College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #980 to #977

iggy party

980. Iggy Pop, Party (1981)

Arista Records executives held onto some bizarre ideas about which performers were likely to stride purposefully into sudden crossover commercial success. As I noted a couple weeks ago, the label badgered Lou Reed through the latter half of the nineteen-seventies because his brand of understated, strung-out rock poetry wasn’t connecting with kids who wanted to disco their nights away. Around the same time, they were heaping the same impatient grievances on Reed’s kindred iconoclast and occasional compadre Iggy Pop.

Pop was evidently charged with coming up with an album that would justify the investment Arista made — or at least felt they’d made — in him. To a degree, Pop acquiesced, holing up with Ivan Kral — a guitarist who’d spent some time working with Patti Smith — and trying to come up with material that, befitting the title eventually bestowed on the album, had something of a loose, party vibe.

Party, though, is a dismal affair, irredeemably sloppy rather than spirited and playful. “Rock and Roll Party” is an emblematic tracks, marked by a recycled riff Pop could have cracked off while in a deep slumber and lyrics that sound like a bad first draft (“As I walked into the rock and roll club/ I found myself with the usual bums”). Pop was never going to contend with Bob Dylan to be the first rock lyricist to earn a Nobel Prize, but the words are especially clunky here. “Sincerity” is almost abstract anti-journalism about a beer run (once again made yet more flaccid by a dull repeated riff) and “Pumpin’ for Jill” features the deeply mortal lyrics “When I’m asleep, you touch my feet/ You let me know that I am no creep.” At least the latter song also features lines that are about as close as Pop ever gets to sweet, summoning up his best Reed-style cool romanticism to sing, “I met you out at the Mardi Gras/ On a French Quarter sidewalk/ When you kissed me, it was strong/ I wonder if you’ll hear this song.”

Predictably, the label was unimpressed with the tracks Pop turned over, going so far as to hire former Monkees collaborator Tommy Boyce (who, to be fair, wrote some pretty damn great songs with Bobby Hart) to take a pass at the material, resulting in a highly dressed up version of a song called “Bang Bang,” which managed a gentle but visible ripple on the Billboard dance chart. He didn’t make the song good, exactly, but its better than, say, the album’s indifferent pass at ska, with “Happy Man,” and the two drab covers that close the album.

By practically all measures, Party was a dud. Mike Page, bassist in Pop’s backing band at the time, offered the correct assessment years later. “It stood for everything Iggy tore down.”

And it didn’t salvage his relationship with Arista, either. After Party, he was off the label.

 

jason still

979. Jason and the Scorchers, Still Standing (1986)

Well before the internet was around to accelerate the hype-fueled rise and fall of musical artists, there were plenty of bands that fell prey to the burden of sky high expectations. Arguably, Jason and the Scorchers were one of them.

Formed in Nashville, the band led by singer-guitarist Jason Ringenberg was quickly renowned for their turbo-charged live shows. Merging rock propulsion with country authenticity, Jason and the Scorchers played their first gigs in 1981 and were signed to EMI America within two years, releasing their major label debut and first full-length album, Lost and Found, in 1985. Yet more critical acclaim followed, but sales were middling.

For the band’s sophomore effort, they were paired with producer Tom Werman, who’d previous overseen some of Cheap Trick’s biggest (and also most obnoxious) hits. In closer chronological proximity to his work with Jason and the Scorchers, Werman had been instrumental in foisting the scourge of hair metal onto the world. The label bosses surely hoped Werman would give the album the sort of sheen that MTV — and eagerly following radio programmers — found irresistible in the mid-nineteen-eighties, but the mismatch between performer and producer is clear.

Even so, Jason and the Scorchers were a solid enough outfit that their appeal often breaks through on Still Standing. “Crashin’ Down” is straightforward honky tonk goodness, and “Take Me to Your Promised Land” is one of those earthy epics that represents the best of rock bands taking advantage of extra studio time. And there’s still room for little quirks of personality, such as the yodel-adjacent trill that shows up in Ringernberg’s vocals toward the end of the fiery “Shotgun Blues.” The overly-eager cover of a familiar Rolling Stones hit even works better than it should, taking on a romping, slyly fun spirit. It’s less convincing when the band slows down, as on the ballad “Good Things Come to Those Who Wait.” Werman’s lucrative instinct for artifice takes over.

Once again, the reception was more muted than expected, with some of the critical support eroding. That seemed to put a dent in the band’s creative energy, as well. It would be three years before their next — and, for a time, final — album.

