College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #128 to #126

128. Haircut One Hundred, Pelican West (1982)

Guitarist and vocalist Nick Heyward and bassist Les Nemes cycled through a few different bands together during the latter half of the nineteen-seventies, none of them really amounting to much. After a move to London, the pair recruited another guitarist, Graham Jones, and started a new musical endeavor together. Casting about for a name that communicated they weren’t taking themselves too seriously, the group landed on the goofball, fairly inscrutable Haircut One Hundred. They started working on material with an eye towards having a strong live show, eventually doubling the size of the roster with saxophonist Phil Smith and two percussionists (Marc Fox and Blair Cunningham, the latter replacing short-termer Patrick Hunt). Before long, they were signed by Arista Records and brought out their debut LP, Pelican West.

The album is wild, rules-flouting amalgamation of different musical styles, or at least distinct pieces of different musical styles. At the time, the band acknowledged that they didn’t feel particularly beholden to any one creative avenue, so they could easily find themselves romping through “Milk Film,” a track that sounds like Joe Jackson’s exuberant soul-informed tunes, or the Squeeze-like offhand pop of “Fantastic Day.” Sometimes, they restlessly stuff every last idea into a track, as with “Marine Boy,” that samples R&B, jazz, and rhumba, at least. What could play out as messy and unfocused instead brings thrilling dynamics to the music, maybe best demonstrated by the single “Love Plus One,” which puts a clicking, agitated rhythm to otherwise smooth, luxuriant pop. Without those contradictions lives the friction of undefinable originality.

“We’re not saying we’re going to be the next this or next that,” Heyward explained at the time. “We’re not saying anything. We’re letting everybody make up their own minds.”

The simplest description is that the Haircut One Hundred of Pelican West makes synth-pop without using synthesizers (they in fact derided the instrument as a studio crutch used by bands that couldn’t deliver a good show on stage), finding their own way to the soaring sonic freedom that other acts got through emerging technology. The fervent “Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl),” the band’s first single, and the locked-in “Snow Girl” seem like they were made to anchor new wave compilations for decades to come. The Band’s range is such that they even anticipate the buoyant earthiness of future college rock stalwarts like Let’s Active and Game Theory on “Surprise Me Again.”

Pelican West is consistently interesting and engaging, promising a band that had all sorts of room to grow artistically. Those characteristics don’t ensure longevity, though. Internal conflicts arose when it came time to record the follow-up, and Heyward at one point basically decided to stop showing up at the studio. Not long after, there was a formal announcement that he was out of the band, leaving the others to persist without him. Considering he was the chief songwriter, this was a significant blow, and Haircut One Hundred’s sophomore album, Paint and Paint, was a flop. That album was released in July 1984, and the band called it quits entirely before the year was up.

127. The Police, Reggatta De Blanc (1979)

Less than a year elapsed between the releases of the Police’s debut album, Outlandos d’Amour, and its follow-up, Reggatta De Blanc. Plenty had changed in that span of time, but the trio — singer and bassist Sting, guitarist Andy Summers, and drummer Stewart Copeland — were doing what they could to forestall changes to their creative ecosystem that could come with the floodwaters of developing commercial success. The band’s label, A&M Records, encouraged the group to book time in a more lavishly appointed studio space that they’d used previously and take some time to craft a new set of songs. Instead, the Police went back to Surrey Sound, the comparatively modest place they recorded their debut, and supplemented their handful of new songs with quickly developed material built upon scraps and ideas that hadn’t previously been brought to full fruition thought they’d been toted around for a while, sometimes spanning all the way back to other bands. For example, Sting had written a song called “Carrion Prince (O Ye of Little Hope)” for Last Exit, the pub rock/jazz fusion group he was in before the Police. He took bits from that and reworked them, finding his way to the soaring, genially funky “Bring on the Night.” To keep mothering invention, the Police contrived their own necessity.

