College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #278 to 276

278. David Bowie, Tonight (1984)

There’s no question that David Bowie was a certified rock legend as the calendar edged forward in the early nineteen-eighties. That didn’t mean he couldn’t hit new heights. His 1983 studio album, Let’s Dance, was his first to achieve multi-platinum status in the U.S. and it topped charts all over the world. He supported it with the massive Serious Moonlight tour, which took him to fifteen countries over the course of six months. It was an exhausting and lucrative endeavor that kept sales on the album strong. When it was over, his record company was clamoring for more product. A live album was polished up but never released. Bowie was urged to return to the studio instead. After taking an Indonesian holiday with his pal Iggy Pop, Bowie decided he wanted to extend their time together, reviving the fruitful collaborative spirit of a few years earlier when Bowie claimed producing credits on Pop’s first two solo albums.

Bowie convened a team in a Montreal-area studio. In addition to Pop and many of his usual backing musicians, Bowie enlisted two producers: Derek Bramble and Hugh Padham, the latter coming off of major hit albums with the Police and Genesis. Bowie didn’t have any new material at the ready, so he and Pop would dink around in the studio until they landed on something that resembled a finished work. As might be expected, this method didn’t yield inspired results. The resulting album, Tonight, is a frightful mishmash of half-baked ideas and indifferent cover versions. The two new songs that bear Bowie and Pop co-writing credits are both clumsy: “Tumble and Twirl” is lumpy pop-rock with too many trimmings, and “Dancing with the Big Boys” sloshes in even more clanking studio production flourishes, forecasting the disastrous excess of Bowie’s next album, Never Let Me Down. The album leads off with a Bowie solo composition, “Loving the Alien,” that bears all his swaggering hallmarks, but the track just sits there, like Bryan Ferry at his most disinterested. The other song written by Bowie alone is “Blue Jean,” which served as the album’s lead single and crashed the Billboard Top 10, undoubtedly because it’s the cleanest extension of the polished pop expertise that propelled Let’s Dance.

The outlay of cover songs is further giveaway of how much Bowie was unprepared for and under-invested in Tonight. The nadir is a dreadful cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” that skews perilously close to parody. A full third of Tonight serves a Iggy Pop tribute album: Bowie dulls down “Don’t Look Down” with a reggae vibe, races through a passable take on “Neighborhood Threat,” and harmonizes with Tina Turner on “Tonight,” stripping out lyrics about heroin addiction because he “didn’t want to inflict” that particular subject matter on his guesting friend.

Tonight plays like a compilation of B-sides and unreleased flotsam. Instead, it’s the official follow-up to one of a seminal artist’s most commercially successful albums. It was also, sadly, the beginning of a creative slump that would persist for a very long time.

277. Scruffy the Cat, Tiny Days (1987)

For their debut full-length, the Boston-based band Scruffy the Cat went into the studio with Chris Butler, the former creative driver of the Waitresses who was just getting underway on his career as a producer. Butler made the connection with the band through an association with the DB’s and described the process of working with the band as close to ideal, raving about their eagerness to please.

That enthusiasm is evident across the LP, dubbed Tiny Days. It’s an exemplary artifact of college rock, all crack musicianship, snappy songwriting, and earnest delivery. It’s earthy without particularly hewing to the Americana vibe that was emerging at the time. Across instant winners such as “Mybabyshe’sallright” and the effortlessly catchy “Never, Never,” the quintet offers up the sound of a band reverberating with the bliss of playing rock ‘n’ roll songs for a living. The sentiment embedded in the title of the joyfully raucous “When Your Ship Comes In” is essentially the thesis of the album’s spirit, even as the lyrics of the song itself (and a few others) betray a little more ambivalence. That’s fitting, too. Tiny Days crackles with its strident contradictions.

The album’s explorations don’t go all that far afield. “Shadow Boy” zips along as a Bo Diddley-fied jamboree, and “Thomas Doubter” sets aside the grinnin’ to instead opt for pickin’ and rockin’. Perhaps the clearest expression of Scruffy the Cat is this splendid moment is the title cut, which suggests what the Meat Puppets would sound like if they were an unabashed party band. That strikes me as a damn fine approach to music making.

276. Ramones, Pleasant Dreams (1981)

Coming off of a dream pairing that turned nightmarish when they worked with legendary producer Phil Spector on their 1980 album, End of the Century, the Ramones had some clear ideas about who they wanted as a collaborator behind the boards for their next outing. They recorded demos with Ed Stasium, who’d served as co-producer of the band’s earlier record Road to Ruin, and expressed interest in bringing in Steve Lillywhite, who was coming off of triumphs with XTC, Peter Gabriel, and U2. Those might have been great albums, but the Ramones’ label, Sire Records, didn’t view them as hits. The label bosses insisted on Graham Gouldman, who had garnered significant airplay with his band 10cc. The band was split right down the middle: Joey Ramone and Marky Ramone were intrigued by the prospect of commercial success hat Gouldman could presumably help deliver, and Dee Dee Ramone and Johnny Ramone felt the producer was sure to cast aside their preference to take the group’s sound back to its punk roots. In the midst of that strife, Johnny started canoodling with Joey’s girlfriend. Relationships within the band weren’t great.

The intra-band skirmishes manifested in the songwriting credits. For the first time, there were no collaborations, with every track belonging to only one member. Pleasant Dreams sometimes feels disjointed, too. “It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)” is awkward and misshapen, dropping names (“Hangin’ out with Lester Bangs you all/ And
Phil Spector really has it all Uncle Floyd/ Shows on the T.V. Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, 10cc”) and shifting tempos. It’s like they’re still figuring out what they want the song to be, but went ahead and put it on the record anyway. It’s messy without being endearing in the manner of other Ramones goofs.

Despite the discord, the Ramones were still able to get by on momentum at this point, six albums deep into their career. “We Want the Airwaves” and “The KKK Took My Baby Away” are the Ramones in peak form, and “Don’t Go” is slick retro pop. The galloping “You Didn’t Mean Anything to Me” and “Come On Now”(I’m just a comic book boy/ There’s nothing scary to enjoy/ Freak admission, stroll inside/ I was born on a roller coaster ride”) are evidence that few bands could channel pure fun more skillfully into their song-craft. Pleasant Dreams doesn’t compare with the Ramones’ first few albums (not much does), but there are still clear signs that a great band is behind the microphones and plugged into the amps.

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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