College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #257 to #255

257. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983)

The beloved legend isn’t quite true. The story goes that Violent Femmes were propelled to a record deal and national cult hero status when a lucky break came their way while they were busking on the sidewalk in front of Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre on the day the Pretenders were booked to take that venue’s stage, about a week after the release of Pretenders II. Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott came upon them and suggested the scruffy, young trio to his bandmate Chrissie Hynde as a late addition to the bill. She agreed, and Violent Femmes took their ramshackle set-up into the spotlight, to the surprise, and initial chagrin, of the crowd. At first, the Violent Femmes played to a barrage of boos. They quickly won over the crowd and left after the third song in the echoing cheers of a standing ovation. Then they went back to same old toil of an unsigned band with an idiosyncratic style that could leave local and regional bookers a little perplexed. That impromptu support gig didn’t really light the fuse to stardom.

“We were so confident, but it was great to get that compliment – not because we needed it, but it was a wonderful and inspiring thing,” Gordon Gano, frontman of the Violent Femmes, recalled a few years ago. “We also learned a few technical things that night. I still stretch out my guitar strings like James Honeyman-Scott showed me.”

The real break for Violent Femmes came one year later, when they opened for Richard Hell at CBGB. Their performance earned a rave from New York Times critic Robert Palmer. In the most venerated newspaper in the United States, the unknown act was celebrated with praise so effusive that a shrewdly ingenious PR maven couldn’t have done better.

“The sound that results from this unlikely concatenation echoes all sorts of antecedents, from skiffle music to Dylan to early Velvet Underground to Jonathan Richman to punk rock without the amplification,” wrote Palmer. “But most of all, the sound is genuinely new. If the major record labels were less financially strapped and more adventurous, this young and extraordinarily talented band would be some artist-development department’s dream-come-true. And they might be anyway, given their catchy material and riveting stage presence.”

Gano attributed the Times article to the label interest that resulted in Violent Femmes signing with Slash Records, an independent shingle that had a distribution deal with Warner Bros., making it a de facto major label. For their self-titled debut, the band used material recorded with producer Mark Van Hecke at Castle Recording Studios, a space in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin that was built in partnership with Playboy Enterprises when the company briefly diversified into the music biz. When Violent Femmes went there, the once-glamorous studio was in a state of disrepair, but that might have suited the scrappy, pleasingly amateurish quality of the music the band was making. One of the most distinctive parts of the group’s sound was due to drummer Victor DeLorenzo patting out the beat on a metal tub inverted on a tom drum, a homemade contraption he called a tranceaphone. Presumably, the less fancy the surroundings, the better.

It’s difficult to imagine Violent Femmes being improved upon with fancier surroundings or a more seasoned producer. The first side is the definitive document of outsider angst rendered with clenched intensity. The album goes from “Blister in the Sun” to “Kiss Off” to “Please Do Not Go” to “Add It Up,” each track another steel beam in a formidable monument to hormone-buffeted teen neediness. It’s a set of songs that are truly iconic, as formidable an introduction as any rock band has ever put forth on their debut full-length. Though there were distant echoes of folk and blues discernible in the songs, no one else really sounded like Violent Femmes to that point. It feels like they’re inventing a whole new form of pop music, speaking an unspoken adolescent anxiety as they do it.

The whole album reverberates with the same unleashed expression, like a primal scream recalibrated to a wry, helpless giggle of discomfort. “Prove My Love” and “Gone Daddy Gone” bound along, and “Promise” bristles musically in an ideal match with its lyrics: “Could you ever want me to love you?/ Could you ever want me to care?/ Disregard my nervousness, please ignore my vacant stares/ ‘Cause just what I’ve been thru is nothing like where I’m going to.” “To the Kill” takes the band’s formula into slithery menace, Brian Ritchie’s bass playing like a murderer’s cold pulse.

Violent Femmes found its audience one wounded soul at a time. In the early nineteen-nineties, it became the first album to be certified platinum before it generated strong enough sales in any given week to push into the Billboard 200. Not long after the album passed the one-million sales mark, it made its first appearance on the chart, nearly a decade after its initial release. Violent Femmes peaked at #171.

