College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #95 to #93

95. Echo & the Bunnymen, Ocean Rain (1984)

Echo & the Bunnymen benefited from a change in scenery when they recorded their fourth studio album, Ocean Rain. After setting up an unofficial home base of Rockfield Studios, located in the Welsh countryside, for their previous three outings, the Liverpool band headed to Paris to make Ocean Rain. Intrigued by the orchestral pop of Jacques Brel and other similarly lavish artists who took their spins among the French elite, Echo & the Bunnymen enhanced a sonic aesthetic that had cropped up occasionally on earlier cuts and filled out their new songs with more intricate orchestrations, a leveling up that included the contributions of a thirty-five piece orchestra. What could have come across as an affectation instead feels like a natural progression, exemplified by the luxuriant, majestic “The Killing Moon,” which might stand as the band’s quintessential moment on record.

If “The Killing Moon” is the album’s pinnacle, it’s hardly an outlier. Ocean Rain abounds with startling mini-masterpieces of irresistible pop excess. “The Yo Yo Man,” which came about in part from the band member’s experimentation with some of the more novel instruments in the French studios, is grandly theatrical, like a less menacing Nick Cave, and the title cut is a grand, stately ballad. They didn’t completely shed their origins as a band indebted to nineteen-sixties rock and more recent post-punk rabble rousing. The album doesn’t slop so completely into the pillowy pop that Echo & the Bunnymen loose their footing as a rock band. “Thorn of Crowns” builds real intensity with a jittery rhythm and Ian McCulloch’s halting, yelping vocals, and “Seven Seas” again invites the persistent comparison to Jim Morrison’s bygone swagger in the Doors.

A beaming confidence was consistently present on the early Echo & the Bunnymen albums. Ocean Rain joins that bravado with a more adventurous spirit, a willingness to build a music on a scale quite different than most of their contemporaries. Rather than bogging down the material with pretension, the approach seems to lighten the load for the band, evidences by the lithe, swingy “Silver” and the jaunty “Crystal Days.” In its finest moments, the album practically glows with.a sweetly sated inner creative spirit. There’s plenty corroborating testimony that all the pieces were coming together in just the right way.

“If you’re all playing together in the studio, and you’ve got the sound right, there’s like another element that joins in,” guitarist Will Sergeant said of the album many years later. “You can’t quite put your finger on it. it’s like trying to get to the end of a rainbow or something.”

Splendid as it might be, the symbiosis wasn’t fated to last. Following Ocean Rain, Echo & the Bunnymen entered a more fraught period, defined by some personnel shifts and mounting pressure from their label to deliver a breakthrough hit. Some three years passed before the band’s next studio album, a lifetime in the timetable of nineteen-eighties pop.

94. Bronski Beat, The Age of Consent (1984)

Steve Bronski, Jimmy Somerville, and Larry Steinbachek were sharing a flat in the Brixton district of London when an idea struck. Steinbachek heard Somerville sing and was struck by his roomie’s crisp, soaring falsetto. He suggested the three of them start making music together. Using synthesizers and other electronic technology, the trio made vibrant dance music that was unfussy enough to ensure Somerville’s distinctive vocals wouldn’t be overshadowed.

Calling themselves Bronski Beat, the group also determined early on that part of their shared mission would be to fully own their identities as gay men and represent themselves accordingly, a stance born partially out of frustration that other acts at the time opted for the security of playing coy. Underlining this fearlessness, the very first Bronski Beat single was “Smalltown Boy,” which put an effective synth groove with emotionally powerful lyrics about a young gay man moving away from the conservative, judgmental community he was raised in to find a better place where he could be accepted for who he is: “Mother will never understand why you had to leave/ But the answers you seek will never be found at home/ The love that you need will never be found at home.” The song was a hit, making the Top 5 in the U.K. and the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., where it also topped the dance chart for one week. Refuting the predictions of naysayers, Bronski Beat proved there was a place for a proudly out act on the charts.

