College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #296 to #294

296. Graham Parker and the Rumour, Squeezing Out Sparks (1979)

“In the past, I occasionally found the music running away with itself, and I was fighting in the middle of it,” Graham Parker told Rolling Stone not long after the release of his fourth studio album, Squeezing Out Sparks. “This time I wanted it to be absolutely direct — the whole thing like a heartbeat.”

Parker went into the making of the album with a headwind of resentment. His first couple albums were greeted with breathless enthusiasm by rock critics and the barest of interest from the record-buying public, a situation he blamed on the shaky business acumen of the executives at his label, Mercury Records. He wrangled his way out of that contract and parlayed his music-press acclaim into something of a bidding war. He landed with Arista and was paired with producer Jack Nitzsche, a former collaborator of the Rolling Stones and Neil Young whose capacity for bridge burning rivaled Parker’s. The producer agreed with Parker’s inclination towards directness, encouraging him to strip down the arrangements of songs to their leanest possible form. The horn players in backing band the Rumour ambled down to hall to puff away from the Clash album London Calling, and Parker raced through simpler versions of his new set of songs, completing the recording process in just a couple weeks.

Squeezing Out Sparks is the best Parker ever was on record, by consensus and any reasonable analysis. His spiky songwriting is on point across the two sides, and the tracks are significantly enhanced by that punk-inspired clarity of expression. “Local Girls” and “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” are the kind of rock songs that hit the center of the target so precisely that they feel like they were in the canon from the beginning. “Saturday Nite Is Dead” is a snarling attack on middlebrow society (“I draw a blank every time I think/ The football crowd is going to give me a boot”), and “Discovering Japan” elides some of its mildly xenophobic undertones with the happy distraction of its punchy energy.

The album’s centerpiece, and arguably Parker’s most enduring song, is “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” an edgy ballad that addresses abortion with such evocative fierceness (“Did they tear it out with talons of steel/ And give you a shot, so that you wouldn’t feel?/ And washed it away as if it wasn’t real?”) that it’s long been embraced by conservatives as a pro-life song. It’s a far more complicated piece of storytelling than that, acknowledging misgivings in a way that’s human rather than statement politics, but such nuance was one U.S. election away from obliteration at the time the song was released. Sluicing out this song and holding it up as a gleaming nugget of right-wing worship of the unborn conveniently ignores the blazing cynicism that runs through all of Parkers’ songwriting. The foundational new wave cut “Nobody Hurts You,” and its refrain “Nobody hurts you/ Harder than yourself,” is emblematic of his worldview. Every inch of living is a conflicted mess. Parker simply reports on that fact through his lyrics.

Bolstered by the support of his new label — not to mention the quality of the material — Squeezing Out Sparks was a significant success, at least on the more modest scale of Parker’s career. It peaked at #40 on the Billboard album chart, a height he’d reach only one more time, with the album’s artistically disappointing follow-up, The Up Escalator. No blockbuster, Squeezing Out Sparks was at least finding its way into a few record collections, which is all Parker wanted.

“The record speaks for itself,” Parker insisted to Rolling Stone. “They ain’t gonna change that. I think everyone should hear my records and buy them. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I mean, I really don’t think it is.”

295. R.E.M., Dead Letter Office (1987)

I can’t explain Dead Letter Office better than R.E.M. guitarist Peter, so I’ll briefly switch from writer to transcriber and cede the floor to him:

I’ve always like singles much more than albums. A single has to be short, concise and catchy, all values that seem to go out the window as far as albums are concerned. But the thing that I like best about singles is their ultimate shoddiness. No matter how lavish that packaging, no matter what attention to detail, a ’45 is still essentially a piece of crap usually purchased by teenagers. This is why musicians feel free to put just about anything on the b-side; nobody will listen to to it anyway, so why not have some fun. You can clear the closet of failed experiments, badly written songs, drunken jokes, and occasionally, a worthwhile song that doesn’t fit the feel of an album.

This collection contains at least one song from each category. It’s not a record to be taken too seriously, Listening to this album should be like browsing through a junkshop.

