College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #170 to #168

170. Psychedelic Furs, Midnight to Midnight (1987)

The fall of 1986 would have been an opportune time for the Psychedelic Furs to release a new album. In the spring, they’d received the biggest boost of their career when the song “Pretty in Pink,” from the 1981 album Talk Talk Talk, was chosen to provide the title for a John Hughes–produced teen romance starring his favorite muse, Molly Ringwald. The band rerecorded the song to make it just a bit thicker and therefore radio-ready, and the strong overall performance of the film’s soundtrack pushed the new single version of “Pretty in Pink” to a peak just outside the Billboard Top 40, in late May. That was only three positions higher than their previous chart peak — with the 1982 single “Love My Way” — but it felt different, more like something to build on.

The Psychedelic Furs did their part to have a big, glossy new product for the masses. Around the time “Pretty in Pink” was climbing the charts, they went into the studio with producer Chris Kimsey, who’d recently overseen albums from Killing Joke and Marillion. Whether explicitly stated or not, the clear mandate was to buff up the Psychedelic Furs material with the kind of heavy veneer that was increasingly a requirement to get significant airplay on rock radio. And rock radio was clearly what they were aiming for, a strategy they positioned as a rejection of their previous album, Mirror Moves.

“We though it was a little too smooth, soft,” explained Richard Butler, the Psychedelic Furs frontman, in the long lead-up to release of the Kimsey-produced album, Midnight to Midnight. “We wanted it like that at the time, but looking back on it, we kind of missed the edge. So we decided to put a bit more of the edge on it, and, edge being guitars, you put more guitars on it.”

Butler’s reporting is accurate: There are a lot of guitars on Midnight to Midnight, mostly to the album’s detriment. “All of the Law” is a prime offender, a seemingly decent song buried under too much slick sonic adornment, including a truly wanky guitar solo. The title cut is so overly produced it borders on garish, and “No Release” nudges the band towards anonymity, a truly remarkable feat give the bursting dose of personality Butler’s vocals give to practically every song. I’d argue the one time Kimsey’s production enhances a cut is “Heartbreak Beat,” which served as a lead single. The high drama of the song is rendered with precision, which transforms the labored lyrics into some magical poetry of wounded romanticism (“Well the beat don’t stop/ We talk so tough/ And there’s a perfect kiss, somewhere out in the dark/ But a kiss ain’t enough”).

Other than “Heartbreak Beat,” which became the Psychedelic Furs one and only Top 40 hit in the U.S., the album really is clunker after clunker. “Shock” is so similar to “Heartbreak Beat” that it’s like a rough draft, suggesting the band didn’t have that many new ideas. Maybe worse is the unshakeable sense that the band is trying ever so hard to turn themselves into chart icons, exemplified by “Angels Don’t Cry,” which like their own version of the Pretty in Pink hit “If You Leave,” with the addition of a gruesome, era-specific saxophone solo.

Although the album was ready to go in the fall, the band’s label, Columbia Records, was devoting all of their energy and pressing plant resources to the Bruce Springsteen box set Live/1975-1985, expected to the the recording industry’s blockbuster for the Christmas season. It was. The box set topped the Billboard album chart in its debut week, and vanishingly rare occurrence back then, and became the first five-record set to be certified platinum. Midnight to Midnight got kicked to the curb. By the time it was released, in February 1987, the band was so sick of it that practically every interview includes a declaration that their next album was going to be better, more interesting, and more experimental. I don’t if the subsequent studio album lived up to that hype, but it was an obvious and slightly shame-tinged retreat from Midnight to Midnight.

169. Public Image Ltd, Album (1986)

John Lydon blew everything up to make Public Image Ltd’s fourth album, This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get, and it was time to rebuild. Or maybe not. Lydon decided that the new music he wanted to make was going to be outside the range of the ad hoc crew he’d assembled to complete the prior album after the standing lineup of the band fell apart. Bill Laswell, the longtime doyen of esoteric, artful music, suggested there might be a better way to proceed than assembling a new permanent crew. Laswell convinced Lydon to seek the participation of a a bunch of ringers, which results in an album loaded with absurdly gifted musicians: drummer Ginger Baker, guitarist Steve Vai, and keyboardists Bernie Worrell and Ryuichi Sakamoto among them. Putting his own talent to the theory, Laswell plays bass on most of the tracks and co-produces with Lydon.

