College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #179 to #177

179. Jane’s Addiction, Nothing’s Shocking (1988)

The cover of Nothing’s Shocking, the second LP from Jane’s Addiction, puts irony to the album’s title, which was presumably always the intent. Polymathic creator Perry Farrell, the band’s frontman, rendered a sculpture of two women, conjoined twins, sitting on a large rocking chair. They are naked and flames lick up from the tops of their heads. (Farrell originally hired others to make the sculpture, but instead observed how they did it, scrapped their work, and came up with his own version based on the techniques he learned.) A photograph of the sculpture dominates the album’s cover, a clear provocation at a time when the recording industry was still reeling from Congressional hearings on explicit content in rock songs and adjusting to slapping a stark, black-and-white Parental Advisory sticker on every release with potentially objectionable words and concepts. At least eight major nationwide chains opted against stocking the Jane’s Addiction record and some others sold it only in a plain brown wrapper, like a nineteen-seventies porno mag.

If the compromised availability of Nothing’s Shocking cut into sales figures, and most determined that it did, there’s also little doubt that the controversy heightened the allure of the band and the iconoclast bona fides of the P.T. Barnum with piercings and eyeliner at the center microphone. Whether the publicity stunt–adjacent clatter of it all was wholly necessary is another question. If anything, it might have needlessly distracted from the fact that Nothing’s Shocking is a fantastic record, a welding together of punk and heavy metal into a wildly different form that truly feels as though it can only be categorized as “alternative.”

The album opens with “Up the Beach,” an exercise in fabulous hard rock excess that flows and undulates like mercury trickling down a slide. It’s a daunting benchmark that the album meets and tops over and over again, with the appropriately massive “Mountain Song,” the pummeling “Had a Dad,” and the accelerating avalanche of sound of “Summertime Rolls.” On “Ocean Size,” guitarist Dave Navarro unleashes a blistering, florid guitar solo that could strip varnish. Even when the material is under threat from by Farrell’s more sophomoric instincts, the advanced calculus of the band prevails. “Standing in the Shower… Thinking” might include Farrell annoyingly barking the lyrics “And the water is piping hot/ The water is piping hot/ It beats upon my neck/ And I’m pissing on myself,” but the damn thing moves.

For all the righteous noise, Nothing’s Shocking probably peaks with “Jane Says,” a carryover from Jane’s Addiction’s self-titled debut and maybe their most enduring song. Largely acoustic, the cut is nonetheless made intense by the stripped-down hardness of player, the knotted emotions in Farrell’s vocals, and the street-poet pungency of the lyrics’ storytelling (“Jane says, ‘Have you seen my wig around/ I feel naked without it/ She knows they all want her to go/ That’s okay, man, she don’t like them anyway”). It’s ferocious, melodic, and a smudged-makeup beauty.

Nothing’s Shocking wasn’t the beginning for Jane’s Addiction, but it was assuredly their launch. It was their first album for Warner Bros. after signing a contract with a hefty advance, giving the label added incentive to keep pushing this band. Their 1990 follow-up, Ritual de lo Habitual, was received rapturously and went on to move more than two million copies. The following year, Farrell was instrumental in bringing Lollapalooza to life, cementing his place in the pop culture imagination as an impresario of the aggressively offbeat.

178. Romeo Void, Never Say Never EP (1981)

In late 1981, Romeo Void was a fledgling San Francisco with one studio album to their credit. Ric Ocasek was the frontman for the Cars, an act that had collected three top 40 hits (and a couple near misses) across their first three albums. He was also in developing an associated career as a record producer. So when Ocasek reached out to Romeo Void and professed his fandom, the band (with some encouragement from their indie label, 415 Records) gladly took him up on the offer to go into the studio together and lay down some tracks. They didn’t have that much new material ready, and Ocasek had only so much time to put towards this diversion anyway. They wound up with just enough for an EP, its title taken from a still-developing song that the band was reluctant to use until Ocasek insisted on it after seeing them play it live.

The song in question was “Never Say Never,” a jagged, post-punky number with a dark dance groove rhythm and a memorably salacious lyric hook on the chorus: “I might like you better/ If we slept together.” As the lead track on the EP, it snarls, snakes, and occasionally bursts with free-jazz saxophone squawks as it stretches to more than six minutes. It’s followed by a trio of similarly winning if less immediately arresting tracks: the disaffectedly cool “In the Dark,” new wave epic “Present Tense,” and surprisingly tough-minded pop march “Not Safe.” But there’s no doubt what drove attention for the Never Say Never EP. Released as a single, the title cut became an out-of-left-field hit on rock radio.

The single’s success was so impressive that it changed the fate for the whole roster of Bay area bands on the 415 Records label. As the song spread nationally, Columbia Record execs took a business trip to San Francisco and signed a co-branding deal that helped define what major-indie partnerships would look like in the coming decade as college radio boomed. They were confident that the rumblings of “Never Say Never” was a harbinger of a deluge of hits to come. Their forecast proved faulty, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

177. Hoodoo Gurus, Blow Your Cool! (1987)

“We’ve been perceived as some kind of weird band, and it’s been hard for people to accept us,” Hoodoo Gurus guitarist Brad Shepherd said around the time the band’s third studio album, Blow Your Cool!, was released. “But I don’t know why that is. I always thought we were just a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

The Australian quartet does seem to make a particular effort to emphasize that identity as fairly straightforward rockers on Blow Your Cool! They pull back from the allusions to pop culture tomfoolery that were unavoidably present on their first two albums, Stoneage Romeos and Mars Needs Guitars! and instead deliver a set of winning tunes, most of which are within a long hand’s sweep of that perfect pocket of three and a half minutes of artful interplay between verse, chorus, and bridge. The album bangs to life with an opening trio that would be the envy of any act: “Out That Door,” “What’s My Scene,” and “Good Times,” each pithy, vibrant, and catchy as hell. The Bangles pitch in on backing vocals on the last of those three, as if taking their momentary place as the deaconesses of irresistibly vibrant pop music to anoint the whole record as worthy of more mainstream attention.

If the album never again quite reaches the dizzying delight of that opening blast, the whole thing is notably well-crafted. “Where Nowhere Is” is like a crunchier riff on U2’s anthemic rock, and “My Caravan” sluices through groovy psychedelia. “Come On” has an easygoing swing that suits its lyrics (“Who cares what people say?/ ‘Cause we can sleep all day/ Tonight won’t keep away/ Let’s just play”), which is where Hoodoo Gurus are most obviously comfortable, though they also acquit themselves well enough when trying out weightier topics, as when they throws some smacks at commodified religion on “In the Middle of the Land” (“They’ll try to blind you with TV religion/ Don’t buy their hand-me-down second opinions/ Sometimes the biggest lies/ Are most easily disguised”).

Hoodoo Gurus toured relentlessly in support of Blow Your Cool!, hoping that testing the odometer on the tour bus would lead to greater commercial success. That strategy had worked for them in Australia, but the U.S. market proved tougher to crack. They remained first, foremost, and almost solely heroes of college radio.

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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