College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #314 to #312

314. Bryan Ferry, Boys and Girls (1985)

Bryan Ferry had several solo albums to his credit when he made Boys and Girls. Unlike most of those prior efforts, though, working through material under his own name didn’t seem like a diversion from his prime gig. He had firm cause to believe his time fronting rock pioneers Roxy Music was definitely, finally over. Unlike previous dissolutions of the band, which didn’t last, the expectation was that the 1983 album Avalon was the closing statement for that group. (And it was; eventual reunions were restricted to live performances and a few recordings that never escaped the studio.) Avalon was also the most commercially successful Roxy Music album, by a wide margin. As the main songwriter in Roxy Music, especially by the end, Ferry could position this solo outing as the next step from what the band’s fans, including all those new fans, were enthralled by. At least, that plan would work if the fans in question weren’t in a big hurry to hear the new music.

“It’s a process of trial and error, and it takes time,” Ferry told The New York Times not long after the release of Boys and Girls. “On this record I was experimenting a lot; getting the lyrics, the singing and the mood of the music to match wasn’t easy. And of course, the hideous writer’s block appeared a couple of times.”

Ferry maintained he was trying to avoid making Boys and Girls sound simply like a sequel to Avalon, but the sonic similarity is undeniable. Ferry worked with producer Rhett Davies, who was also behind the boards for the final three Roxy Music studio albums, and the two craft a highly refined sound that prompted British music writers to coin the term “sophisti-pop.” “Slave to Love,” the album’s lead single, exemplifies the approach, Ferry singing with glazy seduction over lush, caressing pop, every instrument obediently contributing to the smooth-groove whole. “Don’t Stop the Dance” is similarly luxuriant, a song that lives in the tendril of smoke drifting artfully skyward from an expensive cigarette.

While maintaining its ambient through line, the album does allow Ferry room to move. “Sensation” employs some of the airy funk undercurrents of Talking Heads, a stylistic touch that meshes nicely with Ferry’s icy cool vocal delivery, and “Valentine” is made distinctive, if not particularly improved, by a sleepy reggae beat and a characteristically noodly, echoey guitar riffing from Mark Knopfler. Disco-hangover track “The Chosen One” ill-advisedly circles back to the sound of Roxy Music albums as the nineteen-seventies gave way to the nineteen-eighties. Overall, the variation is welcome, even if none of these cuts diverges so much than anyone would be confused about their authorship.

Reluctant to return to the grind of touring, Ferry instead spent the months after the release of Boys and Girls pursuing the very eighties side hustle of flipping material onto movie soundtracks, specifically Ridley Scott’s Legend and, more bizarrely, David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. For the latter, Ferry cowrote a new song with Nile Rodgers, its title inspired by a memorable, kitschy moment in the original nineteen-fifties flick. “It’s not one of my favorites,” Rodgers later conceded.

313. Fleetwood Mac, Tusk (1979)

“We had this ridiculous success with Rumours, and at some point, at least in my perception, the success of that detached from the music, and it was more about the phenomenon,” Lindsay Buckingham later said of the moment in the late nineteen-seventies when Fleetwood Mac were arguably the biggest rock band in planet. “We were poised to do another album, and I guess because the axiom ‘If it works, run it into the ground’ was prevalent then, we were probably poised to do Rumours II. I don’t know how you do that, but somehow my light bulb that went off was, ‘Let’s just not do that. Let’s very pointedly not do that.'”

By all accounts, it was Buckingham who drove his bandmates to make Tusk into a wide-ranging, freewheeling, experimental tour de force practically destined to alienate a good portion of the millions upon millions that purchased the 1977 albums Rumours, carrying it from hit record to full-on sensation. Listening to it now, Tusk isn’t all that odd. It’s not like they suddenly turned into the Residents or delivered their own Metal Machine Music. About as bizarre as it gets is the the slightly noticeable disjointedness to some of Buckingham’s vocals on the jagged “Not That Funny,” reportedly attributable to him doing pushups over a microphone on the floor while shouting out a portion of the lyrics. Instead, Tusk sounds ambitious and joyfully untethered from the checks normally put on pop acts, the music-industry insistence that tracks that sound like eager hits are present on every record. It simply doesn’t pander or settle into a single, easy-to-define soundscape. In the late nineteen-seventies, that overall strategy came across as revolutionary.

Tusk has a kinship with The Beatles, the white-jacketed double album from the Liverpudlian game-changers. In addition to the obvious corollary of a major bands leverages their massive popularity to spread a new release across four sides, both albums are notable for the sense of distinctive songwriters who previously worked in impressive symbiosis changing the approach to zing off is different, sometimes radically different directions. Christine McVie is the creator who carries the clearest echoes of what came before, and her sterling ballad “Over and Over” opens Tusk, as if offering false reassurance that Fleetwood Mac is prepared to deliver the pop version of comfort food. Other McVie songs on the album — such as rich, deliberate “Think About Me” and sweet, lovely “Never Forget” — provide the same touchpoint to familiarity.

