College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #182 to #180

182. The Three O’Clock, Arrive without Travelling (1985)

After the Three O’Clock’s 1983 album, Sixteen Tambourines, grabbed the attention of student programmers, I.R.S. Records came calling. Perhaps no other label was so sharply focused on assembling a roster of acts almost genetically designed to surf the airwaves of college radio. I.R.S. knew exactly how to market the glimmering, softly psychedelic pop music made by the Los Angeles band, and they had the resources and wherewithal to help the quartet arrive as the best, most professional version of their sound. The group was dispatched to a recording studio in Germany to work with producer Mike Hedges, who sported a resume that included sterling records by Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure. The album they made together, Arrive without Travelling, is like a silverly cloud of song.

The Three O’Clock were one of the leading acts of the Paisley Underground. Indeed, by most accounts, it was Michael Quercio, the Three O’Clock’s bassist and lead singer, who coined the term that served as a descriptor for music artists in the Los Angeles scene who spiked their pop songs with embellishments lifted from the hippie-dippy songs of the late nineteen-sixties. They stay in that zone through a decent amount of Arrive without Travelling, whether on the Bangles-esque “Her Head’s Revolving” or the zippy “Each and Every Lonely Heart.” Appropriately for a band aiming to stretch themselves, the Three O’Clock does find some sly variations. They go a little more Archies than Aquarius on the snappy bubblegum number “Half the Way There” and very nearly invent the twee indie pop that abounded a generation later with “Hand in Hand.”

Whether “Another World” is an overt attempt at forging a magic key to mainstream success, it sounds like it: a little too shiny, a little chintzy. The band does better with the acoustic ballad “The Girl with the Guitar (Says Oh Yeah),” supposedly written about Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. Resounding with some of the crisp charm of the Housemartins, it feels like it could have appealed to the Top 40 programmers who gave the most loving attention to Crowded House. In general, the music made by the Three O’Clock sounded like it was one right maze turn away from finding itself in the upper reaches of the pop charts. For their next album, sussing out that elusive turn seemed to be the goal.

181. Heaven 17, Heaven 17 (1982)

In 1977, Sheffield, England residents Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware wanted to form a band together. Proficient musicians on newfangled electric keyboards, they needed a lead singer to round out their group and hoped to recruit Glenn Gregory, who Marsh knew from their shared time in a punk band with the very punk-band name Musical Vomit. Gregory had recently moved to London to try his luck as photographer, though, and wasn’t available. The pair instead brought in Philip Oakey, a school chum of Ware’s, and they called themselves the Human League. After their first few releases went nowhere on the charts (their first single, “Being Boiled,” did eventually register in the U.K. Top 10 on a rerelease), the band spiraled into acrimony over creative choices. Ware left, and Marsh followed, ceding the Human League to Oakey. By this point, Gregory was up for collaborating again, and the Marsh and Ware had the lineup they wanted in the first place. The new trio was dubbed Heaven 17.

Penthouse and Pavement, Heaven 17’s debut album was released on Virgin Records in the fall of 1981. Although it sold well in the U.K., none of its singles clicked, in part because of the skittishness or right-wing preferences (your pick!) of radio programmers. The dark grinder “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” includes the lines “Democrats are out of power/ Across that great wide ocean/ Reagan’s president elect/ Fascist god in motion,” and that simply would not do in Maggie Thatcher’s Britain. The relative indifference to the group was enough to quell and thoughts for a U.S. release, at least until the enormous success of Marsh and Ware’s former band skewed the equation. The Human League single “Don’t You Want Me” became a worldwide smash, and suddenly Heaven 17’s ancestral connection to the hot band of the moment was a promising angle. Arista Records took Penthouse and Pavement, scrambled the track list, and added a couple subsequent singles, releasing the conceptually remixed record in the U.S. as simply Heaven 17.

However they’re assembled, the first batch of Heaven 17 tracks are a fine set. Still in the early years of the synth-pop revolution, the group clearly felt enlivened by all the new possibilities there were to explore. “Penthouse and Pavement” is lithe, shimmying disco, and “I’m Your Money” is like a warmer kind of krautrock. “Let Me Go” is a strong demonstration of which Gregory was of interest to his bandmates; the high drama of his vocals works wonders against the angular melody of the song, and “We’re Going to Live for a Very Long Time” is full of personality in its satire of cult-like religious thinking (“You may think that it’s strange/ This is all I live for/ But you can’t understand/ If you listen to me/ I’ll explain it carefully/ You must know I am right”). “Play to Win” might be the emblematic track. It’s marvelously busy, a whirligig of emerging pop-song technique.

Despite high hopes, Heaven 17 was only a modest success in the U.S. It did serve to establish them in the market, and subsequent albums got proper releases on both sides of Atlantic. It’s also worth noting that Heaven 17 does hold a higher peak on the Billboard chart than any of the group’s other studio albums.

180. Wire Train, In a Chamber (1984)

“We are from different backgrounds, and we approach our songwriting from that as a result,” Kurt Herr said about the give-and-take between him and fellow Wire Train songsmith Kevin Hunter not long after the release of the band’s debut album, In a Chamber. “I have the gut instincts from being raised on the streets of New York City. Kevin was educated in France, and he’s more formal in his approach. But it’s a dynamic relationship. Just like our band as a whole.”

In addition to Herr’s street smarts intermingling with Hunter’s upper-crust, European education, Wire Train benefited from the differing perspectives of Swedish bassist Anders Rundblad and Argentinian drummer Federico Gil-Sola. There are no real hints of the international convergence within the music, like some zamba-Swedish pop monstrosity that might have emerged had the globe-spinning explorations of Paul Simon’s Graceland proceeded with different collaborators. Instead, the four band members pounce on the material with a spirit of friction that comes from a loose valuing of established rules. Herr and Hunter were also relative novices as musicians, only committing to really learning their instruments after becoming interested in forming a band together. That guilelessness helps, too.

Wire Train had histories from all over, but they convened in San Francisco. Since it was the first half of the nineteen-eighties, that put Wire Train in the tractor beam of 415 Records. Like many artists on the label, they were produced by David Kahne and benefited from the distribution deal with Columbia Records that made their records land on college music directors’ desks with a heavier thud than they might have otherwise. Those prospect boosts had limitations if a band didn’t have the goods. At least on In a Chamber, Wire Train most certainly did.

The band’s earliest single, the giddily hyperkinetic “Chamber of Hellos,” makes an appearance. It’s equaled and maybe even surpassed by other cuts selected as singles: “I’ll Do You,” which takes Joy Division’s propulsive gloom and hits it with an injection of new wave verve, and the slick, moony “Never.” “I Forget It All (When I See You)” is like a stripped-down take on a Go-Go’s track, and “Everything’s Turning Up Down Again” is zesty and energetic. In a Chamber firs in perfectly with the prevailing sound of college radio, which was cohering at that very moment. “She’s On Fire” is lustrous pop with an Americana edge, and “Love Against Me” has a furious and controlled instrumental opening that gives way to the smooth, soaring, yearning tone found on songs by Let’s Active and other similarly embraced acts.

On the strength of In a Chamber, Wire Train secured a spot as an opening act for Big Country while they were still in the immediate afterglow of their Top 5 hit. Wire Train was warmly received on the road, but they couldn’t quite nudge their way to broader commercial radio or MTV airplay. There was more work to do.

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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