College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #161 to #159

161. Talking Heads, True Stories (1986)

David Byrne wanted to make a movie. The Talking Heads frontman had long held creative aspirations beyond the dazzling art rock he made with cohorts Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, and the success of the Jonathan Demme–directed concert film Stop Making Sense raised awareness of Byrne — and curiosity about what he might be able to accomplish as a filmmaker — in Hollywood circles. Through Demme, Byrne met actor Stephen Tobolowsky and writer Beth Henley, the latter a relatively recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the three collaborated on a screenplay based in part of dozens of sketches Byrne drew of colorful characters he imagined up based on newspaper clippings. Byrne directed the resulting film, True Stories, and filled it with original songs, typically performed by members of the cast. Byrne sometimes claimed his initial preference was to release the songs as more traditional soundtrack album, featuring the film versions, but the record label pressured him to make it a Talking Heads album instead. Others, including Frantz, dispute this, maintaining that making True Stories the band’s seventh studio album was always Plan A. Regardless, the album listed Byrne as a the sole credited songwriter. Talking Heads were essentially reduced to serving as Byrne’s backing band, a situation further signaled by his somewhat notorious appearance on the cover of Time, where he was dubbed “Rock’s Renaissance Man.”

True Stories is perfectly fine record, but it suffers in comparison to the string of generally tremendous studio efforts that precede it. “Love for Sale” is a nicely crunchy rock song, and “Hey Now” is engaging in its loosey-goosey pop explorations. Talking Heads noodle with incorporating the unorthodox here and there — a twangy guitar on “People Like Us,” a hint of island rhythm on “Radio Head” (“Transmitter!/ Oh! Picking up something good”) — only to largely settle into a groove they’ve swerves through many times. Overall, the energy is turned down. Even as “Wild Wild Life” is entertaining in its overt goofiness (“I’m wearing-a fur pajamas/ I ride a hot potato “), it comes across as an attempt at a radio-friendly version of the band’s trademark cheery tension. “City of Dreams” is a ballad that might be as conventional as the band ever got, even with pointed lyrics about colonialism and other examples of humanity’s tendency to turn on itself: “The Indians had a legend/ The Spaniards lived for gold/ The white man came and killed them/ But they haven’t really gone.”

As a film, True Stories was something of a bomb. It split critics and caused only the faintest of ripples at the box office, though it picked up enough of a cult-classic sheen in recent years to allow Byrne to elbow his way into the Criterion canon. As an album, it clearly sounds like Talking Heads are on their fade out, especially in retrospect. There would be only one more studio album from the quartet.

160. Rockpile, Seconds of Pleasure (1980)

Seconds of Pleasure is the only album officially billed to the band Rockpile, which comprised of Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner on guitars, Nick Lowe on bass, Terry Williams on drums, and everyone except Williams taking lead vocal duties at one point or another. The quartet had effectively been performing as a unit for a few years before the record, mostly on solo outings by Edmunds or Lowe. The two of them were officially signed to different labels, so recording together formally as one-half of Rockpile seemed a business impossibility. After some wrangling that evidently resulted in Edmunds briefly parting ways with his label, Swan Song Records, a pathway was suddenly cleared, the band quickly laid down a proper debut. It was released by Lowe’s label at the time, Columbia Records.

“Down through the years, every time I heard a good record, I guarantee it had its effect on me, something that would influence me at some point,” Edmunds explained shortly after the release of Seconds of Pleasure. “There are just so many of those influences.”

That breadth of appreciation was clearly shared by Edmunds’s bandmates. Seconds of Pleasure plays like a loving survey of the history of rock ‘n’ roll, albeit one that was far less concerned with the bombast of nineteen-seventies arena acts. The galloping single “Teacher Teacher” was written by Kenny Pickett and Eddie Phillips, of the garage rock greats the Creation, and the album is strewn with cunning covers of relative rock obscurities: Joe Tex’s “If Sugar Was As Sweet As You,” Kip Anderson’s “A Knife and a Fork,” and zydeco performer Sidney Simien’s “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine.” The cut “Wrong Again (Let’s Face It)” is the band’s take a Squeeze song released one year earlier on a Smash Hits flexi-single. They arguably sound most cozy when easing their way through Chuck Berry’s “Oh What a Thrill.” Listening to the album is a little flipping through the 45s collected by an especially intrepid music fan.

