s opener, “Missionary Man,” is a propulsive dazzler, and the pounding “In This Town” has some of the same veneer of merging dance and rock into a new glorious hybrid. “Miracle of Love” is sweetly luxuriant, and “Thorn in My Side” is what we could have had in a glorious alternate universe where George Harrison took the place of cruel ghoul Phil Spector in setting the template for the great girl groups of the nineteen-sixties.

Revenge was another hit for Eurythmics. It was also the first sign that their ability to charge onto the U.S. charts was fading. The album couldn’t crack the Top 10 on the Billboard chart, and only “Missionary Man” made the Top 40. Their next album, Savage, continued the trend, and the effective end of Lennox and Stewart’s seismically successful collaboration loomed.

393. The Cult, Electric (1987)

The Cult finished their third album, and they didn’t like it. They had reunited with producer Steve Brown, who had shepherded their album Love to peaks of post-punk, goth-rock grandeur, and the result was, the band felt, dully more of the same. Around the same time, they became aware of an up-and-coming producer named Rick Rubin, who was best known for his work with hip hop acts, though helping them invest their records with a thick dollop of rock attitude. Rubin was also fresh off working with Slayer on the heavy metal band’s third album, Reign in Blood. The Cult thought Rubin might be able to remix the material on their new album, which bore the working title Peace. Rubin thought tinkering with what was already there wasn’t enough. He and the Cult convened in New York City’s Electric Ladyland Studios and started over.

Rubin wasn’t subtle about his intentions in reshaping the Cult’s sound. Engineer Tony Platt reported that Rubin would plays snatches of AC/DC and Led Zeppelin as a guide to what he wanted out of lead singer Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy. To borrow a conceptualization from a generation or two later, the resulting album, not titled Electric, is what might be expected if Kerrang!‘s list of the fifty most raucous hard rock albums of the nineteen-seventies were played on a loop for a bot that was subsequently prompted to create its own two sides of metal thunder. Tracks such as “Wild Flower” and “Electric Ocean” are hard rock stripped to the core, all guitar riffs and thumping drums and yowling vocals.

Electric is an album that doesn’t let up. The Cult commits fully to blazing hard rock heroics, with barely a deviation from the most familiar models. As familiar as the material seems, it’s also got the shining-steel gleam of something new. “Lil’ Heaven” is Ozark Mountain Daredevils with a hair-metal update, “Bad Fun” has some echoes of Van Halen’s headlong verve, and “Memphis Hip Shake” has the beautiful musk of Physical Graffiti. “Love Removal Machine” pulls it all together into a tremendous snarled knot of rock, everything the Cult has ever heard and retained brought out into the black light. The album’s one true clunker is a cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” Rubin’s one bad idea that the Cult acquiesced to despite serious misgivings. The theory was that taking a pass at the song would give the Cult some transferred credibility. It wasn’t required. The proof is in the power chords.

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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