College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #209 to #207

209. Yes, 90125 (1983)

As work commenced on the album 90125, Yes was no more. The venerable prog rock band, already unsettled by lineup changes and other internal complications, decided to call it quits after the tour in support of their 1980 studio album, the aptly named Drama. But English estates don’t pay for themselves, so bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White decided to start a new band. After an abortive attempt to form a group with recent Led Zeppelin evacuees Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Squire and White recruited guitarist Trevor Rabin. Freed from the stifling pressure to replicate an expected sound, the newly assembled quartet explored more freely in the creative process. They dubbed the new group Cinema.

After several weeks of laying down new material, executives at the band’s label, Atlantic Records, were so enthused that they made a pitch. They felt the album had the potential to be a big seller if it could be marketed from a more familiar starting point. Rabin provided lead vocals on the tracks thus far, but the confident speculation was that blockbuster status was a possibility if Yes’s longtime frontman, Jon Anderson, could be lured back after quitting the band in advance of Drama. Anderson agreed, and the reunion vibe continued with the inclusion of keyboardist Tony Kaye, an original member of Yes who was given his walking papers more than ten years earlier. It would be a Yes album after all. With cunning understatement, the album’s title was simply the catalogue number for the release: 90125.

The emblematic track from 90125, in part because of its outsized success, is “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Maintaining the prog rock’s spirit of inner vastness, the track is simultaneously lean and fierce like a panther. It’s scored by electrified drum and guitar effects, and it’s taken to another level of controlled grandiosity by Anderson’s vocals, which sound like they’re being delivered as he’s swept into the stratosphere by typhoon winds. It’s a recognizable product of Yes, but with all manner of artful theft from new wave. Released as the album’s first single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” topped the chart in the U.S., the sole Yes song to achieve that feat.

The slaloming between nineteen-seventies excess and nineteen-eighties sleekness has a less impressive success rate across the entire album. Moving away from the like of Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes basically align themselves with a different set of rough contemporaries, and the comparisons aren’t beneficial. “Hold On” is hideous, almost amateurish Queen, and “It Can Happen” suggests Styx without the flair for dramatics. They fare a little better with the overstuffed instrumental “Cinema” and the big rock grind of “City of Love,” if only because the band’s sense of delighted invention — of striking away from their norms they’d adhered to on ten prior studio albums — comes through. “Leave It” is well-channeled sonic noodling, similar to the product of the Tubes proving they could make a commercial-friendly hit while maintaining their inner weirdness.

90125 was a hit for Yes, seemingly reviving prospects for the band. Fully capitalizing on the upturn proved difficult, though. Four long years passed before the next studio album, and the iron they were striking by then wasn’t nearly as hot. The drift into legacy act status was irrevocably underway.

208. The Screaming Blue Messiahs, Gun-Shy (1986)

Upstart rock bands — especially those who specialize in big, gummy riff that inspire helpless twisting of the volume dial to dangerous upper levels — are usually assumed to be populated by brash youths just a couple years removed from school days. Obviously, that reading in the age odometer is not always the case. Bill Carter, the assertively chrome-domed frontman of Screaming Blue Messiahs, was in hid mid-thirties when the band’s full-length debut, Gun-Shy, hit record racks, and he’d been straining to pull a suitably powerhouse band together for more than a decade at that point. With bassist Chris Thompson and drummer Kenny Harris, he finally hit upon the combo he craved, and the band name accurately promised a helluva racket.

Like a lot of rock music crafted in the U.K. in the middle of the nineteen-eighties, Gun-Shy is animated by seething dissatisfaction with that state of that nation, the Thatcherism and the mucking about in Falkland Islands and all manner of regressive ideas of an empire coughing out its death rattle. The messages are there, but it’s the bulldozer music that makes the stronger impression, whether the rambunctious “Just for Fun” or the chugging “Twin Cadillac Valentine.” Fiercely modern, the material is nonetheless grinding in the tried and true: bluesy guitar riff and a shimmy-shake beat on “Wild Blue Yonder” and the reinvented raw rock “Someone to Talk To,” which lights a fuse that sparks and snakes all the way to the blues explosions orchestrated by Jon Spencer.

Maybe more than anything else, there’s a headlong spirit to all the tracks on Gun-Shy. “Let’s Go Down to the Woods” is jabbing rock that is like a forcible baton grab from Slade, and “Talking Doll” has a little of Joe Jackson verve to it. Even the effectively sluggish version of the Hank Williams standard “You’re Gonna Change” is too energized to lapse into a dirge. The Screaming Blues Messiahs play like their instruments are on fire, and they’ve long since decided that dousing the blaze is less appealing than channeling the heat until there’s nothing left but cinders. If it took Carter several years to get his musical cylinders fire in alignment with simpatico collaborators, Gun-Shy suggests taking the time to get it right was entirely worthwhile.

207. Jason and the Scorchers, Lost & Found (1985)

It didn’t take all that long for Jason and the Nashville Scorchers to develop a reputation as a hellacious live acts. Comprised of Jason Ringenberg, who was raised on an Illinois pig farm, and a trio of ace Nashville players, the group peddles their blast-cap wares across the region, releasing a well-regarded EP on a local label. That recording, coupled with a swelling reputation and fervent fan base, piqued the interest of national labels. EMI won the band’s favor and inked them to a deal. The geographic signifier in the band’s name was scuttled, and Jason and the Scorchers released another EP as their major label debut, in 1983. Their first full-length, Lost & Found, followed two years later.

On their first album, Jason and the Scorchers approach rock ‘n’ roll with the philosophy “If it ain’t broke, well then maybe bust it up just a little.” Drawing on the long arc of country influences to the form, the band plays like they’re charged with closing down the last juke joint on Hank Williams’s green Earth. It is a cover of that standard bearer’s signature song, “Lost Highway,” that sets the standard for a record. Hardly cowed by the established reverence for the tune, Jason and the Scorchers roars through it, like they snatched it right out of the hillbilly Shakespeare’s soil-stained hands and were in the midst of a reckless getaway.

That spirit pervade across the album, whether the needle is plowing through the romping “Last Time Around,” the headlong “White Lies,” or boisterous closer “Change the Tune.” The band is slightly less impressive when they slow things down, like a racehorse forced to canter. Tellingly, the plaintive ballad approach lasts only so long on “Broken Whiskey Glass” before the cut starts as plaintive ballad before combust with retro-rock energy. Most of the band pitches in on songwriting chores, but there’s a strong sense that Ringenberg is the peak performer. He’s able to take shopworn sentiments and invest them with flinty originality, as on “Blanket of Sorrow”: “Four walls are a prison when your heart’s in your head/ Your soul is an icebox when you go where you’re led.”

Lost & Found knocked out the critics, but the wild enthusiasm of local audiences didn’t immediately transfer to the broader record-buying public. EMI wanted more from Jason and the Scorchers. For the band’s next release, there was a clear — maybe misguided — attempt to chase after the ever-elusive hit.

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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