College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #134 to #132

134. Fine Young Cannibals, Fine Young Cannibals (1985)

Guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele didn’t know their band the Beat was breaking up. Vocalists Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger had already decided they were moving and started recording their first album with new group General Public. They hadn’t told their former bandmates, though. Cox and Steele found out when the accountants called to start untangling the finances. After adjusting to this unexpected turn, the duo decided to form a new band together. They just needed a singer. They placed an ad soliciting for a new frontman and spend months going through hundred of audition tapes only to be repeatedly dissatisfied with what they heard. Nearly ready to give up, Cox and Steele sought out a singer they remembered from a former opening act for the Beat, an obscure ska band called the Akrylykz. When they found that vocalist, Roland Gift, he was largely out of music and was in fact on the dole, so the new gig with a couple blokes who already quite a bit of success sounded pretty good. Solidified as a trio, the group took their name from a 1960 film starring Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner and called themselves Fine Young Cannibals.

The band’s self-titled debut album makes it abundantly clear why Gift was so memorable to Cox and Steele. Fine Young Cannibals is fill stunningly good neo-soul music, obviously reliant on retro style while remaining resolutely modern, and Gift’s personality-rich, utterly unique vocals take everything to another level. If luxury could sing, it would sound like this. The vibrant “Johnny Come Home” was the band’s proper introduction when it was released as a U.K. single several months before the album’s release, and it really lays everything out: funky, splashed with horns, and wrenched into the stratosphere by the purring Maserati engine of Gift’s intonations. The track leads off the album, making it as commanding of an opening salvo as a band ever had.

In total, Fine Young Cannibals dazzles with its certainty. “Couldn’t Care More” underlines the band’s connection to classic soul, and “Don’t Ask Me to Choose” demonstrates how capable they can deploy an updated disco groove. They lock into a Motown vibe, with a hummingbird-wing guitar riff on “On a Promise” and engage a half dozen different good ideas on the the jam-packed “Like a Stranger.” A cover of “Suspicious Minds” is maybe less interesting on its own, but it does strike a useful contrast between the newness of Fine Young Cannibals’ music even as it looks to the history of pop music.

The strong start for Fine Young Cannibals seemed like it was going to be squandered. In part because living in different areas of the U.K. slowed the group’s progress on working of new material, four years passed before the release of their sophomore album, The Raw and the Cooked. That was a far wider gaps than was typical for pop acts in the nineteen-eighties, which suggested Fine Young Cannibals might have been forgotten about and that album might have trouble grabbing attention. That turned out to not be the case. The Raw and the Cooked was a smash, pushing two different singles to the top of the U.S. chart.

133. The Police, Outlandos d’Amour (1978)

Drummer Stewart Copeland knew exactly what he wanted his new band to be. He had a whole plan sketched out, a few noodles of preliminary material, and even a name picked out: the Police. Copeland was touring with the prog rock band Curved Air when he met a schoolteacher and aspiring musician named Gordon Sumner. Copeland told this bloke, who played a pretty good bass guitar and preferred to be referred to by the nickname Sting, to give a call if he every made it to London. After moving to the big city, Sting made that call and two started playing together, eventually drawing guitarist Henri Padovani into their burgeoning crew. The trio recorded and released a punky single before bringing in another seasoned guitarist named Andy Summers. Before long, Padovani left and the lineup of the Police was finalized.

The band worked up enough material for a full-length album and gradually recorded it, regularly receiving withering feedback from their manager, Miles Copeland, Stewart’s brother and the future founder of I.R.S. Records. His assessment changed when the group presented him the track “Roxanne,” a tango-rhythm ballad inspired by the Parisian prostitutes Sting saw outside the band’s hotel when they were on tour. Copeland took the song to A&M Records and convinced them to release it as a single. It flopped, but the label heard enough promise that they released a follow-up single, the jabbing, fierce “Can’t Stand Losing You” (“I’ve called you so many times today/ And I guess it’s all true what your girlfriends say/ That you don’t ever want to see me again/ And your brother’s gonna kill me, and he’s six feet ten”). That one made it on the U.K. charts, and A&M asked for a whole album. The Police already had one ready to go. They called that debut LP Outlandos d’Amour.

The label had already made one fruitless attempt to rework the songs the Police had already recorded, repeatedly remixing “Can’t Stand Losing You” in pursuit of a more commercial aesthetic before giving up and releasing the band’s original version. Lesson learned, they put out the album more or less as it was, so most of the cuts bristle with the friction generated by raw creation. One of the A&M execs attributed the album’s energy specifically to “the incredible tension between Sting and Stewart — they loathed each other.”

