College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #852 to #849

oingo ngo

852. Oingo Boingo, Boi-ngo (1987)

Surely, MCA Records expected Oingo Boingo was poised for a major commercial breakthrough when the band delivered Boi-ngo, their sixth album overall and second for the label. Thanks in part to frontman Danny Elfman’s increasing presence in the business of crafting music for Hollywood movies, Oingo Boingo had a minor hit through providing the title song for a John Hughes comedy and added to their prominence by playing the house band for a Back to School college party (the film also boasted one of Elfman’s first original scores). The sprawling band from Los Angeles was primed to step forward from cult heroes to genuine hitmakers, so it seemed.

Boi-ngo simply didn’t have that kind of magic in it. For better or worse, it was a standard Oingo Boingo album, spotted with decent songs, but also with plenty of mediocre material, inkling of songs that were stretched to several minutes, the pogoing beats and blaring horn parts unable to divert from inherent redundancy. Album opener “Home Again” finds the band at their best: tinkling synth lines, zesty brass, thumping beat, and Elfman’s genially fevered vocals adding up to a dizzying assemblage of sound. It’s the product of a band uniquely equipped to keep the rock club hopping all night, or at least until it becomes apparent that their sleeves have fewer tricks shoved up there than initially indicated.

Elfman is idiosyncratic enough as a composer that he can romp into fascinating sonic territory. “Elevator Man” opens with a recording manipulation that sounds like it could be the preface to some glorious collaboration between Laurie Anderson and Tune-Yards, making it a letdown when the track devolves to a standard Oingo Boingo construct of basic yet fussy dance music and willfully dopey lyrics (“I ride my elevator/ Through the shafts of your heart/ When you climb aboard baby/ There’s no getting off”). “My Life” has so much grand stylish swagger, it’s like an ABC song by way of Elfman’s sensibility. And what “We Close Our Eyes” lack in adventurousness, it makes up for with the tight construction and offhand catchiness that suggests its crafter is already instinctively shaped his output to fit comfortably when draped across cinematic closing credits.

Boi-ngo wasn’t the end of Oingo Boingo’s recording career, but it probably represents the last time Elfman could reasonably consider the band his day job. By the time of the band’s next studio effort (Dark End of the Tunnel, released in 1990), he was highly in demand as a composer of movie music. When a significant revamped (and indifferently renamed) version of the band released their final album, in 1994, it was clear they were little more than an afterthought for Elfman.

 

 

was born

851. Was (Not Was), Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (1983)

Don Fagenson and David Weiss grew up together in just outside of Detroit, tinkering around the local music scene separately and together (as performers, as local rock critics) before decided to respond to the icy revving of new wave and the spent sweat of disco by forming a new funk group that incorporated elements of the other forms with an archly constructed irony that made it difficult to discern if it was all a put on. Adding to the theatricality, the musicians dubbed themselves Don and David Was, aligning their identities with the name chosen for the band: Was (Not Was).

Born to Laugh at Tornadoes was the group’s second album, and it extends the artistic gamesmanship. The two men who would be Was are the constants on the album, but it’s probably more notable for the string of guest stars filling in its grooves, some of them deployed in deliberately incongruous ways. The lineup was so full of notables that a promotional sticker slapped on the front of the album queried, “How many famous people do you think sang on this album?” A parenthetical note below helpfully suggested, “See back for clues.” It’s strange enough when Mel Tormé lends his sooth croon to the strange saga “Zaz Turned Blue” (“One night in the park for a lark/ Zaz let Steve Brown fool around/ Steve squeezed his neck, figured what the heck/ But Zaz hit the ground, he was downed”), but Ozzy Osbourne contributing to the Devo-esque art synth wildness of “Shake Your Head (Let’s Go to Bed)” crosses over into the mystic land of Why-the-Hell-Not? The Mitch Ryder vocals on the chrome-plated rock number “Bow Wow Wow Wow” are mundane in comparison.

The balance between sincerity and put-on that served Was (Not Was) well on later albums was just being formulated on Born to Laugh at Tornadoes. Regular collaborator Sweet Pea Atkinson sings with authority on “Knocked Down, Made Small (Treated Like a Rubber Ball),” adding legitimacy to the appropriation of thunderous seventies funk. And David Was’s snarled storytelling on “The Party Broke Up” is a reasonable rough draft for the superior “I Feel Better Than James Brown” a few years later, and “Smile” is amsuing for the way it sounds like it’s designed to appear across the opening credits of a Fast Times at Ridgemont High knockoff. The genre tomfoolery can make the material feel a little hollowed out (“(Return to the Valley of) Out Come the Freaks” is just Prince-lite), but overall the rambunctiousness of the duo’s creativity makes for grand fun.

