College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #68 to #66

68. The Bongos, Numbers with Wings (1983)

The Hoboken, New Jersey band the Bongos spent years toiling away without much attention from the music industry at large. They’d manage to release music on a couple small labels, including the U.K. outlet Fetish Records and their own home state’s PVC Records. It was the latter that issued Drums Along the Hudson, which was a little bit of a studio album and a little bit of a compilation of early singles. Despite being something of an assemblage, it plays like a cohesive statement by an exciting act with a unique command of pop rock. It was adored in all the cooler quarters, including college radio, and RCA Records signed the band. Richard Barone, the Bongos’ frontman, told music writers at the time that they bed had been waiting for just that sort of opportunity before going into the studio again, insisting they had some prime material ready to go. Did they ever.

For their first sessions under the major label deal, the group was teamed with producer Richard Gottehrer, who’d demonstrated something of a magic touch a couple years earlier when he presided over Beauty and the Beat, the hit debut album by the Go-Go’s. The band worked through a few songs, but the clear standout was “Numbers with Wings,” which managed to feel intimate and robust at the same time. The label was excited enough to hustle it quickly into the marketplace, making it the lead track and title cut for an EP (or mini-LP, depending of how parameters are considered) that was pushed hard to radio and on MTV. It became one of those songs that feels like a seminal hit of the nineteen-eighties despite never making headway on any Billboard chart.

There are only five songs to Numbers with Wings, but that doesn’t prevent the release from coming across as fully realized. It contained the Bongos’ first recording with guitarist Jim Mastro, who been part of their touring ensemble for a while, and everything really does seem to be fuller and richer than before with the additional instrumentation, whether the shivery “Barbarella” or the cool prowl of “Skydiving.” Showing their range in a fashion proper to the time, the Bongos close out the record with the slick ballad “Sweet Blue Cage.”

If the Bongos didn’t exactly explode into the culture, RCA Records bosses were satisfied with the initial return on the investment. They saw a whole lot of possibility in this act. For the band’s next outing, a proper full-length debut for the label, the Bongos would be given ample resources to realize their art.

67. Let’s Active, Afoot (1983)

R.E.M. needed a support act, and Mitch Easter, one of their favored producers at the moment, was interested in spending some time creating on the other side of the studio board. He was dating bassist Faye Hunter, so they easily fell into playing music together. Some two weeks before a promised gig opening for R.E.M. at a club in Atlanta, they welcomed seventeen-year-old drummer Sara Romweber into the group. They took the name Let’s Active from a Japanese t-shirt rendered in fault English and spent some time touring with R.E.M. before being inked to a deal by I.R.S. Records, where execs were secure partnerships with anyone associated with their flagship act.

Let’s Active prepped a handful of songs for their debut EP, Afoot. Because Easter ran a studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, getting some recordings together would surely be easy, all assumed. That theory was undone by the steady stream of college rock–inclined acts booking time in the space in hopes of catching some of the magic that made R.E.M.’s debut album, Murmur, a small sensation.

“When we recorded that EP, we literally had to schedule a week for ourselves in the studio between all the other projects going on there,” Easter told Billboard not long after. “I couldn’t get into my own place!”

On evidence of the record, the tight schedule might have been to the band’s benefit. Afoot has a punchy immediacy that was one of the defining traits of foundational college rock. “Every Word Means No” is thick and punchy, and “Room with a View” has a little of Blondie’s post-punk pop exploration to it, an impression helped by Hunter sharing lead vocal duties with the usual frontman Easter. There are hints of Easter’s inclination towards psychedelia on the EP. “In Between” is reminiscent of the Soft Boys’ merging of nineteen-sixties swirl and nineteen-seventies punk. Coming across like a less ornate version of what XTC might make when moonlighting as the Dukes of Stratosphear, “Make Up with Me” might be the one cut that suggests a little more time could have resulted in more complex material that, quite frankly, probably have sounded far less urgent.

The trio would have more time afforded for them to record their full-length debut, Cypress, the following year. Other issues were developing, though. That LP would be the last for Let’s Active in its founding form.

66. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Peepshow (1988)

“We never really wanted to break up, but it was touch and go for a while,” Siouxsie and the Banshees drummer Budgie said shortly after the release of Peepshow, the band’s ninth studio album. “We just gave ourselves a year to see if we wanted to continue together and, if so, what direction we wanted to go in. We knew we couldn’t just put out Banshees hats on and let the next thing happen.”

Following the ambitious project Tinderbox, Siouxsie and the Banshees initially bided their time with the covers album Through the Looking Glass before that hiatus. The ultimate solution to their creative malaise was to upend the band’s lineup, a strategy that had worked well for them in the past. Frontwoman Siouxsie Sioux, bassist Steven Severin, and Budgie were the mainstays, and they welcomed guitarist Jon Klein and keyboardist Martin McCarrick, the latter of whom had a few additional instruments in his repertoire. One of those was an accordion, which the band would have surely considered an unlikely addition to any of their songs when they sprung out of the U.K. punk scene around a decade earlier. For the new era, that squeezebox represented exactly the freewheeling experimentation the group wanted to pursue. In one instance, the band took an audio snippet from their cover of John Cale’s “Gun” that appeared on Through the Looking Glass and played it backward to create a unique rhythm track. Atop that, they added a one-note bass line, additional drumming, discordant guitar, and what can only be described as a blazing accordion riff. With Siouxsie Sioux singing the hell out of jaggedly odd lyrics (“They’re sneaking out the back door/ She gets up from all fours/ Rhinestone fools and silver dollars/ Curdle into bitter tears”), the resulting cut is vibrantly intoxicating. Titled “Peek-a-Boo,” the track was released as the lead single for Peepshow and became a smash on college radio. It also became the first song to top the brand new Billboard Modern Rock tracks chart and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first single to make the same publication’s Hot 100.

If nothing else on Peepshow is quite as arresting as “Peek-a-Boo,” the whole album is impressive. It handily achieves the goal of preserving what the group had done previously while polishing it up for a new era. It benefits from the era’s studio advances without being smothered by them. The album’s second track, “The Killing Jar,” arguable represented the clearest transition from past to the present because its lilting goth gets more intense at the song proceeds. “Carousel” is quietly anxious and edgy, “Burn-Up” chugs along with headlong energy, and “Turn to Stone” swirls with contained intensity. “Rawhead and Bloody Bones” unfolds like a terrifying nursery rhyme meant to keep children in line with its overwhelming sense of menace (“Reaching from/ Dark cupboard/ Crouching under stair/ Lurking in chimney/ Pond or well”). “The Last Beat of My Heart” is essentially the Siouxsie and the Banshees version of swelling pop ballad, for better or worse. Album closer “Rhapsody” settles in a similar mode more impressively, becoming a little epic that approaches lush Kate Bush wondrousness.

Across Peepshow, the act that was supposedly on the verge of calling it quits instead sounds thrillingly revived. For a time, it seemed that could ride that momentum from Peepshow forever. The band’s next album, 1991’s Superstition, even spawned a Billboard Top 40 hit and helped land them prime placement on the soundtrack to most anticipated blockbuster movie sequel of 1992. It wasn’t destined to last, but the brief era of Siouxsie and the Banshees as more broadly accepted pop icons was downright glorious.

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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