932. Rush, Signals (1982)
I think the prevailing opinion is that the nineteen-eighties demolished the prospects for classic rock bands, especially as MTV took almost complete control over determining which songs were worthy of upward chart movement. There’s some truth to that, but there was also some clear accommodation for those artists who know how to adapt to the times through honest exploration that didn’t pander. It usually involved nicking some of the stylistic tics of new wave music while still maintaining some sense of persisting identity.
Eight studio albums and ten years into their recording career, Rush delivered Signals. The proper follow-up to Moving Pictures, the band’s 1981 breakthrough, the album luxuriates in their usual prog rock swirls, but it’s also notably tighter than might be expected, clicking with synthesized syncopations and generally applying an intriguingly tense songcraft. U.S. audiences rewarded the pinging revolution by making single “New World Man” the one U.S. Top 40 hit of the band’s career. Sounding more like the Police or Peter Gabriel than a rehash of “Tom Sawyer,” the track demonstrates the trio’s willingness to expand their process.
The album is also novel for the inclusion of the tidal wave gurgle of “Chemistry,” which is a rare instance of singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee and guitarist Eric Lifeson pitching in on lyrics and perhaps an implicit argument against their participation in the wordsmith portion of the process (“Elemental empathy/ A change of synergy/ Music making contact/ Naturally”). Mostly, though, the album makes its impression with its morass of sonics. “The Weapon” has a juicy, jammy midsection with zinging synths and storm cloud guitars, and “Losing It” is soft as swamp muck, at least until the appearance of studio effects piercing enough to prompt the agitated removal of bulked up headphones to spare the nerves.
Even with its batch of nifty tricks, Signals — like much of the rest of the Rush discography — is undoubtedly an acquired taste. It exhibits the band’s trademark ponderousness, which means its likely to wear on all but the most devoted. In this instance, that endurance test quality is the band keeping their stamp clear even as they try out the unfamiliar.
931. The Reivers, Saturday (1987)
Hailing from Austin, the Reivers deal with a lot of headaches around names. They recorded their first two albums under the moniker Zeitgeist, only to wind up in a scrap with another group that claimed rights to the name. Like good Southerners, the Texans looked to the William Faulkner section of the library and settled on the Reivers. In the ceaseless insistence on categorizing every new act that comes along, the music press pronounced the Reivers to be members of a movement called “New Sincerity,” a pallid descriptor no rock band should ever be called upon to transcend.
Saturday was the first album released under the name the Reivers, and it was also the band’s first for major label Capitol Records. Adding to the sense of a grand new arrival, the album was produced by Don Dixon, still basking in the reverberating admiration that came from overseeing the early R.E.M. records. The album meets the enhanced expectations in winning form.
“What Am I Doing” opens the album with the big, echoing drum sound of Big Country before settling into a charming bar band groove with intermingling vocals on John Croslin and Kim Longacre. The album has a headlong authority as it melds sharp songwriting with earthy truthfulness. What could be basic instead becomes charming and sweet, as on the gentle pop gem “In Your Eyes” (“I see myself in your eyes/ And it looks so nice”). The production is mid-eighties pristine, but there’s also allowances for the spirited slop of “Karate Party” and Meat Puppets echoes on “Wait for Time.” And the title cuts sounds like the blessed result of 10,000 Maniacs and the Lemonheads merging.
The constant swings between good and bad fortune continued for the band. Saturday was greeted with warm reviews and college radio support, but it barely registered with commercial radio and the general record-buying public. The band remained heroes in their hometown.
“When the album came out and America didn’t embrace it like we did, that was fine. That was America’s problem” Longacre wrote in the liner notes to a reissue many years later. “The Reivers were still playing Liberty Lunch on Saturday night, and that was good enough for us.”
930. Jethro Tull, The Broadsword & the Beast (1982)
I’m not sure how anyone was able to ever take it seriously when the whole band repeatedly shouts out “Beastie!” on the album opener of the same name, but this Jethro Tull concept album is probably the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll as literary majesty to someone out there, even if its only Ian Anderson. To me, it sounds bloated, inane, and spackled with a posturing pompousness that somehow almost lurid. It’s the epitome of something, all right.
In his original review of the album, Rolling Stone writer Parke Puterbaugh explained The Broadsword & the Beast is “about the erosion of old values in today’s rapidly devolving world.” Sure. You bet. Refraining from the repeated immersive listening experience required to test that hypothesis, I can recognize the Ren-faire-in-the-discotheque noodling, but the overarching plot is so inscrutable it might as well be written in Chapstick on a foggy window pane.
“Clasp” has a skittering rhythm that makes it sound as though it’s intended to accompany a chase scene in a fantasy musical acted out by puppets, “Flying Colours” is peak prog rock gooeyness, and “Pussy Willow” is precisely as embarrassing as the song title implies. I guess some whacked out pleasure can be taken in the loopy merry-go-round of electrified musical affectations on “Watching Me Watching You,” if only because the unashamed excess of it can induce giggles. The agonizing ballad “Slow Marching Band” is more characteristic, presenting purple prose as some elegant prize (“Dream of me as the nights draw cold/ Still marking time through Winter/ You paid the piper and called the tune/ And you marched the band away”).
Inevitably, the theatricality of the album spilled over to the resulting tour. The stage was designed to resemble a Viking ship, and the band performed in costumes that made them look like Medieval pirate admirals. Because making an album like The Broadsword & the Beast mandates taking the conceit absolutely all of the way.
929. Various Artists, No Wave (1978)
As this week’s chunk of Countdown makes very clear, classic rock acts did very on the college charts for a good long time. To the degree that student-run radio had an overarching identity before the nineteen-eighties, it was as a commercial-free clone of the freewheeling album rock stations that helped FM overtake AM in the era of Led Zeppelin and their thunderous brethren. CMJ was a major player in transforming the sound of college radio, but the emergence of a different kind of music artist was an obvious factor, too. It’s tempting to look at the lineup of tracks and the copyright date on the compilation No Wave and declare it Patient Zero of the college rock pandemic.
More of a haphazardly assembled label sampler than an artfully assembled mix, No Wave likely provided many college radio programmers’ introduction to eventual playlist mainstays Squeeze, the Police, and Joe Jackson. Opening an album with “Take Me I’m Yours,” “Roxanne,” and “Got the Time” in succession — when all the tracks were shiny and new — had to provide a roller coaster thrill for kids who previously thought playing a deep cut from Hotel California was primo broadcasting rebellion. And that’s before the needle found the Dickies’ beautiful bratty blasts on side two.
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.