College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #188 to #186

188. The Jam, The Gift (1982)

“For me, the songs on The Gift have less stops and starts,” Rick Buckler, drummer of the Jam, observed several years after the release of the band’s final album. “This is what I’m getting at. I think by the time we were recording The Gift we had mastered that ability of being able to keep the momentum of song going.”

Assuming Buckler’s assessment is correct, the band’s mastery of maintaining momentum in a song was in inverse proportion to their ability to keep the band itself together. The Gift was the band’s studio swan song. It was frontman Paul Weller who made the decision, somewhat to the consternation of his bandmates, Buckler and bassist Bruce Foxton. Weller, the Jam’s chief songwriter, was feeling confined by the group’s success and the expectations to hold the line that came with it. He tries to topple the walls around them all over the place on The Gift: “Precious” has a disco zing, and “The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong” is some strange hybrid of British pop and calypso. The experimentation isn’t fully convincing, even as it clearly marks Weller’s urgency to find some new way of expressing his craft. The curve ball that works best on the album is also the one song not written by Weller: “Circus,” penned to Foxton, is an instrumental rubbery and punchy enough to be the theme for some strang nineteen-sixties television series with Plastic Man

The Gift is most successful when it adheres more to the forms Weller was trying to shake. “Happy Together” has the tang of modish predecessors the Who, and “Just Who Is the 5 O’Clock Hero?” brings a Kinks-like jauntiness to intricate lyrics of working-class aggravation (“My hard earned dough goes in bills and the larder/ And that Prince Philip tells us we gotta work harder!/ It seems a constant struggle just to exist/ Scrimping and saving and crossing of lists”). The album’s pinnacle might be the high point in the entire Jam catalog. “Town Called Malice” brings every attribute of the band to its apotheosis: headlong rhythm, a hook of steely perfection, crisp playing, and lyrics that get at the wounded dignity of workaday existences (“And a hundred lonely housewives/ Clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts/ Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry”). It’s spectacular.

Although the Jam tried to keep their pending dissolution a secret, word got out. The marched through a farewell tour, and their label released a live album to roughly coincide with their very last gig. Weller quickly moved on to other endeavors, basically severing all ties with Buckler and Foxton. For decades, Weller wasn’t even on speaking terms with his old cohorts. Weller and Foxton eventually shared a stage again, but the Jam remains one of the rare acts from the era that is unlikely to ever mount a proper reunion.

187. King Crimson, Discipline (1981)

Discipline was supposed to be the name of the band. Guitarist and wild sonic tinkerer Robert Fripp had no intention of reviving King Crimson after officially announcing the group was “completely over for ever and ever” in the middle of the nineteen-seventies. Despite some chatter from Fripp that he was fed up with the music business overall, he stayed busy with through the remainder of the decade. He brought his distinctive, unorthodox guitar stylings to recording sessions with the likes of Talking Heads, Blondie, and David Bowie. He also released his first official solo work. Finally Fripp decided he wanted to be part of a band again and reunited with drummer Bill Bruford, who was in King Crimson when it shut down. They then brought Tony Levin to play bass and Adrian Belew to serve as an additional guitarist and provide lead vocals. The quarter played some show as Discipline before finally deciding to use the King Crimson name. Discipline stuck as an album name and song title.

The detailed, grandiose prog rock that defined the first iteration of King Crimson was nowhere to be heard on Discipline. Instead, the band takes it cues from the most daring sounds at the dawn on the nineteen-eighties: post-punk, avante garde jazz, warped funk, and evolving synthesized pop. Opening track “Elephant Talk” is emblematic of the approach, sounding like Talking Heads and Public Image Limited smashed together to make an entirely new, more daring sonic conglomeration. “Matte Kudasai” anticipates the Blue Nile’s smooth pop, but with a curlicue of danger added to it, and “The Sheltering Sky” is a vivid, exploratory instrumental. “Indiscipline” demonstrates the spectacular results this version of King Crimson could get by opening flouting rules. The cut is a fantastic art-rock freakout with spoken-word segments inspired by correspondence Belew received from his painter wife that recounted her struggles with a new piece (“Playing little games/ Like not looking at it for a whole day/ And then, looking at it/ To see if I still liked it/ I did”). It had the explosive fervor of punk and the razor-like precision of Krautrock.

What could have been a larkish, momentary return instead became, if somewhat briefly, a fruitful, prolific new collective. Things were clearly clicking for this group, and they worked fast, even as the various members relentlessly pursued other opportunities, Fripp’s collaboration with the Police’s Andy Summers and Belew’s debut solo album among them. Those outside obligations didn’t slow King Crimson all the much. The band’s next studio effort followed Discipline in less than a year.

186. The Lucy Show, Mania (1986)

The Lucy Show showed a lot of promise on their 1985 debut LP, …Undone. Their label didn’t see it that way, though. After the album failed to catch on anywhere other than college radio, A&M Records dropped the group. The quartet headed back to their London home base and took whatever gigs they could, continuing to home their material in the hopes that someone else would give them a chance. That second swing at the big time came courtesy of Big Time. The independent label headquartered in Australia was making a major push to be an international player, signing deals with left-of-the-dial heroes the Dream Syndicate, Love and Rockets, Redd Kross, Dumptruck, and a handful more. The label inked the Lucy Show and sent them into the studio with John Leckie, the prolific producer probably best known to that point for his work with XTC and the Fall. Still smarting from the experience with A&M, the Lucy Show set out to make a more commercial record for their sophomore release.

Mania, the Lucy Show’s sophomore full-length, is impressive in its polished professionalism. “Land and the Life” is awash in layered guitars, and “Sad September” is a thick, plush ballad; both tracks feel like they bear the palm print of Leckie’s guiding hand. That’s not to argue that the personality of the band is subsumed. The Lucy Show were impressive of their moment in college rock, clearly huffing the same creative air as the acts the routinely dominated playlists. “A Million Things” has the chiming earthiness of Game Theory, and “Shame” merges the R.E.M. edgy jangle with the Church’s dreaminess. Everything on the record is soundly solid, excepting maybe the mid-tempo number “Part of Me,” which sounds like it was specifically made to be side-two filler on a soundtrack for a moony high school movie inspired by the oeuvre of John Hughes but not presided over by him.

The Lucy Show again made a noticeable mark on the college charts and again failed to generate anything but the faintest of interest elsewhere. It wasn’t the fiscally unsustainable concentration of their success that did them in with their label this time. Instead, Big Time Records folded, presumably the result of the aggressive expansion of their roster and their reach without any crossover hit records to go with it. The Lucy Show were again without a label. This time, they didn’t persevere through the setback. After briefly operating as a pared-down duo, the Lucy Show disbanded for good.

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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