While some of the most fervent fans of the Los Angeles punk band X cast reflexive aspersions on the 1985 single that became the group’s biggest commercial success, bassist and singer John Doe considered it something of a breakthrough. At the time, he contended, “It’s taken me about 15 years to be able to write a song that’s as simple and direct as ‘Burning House of Love.'” Later, though, Doe largely came around to agreeing with the more negative assessment of the song, at least as it was recorded and released. For X’s fifth album, See How We Are, the band and the label agreed it was time for a creative shake-up. After working with Ray Manzarek, formerly of the Doors, on all of their prior records, the band found themselves with a new producer, and it was a somewhat contentious choice. Michael Wagener was best known for his work with slicked up metal bands (other albums from the same year smudged with his fingerprints include Dokken’s Under Lock and Key and Stryper’s Soldiers Under Command). While X would hardly be mistaken for Mötley Crüe on the basis of See How We Are, there was certainly a sense that the band’s lean intensity was obscured by the heavy studio sheen brought to bear on the individual tracks. It was an especially incongruous result given that the songs were among the most raw and personal the band had ever generated, a direct result of the creative process occurring in the immediate wake of Doe’s breakup with his wife and bandmate, the powerhouse vocalist Exene Cervenka. “Burning House of Love” endured as a major part of the band’s repertoire, with Doe even taking a stab at a shrewd reworking partially meant to catch the attention of a certain music legend. In 1995, Doe said, “I’m trying to get Johnny Cash to cut that for his next record. I even did a demo where the key was changed to be really low.” Sadly, there’s no evidence the Man in Black acquiesced to Doe’s urging.
Mitch Easter formed the band Let’s Active in 1981, taking the name from a badly translated t-shirt sold in Japan, a origin based in condescension that Easter later regretted. At around the same time, Easter encountered a band out of Athens, Georgia called R.E.M. Easter produced their first single, “Radio Free Europe,” and went on to be behind the boards (along with Don Dixon) on their first two full-length albums, securing himself a honored place in the annals of college rock. By the time Let’s Active got around to releasing their own records, beginning with the 1983 EP Afoot and the 1984 LP Cypress, Easter’s star was ascendent, thanks to his strong creative association with R.E.M., already a sensation on the left end of the dial. No matter how many other people filled out the roster, Let’s Active was perceived as an Easter project. With the band’s sophomore album, Big Plans for Everybody, the view of Let’s Active as strictly an musical expression of Easter wasn’t far off. The original line-up of the band had crumbled during the touring cycles following the release of Cypress, and the follow-up was largely the handicraft of only Easter, recording at his Winston-Salem recording facility, named Drive-In Studios because it was set up in the garage of his parents’ home. Album opener “In Little Ways” did include a contribution from drummer Eric Marshall and a backing vocal turn by Angie Carlson, a former music writer who would join the band full-time and also become Easter’s wife. (The couple wound up divorcing in the mid-nineteen-nineties). While the process of getting the album actually released proved somewhat arduous, including several delays before it finally arrived in stores in the spring of 1986, Easter ultimately felt good about approaching the recording process as a leaner unit. At the time, he explained, “This project was more in control — things as they went along were just adding up better. I didn’t want to fool with the political thing of having a lot of people on each track. I figured, if it worked okay with just me on it, then why not use it? By the time it was finished, it sounded there.”
In his memoir, Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth, Richard Barone suggested that the one of the most notable songs of his band the Bongos was inspired less by the 1968 cult classic film of the same name and more by personnel from a group that was enjoying significant chart success at around the time the 1983 EP Numbers with Wings was being recorded. In writing about the British press reporting rumors that he was canoodling with Annabella Lwin, lead singer of Bow Wow Wow, Barone largely eluded the question of whether or not he was actually intimate with the then-underage performer. He did note, “Nonetheless, being sandwiched between Annabella and her libidinous drummer Dave Barbarossa in a crowded limo gave rise to a new song, ‘Barbarella.'” The track betrays a certain amount of influence from Bow Wow Wow, especially Barbarossa’s fierce, almost tribal drumming on songs like “Louis Quatorze” and their hit cover of “I Want Candy.” Noting the familiar beat isn’t meant to imply that the track is anything less than a quintessential Bongos offering, marked by the sort of the freewheeling structure and zippy creative spirit that defined the band. As bassist Rob Norris earlier explained, “Our songs represent things in flux. Life is in a constant state of chaos, and you should try and reflect that. It shouldn’t be rigid.”
As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.