College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #326 to #324

326. Asia, Asia (1982)

Steve Howe was exhausted. The guitarist had spent years trying to keep his longtime band Yes a going concern as key members came and went. Following the release of the 1980 album Drama, the recording of which was an especially tumultuous affair, Howe effectively put the band on hiatus and tried to find a professional pursuit that wouldn’t be quite as taxing. John Kalodner, freshly installed as an A&R rep the new label Geffen Records, pitched Howe on the idea of working with prog rock nomad John Wetton, whose stint in the supergroup U.K. had recently come to a close. The two started writing together and soon recruited Emerson, Lake & Palmer drummer Carl Palmer and keyboardist Geoffrey Downes, who was previously brought in by Howe to help keep Yes afloat, to fill out the group. The band went through a long list of potential names, scratching most of them until the only option left was the one borrowed from the largest continent on the planet.

Asia was partnered with producer Mike Stone, fresh off of overseeing Journey’s hit album Escape. As he did for Journey, Stone guided Asia to big, brash arrangements that were are slickly polished as stainless steel. The material on the band’s self-titled debut tries to meld the big pop sound of the day with the prog rock panoramas that were the assembled musicians’ bailiwick. That sometimes led to very odd amalgamations, such as the weird disco prog of “One Step Closer.” More often, it seems like the entire mission of Asia is to make the most ludicrously overblown rock music known to man, the jumbotron to every other act’s portable, black-and-white television. “Only Time Will Tell” is enormous, and “Without You” sends the mercury soaring above the power ballad marker to become something best termed a bombast ballad.

The instinct to excess can push the tracks to near absurdity. “Wildest Dreams” is completely overblown protest rock (“They decorated all the generals/ Who fought the war behind the lines/ They had forgotten all the soldiers/ The brandy puts them way behind the times”), and “Here Comes the Feeling” is such a collection of musical excess — shouted lyrics, echoing beats, mosquito-buzz synthesizers — that it verges on parody. The only time Asia tamps down the expansiveness is on “Heat of the Moment,” a last minute addition after Geffen execs suggested the album could use a leaner, sharper cut that could be a single. Although the lyrics are characteristically ludicrous (“And now you find yourself in ’82/ The disco hot spots hold no charm for you/ You can concern yourself with bigger things/ You catch a pearl and ride the dragon’s wings”), the potency of the song’s hook is formidable. It became exactly the hit the label sought, and helped drive Asia to the top of the the Billboard album chart. The album spent a total of nine weeks at that peak position and was declared by the publication to be the year’s top-selling release overall.

“You can never underestimate the beauty and power of that first album,” Howe told Guitar World many years later. “It set the bar very high and right up until we toured in 2012 we were still in its afterglow. That album has a length, breadth, and high quality to it. From ‘Heat of the Moment’ right to the last track, ‘Here Comes the Feeling,’ we were rocking.”

325. The Dream Syndicate, Out of the Grey (1986)

After setting sail on their recording career in a promising fashion, the Dream Syndicate ran aground. Widely celebrated as one of the great bands in a Los Angeles music scene that had no shortage of impressive acts, the Dream Syndicate released music to wide acclaim and an enraptured core fan base, but they couldn’t crack the mainstream. Following the release of the 1984 album Medicine Show and the close-following EP This Is Not The New Dream Syndicate Album… Live!, the band was dropped by A&M Records, a label packed with indie-inclined acts that they didn’t quite know how to promote. At around the same time, lead guitarist Karl Precoda announced his exit, determined to pursue a career in filmmaking instead (he eventually settled into a life in academia). Band leader Steve Wynn looked at the wall and made an entirely understandable judgement regarding the writing he saw there. The Dream Syndicate was over, and he went off in search of other creative opportunities.

Wynn worked on a few songs with Dan Stuart, who was then part of the band Green on Red, and the two released the album The Lost Weekend under the name Danny & Dusty. Paul B. Cutler, who produced some of the earliest Dream Syndicate recordings, oversaw the record, and Wynn’s ease in working with him must have stirred up some nostalgia for the band he thought he’d just left behind. Wynn asked Cutler to handle guitar duties for a revived version of the Dream Syndicate. Dennis Duck returned as drummer, and relatively new recruit Mark Walton (who made his debut on the live EP that was the A&M swan song) was asked back, too. With Cutler producing, the Dream Syndicate recorded and released Out of the Grey with Big Time Records.

