College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #371 to #369

371. The Chameleons U.K., Strange Times (1986)

Manchester band the Chameleons were poised for quick success. After earning the enthusiastic support of influential British DJ John Peel, the band was signed to Epic Records, and their 1982 debut single, “In Shreds,” was put out by that major label. Conflicts arose almost immediately. The band members bristled at label execs’ attempts to shape their musical output. The Chameleons severed the relationship and spent the next several years releasing music only sporadically, mostly for the Scottish label Statik Records. Somewhere around the middle of the nineteen-eighties, the Chameleons redoubled their efforts, building a following with extensive touring. Their manager, Tony Fletcher, went to David Geffen and pitched the band for his namesake label. He signed the act, and the Chameleons were back on a major label. They went into the studio with producer David M. Allen, who’d recently begun what would be a long, fruitful collaboration with the Cure, and emerged with Strange Times.

The album puts some distance from the band’s post-punk origins in a way that caused some music-press consternation at the time. Especially when gauged against other albums of the era made by artists that found themselves suddenly flush with label cash and commensurate access to pricey studio tricks, Strange Times is an admirable slab of exploratory, off-kilter pop. “Mad Jack” anticipates the fevered, furious craftsmanship of the Wedding Present, and “In Answer” is like a lusher version the Church. Mostly, though, the Chameleons across the album sound like no one else in particular while drawing on every unique new strand of a British rock being conjured up. “Caution” is a snarled, goth epic, “Tears” is an intricate ballad, and “Soul in Isolation” demonstrates the soulfulness that can be found within the grandiose.

The fabulous “Swamp Thing” is the track that brings together all of the band’s inspiration into one irresistible package. Soaring and prickly, the song is the epitome of a great single for college radio, including in its veneer of defiant oddity that makes it a weak candidate for broader crossover. It’s a cut that flashes like a beacon from the left end of the dial, telling all who fall under their spell that there’s a whole other version of popular culture waiting out there for them. All they have to do is commit to finding and adoring it.

There were inklings that the Chameleons were on the verge of finding a bigger audience with Strange Times. Further progress on that front wasn’t meant to be. Personal friction was developing within the band. When Fletcher unexpected passed away, the last bond holding them together was gone. The Chameleons broke up and its members moved on to other projects. Strange Times was meant to be a new start. It wound up a clear ending.

370. The Sisters of Mercy, First and Last and Always (1985)

The Sisters of Mercy were rebuilding as they toiled away on their debut album. Formed in Leeds, England, in 1980, the Sisters of Mercy busily generated singles and EPs across the early years of the nineteen-eighties. When guitarist Ben Gunn quit the group in 1983, founding members Andrew Eldritch and Gary Marx — who handled vocals and lead guitar duties, respectively — decided to keep the concern going by recruiting Wayne Hussey, who’d recently taken a revolving-door trip through Dead or Alive. After testing the new lineup with a successful U.K. tour, the Sisters of Mercy started work on their first full-length studio effort, though they were hardly working together. Marx and Hussey wrote music separately, and Eldritch swooped in at the end to pen lyrics and sing indifferently into the microphone. Given the torturous process of making the album, it might be expected that a disjointed product as a result. Instead, First and Last and Always has the gleaming uniformity of a black onyx.

The Sisters of Mercy didn’t invent goth rock, but they arguably took it to its fervid extreme, forming its stereotypical trappings so solidly that they’re practically made of fiberglass. First and Last and Always is like a primer written in mascara. “Black Planet” is all clanging churn, and “No Time to Cry” races forward with lyrics of plodding disaffection speckled with inscrutable provocation (“It’s just like always coming down on/ Just like Jesus never came and/ What did you expect to find”). They occasionally follow rough patterns familiar from their contemporaries — “Walk Away” has a Psychedelic Furs vibe — and bygone influences occasionally sneak through. The title cut has late–nineteen-sixties British psychedelia tingle to it, like something the Zombies could have come up with had the drugs been stronger.

The album is best when it feels like the Sisters of Mercy are truly trying to expand their own norm.“Nine While Nine” is lithe and headlong, close to the razor certainty of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Album closer “Some Kind of Stranger” is the cut that provides a hint of material to come, when scope and sonic ambition became part of the strategy. The track is stately and gruesome, building to operatic excesses that feel like they could go on forever, never fading to silence.

The fractures present when the band was recording First and Last and Always grew more problematic after the album’s release. Marx quite the Sisters of Mercy in the middle of the tour in support of the album, explaining he found working with the increasingly erratic Eldritch to be untenable. The rest of the band limped along to complete the tour, and there were plans — and evidently initial attempts — to record a new album together. The band imploded instead, with everyone scattering to different projects (including, for Hussey and bassist Craig Adams, new band the Mission). It seemed the Sisters of Mercy were done for good. Eldritch eventually decided differently. As it turned out, the biggest version of the band was yet to come.

369. Garland Jeffreys, Escape Artist (1981)

Garland Jeffreys made several records through the nineteen-seventies, and he forged connections with a multitude of fellow travelers in the music business. As a result, his 1981 album Escape Artist has a track listing that reads like a roll call of the rock ‘n’ roll cool at that moment. Lou Reed, Adrian Belew, Nona Hendryx, David Johansen, and several E Street Band members are among the stacked roster, all of them pitching in to help this journeyman transform into a hitmaker. Thanks to a fifteen-year-old song, they almost got Jeffreys there.

In the midst of the album’s Jeffreys originals, there a rough, spirited cover of “96 Tears,” the 1966 hit by ? and the Mysterians. Released as a single, the Jeffreys version cracked the Billboard Top 100. Rather than stir further interest in Jeffreys, the modest success of the cover provided an entryway for Rudy Martinez, the impresario behind ? and the Mysterians, to push his bygone act as an option on the emerging oldies circuit. Follow-up singles by Jeffreys faded away quickly.

The shame of the missed opportunity is that Escape Artist is a fine album, ably demonstrating Jeffreys’s ability to adapt to the time while maintaining his own style of soulful rock ‘n’ roll. “Modern Lovers” is a slick new wave song, and “Christine” sounds like the material Joe Jackson knocked out when he was playing with reggae rhythms. “Graveyard Rock” has a the punchiness of ska without the bleating agitation that usually endemic to the subgenre. When Jeffreys take the street-poetry storytelling of “Mystery Kids” (“I remember, it was late December/ Crazy Michael, down on Jefferson Street/ Johnny One Arm, he’s holding one hand/ With his sister, it was bittersweet”) and expands it to a mini-epic song, it’s like a surprisingly satisfying hybrid of Reed and the J. Geils Band.

Stardom proved elusive for Jeffreys. A couple years, and a couple more albums, after Escape Artist, he withdrew from performing for an extended period of time. The layoff stretched to almost a decade, with Jeffreys returning to the fray only when he decided he had something important to share.

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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