College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #80 to #78

80. That Petrol Emotion, Babble (1987)

Following the breakup of his band the Undertones, guitarist John O’Neill initially thought he was done with the music business. The punk group’s splitting had been acrimonious, in part because he and his brother and bandmate, Damian O’Neill, grew interested in writing more complicated songs than the punk bruisers that built the group’s reputation and fan base. John O’Neill moved back to him hometown of Derry, Ireland and secure a factory job to secure a steady paycheck. After a few months, though, the familiar itch to be part of the music scene started up again, and he attempted to scratch it by opening a club he termed an “alternative disco” with childhood friend Raymond O’Gorman. Instead of sating their appetite, playing new records in the cub made O’Neill want to strap on his guitar again. With O’Gorman, a fellow guitarist who previously played with local band Bam Bam and the Calling, O’Neill started assembling a crew. Naturally, Damian O’Neill wanted in, and was eager enough to switch from guitar to bass. With fellow local lad Ciaran McLaughlin added as a drummer, the foursome relocated to London where they came upon their lead singer, a Seattle native named Steve Mack who’d impulsively relocated to Europe shortly before graduating college, vague aspirations of playing in a band pinging in his noggin. Borrowing the title of a song from O’Gorman’s former band, this new group was called That Petrol Emotion.

Babble, That Petrol Emotion’s second album and first to be released in the U.S., is a fine representation of the instincts that stirred the band into being. There’s an inner forcefulness that’s a vestige of their punk rock beginnings, and it’s combined with exploratory wandering that does really suggest a DJ riffling through their record crate to find precisely the right hard but logical turn to keep the dance floor active. The dynamic is further enlivened by a politicized sensibility that brings more complex ideas into the lyrics. “Big Decision,” the album’s lead single, is essentially a call to action built on a chunky riff, assessing the state of the world with ire (“Economies gets weaker/ Reactionaries stronger/ As they get satisfaction on their knees”). For good measure, it ends with a rap breakdown.

At times on the record, That Petrol Emotion approach abrasion. “Static” has a synthesized rhythm part that’s like a gremlin sawing on a nerve, and “Creeping to the Cross” presents a mild version of industrial pop. They test the listener a different way with the frantic, sound effect-speckled “Split!” The prevailing vibe to the music is raise-the-roof power rendered with variety, whether the murky groove of “Swamp” or the jingly dirge “Inside.”

That Petrol Emotion didn’t confine the political statements to the lyrics of some of the songs. The inner sleeve to Babble included a detailed diatribe against the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a U.K. law used to trample on citizens engaged in protest, especially if those citizen were Irish. In some interviews, That Petrol Emotion explained their name as the impulse to fight against corrupt structures that reaches such intensity that hurling a Molotov cocktail seems the only reasonable response. The text piece included with Babble‘s packaging clarifies preciely why that destructive impulse might arise.

79. Violent Femmes, The Blind Leading the Naked (1986)

Violent Femmes insisted that they would only record in their home base of Milwaukee, a reasonable preference that absolutely baffled their record company. For the band’s third album, those perplexed record executives engaged in highly linear thinking, casting about for a producer whose mail was delivered to the same ZIP Code. Because Violent Femmes were on Slash Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., the handiest individual was Jerry Harrison, a Milwaukee native who was the keyboardist for Sire Records act Talking Heads. Those music biz honchos were surely further encouraged by the fact that Harrison was coming off of Little Creatures, the first Talking Heads album to crack the Billboard Top 10. Although he was a strong contributor to studio decisions for Talking Heads records, Harrison had little experience at the time producing other acts. Violent Femmes’ third album, The Blind Leading the Naked, represented his first solo producing credit on a nationally released LP.

Harrison was an awkward fit from the start. Brian Ritchie, Violent Femmes’ bassist, later claimed that Harrison didn’t particularly like the band’s music when he took on the project. It’s difficult to discern how much that played into the way the material landed on the album, because Violent Femmes were in one of the stylistic swerves that were typical of their early career. Following the sheet-staining angst of their revered, self-titled debut, the band made Hallowed Ground, an album that skewed towards spooky rural folk. Except for the inescapable similarities attributable to band’s personnel — the reedy, nasally lead vocals of Gordon Gano, the shuffling, scuffling rhythms Victor DeLorenzo plays on his trademark washtub and drum contraption — The Blind Leading the Naked doesn’t really sound like either of its predecessors. The shift is arguably most noticeable on the two cuts that served as singles: the boisterous, horn-blasted song of thwarted passion “I Held Her in My Arms”and a lumpy cover of T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.”

The rest of the album plays like a hodgepodge of half-made decisions. Because Violent Femmes tend to be interesting no matter the compromise, the messiness of the record isn’t necessarily bad. The album opens with the splendidly obnoxious “Old Mother Reagan,” thirty blazing seconds of acoustic protest punk aimed at the U.S. First Lady at the time (“Old Mother Reagan/ She’s so dumb! She’s so dangerous!”). “Breakin’ Hearts” is galloping with a touch of twang, and “Cold Canyon” bursts with vivid energy. As usual, Gano dominates in the songwriting, but the rockabilly-adjacent “Love & Me Make Three” is credited to all three band members and gives Ritchie a rare turn on lead vocals. Much as the album is its own beast, it does evoke preceding Violent Femmes efforts at times. “No Killing” is like an urbanized version of the second album’s country death songs, with a special ire directed at the instincts toward brutality of law enforcement (“And there’s evil/ Disguised as good”). The protest is plain enough that the lyrics specifically call out the Milwaukee police, a rare instance of Violent Femmes explicitly grounding a song in their concerns of their hometown. They’re less successful going back further; “Good Friend” is a lackluster attempt at recapturing the anxious yearning that drove their debut.

