College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #976 to #973

madness one

976. Madness, One Step Beyond… (1979)

The band Madness essentially began in 1976, as a group called the North London Invaders. There were lineup changes of the course of the next couple years — including the entrance, exit, and then return of lead vocalist Graham “Suggs” McPherson — and a brief stint under the name Morris and the Minors. In 1979, they dubbed themselves Madness, nicking the moniker from a song by Prince Buster, a Jamaican performer who clearly had a significant influence on the band’s sound.

After Madness’s debut single, “The Prince” (also paying tribute to Prince Buster), became a surprise hit on the U.K. charts, making it into the Top 20, the band was nabbed by upstart tastemakers Stiff Records. Their first full-length, One Step Beyond…, arrived in the fall of 1979, mere months after Madness had settled into their identity and style.

That style was jaunty, ska-spiked pop, drawing heavily on Caribbean styles while setting the lyrical outlook of the lyrics in the hardscrabble realities of the British working class. The lead track and title cut again looked to Prince Buster, covering one of his songs and pilfering the shouted announcement intro from another (“The Scorcher,” to be exact). There’s a surprising amount of invention embedded in this amalgamizing appropriation, the band’s eagerness for the material they’ve borrowed adding a certain electricity to the whole affair.

The descriptive recounting of the concerns of regular blokes goes a long way towards making Madness feel original rather than a shiny tribute act. “In the Middle of the Night” updates the neighborhood survey of “Penny Lane” (“Hello there, George, newsagent on the corner/ How’s the old car? Yes, the climate’s getting warmer”), and “Mummy’s Boy” spends plenty of time in the pub as it snaps together calliope pop with the tale of a lad who’s overly connected to the matriarch of the family. The approach allows for surprising complexity, as on “My Girl,” which on a surface level is about a layabout bloke who isn’t quite stepping up (“She’s lovely to me/ But I like to stay in/ And watch TV on my own/ Every now and then”). The song gradually shifts to suggest that he’s living with a simmering depressing he can’t express (“I tried and tried but I could not be heard/ Why can’t I explain?/ Why do I feel this pain?”). That’s fascinating nuance for a band whose horn-stung music sometimes seemed designed to accompanying a roving party.

The sociological astuteness hidden in the grooves doesn’t mean One Step Beyond… is a slog. The prevailing vibe is still loopy fun, as if the band were convinced they’d only get one shot at making a record so they might as well employ whatever cockeyed idea came to mind. “Land of Hope and Glory” resembles a comic writing exercise transmogrified into song, and there’s a version of  “Swan Lake” that sounds as if the band is daring the powers that be to loop a hook around them and drag them offstage. And then the album closes with the beautifully absurdity of “Chipmunks Are Go!”

For their efforts, Madness were rewarded with a platinum album in the U.K., a pair of Top 10 hits, and an undisputed place as one of the bands of the moment. All in all, not a bad way to get a musical career underway.

verlaine dreamtime

975. Tom Verlaine, Dreamtime (1981)

Dreamtime was the second solo effort from Tom Verlaine, and it’s obvious that his band Television still cast a shadow that was difficulty to escape. To a degree, Verlaine acknowledged it by dredging up the old, as-yet-unshared Television song “Hard on Love” to rewrite it as “Without a Word,” recording it and slapping it right onto the end of side one. Sure enough, it almost sounds like a lost track from Marquee Moon, Television’s masterpiece, albeit as a track that’s been slowed and gently reshaped into some sort of post-modern Roy Orbison ballad.

Verlaine was no hitmaker, but he had his ardent supporters, especially in the cooler corners of the music press. Creem magazine termed Dreamtime a “roiling fireball of rockismo delight.” In the manner of the best rock writing, that description makes little sense and yet is perfectly correct. The album undulates with offhand ambition and sonic stylings that are enveloping enough to distract from the grasping, practically abstract lyrics. There’s the nicely jittery “Fragile,” for example (“I saw you coming in the headlights/ Rubbing your arms and shaking your head/ You say, “Oh, I just don’t know, it’s not so safe/ And it gets so tiresome playing dead”). Arguably, Verlaine is at his very best when he most emphatically embraces that model, as on “The Blue Robe.” The guitar parts are questing and serpentine, and the lyrics consist only of the term “Hi-Fi” repeated, making it feel like an instrumental with an especially odd rhythm component on the second half.

Without ever approaching the sort of heights Verlaine reached with Television (an admittedly unreasonable expectation, Dreamtime is filled with solid songs. On “There’s a Reason,” Verlaine’s trademark hiccuping vocals clack against guitar parts that move with riveting tension, setting the track always on the verge of exploding into cacophonous noise. There’s also pleasure to be found in the gentle glam rock preening of “Mr. Blur” and the trilling guitar solo at the midpoint of “Down on the Farm.” Dreamtime is a solid record. Others who moved on from seismically important (or at least impressive) bands delivered far worse when they lane shifted through solo careers.

