College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #284 to #282

284. Dire Straits, Dire Straits (1978)

Dire Straits were looking only for advice when they handed their five-song demo tape to Charlie Gillett, an influential BBC radio host. The band had only recently formed, mostly as a creative outlet for guitarist brothers Mark and David Knopfler. They’d played a few gigs and shopped their services to a couple labels to a tepid response. They felt they were onto something, though, and hoped Gillett could provide constructive feedback that would help them find the next level. Instead, Gillett said he felt they were already fully formed. He enthusiastically touted the band on air and played the demo on his radio program. The record executives that were previously indifferent to Dire Straits were suddenly eager to sign them. From the onrush of suitors, the band selected Vertigo Records, a subsidiary of Phonogram. They were sent into the studio with Muff Winwood, the former Spencer Davis Group member whose most recent production work included the Bay City Rollers.

The eager-to-pounce U.K. music press offered largely unkind evaluations of Dire Straits’ self-titled debut album, pinning much of the blame on Winwood’s production. Retrospective evaluations are far kinder, maybe because Dire Straits is such an exact representation of the band’s overall sound that would endure across their career and, eventually, sell ludicrous quantities of records. Album opener “Down to the Waterline” strolls in with all the sleepily precise musicianship, daftly literate lyrics (“Near misses on the dogleap stairways/ French kisses in the darkened doorways”), and crisp production that would be the band’s signature to the end. “Sultans of Swing,” the album’s first single and the band’s first hit, is even more fitting as an introduction to their creative personality of strangely chillaxed expertise, like Steely Dan without the inner tension.

Understandably, that personality is still gelling into place on Dire Straits, and the band often leans on the fenceposts driven deep into the soil by other artists. “Wild West End” recalls classic Van Morrison, “Setting Me Up” is like a less bland Eric Clapton, and the totality of the album’s sound owes a debt to J.J. Cale. When Dire Straits tries to strike out more decisively on their own, the results are mixed: I’m guessing “Water of Love” is Mark Knopfler’s attempt at inventing flamenco blues, which is novel but not especially successful.

Dire Straits might have disappointed some British rock critics, but it won over record buyers. The band took a touring spin with Talking Heads as an opening act, which helped them get signed to Warner Bros. for U.S. distribution. Given a dedicated push, the album very nearly made it to the top of the Billboard chart (it was boxed out to the runner-up position by the Doobie Brothers’ Minute by Minute), and “Sultans of Swing” landed in the Top 5. With high demand and only one real piece of supply, there was a mounting urgency to get Dire Straits back into the studio to work on their sophomore album.

283. John Fogerty, Centerfield (1985)

In the mid-nineteen-seventies, John Fogerty delivered the solo album Hoodoo to his bosses at Asylum Records. It was intended to be his second full-length release for the label and second issued under his own name since dissolving Creedence Clearwater Revival a few years earlier. Hoodoo was assigned a catalog number, sleeves were printed, and an advance single was released. Mere weeks before the album’s scheduled on-sale date, Fogerty and Joe Smith, top man at Elektra Records (of which Asylum was a subsidiary), decided together that Hoodoo wasn’t up to snuff. Rather than scrambling to fix it, or rushing the recording of a new album to keep the flow of product going, Smith suggested that Fogerty step back for a bit, in part because he sensed there was a need to address other issues that were compromising the guitar slinger’s ability to ply his trade. The resulting layoff lasted longer than anyone expected.

“When Joe told me to take time off and sort out my personal problems, I was relieved,” Fogerty told the Los Angeles Times. “I never dreamed it would take nine years, but there’s no way I could ever have made a record the way I was. I just couldn’t concentrate on the music. I had tried to work my way through it because that was my job: making records.”

Fogerty spent almost a decade engaged in a protracted legal battle against Saul Zaentz, the head of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s label Fantasy Records. Through duplicitous means, Zaentz managed to keep most of the money made from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s considerable record sales and royalties. Fogerty only occasionally circled back to songwriting during the span, noodling with little real progress made. Then something finally clicked as he played with an easygoing riff, a wistful melody, and set of lyrics nostalgically tracking through the cornerstone moments of postwar America as conveyed through broadcast television (“We gathered round to hear the sound coming on the little screen/ The grief had passed, the old men laughed, and all the girls screamed/ ‘Cause four guys from England took us all by the hands/ It was time to laugh, time to sing, time to join the band”). “I Saw It On T.V.” ended Fogerty’s drought, and he got back to that job of his.

