College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #302 to #300

302. Duran Duran, Duran Duran (1981)

“We’re Duran Duran, and we want to be the band to dance to when the bomb drops,” Simon Le Bon declared from the stage in 1980, during the first live performance by the configuration of musicians that would soon storm the charts.

Wildly ambitious from the jump, Duran Duran quickly built a following in the U.K. that couldn’t denied. The were anointed the next big thing, a title passed with efficient frequency by the British music press, and stirred a bidding war among the labels. They signed with EMI and were partnered with producer Colin Thurston, who’d recently overseen albums by Magazine and the Human League. By all accounts, he was instrumental in helping the group shape their different influences into a cohesive sound, one that adhered to the sonic constructs of the emergent New Romantic movement while expanding it with sugary boldness and bravado. Duran Duran’s self-titled debut album is an explosion of glittery pop.

Releases in the U.S. on EMI’s Harvest subsidiary, Duran Duran has a couple tweaks from the original, U.K. of the album. Synth rave-up “Planet Earth” is the “night version,” the group’s term at the time for extended mixes that more closely mirrored the arrangement used for live performances, and the extra vinyl real estate it claims means the excising of ballad “To the Shore.” Losing the slower song makes sense given that the rest of the album fulfills the lead singer’s stated mandate of soundtracking a doomsday dance party. “Careless Memories” has a feverish contained intensity, and “(Waiting for the) Night Boat” burbles with the lithe pop prowl that was always Duran Duran’s most formidable weapon. “Girls on Film” is a perfect nineteen-eighties pop single, all gloss, verve, and candy-coated decadence with lyrics that are simultaneously seduced and repelled by superficial glamor (“Wider, baby, smile and you’ve just made a million/ Fuses pumping live heat twisting out on a wire/ Take one last glimpse into the night”).

Full of promise, Duran Duran is still obviously the work of a band figuring out their formula. Embittered “Friends of Mine” (“Silly lies, don’t have to advertise/ When will you realize, I’m sick of you alibis”) is a plod, as if the band is testing how long they can stretch a musical idea, and other tracks slip from the memory before the needle hits the runout groove. It wouldn’t take long for Duran Duran to make some shrewd adjustments. By their next album, they tightened up the material and became global stars. At that point, Duran Duran was reissued in the U.S. with new single “Is There Something I Should Know?” tacked on to the end of the first side. Lean and jabby, the track is clear evidence of how far the band traveled in a short period of time, especially when settled in among its ancestors. Duran Duran took command of pop music like few others.

301. The Moody Blues, Long Distance Voyager (1981)

After several years, the Moody Blues finally recorded together in the studio specially designed for them. In the late nineteen-sixties, at their peak of their powers and popularity in delivering dreamy, head-trip psychedelia, the very English group had a dispute with their label, Decca Records, about how their albums were being packaged and presented. The resolution was the creation of a band-directed subsidiary label, dubbed Threshold Records. In addition to their own albums, both as a group and solo efforts, Threshold took on a few other acts, even coming close to signing Genesis when Decca dropped the act following their debut album. They operated a modest chain of record stores under that name, too. In the mid-nineteen-seventies, Decca further expanded the brand, and reinforced their commitment to the Moody Blues, by transforming North London’s Decca Studio One to suit the band’s preferences. The space was renamed Threshold Studios.

There was a little snag with creating a studio to suit Moody Blues recordings at that time. The band wasn’t making any. They collectively agreed to a hiatus after the world tour in support on their 1972 album, Seventh Sojourn, in part because some of the members were wary of the increasing perception that guitarist and vocalist Justin Hayward was the main driving force for the Moody Blues. There was a firm interest among the others in establishing themselves more clearly as individual talented musicians in the public perception. Multiple solo albums were recorded at Threshold Studios across the nineteen-seventies, but nothing under the Moody Blues name. Even when they reassembled, for the 1978 album Octave, the recording sessions took place at a couple California studios. That album’s follow-up, Long Distance Voyager, was the first to be recorded in the what for years was intended to be the Moody Blues’ home base.