The album is called Album (or technically Cassette or Compact Disc, depending on the format) and packaged plainly in a way meant to call to mind generic grocery store items, a gag that, it must be noted, that the San Francisco punk band Flipper got to four years earlier. The cuts on the album do sometimes feel like they’re positioned as product, with simple, repetitive lyrics and thumping, unrelenting rhythms. Lydon strips pop music down to its bare frame and shows it can still be raced through the streets. “Rise” is kind of the platonic ideal of the approach, getting maximum emotional and intellectual energy out of alternating repeated calls of the modified Irish blessing “May the road rise with you” with similarly restated calls of the very Lydon sentiment “Anger is an energy” in a way that somehow makes the divergent ideas feel pure and whole and together.

Lydon unleashes his full bray on “F.F.F.,” one of several songs in the Public Image Ltd catalog about the way friends are bound to disappoint. “Round” has a panther-creep intensity, and “Bags” locks into to relentless recitation of the lyric “Like a rubber bag” until it becomes a mesmerizing nonsense rhythm. On both “Home” and “Ease,” Vai crashes in with guitar solos that are almost absurd in their grandiosity. At times, Album starts to feel like some sort of fever dream of pop excess, which is, I suspect exactly what Lydon wants it feel like. That’s why it took a patchwork supergroup to make it.

168. Hüsker Dü, Candy Apple Grey (1986)

Right from the start, Warner Bros. executives were perturbed with Hüsker Dü. After years of playing footsie with major labels, the Minneapolis trio finally decided to ink a deal, in part because Warner Bros. agreed to a contractual promise that outside producers wouldn’t be imposed on the band. At the time of signing, Hüsker Dü already had a complete, unreleased album at the ready, and Warner Bros. thought it would be the perfect as the the band’s first outing under their banner. Instead, Hüsker Dü gave the album, titled Flip Your Wig, to their now-former label, SST Records, as a sort of goodwill gesture and parting gift. The muckety-mucks at their new corporate home weren’t please with the decision, but surely they had to see some value in Hüsker Dü starting completely fresh.

That’s not to imply that the band’s official major label debut, Candy Apple Grey, is some wholesale reinvention. It’s a logical next step in the ongoing process of refining their sound that had been happening throughout their career. The album begins with an acknowledgement of their hardcore roots in the abrasive, headlong, and angry “Crystal,” like a quick assurance that the the major label isn’t going to blunt their approach, and guitarist Bob Mould shouting himself hoarse to prove it. In his memoir, See a Little Light, Mould confirms that positioning that cut as the opener was strategic.

“If the old fans put the record on and it began with some sweet little love song, they’d be gone,” Mould writes. “If we could at least hold them for the first three minutes, maybe they’d listen to the whole thing.”

As usual for a Hüsker Dü record, Candy Apple Grey alternates more or less evenly between compositions by Mould and those by drummer Grant Hart, benefiting from the enlivening schism between two distinctive creative perspectives. (According to Mould, the band’s magnificently mustached bassist, Greg Norton, was primarily concerned with stealing away to the golf course in those days.) In the unofficial competition between the two, Hart might be the victor on the album, largely on the strength of two powerhouse tracks that served as singles: “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” and “Sorry Somehow.” They blaze with fierce power, render complex emotions in crisp, clear lyrics, and are intensely catchy. Hart’s “No Promise Have I Made” is a ballad, but achieves a similar potency with vocal and sonic manipulation expertly designed to express anguished tension.

It’s not like Mould is scuffling on the album, though. Few of his contemporaries could bring equal aplomb to the raucous near-nonsense of “Eiffel Tower High” (“Well, I just watch the world go by/ And try to get her attention/ Scream at her, and I yell and scream at her/ And I scream, ice cream, I scream/ I scream ‘Merry Eiffel Tower High'”) and the blistering poignancy of “All This I’ve Done for You” (“Would a little tiny bit of action/ Would it make it even seem to matter anymore/ I guess it matters just to you/ All this I’ve done for you”). It’s the glum two-song centerpiece of the album that finds Mould at his most affecting. “Too Far Down” is a taut acoustic number about depression (“I’m too far down/ I couldn’t begin to smile/ Because I can’t even laugh or cry/ Because I just can’t do it”) and “Hardly Getting Over It” is a six-minute, tender-hearted dispatch about the constant miseries of existence (“Grandma, she was sick/ And she is gonna die/ And grandpa had a seizure/ Moved into a hotel cell and died away”). If Hart delivers the crowd-pleasers on Candy Apple Grey, Mould provides the songs that have a heavy resonance.

With the added push that the major label provided, Hüsker Dü made their first appearance on the Billboard album chart with Candy Apple Grey. It was a promising beginning to their new business relationship, but they would only be able to build so much on that foundation brick. There would be only one more Hüsker Dü studio album.

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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