In opposition to Buckingham’s withering suggestion that material that fells too close to Rumours would represent failure — of, maybe more charitably, a missed opportunity — McVie’s songs are stellar, and the album is strengthened by the contrast between them and the more daring leaps taken by Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. I think the exhibition of McVie’s impeccable craft even rescue some of the imperfect tracks around it, such as Buckingham’s “That’s All for Everyone,” which is a half-realized notion that somehow satisfies as a whole song. The slight sloppiness of other material is more evidently am artistic choice when there’s surrounding proof that the band is wholly capable of replicating past glories if they so choose. Tusk regularly asserts itself as the product of an abundance of ideas rather than a dearth of commitment to doing the work. No rest is taken place upon these laurels.

Thrillingly, Tusk is a series of hairpin curves taken at breakneck speed. There’s the coked-up hoedown “That’s Enough for Me” and the effortlessly pristine pop of “Honey Hi.” They can deploy snarling guitar solos (“Sisters of the Moon”) and strip a song down to its creaking, folk-rock skeleton (“Save Me a Place”). In the spectacular pinnacle of the thumping title cut, both disparate instincts factor in: a marching band over one hundred members strong is deployed, and Bucking and drummer Mick Fleetwood play percussion parts on every object they can grab, including a Kleenex box and meat straight from the butcher shop.

Buckingham might have considered himself the creative genius of Fleetwood Mac, but there’s little doubt that Nicks was the star. Her contributions to Tusk are among the record’s most commanding tracks. “Sara” is a slow-burn beauty that holds complex weightiness in its lyrics (“In the sea of love/ Where everyone would love to drown/ But now it’s gone/ They say it doesn’t matter anymore”) and “Storms” is a ballad rendered with a quietly stunning precision. As Buckingham endeavors to push his art further with restless experiments, Nicks achieves that same laudable goal with the far more challenging tactic of bringing greater care and focus to her already established musical gifts.

By most measures, Tusk was a hit. It topped the Billboard album chart on the way to selling more than two million copies in the U.S. At this point, Fleetwood Mac didn’t have the benefit of being assessed by most measures. Rumours was the yardstick, and it stretched all the way to the horizon line. Tusk was considered a flop, especially when the lengthy, indulgently expensive recording process (Tusk was the first album that tallied up studio and association bills in excess of one million dollars) was factored in to the equation. Three years passed before the next Fleetwood Mac studio album, which was a retreat to the safety of the norms of the pop chart.

312. Genesis, Duke (1980)

When Genesis convened to record their tenth studio album, they were still on the early part of an arc of reinvention. Adding to the uncertainty, the three members of the band arrived to the process less prepared than usual to start churning through new material. The band’s previous album, …And Then There Were Three…, was, as the title suggests, their first as a trio, following the departure of frontman Peter Gabriel and guitarist Steve Hackett. Drummer Phil Collins maintained those duties while also moving in the lead singer role. Feeling motivated to prove their continued viability after two key members exited, Genesis undertook a lengthy world tour that caused additional damage to Collins’s already rocky marriage. The threesome agreed to put a pause on the band so Collins could try — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — to mend his relationship. While he did so, keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarist Mike Rutherford recorded and released solo albums. When the group reconvened to start work on the album that would become Duke, Banks and Rutherford had little starting material, having used it up on side projects. Collins, working through his heartache by writing, had a hefty stockpile, but he felt most of it wasn’t well suited to Genesis, and he held it back for his own later solo effort. As opposed to the preceding album, where everyone arrived with songs fully formed, all three musicians offered up some shards of songs, and they largely worked through them together in the studio.

Maybe the sound and shape of Duke can be traced to the shuffle-footed beginnings, or maybe it’s simply a reflection of the time. Either way, the album feels like a band in transition, still cloaked in the trappings of their prog-rock past while trying to shimmy towards a more easygoing, pop chart–friendly future. The thick synths and squonching guitars dominating “Behind the Lines” are completely in keeping with the output of brethren bands that frame their lyrics around fantasy novel tropes. “Man of Our Times” is what it feels like when a song is all crescendo, and album-ending epic “Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End” is downright exhausting. The short cut “Guide Vocal” is like an interstitial in a hell-bound collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

The Genesis to come, improbably successful hitmakers in the MTV-driven image-consciousness of the nineteen-eighties, starts to nose its way out of the dramatic sonic storms. “Misunderstanding” is the cleanest cut, retaining the swarming bombast while shunting aside to showcase Collins’s earnest vocals, and it became their highest-charting U.S. single to date, peaking at #14. “Turn It On Again” is a firmer, more forceful example of plain, effective rock music, and “Alone Tonight” is a big, gloopy power ballad that might have been elevated to hit status had it been released a few years later when Genesis was an inescapable chart force.

Duke was the band’s second straight platinum album in the U.S. They were learning to paddle with the highest waves in the roaringest currents of the mainstream. Bigger things were waiting just around the bend.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s