College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #305 to #303

305. Eurythmics, 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother) (1984)

It was utterly logical for a major film adaptation of George Orwell’s most famous novel to appear in the year that made up the entirety of its title. By 1984, 1984 was already a staple of high school lit courses and a frequently cited cautionary text supposedly analogous to the political woes of the moment (then, as now, the book was often used a bludgeon by people who had zero understanding of it actual lessons). A 1956 film version already existed, but surely a bigscreen 1984 was destined to be a poignant powerhouse, and a surefire box office hit, in the no-longer futuristic year it depicted. When Michael Radford, fresh off making his feature directorial debut with Another Time, Another Place, asked around about the rights to 1984, he assumed a project was already in progress. Instead, he found that the rights for a screen adaptation were languishing with a Chicago attorney who had little success putting a film production in motion. Agreements were forged, including with Richard Branson’s Virgin Films as major financer, and Radford dashed off a screenplay in a few weeks’ time. With the year 1984 about a quarter of the way to completion, principal photography started in London. The mad dash was on to get a completed film ready for theaters before it was time to replace the calendar on the wall.

While Radford and his filmmaking colleagues toiled on the film, Branson and other Virgin Records bigwigs concentrated on the music. Soundtracks were incredibly valuable during the MTV boom years, providing a load of free publicity when a clip-heavy music video became a hit. After an unsuccessful attempt to convince David Bowie do craft a song score for the film, the Virgin execs concentrated on enlisting Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart to take on the task. Initially reluctant, they warmed to the idea and raced through conception and recording of several tracks in later summer of 1984, matching it to loosely assembled film footage shipped to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas.

“We were working to a rough video, and I kept saying to Dave, ‘Why isn’t the director here?’ Lennox later said. “We thought he must be too busy.”

Radford was indeed too busy completing the shoot in England. He was also unaware that Eurythmics were working on a score for 1984. He knew Branson wanted a pop act to provide a set of songs to serve as the score, but hadn’t heard any updates following all the initial rejections. Frantic to complete the film, Radford hired Dominic Muldowney to create a more traditional orchestral score. Once he finally did get the Eurythmics’ pieces, he rejected them, in part because they didn’t suit his vision and in part out of spite that he felt Branson was using the film as a pawn in a chess match to sign Eurythmics to Virgin Records. Branson kept prodding Radford, arguing that having hit songs associated with the film would drive more people to see it.

“I asked Branson what legally was the minimum amount of music I could put in the movie to allow him to put out a record,” fumed Radford. “He said fifteen seconds, so I put fifteen seconds of their music on the film.”

1984 premiered with Muldowney’s score in place. It wouldn’t last in that form. Virgin reclaimed the film and reworked it to pack in the cuts laid down by Eurythmics, a move they claimed was necessary to secure U.S. distribution. The soundtrack album, with the full title 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother), was released in November. By most accounting, it’s officially considered the fourth studio album by Eurythmics.

In the arc of the band, the soundtrack arguably represents the throat-clearing announcement that Eurythmics weren’t going to keep duplicating the sound that sold loads of records. Single “Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four)” collapses the edgy, computerized precision of Kraftwerk into a more approachable pop mode, and “Greetings from a Dead Man” is restless electronica. The swirling, hypnotic “Julia” is truly ahead of its time, anticipating Björk’s shift to lovely — and somewhat audience-indifferent — experimentation more than a decade later. The track also demonstrates how Eurythmics were starting to use Lennox’s vocals as another instrument in the complex mix, an approach also heard with the scatting from from another planet she provides on “I Did It Just the Same.” All stops are removed and hurled into the bin on “Doubleplusgood,” which starts with tribal drums, proceeds into jittery, thin synths, and alternates back and forth between Lennox alternating between an electrified spoken-word performance of government doublespeak and a lilting, caffeinated mantra.

Beginning with the chart-topping “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” Eurythmics sent five straight singles into the Top 40 in the U.S. The 1984 soundtrack put a stop to that. The material was simply too odd, too challenging. In the North American market, Branson’s scheme was a bust all around. The film earned less than $10 million at the box office, and the soundtrack album has the lowest peak of any Eurythmics studio release to make the Billboard chart (the duo’s debut, In the Garden, never got a proper release in the U.S. and never appeared on the chart). The band still considers it some of the best music they made together. Even Radford eventually came around on it.

“I’ve seen the film since, and I actually quite like the music now,” Radford said years later. “It gives it a pace and intensity. At the time, though, it was the principle I was protesting. The director is the director of the movie.”

304. Bruce Springsteen, The River (1980)

As the nineteen-seventies clicked over to the nineteen-eighties, it seemed like just about everyone could make a Bruce Springsteen song into a hit. The only one who found it an elusive task was Springsteen himself. He moved plenty of albums. Both Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, his third and fourth studio efforts, logged time in the Top 10 of the Billboard albums chart. Hit singles were another matter. He had a couple forays into the Top 40, but the songs petered out early. Meanwhile, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band went to #1 with a cover of Springsteen’s “Blinded By the Light,” and the Pointer Sisters just missed the top with “Fire,” a song originally written with Elvis Presley in mind and then recorded for — and rejected from — Darkness on the Edge of Town. Even Patti Smith, hardly a mainstream-friendly performer, had a hit with a Springsteen song. “Because the Night,” which Springsteen couldn’t quite crack during Darkness sessions, was given to Smith, who finished the lyrics. Released as the first single from Smith’s album Easter, the song became her sole Top 40 hit, peaking at #13, ten places higher than Springsteen ever got.

