College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #218 to #216

218. Golden Palominos, Visions of Excess (1985)

“Everybody on the record is a favorite musician of mine, and they also happen to be my friends” Anton Fier said of the fluctuating Golden Palominos lineup on the album Visions of Excess.

For the sophomore effort billed to Golden Palominos, some of Fier’s friends included major luminaries of college radio, which certainly boosted the album’s prospects with student programmers toiling on the left end of the dial. Most notably, Fier had invited R.E.M.’s lead singer, Michael Stipe, to participate in the ever-shifting process of making music within this loose collective. Stipe’s participating wasn’t exactly hidden either, all the better to take advantage of R.E.M.’s still surging fame at around the time their third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, was still rattling around on the college charts. The first three tracks on Visions of Excess boast Stipe’s distinctive warble: lolling “Boy (Go),” harder-rocking “Clustering Train,” and a cleverly chosen cover of Moby Grape’s “Omaha.”

As might be expected, the rest of Visions of Excess is a grab bag, enlivened by the contributions of expert players — such as guitarist Richard Thompson and keyboardist Bernie Worrell — and generally coming across as a free-for-all of iconoclasts. When an album has got John Lydon dropping in to spit out vocals (“The Animal Speaks”) and Arto Lindsay deploying his usual inspired weirdness (“Only One Party”), it might not be a coherent creative statement, but it’s definitely not going to be boring. For all the luminaries, the real star of the record in Syd Straw, a singer Fier plucked from backup duties with Pat Benatar and rightly showcased with Golden Palominos. “(Kind of) True” is her highlight, her pristine, soaring vocals nestling in comfortable with rubbery, psychedelic guitar work.

It was tricky figuring out how to support these Golden Palominos albums, the usual boost from a concert tour complicates by the fact that many of the key contributors had primary gigs that demanded their attention. The band earned notoriety but remained a tricky fiscal proposition. If that frustrated Fier, it didn’t deter him. The new music kept coming at a steady clip.

217. The Fleshtones, Roman Gods (1982)

The Fleshtones suffered a false start. Formed in the middle of the nineteen-seventies, the band was part of the vaunted scene that rattled the walls of CBGB and other New York City clubs, their high-volume brand of revived garage rock making them as strong of ambassadors for the value of brash, headlong playing as anyone. They signed with Red Star Records, an upstart label headed by New York Dolls manager Marty Thau, and recorded a full-length album that was intended to be their debut. Instead, the album languished unreleased. Then Miles Copeland arrived to give the band another chance.

Now signed to Copeland’s I.R.S. Records, the Fleshtones were teamed with the Richard Mazda, fast establishing himself as the label’s de facto house producer. Working mostly in New York’s Skyline Studio, the band roared through a set of a songs and delivered Roman Gods. “The Dreg (Fleshtone-77)” opens the album as a statement of purpose; it’s a glorious, gooey convergence of raw-rock elements. “The World Has Changed” has a shimmy reminiscent of the Cramps, former rehearsal space cohorts, and “R-I-G-H-T-S” is like a Schoolhouse Rock number as created by the Ramones (“Lotta trouble in the world/ But we feel we can work it here. right now/ Just by observing the precepts of the Constitution of the United States of America”). The band’s clear debt to predecessors from the nineteen-sixties is laid out on the straight-outta-Nuggets track “Stop Fooling Around,” raucous with its thumping drums and a harmonica part poking in like a pesky little brother seeking attention, and a sharp cover of Lee Dorsey’s R&B classic “Ride Your Pony.”

There’s little evident ambition to reinvent what’s come before on Roman Gods. The Fleshtones are admirably committed to playing the music that raised them in the roughest, most ravishing way they could. As far as they were concerned, that’s where the real glory could be found.

“We’ve never been heavily identified with being a New York band — egghead guys and girls, ugly haircuts, and some guy who’s really skinny and wears glasses and plays an out-of-tune guitar,” Peter Zaremba, lead vocalist of the Fleshtones, said not long after the release of Roman Gods. “We represent American rock and roll at large, the whole thing. We’re an American band.”

216. The Fixx, Reach the Beach (1983)

English band the Fixx had a taste of mainstream success with their 1982 debut album, Shuttered Room, but that gave little indication of the explosion in popularity the experienced with their sophomore release, Reach the Beach. Reuniting with producer Rupert Hines, who was so integral to the first several releases from the Fixx that he was practically a member of the band, the group cracked off the similar set of new wave–informed rock songs, all ripe riffs and slick production. They didn’t hit on some new formula. There were simply the right band in the right place and time for this booming new cable network that was quickly becoming the prime pop music tastemaker.

“Bands in the nineteen-seventies had to work a lot harder,” vocalist Cy Curnin explained years later. “Along came MTV and our videos were plastered all over TV, and we had a matter of months to adjust to the fame.”

It did help that the Fixx had a killer single to peddle. “One Thing Leads to Another” boasts a lean, chugga-chugga riff that occasionally cut by electro hiccups and fortified by an insinuating hook. It cracked the Top 5 on the Billboard chart and was ubiquitous enough to feel like an even bigger hit. The lyrics are about two-faced politicians (“The deception with tact, just what are you trying to say?/ You’ve got a blank face, which irritates/ Communicate, pull out your party piece”), but they are loose and cryptic enough that the commentary likely eluded most. The song could be addressing just about cascade of events.

Nothing else on Reach the Beach rises to that level, but it’s all solid. “Saved by Zero,” another hit single, is all burbling beat and lukewarm yearning, and “Running” is zingy and exploratory (“Well it’s another night I waste at the opera/ With a permanent friend/ I should have taken direction much sooner/ Another night in the air”). In general, the Fixx admirably try to stretch themselves, emulating some of the more outré ambassadors of rock at the time. “Opinions” is a valiant attempt at Bowie-esque drama, and “Privilege” carries a touch of Thomas Dolby’s icy experimentalism.

Radio and MTV play translated directly into record sales. In the U.S., Reach the Beach charted Top 10 on the way to platinum certification. The Fixx were emboldened. For their next album, they wanted to push their artistic capabilities even further.

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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