After they completed the tour in support of The Blind Leading the Naked, Violent Femmes went their separate way for a bit. They’d been going nonstop since at least the CBGB gig that led directly to them getting signed and recording their debut a few years earlier. They all had side projects they wanted to work on, and the status of the band was highly uncertain. Sometimes the press reporting the move as a hiatus and sometimes as a dissolution. The status was fluid enough that it was a shock to most college programmers when a fourth album, entitled 3, arrived in early 1989. Something of a back-to-basics affair, the album was it was a happy surprise indeed.

78. The Replacements, Tim (1985)

A band newly signed to Sire Records was finishing off a set of West Coast concert dates and the show they were booked to play at the Hollywood Palace was considered a de facto showcase performance for personnel who worked out of the label’s Burbank office. That should have been a fairly mundane situation. Instead, a staffer took it upon himself to draft an interoffice communication that served as a sort of warning. It read:

Dangerous band to see ‘blind.’ Some preparation necessary for the faint hearted, but will leave an impression nonetheless. Those that find them abrasive live will at least find them genuine. I don’t know, however, how long the charm of their drunken, devil-may-care personae will last.

That’s how a sizable portion of the Warner Music family were introduced to the Replacements. For any other act, that would be the most telling story associated with a jump to a major label. Not these Minneapolis hooligans, though. The bit of lore that’s even more revealing is that when presented with a contract that included the line “The artist will seriously pursue its career,” the word “seriously” was crossed out before the Replacements would sign.

The Replacements had several songs ready for their major label debut and had recorded demo versions of many of them during sessions where production duties were handled by Alex Chilton. The former Big Star member was a clear creative forebear of Paul Westerberg, frontman and chief songwriter of the Replacements, so the pairing had a heaven-sent logic to it. Everyone liked what the band put down on tape with Chilton, but he was quickly ruled out for the producer title on the actual release. The Replacements cast around a bit before quickly settling on Thomas Erdelyi, the founding drummer with the Ramones who’d stuck around as their producer on a couple of their albums after hanging up his sticks. In fact, he was coming off of producing Too Tough to Die, the 1984 album that was widely regarded as something of a return to form for the kings of Queens. That album has exactly the raw yet polished sound that the band — particular Westerberg — were looking for as they stutter-stepped into a brighter, wider spotlight.

The album that resulted, Tim, is a nearly ideal meeting of ramshackle and professional, serious and goofy, poignant and bratty. The album feels off the cuff and expertly made at the same time, which is pretty much the Westerberg template at its most effective. The band bangs out splendid, roughly hewn rock songs, led by immediate all-timers “Hold My Life” and “Bastards of Young.” The most resonant tone on the album, though, is one of wounded melancholy, a quality Westerberg had been giving more ground to, inch by inch, ever since the shockingly heartfelt “Within Your Reach” pierced the hardcore outcast mischief that otherwise dominated the 1983 album Hootenany. With sterling empathy, “Little Mascara” tells the story of a woman stuck in a loveless relationship (“All you ever wanted was someone to take care of ya/ All you’re ever losin’ is a little mascara”) and “Left of the Dial” demonstrates a real yearning as it cites staticky broadcasts on the noncommercial chunk of the FM band in singing of missed connections (“Passin’ through and it’s late, the station started to fade/ Picked another one up in the very next state”). Even the larks have greater weight, whether the satiric swipe at lousy airline passengers “Waitress in the Sky” (a tribute to Westerberg’s sister, Julie, who strutted up the aisle for Northwest Airlines) or the mass transit–based courting of “Kiss Me on the Bus” (“Your tongue, your transfer/ Your hand, your answer”).

Two of the album’s most effective songs are ballads that essentially address the band’s reputation as boozy disasters. There’s a jazzy swoon to “Swingin Party” as Westerberg sings of trepidation for facing the rigors of social expectation, at least without a buzz (“Bring your own lampshade/ Somewhere there’s a party/ Here it’s never ending/ Can’t remember when it started”). The album closes with “Here Comes a Regular,” maybe the most evocative song in Westerberg’s repertoire. He captures the deadening feel of a life overly devoted to drink with the opening stanza “Well a person can work up a mean mean thirst/ After a hard day of nothin’ much at all/ Summer’s passed, it’s too late to cut the grass/ There ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall.” That just for starters. The whole cut plays like the college rock version of William Kennedy’s Ironweed or some other novel of alcoholic lassitude and rot.

If the album closes with a strikingly mature assessment of the dead-end choice of prioritizing delinquency over all else, that wasn’t a sign that the Replacements had abandoned their notoriously self-destructive ways. The tour in support of the album included as much roughhousing as ever (“There were bigger PAs and more expensive microphones to break, and nicer wedges to pour drinks into,” soundman Monty Lee Wilkes later recalled). Included in those infractions against audiences was an appearance on Saturday Night Live where they were obviously blasted. Like the record label’s alarmist memo noted, they left an impression.

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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