 

lindsey law

974. Lindsey Buckingham, Law and Order (1981)

Any reasonable evaluation of the music Lindsey Buckingham created in the long wake of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours suggest that the much-lauded musician had some animosity toward the cultural monster he helped create. At the very least, he took authority that comes with riches and fame to experiment wildly, expectations be damned. That reading is backed up by Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s follow-up, which was met with mounting confusion from fans who really wanted Rumours II. Tusk is a better album than its predecessor, but it was doomed to be perceived as a failure, given the flat unlikelihood it too would spend over 30 weeks atop the Billboard charts and sell over 13 millions copies worldwide in its first three years of existence.

If Tusk shows Fleetwood Mac could benefit immensely from the fevered aspiration that swelled in Buckingham (the vein of experimentalism is largely attributed to him, at least as a catalyst), then Law and Order, Buckingham’s first true solo album reveals that ambitious can run up agains the boundaries of creative talent. Much of the album is odd for the sake of being odd, bounding into crazy sound landscapes with no apparent exit plan, leaving Buckingham spinning in figurative circles, sadly lost.

As if wanting to further rattle the fans who chafed at Tusk, Buckingham opens the album with the resolute strangeness of “Bwana.” That’s followed by “Trouble,” which has some of the vestiges of the Fleetwood Mac gentle pop insistence, but with a woozy quality, as if the hooks are somehow haunting themselves. Released as the lead single to an unsuspecting public, it remarkably made it into the Billboard Top 10.

In general, Buckingham is all over the place. “I’ll Tell You Now” is the sort of airy amble of a pop song that formers Beatles routined dropped in their respective solo career, but then there are also bizarro covers of Gary Paxton’s “It Was I” and the standard “September Song,” written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, in which Buckingham adopts such a tonally questionable approach that he could be the drunk at the end of the bar bellowing a swan song as the lights flick on and off to signal last call. And “That’s How We Do It in L.A.” has a galloping pace and melodic screeching that anticipates “Holiday Road,” recorded two years later for National Lampoon’s Vacation.

At times, Buckingham is almost at war with his own pop instincts. For all the weirdness, he seems more at home on a track like “Shadow of the West,” a cowboy ballad doused in the sticky sauce that would serve as the lifeblood for adult contemporary radio, including obliquely drippy lyrics (“Dancing ever changing desert sand/ I was burned by the touch of her hand”). Maybe its the ethereal backing vocals of his Fleetwood Mac bandmate Christine McVie that makes it sound more natural. Regardless, it was a clearer signal of where he was going next. The following year, Fleetwood Mac released Mirage, a complete retreat from the boldness of Tusk into soft rock safety. And Buckingham was front and center on the album.

 

i crush bozo

973. Happy Flowers, I Crush Bozo (1988)

For those upon whom the irony of the band name Happy Flowers is lost, a quick study of the personnel listed in the liner notes should offer clarity. A duo that has opted for the stage names Mr. Anus and Mr. Horribly Charred Infant are definitely up to no good, in a fabulously twisted way.

I Crush Bozo was the second full-length from the Charlottesville, Virginia band. It was released by Homestead Records, one of the only labels prepared to put up with brilliantly caustic, bleakly comedic nonsense like this. Built on especially messy punk sounds, the songs tend to play like dares to the audience. The lyrics occasionally traffic in familiar blast of teen angst, but more often skew a little younger and therefore more mundane. On “Old Relatives,” the complaints are about forced familial togetherness (“I’d rather be outside playing ball or watching TV/ But instead I’ve got to sit inside/ Sit in the stupid living room with the plastic covers/ Eat disgusting cheese crackers and watch my relatives get trashed”) and “I’m the Stupid One” features a litany of unfavorable comparisons against siblings that start to turn dark (“And then there’s my sister Sharon/ Sharon’s sort of pregnant right now/ But she’s still really nice and smart”).

Really, the song titles say it all: “Get Me Off the Broiler Pan,” “Toenail Fear,” “My Frisbee Went Under a Lawnmower,” “I Saw My Picture on a Milk Carton.” The sounds are occasionally unmusical to the point of being sadistic, and the brashly delivered lyrics only compound the experience. There’s a lot of screaming about a mangled hang on “My Frisbee Went Under a Lawnmower,” for example. That I Crush Bozo could generate enough airplay to make any sort of top album is, my friends, the glory of college radio.

 

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