College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #380 to #378

380. XTC, Mummer (1983)

Not long after the release of Mummer, the sixth album by his group XTC, Andy Partridge mused on the band’s place in the pop-music infrastructure.

“I like people to kind of discover XTC,” explained Partridge. “An accidental thing where people come across us and stick by us. Something that goes on at a low level but is allowing…something not compatible with the commercial programming of more famous groups.”

That professed satisfaction with slow-build recognition suited the new state of affairs for XTC. Following the release of the band’s prior album, English Settlement, plans for a worldwide tour were scuttled when Partridge fell prey to intensely debilitating physical symptoms that were sometimes chalked up to stage fright. He largely attributed the problem to withdrawal after giving up Valium, which he’d been on regularly for around fifteen years, from the age of twelve onwards. Partridge made it clear that he wouldn’t be going on the road again, eliminating one of the prime promotional avenues for a band, in the U.S. anyway, that was still up and coming. Uninterested in playing with a group that was now confined to studio efforts only, founding drummer Terry Chambers quit XTC midway through the recording process for Mummer. With a pared-down lineup and freed from the pressure of crafting tracks that could be reasonably recreated in concert, a newfound dilemma as Partridge grew enamored with studio layering, XTC effectively started anew.

Understandably, Mummer sounds like the work of a band regaining their footing. They bring a dose of Siam funk to “Beating of Hearts” and come across as a slightly less intense version of Peter Gabriel on “Deliver Us from the Elements.” But those moments of memorable uptempo exploration are fairly rare on the album. As a creator, Partridge was in a mode of expressing his Englishness. That manifests in tracks like the gently Beatle-esque “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” and the easygoing “Ladybird.” The songwriting of bassist Colin Moulding, who always got a couple courtesy entries per record, largely followed suit. His “Wonderland” has some burbling tones, but it’s restrained to the point of wispiness. Even the pivots into oddity, such as “Me and the Wind,” have an offhand quality that give them a tea-and-biscuits comfort.

If Partridge and his cohorts were comfortable with giving audiences outside the U.K. the added challenge of finding an avenue into this elegant pop, their record label was less than enthusiastic. Virgin Records, XTC’s label from the jump, were convinced that Mummer wouldn’t connect with U.S. audiences. They refused to give it a North American release, forcing XTC to shop around for a new partner outside their homeland. Geffen Records, still in its toddler phase, eagerly took the album on, forming a connection with XTC that endured through the band’s remaining albums.

379. The Breakfast Club soundtrack (1985)

John Hughes wrote The Breakfast Club so he’d have a relatively easy film for his directorial debut. After parlaying his position as a contributing writer for National Lampoon magazine, during its nineteen-seventies heyday, into a budding screenwriting career — led by two films that used the satirical publication’s branding — Hughes longed to literally call the shots when his words were brought to screen. Figuring it would be easier to work through the mechanics of making a movie if he kept the staging simple, Hughes came up with the story of five high school students, each representing a particular teen archetype, bickering and bonding during all-day detention on a Saturday. Hughes’s strategy was sound, but Hollywood fates intervened. His debut instead came with the more narratively elaborate Sixteen Candles, which was a hit. By the time he started shooting The Breakfast Club, Hughes had a little more clout. He used that cachet to give his new film a notable soundtrack that suited his decidedly modern musical taste.

For the soundtrack, Hughes and his regular music supervisor, Kathy Nelson, enlisted Keith Forsey, who had recently won an Academy Award for co-writing the song “Flashdance… What a Feeling.” Forsey created synth-driven instrumental music for The Breakfast Club and wrote or co-wrote a batch of songs, farming them out to the likes of Elizabeth Daily (the post-disco groove “Waiting”) and Wang Chung (the chintzy new-wave song “Fire in the Twilight”). The soundtrack was further filled out with stray contributions, such as Karla DeVito’s “We Are Not Alone,” which plays like watered-down Pat Benatar, though it admittedly lends itself well to a wide range of library-based dance moves.

There’s little question as to what song inspired the addition of The Breakfast Club soundtrack into most record collections where it found a home. One of the songs Forsey wrote was a yearning ballad that he quickly pegged as a good match for the Scottish band Simple Minds. Uninterested in recording material penned by someone else, Simple Minds turned Dorsey down flat. When entreaties to other acts proved similarly fruitless, A&M Records announced their intention to offer the song to Corey Hart, which in turn prompted Forsey to redouble his effort the secure Simple Minds for the job. Following another press, which reportedly included a screening of a work print of the film, Simple Minds acquiesced, figuring the song would be a mere blip in their career. Instead, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was a smash, becoming Simple Minds’ first song to chart in the U.S. and their first, and only, chart-topper on Billboard.

Given the massive success of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” and that the song was written specifically for a film, anyone might reasonably expect that Forsey got another invitation to the Academy Awards for his handiwork. Instead, Academy voters bypassed The Breakfast Club altogether in favor of songs from The Color Purple, Back to the Future, A Chorus Line, and two from White Nights, including the eventual winner, Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.” The movie industry’s indifference wasn’t mirrored by the music business. Hughes was immediately anointed a filmmaker with a Midas touch for soundtracks. For the next few years, getting a track prominent placement in one of his films was highly coveted for many an up-and-coming act.

378. Go-Go’s, Vacation (1982)

The Go-Go’s surely didn’t expect to storm the charts with their debut album, Beauty and the Beat. That’s exactly what happened, though. Mostly due to the success of singles “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat,” Beauty and the Beat topped the album chart on its way to double-platinum sales in the U.S. The latter single was still in its ascendancy while the Go-Go’s scrambled to record their sophomore album, pushed by their management and their record label, I.R.S. Records, to capitalize on their quick success. “We Got the Beat” made its exit from the Billboard Hot 100 in early June of 1982, just about six weeks before Vacation, the second Go-Go’s album, was released.

If the group was in a rush to record, they were lucky to have at least one potential hit at the ready. “Vacation” started life as a song recorded by the Textones, a band bassist Kathy Valentine played with at an earlier stop in her musical-career journey. Valentine polished it into a proper Go-Go’s song with bandmates Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin, and it served as the album’s title cut and lead single. At first, it seemed the Go-Go’s were going to easily maintain the momentum of their quick hit-making: “Vacation” made it into the Top 10, becoming their second-highest charting single. Then, their forward movement stalled. The next single, punchy jam “Get Up and Go,” stalled outside the Top 40, and nothing else on the album held the promise of reviving their radio play.

The material on Vacation isn’t bad, but it lacks the verve and bristling energy present across Beauty and the Beat. “I Think It’s Me” has a nice tang, and “Worlds Away” is a ballad that starts a little tepid before escalating into rich, grand pop. “Girl of 100 Lists,” a solo composition by Wiedlin, is buoyant and charming (“I am the girl of 100 lists/ From what should I wear/ To who have I kissed”). The little surf-rock tingle in “The Way You Dance” becomes a full-on reverberation one track later, on “Beatnik Beach,” offering a slim, tantalizing hint of what Go-Go’s might have crafted if they brought in a little more of the garage-rock gruffness present in their earliest live recordings. The album’s lone clunker is a cover of the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk,” which mainly exposes the limits of Belinda Carlisle’s lead vocals as she fumbles through a mid-song break of bluesy call-outs (“Kathy, hon, I wanna hear some of that bad, bad bass”). Juke joint–style growls and yelps have rarely sounded less convincing.

As Vacation slowly faded from the charts, the troubles faced by the Go-Go’s grew. Rifts in the band cracked wider, and substance abuse became a problem that couldn’t be overlooked. Their next album was sure to be a decisive test of their ability to endure.

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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