The Dream Syndicate are in characteristically strong form on Out of the Grey, offering well-crafted renderings of Wynn’s enviable songwriting. They stay in the mode of lean rock band, including on the title cut, which sounds like a more energetic version of what the material on David + David’s Boomtown, released about two months later. They adopt a gnarly blues grind on “50 in a 25 Zone” and deploy some convincing hard rock guitar squall on “Dancing Blind.” The clearest indication that the Dream Syndicate deserved more enthusiasm from commercial rock radio than they ever got is the tight, satisfying “Boston,” which outdoes Tom Petty at his own game, right down to his not-so-secret weapon of the fantastic opening couplet: “Come back to Boston as soon as you can/ The whole thing ain’t gone down according to the plan.” On “Dying Embers,” there’s a touch of the drifty, paisley vibe of the band’s beginnings, with Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano offering a light touch with some guest vocals.

The Dream Syndicate had clear talent. That wasn’t enough to overcome the record label blunders they regularly encountered. Shortly after the release of Out of the Grey, Big Time Records collapsed into insolvency, a turn of events that left several excellent bands stranded. This time the setback didn’t inspire a hiatus. There was more music to make.

324. The Tubes, The Completion Backward Principle (1981)

Fee Waybill says he was flipping through the records in a San Francisco vintage store when an instructional album pitched at salesmen caught his eye. On the record, motivational speaker Stanley Paterson explains the then novel notion of envisioning a hoped-for outcome as a means of making it manifest. He called this exercise the Completion Backward Principle.

Waybill thought of that record when he got to work on the fifth album from his band the Tubes. The San Francisco outfit was dropped by A&M Records, at least in part because they were perplexed by the band’s esoteric music. Often created to accompany specific, and elaborate, stage shows, the material didn’t always transfer effectively to albums that necessarily lacked all the visual falderal. After hunting for a new music-biz home for about a year, the Tubes signed a three-record deal with Capitol Records, with the label retaining an escape clause that said they could cancel the contract if record sales were too low. Jointly inspired by the sales record and the implied need to please their new corporate masters, the Tubes developed songs that were slickly commercial on the surface, a process aided immeasurably by producer David Foster, who would go on to future endeavors in the same role that infected the culture with some of the most hideous pop music known to humankind. No matter the gloss, a current of satiric weirdness still runs through The Completion Backward Principle.

There are times when the tone of spoofery doesn’t absolve the band for their sins against taste. No amount of satiric intent excuses a song like “Sushi Girl” and its lyrics “Will my Suki find me in time or will her sushi spawn?/ The odor drives me outta my mind, the scent goes straight to my prawn.” Others might find it similarly sick to reconfigure the ruminating letters of murderer Mark McDermand into a bounding rock song called “Mr. Hate” (“I can’t believe the things my school friends said/ Sometimes I think I wish that they were dead/ I get so mad that I just see red/ Then something blows apart inside my head”).

Mostly, The Completion Backward Principle is evidence that the Tubes had the ability to master just about any form of pop if they wanted to. Because they motivating notion of the album is pretending to play nice with pop music norms, they range across several styles, demonstrating real deftness with each. the airy funk “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore” is a syrupy ballad, “A Matter of Pride” could have come straight from Philip Bailey, and “Let’s Make Some Noise” is a deliberately empty-headed party song. “Talk to Ya Later” is a brash, headlong rocker akin to the singles that occasionally broke through for the likes of the Knack or the Romantics. If the tracks aren’t necessarily all good, they’re certainly consistently convincing.

Capitol was satisfied with the sales of The Completion Backward Principle, and the threat of dropping the band before the contract was up receded. A mutual commitment to fostering success for the group developed. Soon the band would reach chart heights that had once seemed highly implausible for them.

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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