College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #46 and #45

46. Men at Work, Business as Usual (1981)

Columbia Records executives didn’t think U.S. would warm to Business as Usual, the debut album by the Australian band Men at Work. After rapidly building a reputation as aces live band in their home base, Men at Work were signed by CBS Records, the Australian outpost of the same global parent company of Columbia, so the album was there for those executives’ taking. The record has also proven to be a massive hit in Australia and New Zealand, but a few stubborn folks persisted in their refusal. Surely, they reasoned, American pop fans weren’t going to be able to wrap their heads around lyrics that mentioned Vegemite sandwiches. There were a few believers in the A&R ranks, though, and they kept pushing. Finally, Business as Usual was released in the U.S. with muted fanfare in April 1982, six months after its initial bow in Australia and two month after officially reaching the top of the charts there.

As it happened, U.S. audiences warmed to Business as Usual just fine. Two of its singles topped the Billboard Hot 100, and the album itself had a fifteen-week run atop the album chart on the way to moving more than six million copies. On the album chart, it took no less than Michael Jackson’s Thriller to knock them from the perch. Many of the band members attributed the unexpected commercial success to an interest in all things Australian at the time, but the producer of Business as Usual, U.S. native Peter McIan, pinpointed the rigors of the Men at Work’s home music scene as a key contributor to the strength of their efforts.

“The people go out to the clubs several times a week, so the expect something different every time,” McIan observed. “With such a critical public, there is tremendous pressure to keep on refining the act and creating new material. The bands there are real working bands with a different work ethic than we have in the States.”

That push towards constant reinvention doesn’t lead to the songs on Business as Usual flashing that much variety in their sound; the reggae-style beat and new-wave pulse to “Catch a Star” is about as far as Men at Work range. What is clear is that the time before discerning, demanding fans drove the band to hone the material until it was absolutely airtight. The two smash hits are absolutely deserving of that status. “Who Can It Be Now?” is about as catchy a rendering of agoraphobic paranoia as can be imagines, and “Down Under” shakes loose its light layer of novelty to be genuinely joyous, propulsive, and oddly compelling (“I come from a land down under/ Where beer does flow and men chunder/ Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?/ You better run, you better take cover, yeah”). In both instances, frontman Colin Hay jolts the song with pure personality that makes them all the more pleasurable.

Elsewhere on the album, Men at Work prove to be keenly inventive within familiar pop song structures, whether on the lilting “People Just Love to Play with Words” or the flinty, sly “Underground” (“Don’t take the fire from your eyes/ Must make them feel the heat/ But my head’s unsteady/ I can’t seem to keep my feet”). The depiction of a disaffected young boy beset by expectations that run counter to his inclinations on “Be Good Johnny” almost approaches the Who in its lean fervor.

Although no one, not even the band’s most vocal supporters, was prepared to tag Business as Usual as a hit in waiting in the lengthy stretch between its Australian and U.S. release dates, any fair listen to the album would result in the conclusion that it’s downright irresistible. According to Hay, that was reflective of Men at Work’s greatest strength.

“We have very strong ideas about our destiny,” Hay told Rolling Stone during the band’s rapid rise. “We really believe in what we have to offer. If you put an audience in front of us, we’ll win them.”

45. The Church, Starfish (1988)

“I think the most long-lasting thing is the most simple thing,” Steve Kilbey, bassist and vocalist for the Church, said of the band’s fifth studio album, Starfish. “The album is basically two electric guitars, bass, drums, and one voice, which is what we are on stage, and I think that’s the reason for its success.”

Starfish followed a few albums of escalating pop lushness for the Australian quartet, all of them admired and none of them particularly strong sellers, even among the college rock kids. Despite Kilbey’s assertion, it’s not as if the Church abandoned that full sound. The album opens with “Destination” a thickly dreamy pop song that sprawl across nearly six dizzying minutes. If it was back to basics, it was a very particular sort of basics that the Church was pursuing.

What truly set the album apart was its second track. “Under the Milky Way” is spare and lovely, the quite, precise instrumentation buoying Kilbey’s almost spectral vocals as he intones lyrics of romantically loquacious and forlorn lyrics that could have been pilfered from one of Robert Smith’s forgotten notebooks: “Sometimes, when this place gets kind of empty/ Sound of their breath fades with the light/ I think about the loveless fascination/ Under the Milky Way tonight.” Those more moony lyrics are met by a more direct and plain statement of heartrending regret: “Wish I knew what you were looking for/ Might have known what you would find.” The cut is immediately arresting and carries a lingering power.

“Under the Milky Way” was a sizable hit in the U.S., just missing the top of the album rock radio charts and making it into the Billboard Top 40, those feats accompanied by an MTV presence that made it seem even bigger. Much as it was by intent — band members said they stripped down their sound on the album to highlight the songwriting, and they knew “Under the Milky Way” was probably the strongest entrant on the track list — the breakthrough was also mysterious to them.

“Before Starfish, we were always running around saying, ‘Why didn’t they like it this time? What’s wrong with it this time?,” lead guitarist Marty Willson-Piper said as the single and album were riding high. “Since Starfish, we’ve been running around saying, ‘Why do they like it this time? What have we done this time that they didn’t like last time?'”

If “Under the Milky Way” is the undeniable highlight of Starfish, the whole album holds together as a coherent statement of band that has honed their material to a point of pure pop precision. “Spark” has some of the concentrated energy of a Britpop bands of the moment such as the Mighty Lemon Drops and the Icicle Works, and “Reptile” is a feat of razory intensity. The Church were sometimes tagged as a throwback act because the tingle of their music called to mind the psychedelic acts of the nineteen-sixties, but they don’t really sound like they’re mining the past. “A New Season” has some bygone wistful pop elements to it. Generally, they are striking current, as heard with the jigsawing guitars of “North, South, East, and West” and the rich and lithe “Hotel Womb.”

The band were signed to Arista Records for international distribution, and the label knew there was an opportunity to coax the album to a crossover from the moment they heard it. Folks at the label also knew that the the starting point for their campaign was to make Starfish a mainstay on college radio. They teamed with CMJ, the trade publication that served student-run broadcasters, to mount a contest that promised a free on-campus concert for the station that collected the most signatures. Ohio State University’s KBUX-FM were victorious, getting more than seventy-five thousand to scrawl down their names.

“We kept the project fresh at college radio,” one of the Arista executives crowed. “And the music carried itself.”

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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