College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #968 to #965

jorma king

968. Jorma Kaukonen, Barbecue King (1981)

Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen was carrying a sturdy rock legacy with him when he recorded the album Barbecue King. He was also toying with that storied reputation, which might very well have been the album’s undoing as a commercial effort. Following the dismal performance on the charts of this release, Kaukonen’s third as a solo artist, he was dropped by RCA Records and spent the rest of the nineteen-eighties in a sort of music industry limbo.

A veteran of both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna (which he co-founded with fellow Airplane escapee Jack Casady), Kaukonen spent the tail end of the seventies adopting some of the stylings of the punk rock movement, which was still insurgent and evolving. Just enough of that influence filtered into his music that it confused the fans who were simply looking for more blues riffs repurposed into classic rock workouts. Further denting Kaukonen’s prospects for success, the punk attitude was mostly pilfered from fellow rock veterans like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, who came by it genuinely because they’d helped invent it, but a copy of their efforts was doomed to sound tepid to the kids jabbing safety pins through their own flesh. “Man for All Seasons,” for instance, strives for Reed’s street poet authenticity (“Just a junkie on angel dust/ Looking for a man to trust”), but has a tourist detachment.

Despite the tentative attempts at branching out, much of Barbecue King sounds like precisely the sort of album Kaukonen could have delivered at practically any point in his career. The records opens with a squall of guitars which quickly segues into the deeply fundamental rock song “Runnin’ With the Fast Crowd.” “Roads and Roads &” (a reworked song from Kaukonen’s previous album, Jorma) features the sort of intricate guitar work that seems deliberately made for sorting out stems and seeds on the inside of a gatefold album cover, and a passable cover of “Milkcow Blues Boogie” is practically designed to give comfort to those who listeners who grew up on the murky gospel of nineteen-seventies FM radio.

There album arguably peaks on the easy charm of “Rockabilly Shuffle” (“You know I love you ’cause I told you so”), which could pass for a White Stripes B-side, if it were toughened up a bit, and bottoms out on the title cut, a lame-o blues riff gag that feels like it takes forever. Barbecue King is slightly out of step for the era, but it’s solid enough that the commercial flop is a little puzzling. There was far more dire music from Jefferson Airplane alumni being released in early 1981.

 

wilde teases

967. Kim Wilde, Teases & Dares (1984)

I will someday go to my neo-mortality quasi-sleep stasis fervently insisting that Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” is one of the all-time great pop singles. Largely categorized as a one-hit wonder in the U.S. (by those who fail to realize “Kids in America” was only a modest hit at the time of its release and that Wilde actually topped the Billboard chart around six years later with a cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”). At home in the U.K., Wilde had a much longer and more robust career, charting seven Top 10 hits (and many more that made the Top 40) during the nineteen-eighties.

Teases & Dares, Wilde’s fourth studio album, represented a significant transition. It was the performer’s first for RCA Records, and it expanded her family-affair approach to making music. Her brother, Ricky Wilde, had long served as her producer, and he was now joined by their father, Marty Wilde (who had previously co-written most of Kim’s songs with Ricky). Kim Wilde was also shoehorned into a glammed-up, fluffed -hair version of pop futurism, presumably designed to help her fit in on the increasingly influential music television platforms across the globe. As if emphasizing the science fiction vibe, the album even includes a track called “Bladerunner,” supposedly inspired by Ridley Scott’s film.  Unfortunately, it’s the drabbest appropriation of influential 1982 cinema to pop music this side of Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight.”

In general, the album operates at a sleepy simmer. The surprisingly wan “Is It Over?” is fully indicative, dressed up in studio glitter than coheres into a dull mass. “Rage to Love” washes its corners with a weird watered-down version of Prince’s Purple Rain funk (released about six months earlier) and “Shangri-La” couples Frankie Goes to Hollywood styled dance floor thump to really dopey lyrics (“She’s still looking for her Shangri-La/ But she wouldn’t know it/ If it hit her in the face”).

“Fit In,” one of two songs credited to Kim as a songwriter (Teases & Dares features her first instances of sole songwriting credits), has indications of the novel in the off-tempo burbling that opens the track, but it quickly settles into the same old dull fluff   (“I’m spending nights just dreaming/ And playing the music loud”). Wheels spin and Wilde, despite all the markers of change, stays in precisely the same spot on the pop freeway.