 

 

bluebells sisters

850. Bluebells, Sisters (1984)

“Our songs are very optimistic, even when we’re writing about things that are really bad,” Robert Hodgens once explained about the material offered up by his band the Bluebells. “We are honest, but there’s no point going around gloomy and doomy because everybody just gets depressed.”

Hailing from Scotland, the Bluebells played an chipper, airy brand of guitar pop that was especially refreshing before the sound was pervasive enough that “indie” was bandied about to describe it. Following singles and EP, Sisters was considered the band’s first true album, though even it was reliant of tracks that already had some history. That approach was wholly typical for the era, as bands with an eye on the U.K. charts made sure new discs were in the shops with the regularity of popular periodicals.

If there’s nothing all that revolutionary about Sisters, most of the material is engaging enough. U.K. hit “Young at Heart” is a splendid antic jig cut with yearning vocals, and the loping rhythm and soaring hook of “Red Guitars” gives it the feel of a punchier version of something Squeeze might lob into a B-side. “Will She Always Be Waiting?” makes the band sound like a more prickly, insistent version of the Dream Academy. I’m also fond of the ricocheting percussion breaks on “South Atlantic Way.” There are also plentiful signs of the limits of the band’s rang. “The Patriot Game,” a cover of an old folk ballad by Dominic Behan, strives for earnest political reflection and winds up merely drab and a touch pretentious.

The Bluebells didn’t last long past Sisters. The first of many reunions happened in the early nineteen-nineties, after interest in their music was revived by the inclusion of “Young at Heart” in a Volkswagen commercial.

 

 

march shades

849. The March Violets, Electric Shades (1985)

Electric Shades was the second album released by the March Violets, but there was enough tumult in the roster that it may as well have been presented as the product of a whole new group. Perhaps most notably, lead singer Rosie Garland was out of the band, replaced by Cleo Murray, and fellow vocalist Simon Denbigh departed midway through the recording process. Reflecting that wibbly wobbly trek to completion, Electric Shades has the feel of roving compromising. It’s a goth rock record that steadily sheds any vestiges of drama and danger to become just more eighties dance pop.

Like goth titans of the era the Sisters of Mercy, the March Violets were from Leeds, and there are instances on the album where the lesser known band is clearly pulling from the same fetid, murky well. “Snake Dance,” in particular, sounds like the Sisters of Mercy on stronger meds. The glittered silt starts to settle to the bottom, though, resulting in weird hybrids. “Walk Into the Sun” is like the Call taking a crack at goth, and “Electric Shades Part 1” could be a track from a version of Roxette toughened up by a bar fight or two. Until the squall of guitars at the end, “Eldorado” is generically of the era that it could believable be attributed to any number of artists briefly embraced and then rapidly discarded by MTV.

The blatant commercial aspirations of the March Violets worked, at least to a degree. They managed to make headway in the vital avenues of the time, including an appearance in a film off the John Hughes factory. They accumulated achievements without any of it adding up to a true commercial breakthrough. The band broke up in 1987. In the customary fashion, reunions followed.

 

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

From the Archive — 90FM-WWSP 50th Anniversary Playlist

1968 90fm

Diligent radio personnel working a shift in the earliest days of WWSP-FM, the student-run radio station at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Fifty years ago today, a college radio station went on the air in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Broadcasting at 89.9 on the FM dial at a mighty ten watts, the station’s call letters were WSUS, referencing its place on the campus on Wisconsin State College-Stevens Point. In the early nineteen-seventies, the school was brought into the University of Wisconsin system. Shortly thereafter, the humble little station made an identity adjustment of its own. Since the spring of 1972, the broadcast outlet has been WWSP.

I can’t overstate the importance of that place to me, as is probably obvious from anyone who’s devoted even the tiniest amount of time to reading the posts that appear here on Fridays. For my retrospective purposes, I typically focus on the music. In actuality, my inclusion in the station’s culture — including my great honor to be a part of its leadership team during my undergraduate years — was about so much more than ready access to a grand haul of records. It was about the camaraderie, the learning, the personal growth, and the gratifying responsibility of being stewards of the public airwaves.

I loved playing songs on the radio, but my proudest time at the station was when the Gulf War began, in January of 1991, prompting several of the staffers to spontaneously convene in the studio to pull together an original hour of news programming, including a live remote report from a downtown protest and a live phone interview with our community’s representative in the U.S. Congress. There was no plan to do this. We simply all felt it was our responsibility as broadcasters to respond to a major event in this fashion. And the war was launched during our Winter Break, so WWSP was short-staffed. It didn’t matter. Those of who were around were fully committed to the station.

“From the Archive” is usually devoted to old writing, but today I’m focusing on a bygone radio show, though not from all that long ago. A few weeks ago, I was given the chance to fill-on on the excellent and long-running WWSP Sunday night show Then and Now, usually hosted by my pal Wayne Edwards. Since we were within the official anniversary month for the station, I offered my own tribute and celebration, playing one song from each of the fifty years that the station has been on the air.