256. Siouxsie & the Banshees, Through the Looking Glass (1987)

After wearing themselves out with the recording of the 1986 album Tinderbox, an arduous process that consumed the better part of a year, Siouxsie & the Banshees decided they needed different, brisker studio experience. Drawing inspiration from David Bowie’s 1973 covers album, Pin Ups, Siouxsie Sioux and her bandmates reunited with their former producer Mike Hedges to burn through ten songs originally recorded by other artists. Rather than laboring through new works, they wanted to regain a sense of spontaneously by working with the ready-made.

In an apparent effort to make the resulting album, Through the Looking Glass, more of an expression of the band’s creative inner life than a quasi-random assemblage of the familiar, the selected songs are drawn from the years before Siouxsie & the Banshees formed, in 1975, and are largely from artists that had a clear influence of them. If the approach isn’t exactly revelatory, it can still produce up some thrilling cuts. Their version of Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” uses driving drums and Siouxsie Sioux’s swirling vocals to enhance the tang of psychedelia brought to the song, and “The Passenger” strengthens the chiming churn of Iggy Pop’s original. Their pass at “Little Johnny Jewel,” the obscure debut single from Television, is buzzsaw sharp, and “Gun” pays appropriate tribute to John Cale.

Perhaps predictably, the more conventional the selection, the less inspired Siouxsie & the Banshees sound. “This Wheel’s on Fire,” from Bob Dylan and the Band’s The Basement Tapes and “You’re Lost Little Girl,” from the Doors’ Strange Days, are both sluggish. On the other hand, the band is bizarrely at home on “Trust In Me,” a slinky song from Disney’s The Jungle Book that taps into the enticing mystery that was increasingly their greatest strength.

Although the album was something of a placeholder, Through the Looking Glass was also an important catalyst to some late-stage reinvention for Siouxsie & the Banshees. Not long after the album was released, the band parted ways with guitarist John Valentine Carruthers, who first came on board three years earlier, as a replacement for Robert Smith when he decided he needed to focus on his main gig, the Cure. Siouxsie & the Banshees wanted to reshape their music. Soon enough, they would do exactly that, in resounding fashion.

255. Patti Smith, Dream of Life (1988)

No one was expecting a new Patti Smith album, not really. Following the release of the 1979 album Wave, Smith withdrew from the music business, opting to instead settle down in Michigan and raise a family with her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith.

”I stopped performing because I found the person I wanted to spend my life with, and it would have been extremely painful for us to be apart,” Smith told The New York Times just as the self-imposed moratorium officially lifted. ”I didn’t have a drug problem or anything like that. I just felt it was time to for me to develop myself in other areas. The last nine years have been very fruitful. I’ve worked on several books, studied art history and Japanese literature and traveled to South America.”

After a few years of these other pursuits, Smith started writing songs with her husband, and the two worked together on the album that brought her back to the spotlight. Dream of Life is led and anchored by “People Have the Power,” a cut that’s such a pure expression of Smith’s counterculture-shaped conviction in citizen authority — in the value of humanity over institutions and calcified power structures — that it almost throws the rest of the album out of balance. She’s fully engaged in the song, wailing and raging with spine-tingling passion. Smith is perhaps the only person in the history of rock ‘n’ roll who could sing about her intent to throw in with a collective that will “wrestle the world from fools” and make the much-needed redemptive unshackling of society sound like a goddamn guarantee.

It’s not just comparison that makes much of the rest of Dream of Life come across a little bland. Smith’s earlier power is dissipated and folded into music that is closer to the indulgence of rock puffery than the rebar toughness of punk. “Where Duty Calls” is low-grade hangover of prog rock excess treated with the tepid AlkaSeltzer water of nineteen-eighties production police. The title cut isn’t that far removed from Robert Plant’s somnambulant borrowed mysticism, and “Looking for You (I Was)” is softened-up album rock. “Up There Down There” has some of her Smith’s old spirit to it, but its still tamped down, as if deliberately avoiding the surging adrenaline of bygone performances.

Despite the presence of a signature song, Dream of Life is a minor entry in Smith’s discography, a compromised stab at using old, mildly atrophied muscles. For Smith, the album is likely a bittersweet part of her history. Six years later, Fred “Sonic” Smith died of heart failure. He was only in his mid-forties. Dream of Life stands as the sole significant collaboration between the Smiths.

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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