 

scruffy high

966. Scruffy the Cat, High Octane Revival (1986)

Scruffy the Cat started with a move away from Iowa. Singer Charlie Chesterman and bassist MacPaul Stanfield knew they wanted to form a band, but figured the clubs of the  Hawkeye State weren’t likely to vault them onto the national scene. At the time, Boston was one of the more fruitful American cities for the performers’ preferred style of roots rock turbo-charged with punk verve. There, the duo connected with a guitarist (Stephen Fredette), a drummer (Randall Lee Gibson IV) and a banjo player (Stona Fitch). Within a couple years, they were signed to Relativity Records and High Octane Revival, the debut EP as Scruffy the Cat, was released.

While only hinting at some of the hooky brilliance to come from the band, High Octane Revival is a well-named introduction. Showing little interest in ballads or any other tempo that could be described as anything less than headlong, the band romps through a half-dozen blazing charmers, bringing a rip-roaring assurance to the traditional swoons and romantic woe that gave most pop songs their spines. “40 Days and 40 Nights” borrows from the story of Noah and his ark to express lovelorn challenges in heightened bluesy fashion, and “Land of 1,000 Girls” puts an earnest, extremely-mid-eighties heartland guitar sound to a melancholy tale of retreating from heartache to the overstocked schools of others swimming in the dating pool.

“Life is Fun” could be drawn straight from the Young Fresh Fellows songbook (there was some intermingling of personnel of the two bands in their respective prehistories), thanks to its shrugging wit. And then there’s the endearing directness of “Buy a Car” (“Think I’ll buy a car again/ Like the one that I had when we were friends/ Think I’ll buy a car”), which eventually reveals that there’s a little more weight to its offhand wistful nostalgia.

There’s not much to High Octane Revival — it’s over in less than twenty minutes — but it serves as a fine introduction to the band and an accurate encapsulation of a certain sound that was all but guaranteed to get airplay in college radio in the mid-eighties. And it’s good enough to demonstrate why that automatic attention was an entirely reasonable strategy.

 

 

martin street

965. Moon Martin, Street Fever (1980)

John David Martin was hardly the first or only rock ‘n’ roll songwriter to regularly reference the moon in his lyrics, but he apparently did it often enough that it impacted his onstage billing. Moon Martin had his greatest success writing songs for others, most notably “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor),” which surely would have stood as Robert Palmer’s signature hit had music video director Terence Donovan never alit on the idea of dead-eyed model musicians in tight dresses.

Martin released several albums under his own name. Street Fever was the fourth, and it likely arrived with some modest but real expectations of commercial success, spurred by his excursion into the Billboard Top 40 the prior year, with the single “Rolene.” Much of Street Fever mines the same vein from which Martin extracted that hit for Palmer, but with fewer causes to cry, “Eureka!”

“Five Days of Fever” has a guitar line that recalls Heart’s “Barracuda” (Martin really liked building songs with a racing pulse), but a leaden delivery, and the otherwise solid “Signal for Help”  is nearly undone by limp lyrics (“Little girl, you’re all mixed up/ You oughta know by now/ L.A. dreams have no cure/ They got you cryin'”). It’s worse when Martin tries to stretch much beyond the early rock ‘n’ roll that clearly inspires him. In particular, “Love Gone Bad” is the sort of gruesomely lush ballad that helped invent adult contemporary radio.

In its better moments, though, Street Fever approaches the high bar set by Martin’s classicist contemporaries Marshall Crenshaw or Dave Edmunds. “No Dice” even has the sound and cadence of a nifty Rockpile knock off, complete with briskly delivered, amusing lyrics (“Only a voodoo pin/ Could account for the shape I’m in”).  There’s a real sense of anxiety in “Bad News,” both in the popping guitar line and Martin’s trilling vocals, and “Rollin’ in My Rolls” nearly captures the easy, mischievous spirit of the Chuck Berry songs it ably apes. Again, it’s the lyrics that could have used another pass. They’re about as dumb as the song title implies.

 

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