College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #71 to #69

71. Eurythmics, Be Yourself Tonight (1985)

After achieving international pop chart success in the first half of the nineteen-eighties, Eurythmics experienced their first real career stumble with the album 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother). The duo, comprised of multi-instrumentalist David Stewart and vocalist Annie Lennox, were asked to provide the soundtrack to a calendar-synched screen adaptation of George Orwell’s most famous work. After initial reluctance, they took the gig, unaware that the film’s director, Michael Radford, wasn’t particularly interested in their contributions. The resultant mess overshadowed the striking experimentalism of the material the pair created and arguably contributed to both the album’s relatively tepid critical response and its outright commercial rejection. There were other strains and setbacks in play at the time, notably the dissolution of Lennox’s short-lived marriage to German Hare Krishna adherent Radha Raman, Stewart’s growing interest in outside projects, and the monkey’s paw wish that is fame itself. Years later, Stewart acknowledged that the discomfort of the moment affected his creative decisions.

“In the early days of Eurythmics, I took almost complete control,” Dave Stewart told Melody Maker. “Then two-thirds of the way through, I got less and less control, partly because so many thing were happening and partly because Annie lost her confidence in me. She got worried that she was just doing what I was saying. And I got paranoid ’cause I know I can be like that, so I just backed off. Around the time of Be Yourself Tonight, I just said, ‘Right, that’s it, I’m just part of a band.'”

Perhaps inspired in part by that regiment loosening, Be Yourself Tonight is a more freewheeling affair than preceding Eurythmics efforts. The icy electronica is largely shunted aside in favor of sounds grounded in classic rock and R&B. “Would I Lie to You?,” the album’s lead single and standout track, calls back to the horn-fueled hits pressed by Motown and Stax. Lennox was reportedly initial wary of the new direction, but her powerhouse voice has rarely seemed more perfectly in place than cascading along on the cut’s deep-set groove, delivering the lines “I’ve packed my bags/ I’ve cleaned the floor/ Watch me walkin’/ Walkin’ out the door” with an scalding assurance. Elsewhere on the album, she trades lyrics with guest Aretha Franklin on “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” indisputably proving herself as one of the few humans on the planet at the time who could go note to note with the Queen of Soul.

Franklin’s appearance isn’t the instance of Eurythmics opening to studio door to a renowned new collaborator. Stevie Wonder puffs away at his harmonica on the vibrant “There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)” (it’s a sort of sorcery that Lennox makes the lyric “I walk into an empty room/ And suddenly my heart goes ‘boom!'” actually work), and Elvis Costello is a duet partner on “Adrian.” The latter is one of the rare instances of Eurythmics sounding utterly drab on record. “Better to Have Lost in Love (Than Never to Have Loved At All)” is the opposite of that, piling in a lot of sonic wild wanderings. Even then, Lennox blazes to the forefront of the song, completely commanding in her tone, phrasing, and personality.

In the U.S., Be Yourself Tonight reestablished Eurythmics in the marketplace. “Would I Lie to You?” became an MTV staple and brought the band back to the Billboard Top 5. The album registered enough sales to earn a double platinum designation, the only Eurythmics studio album to achieve that status.

70. The Cars, Heartbeat City (1984)

After speeding along at a headlong pace, the Cars pulled off the track for a bit. Beginning with their their 1978 self-titled debut, the Boston band released one album per year through the 1981 hit Shake It Up. After four straight LPs and lengthy tours to back them up, a break was needed. The various members went off to other projects, of which solo debut of frontman Ric Ocasek, Beatitude, was the most prominent. By the time they reconvened, it was time for the Cars to change gears. For the first time, they didn’t bring in Roy Thomas Baker to produce, instead turning the boards over to Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who was coming off of Def Leppard’s slick smash Pyromania. Lange’s inclination toward music that gleams like hard candy was firmly abetted by the Cars’ unembarrassed pursuit of chart success and the keyboardist Greg Hawkes’s newfound enthusiasm for the programming possibilities of his Fairlight CMI. Everything channeled together to make Heartbeat City, the fifth album from the Cars, a work of start-of-the-art pop music.

The album opens with “Hello Again,” a cut that’s both a proper reintroduction and an indication of new trails being blazed. The gleaming synths and electronically tweaked vocal bits make it sound like new wave taken to its absolute pinnacle. That’s a mere warmup, however, for the song that opens the flip side: “You Might Think” is like a new wave song created in a lab under demanding strictures not seen since the Manhattan Project. Released as a single and promoted with a music video packed full of visual tricks, “You Might Think” got played on MTV with a regularity rivaled only by the top-of-the-hour astronaut bumper. Anyone around in the spring of 1984 would be forgiven for assuming the song topped the Billboard chart. Instead, it peaked at #7, right behind Rick Springfield’s ”Love Somebody.” Still, Top 10 placement is plenty impressive, and the Cars were confident there was a lot more radio play to be had.