Whether it’s truly the result of bandmate animosity, that tension is all over the record, maybe best heard in the the rocket-jolt fervor or “Next to You” or the zingy, squalling, always-on-the-verge-of-collapsing-on-itself “Peanuts” (“Don’t want to hear about the drugs you’re taking/ Don’t want to read about the love you’re making/ Don’t want to hear about the lives you’re faking/ Don’t want to read about the muck they’re raking”). It’s tempting to attribute this to the band nursing a punk rock hangover, but the seething verve is equally present on songs that swerve on completely different wavelengths: “So Lonely,” with its reggae guitar lilt, or “Born in the 50’s” which has appropriate tinge of retro pop, almost like a song by the Cars, even as Sting roars through his vocals, as raspy as he ever got. “Be My Girl—Sally” flashes a lurid, rascally sense of humor in its ode to an inflatable sex doll, complete with Summers reciting a spoken-work origin story of how warped love affair began (“And then by lucky chance I saw/ In a special magazine/ An ad that was unusual/ The like I’d never seen”). The Police could eventually seem as institutionally safe as any rock band could be, but they started as brazen rule breakers.

Outlandos d’Amour was a hit, boosted in no small part by growing reputation of the Police as a scintillating live act. A&M Records decided to give “Roxanne” another chance. It was reissued as a single and did significantly better on the charts the second time around. It became the first song from the Police to crack the Billboard Top 40, peaking at a modest #32. It wouldn’t take long for more hits to follow.

132. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychocandy (1985)

“Jesus and Mary Chain are everything punk rock was supposed to be and never was,” declared Jim Reid, one of the two Scottish siblings who shared the lead role for the band in question, not long after the release of their debut album, Psychocandy. “We’re a bit more exciting and reasonably new compared to everything else.”

It’s a provocative boast, which was something of Reid brother specialty. It could handily dismissed as cheap egotism, the braggadocio of a young musician who didn’t know better than to express his impulsive confidence in a public forum. There’s a complicating factor in that evaluation of Reid’s statement, though: He was basically right. Psychocandy is dazzling in its transformation power, drawing on the characteristics of of other off-kilter rock music of the moment, such as post-punk, goth, and glam, only to create something that feels completely new, right down to its bones. “A bit more exciting and reasonably new” is ludicrous understatement.

Scottish brothers Jim and William Reid started the Jesus and Mary Chain at the beginning of the nineteen-eighties, eventually laying down demos on a four-track recorder bought with the money their father got as compensation for being laid off from his factory job. The demos made the rounds until one of them landed in the cassette deck of Alan McGee, cofounder of Creation Records. The band released their thumping, abrasive debut single, “Upside Down,” on Creation. It was a indie hit, selling out its original pressing. In short order, the band signed with Blanco y Negro, a new subsidiary of WEA Records that was largely run by Geoff Travis, the Rough Trade Records founder.

The Reids went into the studio with a stockpile of songs they hadn’t debuted yet, not even in their live shows. Producing themselves, they were meticulous about shaping the sonics of the record, basically envisioning themselves as modern-day version of Phil Spector, building their wall of sound out of the musical equivalent of barbed wire and shards of glass. The famed “Be My Baby” beat is even incorporated a couple times, most notably on the album opener, the quick classic “Just Like Honey,” although that beat is notably slowed, as if the buzzy guitars are weighing it down. The Jesus and Mary Chain cited the diametrically opposed acts Einstürzende Neubauten and the Shangri-Las as foundational influenced, and damned if that isn’t precisely the strange-bedfellow alchemy at play on Psychocandy. It’s telling that “Never Understand” is like a Ramones song drowning in feedback.

Many of the tracks on the album invite comparisons apart from those musical forbears, though. “Taste the Floor” is like a wasp attack, “Taste of Cindy” calls to mind rain-slicked leather more than anything else that might be punched up on a jukebox, and “In a Hole” offers spectacular noise that suggests the ear-rattling noise of a wind tunnel transmogrified into music. Operating squarely in this zone, the Jesus and Mary Chain can deftly shift from clamorous (“The Living End”) to luxuriant (“Cut Dead”) to so oddly lovely the the song almost glistens (“You Trip Me Up”). If “My Little Underground” sounds like it’s emanating from deep in a cavern, it entices the curious to go spelunking rather than flee from the lurking monster’s roar.

Psychocandy was championed by critics and embraced by more daring music fans. Those within the music industry were generally rattled by it. That confusion extended to the top brass at the band’s corporate home, with at least one high-level muckety-muck declaring after a first listen to the album that absolutely no one was going to buy it. Sure, it was never going to do No Jacket Required numbers, but his dour pronouncement proved incorrect. Almost exactly three years later after, Psychocandy was certified Gold in the U.K.

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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