If appreciation for Fogerty was dwindling at the time he scrapped Hoodoo, the subsequent absence proved the accuracy of the adage about hearts growing fonder. Centerfield arrived to rapturous acclaim. Seasoned music critics, still nursing grievances about disco and new wave, treated Fogerty’s old-hand mastery with straightforward rock songs like a heroic rescue mission. They weren’t wrong. Tracks such as “The Old Man Down the Road,”“Rock and Roll Girls,”and “Big Train (From Memphis)” make a strong case for the value of the form. Fogerty self-produced the record and played every instrument heard on it, giving Centerfield and admirable leanness and directness. The approach even enhances Fogerty’s two screeds against Zaentz,“Mr. Greed” and “Zanz Can’t Dance” (the latter literally the tale of an talentless, greedy swine that Fogerty retitled “Vanz Can’t Dance” after a lawsuit), giving them a thin veneer of hardscrabble punk urgency.

Besides ensuring Fogerty royalties for life from every ballpark in the country, the album’s title cut provides a lesson in his unique ability to infuse directness into pop and make it feel profound. There’s no tricky double meaning to “Centerfield.” It’s about baseball, plain and simple. And yet Fogerty’s knack for perfectly chosen details (“You got a beat up glove, a homemade bat/ And a brand new pair of shoes/ You know I think it’s time to give this game a ride”), combined with his earnest, keening delivery, infuses the song with authenticity that gives it a sense of truths being spoken for the very first time. That’s who Fogerty is, and that goes a long way towards explaining why his comeback was so heralded.

282. The Alarm, Eye of the Hurricane (1987)

Welsh band the Alarm edged close to a U.S. breakthrough with their 1985 album, Strength, and the pop climate appeared even more favorable a couple years later when their follow-up was in its final stages before release. The Joshua Tree, U2’s fifth album, had recently come out and was an immediate smash, demonstrating a marketplace hunger for big, anthemic rock songs, the sort designed to rattle the back seats of arenas. If the band delivering it looked the part, and was capable of emoting with strained intensity in a music video, all the better. The Alarm fit that model, and I.R.S. Records execs felt the band had the potential to step into the bootprints left by U2 to find a Cinderella fit.

The problem was that I.R.S. was a little too eager to help the band meet the moment. After the Alarm worked on the album Eye of the Hurricane, with regular Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry collaborator John Porter as producer, they shipped the finished product off to I.R.S. and went on holiday ahead of what was certain to be a grueling tour schedule. When they returned, record executives enthusiastically informed them that the album had been handed over to a Los Angeles production house to be remixed. The Alarm frontman Mike Peters and the rest of the band found the slicked-up material to be almost unrecognizable, and they attempted to restore the album to its original form, succeeding with only a couple of cuts.

The band’s dismay was well founded. Eye of the Hurricane is a trend-chasing glob, the whole of it calcified by studio polish. “Shelter” feels like it was engineered to play over the closing credits of a Brat Pack action movie, and “Presence of Love”is so overworked that it turns gooey. Songs that might have worked in fiercer, more propulsive renderings are exposed as thin and wanting. The ponderous ballad “Hallowed Ground,” the acoustic yearner “One Step Closer to Home,” and the watered-down Springsteen swipe “Only Love Can Set Me Free” all suffer this fate. In this mix, “Rescue Me,” with its cascading guitar lines and booming, shout-along chorus, is comparatively spare. “Rain in the Summertime,” one of the tracks the Alarm managed to largely wrangle back into their preferred version, is similarly a standout mostly because it doesn’t align with the rest of the album’s shellacked gleam. It also desperately ap

In the end, the Alarm won the argument about what Eye of the Hurricane should sound like. “Rain in the Summertime,” the track closest to its conception, was released as a single and became a hit. Perhaps bolstered by the ratification of their vision, the Alarm went into their next album with a conviction to remain resolutely true to their roots.

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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