It makes sense, then, that Reggatta de Blanc bristles with unsettled urgency. The Police don’t sound particularly punk on the album — even in the broader conception of the term in that moment that allowed the filing of everyone from the Sex Pistols to Blondie in that section of the record shop — but they do carry some of the form’s energizing brazenness throughout. Antsy “Deathwish” and modish, satirical “Any Other Day” are splendid sonic jabs, and “Does Everyone Stare” is a plunking oddity that owes a little bit to the more theatrical British pop of the prior generation, like Anthony Newley if the Buzzcocks had been one of his contemporary references. There are a lot of ripple effects to that sense of adventure, including making the trite sentiments of the ballad “Message in a Bottle” seem almost profound. Naturally, it’s one of the most enduring of the songs penned by Sting. He must feel like he’s sung it once for every one of those hundred billion bottles kicked onto the beach by persistent waves.

The title Reggatta de Blanc is pidgin French for “white Reggae,” and the Police indulge in a fair amount of that on the album. That was hardly a rarity for U.K. acts in that moment. Bands such as the Clash and the Beat engaged in their own island appropriation. Unlike some of those other acts, there’s little indication the Police had a sincere interest in honoring the music they borrowed. It was just one more thing they plucked out of the air for their own use. That mildly uncomfortable aspect acknowledged, the absorption sure does work, lending a light-gravity lilt to “Walking on the Moon” and a meandering ache to “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.”

In the U.S., Reggatta de Blanc performed about the same as its predecessor, but it was a big hit at home. “Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon” were both #1 singles, and Reggatta de Blanc reached the same pinnacle on the albums chart. The Police were solidly on their way to becoming about as big as a rock act could get.

126. Simple Minds, Sparkle in the Rain (1984)

Simple Minds were playing bigger venues so they needed a bigger sound. That’s how they saw it, anyway. The 1982 album New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) was a breakthrough for the Scottish band, reaching the upper reaches of the chart in the U.K. and making a strong impression across Europe. (It was also their first charting album in the U.S., though with a less formidable peak position.) As they were mulling how to expand their sonic scope, Simple Minds crossed paths with U2, a band on a similarly ascendent slope. There was a quick kinship and maybe even a recognition that U2 had already cracked the code of lean rock music that could feel epic. When Simple Minds next went into the studio, they enlisted Steve Lillywhite as producer, the same role he held on U2’s first three LPs.

Sparkle and Rain, Simple Minds’ sixth studio album, has many of the hallmarks Lillywhite brought to his work with U2 and other bands: It’s sleek sleek without seeming too polished, bold in a comfortable way, and clearly capable of filling the entire night sky, even in its most intimate moments. It probably says something about where Simple Minds had been and where they were going that album opener “Up on the Catwalk” comes across like the missing link between Duran Duran and U2. They were at heart a pop act that had instinctual aspirations to rock god levels.

Most of the album is admirably solid, if none of it quite stirs true excitement. “Speed Your Love to Me” engages with a switchback rhythm and dreamy instrumentation, and “Waterfront” sets the template for Del Amitri and other nineteen-nineties acts that deployed an easygoing earnestness to momentarily cut through the grunge haze. Curiously, the album is maybe most engaging when some incongruities creep to suggest that they got stuck between ideas and just decided to stay there. “‘C’ Moon Cry Like a Baby” has a neo-psychedelic swirl with orchestral overreach that improbably gives it depth, and “The Kick Inside of Me” is a straightforward rock song rattled into liveliness by a post-punk tremor. The album’s only drastic misstep is a cover of “Street Hassle” that sounds as if they’re trying to repurpose it for a jukebox musical focused on Lou Reed.

Simple Minds didn’t jump to the next level with Sparkle in the Rain. Instead, they basically held steady. The album performed about as well as its predecessor just about everywhere. In the U.S., for example, the album peaked a mere five spots higher on the Billboard chart. Still, a major commercial breakthrough was on the near horizon. By the time Simple Minds released their next studio album, they were a band no one was forgetting about.

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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