College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #389 to #387

389. New Order, Substance (1987)

The moment for the titans of college radio to break on through to the mainstream was at hand, or so it seemed. During the spring of 1987, U2 elbowed their way past the likes of Madonna, Jody Watley, and Cutting Crew to top the Billboard Hot 100, and their album The Joshua Tree spent nine weeks as the top-selling album in the U.S. With MTV increasingly willing to use their outsized clout to champion the scruffy vagabonds who previously ruled only on the left end of the FM dial, the door to commercial success was cracked open. A slew of modern rockers scrambled to race through. Capitalizing on the moment, Echo & the Bunnymen released a self-titled album that was aggressive positioned for crossover attention, and in the summer they embarked on a co-headlining tour of the U.S. with New Order. Without their own new full-length studio effort to peddle, New Order instead packaged together all of their songs that had been released as singles to that point, titling the double-album set Substance.

In theory, the compilation should provide a proper overview of New Order’s significant evolution, from the 1981 release of their debut album, Movement, to the creative place they’d arrived at as the end of the decade approached. Instead, the track list of Substance was drawn from the 12-inch singles, which often featured a little tinkering meant to juice the material to suit those heading to the dance floor. Additionally, early songs, such as “Temptation” and “Confusion,” were offered in new versions that essentially brought them closer to the sonic space New Order occupied at the moment the collection was put together. There are still vestiges of the post-punk sound New Order carried over from preceding act Joy Division in their earliest recordings — notably the beautifully glum fervor of “Ceremony” — but the clear and prevailing instinct is to up the radio-friendly pop trappings. It’s less a retrospective than a relaunch.

It’s a pretty spectacularly relaunch, too. By this point, New Order were incredibly adept at creating glistening pop songs with enough hooks to overstock a jumbo tackle box. “Sub-culture” arguably swerves into the lane then hogged by the Pet Shops Boys, but the compilation is mainly an argument that no one else was making this sort of electronic dance music with as much precision, verve, and complexity as New Order. On “The Perfect Kiss,” the synths sometimes seem to be reproducing like tribbles, and “Bizarre Love Triangle” is breathlessly thrilling, one of the great feats of dance music of the nineteen-eighties. “True Faith,” the one entirely new cut to make its way onto Substance, fulfilled the mission of bringing New Order to the masses. Released as a single, it became the band’s highest-charting song to that point in the U.K. and their first Top 40 hit in the U.S.

If it seemed New Order was poised for even greater success, the promise wasn’t really fulfilled, at least in the U.S. While some of their rough contemporaries, including Depeche Mode and Love and Rockets, would soon take turns storming the upper reaches of the Billboard chart, New Order made only one more appearance in the Top 40, with the exemplary, and somewhat atypical, 1993 single “Regret.”

388. Stan Ridgway, The Big Heat (1986)

After several years fronting Wall of Voodoo, Stan Ridgway broke away for a solo career, explaining it was his best strategy for continuing to grow as an artist. In further assertion of independence, Ridgway took the money given to him by IRS Records for recording and used it to become co-owner of a small studio space in Los Angeles.

“Instead of seeing it fly away in hourly studio payments, I took my recording budget a presented the record company with a business proposal, whereby they could have the finished piece of vinyl and the ability to do the next one for less,” Ridgway explained to Billboard at the time.

Safely ensconced in his own space, following his own agenda, Ridgway created an album that feels like a pulp library transmogrified into rhythm, melody, and lyrics. The album title sets the agenda by making explicit reference to the 1954 Fritz Lang film The Big Heat (or maybe the William P. McGivern serialized novel it was adapted from) and the album-opening title cut presents Ridgway’s version of hard-boiled detective narration: “The room was dark, it looked like someone had to get out fast/A window open by the fire escape/ ‘How long have you been following this guy,’ the bellboy asked/ ‘Not long enough, ’cause we got here too late.’ Keeping one foot planted in basic college rock, Ridgway tries on a bevy of styles — bossa nova on “Pile Driver,” spaghetti-Western plucking for the wartime saga “Camouflage,” and what is best described as new-wave calliope music on “Twisted.” Across the album, though, the lyrical sensibility remains locked to terse, evocative storytelling.

On “Walkin’ Home Alone” Ridgway renders heartbreak as a loose amble of a song. On “Drive, She Said,”he works the material to a fine, sleazy grind. It’s impressive that both tones are equally effective. Thanks to the success of the single “Mexican Radio,” off of the 1982 album Call of the Wild, Wall of Voodoo were relegated by some to the status of novelty act. Whether Ridgway needed to abandon the group to prove he was a more formidable songwriter is up for debate, I suppose. But The Big Heat makes a solid argument for his skills nonetheless.

387. Athens, GA – Inside/Out soundtrack (1988)

By most accounts, no one in Athens, Georgia quite knew what to make of it when the Hollywood film crews came to town. Director Tony Gayton and producer Bill Cody had enjoyed only modest success in show business — mostly connected to dreadful John Milius productions — when they decided to capture the active volcano of college rock that was rattling a previously sleepy college town. Guided in large part by local impresario Jeremy Ayers, the nascent filmmakers lugged their equipment into the local clubs and conducted interviews with various bands. They followed the Penelope Spheeris model for their film, Athens, GA – Inside Out, albeit capturing earnest rockers softened into relative gentility by the Southern perpetual summer rather than punk hooligans engaged in ragged, angry self-destruction. Call it The Drowsy Plateau of Western Civilization.

IRS Records, prospering mightily off their investment in Athens heroes R.E.M., quickly called dibs on the soundtrack album. Their star signing was centered in the film and featured on record with a calming cover of the Every Brothers hit “(All I Got to Do is) Dream” and a spare version of the Lifes Rich Pageant song “Swan Swan H.” The album is arguably most interesting for the tracks by bands that never won an MTV Music Video Award. The Squalls jangle amiably on “Na, Na, Na, Na” and have a nice loopy energy on “Elephant Radio.” There are also tracks that don’t especially call to mind the more famous acts to hail from Athens. The Flat Duo Jets do a garage-rock Elvis thing on “Crazy Hazy Kisses,” the Kilkenny Cats raw and intense on “Nightfall,” and the Bar-B-Q Killers deliver compelling, chattering punk on “His and Hearse.” It’s the image of Laura Carter singing through stage-curtain bangs on the latter song that graces the cover of the album.

If Ayers’s documentary is more of a document of opportunity of the moment it was filmed than a comprehensive survey of a city and region that had an outsized influence on college rock in the nineteen-eighties, it still does a service. The film and soundtrack occasionally makes an argument that bands that were footnotes and afterthoughts deserved better. One listen to Pylon’s compact, fierce “Stop It” invites longing for an alternate universe where those scene trailblazers were afforded the generous Warner Bros. contracts and celebrated longevity enjoyed by R.E.M. and the B-52’s. Sometimes being in the right place at the right time still isn’t enough.

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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