If setting up in Threshold felt like a culmination, there were other disruptions that likely brought sensations of new beginnings. For the first time in over a decade, the Moody Blues weren’t working with producer Tony Clarke. He was replaced in the booth by regular Status Quo producer Pip Williams. More problematically, founding keyboardist Mike Pinder left after Octave, and he filed an lawsuit in an unsuccessful to halt the remaining band members from using the Moody Blues name. The tumult delayed the start of recording by several months, which wound up a positive development.

“We just had to rethink what we were doing,” vocalist and bassist John Lodge later said. “And we just weren’t ready to go into the studio by the time we were supposed to be. However, I believe this worked in our favor because when we did get things finalized, the songs and our attitude couldn’t have been better.”

In its strongest moments, Long Distance Voyager is the sound of a legacy act on notably solid footing. They don’t give the impression of complete comfort with the changing textures of rock music, but nor are they not so far removed from the new norms that they sound crusty. “The Voice” has a smooth groove and crisp energy, and the jaunty amble of “Meanwhile” is winningly reminiscent of George Harrison’s best tracks from roughly the same era. “Gemini Dream” is gummy pub rock with a touch of weird white-boy funk, like Electric Light Orchestra with less grandiosity. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Other cuts flatly don’t work, including the drippy “In My World” and “Nervous,” the latter of which is the drabbest conceivable version of a power ballad (“I try so hard to touch you/ But you’re always out of reach/ If you walked right by, would I see in it your eye?/ Would you turn away?”). On “Painted Smile,” the Moody Blues achieve the unlikely feat of sounding like Peter Allen but fussier.

Long Distance Voyager was a smashing success. It was their second chart-topping album in the U.S., spending three weeks in that position. The new studio evidently achieved the goal of putting the Moody Blues in a productive comfort zone. They wouldn’t get the chance to repeat the experience. Not long after the release of the album, Polygram, the new owners of Decca Records, dismantled Threshold Studios, deeming it an unnecessary expense.

300. Modern English, Ricochet Days (1984)

Prompted in part by widespread appreciation for the single “I Melt with You,” Modern English spent a lot of time on the road supporting their sophomore album, After the Snow. When the tour bus got parked back in the garage, there was a sense of urgency to bang out some new music for the masses. The band found themselves in that common third-album pit, with the backlog of older material used up and the grind of bounding from gig to gig having prevented them from writing much new. According to producer Hugh Jones, who also oversaw After the Snow, Modern English showed up with little ready to go. Luckily, they also arrived with eagerness and energy.

The resulting album, Ricochet Days, has some passages of real invention on it. Beset by expectations, but also bolstered by a nibble at greater success, the band operates with a sense of freedom in pushing against their own boundaries. “Machines” is full, intricate electronica, and the title cut is spare, spectral pop that morphs into a something that sounds like something off of Styx’s Kilroy Was Here if it was actually good. “Heart” takes their standard pop sounds, and adds in strings in a way that is unexpectedly elegant. If none of these cuts are pop masterpieces, they are fascinating in their restless creativity, suggesting that even a mild sense of adventure can have a sizable impact on a song.

This being a Modern English release from after their signature hit, the bad habit of overtly copying themselves is in place, too. “Blue Waves” tosses in hand claps and foreboding synth intrusions as the only elements preventing it from being a complete “I Melt With You” clone, and “Rainbow’s End,” while appealing enough, provides the answer to the unasked question, “What if the Mighty Lemon Drops tried to get away with nicking Modern English’s biggest hit?” It’s not really flattery, sincere or otherwise, when you’re immitating yourself.

Ricochet Days wasn’t the hit everyone hoped for. Frustration set it, and Modern English decided they needed a more formidable promotional apparatus than their longtime label, 4AD, could provide. For their next outing, they were determined to make major changes in pursuit of chart dominance.

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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