College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #194 to #192

194. Big Audio Dynamite, This is Big Audio Dynamite (1985)

“We put on a great show, unless you turn up hoping to see the old Clash,” Mick Jones explained as his band Big Audio Dynamite embarked on a tour to support their debut album, This is Big Audio Dynamite. “I don’t do the old Clash songs. I had this shock treatment and don’t remember them.”

Jones had more reason than a creative punk’s usual aversion to nostalgia to put the seismic band where he made his name decisively in the rearview. His tenure in the Clash had an ignominious end when Joe Strummer, his bandmate and co-frontman in the group, orchestrated his ouster after they, well, clashed during the making of the 1982 commercial hit Combat Rock. Following a brief dalliance as a member of General Public, Jones decided to form his own band. He started with a foul tip in the form a act dubbed Top Risk Action Company, or T.R.A.C., which included fellow Clash exile Topper Headon. That didn’t work out, in part because of Headon’s heroin addiction, a struggle that also precipitated his walking papers from the Clash. Jones tried again, this time primarily partnering with Don Letts, who had directed a slew of Clash music videos. This time, the musical collective took, and Big Audio Dynamite was born.

Free to do whatever he wants without Strummer’s scowling judgement, Jones grabs the wheel in the studio and goes careening. The material on This is Big Audio Dynamite is dominated by easygoing dance grooves and slickly sublimated island rhythms. Sampling, still a relatively new technique, is deployed with abandon, transported into tracks like fast-moving patches of springtime rain showers. In that, even Jones felt they’d overdone it, pledging not long after the album’s release that they’d scale back such tape-splicing tomfoolery in the future.

If Jones sometimes skirts overindulgence, the overall vibe of the album is a chill party rendered with impeccable pop craft. On the plucky single “Medicine Show,” Jones uses the metaphor of traveling wonder-drug peddlers to crow, “Don’t be fooled by imitation/ This is the stuff that cured a nation.” Musically, he comes remarkably close to backing up the boast. Jabbing “E=MC2” and rollicking “Sudden Impact!” are insidiously catchy, and the relaxed pop epic “The Bottom Line” is an example of the thrilling fullness of sound Big Audio Dynamite could bring. There are still adjustments to be made — Don Letts’s flat-footed rapping on “BAD” isn’t great — but Big Audio Dynamite prove themselves comers right away.

Accentuating the strength of the album, it was released within a couple weeks of the largely dismal Cut the Crap, the first Clash album presided over by Strummer without his former compatriots. Strummer knew his record was bad. Not long after, he dissolved the Clash for good, and he reconciled with Jones. The next Big Audio Dynamite studio album, No. 10, Upping Street, featured Strummer as a co-producer and co-writer.

193. Aztec Camera, High Land, Hard Rain (1983)

In 1983, Elvis Costello wasn’t yet out of his twenties and was only six year’s removed from his acclaimed debut album, My Aim Is True. Despite his relative youth, he was already considered something of an elder statesmen of the more esoteric, left-of-center rock and pop that was increasingly getting a foothold in college radio and, to a lesser extent, MTV and commercial radio. (Monstrously prolific in his early career, Costello already had seven studio albums to his name when the 1983 calendar was formally tacked to the wall, so that helped.) So when Costello declared teenaged Roddy Frame, the prime creative force behind the band Aztec Camera, to be his top rival in realm of erudite songwriting, it prompted great interest. Aztec Camera’s U.S. label, Sire Records, made Costello’s endorsement the centerpiece of their ad campaign, and coordinated to nab the band the opening slot on Costello’s U.S. tour in support of his album Punch the Clock.

Perhaps tellingly, Frame’s songwriting and performing style on High Land, Hard Rain, Aztec Camera’s full-length debut, is closer to the posh pop luxury Costello flirted with on and off with sporadic success throughout the remainder of his career than the caustic, tuneful insurgencies he was known for at that point. “Oblivious” is buoyant and ferociously catchy, like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark or China Crisis with a jangle-rock soul, and “The Boy Wonders” is splendidly restless. Showing welcome range, “Release” spikes its Britpop jauntiness with a touch of bossa nova.

Inviting as a the pure, radio-friendly pop is, High Land, Hard Rain might be strongest in its ballads. The might be in part because those cuts are a proper manifestation of Frame’s contention, somewhat agains the trend of nineteen-eighties pop, that songs should be able to stand on their own, shorn of any studio buttressing. Although there isn’t all that much discernible overlap in sound and style, Frame cited Neil Young as a major influence. Presumably the spare clarity of an album like Harvest was a target.

“To me, if you have a good song, then you should be able to play it on a guitar at home and hear it with the same dynamics and intensity as if were played by an orchestra or whatever,” Frame told writer J.D. Considine around that time. “If it’s a good song.”

In that area, “We Could Send Letters” is intimate and emotionally piquant (“I found some blood I wasn’t meant to find/ I found some feelings that we’d left behind/ But then some blood won’t mean that much to me/ When I’ve been smothered in the sympathy you bleed”) and “Down the Dip” is kindred to the crisp folk-rock of Billy Bragg and John Wesley Harding. “Back on Board” is elegantly constructed, like a warmly forlorn, mid-tempo number by Squeeze or Crowded House at their peak (“‘Cause even after all those words I want you for my own/ Touch me when the sun comes up and tell me that we’re home”).

High Land, Hard Rain is an excellent starting point for Aztec Camera. Much as its winning simplicity was a major attribute — and Frame’s implicit goal — the decade’s clarion call of sonic ornamentation was difficult to resist. For the act’s sophomore album, Frame sought out a collaborator who could help leverage the increasingly possibilities of the studio.

192. Shriekback, Go Bang! (1988)

Started primarily as collaboration between bassist Dave Allen and keyboardist Barry Andrews after they left gigs in Gang of Four and XTC, respectively, Shriekback was down to just one original member when Go Bang!, their fifth studio album, was released. Allen split the group after their 1986 album, Big Night Music, and Andrews took over entirely. Simultaneously, Island Records, the label the band signed to ahead of Big Night Music, was applying pressure to generate some actual hits. Andrews tried to comply. To help the process along, Shriekback enlisted Richard James Burgess to produce, evidently looking for some of the highly shellacked results he provided for the likes of Spandau Ballet, Kim Wilde, and New Edition. They got what they paid for. “Intoxication,” the album’s lead single, so desperately aches for pop-chart adoration that almost sounds like a more frantic version of Madonna’s “Who’s That Girl.”

The rest of the material on Go Bang! is from the same plastic mold. “New Man” is hollow and wanky, and the title cut delivers a jabbering litany of non-commentary on modern times (“Everybody had their feet inspected, everybody had to get a grip/ Everybody got their plastic bullets, everybody shooting from the hip”). “Shark Walk” feels like a blatant attempt at a novelty hit, though I might think that because it resembles and arrived at roughly the same time as the Was (Not Was) single “Walk the Dinosaur,” which did notch that blessing-and-curse achievement. The most dire and embarrassing stab at laying siege to the pop charts is a chintzy cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” that includes a rap break that’s more MC Skat Cat than LL Cool J.

No matter how desirous of commercial accolades Go Bang! might be, the response outside of college radio was tepid. Shriekback broke up not long after the album’s release. After Andrews couldn’t get any other projects off the ground in a meaningful way, he reunited with Allen for another Shriekback album in the early nineteen-nineties and kept the band name active basically as a front for his solo career thereafter.

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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