College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #86 to #84

86. INXS, Listen Like Thieves (1985)

Chris Thomas introduced himself to INXS by telling them they were recording their music all wrong. When the Australian band played the Palladium in Los Angeles during the tour to support their 1984 album, The Swing, Thomas came backstage and told them that he thought their songs were strong, pointed to their effectiveness in the live setting as proof. He told them them to bring all the equipment they used in concert into the studio, set it up exactly the way they would on stage, and play.

“When we went into the control room and listened to what he was doing, suddenly there was this whole different animal coming from the speakers,” guitarist Andrew Farriss recalled years later. “He was recording us playing live. He wanted the bleed. He wanted things to run into each other. He wanted that sound. And I immediately recognized the warmth in the sound.”

A seasoned producer of multiple artists, including recent work with the Pretenders that was considered vital to that band’s significant success, Thomas was a coveted collaborator, and INXS knew an opportunity when it was in front of them. They secured his services to preside over their fifth studio album, Listen Like Thieves. The choice proved transformative.

On Listen Like Thieves, INXS decisively moves from a perpetually promising act that never quite settled into a defined identity to assured slingers of tight rock slickened up with a keen pop sensibility. Thomas clearly knew how to channel their creative energies, an instinct the included astutely assessing that the essentially finished album could use one more ear-catching tune and sorting through the shards of partially crafted riffs and ideas to find the riff that practically demanded further attention. Through his urging, Farriss and frontman Michael Hutchence took that funky cool guitar part and fleshed it out to the dizzyingly infectious “What You Need,” which became the album’s lead single and the band’s breakthrough hit. The very last cut completed for the album more or less served as the touchpoint for all the music INXS crafted form there on in.

Maybe because it took until that add-on track for every element of the collaboration between INXS and Thomas to lock in like a deadbolt, there are still some vestiges of the band’s more fitfully productive wanderings on the record. The song “Listen Like Thieves” is a little like Duran Duran attempting to catch the ear of Miami Vice music supervisors, which is still pretty good, and “Good + Bad Times,” is one or two stutter steps away from John Parr’s chest-puffing, woefully empty AOR bombast, which is several notches below pretty good. Another example of INXS toying with someone else’s aesthetic, perhaps inadvertently, is the U2-adjacent “Red Red Sun.” The old habits are faint, though, and fairly easily shaken off elsewhere on the album. “Kiss the Dirt (Falling Down the Mountain)” is smoothly swingy, and “Same Direction” couples a thumpy dance groove with flares of squalling guitar, both sounding utterly unique to INXS. “This Time” might be the strongest track on Listen Like Thieves. It has airtight construction, crisp playing, and vocals by Hutchence that soar and dip for maximum emotional impact. Like “What You Need,” it foretells triumphs to come.

And there were absolutely artistic and commercial triumphs in the offing. Emboldened by the progress they made with Thomas, INXS would stick with the producer for the next few years. Their very next collaboration didn’t just build on the success of Listen Like Thieves; it far surpassed it.

85. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984)

It might have been the ban that did it. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Liverpool-based band assembled primarily by vocalist Holly Johnson, reached enormous levels of popularity in the U.K. at the very beginning of their career. They joined Gerry and the Pacemakers as the only acts to that point that managed to top the British charts with their first three singles (a little more that a decade later, Spice Girls outdid them both by driving their first six singles to that pinnacle position) and for a small stretch occupied both the #1 and #2 position, a feat previously achieved by only the Beatles and former Beatle John Lennon. Frankie Goes to Hollywood were already on the charts and making the regular rounds of the British pop promotional cycle, including an appearance on Top of the Pops, when BBC 1 DJ Mike Read suddenly suddenly noticed that the lyrics of their first single, “Relax,” were pretty smutty: “Relax, don’t do it/ When you want to suck it, chew it/ Relax, don’t do it/ When you want to come.” Read alerted his superiors and the record was banned from all BBC outlets within days. The resulting attention and official imprimatur of danger conferred to the record propelled it to the literal top of the pops, where it stayed for five weeks.

The whole kerfuffle around “Relax” and its subsequent transformation into a monumental hit happened in January of 1984, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood were U.K. chart mainstays for much of the rest of that year. (“Relax” was a Top 10 hit in the U.S., but it was their only foray into the Billboard Top 40). When the group’s debut studio album, Welcome to the Pleasuredome, was released in October, it was said to have advance U.K. sales over one million, an enormous amount in a country where three hundred thousand units moved is enough to secure platinum record status. Before it even officially hit record store shelves, the album was a blockbuster.

