College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #74 to #72

74. Hoodoo Gurus, Mars Needs Guitars! (1985)

After A&M Records blundered through the North American release of Stoneage Romeos, the debut album by Australia’s Hoodoo Gurus, the band and their homeland label, Big Time Records, initially decided to take matters into their own hands with the follow-up. At the time, the Big Time execs were starting to see college rock as a fertile genre for their aspirations to becoming a global brand, an eagerness for expansion that would soon result in a serious overextension of their resources by signing a multitude of acts, including the Dream Syndicate, the Lucy Show, and Redd Kross. Based on the quick left-of-the-dial embrace of Hoodoo Gurus, the band from closer to home could serve as the flagship, and their sophomore album, Mars Needs Guitars! was a fine way to test those choppy waters.

Hoodoo Gurus are in proper form on Mars Needs Guitars!, taking a hint of nineteen-sixties influence and giving it a booster shot of modernity with propulsive playing and cheeky humor. They blaze through updated surf rock on “Like Wow — Wipeout” and bring a Ramones-like jolt to “In the Wild.” The chunky title cut is like vintage acid rock all spruced up. Fresh as it all sounds, Hoodoo Gurus were basically aligned with a lot of the rock music they heard around them working the club circuit back home. “Death Defying” is an especially fine example of that, sounding like it could have sat comfortable in the middle of the playlist on any Hunters and Collectors record. To their credit, Hoodoo Gurus set themselves apart from their peers with the fiery certainty on their craft on Mars Needs Guitars! They’re even able to inject that energy into songs that consider somber topics, such as the breakup lament “Poison Pen,” which is bouncy and sly (“‘Dear John,’ so begins a famous old story/ ‘Goodbye / au revoir / thanks for the memory’/ Keep it short and sweet if you really care”).

In the midst of that punchy rock ‘n’ roll goodness, Hoodoo Gurus also manage some impressively heartfelt songs. “Bittersweet” swells and shudders as it considers love gone wrong with a sharp metaphor (“We’ve grown and times change/ When we meet now it feels so strange/ Well, I hold you like a sword/ And you won’t cut me, cut me like you did before”), and mid-tempo twanger “The Other Side of Paradise” forecasts the delicate balance of maudlin and truthful that would inspire sympathetic swaying before alt-country bands around one generation later (“I took my love out for a walk into the rain/ The time had come when we should talk things out again”). Enough of the album is imbued with a sense of rascally play that those emotional potent stretches hit like a sucker punch.

If the band’s first album was a success on college radio, Mars Needs Guitars! was a smash in that rarefied realm. It raced to the top of the CMJ chart and stayed there for a good long time. Suddenly, major labels were interested in Hoodoo Gurus again. On the strength of the album’s performance with the undergraduate set, the band was signed to a deal with Elektra Records. Mars Needs Guitars! got a splashy rerelease in the summer of 1986, and Hoodoo Gurus landed the opening slot on the Bangles’ tour in support of Different Light, just as that record was blowing up. Hopes were high that Hoodoo Gurus’ next album would deliver the real breakthrough.

73. Howard Jones, Dream into Action (1985)

“I was in a state of complete panic, because I had nothing at all,” Howard Jones told American Songwriter a few years ago when he was asked about the lead-up to his sophomore album, Dream into Action. “The only thing that I did have was a lot of excitement going on. We were doing huge shows and people were buying the records. Yet I was still panicking that I had to outdo that first album.”

While still touring in support of his debut full-length, Human’s Lib, Jones started feverishly writing. Unlike some creators who find songwriting on the road leads straight to a feeling that they’re running on empty, Jones was energized by the process. He fed off the excitement the growing crowds had for his earlier efforts and sought immediate feedback from his backing band whenever he landed on what felt like a good idea. Overall, he felt emboldened enough that he didn’t feel obligated to seek support from co-songwriters, as he had on the debut. His confidence was well placed. Dream into Action is filled with gleaming, grand pop songs.

