College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #44 and #43

44. Genesis, Abacab (1981)

In many ways, Abacab, the eleventh studio album by Genesis, was a stern rejection of the band’s legacy. Through the entirety of the nineteen-seventies, the group were stalwarts of progressive rock, releasing studio albums that strung tracks to together to ostensibly tell novelistic stories of, say, a Puerto Rican youth on a surreal existential quest through New York City and featured song titles that could have doubled as fantasy tome chapter titles, such as “The Fountain of Salmacis” and “The Battle of Epping Forest.” Following the successive departures of frontman Peter Gabriel and guitarist Steve Hackett in the latter half of the seventies, the remaining members of the band — drummer Phil Collins (who also took over lead vocal duties after Gabriel left), keyboardist Tony Banks, and bassist and guitarist Mike Rutherford — slowly started to shed some of the sonic trappings and affectations that dominated earlier records. Abacab was the proper culmination of the transformational journey.

“On that particular record, we were trying to get away from what was, at that point, traditionally Genesis, which was quite flowery and fantasy, and to go to something that was much more stark and abstract,” Banks recalled many years later. “That’s why we went for an abstract art painting on the front and gave it this abstract title, Abacab, so, that it didn’t conjure up any particular emotion at all. We started with a kind of blank canvas.”

That blank canvas was placed on an easel in a new facility that Genesis created. A few months before embarking on the creative process for the record, the trio collectively purchased a rural property with a farm outbuilding that truck them as ideal for repurposing into studio space. As the renovation took place, Banks, Collins, and Rutherford toiled away in the nearby farmhouse, writing songs in a more collaborative fashion than they’d undertaken in years, maybe ever. To a degree, the process was a necessary reaction to the ongoing solo efforts the three men created on the side, which cleared out their personal stockpiles of ready or nearly ready songs they could bring into the recording process, a situation that had already necessitated alterations to group’s approach on their preceding album, Duke. Of particular note, Collins’s solo debut, Face Value, was released not longer before the sessions that became Abacab got underway. At the time, Collins acknowledged that Face Value landing on record store shelves, making him the last of the three to put out a solo LP, helped drive the notion that everyone’s more individualized expression was addressed through other outlets. Genesis should be Genesis.

“I think the band is healthiest and in the best spirits it’s ever been,” Collins told a reporter for the Evening Standard. “My solo thing did help to clarify for all of us what the band did best. What we are really is basically three songwriters, and we work best when we go into the studio and build songs together.”

Face Value informed Abacab in other ways, maybe most clearly in the enlistment of that album’s co-producer, Hugh Padgham, as the studio engineer (Abacab was officially self-produced by the band). The horn-peppered, tepidly bouncy “No Reply at All” would undoubtedly fit more comfortably on Face Value or its blockbuster follow-up, No Jacket Required, than any album released under the Genesis name to that point. That track joins others — the plain-to-the-point-of-being-numbing “Like It or Not” and the trudging ballad “Man on the Corner” — as signifiers of the dulled-down, highly approachable pop that was to be the ultimate landing point for the group. Even the song that includes the most obvious musical vestiges of the band’s prog history, “Me and Sarah Jane,” is really a utterly pedestrian and somewhat syrupy ballad at its core.

Genesis hadn’t succumbed fully to the invisible touch of the marketplace just yet; there’s still experimentation to be found on Abacab. The propulsive title cut is played exceedingly well, and they incorporate the crisp agitation of new wave music capably on “Who Dunnit?” Album closer “Another Record” features some probing orchestrations before settling into a somnambulant groove.

The album’s digressions from the established Genesis norm weren’t received all that well by music critics, but they worked for audiences. Abacab was the band’s second straight album to top the U.K. chart and their first to crack the Top 10 in the U.S. Three of its singles made the Billboard Top 40, an unprecedented achievement for the group. At least when measured by commercial rewards, Genesis could survey the changes they’d made with Abacab and decided that they were indeed very good.

