College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #281 to #279

281. The Housemartins, The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death (1987)

With their bright, buoyant melodies and crisp pop sound, the Housemartins hardly sound like the sort of band that would inspire outrage. At around the time the PMRC was getting red in the face over W.A.S.P.’s “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” in the U.S., the conservative British press were directing their umbrage for four lads from Hull who liked football and enthusiastically espoused socialist views. The Housemartins couldn’t sound more different than the heavy metal bands that cranked their amps as loud as they could go to drive teen-aged boys into raging frenzies, but daring to suggest that capitalism had a downside was as great a crime as burgeoning pop icons could perpetrated in a society where Rupert Murdoch presided evilly over the most influential newspapers. Mud was slung, lies were propogated.

“It hurt pretty badly,” said Paul Heaton, vocalist and guitarist for the Housemartins, told Sounds magazine around that time. “It was bad locally. Some people didn’t believe all the stories because we had kept such a high profile locally so they knew what we were really like. But there were always people who who did believe it and were ready to have a dig. It was a pretty sick piece of writing, and we didn’t have any way to defend ourselves.”

Rather than slink away, the Housemartins redoubled their efforts to use their celebrity — boosted by a U.K. chart-topping hit with the a cappella “Caravan of Love” — to assert their views. For their sophomore full-length the band put their politics right on the front cover, taking the album’s title from the cut “The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death,” a brutal condemnation of the British royal family and their devoted enablers. The song absolutely glistens with genteel pop acumen, but the lyrics hit as hard as any agitated screed from the Dead Kennedys and their ilk: “The people who grinned themselves to death/ Smiled so much, they failed to take a breath/ And even when their kids were starving/ They all thought the queen was charming.”

“The Light is Always Green” heaps disdain on the young go-getters of capitalism, and the buoyant “Five Get Over Excited” tinkers with irony as it takes the era’s customary swipe at the ways Margaret Thatcher and her grotesquely cruel administration cast aside working-class citizens (“Feigning concern, a conservative pastime/ Makes you feel doubtful right from the start/ The expression she pulls is exactly like last time/ You’ve got to conclude she just hasn’t a heart”). The Housemartins squeeze right into the same tuneful guitar pop practiced by the likes of the Smiths and the Go-Betweens at the time, and there are indications that the band tries to distinguish themselves with little genre explorations: a mild island rhythm to “I Can’t Put My Finger On It,” and “Me and the Farmer” adds a hoedown wink. The band is most comfortable when they lean into their pronounced Englishness. When a children’s choir pop in on “Bow Down,” it’s as perfect a fit as has even been for that particular pop music adornment.

The Housemartins were just about done when The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death was released. They recorded one more single that was affixed to the 1988 compilation album Now That’s What I Call Good, and the band folded. Although most of the members remained friendly enough to guest on each other’s projects, they’ve steadfastly refused to reunite.

280. Cactus World News, Urban Beaches (1986)

Eoin McEvoy, the lead singer of the Irish rock band Cactus World News, had a useful acquaintance he could solicit advice from. McEvoy had a strong enough friendship with Bono that he felt he could send his band’s demo tapes to the U2 frontman. After several instances when Bono offered encouragement tinged with constructive criticism that there was clearly more work to be done, Cactus World News finally sent a tape that he flipped for. The timing was fortuitous. U2 had recently been given a their own vanity label by Island Records. Cactus World News was ushered onto U2’s Mother Records, and Bono produced their debut single. That song piqued the interest of MCA Records, and Cactus World News was signed to a major label.

Cactus World news was partnered with producer Chris Kimsey, who was a regular studio hand for the Rolling Stones, including a co-producing credit on the band’s 1983 album, Undercover. His intent is clearly demonstrated by the reworking of the band’s original single, “The Bridge,” which is made into thick, generic rock. It’s not bad, but it’s also just sort of there. Similar descriptions can be broadly applied to the other material on the band’s debut album, Urban Beaches.

In general, Cactus World News falls squarely in the zone of many other booming rock bands of the day that couldn’t quick crack the code to shift from college radio to AOR stations. They could have fit comfortably on a bill with Hunters and Collectors and the Alarm. “Worlds Apart” is catchy and propulsive, and “Years Later” has similar verve. Inevitably, Cactus World News was dogged by comparisons to U2, and some tracks certainly invite the association.“Jigsaw Street” is close to the early, punchy U2 sound, and “State of Emergency” is aligned with the swirling dramatics they deployed on The Unforgettable Fire. Despite the overwhelming attempt to puff up Cactus World News’s sound, there are indications they would have been better served by a more restrained approach. “Pilots of Beka” is a stripped-down epic, like a version of Hothouse Flowers without quite as much traditional Irish folk seasoning.

Cactus World News were given a big push, but success didn’t follow to the level everyone expected. The label soured on them, outright rejecting their sophomore album after a couple advance singles performed poorly. They were dropped not long after. Following some attempts to find new footing with a reconstituted lineup, the band broke up in 1991. They reunited twenty years later.

279. Dire Straits, Making Movies (1980)

After scoring a major success with their self-titled debut album, the consensus was that Dire Straits took a step backwards with their sophomore LP, Communiqué. That effort was rushed into being in an attempt to capitalize on the group’s flaring popularity, and several of the songs on it come across as not fully formed. For their next outing, the Dire Straits’ leader, Mark Knopfler, wanted to bring in a producer who could help them pull the material into sounder shape. Inspired by the work Jimmy Iovine did on Patti Smith’s Easter, particularly the hit single “Because the Night,” Knopfler extended an offer. Recognizing a similarity between Knopfler’s songwriting and that of Bruce Springsteen, whose seminal albums Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town enlisted Iovine as an engineer, the producer brought on board E Street keyboardist Roy Bittan. The resulting album, Making Movies, is enlivened by these personnel shifts. The stultification that often set in on the first two Dire Straits albums is entirely eradicated. Knopfler sounds loose and engaged, and his fellow bandmates — bassist John Illsey and drummer Pick Withers — are showcased just as effectively as Knopfler’s intricate guitar work.

The first side of Making Movies is Dire Straits at their absolute peak. The album opens with “Tunnel of Love,” Bittan’s keyboards taking command and the other band members taking prominent turns and receding in slick syncopation, like jazz masters. Knopfler is decidedly more engaged in his vocals, injecting flinty personality into his singing that enhances the storytelling of the song. That attribute is yet more integral to the next track. The ballad “Romeo and Juliet” is schmaltz, but irresistible schmaltz, modernizing the Shakespearean romance with urban roughness, nineteen-sixties girl group pop, and the balcony scene poetry reconsidered to “You and me babe: how ’bout it?” The side ends with “Skateaway,” a regularly escalating epic about a roller-skating vision that perfectly captures the losing oneself in private music while zipping with charmed sass along the thoroughfare (“But the music make her want to be the story/ And the story was whatever was the song what it was”). It sets the rough template that Pulp would follow in constructing their varied pop epics.

The remainder of Making Movies can’t possibly live up to its side-one trifecta. There are other strong tracks, to be sure — notably the sludgy, jostling “Expresso Love” and the roadhouse-blues rouser “Solid Rock” — but it’s the opening set that realizes just how strong Dire Straits could be. In that, the album both stands as its own triumph and points to further breakthroughs to come. During the recording of Making Movies, guitarist David Knopfler — Mark’s brother — left the band, fed up with heated arguments that were becoming more frequent with his sibling. The band was now more definitely under Mark’s control. Making Movies was the first indication that he knew exactly how to make the most of that opportunity.

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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