266. The Rolling Stones, Undercover (1983)
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards weren’t getting along. There are plenty of eras from the long history of the Rolling Stones when that statement was true. In the making of Undercover, Richards later pegged the discord to Jagger’s desire to incorporate the latest musical trends into the band’s sound.
“At the time we were doing Undercover in 1983, he was just trying to out-disco everybody,” Richards wrote in his memoir, Life. “It all sounded to me like some rehash of something he heard in a club one night.”
Richards, as usual, wanted to grind through his inspired blues-rock licks, all of them unmistakably of the same flavor and yet demonstrating a remarkable range. “Wanna Hold You,” the requisite Richards-sung number, is a prime example of how the band could slap down something completely familiar. It evokes the breezy fun of early British Invasion musician, when floppy-haired bands seemed happily dumbfounded that they were able to take American R&B music and make it so bright and bouncy. As was usually the case on the tracks that put Richards at the lead vocalist microphone, it’s an album highlight.
Other instances of the Stones rolling as usual are less successful. “She Was Hot,” a cut awash in crowing about female horniness (“She was hot, she pinned me to the ground/ She was quick, she knew her way around”), skirts self-parody, and “Too Tough” sounds completely recycled. Jagger’s thesis of what Undercover should be gets its most compelling argument in “Undercover of the Night,” which clearly swipes from the slick, dance-adjacent riffage of ZZ Top’s Eliminator, released earlier that year. It’s not the last great Rolling Stones single, but it’s close (“Mixed Emotions,” from 1989, owns that designation). Jagger’s trend-chasing has its worst manifestation on the cartoonish reggae-lite “Feel On Baby” and its oddest turn on the death-disco track “Too Much Blood” which includes spoken-word digressions, including Jagger’s cinematic commentary in which he disparages The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (“Horrible, wasn’t it?”) and notes his preference for romantic films, such as An Officer and a Gentleman, partially because they’re likely to rev up his wife.
The growing chasm between Jagger and Richards likely contributed to the Rolling Stones opting against a tour in support of Undercover. Not long after the album, the band left their longtime home of Atlantic Records and signed with CBS Records. At about the same time, Jagger inked a deal to make solo records with the band’s new label, further irking Richards. The future of the Rolling Stones was very much in doubt.
265. Ramones, Animal Boy (1986)
After the past-glories approach of their 1984 album, Too Tough to Die, which include the return of past collaborators Ed Stasium and Tommy Ramone, the Ramones soon found themselves fragmented and fed up with one another. They were fighting, Joey Ramone was so discontented that he’d largely stopped writing songs, and practically every member of the band was pondering solo projects. They connected with former Plasmatics member Jean Beauvoir to write and record the one-off single “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” a diatribe about Ronald Reagan’s visit to a German military cemetery that was the final resting place of several Nazi combatants. The single was released only in the U.K., with several competing reasons offered by Sire Records executives for the label’s unwillingness to put it out in the U.S. Whether out of convenience or appreciation for the experience, the Ramones retained the services of Beauvoir to produce their next LP. The semi-controversial track led off the second side of the resulting album, Animal Boy, though the original title was shunted inside of parentheses in favor of the less overtly anti-Reagan “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down.”
In keeping with many latter-day Ramones albums, Animal Boy is all over the place, evincing the distinct interest and instincts of individual band members who’s lost their taste for cooperation. “Love Kills” and “Eat That Rat” are splendidly sloppy punk rock songs fronted by Dee Dee Ramone, and “She Belongs with Me” is like a a nineteen-sixties Phil Spector joint given an uncomfortable nineteen-eighties sheen. “Something to Believe In” dabbles in the same retro pop to better effect. In their commonplace mode of enjoyably good-natured dopiness, the Ramones crash into a brick wall wit the dreadful “Crummy Stuff,” a cut undone by dopey studio zings and inane lyrics (“Crummy music, crummy TV/ Crummy people, crummy movies/ Like a cat caught up a tree/ This could only happen to me”). The borderline novelty spirit of the band is better represented by album opener “Somebody Put Something in My Drink,” written by Richie Ramones, who was the first drummer to pen a song for since Tommy’s vital contributions in that area.
If Animal Boy is the sound of a great rock band slumping towards inconsequence, there’s still some life to it here and there. For the Ramones things could always get worse. Soon enough, they did.
264. The Dead Milkmen, Bucky Fellini (1987)
“Prepare to be offended — in an adolescent sort of way,” promised promotional materials for Bucky Fellini, the third studio album by The Dead Milkmen. Specialists in punk-infested music that brought a little-stinker insouciance to the left end of the radio dial, the Dead Milkmen simply do their thing on the album, less in an ain’t-broke sort of way than a why-bother ease that’s a more appropriate expression of their established musical souls. If a collective creativity can lead stealing the title “I Am the Walrus” for a song that includes absurdist lyrics “Sold my niece to Edwin Meese/ And I wonder what life’s about,” might as well ride that bratty bronco as long as possible. Maybe it makes sense to structure a song around hollering “I hear weasels” repeatedly, as the band does on “Take Me to the Specialist.” Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, kids will pogo.
The rascally, anything-goes energy takes the band to the bashing “Big Time Operator,” a cover of an obscure rockabilly number first recorded by Dale Houston, and the snappy, jagged “The Badger Song” (“The woodchuck likes me, we smoke PCP/ I wanna make friends with the badger”). They take a swipe at club subculture on “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything),” a song that frankly should have won Rodney Anonymous a Grammy for his pronunciations of the Communards and Depeche Mode. Generally, the songs romp around with lunatic fervor, which can disguise some genuinely impressive musicianship, as with “Surfin’ Cow,” filled to the very edge with nifty guitar work and occasional crests of punk calamity, and “Jellyfish Heaven.”
The truest oddity on Bucky Fellini is “Watching Scotty Die,” a surprisingly poignant song about a child facing his mortality because of the cavalier approach to public safety taken by a chemical plant. In every way, from its brash sound to its unapologetic dark humor, the track is completely in keeping with the Dead Milkmen approach. Yet there’s something strangely moving about the perspective offered by the lyrics, tinged with anger and ruefulness: “I think it’s so funny, I laugh until I cry/ Just me and God, watchin’ Scotty die.” It doesn’t prove the Dead Milkmen are a band on the brink of growing up, but it does offer the reminder that big, dumb kids can have reserves of empathy, too.
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