I didn’t record the shift (even now that my spins in the air chair are rare, I still prefer radio shows as fleeting events that are preserved only in memories), but I built a YouTube playlist that mirrors the one I delivered on the air that evening. There’s one track missing: the song I selected for 2018, Lucy Dacus‘s “Next of Kin.” That seems fitting, somehow. The most current song is the one that hasn’t found a permanent place on the internet. If you want to hear it, try turning on the radio.

One for Friday — The Feelies, “It’s Only Life”

feelies

Thirty years ago, in the early autumn of 1988. the Feelies released their third full-length album, Only Life. Even though its predecessor came only two years earlier, the arrival of Only Life felt momentous for several reason, arguably the least of which was its status as the band’s major label debut. The Feelies debuted with one of those albums that almost immediately earned exalted status, in larger part because the LP in question, 1980’s Crazy Rhythms, fell out of print quickly and was notoriously hard to track down for years and years. (It’s also terrific, but being fair, it was the sparse availability of the album that made it into a cult legend.) It took six years before the follow-up arrived, and it was something of a surprise, since the band were elusive in the interim, only playing occasionally under the name the Feelies. The 1986 album The Good Earth felt oddly spectral, as if its very existence was in doubt. Only Life confirmed the Feelies were a real, ongoing concern, and they were fantastic.

I’ve written about this album before, including humble attempts to convey its special status in my memories of plunging into college radio. Only Life was a charmed artifact in the station’s new music rotation when I signed my FCC operator’s license. It topped the college chart that fall, and “Away,” its lead single, was cemented into the 120 Minutes playlist in the form of a Jonathan Demme-directed video mesmerizing in its lovely simplicity. The album was an exemplar of what my membership in the station provided me, at least in terms of my burgeoning music fandom. Although they had a history, this was a band I hadn’t heard of before I crossed the station’s threshold, and they surely would have remained largely outside of my knowledge base if I didn’t have a place behind the broadcast board. Instead, they were a new favorite, claiming my committed attention. I played every last song off that album multiple times across my on-air shifts, memorizing the pulsing notes and finding deep truths in the plainspoken lyrics, especially the almost-title cut “It’s Only Life.”

Demme didn’t only direct the band’s music video, their first. He was deeply committed to the group, openly pondering the viability of a concert film (just a few years after he’d directed the absolute pinnacle of the form) and casting them as the band playing a high school reunion in his terrific comedy Something Wild. Demme also described the band’s virtues better than anyone. “The Feelies are a group of intense musical scientists,” he told Spin. “At the heart of rock ‘n’ roll is the twin guitar attack. Nobody does it better than they do. Maybe because they’re so studiously uncareerist, there is no better band.”

Thirty years later, that assessment strikes me a still spot-on.

Listen or download —> The Feelies, “It’s Only Life”

(Disclaimer: When I wrote about this album a couple years ago, it appeared to me to be out of print as a physical object, the fate of most of the many college rock offerings of A&M Records in nineteen-eighties and beyond. I’ll admit, I haven’t checked to see if that’s still the case, but I also don’t mean for the sharing of this track to be a replacement for engaging in commerce that compensates the original artist and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently owned record store. Quite the opposite, in fact: Go and buy whatever you can from the Feelies. It’s all worthy of an honored place in a collection, including the two most recent reunion-type efforts. Although I’m sharing this track with the best of intentions and under the legal principle of fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove the file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Programming Note

protesters

I haven’t been watching the vital Congressional testimony taking place today, but I have been following it, largely through the lens of social media and online news sources. Particularly when considering the courage it took for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to go to that chamber and recount the worst moment of her life in front of a fleet of privileged men who were at best politely indifferent to her pain and at worst cautiously hostile to it, I feel cowardly, like I’m watching a scary movie through the narrow slits between fingers that mask my face.

Still, I am exhausted by the rage and aching sympathy I feel despite the distancing tactic I’ve adopted. I can only imagine — or, rather, I can’t truly fathom — what today must be like for those who are survivors of sexual assault or harassment, for those who have been reflexively dismissed because of their gender, for those who have endured the worst of a power structure that boxes out their concerns.

I have struck myself a requirement to put something in this space every day, but I can’t bring myself to tap out my usual breezy assessments of pop culture. And this moment certainly doesn’t require another male voice weighing in. I’ve already tapped out more words than I’ve intended.

Instead, I’d like to redirect any who stumble here to…

—Lili Loofbourow, writing for Slate: “The awful things Kavanaugh allegedly did only imperfectly correlate to the familiar frame of sexual desire run amok; they appear to more easily fit into a different category—a toxic homosociality—that involves males wooing other males over the comedy of being cruel to women.”