Maybe what’s most impressive about the album is the way the originals settle in so well against the well-curated covers. “Heart” could’ve been a Motown classic for the Supremes, and “When I Write the Book” is a splendid example of the erudite, emotional songwriting that Lowe peerlessly crafted (“The pain will be written on every page in tears/ When I write the book about my love”). It almost sounds genetically engineered to be a perfect rock album.

Seconds of Pleasure had no follow-up. After years of Rockpile happening on the sly, almost theoretically, going legit seemed to damper the fun. Some reports attributed the breakup to tensions between Lowe and Edmunds, and others speculated that the band’s manager, jake Riviera, got in the way. Whatever the cause, the band’s dissolution also meant there were no diminishing returns to fret over. One and done suits the Rockpile story just fine.

159. Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door (1979)

Questions abounded about whether Led Zeppelin would every record again after their 1976 studio album, Presence. The band’s 1977 tour was notable for record-setting attendance figures and notorious for being a debacle in most other respects. Drummer John Bonham was so mired in drug and alcohol abuse that he sometimes fell asleep at his drum kit, and he was arrested alongside Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, and another member of the band’s support staff for brutally pummeling a cohort of promoter Bill Graham. Dissatisfied rans rioted at at least two shows. In the midst of the tour, Robert Plant’s son Karac died of a stomach virus. The boy was only six years old. The remainder of the tour was immediately canceled.

Led Zeppelin did record again. There was a three-and-a-half-year gaps between Led Zeppelin studio albums, during which time some of the problems grew worse. Bonham’s substance abuse issues were only more pronounced, and guitarist Jimmy Page was similarly compromised, in thrall to heroin. Plant and bassist John Paul Jones were comparatively clean, which led to them largely taking control of the album. They surveyed the scene around them and took the band in new directions. Reflecting an awareness that the gap between albums might have resulted in the band being left behind, and it might be difficult to connect with music fans who had moved on to punk, disco, or new wave — genres that in their own ways operated in strong opposition to Led Zeppelin’s thunderous, gently pompous hard rock — the album was titled In Through the Out Door.

Using the common strategy of bands veering from established norms (especially for bands with fiercely devoted, borderline myopic fans), In Through the Out Door begins with a reassurance that the difference isn’t as drastic as it seems: “In the Evening” is a familiar hard rock grind with thumping rhythm, muscular guitars, and Plant howling. There are other cuts that call to mind the particular variety heard on Physical Graffiti, exploratory yet tethered to the familiar amped-up blues rock: the jittery “South Bound Saurez” and the barrelhouse goofing of “Hot Dog.” If the faithful were chagrined, there was limited plausibility to the argument that Led Zeppelin had strayed from their foundational mission.

Much of the rest of the album determinedly pushes into unlikely territory. Spreading over more than ten minutes, “Carouselambra” is similar to the Who’s foundational excursions new wave music with more of an impulse to indulge in every slippery sonic idea that comes up. Effective or not, that track is daring. Other diverges on the album point towards the pervasive softening that defined Plant’s solo career: the middling ballad “All My Love” or the slushy, almost Supertramp-esque “Fool in the Rain.”

If In Through the Out Door rankled those who wanted everything to hew to Led Zeppelin IV, the immediate evidence argued the opposite. The album was fourth straight Led Zeppelin studio album to claim the top spot on the Billboard chart (it marked seven in a row to reach the peak position on the U.K. chart), and “Fool in the Rain” was a Top 40 single. Interest wass high enough that the rest of the band’s catalog popped back onto the Billboard album for a couple weeks. Unexpectedly, it was also the band’s final studio album. A little more than a year later, Bonham died just a few weeks before the band’s scheduled North American tour. Around two months later, Led Zeppelin announced that they were no more: “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.”

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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