43. The Smiths, Meat Is Murder (1985)

The Smiths were dissatisfied with the production of their self-titled debut, they’d developed just enough clout to go to their record label and make a request that was more of a demand. They wanted to producer their sophomore effort themselves, ideally collaborating with an experienced and simpatico engineer to bridge the gaps in their technical know-how. During sessions for the single “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” the band had clicked with Stephen Street, who was essentially the house engineer for the studio where the song was recorded. Morrissey was particularly interested in switching from John Porter, the Smiths’ primary producer to that point, to Street as their studio cohort. Street later said he suspected that preference emanated from Morrissey’s irritation that his vocals weren’t prominent enough in Porter’s mixes. If that was the case, the rest of the band was certainly on board with the personnel shift.

“He was someone who was wide awake, very enthusiastic, sharp, and obviously very talented,” Johnny Marr, the Smiths’ guitarist, said of Street. “And looked of one of us.”

The offer was made to Street, and the generational and cultural kinship Marr identified did prove to be a boon. It took no time at all for the Smiths to fall into an easy rhythm with their new cohort.

“I was literally the same age as Morrissey,” Street explained to Uncut several years later. “I’m in the same age group as the band. Morrissey was the eldest, then it was me. So it was a bunch of guys together. We were experimenting. You could tell that the feeling in the band was very positive.”

Those positive feelings provided provided a comfort with expressing some of less positive feelings about the way of the world in the lyrics. The band followed their usual procedure of playing a rough version of a song largely to get a dedicated track with Marr’s guitar part. With that guitar track as a guide, drummer Mike Joyce would lay down a more assured and polished version of his part, and then bassist Andy Rourke would record the finished version of his lines. With the music more or less complete, Morrissey spilled in with his lyrics and vocals. In this instance, he was motivated to offer barbed, sardonic commentary on what he saw as the cold-hearted transgressions of society, exemplified by the song that provided the album’s title: “Meat Is Murder.” Deliberately eschewing subtlety, Morrissey rails against the humankind’s corporatized and systemized primacy on the food chain: “And the calf that you carve with a smile/ Is murder/ And the turkey you festively slice/ Is murder/ Do you know how animals die?” The directness reflected a philosophy that the time was right to make statements that couldn’t be ignored.

The shimmering album opener “The Headmaster Ritual” is a caustic appraisal of the educational institutions that visited persecution of Morrissey during his boyhood (“Belligerent ghouls/ Run Manchester schools/ Spineless bastards all”), and “Barbarism Begins at Home” is a equally pointed condemnation of corporal punishment children endure at home (“A crack on the head/ Is what you get for not asking/ And a crack on the head/ Is what you get for asking”). The modernly reinvented rockabilly of “Nowhere Fast” give headlong energy to a song with a generally dismal view of the world, with some richly nasty words for the monarchy: “I’d like to drop my trousers to the queen/ Every sensible child will know what this means/ The poor and the needy/ Are selfish and greedy on her terms.” At the time, Morrissey maintained he had a responsibility to be explicit with such provocations.

“Well, I feel that if popular singers don’t says these things, who does?” Morrissey said. “We can’t have any faith in playwrights any more. We can’t have faith in film stars. Young people don’t care about those things. They’re dying out.”

It’s not all tuneful diatribe, though. Meat Is Murder often features the Smiths at their most elegantly commanding. “I Want the One I Can’t Have” has a jaunty energy and easy jangle that marks it as quintessential college rock, and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” is a stellar example of the band’s trademark lilting melancholy. On the U.S. version of the album, the sense that the Smiths are in classic form is bolstered by the inclusion of “How Soon Is Now?” which is wedged into the start of side two. Rather than feeling like a awkward add-on, the cut provides a true centerpiece for the album, a testament to just how grand the band could sound while still maintaining a rich earthiness. When released as a single in the U.K., “How Soon Is Now?” was a middling performer. On college radio in the U.S., it was a massive hit.

Meat Is Murder was enough of a success to raise the Smiths’ profile enough that some in the music press started describing them as an important generational act, homing in on Morrissey’s moody persona and the lyrics of disaffection and sorrow. Assembling a fandom army of lonely kids wasn’t an overt goal the way that making people feel a little queasy about the steak on their plate was, but it was an acceptable extension of the band’s overall mission. Morrissey was ready, somewhat reluctantly, to be a hero to striving outsiders.

“It feels okay, because there are a lot of them out there, and there has to be somebody,” Morrissey told LA Weekly. “Otherwise, if you say no to the Smiths, you say yes to more Madonna. You have to appreciate people who are trying to do something different, who are trying to move on in some way.”

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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