College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #203 to #201

203. JoBoxers, Like Gangbusters (1983)

Subway Sect was a band that spun like a revolving door. Their first single, released in 1978, featured them playing with fervor and fury. By the early nineteen-eighties, their sound shifts entirely to lounge-tinged pop music. Reflecting that churn, the band’s lineup was similarly dynamic, with frontman Vic Godard as the only mainstay. Around the time the band’s sophomore album, Songs for Sale, Godard abruptly decided to quit the music business altogether, pursuing a career in the postal service. Although Godard would eventually boomerang back to performing, his bandmates were left adrift upon his exit. They recruited a new singer from the United States, Dig Wayne, and adopted the name JoBoxers. The reconstituted group holed up in a Camden Town warehouse and started writing songs in the rough style they’d been working in right before Godard ankled. Signed to RCA Records, JoBoxers promptly recorded their debut album, Like Gangbusters.

JoBoxers caught the tail end of a wave that lofted retro song stylings to the upper reaches of the charts. The shiny, casually exciting “Just Got Lucky” was a Top 10 hit in the U.K. and cracked the Top 40 in the U.S. The swingy “Crime of Passion,” bouncy “Crosstown Walk Up,” and zinging “Boxerbeat,” the last another U.K. hit, are solidly in the same mode. The band locks into a groove and grins it for everything it’s worth, an individual listener’s satisfaction with the end result largely dependent on their tolerance for unadorned pastiche.

The flares of invention on Like Gangbusters really show the limits of the band’s range. “Fully Booked” is marked by experimental larks, like Frank Zappa when he was just goofing around, albeit without the hint of real musical genius behind it. “Curious George” and “Johnny Friendly” are weirdo white-boy funk inspired by facile readings of pop cultures artifacts. The nadir of the album is probably the laughable raunchfest “She’s Got Sex” (“She makes you want sex all the time/ I can’t believe the way she shakes her behind”). It’s a bad sign when an attempt at a sext song is a much better for the later cartoon come-ons of Samantha Fox.

JoBoxers released one more album with RCA, the 1985 studio effort Skin and Bone. It flopped, and the band broke up in the midst of recording their third effort, the various members scattering to largely undistinguished projects. Among those excursions, keyboardist Dave Collard’s early nineteen-nineties stint in The The probably stands as the most notable.

202. Romeo Void, Instincts (1984)

The San Francisco band Romeo Void experienced the buzz-band whirlwind from the moment their single “Never Say Never” took off in the early nineteen-eighties. Romeo Void was one of the bands on David Kahne’s 415 Records that most clearly benefited from the indie’s distribution deal with Columbia Records, signing with the major label proper and getting a robust promotional push. It was thrilling and exhausting in equal measure, and the band started to feel a little lost in the writing, recording, and touring process around their sophomore full-length, Benefactor. After the tour in support of that record, the band aimed for a reset.

“We needed a little bit of time off the road to become the people that we were when we joined the band,” lead singer Debora Iyall said at the time. “Then when we got back together the material was that much easier to collate, because we each individually had more to offer.”

In a further effort to recapture the spirit of their earliest work, the band convinced Kahne to produce their third album, Instincts. He’d overseen their debut, It’s a Condition, and the hope was that he’d drive them to the purer form of their music. The splendid drama of “Out on My Own” and the moodiness of the title cut prove the instinct sound. They are rich and evocative. “Just Too Easy” has flinty riff and vocals that are all attitude, Iyall speak-singing in a way that anticipates — and surely influences — some of Johnette Napolitano’s later actorly expressiveness in Concrete Blonde. Flouting expectations, Romeo Void roams freely, from “Going to Neon,” a sedate, jazzy instrumental written by Kahne, to the bristling “Say No,” which is like the Go-Go’s infused with Pat Benatar’s stridency.

The album’s centerpiece is “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing),” an answer of sorts to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that takes the side of the woman who is rebuffed in the Thriller hit (“There’s a time when every girl learns to use her head/ Tears will be saved ’til they’re better spent/ There’s no time for her to be afraid, so instead/ She takes care of her business and keeps a cool head”). Released as a single, the track delivered Romeo Void’s first forway into the Billboard Top 40.

That glimmer of success evidently wasn’t enough to satisfy Columbia Records. As the band recounted, the label pulled all promotional support from the band in the midst of their tour. Media interviews and record store appearances no longer part of the traveling itinerary, Romeo Void were left to essentially play out the string. At the conclusion of the tour, the band returned to their San Francisco home base and soon after made the decision that was all but inevitable. They broke up. The very fine Instincts was their last album.

201. Joe Jackson, Big World (1986)

Joe Jackson had an idea. He had a set of new songs ready to record for the follow-up to the 1984 album Body and Soul, but he though there might be a better way to capture them than assembling musicians in a studio setting. He wanted the exploratory spontaneity and slight raggedness that often accompanied live performance. So why not record it that way? Not the live-to-tape method that was used commonly enough, but literally in a theater venue with an audience providing the frisson of immediate response. Jackson and his backing band set up in front of notably polite crowds in New York City’s Roundabout Theatre for three nights in January 1986 and ran through the new material. A couple months later, Big World hit record racks.

Maybe more accurately, Big World hit CD shelves. It was Jackson’s first album to get simultaneously release on the new format, and Jackson took advantage of the extra time available on the shiny silver circle to avoid culling the track list. That meant there was too much for one vinyl record, but not quite enough for a proper double album release. Jackson pitched his label A&M Records on releasing the record version across three sides, with the final flip essentially blank. To his surprise, the execs agreed, leading to a decidedly unique configuration in the pressing.

For all those distinctive elements, Big World is a fairly typical outing for Jackson, comprised of precisely crafted songs with literate lyrics and a pop sensibility tinged with jazz smoothness. “Right and Wrong” might be an aggravated response to the Reagan administrations blithe militaristic mucking around in other region’s affairs (“Stop everything/ I think I hear the President/ The Pied Piper of the TV screen”), but it’s still silky and soulful. Similarly, “Tango Atlantico” offers bleak storytelling about discarded soldiers in the form of a easygoing tango.

Despite Jackson’s hope that the album would bristle with spirit thanks to the live recording, there are few instances when it convincingly sets itself apart from the theoretical studio-derived version. The wiry intensity underneath “Fifty Dollar Love Affair” and the little Gang of Four edginess to “Survival” are the most compelling exceptions, though its also worth noting that “Precious Time” comes across like Jackson’s version of a Stop Making Sense rave-up. This is still Jackson comfortably within his prime, so the album is speckled with strong songs: the elegantly grand and tender “Forty Years,” the clangy “The Jet Set” (with a riff that recalls Duane Eddy), and the atypically sentimental “Home Town.” In the case of that last cut, it’s wroth added that Jackson’s version of wistfulness is still spiked with plenty of cynicism; the son opens with the lines “Of all the stupid things I could have thought/ This was the worst.”

If Jackson was still in a zone creatively, that didn’t necessarily translate to commercial success. Big World was a decent performer, but a downward trajectory in his record sales was evident. This was the last Jackson album to make the Top 40 of the Billboard 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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