197. The Bongos, Beat Hotel (1985)
RCA Records thought this new band they signed held some promise of crossing over. There were already some little inklings that the Bongos had the makings of mass appeal. Two of the singles from the group’s debut EP on the major label proved to be hits in all the cooler confines of the moment: college radio, dance clubs, MTV. For their first proper studio album (the earlier full-length Drums Along the Hudson was really a compilation of singles), the Bongos were given a long leash. They recorded Beat Hotel in at least five different studios and spent countless hours layering tracks until the songs were just right. The prime goal was to take the pop-rock perfection they often achieved in songs and expand it with different sounds, particular Latin American rhythms.
“The thing about the the Bongos is that, ultimately, we are a pop group, and that’s what we want to do,” frontman Richard Barone told Knight-Ridder Newspapers around the time the album was released. “We try to do as much in that framework as we possibly can, stretch the word ‘pop’ as far as we possibly can.”
If the Bongos don’t exactly deliver a deconstructionist classic or some other wholesale reinvention of what pop music can do, Beat Hotel is sure a fun record to listen to. The slick, soaring hook of “The Beat Hotel” and the jabbing guitars of “Come Back to Me” demonstrate the satisfaction that came come from well traveled rock ‘n’ forms given a new sheen by skilled practitioners, and “She Starts Shaking” is plainly a perfect little college rock song. The devotion to meticulously developing cuts with all that studio time is impressively evident in the lovely drama of “Brave New World” and the propulsive, bursting “Apache Dancing,” both carrying levels of craft that forecast the ravishing peaks of Barone’s soon-to-come solo career.
Beat Hotel didn’t carry the Bongos to new chart heights. Dissatisfied with RCA Records, the band extricated themselves from their contract and set a tentative agreement to record a new album for Island Records. It wasn’t meant to be. Midway through the recording of that intended sophomore LP, the Bongos broke up.
196. Pretty in Pink soundtrack (1986)
John Hughes wrote the screenplay Pretty in Pink as a vehicle for his chosen teen muse, Molly Ringwald, and gave it to Howard Deutch to direct, evidently impressed with his work on music videos. Hughes stayed onboard as co-producer of the film and took it upon himself to develop its soundtrack alongside A&M Records executive David Anderle, who previously helped guide the soundtrack for the Hughes-directed The Breakfast Club to major hit status. Anderle understood Hughes’s taste and saw how it matched those of the characters in the film. After all, a major setting in Pretty in Pink is a hip record store. The music on the soundtrack needed to match, but Deutch didn’t like any of the songs Anderle brought to him. Deutch’s musical taste ran to the Laurel Canyon stuff: Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstandt, and the like. The post–new wave swoop of, say, Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Bring On the Dancing Horses” or the Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” simply didn’t speak to him. Anderle prevailed upon Hughes, and Hughes intervened in Anderle’s favor.
Anderle assembled an impressive roster of performers for the album, most of them contributing new material. Soundtracks were big business at the time, but Anderle had some added credibility with wary artists because of his past work with esteemed figures such as Frank Zappa. He wasn’t reticent to evoke those prior accomplishments as rebuttal if, as he put it, “somebody thought I was just being some Hollywood soundtrack hack.”
The title song was important, of course, and the Psychedelic Furs were convinced to record a new version of it that was a little slicker and peppier, all the better to disguise some of the darker undercurrents of the song. Suzanne Vega, fresh of her acclaimed debut, wrote the sprightly “Left of Center” from the perspective of Ringwald’s character, and New Order dug into their songbook for the lean, striking “Shell-Shock.” INXS’s “Do Wot You Do” is a clear throwaway, but not without bouncy appeal. Anderle and Hughes aren’t unerring in their selections. Like almost all soundtracks, there are duds, the most egregious probably the cover of Nik Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t It Be Good” by Danny Hutton Hitters, a short-lived showcase for the former lead singer of Three Dog Night.
The soundtrack’s sleeve-stuffed ace is “If You Leave,” written and recorded by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in a scramble after their original contribution to play against the film’s prom night conclusion was no longer lyrically suitable in the wake of reshoots in response to miserable test screenings. (“Goddess of Love,” the song Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark originally created for the film, was plopped onto their next studio album, The Pacific Age.) The dashed-off track is rapturously forlorn, its moany synths and moody rhythm the pure realization of youthful romantic devastation, and that’s even before singer Andy McCluskey belts “Don’t look baaaaaaaack” on the long fadeout. Released as a single, the song charted in the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The Pretty in Pink soundtrack was a big hit, too. It finished 1986 as the third biggest-selling soundtrack album of the year, behind only Top Gun and Miami Vice, both of which were truly blockbuster level. In the end, even Deutch had to concede that he was wrong, and Adderle was right.
195. The Psychedelic Furs, Talk Talk Talk (1981)
Unlike its counterpart from across the Atlantic, the U.S. pressing of the Psychedelic Furs’ sophomore album, Talk Talk Talk, opens with “Pretty in Pink,” and its so perfect that it’s difficult to fathom how any other track list decision could have been made. “Dumb Waiters” get the first slot in the U.K. and the song is fine, a sort of plodding, screeching, nondescript example of the band bridging post-punk and modern rock. But then there’s “Pretty in Pink,” its stuttered drumbeat opening, grungy guitar riffs, scalding lyrics (“The one who insists he was first in her line/ Is the last to remember her name”), and lead singer Richard Butler’s trademark sneering vocals channeled so smartly and forcefully that they could spin a waterwheel to power a major metropolitan area.
For their sophomore album, the Psychedelic Furs hoped to reunite with the producer of their self-titled debut, Steve Lillywhite, a prospect that seemed unlikely because the up-and-comer had a stated policy of never working with the same band twice. Then Lillywhite went into the studio a second time with U2, producing October after first overseeing Boy, and he couldn’t exactly invoke the no-repeats rule with the Furs. After taking the mandate to do the best he could to replicate the band’s live sound on the first record, Lillywhite worked with the Psychedelic Furs to burnish up the material with artful overdubs and sonic layering. The approach doesn’t disguise the tepidness of some of the material, such as “No Tears,” but it does provide a sense that the Psychedelic Furs are strutting into the fullest version of themselves, like a peacock fanning its Technicolor tail.
Nothing else on Talk Talk Talk rises to the level of its most famous cut. Then again, that’s not a particularly fair scale. There’s plenty on the album that’s punchy fun: entertainingly squawky “It Goes On” or groovy grind “All of This and Nothing” are the prime examples. It sometimes take a little generosity to hear bad the leaden, sophomoric simplicity of Butler’s lyrics on tracks such as “Into You Like a Train” and “I Wanna Sleep with You,” the latter of which borrows a few tricks from the Cure. Happily, the generosity isn’t that hard to muster when the band is really locked in, and that happens more often than not on the album.
Commercially, Talk Talk Talk was only a modest success. It even underperformed its predecessor in the U.K. The embrace of its most famous song was still a few years and a major motion picture away. College kids knew there was something special here, though. The Psychedelic Furs were poised to become of the acts central to defining college radio in the decade of its ascendence.
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.