212. M+M, Mystery Walk (1984)
Like John Mellencamp finally completing the long, compromise-laden transition away from the unwanted performing pseudonym that stuck him with Cougar as a moniker for more than a decade, Martha Johnson and Mark Gane were finally able to officially retire the Martha and the Muffins. On their 1983 album, Danseparc, they were able to convince the label to bill the band as both Martha and the Muffins and the sleeker, new wave–friendly M+M. That album became the group’s first to crack the U.S. charts since their debut, Metro Music, and that was apparently good enough to convince RCA Records it was okay to move forward without the baked good in the band name. For Mystery Walk, their fifth full-length overall, they would be known solely as M+M.
Johnson and Gane were they only remaining official members of the band when M+M reunited with producer Daniel Lanois in New York City’s the Power Station studio. They wanted to continue the progression in dance music they’d begun in earnest on their preceding record, so they churned out a set of slick, groove-centered tracks. The one that really took hold on the charts was “Black Stations/White Stations,” a punchy diatribe against the reflexive segregation of artists by radio programmers. Released as the album’s lead single, the cut climbed to the runner-up slot on Billboard‘s dance music chart, though the prominent, repeated refrain “This is 1984” added a unshakeable experiment date.
The rest of the album isn’t particularly successful. Like a lot of acts at the time, M+M let themselves be completely subsumed by enveloping production. “Cooling the Medium” is completely middlebrow eighties pop, and both “I Start to Stop” and “In Between Sleep and Reason” are wiped clean of any personality. The little bits of daring to be found feel halfhearted and confused, whether the squonky experimentation of “Nation of Followers” or the junior-league Kate Bush posturing on “Rhythm of Life.” Not a bit of it is memorable.
Johnson and Gane released one more album as M+M, the tepidly received 1986 effort The World Is a Ball, before retreating to the still more familiar Martha and the Muffins name in the early nineteen-nineties. They worked together only sporadically after that, grudgingly reliant on nostalgia for a version of the band they’d long since thought they were able to put behind them for good.
211. The Who, It’s Hard (1982)
No one was under any delusions. The Who were all but done. The band endured a rough couple years as the nineteen-seventies shuffle-stepped into the nineteen-eighties. The death of Keith Moon, in 1978, understandably sent them reeling, and guitarist Pete Townshend’s recruitment of Kenney Jones as a replacement behind the kit rankled lead singer Roger Daltrey, who wasn’t consulted and felt it was an ill match. Townshend’s drug and alcohol addictions overtook him, and there were incidents where he and Daltrey came to blows. Daltrey was also resentful about Townshend’s earnest pursuit of a solo career, feeling it was preventing him from bringing his strongest songwriting efforts to the band’s sessions. There was a real risk that the Who wouldn’t record again. It took an overture from Townshend to bring them together again. He suggested he needed the process of working with the Who again to help him stabilize a life that on the verge of falling apart. The band booked a world tour and went into the studio with producer Glyn Johns, who’d been behind the boards for some of their biggest records.
In some respects, the timing wasn’t great. To meet the deadline they’d created with the opening date of the tour, the Who had only about a month to record the album. Townshend, determined to smooth some of the rifts that had recently been troubling the band, strove to be more inclusive in the creation decision-making process, but there was only so much latitude that could be provided under the constrained timetable. In the end, It’s Hard sounds like other late-period material by the Who, connected ever more tangentially to their pile-driver beginnings as Townshend seems preoccupied, and occasionally stymied, by the instinct to take rock ‘n’ into more erudite territory. The great band is there, but they’re fading.
“Eminence Front” was the AOR hit drawn from the record, and it’s the strongest the Who gives; the cut is smooth, lean, tough, and enlivened by Townshend’s flights of instrumental invention rather than muddled by them. The title cut is almost irresistible in its directness, and “I’ve Known No War” is a proper showcase showcase for Daltrey’s amazing ease with big belting. If these aren’t necessarily prime offerings in the vast Who songbook, they’re solid enough contributions. Too much of the remainder of the album flops into a uninspired middle-ground. “Why Did I Fall for That” is about as bland as the Who ever got, and “A Man Is a Man” points to the intensity downshift Townshend would complete a few years later with solo project The Iron Man: The Musical. “Athena” is notable only because of it’s especially wooly lyrics: “My heart felt like a shattered glass in an acid bath/ I felt like one of those flattened ants/ You find on a crazy path.”
At least one member of the band took a dismal view of what they created together. Daltrey detested the record, feeling the Who were pointlessly grinding their gears. Years later, he was still arguing that it should have never been released. The troubles in the band didn’t dissipate when they went on the road. The following year, Townshend announced he was leaving the Who, which effectively ended the band. Though they were plentiful reunion tours to come, nearly twenty-five years years passed before there was another studio album billed to the Who.
210. Public Image Ltd, This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get (1984)
Appropriately, given the well-cultivated demeanor of cantankerousness of bandleader John Lydon, This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get is an album built on animosity. Whether Lydon is aiming that animosity at his former bandmates, his record label, his audience, or the world in general is up for debate. Of course, it usually was.
In the case of This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get, there was trackable contentiousness on the way to the release of the album. Public Image, Ltd. recorded a set of tracks for what was intended to be their fourth album. When they decided to abandon those recordings, guitarist Keith Levene expressed his disagreement by absconding with the tapes and orchestrating the release of an unofficial PiL album called Commercial Zone. Lydon retorted by completely overhauling the band’s lineup and rerecording the songs from scratch.
If This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get sometimes betrays its stop-start origins, it still has the uninhibited jaggedness that distinguishes the best work of Public Image Ltd. “This Is Not a Love Song” is a wholly characteristic clatter of captivating insurrectionist grooves, and “Bad Life” is a braying battering ram. “Solitaire” sounds like a far weirder Talking Heads, “The Order of Death” is drenched in goth splendor, and “Where Are You” is a song built for for the center of a hurricane.
Lydon was strolling through a lot of wreckage as he made that album. Fortunately, few artists were more comfortable among the ruins.
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.