Neill Kirby McMillian, Jr. was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1957. Years later, he found his true self as Mojo Nixon. Though the exact moment of identity epiphany is elusive, it was undoubtedly somewhere around the point he teamed up with multi-instrumentalist Skid Roper (née Richard Banke). The two started playing gigs together in San Diego, California, in the early nineteen-eighties, in a place that undoubtedly felt a million miles away from their freewheeling, psychobilly musical sensibility. Though Nixon quickly became a cult hero, thanks to songs that indulged in a raucous, raunchy, uncouth approach to assessing the world. The closest Mojo and Skid ever came to having a true hit was “Elvis is Everywhere,” the lead single from their 1987 album, Bo-Day-Shus!!! The song was at once a celebration of Elvis Presley and a spirited mockery of the small but passionate cohort of the endlessly distraught fan base that was susceptible to tabloid stories claiming the famed performer had faked his death and was living a secret life in some locale of pastoral isolation. Lest anyone think Nixon’s satirical swipes were meant for Presley himself, he took to an unlikely platform to correct the record. The cornpone chanter devoted one of his MTV bumper spots, which proliferated on the cable network in the late-eighties, to naming the King as one-third of his personal holy trinity, alongside Foghorn Leghorn and Otis Campbell, the town drunk character played by Hal Smith on The Andy Griffith Show, as part of his own holy trinity.
By the time Mitch Easter started making albums with the band Let’s Active, his talents and the physical location where he plied his trade were both in high enough demand that he had difficulty finding the time to record his own music. The band’s debut EP, Afoot, was knocked out in about a week’s time after Easter wedged it it between other groups coming in and out of his space. Buoyed in part by Easter’s reputation as one of producers behind the records of the insurgent college rock sensation R.E.M., Afoot became a left of the dial hit in its own right, topping the college charts upon its release, in the fall of 1983. One year later, Let’s Active’s first full-length, Cypress, was issued by I.R.S. Records. Easter and his bandmates allowed themselves a little more time in the creative process (at least some of the material was developed while the toured as an opening act with Echo & the Bunnymen), there was still a rough and ready quality at play when they put the stuff down on tape. At the time, Easter explained, “It’s sort of deeper and darker than the EP. On the other hand, it’s not a tribute to Pink Floyd. Many of the cuts were done on the first take.” Though the bulk of the album was penned by Easter (with a couple of assists by Faye Hunter, the band’s bassist), the first single was a cover song, albeit one derived from a fairly obscure original. “Blue Line” began life as a 1981 single from the U.K. band the Outskirts, written by guitarist/vocalist Maggie Beck. The Let’s Active take is faithful and yet slicked up in a understated way. Basically, it’s perfectly representative of the prevailing style that made Easter a towering figure when college radio was in its most ascendent phase.
Let’s Active were beneficiaries of MTV’s early need for visual product to fill their program schedule. Before the band was even officially signed for I.R.S. Records, they appeared on The Cutting Edge, a program the label created that aired on the network from 1983 to 1987. As part of the process, Let’s Active were invited to film what Easter termed an “econo-video,” really just the group miming to one of their songs in a fairly empty studio space. According to Easter, it was probably a fortuitous meeting with an MTV representative that gave the clip life beyond a single episode. He later explained, “On the same trip we were in Pasadena at some fabulous party, and some lady came up to us – and this was kind of unbelievable to think about it now – and was like,’Hi, I’m from MTV Music Television and were looking for bands!’ and I was like, ‘Oh, you are?’ And it’s so funny, because of course a year later bands were spending more than their record cost to record to make a video because it was this ‘make or break thing.’ But it was so new in ‘83 that they were actually soliciting videos! So IRS just chopped that segment out of the show and said, ‘Here you go,’ and they ran it.” The unexpected prominence of the video also meant that a relatively casual decision helped define the image of Let’s Active from there on in. The band was tickled by the idea of having groups of dogs romp through the set while they played, reasoning it would create utter chaos. When full-grown canines weren’t available, they opted for puppies instead. According to Easter, that “changed the vibe considerably – and changed the worldview of our band for all eternity, because these puppies were just so adorable.”
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.