“There should be four or five singles off the record,” Ocasek told the Associated Press a few months after the release of Heartbeat City. “The most we’ve had off a single was three, off our first. Most of the records had two.”

Ocasek’s prediction held. Four singles were pulled from the album, including the shimmery “Magic.” At the time his comments were printed, the album’s third single, “Drive,” had just crossed into the Top 40. A melancholy ballad sung by bassist Benjamin Orr that generates real emotional weight largely through the directness and cunning repetitiveness of the lyrics (“Who’s gonna pick you up when you fall?/ Who’s gonna hang it up when you call?/ Who’s gonna pay attention to your dreams?/ Yeah, who’s gonna plug their ears when you scream?”), the track made it into the Top 5 and stands as the highest-charting single in the band’s repertoire.

There are examples of the Cars trying out some slightly darker tones on the album, such as “Looking for Love,” which apes Lou Reed, and “Why Can’t I Have You,” which sounds a little like a ragged bar band trying their hand at Roxy Music seduction. It’s the hits that stick, though. Listening to Heartbeat City, the tempting conclusion is that it represents the band expanding their pop-rock artisan sensibility as big as it could get. Certainly, the follow-up album, 1987’s Door to Door, was the equivalent to a deflating balloon and was received accordingly by critics and music fans alike. Around six months after the release of that album, the band formally announced their break-up.

69. Bangles, All Over the Place (1984)

“It was like having a baby,” guitarist Vicki Peterson said of All Over the Place, the debut LP by the Bangles. “We had the conception. We went through the morning sickness of writing these songs and rehearsing them. We fought with our producer during recording — labor. Labor took a long time, and we finally delivered. It was very much like that. It was very painful and very wonderful.”

There was a pretty lengthy run-up to that conception, too. The Bangles had their origins in a pair of classified ads in a 1980 issue of the Los Angeles alternative weekly newspaper The Recycler. Both ads sought musicians interested in being part of an all-female rock band. One of the ads was placed by Susanna Hoffs, who subsequently decided to call the number in the other ad where she received only a single response. Maybe combining forces on this shared vision was the way to go. She was right. Vicki Peterson was on the other end of the line, and soon the band was coming together. Vicki’s drummer sister, Debbi, took another spot in the lineup, and after a bit of a revolving door in the bassist role, seasoned player joined the quartet. Along the way, the band was known as the Colour and the Bangs, the latter running them afoul of another band with the same name. A sound engineer noted the women’s shared affinity for the Beatles in providing an elegantly simple solution for one last renaming for the group.

The Bangles had already experiences some false starts by the time they were signed by Columbia Records and sent off to record the first full-length, including multiple releases of an EP, each by labels with shaky financial footing. Columbia had no shortage of resources and paired the band with David Kahne, impresario of San Francisco label 415 Records who had producing cultishly beloved minor hits by, among others, Romeo Void and Translator. The Bangles played jangly tunes influenced by nineteen-sixties pop music, making them prime moved in the Paisley Underground scene then dominant in Los Angeles rock clubs. Kahne knew how to make that retro material sound modern. All Over the Place is filled with songs the Bangles wrote, but the included cover of a song called “Live,” originally a minor hit for Los Angeles band the Merry-Go-Round in 1967 probably offers the clearest expression of the band’s creative voice at the time. “Going Down to Liverpool,” nicked from Katrina and the Waves, can be entered into evidence as exhibit B.

First calling out the borrowed tunes isn’t meant to imply that the Bangles weren’t otherwise ready and already impressive. They surely were. The album is packed start to finish with pristinely perfect pop songs, led by cheeky, fiercely appealing opener “Hero Takes a Fall.” Hoffs is on lead vocals for that, as the sly allure of her phrasing already signaling that she was bound to be band’s breakout star. But Hoffs was not officially the lead vocalist. Later on, the majority of music fans simply believed that to be the case. The Bangles passed the main microphone around, and that egalitarian approach is clearer on All Over the Place than any of their subsequent albums. Debbi Peterson is the main singer on the two previously mentioned covers, and Vicki Peterson handles that chore on the squawky guitar–rattled “Silent Treatment” and “Restless,” which recalls the meatier offerings of Jefferson Airplane. Hoffs takes lead on the “James”and trades off with Vicki on the vibrant “Tell Me.” More than most acts at the time, the Bangles comes across as a collective where everyone is contributing equally.

All Over the Places was only a modest success commercially, but it definitely got the attention of critics. This was a band to celebrate and there was eager anticipation to find out what they’d do next. As it happened, what they did next was become great big stars.

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