In its various trappings, Welcome to the Pleasuredome feels like a blockbuster, too. It’s a double album, a real rarity for band’s debut, and each side is given its own subtitle: Pray Frankie Pray, Say Frankie Say, Stay Frankie Stay, and Play Frankie Play. The album even opens like its presenting a tremendous theatrical event. The entire first side is given over entirely to the ornately odd intro “The World Is My Oyster (Including Well, Snatch of Fury)” proceeding straight into the epic disco cut “Welcome to the Pleasuredome.” Then listeners flip the record to get to the track many of them plunked down their dollars or pounds to get, the slightly retitled “Relax (Come Fighting).” Twenty minutes in, the album is already a whirligig of dance-pop potency.

The sprawl of the album is notable, even as it occasionally undercuts the effectiveness of the finished product. The two other U.K. chart-toppers are present:“Two Tribes (For the Victims of the Ravishment)” is a propulsive protest song inspired by the Falklands War, and “The Power of Love” is lushly dramatic. “Wish the Lads Were Here” is airy and buoyant, and “Black Night White Night” comes across as a more grandly garish version of what Fleetwood Mac was up to at about the same time. Of the lesser cuts, if the “Rapture”-like rap on “The Only Star in Heaven” is a little clunky, Frankie Goes to Hollywood is hardly the sole or worst offender among pop acts when it comes to that sort of misjudged genre hop. Some of the newly devoted faithful were especially disappointed by the band’s tactic of using covers to help flesh out the track list, but sometimes it works, as with their almost comically excessive take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” The complaint of padding is fairer when leveled at “War (…and Hide),” a version of the song originally performed by the Temptations and made into a hit by Edwin Starr. It adds a Reagan impersonator delivering a long spoken word bit, tilting the track fully into the realm of novelty.

In addition to the borrowed material, there were other questions about how much of Welcome to the Pleasuredome was authentically of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The act was one of the first Trevor Horn signed to his label, ZTT Records, and he produced the album, reportedly tossing out some of the band’s instrumental performances to replace them with new takes by studio musicians. The band did play on every track of their follow-up, 1986’s Liverpool, but Frankiemania had faded by the then. The album and its singles garnered dwindling attention, and the band imploded. Frankie Goes to Hollywood officially broke short after the conclusion of the tour in support of that sophomore album.

84. Simple Minds, Once Upon a Time (1985)

Somewhat unexpectedly, there was a lot riding on Once Upon a Time, the seventh studio album from Simple Minds. The Scottish band had made steady commercial progress across their first six albums, and then a soundtrack gig for hire changed everything. “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” the centerpiece song from John Hughes’s film The Breakfast Club, was a worldwide smash, including a stay on the top of the chart in the U.S. They didn’t write that song and Jim Kerr, Simple Minds’ frontman, wasn’t hesitant to share his distaste for it. For example, right around the time the single was reaching its impressive chart peak, Kerr recounted some of it lyrics to a Los Angeles Times reporter and added, “They sound pretty inane to me.”

Even so, an opportunity was an opportunity, and Simple Minds were ambitious. They worked with ace producers Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain on Once Upon a Time and truly dedicated themselves to honing the material. They didn’t try to duplicate the smooth simplicity of the hit, but there’s definitely a sense that they’ve tightened up the swelling rock excess of previous albums. If the cuts on the album aren’t exactly brisk pop numbers, they do seem to be built with album rock radio in mind. “Come a Long Way” is muscular with vibrant tones, and “Alive and Kicking” is big and accessible at the same time. Maybe the best example of the unique alchemy that makes a song intimately epic is “Sanctify Yourself,” which has the sort of vaguely politicized lyrics that were already the speciality of Midnight Oil: “Is this the age of the thunder and rage/ Can you feel the ground move ’round your feet?/ If you take one step closer, it’ll lead to another/ The crossroad above is where we meet.”

Like a lot of Simple Minds records, Once Upon a Time occasionally feels redundant. The group builds walls of soaring sound and can’t quite find an exit to different tones. That makes the instances that shift the mode — the nicely insinuating “All the Things She Said” and the Edge-y guitar chug of “Ghost Dancing” — all the more effective.

Once Upon a Time delivered for Simple Minds. It was their first Top 10 album in the U.S. and three of its singles made the Billboard Top 40. For the moment, music fans saw them as more than their defining hit. They were a big rock band, and they achieved that status on their own terms. Sure, they still needed to play that song that someone else wrote. Audiences would cheer for these Simples Minds songs, too

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s