College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #275 to 273

275. The Del Fuegos, Boston, Mass. (1985)

Circa 1985, it wasn’t considered cool — or all that acceptable, really — for a band to peddle their music for use in a commercial. Given that stigma, the Del Fuegos were beset by condescending criticism when they turned themselves over to the Miller Brewing Company to be the full-on focus of a sixty-second advertisement, which was part of an endeavor of swiped cachet called Miller Beer’s Rock Network. Dan Zanes, the frontman of the Del Fuegos, alternated in his view of the commercial in years since. Sometimes he adopted a defensive pose, arguing it was different than the corporate subservience of being on a middle label, and sometimes he expressed regret, saying it was probably a mistake that diluted their audience as much as it bolstered it.

“Again, with the TV commercial, a lot of the rock critics on the East and West Coasts looked down upon it,” Zanes once told Popdose. “But when we got to the Midwest, people saw it for what it was. On one level it was a beer commercial, but we always thought of it as an advertisement for the band.”

In rough tandem with the spokesrocker deal, the Del Fuegos got upgraded at their record company. Instead being handled by flacks with subsidiary Slash Records, they were pushed by the main movers of Warner Bros, and that came with an image makeover to help them make headway with MTV programmers. That dalliance with stylists didn’t exactly quiet the snide remarks. In his Replacements’ biography, Trouble Boys, Bob Mehr writes about how the Del Fuegos were assessed by a semi-legendary member of his subject’s road crew: “When they came back to Boston after a spell polishing up in LA, Bill Sullivan joked that they’d gone to ‘John Cougar Summercamp.'”

A lot of that cultural noise hung like a haze on Boston, Mass., the Del Fuegos’ sophomore LP. The unfortunate effect is that a solid rock record got obscured. The Del Fuegos were essentially a bar band with sharper skills, and Boston, Mass. clicks through a set of tracks that are not-so-rough and tumble. “Don’t Run Wild” is fine-grind, blues-flecked rock, and “Sound of Our Town” jumps forward with tightly contained rowdiness. They get slinky on “I Still Want You” and bring a similar sound to a nice simmer with “Hold Us Down.” “Fade to Blue” is like a grittier version of the winning material their Slash labelmates Bodeans made when working with T-Bone Burnett, and “Coupe DeVille” approaches the elegant ache of an old soul master such as James Carr. Nothing on Boston, Mass. is exactly earth-shaking, but it’s all as solid as granite.

If Zanes was correct about the Miller commercial serving as an advertisement for the band, it wasn’t an especially effective one. Despite prominent placement, including a debut during the broadcast of the enormous Live Aid concert, the Del Fuegos garnered only the most meager attention from the AOR stations and album-rock fans that were clearly being targeted. There was the opportunity and impetus for some rethinking ahead of their next outing. If anything, there would be more pronounced signs of everything they learned at that supposed camp they attended.

274. Devo, Freedom of Choice (1980)

Freedom of Choice really came out of living in L.A. and starting to create new material that had no history of basements and garages in Akron,” Devo’s Gerard Casale told American Songwriter four decades after the release of his band’s third album. “The first two records were an amalgam of everything that we had done that we liked the most, and we divided it between the first two. This was turning the page and starting tabula rasa.”

Part of that new beginning involved bringing in a producer who could encourage Devo in some new approaches. Robert Margouleff was an early advocate of the Moog synthesizers that were a key part of Devo’s musical arsenal, and he was a studio mainstay for Stevie Wonder’s series of nineteen-seventies masterpieces. Much as he appreciated the art rock Devo made previously, Margouleff encourages the band to make their material rawer, playing with a fervor that could warm some of the chill in their expertise. From the album’s opening track, the sizzling, strident “Girl U Want,” the wisdom of the approach is evident. Without sacrificing the almost mechanized precision of their craft, Devo comes across as enlivened and forceful as the most pummeling punk acts of the day.

“Girl U Want” was released as the album’s first single, and it went nowhere. As the album was starting a quick fade, regional radio programmer Kal Rudman took a shine a different track on Freedom of Choice. Rudman started playing and pushing “Whip It,” a jackhammering spoof of U.S. sloganeering, and it became an unlikely hit, charting in the Billboard Top 20 and leaving the cultural footprint of a song that climbed yet higher on the chart.

Quick-reacting record buyers who snapped up Freedom of Choice because they were tickled the near-novelty elements of its hit were treated to an album of wild ambition and freewheeling originality, all of existing in kindred spirit with its most famed song. “That’s Pep!” is probably the closest in cheeky spirit, putting a funky tune to lyrics taken from a 1919 Grace G. Bostwick poem that made the rounds over the years. And it’s not all that much further to the anxious synths of “Snowball” or the hooting spunk of the title cut. On “Gates of Steel,” Devo brings gurgling menace that shifts artfully into zippy disco, encompassing a full range of modern music in a blizzard of sonic ideas.

By most accounts, Devo was in a precarious place with their label, Warner Bros. Records, before Freedom of Choice. There was waning patience among execs for cult heroes that didn’t move units. The album changed that. It proved Devo could still embrace their weird side while developing a fan base. They bought themselves the latitude to keep following their offbeat instincts.

273. XTC, Drums and Wires (1979)

Like a lot of bands that sprang their first chords during the nineteen-seventies, XTC started in a reactionary state, making a clamor that was a rejection of their pop predecessors. When they reached their third album, Drums and Wires, the agitation faded and craft took over.

“We got better at writing songs,” Andy Partridge, who penned the majority of Drums and Wires, later told Tidal. “I started to mentally acknowledge the music that had propelled me to that point in my life, and obviously, it was stuff I heard as a kid in the fifties and then stuff I heard as an older child and teenager in the sixties. It was like drawing on an awful lot of fuel to use. So it’s going to sound like what you’re raised on.”

XTC didn’t drift as far into retro-cool waters as they would eventually, but they tied to the past that shaped them enough to signal that major pop master craftsmen were emerging. “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” carries over some of the punchy anxiety found on the first couple albums while incorporating echoes of the tight construction favored by the likes of the Dave Clark Five, and “Millions” does the same with extra restive energy. Partridge led the way, and bassist Colin Moulding raced to keep up (and occasionally nose past Partridge) with his own songwriting contributions. He provides the bright, snappy“Life Begins at the Hop,” a stand-alone single in the U.K. added to, and leading off, and the slippery, cool “Ten Feet Tall.” He’s also behind the bounding, menacing “Making Plans for Nigel,” one of the finest songs in the stacked XTC catalog.

On the back end of the album, XTC lets themselves get a little extra weird. “Scissor Man” is twisty and trippy in its folk-tale darkness (“Snipping, snipping, snipping goes the scissor man/ Putting end to evildoers’ games/ Snipping, snipping, snipping goes the scissor man/ Maybe you are in his book of names”), and “Complicated Game” progresses from stealthy beginnings to to become a psychedelic freakout. By building their songs with precise construction, XTC was able to unlock grander ambition. Drums and Wires is an exceptional album in its own right, and it’s a foundation for astounding accomplishments to come.

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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