College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #155 to 153

155. Missing Persons, Spring Session M (1982)

Some of the folks from Frank Zappa’s backing band were a little bored with the esoteric, intricate music they were charged with playing. They started when guitarist Warren Cuccurullo and drummer Terry Bozzio decided they wanted to take a stab at modern pop music, the sort of songs that might actually move a lot of records and maybe some feet on the dance floor. To handle lead vocals, they enlisted Bozzio’s wife at the time, Dale Bozzio, another refugee from Zappa’s formidable studio efforts. Despite the overt commercial aspirations, their recordings initially found no takers among the major record labels, so they self-released an EP that took off, especially in their home base of Los Angeles. Now Capitol Records was interested, singing their band, Missing Persons, to a deal. By the time they worked on their debut LP, Spring Session M, the band’s roster was filled out with bassist Patrick O’Hearn, yet another Zappa alumnus, and keyboardist Chuck Wild, a longtime session player.

The album’s lead track, “Noticeable One,” establishes the general template for Missing Persons: rubbery guitar, stabbing synths, and Dale Bozzio singing with steely sass. Basically, the band paddles up the new wave and surfs it like champions. Single “Destination Unknown” is imbues with the strange, tingly magic of the era that’s exactly what current retro-inclined acts chase. “U.S. Drag” is somehow slinky and tough at the same time, a disco hangover with some prog echoing in its ears, and “Here and Now” is a punchy wonder.

Music writers weren’t initially all that kind to Missing Persons, grousing that the songs were disposable. That criticism might be somewhat apt — there’s no denying that the songs on Spring Session M are inescapably of their era — but the material is no more frivolous than any number of revered pop hits through the ages, and there’s a consistent candy-burst joy throughout. Dale Bozzio’s attractiveness and inspired image-making also came in for derision, in a way that has a nasty sheen of misogyny to it. She’s the the star of the album, though, elevating every track with the force of personality she brings to the vocals, maybe best evidenced by the bursting squeaks on “Windows” and the expressive yearning on “Words” (“Do you hear me/ Do you care”).

Missing Persons came along at precisely the right moment. Their combination of proudly energetic pop and flashy style made them perfectly suited for MTV, still on the steep climb of its ascent. Although the band couldn’t quite get a single into the Billboard Top 40 (both “Words” and “Destination Unknown” peaked at #42), they sold enough records to earn a gold certification for Spring Session M. From there, the rocket careened back to Earth. There were two more albums that fared progressively worse on the charts. By the middle of the nineteen-eighties, the Bozzios’ marriage was over and so was Missing Persons.

154. Howard Jones, Human’s Lib (1984)

According to Howard Jones, it was only because he couldn’t find anyone to join him in a band that he started making pop music on his own. After abandoning studies to be a classical music pianist, Jones was working a factory job and giving piano lessons on the side. One his students at the keys introduced Jones to a drum machine, a relatively new technology at the time. Jones started pondering what it might be like to use the drum machine and other similar gear play fully realized pop songs on stage without any collaborators. He kept assembling more new-fangled gadgets — a sequencer, a mixer, several different synthesizers — until he had the equivalent of a full backing band at his own fingertips. Knowing he was onto something, Jones booked a London club for a performance and invited record label execs to come see him play. After further proving his chops with other shows and support gigs with the likes of China Crisis and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Jones was signed by Warner Music Group. He had a big batch of songs ready to go. The challenge was transforming those songs into recorded material in the relatively unfamiliar environs of the studio.

“The great, amazing good fortune for me was that Max Hole from WEA thought that I should make a record with Rupert Hine and Steven Tayler,” Jones reflected many years later, referring to his debut album’s producer and engineer, respectively. “That was just a genius move, I think. With Rupert’s work, his solo work, they’re always experimenting and doing new things and they were on the cutting edge of the technology. And I felt that I was there as well. So, they brought this incredible expertise to what I was intuitively doing out in pubs and clubs.”

