48. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, I Love Rock ‘n Roll (1981)
“I feel like I’ve paid a lot of dues,” Joan Jett told an Associated Press reporter when the title cut to her sophomore solo LP — and first with backing band the Blackhearts sharing credit — was at the beginning of its seven-week run on top of the Billboard singles chart. “I don’t feel like this is luck. I do really feel like I deserve it. I did work hard and take a lot of abuse. It took very much determination.”
That determination was already embedded in music biz lore. Following the breakup of her band the Runaways, Jett went looking for a label to sign her as a solo artists and endured a string of rejections, some of them downright humiliating (“Epic Records told me due to their high standard, they were unable to sign a person with a voice like mine,” Jett recounted). After she and her producing partner Kenny Laguna struck out on their own with a self-released album that gained fans and stirred admiration, Jett was signed by Boardwalk Records. They released the originally self-titled album as Bad Reputation and supported Jett in making a follow-up. For that second outing, Jett laid out her credo with a cover of a song originally recorded by U.K. band the Arrows in 1975. “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” was thumping, crunchy, and had a punch-to-the-gut simplicity. It fit on Jett like a well-sized guitar strap. It’s such a perfect signature for Jett that she could use it to endorse checks.
Appropriately, the remainder of I Love Rock ‘n Roll is mere reinforcement of the title cut’s thesis. Jett mixes expert covers with kindred originals to make the dive bar jukebox run of any mascara-smeared bruiser’s dreams. Of the borrowed tunes, the murky, muscular take on the Tommy James chart-topper “Crimson and Clover” is best known, reaching the Top 10 in the U.S. The feminist-fury version of sixties soul number “Nag,” originally by the Halos, is a far more formidable demonstration of how Jett could take any damn song she wanted into her firm possession. Even a pass at venerable Christmas classic “Little Drummer Boy,” included initially on album as a nod to its mid-November release date, gives the impression that Jett has planted her flag deep, if only because of the joyful theatricality with which she really rolls her Rs on every “pa rum pum pum pum.”
Much as Jett draws on the established rock ‘n’ roll songbook, she adds to it capably, too. “(I’m Gonna) Run Away” is a glammy gem, and “Be Straight” is a cowriting effort with Greg Kihn, taking the best of his of his guileless retro charm and giving it a good scuffing. “Victim of Circumstance” is fabulously brash and defiant, drawing on her career travails to create an anthem of proud outsider status: “Really gets you down when you don’t belong/ An’ everyone around says you growed up wrong/ But why do they resent it, I ain’t doin’ anything/ They say that I’m demented an’ I never could sing.” The chip-on-shoulder bristle on the track carries a little poignancy with it because the sentiment of the album’s title comes through so clearly. When the gatekeepers of rock ‘n’ roll initially told Jett there was no place for her, they really were keeping her from something she loved.
“I wanted to get up and be able to play on stage,” Jett noted while still in the midst of the massive success enjoyed by I Love Rock ‘n Roll. “I remember saying that when I was at a concert when I was thirteen with my friends and thinking to myself, ‘What would it like to be up there looking out on all these people?’ And I guess being on stage is the most important thing to me. That one hour — that’s so special.”
Jett won out. Although she never did quite reach the commercial high water mark of I Love Rock ‘n Roll, Jett remained a viable, enduring performer. Jett keep getting her sixty minutes or so of stage time with regularity. And she has an honored spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as proof that it all those hours were special for the people on the other side of the amps, too.
47. The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead (1986)
By most accounts, the Smiths felt they needed to galvanize the flagging attention of their homeland music fans. After scraping the edges of the U.K. Top 10 with some of their early singles, most of their prolific output was reaching the faithful and that was about it. The full-length albums sold well — their sophomore LP, Meat Is Murder, topped the U.K. chart — but individual tracks petered out quickly. The band had grand aspirations to match the output and influence of iconic rock acts of the nineteen-sixties, even citing no less than the Rolling Stones as their template for stardom.
“Sure, I want to be popular, but not for any vacant reasons, like I’m hungry to be idolized,” Morrissey, frontman of the Smiths, told The Los Angeles Times. “I just want the Smiths’ records to be heard. If I’m popular, if the Smiths are popular, then people will hear the music.”
To help ensure more people would hear the music, the Smiths courted controversy with the title cut to their third album, The Queen Is Dead. The track features bruising rock music that’s somewhat atypical for the band, based initially on guitarist Johnny Marr’s attempts to emulate the corrosive power of the Stooges. He worked up a fuller version of the tune in an extended jam session with bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. Perhaps sensing that this was the closest the quartet would every come to punk-descended thunder, Morrissey concocted scabrous lyrics that mocked England’s royal family with demeaning comic jabs: “I say, ‘Charles, don’t you ever crave/ To appear on the front of the Daily Mail/ Dressed in your mother’s bridal veil?'” On the same album, Morrissey simultaneously delights in his own impudence and chides the British music press for taking him too seriously on the brightly bounding “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” impishly inviting more criticism of his already notorious grandiosity in the process: “Now I know how Joan of Arc felt/ As the flames rose to her Roman nose/ And her walkman started to melt.” The swoony, jangly “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” is similarly enraptured with Morrissey’s own myth-making tinged with wounded melancholy: “How can they look into my eyes/ And still they don’t believe mw/ How can they hear me say those words/ Still they don’t believe me?”
The stylistic tics of the Smiths were so pronounced that they could almost seem like a put on. Morrissey a cloak of socially persecuted misery and his bandmates’s backed him up with music that was lushly rendered and tingly with moony wonderment. Perhaps no other band in the annals of pop music skirted self-parody so long, so skillfully, and so immediately. By The Queen Is Dead, the group’s artistic personality was unmistakable, and Morrissey fortified it with his other public pronouncements.
“People only think that rock stars can be one kind of person,” he said at the time. “But I want to prove there’s a place in this business for people like me, people who are shy and sensitive. I want to prove that you don’t have to be moronic and silly and macho and flashy and self-absorbed to be a rock star. For heaven’s sake, you don’t even have to be sexy. I’ve proven that at least.”
Claiming a good distance from self-absorption is suspect, but everything else about that quote is pretty much spot on. The only thing it leaves out is that the Smiths were uniquely entertaining at their peak, Morrissey’s casual theatricality folding into the tight yet lustrous playing of Marr, Rourke, and Joyce. It basically all works, whether the music-hall goofing of “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” the swirly “Cemetery Gates,” or the hoedown-adjacent romp “Vicar in a Tutu.” In the pantheon of Smiths songs that revel in romantic misery, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” stands tall, if only for lyrics that indulge in the splendid, laughably morose pining of lyrics such as “And if a double-decker bus/ Crashes into us/ To die by your side/ Is such a heavenly way to die.”
If The Queen Is Dead didn’t exactly turn around the band’s fortunes on the U.K. singles chart, it proved to be another strong-selling album, just missing the top of the charts at home and climbing higher than any of its predecessors on the U.S. charts. No, they weren’t the Stones, but the album is so accomplished — and enduring — that simply being the Smiths started to seem like an impressive enough feat all on its own.
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.