College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #368 to #366

368. Ian Hunter, Short Back n’ Sides (1981)

Chrysalis Records execs were sure Ian Hunter was on the verge of a major commercial breakthrough. The former Mott the Hoople frontman had been knocking out solo albums with regularity since the middle of the nineteen-seventies with only modest success until his 1979 effort, You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, made real headway with record buyers and rock radio programmers. In an effort to maintain momentum, the label invested in the most tried and trued tactic of the era, issuing a double-lived album, and they pushed hard to get Hunter back into the studio. Maybe because of heightened expectations and the associated ratcheting up of pressure, initial attempts at recording new material didn’t go well. Sessions from London’s Wessex studio were scrapped, and Hunter relocated to the Power Station, in New York City. He also enlisted the services of a prominent fan.

Mick Jones, co-leader of the Clash, was in his youth a member of a group of Mott the Hoople devotees. Dubbed the Mott Lot, this loosely assemblage of burgeoning punks followed the band on tour and could get raucous enough at individual concerts to get Mott the Hoople barred from future dates at a venue. Hunter asked Jones to play guitars on a couple tracks. Jones essentially took over the whole project instead, officially earned a co-producer credit alongside Mick Ronson, Hunter’s longtime collaborator and brief Mott the Hoople bandmate. It was Jones who suggested Hunter take a poem he’d written about New York City and set it to music, resulting in the sloppy, goofy, and kinda irresistible track “Central Park n’ West,” which became a hit single on college radio.

There’s wavering quality across the rest of the album, a regular issue with Hunter. There’s some loose appeal, I suppose, to “Lisa Likes Rock n’ Roll” written for Ronson’s four-year-old daughter, and even the brutish satire of “Gun Control” (“Hey, and ain’t it a shame we ain’t got a war/ We’ll just have to practice on the sick and the poor”). Too much of the material is drab filler, including the gooey ballad “Old Records Never Die,” the dull new-wave reggae number “Theatre of the Absurd,” and the warmed-over Bowie of “Leave Me Alone.” Ronson later conceded that neither nor Hunter was particularly invested in making a new record. That indifference is all too evident.

367. Horslips, The Man Who Built America (1978)

Steve Katz was just starting his tenure as an executive when he met the band Horslips. The former Blood, Sweat & Tears singer and guitarist has attended a concert by the Irish rock band and wound up partying with them through the night. In the spirited hubbub, enough of a rapport was established that the band asked Katz to produce their next record, a role he’d recently performed for Lou Reed. Katz agreed and took it as his charge to tamp down Horslips Celtic prog tendencies just enough to expand their scope beyond their homeland. After struggling with sub-optimum recording facilities in Dublin, Katz relocated the sessions to a state-of-the-art facility in London. The resulting album, The Man Who Built America, is as slick and polished and other rock album of the day. It’s also indistinct from any number of slabs that aimed straight for album rock radio.

Predictably, Horslips often sounds like a less musically muscular version of their countrymen Thin Lizzy. “Loneliness” and “Homesick” reside squarely in this vein. Elsewhere on the album, the band softens to their sound to the point that it turns into mere mush.“I’ll Be Waiting” is dreary soft rock that lasts over six minutes, and “Green Star Liner” sounds like Al Stewart if he stopped noodling on the track earlier than usual. “If It Takes All Night” indicates what the whole record might have sounded like had Horslips remains a little more true to themselves: It’s lean prog rock with a hint of Irish-folk providing texture. Even so, there’s likely only so far the band was able to go. The songwriting is earnest and flat, exemplified by the flat-footed “Letters from Home” (“It’s just a letter from home/ Tellin’ you things that are changin'”). They come across as an adequate rock band without discernible potential to grow beyond that.

Although Katz was drawing his main paycheck as an A&R rep for Mercury Records, he was disappointed that The Man Who Built America was distributed by that label, feeling that Horslips would have a better chance for success on sister label Polydor. In his memoir, Katz notes that best members of the Mercury team were consistently undermined by big bosses that didn’t understand the U.S. market. Despite a concerted push, The Man Who Built America wasn’t a crossover hit.

“I was worried, rightfully so in retrospect, that Horslips would fall into the abyss,” writes Katz.

366. Meat Puppets, Huevos (1987)

Early in 1987, Meat Puppets released the album Mirage. As part of the continuous process of pushing themselves forward, they toiled and tinkered in the studio, creating layers of psychedelic texture and exploratory instrumentation. The evolution was all well and good until Meat Puppets hit the road and found it was extremely difficult to play the songs in concert. Perhaps taken aback by the way their ambition exceeded their ability to recreate the material in a live setting, the band returned to the studio with a very different mindset. They recorded their next album in a handful of days, largely opting for first takes. Huevos, their fifth album overall, hit record stores only six months after its immediately predecessor.

As might be expected under the circumstances, Huevos is a lean, tough affair. Band frontman Curt Kirkwood pens a set of songs that stick tightly to tried-and-true rock structures. In particular, Kirkwood shows he knows his way around a great guitar riff. The rip-roaring “Bad Love” and agreeably rough “Automatic Mojo” have a thrilling headlong energy, and “Fruit” is as jaunty and juicy as a rock song can get. “I Can’t Be Counted On” is like Meat Puppets’ answer to the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me, released earlier that year. The gurgling “Dry Rain” is like vintage ZZ Top yoinked through a Van Halen filter.

The rough-hewn qualities of the record reinforce the centrality of Meat Puppets in inspiring the grunge movement that would soon burst open, a foundation contribution ratified by Kurt Cobain when he insisted that Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set include of a trio of covers drawn from the band’s songbook. “Look at the Rain” sets the template used by Everclear and others to meld punk fury with pop craftiness. More notably, “Crazy” is built on the tonal cornerstones that Cobain swiped and moved over to his own towering tunes.

Supplemented with a new set of songs, Meat Puppets got back into the tour bus, continuing their tireless road show. They weren’t exactly on the verge of a commercial breakthrough like many of their contemporaries. That didn’t stop them for asserting themselves as one of the hardest-working acts in college rock.

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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