Jones brought one completed track with his, the Colin Thurston–produced hit single “New Song,” a tinny, blippy, and irresistibly joyous number that celebrates personal freedom: “I don’t wanna be hip and cool/ I don’t wanna play by the rules/ Not under the thumb of the cynical few/ Or laden down by the doom crew.” From there, Jones filled the album, dubbed Human’s Lib, with a lot of the songs he’d been playing live to that point, ranging from those honed to perfection (the splendid hit in waiting “What Is Love?”) to a few that feel like they needed a little more attention before they were ready (“Pearl in Shell” moves tentatively, like it’s waiting for a real groove to kick in, making it feel like it’s all vamping and no structure).

Generally, Jones is impressively in command for a debut full-length, evidenced by the racing “Hunt the Self” and the intricate, dense title cut. “Equality” is a particularly convincing showcase for all of Jones’s pop acumen. It’s frenetic, soulfully tender, and just about everything in between, all in four and a half minutes. While pop was undergoing a full-scale reinvention, Jones declares himself as a maestro of the moment on Human’s Lib.

153. Tears for Fears, The Hurting (1983)

For a new band trying to distinguish themselves in an increasingly clamorous pop landscape, crafting a lush, mannered debut LP that’s a loose concept album about child abuse is certainly one strategy. Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal met when they were growing up in Bath, England and played together in the new wave band Graduate. After releasing one album (which included the Costello-poking cut “Elvis Should Play Ska”), Graduate broke up, leaving the pair to scuffle along as session musicians for a couple years. They remained close through that span, making it seem natural to form a band together. They adopted the name Tears for Fears, inspired by their mutual curiosity for primal therapy, and recruited drummer Manny Elias and keyboardist Ian Stanley to back them up. (That Stanley had a home studio the band could use was a nice deal sweetener.) Orzabal wrote a batch of songs that drew on his own childhood trauma, and the band got down to work. On the strength of their first two demo songs, Tears for Fears was signed to Polygram Records.

I’m not sure anything else sounded quite like what Tears for Fears is up to The Hurting at the time of its release. There were others making ornate pop, of course, but I’m not sure those immediately contemporaries so firmly held to a rock ‘n’ roll soul at the same time. Then there’s the previously mentioned oddity of lyrical preoccupation with an exceedingly heavy topic. The title cut puts the misery right out there, plain as can be: “Could you understand a child/ When he cries in pain?/ Could you give him all he needs?/ Or do you feel the same all along?” Then there’s “Suffer the Children,” which includes the lines “He calls out in the night/ And it’s so unfair/ At least it seems that way/ When you gave him his life.” It’s a long, long way from Blueberry Hill.

The Hurting is distinguished by its craft and sweep. “Pale Shelter” is a restrained epic, and “Memories Fade” is a power ballad shorn of embarrassment, mostly anyways. “Mad World” is haunting, even if it is perkier than the famed cover version that cemented itself permanently into cultural consciousness around two decades later. “Watch Me Bleed” suggests U2 crossed with A Flock of Seagulls, and “Change” clearest sign that Tears for Fears would so be able to alchemize their vast, orchestral aspirations into urgent, catchy pop. As The Hurting spins to its runout groove, there is a competing supposition about where Tears for Fears might have gone from here. The album ends with two tracks that are enlivened by experimentation, specifically the wall of melodic intensity on “The Prisoner” and the spider-dance electro-tones on “Start of the Breakdown.” If the tracks are completely successful, they’re absolutely fascinating, pointing to a strangely creative future that didn’t happen.

The Tears for Fears debut was a solid performer, especially in the band’s U.K. homeland, where the likes of Kate Bush and Dexys Midnight Runners had better prepared music fans to expect a little grandeur with their pop hits. After years of not quite breaking through, Orzabal and Smith were clearly emboldened. Surely they’d build from here, and their next album would be yet bigger.

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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