Understandingly, several of those songs became solid hits. The swooping “Things Can Only Get Better” is genuinely affecting (“And do you feel scared? I do/ But I won’t stop and falter/ And if we threw it all away/ Things can only get better”), and “Life in One Day” has a touch of the sunny lilt that would make Ziggy Marley a brief sensation a couple years later. “Look Mama” includes a snippet taken from Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in the intro before getting into lyrics about declaring independence from an overprotective parent: “Don’t try to stick your rules on me/ I wasn’t born as a carbon copy/ I came out of you but don’t think you own me/ I have my respect for you.” Maybe the best of the lot is the anguished ballad “No One Is to Blame,” which piles on metaphors to convey the grueling sadness of being enamored with someone who’s already taken: “You can build a mansion, but you just can’t live in it/ You’re the fastest runner but you’re not allowed to win.” It’s cheesy as can be in its romanticized heartache, but then the best pop songs often are.

The songs that served as singles are piled on the first side of the album. The flip is filled with tracks that are maybe less immediately commanding but are fascinating acts of exploration. Even when they’re not wholly successful, as with the numbingly dour ballad “Elegy” (“Oh the pain of life is sweet/ Is it wrong to long for death?”), the material bristles with invention. “Automaton” has percolating electronics and a little flavor of forceful funk, and “Hunger for the Flesh” keeps pace with what Depeche Mode was up to at around that time. “Specialty” ranges wildly, alternately between a sound that goes shoulder to shoulder with Thomas Dolby’s wild explorations and more soaring, elegant pop.

Creatively, it’s debatable whether Jones managed to outdo his fine debut with Dream into Action. In the U.S., he clearly managed the feat in the album’ commercial performance. The album went platinum and made it into the Top 10 of the Billboard chart. It also delivered three Top 10 singles. There was no need to panic.

72. The Alarm, Strength (1985)

Welsh band the Alarm got a taste of rock stardom with their debut album, Declaration. That was enough to convince the band’s frontman, Mike Peters, to head back to his modest hometown of Rhyl when it was time work on songs for the follow-up release. Less politically inclined than committed to reflecting the concerns of the working class in his art, Peters wanted to recalibrate his perspective to those origins.

“I’ve seen my friends’ dream smashed, I’ve seen them go to jail and lose their jobs,” Peters said at the time. “I’ve seen what these friends have gone through in the same time scale as mine, and I’ve seen them come out of it with good things.”

Up to an including its title, Strength, the Alarm’s sophomore album is meant as testimony to the longing as perseverance he saw all around him. The big, bombastic title cut makes the yearning plain: “Give me love/ Give me hope/ Give me strength/ Give me someone to live for.” Peters and his cohorts are true believers in the power of rock ‘n’ roll to speak for discarded individuals. Strength is good enough to nearly convert the most skeptical to their shared point of view.

The Alarm weren’t alone in their viewpoint, of course, so the band can admittedly seem derivative even at their very best. The U2 comparisons started early and never went away. They’re apt through Strength, with the nod towards clearly kindred bastion of transformative rock music Bruce Springsteen most evident on the vivid, epic “Spirit of ’76.” That’s observation more than complaint when it come to this album, because it probably stands as the closes the Alarm came to establishing themselves as peers of those other artists. “Dawn Chorus” has a tightrope intensity, and “Father to Son” shows just how effectively a skilled band can sell trite lyrics (“Today I can’t find nothing nowhere/ Tomorrow I might find something somewhere”) if they deliver them with thumping conviction. Further proving that last thesis, the Alarm makes “The Day the Ravens Left the Tower” surprisingly solid even as it really is the college rock version of progressive rock. The album closes with “Walk Forever by My Side,” a piano ballad that sounds exactly like anyone would expect it to.

Strength was a solid performer for the Alarm, but their label, I.R.S. Records, believed it could have been even bigger. That belief grew more certain in the next couple years as the sonically simpatico U2 grew into one of the biggest rock bands in the world. When it came time for the Alarm to release their third LP, the corporate craving for commercial riches proved to be a complicating factor.

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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