—Jia Tolentino, writing for The New Yorker: “In college, fraternity costume parties, engineered to encourage women to dress as sluttily as possible, felt to me as distant from actual sex as Trump’s remark about Tic Tacs: men seemed to be getting women to doll themselves up as ‘tennis hoes’ to their ‘golf pros’ just to prove that they could.”

—Liana Schaffner, writing for Teen Vogue: “While our male counterparts apparently drank and partied with impunity, my classmates and I had to endure morality class, where we learned that French kissing outside of marriage is a sin because it could lead to arousal, which is also a sin unless you intend to conceive a child, because birth control is (surprise) a sin.”

—Emily Jane Fox, writing for Vanity Fair: “’I still have a fear of being outed. You see how people are questioning [Ford] about her character and her choices—why didn’t she come forward? What was she doing in that room? Why was she in a swimsuit?’ she said. ‘But for a lot of us who kept silent for a long time, we’ve been waiting for an opportunity to right this. You can’t talk about trauma without talking about shame, because it gets hardwired into the experience. But shame can’t survive the spoken word.'”

—Jessica Valenti, writing for Medium: “You don’t have to be an abuser to enable abuse, and over the last few weeks, Americans have watched that reality play out on the national stage.”

—And finally, for anyone who might reasonably need a goddamn break from thinking about this, the ludicrously brilliant Taffy Brodesser-Akner writing about Bradley Cooper for The New York Times.

Now Playing — A Simple Favor

a simple favor

A Simple Favor is precisely the film Paul Feig needed at this point in his directorial career. The filmmaker will always have an honored place in my personal pantheon thanks to his efforts on the practically perfect television series Freaks and Geeks, but his film career, though spotted with undeniable hits, has been spottier creatively. The main problem is one that has been pervasive in modern film comedy: a pronounced tendency to overstuff films with every last bit that might possibly induce someone somewhere to let out even the mildest chuckle. In the kindest appraisal, this approach represents a laudable generosity of spirit, but in execution it generally leads to movies that are unwieldy and ultimately deadened by the many stretches that feel extraneous or simply don’t work. In crafting A Simple Favor, Feig’s habit of undermining his own work is shunted aside by the unavoidable rigors of genre storytelling.

Based on a novel by Darcey Bell, A Simple Favor is a thriller, albeit one with a dewy film of satire upon it. The film follows Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a widowed single mother who comes across as an eager goody two-shoes in her New York bedroom community. She comes under the sway of Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), the mother of one of her son’s classmates. Emily is the opposite of Stephanie. She’s smooth, assertive, self-assured, happiest when downing potent martinis and assessing her environs with a sharpened tongue. Emily induces Stephanie to push against her own boundaries, even as she also starts leaning on the meeker mom to help address some domestic shortcomings, which stem from a mix of indifference and a demanding job in the city. At one point, Emily seeks some help, telling Stephanie she’s been called out of town at the same time her husband (Henry Golding) has been called to London to look after an ailing relative. And from there, the gears of potentially insidious happenings begin to grind.

By necessity, Feig brings a welcome discipline to his filmmaking, the demands of a Hitchcockian narrative (the adapted screenplay is credited to Jessica Sharzer) naturally cutting down on digressions, comic or otherwise. As his exploratory tomfoolery subsides, his visual sense strengthens. Shot by John Schwartzman, the film has a lithe elegance and a nimble visual wit. Feig can’t quite maintain his trickily entwined tone — part starkly serious, part sardonic — all the way to the end, in part because of the characters sometimes spin out as they try to make the turns necessary to keep up with the twisty plot. To that point, though, Feig has handled the complex, layered storytelling with admirable skill.

The individual who enjoys the clearest triumph in A Simple Favor, though, is Lively. Gifted with a vibrant, headstrong character, she instill a charisma so potent it’s like it was simmered on the low heat down to a thick reduction sauce. She cracks off barbed lines with perfection and surveys everyone around her with a scampish cunning. Before the major machinations of the plot engage, Lively has already injected thrills into the film strictly through the flinty force of her acting. Taking command of a film to that degree is definitely far from simple.

Great Moments in Literature

“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors. Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone they thought they were Dumbo.”

—Elif Batuman, The Idiot, 2017

 

BUT, OF WHAT AVAIL IS COURAGE? OF WHAT AVAIL IS GRIM RESOLVE…AGAINST A FOE WHO CANNOT BE DEFEATED??

—Stan Lee, THOR, Vol. 1, No. 151, “–To Rise Again,” 1968

Laughing Matters — Funny or Die, “Non-Voters Anonymous”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

If the flaming disaster that is the current U.S. federal government serves as a catalyst to get previously apathetic citizens to vote, it still won’t have been worth it. But at least something good would have come out of the ascendance of one of the worst humans the country has to offer to the highest post in the land despite finishing second place when all the votes were tallied.