College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #928 to #925

cale honi

928. John Cale, Honi Soit (1981)

“Among the True Perverts of Rock, John Cale has always been the most persistently wanton,” Boo Browing wrote in The Washington Post around the time Cale released the album Honi Soit. I believe it was meant as a compliment.

Honi Soit was Cale’s first studio album in six years and his debut on A&M Records. Although Cale’s laudable efforts as a producer and crafter of esoteric rock throughout the nineteen-seventies lent him an aura of éminence grise, he lagged well behind Lou Reed, his old Velvet Underground bandmate, in popular stature. In some ways, Honi Soit seems an overt attempt at bridging that distance or at least reclaiming his piece of the building legacy of Andy Warhol’s famed and influential house band. (Warhol provided the cover art for Honi Soit, but was reportedly irritated that Cale added color to a design intended to be black-and-white.) On the track “Russian Roulette,” Cale even appropriates some of the punk-adjacent brashness that was Reed’s stock-in-trade.

In general, Cale is in fine form on Honi Soit, his songwriting sharp and his musicianship assured. Album opener “Dead or Alive” is delightfully robust, as is “Fighter Pilot,” which sounds like classic rock turned inside out. The latter benefits enormously from the fierce, prominent backing vocals by post-punk upstarts Mo-dettes (renamed the Bomberettes to align with the aviation branding in the liner notes, which also finds Cale credited as the “flight surgeon”). “Strange Times in Casablanca” sounds like the kind of song that would have resulted had  Ernest Hemingway arrived a couple generations later and disregarded fiction writing in favor of a rock music career (“And doors have doors have doors have doors have doors/ Like companions have pets they sleep in each other’s mattresses”).

Commercial aspirations or not, Cale remains an experimentalist at heart, which doesn’t always sit well amidst the more straightforward material. His cover version of the traditional song “Streets of Laredo” eventually starts to sound to me like so much sonic clutter, but I’ve no doubt there are plenty who’d find it to be the most satisfying track on the album. And realistically, any thoughts of crossover were probably fanciful. Honi Soit was the first — and, to date, only — Cale album to register on the Billboard album chart (peaking at #154), but it wasn’t enough for the record executives at A&M. The partnership was dissolved, and Cale moved on to record for labels more amenable to the modest sales possibilities that came with his challenging approach.

 

 

dead fruit

927. Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)

Dead Kennedys came into being because Raymond Pepperell (better known as East Bay Ray) saw a ska-punk band playing in San Francisco and figured he could do just as well as they did. He put up flyers and placed ads in local newspapers, declaring, “guitarist wants to start punk or new wave band.” The first person to respond was a Colorado native and recent transplant to California named Eric Boucher, who took the stage name Jello Biafra. Before long, the rest of the band gelled, and they opted for punk instead of new wave. In summer 1979, close to the year anniversary of the band forming, Dead Kennedys released their first single, “California Über Alles.”

The following year, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, the band’s debut album arrived. The assemblage of politically-minded punk rock scaled by acidic humor included “California Über Alles,” as well as another preceding single, the discomfiting romp “Holiday in Cambodia.” Those two tracks are rightly iconic, and they are reasonably representative of the quality across the album. There are hint of the posturing to come, but most of the album trembles with the vicious of angry citizens who’ve used scrap metal and baling wire to build a platform for preaching to those on the precipice of conversion. They’ll be joined by no unexpected allies, but the kindred souls will feel real good about thrusting their tightly clenched fists in the air.

Because of their propensity for humor — sophomoric and otherwise — Dead Kennedys avoid skewing towards the didactic, even as they deliver treatises of the dismals state of society. “Chemical Warfare” is characteristic, employing a fuming playfulness, complete with a punked-up circus music interlude and a screaming bee swarm of noise near the end. Lead singer Biafra regularly shows he learned all the right lessons for Johnny Rotten, stretching the first word in the “neutron bomb” to about four syllables on “Kill the Poor,” for example. And the band is appropriately ferocious throughout, arguably best heard in the sandpaper guitars of “Ill in the Head” or the zippy rat-a-tat of “When Ya Get Drafted.”

Even with an obvious built-in limit to have successful the band could be, Dead Kennedys got plenty of attention due to Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, including overtures from major label Polydor. Supposedly, the possibility of signing on with corporate overlords spurred some vehement disagreements between Biafra and Ray, but they never needed to reach a final decision. The label lost interest when they heard the title of the single Dead Kennedys recorded as their follow-up to the album: “Too Drunk to Fuck.”

