College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #245 to #243

245. The Boomtown Rats, The Fine Art of Surfacing (1979)

The Fine Art of Surfacing was the third overall album from the Boomtown rats and their second released in the U.S. It was while touring radio stations in support of the previous album that the band’s frontman and main songwriter, Bob Geldof, got the inspiration for the album’s centerpiece and the track that serves as the band’s most enduring legacy. Geldof and the band’s keyboardist, Johnnie Fingers, were sitting for an interview at a Georgia college radio station when the newswire burst to action to type out a report as a mass shooter event in California involving a teenage girl who fired into the schoolyard of an elementary school. Her emotionless explanation for the crime, which resulted in the death of two and injuries to right others, was that it was a way to distract from her dislike of Mondays. Written partially from her perspective, “I Don’t Like Mondays” topped the chart in the U.K., hit comparable upper reaches all across Europe, and was the only Boomtown Rats song to crack the Billboard Hot 100.

Memorable, propulsive, and unsettling, the band’s hit single deserves its place as an enduring rock relic of the era. Really, the whole of The Fine Art of Surfacing is impressive, arguably the surest the Boomtown Rats ever sounded on record. “Someone’s Looking at You” has a finely honed intensity, and “Keep It Up” is vibrant. “Diamond Smiles” is a thumping number about the brutality of high-toned social scenes (“In the low voltage noise/ Diamond seems so sure and so poised/ She shimmers for the bright young boys/ And says, ‘Love is for others, but me it destroys’).

The album was the band’s third straight (and final) outing with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, and he seemed to have hit on the right combination to get the best out of them and sonically shape the songs for maximum impact. The band is even success as they experiment with their fundamental sound, something that’s not necessarily true on other record. “When the Night Comes” has a tone of Bruce Springsteen’s bruiser bombast joined with the kind of U.K. class commentary regularly deployed by the Jam (“Frankie takes the train and makes it/ Home in time to catch the evening news/ Opening a can of beans, he learns the world has/ Turned without much help from him”). “Windchill Factor (Minus Zero)” finds them trying out Devo’s robotic art rock; it doesn’t suit the Boomtown Rats, but it’s surprisingly enjoyable to hear them flop around in it for the moment.

After The Fine Art of Surfacing, the Boomtown Rats found themselves at a different level in the unofficial org chart of pop music. Geldof, in particular, took that newfound clout as an impetus for greater ambition. For their next album, he sought a greater expansive in creative range, sure they were poised for greatness. For their first time in their career, Lange was off the payroll, and David Bowie’s regular collaborator Tony Visconti was brought in. Surely they’d be able to build on what they’d started with their first real hit album. Whether they actually made any improvements is very much open to debate.

244. Men Without Hats, Rhythm of Youth (1982)

Men Without Hats formed in Montreal, Quebec, in 1977. They were committed to punk rock. The band broke up before long, as bands do, but vocalist Ivan Doroschuk liked the name. So when he started a new act a couple years later, this time inspired by the likes of Ultravox and Gary Numan, he went with Men Without Hats again. They were a hometown hit and soon found themselves in a studio working through a set of loopy, enjoyable songs with a tang of novelty to them. Their debut album, Rhythm of Youth, was released in Canada in early 1982. A U.S. version followed about a year later. By that time, everyone knew there was an unlikely hit in its grooves.

The U.S. version of Rhythm of Youth was pressed with a longer, dance-mix version of track in question. “The Safety Dance” is fun, nonsensical, and vaguely menacing (“We can leave your friends behind/ ‘Cause your friends don’t dance/ And if they don’t dance/ Well, they’re no friends of mine”). It was a smash, one of those songs that defined MTV when it still very much needed defining. It lives eternally, and no one will ever again misspell safety.

Nothing else on Rhythm of Youth is as arresting, but everything goes down like a well-coated disco-ball pill. “Antarctica” is a booping bop, and “I Like” is a fine example of the robotic precision of the band’s immediate dance-pop forefathers. The synths might be jittery (“Ideas for Walls”) or drifty (“Things In My Life”) or countless tempos in between. No matter the zone, they always draw in the listener, offering an invitation to reside in their shining ecosystem for a little bit. The invitation is very welcome.

243. The Knack, Get the Knack (1979)

Foundational rock ‘n’ roll history is jam-packed with songs that feature adult men inappropriately lusting after teenaged girls. That surplus of skeeviness would be easier to explain away as a harmless side effect of those fellas making what was thought to be disposable pop mostly for teenagers if not for that thing where one of the founding fathers married a child who already residing on a close branch of his family tree. Acknowledging that Doug Fieger, the frontman and primary songwriter for the Knack, was hardly a trailblazer in predatory pursuit of girls, knowing the details around the Get the Knack, the band’s debut album, puts quite the taint on it.

“My Sharona” is impossibly infectious, a downright perfectly conceived and executed pop-rock song that spent am understandable six weeks atop the Billboard chart. Sharona was also the name of a high school student, seventeen year old at the time in the kinder estimations, who Fieger pursued relentlessly, despite repeated rejections. He was approximately ten years older than her. That she eventually acquiesced and pursued a relationship with Fieger and now comfortably exploits her association with the hit on her realty business website are noted but immaterial. It’s all still gross.

For me, Get the Knack can’t escape the backstory. It sounds like a concept album about statutory rape. “Good Girls Don’t” goes from catchy come-on to a porny projection of what Fieger longed to hear the underage girl coo to him (“But she’ll be telling you/ Good girls don’t/ But I do”), and the pleading power pop of “Your Number or Your Name” is like a lament about informational impediments to stalking (“It’s hard to do/ It’s such a shame/ I can’t get through without your number or your name”). “That’s What the Little Girls Do,” a sharply rendered retro sixties pop number, damns itself enough with the title, but there’s more: “She’s the virgin queen/ Dancing in your dreams/ Yes she plays her part/ If you let her go/ She will break your ego/ And your heart.” The album is choked with puppy-love bitterness. It spent five weeks in the top position of the Billboard album chart.

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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