College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #344 to #342

344. Graham Parker and the Shot, Steady Nerves (1985)

For the erudite plentitude that touted Graham Parker of one of the great songwriters of his generation, and who rooted for the man to finally have a taste of the mass-market success that could guaranteed continued opportunity to record new music, Steady Nerves finally brought a trip to the Billboard Top 40. Just barely, though. “Wake Up (Next to You),” the album’s second single, crossed the magic threshold only to peak immediately, at #39, nestled in between Robert Plant’s “Little By Little” and Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” Parker’s cut shaves away most of his barbs, leaving a retro ballad that is a cousin to John Mellencamp’s “Ain’t Even Done with the Night,” albeit with less production puffery.

The single was just enough of a hit to give Parker a modest moral victory. Parker recorded Steady Nerves for Elektra Records, following a protracted fight with his previous label, Mercury Records, in which he did everything he could think of to get out of his contract, including writing and recording the vicious “Mercury Poisoning” (“The company is crippling me/ The worst trying to ruin the best, the best/ Their promotion’s so lame/ They could never ever take it to the real ball game”). Elektra execs were uncertain about their new charge, so they originally gave him funding to record only four songs. Parker brought in producer William Wittman, who was enjoying a stretch of industry adulation because he was the engineer and associate producer on Cyndi Lauper’s hit debut, She’s So Unusual. Worries quelled by the first products from the sessions, Elektra agreed to the full album. That Parker generated a hit after all that consternation didn’t exactly get him the last laugh, but it had to a fairly satisfying late chuckle.

The measurable commercial breakthrough didn’t turn into a wave of Graham-mania. As an album, Steady Nerves performed about on par with its immediate predecessors. Artistically, it’s also mired in the mucky middle ground where most of Parker’s nineteen-eighties output resides. Parker continued aiming his intellect at topics not often covered in pop songs, such as a colonialist on indigenous culture in Venezuela, on the song “Break the Moment.” The commentary gets lost in the heavily shellacked era product that sounds like a Scandal record, or, to be even more unkind, the Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra.” Since it’s Parker, “The Weekend’s Too Short” might have a layer of irony to it, but the track comes across as a genuine stab at creating the opening credits song for a terrible teen sex comedy (“Baby get ready, the pressure’s off/ Your body’s hot, you got a good personality”). “Mick’s Up” is a groove looking for a song, and “Canned Laughter” swings along amiably enough with (“Spreads around the room like a tumour/ I’m not exactly in good humour/ I wish it came just one joke sooner/ Then I’d have to laugh”). Only “Lunatic Fringe” finds Parker calibrated to his usual fettle (“Second cousin to the poor relation/ Holding last week’s ticket in this week’s train station/ Relegated to the third division on the lunatic fringe”).

Parker’s label woes were far from over. After Steady Nerves, he left Elektra Records to sign with Atlantic. Improbably, that professional relationship was perhaps his worst yet; not a single note of his music saw release while he toiled for Atlantic. He eventually severed that connection, too, resolving to record his next album the way he wanted and presenting it to a label with a simple offer of take it or leave it. It turned out that next, long-delayed record was one of the strongest of his career.

343. Style Council, Introducing: The Style Council (1983)

Paul Weller had grown to loathe the culture and myth-making around rock music. After he called an end to his band the Jam, he went out to find a compatriot with a similar worldview. The brief was fulfilled by keyboardist Mick Talbot, who’d logged time in Dexys Midnight Runner and other acts. Weller and Talbot joined together under the moniker of the Style Council and started record slick, synth-driven singles, which were immediately embraced by music fans in the U.K.

One of the things Weller didn’t particularly like about the rock-star expectations surrounding the Jam was the need to constantly churn out new albums, so the Style Council was in no rush to deliver a full-length. Outside of the U.K., in markets where the practice of buying singles had largely fallen away, the band’s label still wanted some product to peddle. Material from and associated with the duo’s first couple of single releases was assembled into what was dubbed a mini-LP. The record was given the logical title Introducing the Style Council.