Loathe as I might be to contradict Buck, I’m not sure there are any songs that truly land in the category reserved for the poorly written, but I might concede that the teeter-totter with cowpunk and trashy metal on opposing sides that is “Burning Hell” comes closest to qualifying. Dead Letter Office is mighty, messy proof that R.E.M. was truly formidable at their height as the defining band of college radio. Even the slapdash feels inspired, a fitting expression of the enthusiastic looseness that filled the airwaves of student-run radio station. A twenty-ish kid er-ing and um-ing their way through an announcement of a volunteer fair in the student union has an dandy pop-song corollary “Voice of Harold,” which features lead singer Michael Stipe intoning the liner notes of a religious music album over the musical bed of Reckoning gem “7 Chinese Brothers.” Charm abounds.

There are oddball R.E.M. originals worth adoring on Dead Letter Office, such as the twangy goof “Bandwagon,” rousing instrumental “White Tornado,” and wholly characteristic slice of melancholy jangle “Ages of You.” The primary expression of the band’s vision is arguably made through the covers, if only because there are so many of them on the record, including respect-paying passes at three different Velvet Underground songs. They open the collection with a take on “Crazy,” originally by fellow Athens, Georgia residents Pylon, and close with a drunken demolition of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” (which spins out of the splendid slop of “Walter’s Theme,” a college-rock jingle written for Walter’s Bar-B-Q). In between, they lob in cover of Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic,” keeping the faithful on their toes. Like the forlorn dudes who dutifully played R.E.M. during their on-air shifts, the band implicitly suggests the best way to know them is by knowing their record collection.

There was some nervousness about releasing Dead Letter Office, that it would lead to the perception that the band was greedily cashing in by flooding the market with product. The collection arrived only nine months after Lifes Rich Pageant and a mere four months ahead of Document. At the time, though, the hunger for R.E.M. music was insatiable at college radio. Every new disc was received with gratitude and spins.

294. UB40, Geffery Morgan (1984)

UB40 was already well-known in their U.K. homeland when they released Geffery Morgan, their fifth full-length studio album. All four of its predecessors made it into the Top 5 on the album chart, with covers album Labour of Love climbing all the way to the top. The ascent was slower in the U.S., but the band’s U.S. label, A&M Records, clearly felt they were on the verge. Labour of Love had generated interest enough for a rush-job release for the North American market compiling early singles. (A track from Labour of Love eventually topped the Billboard chart, but the trek to #1 was uniquely circuitous and wouldn’t be completed for a few years.) In some ways, Geffery Morgan was UB40’s first moment to really step up and announce themselves to U.S. music fans that were paying attention.

“If It Happens Again,” the album’s lead single, is a prime UB40 track: nicely lackadaisical, amiable hooks, sounding like East Side Story–era Squeeze after a reeducation camp conversion to reggae vibes. The appeals depends a lot on the general inclination for the British white-soul version of island music. Even if the band is admirably multicultural, there’s no denying the hint of colonialism that wafts off of them, especially with keening singer Ali Campbell usually standing front and center, pale as a sheet of typing paper. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the best cuts on Geffery Morgan is “You’re Not an Army,” a song about the Irish Republican Army (“We can drag you out of bed in the middle of the night/ Drive tanks along your street looking for a flight”) that Campbell steps aside on, handing the microphone to Astro for an intricate rap performance.

There are times on Geffery Morgan when, for good or bad, UB40 tries to inject a little variety into their sound. “Riddle Me” can almost convince you that Frankie Goes to Kingston could be a thing, especially when the energy ramps up in its second half. Given their enraptured fan base back home, UB40 understandably operates primarily with the ain’t-broke philosophy, which is fine when they lock into a nice groove on “Nkomo-A-Go-Go” and a little less so when they ease through the numbingly repetitive “Seasons.”

The anticipated U.S. commercial breakthrough for UB40 didn’t come to pass with Geffery Morgan, and A&M execs’ enthusiasm for the band’s prospects on this side of Atlantic dwindled. The disenchanted was so significant that A&M wasn’t particularly interested in the band’s next album, Baggariddim, which was largely comprised of reworked versions of previously released material. A&M decided to pare the album down to an EP titled Little Baggariddim. Released with little fanfare, the EP did what it’s more heavily predecessor couldn’t: It brought UB40 into the U.S. Top 40 and changed label boss’s minds, again, about whether this group could crack the mainstream.

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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