167. Ramones, End of the Century (1980)
“This is the best album we’ve done,” Joey Ramone proclaimed of End of the Century on the eve of its release. “It’s so loud that flies were having heart attacks during the playbacks.”
The kings of Queens were in a perpetual state of frustration over the fact that their fame and notoriety didn’t translate into radio hits and record sales. In an attempt to change their fortunes, the quarter finally acquiesced to the overtures of legendary producer Phil Spector, who’d been offering his services to the band since as early as their third album, Rocket to Russia, released in 1977. Spector would officially be behind the boards for the band’s fifth studio effort, though the group also asked their regular collaborator Ed Stasium to be around (he’s officially billed as a music director on the album). They moved in and out of a string of Los Angeles studios with Spector, exhausted by his approach, which was exacting, and his behavior, which was erratic. In the most notorious tale from the lengthy collaboration, Spector pulled a gun on the band and forced them to listen and his performed the old Ronettes song “Baby, I Love You” on the piano. The veracity of that story is disputed, but Spector’s inclination for tyrannical mania is by now so firmly written into the public record that it might as well be engraved into the base of the Capitol Records Building.
Whatever schisms were present, the Ramones sound sharp and engaged in a way they never would quite again in their career. Despite their lead singer’s insistence that insects were suffering cardiac arrest as the recorded material was sampled, End of the Century is notable for letting up on the punk throttle to let the band’s talent for classic rock ‘n’ roll stylings hum. Album opener “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” practically spells out that thesis, waxing unabashedly nostalgic for the bygone era of scintillating dispatches from a better universe zinged across the airwaves (“Do you remember Murray the K/ Alan Freed, and high energy?”). The retro pining extends to their own songs, with several that explicitly reference earlier Ramones tunes: the chunka-chunka “The Return of Jackie and Judy” returning the the punky, runty character of “Judy Is a Punk” and the bounding “This Ain’t Havana” riffing on “Havana Affair.”
Given Spector’s famed Wall of Sound, the instinct is to hunt for signs of it like Waldo in CBGB. The electric piano here, the acoustic guitar there, and other sonic elements that are practically invading viruses on a Ramones record. None of its all that obtrusive, and it mostly seems as if Spector gives the Ramones permission to show the range that was always there anywhere, letting them zigzag from the tough and gnarly “Chinese Rock” to the Beach Boys–like “Danny Says.” They even do right by the Ronettes song that Spector supposedly terrorized them worth, turning in a highly capable cover of “Baby, I Love You.” Solidifying the album’s essential status, it includes a freshly recorded take on “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” the song they penned and played for a film of the same name one year earlier.
End of the Century proved to be the highest-charting album the Ramones ever released, but it still peaked at a fairly modest #44. By any reasonable assessment, the Ramones found their official commercial ceiling. For a little while anyway, that didn’t dissuade them and their label from more attempts to win the elusive favor of the masses.
166. Thompson Twins, Into the Gap (1984)
As Thompson Twins recorded Into the Gap, their fourth studio album, they realized a breakthrough was imminent. The group’s previous studio effort, titled Side Kicks in the U.S., was a step in the direction of mainstream success, with a couple dance chart hits and the band’s first single to crack the Billboard Top 40, “Lies.” That was promising enough. Then they released the slick new wave cut “Hold Me Now” as a standalone single in the U.K. in the fall of 1983, and it started charging up the charts. As frontman Tom Bailey, percussionist Alannah Currie, and keyboardist Joe Leeway finished up Into the Gap in the famed Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, they were getting regular updates on the single’s upward trajectory.
Released a few months later in the U.S., “Hold Me Now” was officially positioned as the lead single for Into the Gap. It did even better on the other side of the Atlantic, peaking at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and establishing Thompson Twins as MTV darlings. The next single, the yearning “Doctor! Doctor!,” fared nearly as well, just missing the Top 10. Those tracks are strong and worthy of the radio adoration they received. The rest of the album is a little limp.
“You Take Me Up” has a touch of a hoedown to it and a little bit of the soaring pop that was the specialty of Men at Work, and “The Gap” awkwardly employs some North African synthesized rhythms. The material grows especially bland when the tempo slows down, as on the ballad “Sister of Mercy” or the moony “Who Can Stop the Rain” (“You always had fantastic plans, that I always knew/ And now you want to leave me out, so it’s raining just for you/ Those changes that you wanted make you ten feet tall/ I tried to move those mountains but mountains never move at all”). Across most of the album, Thompson Twins essentially lock in as a less inventive Howard Jones, not a bad thing necessarily but also far from essential.
165. The Woodentops, Giant (1986)
Giant is the official debut LP from London-based band the Woodentops. Most college radio programmers likely thought of it as a sophomore outing, following Well Well Well…, which was released in the U.S. a few months earlier. That was an actually a compilation of the band’s various singles and tracks from EPs released in the U.K., and it generated enough enthusiasm at student-run broadcast outlets that Giant arrived with a headwind of eager anticipation as the first real statement from the act. The Woodentops were held up against the likes of the Smiths, the Housemartins, and Aztec Camera. The band saw their place in the merging Britpop pantheon as slightly more modest.
“What I see the Woodentops doing is very homemade and cheaply done,” the Woodentops’ frontman, Rolo McGinty, explain around the time of the album’s release. “We’re not trying to knock ’em dead. We’re trying to give people something to interpret, not whack them out.”
To keep the material as lean as they wanted, the Woodentops worked with producer Bob Sargeant, whose most pertinent experience was presiding over a slew of the BBC in-studio sessions that were a central part of radio presenter John Peel’s far-reaching fame. Giant sometimes feels like the Woodentops were preemptively crafting their own version of the Peel Sessions albums that were the prize finds in record store import bins during the decade. Whether the brisk “Get It On,” easygoing “So Good Today,” and flitting “Everything Breaks,” it’s almost a surprise when they’re not capped by collegial studio chatter.
The Woodentops’ music is consistently charming on Giant, but it could also use a little variety. The moments of flinty creativity stand out. “Give It Time” is smooth enough to recall peak Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and “Travelling Man” almost like a rootsy version of Devo.“Hear Me James” is borderline antic, giving the album a welcome jolt of energy.
Giant represents a solid start for the Woodentops. There’s a lot of promise in these grooves. By their next album, that promise would be met with just the right amount of zippy ambition to take them to a higher level.
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.