 

lake

978. Greg Lake, Greg Lake (1981)

When Greg Lake release his self-titled solo debut, he had stints in two different iconic prog rock bands on his resume. He was one of the founding members of King Crimson and made up one third of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Plus, he had an annual windfall because he’d figured out the British rocker secret to eternal financial stability and penned a Christmas song. (The inescapable holiday atrocity “Wonderful Christmastime,” which Paul McCartney released four years after Lake’s hit, nets him an estimated $400,000 in royalties every year, for example.) Lake surely had plenty of reasons for putting together a solo record, but he had no real need to cement a legacy.

It’s to Lake’s benefit that there was nothing particular to prove. Fully acknowledging that tastes vary — and 1981 was sonically a very different time for rock ‘n’ roll — it’s difficult to imaging many sparking to devoted fandom on the basis of the tracks residing on Greg Lake.

Album opener “Nuclear Attack,” with a songwriting credit and flaring guitar solo for Thin Lizzy axeman Gary Moore, set the thudding tone. Much as the quasi-Tolkien, florid imagery of prog rock workouts rightfully earned scorn, those cacophonies of complicated words are far preferable to the inanity of “And you’ll never come back/ From a nuclear attack.” Bad lyrics prevail across the album, occasionally tripping into the overtly creepy, as on dreadful ballad “Let Me Love You Once,” which finds Lake insisting, “Your eyes keeping saying yes to me/ So don’t keep saying no.” At least “Someone” is mildly intriguing because of its fever dream lounge act aura and oddball litanies of modern angst: “Someone”s on the meat rack/ Looking far too young/ Runnin’ from a police trap/ Feelin’ highly strung.”

The album’s chief curiosity is “Love You Too Much,” an unfinished song Bob Dylan sent over for Lake to polish off (after evidently abandoning it following a couple of on-stage workouts). Lake — perhaps helplessly — adopts a little bit of a nasal Dylan trill and he sings. Meanwhile, Moore offers another intricate-to-the-point-of-being-exhausting guitar solo. It’s straightforward enough to be a little square, which absolutely means it fares better than a bolder track such as “Black and Blue,” which occasionally has the odd sound of some mythical classic rock music box that was left outside in a drenching rain.

There was only one more solo studio album from Lake: Manoeuvres, released in 1983. He clearly decided his time was better served as a member of a band, or at least mining his own history. He was undoubtedly correct in that assessment.

 

iggy soldier

977. Iggy Pop, Soldier (1980)

The making of Soldier, Iggy Pop’s fifth studio album and his second for Arista, was a messy affair. That might help explain why it’s so good. Is there any performer who seems more at home amidst clatter and chaos?

That’s not to imply that Soldier is some classic. By its very nature, it careens between peaks and valleys. Opening track “Loco Mosquito” is nutso in al the best ways, implying that this record might go just about anywhere.  From the beginning, Pop launches straight into the happily reckless lunacy, barking, “My mommy told me/ If I were goody/ That she would buy me/ A rubber dolly,” as the music settles into a groove that David Bowie might have devised were he enlisted to score a haunted calliope.

This was indeed the point when Bowie was practically serving as career caretaker to Pop, though some accounts suggest the rock god’s presence may have contributed to the tumult in the studio, notably the departure of former Stooges member James Williamson from the producer role after a well-regarded collaboration with Pop on his old cohort’s previous album, New Values, released in 1979. Even if there are some Bowie fingerprints to be found, Soldier just feels like Pop cutting loose.

“Knocking ‘Em Down (In the City)” has the confident, tuneful insolence of Pop’s work with the Stooges, and even if the political swipe “I’m a Conservative” hardly represents the most artful commentary, it remains apt nearly three decades later (“I got bored so I’m making my millions/ When you’re conservative you get a better break”). “Dog Food” is ragged and shamelessly, deliriously dopey, even if it is creepy to hear Pop mention his 14-year-old girlfriend, Betsy. (She was still on his mind ten years later, serving as the inspiration for “Candy,” one of Pop’s better solo songs and bigger hits.) The splattering sonics of the album further serve to accentuate the strength of the best, most smartly crafted songs, especially the lean, snarling “I Need More.”

Soldier sounds good to me now, but it didn’t have the desired chart impact in 1980, putting Pop in a precarious place with his label. That led to, well, the album up above in this post, perched at #980.

 

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