As if often the case with these assemblages of odd bits, Introducing the Style Council is more of an intriguing sampler than a satisfying, start-to-finish listen. It was undoubtedly useful for U.S. radio stations to have a copy the well-stuffed neo-soul hit “Speak Like a Child,” and they could choose between two different club mixes of “Long Hot Summer” and a pumping remix of “Money-Go-Round.” In contrast to the dance-floor buffing, an early version of “Headstart for Happiness” shows how much cool swing the Style Council could develop without the added studio hours of engineering and tinkering.

Weller’s goal might have been stepping away from the music-biz carousel, but he could only avoid it for so long. Mounting clamor for live shows resulted in the Style Council setting out on modest tour, and the group kept edging toward the inevitable full-length studio effort. Café Bleu, the official debut album by the band, was on shelves a little less than a year after Introducing the Style Council fulfilled its stalling mission.

342. The B-52’s, Whammy! (1983)

Keith Strickland is a Scorpio from Athens, Georgia, and he likes to find the essence from within. The inner questing led him to make a determination that threatened to become a major complication in his role as the drummer for the B-52’s. Strickland decided he just didn’t like playing the drums all that much anymore. The epiphany came when the band was in a general state of discombobulation. The jubilant promise of their first records wasn’t translating into the expected hits, and the group was coming off a disappointing experience working with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who was enlisted to produce the third B-52’s album. The process went so poorly that the sessions reached an early end and most of the material was sloughed off to the Mesopotamia EP, a clear placeholder in the discography while the band figured out what to do next.

Ricky Wilson was a Pisces with a fondness for computers and hot tamales. As guitarist for the B-52’s, he sympathized with Strickland’s desire to do something different — something more — than simply smack away at the drums. Anyway, the technology was there and available for the band to set their rhythm track a different way. For their actual third album, Whammy!, the B-52’s largely let a drum machine handle the beat, and Wilson and Strickland split up all of the other instrumentation. What could have felt like a continuing of Byrne’s somewhat stultifying attempt to impose art-rock elements onto the band, instead became freeing. The regimented rhythms are an ideal platform for the B-52’s to stack boisterous elements, whether the near-frenetic celebratory declarations of “Butterbean” or the deliciously restless future-disco bits on “Queen of Las Vegas.” The complex, joyful instrumental “Work That Skirt” even puts forth the surprising argument that the B-52’s can be distinctively themselves on record without the lotto-ball tumble of vocals.

Kate Pierson is a Taurus who holds an abiding love for tomatoes and black-capped chickadees. Her singing was a major part of that wondrous tangle of voices, but she was also the main keyboard player on earlier records. Ceding the synths to her bandmates — in part, it seems, because she wasn’t especially fond of the new sonic direction — Pierson became an even more undeniable presence in her singing, helping to elevate tracks such as “Whammy Kiss,” which has fantastically brash vocals, even by the band’s already high standards.

Cindy Wilson is a Pisces who likes Chihuahuas and Chinese noodles. Her voice collides with Pierson’s like supernovaing stars that get blinding bright in their combined fury. She makes counterfeiting sound fab on “Legal Tender,” and provides the anchor to “Don’t Worry” a cover of a Yoko Ono song that proves the B-52’s could do art rock as well as anyone. At least one music writer has gone on record stating that Wilson, on maybe the most beloved cut on Whammy!, belts out a lyric in a way that makes it “among the best-delivered in pop music.” The bulk of the music might have been crafted by two-fifths of the band, but every bit on the album firmly demonstrates that the B-52’s are always a group effort, reliant on everyone’s contribution.

Fred Schneider is a Cancer who was born in Newark, New Jersey, with proclivities for collecting records and exploring the Cave of the Unknown. Without question the person whose contribution in easiest to pick out — vocal pops of lapel-grabbing personality — it was Schneider’s venture away from his bandmates one year after Whammy! that first signaled that the B-52’s were on a break. Fred Schneider and the Shake Society, released in 1984, was the first solo outing for a B-52’s member. The group would reconvene, but the process behind their next studio album was beset by challenges. The band that exuded joy was about to be hit by devastating sadness.

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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