College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #311 to #309

311. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Red Hot Chili Peppers (1984)

The Red Hot Chili Peppers had a lucrative record contract in hand. What they were lacking was a full lineup. The group came into being in fairly impromptu fashion. Singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, guitarist Hillel Slovak, and drummer Jack Irons took the stage at various Los Angeles clubs. The improvised music while Kiedis unleashed freestyle raps. Among the pioneers of merging funk, hip hop, and hard rock, the band quickly developed a reputation as one of the area’s most electric live acts, leading to a seven-album deal with EMI America and Enigma Records. That agreement was inked just a couple weeks after the band What Is This signed their own contract, with MCA Records. Slovak and Irons were in both groups, and they decided What Is This was the more serious outfit with greater commercial prospects. They departed the Red Hot Chili Peppers to work on What Is This’s debut.

Kiedis and Flea were determined to take advantage of the opportunity before them. Guitarist Jack Sherman and drummer Cliff Martinez were brought on board, and everyone operated on faith that they’d gel into a cohesive unit in the studio, a faulty assumption that can reasonably be attributed to their status as recording novices. The label partnered the band with producer Andy Gill, whose time as lead guitarist of Gang of Four seemingly made him a good match for an emerging act that aimed for caustic tunefulness. Instead Gill and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were almost immediately at odds, the producer intent on imposing some creative discipline in hopes of crafting a more mainstream sound, and the band hoping to preserve the lunatic bravado of their live shows. As is often the case in such situations, the clashes resulted in a finished product that made none of the involved parties particularly happy.

It’s at least fitting that the first sound on a Red Hot Chili Peppers album is Flea’s bass. The one true virtuoso in the band, Flea plucks a kinetic, hiccuping torrent to start “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes,” a brusque, muscular track that served as the album’s sole single. It’s maybe the one cut on the album where Gill’s professional control condensed the band’s wildness into a fierce, combustible winner. There are other glimmers of interesting creativity, including raw, driving “Police Helicopter” and hyperactive party song “Get Up and Jump” (which the band played on the doomed late-night talk show Thicke of the Night for their first national television appearance). They even deliver a halfway decent cover of Hank Willams’s “Why Don’t You Love Me,” pulling off the surprisingly rare feat of putting their own spin on classic material without desecrating it. Even the album-closing instrumental “Grand Pappy Du Plenty” holds some charm, coming across as coolly atmospheric.

As they would across their career, the Red Hot Chili Peppers undermine their more promising material with juvenile goofing and questionable taste. “Mommy, Where’s Daddy?” is jazzy slop mired in its own obnoxiousness, and “Baby Appeal” is so embarrassing and amateurish that it plays like an inside job to sabotage all of hip hop (“We stop the fire, we quench the heat/ We groove the buttocks walking out in the street/ ‘Cos that’s when in the store, when who do we meet?/ On a hop, skip, jump up a baby beat”). These flaws contribute to making The Red Hot Chili Peppers an accurate debut release for the band. Massive success awaited them in the future, and some better-than-average albums, too. Even at their best, though, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were a band that couldn’t ever quite tamp down their worst instincts to make a completely satisfying album. Fittingly, that was true from the jump.

310. ABC, Beauty Stab (1983)

“When we told the label, it went down like a lead balloon,” Martin Fry later recounted about the plans ABC had for their sophomore album, Beauty Stab. “We wanted our fans to be surprised, to be taken aback and confused. And they were.”

The Lexicon of Love, the debut album from the sleek pop outfit Fry fronted, was a global hit, and following it up with more of the same delicate, precise, synth-driven music would have been the safest career choice, especially in the ascendancy of MTV and the clear pathway to image-driven success the cable channel offered. Instead, ABC pushed into different territory. Lithe elegance remained the spine of their collective creativity, but the material on Beauty Stab was adorned with unexpected elements. Most notably — or most notoriously, depending on who’s asked — guitarist Mark White peppered in wild, raunchy riffs that gave everything a glam-adjacent tremor. “The Power of Persuasion” is weird, unconvincing cock rock, and “Love’s a Dangerous Language” has chunky guitar tones surfacing like sea mammals in the currents of a song that’s otherwise vintage British theatrical pop updated for the era of new wave.