As devoted a rock ‘n’ roll discipline as there has ever been, Springsteen craved a hit song, something that would put him in the pantheon with his heroes. In his first pass the the album that would follow Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen instinctually operated in direct opposition to that instinct. The completed album was given the title The Ties That Bind, and Springsteen started sharing it with trusted confidantes, including Jimmy Iovine. After listening to the collections of raw, garage rock–style tracks, Iovine expressed his derisive view of the muddy mix by asking Springsteen when he was going to get around to recording the vocals. Springsteen took those seeds of doubt and carefully cultivated them into a forest of regret about the album, ultimately scrapping almost every he had and assembling his band to try again. It wasn’t a half-hearted salvage mission. Spring redoubled his already formidable energy and finally finished with a double album’s worth of new material, all rendered with the hit-the-back-row-of-the-arena potency that had been his calling card from the beginning. The new album drew its title from a spare, tough-minded song Springsteen wrote about the financial struggles he saw his sister and brother-in-law enduring a working-class opportunities were stripped away (“I got a job working construction, for the Johnstown Company/ But lately there ain’t been much work, on account of the economy”). His fifth album was now called The River.

There are still vestiges of the planned roughness, such as the cut “Crush on You.” Mostly, though, the album is Springsteen in his usual big, rock ‘n’ roll showman mode, blasting out perfectly craft songs that somehow draw on years of predecessors without ever sounding derivative. “The Ties That Bind,” “Two Hearts,” and the retro-tinged “I’m a Rocker” sounds like songs that were always there in the canon, just waiting for someone to rescue their gold-nugget goodness from the rushing cultural stream. On “Sherry Darling,” he magically makes angry exasperation at his best girl’s ma (“You can tell her there’s a hot sun beating on the blacktop/ She keeps talking she’ll be walking that last block/ She can take a subway back to the ghetto tonight”) into an unlikely party anthem. The scope of four sides gives Springsteen the room to make more overt forays into grimmer, more experimental sentiments: “Stolen Car” forecasts Nebraska, and “Drive All Night,” with its exhausted cabaret vibe and gargling vocals, is the closest Springsteen ever came to emulating Tom Waits, including when he covered Tom Waits. Springsteen’s focus on The River is such that even the songs that comparatively feel like throwaways (“You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” and “Cadillac Ranch” among them) are rich and fully formed.

There are instances, as is almost always the case on Springsteen albums, when his penchant for studio polish cuts against the song. “Independence Day” is example of how the heavy-handed production can be a detriment, with a smoothness at odds with the stark, emotionally devastating lyrics about a son breaking free of the pain carried by his father (“Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us/ There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too/ But they can’t touch me now/ And you can’t touch me now/ They ain’t gonna do to me/ What I watched them do to you”). Primarily, the album finds Springsteen finding the right balance, testing around the fringes to establish the perfect formula. An argument that he was closing in on the right way to alchemize his sound into fare palatable for the mainstream is that he finally found that hit. “Hungry Heart,” a song of longing in bold strokes (“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/ I went out for a ride and I never went back/ Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing/ I took a wrong turn and I just kept going”) was originally written with the Ramones in mind. Jon Landau, Springsteen’s longtime manager, producer, and all-around champion, convinced him he should keep it. Released as the first single, “Hungry Heart” cracked the Top 5 on Billboard. Finally, Springsteen wasn’t just a hitmaker for others.

303. The Godfathers, Birth, School, Work, Death (1988)

For the junior cynics who took their spot in the broadcast booths of college radio stations, there might not have been a better, more direct expression of the bleak outlook of privileged, Western-culture existence than the lead single and title cut from the sophomore album by the Godfathers. With razor-sharp guitars and a plodding, satisfying rhythm, “Birth, School, Work, Death” condensed life down to its basics, with blunt-force lyrics to keep hammering the point, adding a divot to the lumber after the nail has already been driven home (“Yeah I been high and I been low/ And I don’t know where to go”). The song isn’t subtle, but it was damn satisfying to play.

The Godfathers’ first official album, Hit By Hit, was more of a compilation, roughly assembling early singles with spare parts. Birth, School, Work, Death is the first proper album statement, and it has signs that the band wasn’t quite ready to step fully forward just yet. In addition to the title song, there are other tracks that deliver thumping, simple pleasures: “Tell My Why,” with pumping drums and a keening chorus, and the spectacularly bratty “Cause I Said So” (“Every day’s a thrill when you’re living like me/ Don’t read Baudelaire’s poetry/ And I don’t need no PhD/ ‘Cause I’m ten times smarter than you’ll ever be”). The excitement the band has to stretch into other realms — prickly psychedelics on “When Am I Coming Down” and acid rock on “Obsession” — are more admirably ambition than solidly successful. Slowing down, on “It’s So Hard” and “Just Like You,” yields results that are yet more questionable.

Birth, School, Work, Death might be lacking as a start-to-finish piece of work. What is gets right, it gets right fully and forcefully. That’s one of the gifts radio gives. Students moving through the air chair played a lot more of the albums on the rotation shelves than their professional brethren. But they didn’t have to play everything. In any album had a perfect anthem of youthful disaffection, and a couple other bruisers to boot, that could be enough.

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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