“Smalltown Boy” took a prime spot on Bronski Beat’s debut album, The Age of Consent (making the inspiration for the album title crystal clear, the band included a list of multiple countries’ ages of consent for gay sex on the inner sleeve). The cut is joined by others that similarly put statements of purpose to soulful grooves.“Why?”is a horn-stung, light disco track about bigoted violence against gays (“Broken I lie/ All my feelings denied/ Blood on your fist/ Can you tell me why?”). Moving as it is to hear songs that bluntly tell the largely shunted-aside stories of the band and their compatriots, the songs are less effective when the protest turns to other topic. Somerville might sing the hell out of them, but there’s no disguising the inanity of the lyrics to “No More War”: “No more war please/
Who wants to die.” The somewhat darker sonic undercurrents to “Junk” do a better job of distracting from its thudding anti-consumer message.

In a move that plays as both a tribute to key forbears and a sheepish acknowledgement that Bronski Beat don’t have quite enough of their own material to fill out an LP, The Age of Consent includes some covers. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is a gently jazzy take on a number from George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and the album closes with the medley “I Feel Love/Johnny Remember Me,” blipping, offhand versions of songs originally recorded by Donna Summer and John Leyton, respectively. If these tracks come across as inessential, it also feels perfectly fine that the group leaned a little on borrowed tunes. Bronski Beat had already said plenty.

93. The Screaming Blue Messiahs, Bikini Red (1987)

The Screaming Blue Messiahs hailed from the U.K., but it seemed the grandly garish culture of the special-relationship country across the Atlantic Ocean was heavily on their minds when they wrote and recorded their third album, Bikini Red. Built on rock ‘n’ roll that blasts forward like a funny car, the album is packed with songs that offer bodacious, comic commentary on several emblems of U.S. life. The title “Jesus Chrysler Drives a Dodge” really says it all, its Tinkertoy tangle of red-white-and-blue nouns lifted right out of Timbuk 3’s gonzo, street-corner folk. “I Can Speak American” take that up a few notches with lyrics the could have been transcribed from fever dream rantings delivered after watching too much UHF afternoon television in seedy motel rooms between concert dates: “I don’t like Jerry, but I do like Tom/ And what they did to Tom was wrong/ I don’t like the police, but I do like Kong/ And what they did to Kong was wrong.” The apex of this tomfoolery is “I Wanna Be a Flintstone,” a tribute to the modern stone age family is downright dizzying in its joyfulness, even if it had the inevitable side effect of consigning the band to the status of novelty act for many.

There’s a bracing energy behind these romps. Throughout the album, the Screaming Blue Messiahs are clearly committed to making a purely fun rock record, seriousness optional. “Lie Detector” is wiry and fevered, like the dB’s if they help up AC/DC as a creative touchstone, and “55-The Law” is a rockabilly-tinted racer. The title cut purrs and grinds, “Too Much Love” bounds along, and “All Shook Down” borrows from the Clash, especially the James Dean glower of Joe Strummer. Bill Carter, frontman and lead guitarist of the Screaming Blue Messiahs, doesn’t have the same powerhouse charisma as some of the artists he evokes, but he makes up for it with the jubilant conviction he brings to every moment. The admirable approach had it limits, though. Carter himself saw it at the time.

“Being successful, the difference is that you have to do a lot more,” Carter told Spin around the time Bikini Red was released. “Instead of doing twenty shows, you tour for six months. I didn’t expect that when we started out. And it burns you out, giving one hundred percent. You pay sooner or later.”

The Screaming Blue Messiahs’ payment came due not that much later. They released one more studio album in 1989, the underwhelming Totally Religious. The album tanked so quickly and thoroughly that the band’s label effectively pulled it from release just a few weeks after it came out. Shortly thereafter, the label dropped the band altogether. The Screaming Blue Messiahs subsequently broke up, playing their last show together in the summer of 1990.

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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