There are times when the fuss swarms in an overwhelms the tracks, as on “That Was Then but This Is Now.” More often, the sense of adventure is actually quite compelling, even when the songs don’t exactly work. “By Default by Design” is like a reasonable audition to start penning Broadway show tunes for the post–Lloyd Webber era, and “Hey Citizen!” is downright loopy, weirdly suggestive of what might happen if someone stripped away the heavy metal trappings of the Cult if heavy metal were someone stripped away entirely including the repurposing of the lyrics into muddled consumerist satire (“Here they come/ Slumming their way out of the Jacuzzi/ Well I’ve lived in a slum, sugar plum/ Hit and run and it did not amuse me”). They go wildly overboard on “Bite the Hand,” and slide close to Duran Duran’s territory with “Unzip.” Only “S.O.S.” really comes close to the ice-cool pop of ABC’s debut. Naturally, it was one of the album’s singles, released second as the label was trying to salvage the commercial prospects of Beauty Stab.

The album flopped. Practically every retrospective evaluation of it, appreciative of not, include some variation on the term self-sabotage. ABC rebounded a bit with their third album, How to Be a Zillionaire, but the possibility of the band turning into enduring pop titans looked dimmer after their sophomore effort. Years later, Fry conceded the danger of the album’s approach and the damage done.

“ABC have a very self-destructive streak,” he said. “Beauty Stab — it’s in the title.”

309. The Smiths, The Smiths (1984)

The origin story of the Smiths begins in May 1982, when guitarist Johnny Marr literally turned up on the doorstep of singer Morrissey pitching the idea of forming a group together. The band’s first rehearsal took place a few days later, the name the Smiths chosen by the end of the summer, and their first live gigs in the fall. The Smiths’ first singles saw release their following year, and when eager attention followed from the U.K. music press and influential DJ John Peel, Rough Trade officially signed the group — which also included bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce — and put them to work on a debut full-length, assigning former the Teardrop Explodes guitarist Troy Tate as producer. It didn’t go well.

Within a few weeks, the band was convinced the album was in trouble. While accompanying the band to the BBC for a in-studio performance, Rough Trade head Geoff Travis handed off a tape of the recording sessions to John Porter, who’d been involved with several Roxy Music records and recently produced the Killing Joke. Travis thought the recordings defied mixing fixes, but he was intrigued enough by the material to recommend starting over from scratch. Marr was skeptical of Porter, at least until they got together.

“For me, as a guitarist, it was one of the best things that ever happened,” Marr said a few years later. “I was starting to develop my style, and he saw something in my playing that he really felt he could work on.”

Perhaps suggesting no one was quite ready for the Smiths’ unique brand of swoony, salty pop, Porter’s production choices took some hits, too (complaints that persist to this day in some quarters). NME dubbed it “elephant’s ear production (grey and flat).”

If The Smiths is dulled down in its executions (and I’m not so sure it is), there’s no mistaking that there’s an immensely talented, fiercely inventive band in those grooves. “Reel Around the Fountain” opens the album in probing, chiming, morosely romantic fashion (“Fifteen minutes with you/ Well, I wouldn’t say no/ Oh, people said that you were virtually dead/ And they were so wrong”). It lasts nearly six minutes, hardly a gentle, tentative introduction to the band’s aesthetic. That uniquely passive confrontation is an ideal representation of what the Smiths would deliver in a few highly impactful and influential years.

In part because there were only four full-length albums before the Smiths quit for good, and none of those albums took a hard turn from what had come before, the whole output from the band can feel like one big mass. It’s a little revelatory to listen to The Smiths with an intense commitment to remembering this is where it all started. “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” is hypnotic, and “This Charming Man,” initially included only on the North American version of the album, practically defines what a jaunty indie-rock song sounds like. “Miserable Lie,” energized by a spiky drum part, is the closest they would ever get to punk. Arguably the most emblematic song — in outlook and tone — is “Suffer Little Children,” featuring lyrics about the murder of five Manchester children in the mid–nineteen-sixties, crimes that Morrissey loops the whole community into in his condemnation (“And you’ll never see your home again/ Oh Manchester, so much to answer for”). It comes across as the most languid protest song in history.

The Smiths is a strong, startling debut. It’s also just the beginning. It would get so much better from here.

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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