944. David Johansen, Here Comes the Night (1981)
Being a legend is nice, but alone it doesn’t keep the debt collector satisfied. As the frontman of the New York Dolls, David Johansen could lay a claim to being among the many inventors of punk rock music. Five years after the band played its last gig (reunions would come, but such thoughts were folly in rock culture of the early-nineteen-eighties), Johansen had a reasonably prolific solo career. What he didn’t have was record sales.
Ahead of his third solo album, Here Comes the Night, Johansen axed the backing band he’d worked with since the dissolution of the New York Dolls. The attempt at creative reinvention included stepping away from collaborations with his old bandmate Sylvain Sylvain, who’d been at his side on practically every music endeavor since the first New York Dolls record. (Sylvain does receive a co-writing credit on one track, but is otherwise nowhere to be heard.) And Johansen enlisted Blondie Chaplin, most famous as a replacement member of the Beach Boys, to product the album.
As should probably be expected, the resulting album is a bundle of oddities, a stab at making commercially appealing music from a performer who has no earthly idea what that might sound like. On the record jacker, Johansen looks like the troublemaking cousin who shows up on an episode of The Monkees, and he leans into that vibe, churning out bopping pop-rock that’s been scored with rust-tinged razor blades. And the prevailing sentiment is of devilish nightlife jaunts free of care, though Johansen’s mild detachment from the lyrics he yelps suggests — perhaps inadvertently — that the beautifully battered New York City party scene is coming to an end. On the title cut, when Johansen sings, “If what we did last night was a sin/ I’m going out tonight to do it again,” it sound dutiful rather than rebellious, as if the hangover begins preemptively.
The album dumps a messy piñataful of tainted treats with every swing. “She Loves Strangers” finds some appeal with an airy chorus and Johansen’s vintage glam rock preening on the vocals. And the boisterous fun of “Bohemian Love Pad” is enhanced by the loopy lyrics (“We had a voodoo party last night/ And all the neighbors got so uptight”). The words lyrics similarly elevate the bland chug of “My Obsession,” especially when Johansen draws on geopolitical metaphors to express his romantic travails, singing, “Berlin Wall wrapped around my heart/ United Nations couldn’t tear it apart”). There are even little hints of the Buster lurking within, found in the mild calypso currents of “Marquesa de Sade” and “Rollin’ Job.”
Despite Johansen’s best efforts — which included a stint as the support act for Pen Benatar on tour — the album failed to chart. It was going to take yet more drastic reinventions to deliver Johansen a hit.
943. The Cat Heads, Submarine (1988)
The Cat Heads was a San Francisco band made with a roster cobbled together from other groups that made their living gigging around the bay. Members were drawn from Love Circus, Ophelia, X-Tal, and Donner Party, some of which had their own nibbles of success on college radio. Signed to Restless Records (which also put them in the Enigma Records galaxy of stars for their first album), the Cat Heads released music that was pitched perfectly at the tastes of student programmers at the time: tuneful, a little earthy, and rough around the edges.
Submarine, the band’s sophomore album, was co-produced by David Lowery, whose band Camper Van Beethoven was just experiencing its first significant crossover success (apart from the Dr. Demento crowd, that is), with the album Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. The resulting music doesn’t sound much like anything Lowery was doing with his day job, but there’s a certain polish that’s shared by the material. It’s the assured tone of sharp musical craftspersons figuring out how to stay true to themselves while also fitting in with the emerging college radio scene.
In general, the Cat Heads — and Submarine, in particular — probably deserved to be bigger. The punchy, keening “Alice on the Radio” sure sounds like a college radio hit to me. And the soulful female vocals on “Apologize” suggest the result if Maria McKee fronted a more spirited, jittery version of Lone Justice. The band only made limited headway, though. After Submarine, half the roster quit, leading to one more release under the dispiriting, modified name the (ex) Cat Heads before the band called it quits for good.
942. Fuzzbox, We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It (1986)
Not every band name is cryptic. By all accounts, the quartet of women from Birmingham named their band when they acquired a distortion pedal and simply, understandably announced, “We’ve got a fuzzbox, and we’re gonna use it.” That name’s as good as any, right?
The declarative sentence stuck as the group’s name in their U.K. homeland, but it was shortened to simply Fuzzbox for the States. Attention spans may vary. For the U.S. release of the band’s debut album, Bostin’ Steve Austin, the band name became the album title, and a couple tracks from their earlier EP were tacked on. All this shifting around doesn’t impact the fundamentals of the music, which is brash, loud, playful, and, yes, fuzzy.
The lack of Y chromosomes among the band members inevitably invited comparisons to other all-female groups with chart success at about the same time, and there are indeed times when the audible illustration is too perfect. Due to its harmonies and lilting melody, “Jackie” sounds like Go-Go’s with smeared mascara and ripped tights (albeit with some horns imported over from Madness). Elsewhere, though, Fuzzbox is making their own liquored-up frosting. “Love is the Slug” is catchy and enticing, and “What’s the Point” has the discombobulating tingle of a novice ska band trying to survive a night in which they were mis-booked into the gnarliest punk club in town. I’m also partial to the rumbling semi of “You Got Me,” the furious guitar that opens “Alive,” and the cover of “Spirit in the Sky” so dismissive of any respectful fidelity to the original hit that is renders it nearly unrecognizable.
941. The Cure, Let’s Go to Bed (EP) (1982)
For the past week, I’ve been trying to figure out what the CMJ chart compilers are referring to when they slot in Let’s Go to Bed (EP) sixty places into the chart. There’s really no such thing in the Cure’s discography, and this is not exactly a band that has avoided obsessive cataloging in their long, influential career. Best I can figure, this refers to the 12-inch vinyl release, which included a version of “Let’s Go to Bed” that stretched to nearly eight minutes on one side, and a shorter version of the song along with a sprawling mix of “Just One Kiss” on the other. Since this is really about the one song — albeit it a notably significant one in the pantheon of the band — let’s revive the style of summary we used when clicking through the CMJ top 250 tracks from the same era.
“Let’s Go to Bed” first stirred to life as a demo recorded for the Cure album Pornography. Entitled “Temptation,” it remained an instrumental until front man Robert Smith took another pass at it. “Temptation Two” is a grand, gloomy swirl, but the key to the song it would eventually become lay in the final moments, in which Smith sings a few nonsense syllables. Smith reworked the material one more time, crafting “Let’s Go to Bed” a spoofing provocation, mocking the empty pop songs that he disdained even as they climbed the charts. He was also taking a hard swing the band’s dreary image.
“My reaction to all those people who thought that the Cure could only be pessimistic and negative and predictable was to make a demented and calculated song like ‘Let’s Go to Bed,'” Smith later explained. “The purpose was to specifically destroy our image and then somehow start it all over again.”
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.