 

 

gordon rock

926. Robert Gordon, Rock Billy Boogie (1979)

Robert Gordon was a performer out of time, but he was determined to make his favored music anyway. As a boy, he loved the rockabilly performers of the nineteen-fifties, doggedly insisting the supremacy of the earlier music when British invasion and psychedelic acts took over in during his teenaged years. He formed a band called the Continentals and stuck with the sound he loved. Then he landed in New York in 1970, and before long it was clear that the best way to keep working as a musician was to embrace the ascendant punk sound. Gordon became lead singer of a band called the Tuff Darts, which spent time on the stage of CBGB as the club started its trek into rock legend.

Gordon’s chance to live his real dream came when Richard Gottehrer, a record executive who started in music biz as a Brill Building songwriter, attended a show and heard the performer croon his way through an Elvis Presley cover. Though Gottehrer was hardly stuck in the past (he produced the debut albums by Blondie and Richard Hell and the Voidoids), he recognized the possibility of a lucrative revival of bygone rock styles. He paired Gordon with guitarist Link Wray, and whole new career was underway.

Rock Billy Boogie was Gordon’s first record without Wray at his side, but there was ample compensation in the arrival of ace guitarist Chris Spedding. Comprised almost entirely of covers, the album is little more than a spirited careen through a well-curated record collection. Even so, the commitment of all involved in clear from the album-opening title cut. Gordon and his cohorts deploy every nifty gimmick they can think of — a boisterous call and response on “All By Myself,” clicking noises sound effects on “Wheel of Fortune,” an explicit call-out to Gene Vincent on “The Catman” —  and it always comes across as lovingly sincere. Adding to the authenticity, when Gordon tries his hand at an original, such as the lovelorn ballad “I Just Met a Memory,” he proves himself as capable a creator as he is a caretaker.

 

 

swans children

925. Swans, Children of God (1987)

When devout experimentalists released Children of God, their fifth album, fans couldn’t quite make sense of how conventional it sounded. Full of drama, menace, and confrontational choices, the reaction says more about the previous output of the band than the material spread across the album’s four sides. It was seen as enough of a departure that individual band members found themselves explaining the evolution.

“I’d say it’s all been evolving over the last two years or so,” band leader Michael Gira said at the time. “I just think we’re developing into a much more musical enterprise as opposed to a much more concretist enterprise. I wouldn’t say a-musical or anti-musical, because I think that was a misnomer with regard to what we used to be. There’s certainly a lot more room for subtlety and sensitivity now.”

As the title implies, Children of God offers commentary on the influence of religion, particularly the Catholic Church. The band’s propensity for harsh poetry in the lyrics is especially well suited to spooked and spooky imagery connected to religious ritual, and when Gira brings the grind of his heavy bass voice to evocations of godly love, it sounds precisely as unsettling as he hopes (“I will always remember/ Your hand on my shoulder/ Pulling me down/ Pulling me down/ Into the cold dead earth,” on “Real Love,” is chill-inducing). Add in the occasional zombie choir or orchestral layering, and it’s as though Swans were trying to make all the goth bands of the day look like sunny amateurs.

Children of God opens with the slow march disturbance of “New Mind.” That sets the sonic thesis of the album, and Swans keep circling back to sly variants, such as the thunderclouds leaking sludge of “Sex, God, Sex” or angsty grind “Trust Me.” It’s arguably yet more unnerving when the band opts for comparative quiet, as with the ethereal twang on “Our Love Lies” or “Blackmail,” which plays like Kate Bush’s spare elegance stripped to the raw studs. And sometimes Swans simply puts everything they’ve got on the table. “Like a Drug (Sha La La La)” is so packed with odd elements — Gira’s yawning vocals, zinging electronic insertions, a eerily off-tune chorus of voices — that it seems an attempt to induce madness.

The changes on Children of God were only the beginning for Swans. Gira complained about audience expectations and resolutely pushed away from them, including a diversion into a side project known as either Skin or World of Skin, depending on which side of the Atlantic one was on when purchasing the resulting records. As the the double album already demonstrated, Gira and his cohorts were going to do whatever they wanted, fan preferences be damned.

 

 

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