College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #856 to #853

bowie lodger

856. David Bowie, Lodger (1979)

In the relentless fertile field of David Bowie studies, it’s probably accurate to say that Lodger represents the closing of an age. The cycle of constant reinvention of Bowie’s nineteen-seventies output — the decade’s equivalent to the Beatles’ rolling act of astonishing pop music transformation in the similarly lengthened era prior — arguably reached its clamorous conclusion with the 1977 releases Low and “Heroes,” Bowie’s ideas coming at such a rapid pace that a mere ten months separated the two albums. The 1978 double live album Stage press the cap down yet firmer. The string of records has the feel of a marathon runner finally slowing their stride at the breaking of the finish line tape, spent and triumphant at the same time.

Lodger, then, is the first of many false starts on the long back end of a brilliant career. I don’t mean to imply that Lodger isn’t a good album. Such disappointed assessments were plentiful when the record first went through the gauntlet of the music press. Greil Marcus panned it in Rolling Stone, calling out shortcomings as a gateway to wider condemnation of all things Bowie that came before. “David Bowie’s albums are non events, though given the aura he insists on, they’re halfheartedly presented as such: time and again, ideas are run up the flagpole, but try and find the flagpole,” wrote Marcus.

Marcus’s wrongheaded take on the totality of Bowie’s output to that point has a relevance to Lodger that’s difficult to deny. Bowie was working with producer Brian Eno, reportedly using his famed Oblique Strategies cards. The technique surely stirred creativity as intended, but Lodger suggests it could also spin artists in too many directions, losing the thread of their own identity. Bowie is admirably exploratory on Lodger, but then that was hardly a quality of his that needed goosing. He probably would have benefited more from strategies that weren’t designed to go askew. Surely, Eno’s tricks probably helped shaped the wonderfully bizarro “African Night Flights” and the Middle Eastern eerieness in “Yassassin.” These are great tracks, alive with energy. They’re also distancing, in a way, discouraging too much attention and affection because of a pronounced sense of fleeting commitment. Don’t get too attached, the enduring artist has stepped aside for the momentary abstraction.

It’s a testament to the strength of Bowie’s voice that it keeps coming through, even under these odd circumstances. He was simply too powerful a creator — and if if he wasn’t at his peak, he had just barely begun his descent from the summit — to disappear completely. “Boys Keep Swinging” is probably the most characteristic Bowie offering. (Consequently, when released as a single, it made it into the Top 10 on the U.K. chart.) The vibrant churn of “Look Back in Anger” and the lusciously languid “Fantastic Voyage” similarly stand as recognizably awash in Bowie’s abundance. Even “DJ,” which recalls Eno’s collaborations with Talking Heads, ultimately shifts and shimmies its was to the cool pop that was the through line of Bowie’s many changes.

Lodger did about as well as other Bowie albums of the era, though it didn’t register any singles on the U.S. chart. Still, there’s a tangle of compromises to it, making it feel like an ending that’s too tentative to press a new beginning into being. Bowie’s nineteen-seventies albums unquestionably sketched in the blueprint for nineteen-eighties pop. But it was clearly going to take the man himself a little time to catch up to his own innovations.

 

 

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855. Dave Edmunds, Information (1983)

Dave Edmunds collaborated with plenty of people across his career, but it took him a while to put himself in the hands of an outside producer when recording as a solo artist. By one count, Information was the eighth Edmunds solo album and his second since jumping from Led Zeppelin’s shuttered Swan Song label to Columbia Records. (The Welsh-born Edmunds was under the Arista umbrella in the U.K.) It was also the first time he let someone else spin the dials in the studio, enlisting E.L.O. frontman Jeff Lynne, then in the earliest stages of his career as a producer. The coupling is predictably complicated: Edmunds’s predilection for rockabilly-fueled, old school rock ‘n’ roll as seen through the kaleidoscope of Lynne’s Beatle-sheened futuristic pop.

“Slipping Away,” written by Lynne, is the album opener and template. The approaches of Edmunds and Lynne don’t collide some much as move through one another, circling around like a revolving door built out of fun house mirrors. It’s full of familiar elements, but is difficult to pin down. And that’s what makes it a little thrilling. It also became Edmunds’s second (and last) Top 40 hit in the U.S.

Across the rest of the album, the genial guitar slinging or Edmunds is peppered with the studio trills and zings of Lynne. There’s a feel of ease to Edmunds’s playing, as if relinquishing control allowed him to relax and just enjoy the process of finding the tune. The softened butter blues stroll of “Wait,” the nifty amble of “What Have I Got to Do to Win?,” and the lightly modernized rockabilly number “Don’t Call Me Tonight” all have their charms. Aside from the hit single, the strongest track might be the title cut, which finds Edmunds pining for a woman who’s got him tied in knots (“What can I do to change her mind?/ Maybe she thinks that I’m just not her kind/ I think she wants me but she’s trying to play hard to get/ When she treats me this way, I wish we’d never met’). As is always the case when he’s at his best, Edmunds makes the emotional and musically tricky bits of the song appear blessedly simple.

 

 

big craps

854. Big Dipper, Craps (1988)

Big Dipper hailed from Boston, merging in a scene of heady intermingling of bands and sonic ideas. It was the remnants of two stalwarts of the city’s club circuit — Volcano Suns and the Embarrassment — that reassembled to set Big Dipper’s lineup. Craps, released on Homestead Records, was the second full-length studio effort from the band.

The material on Craps is consistently first-rate. Like a lot of other albums that made into the post office bins of college radio programmers as the nineteen-eighties ground toward its weary end, Craps sometimes seemed as if it was collecting every sonic trait that captured the hearts of student DJs during the preceding years and shoving the whole messy lot of it into a battered suitcase of song. The difference with Big Dipper is that the band was sharp, polished, and forceful. There was an oddball sense of humor to be found, as on “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House,” but it was always in service to the song rather than a squirrelly tactic to evade the responsibility of thorough songcraft.

“Meet the Witch” is buoyant and punchy, and “Hey! Mr. Lincoln” piles competing hooks into its chorus, shrewdly fixing the fight so that every one of them is a winner. Since an R.E.M. comparison is almost inevitable for this sort of band recording at the time, I’ll note that “Stardom Because” sounds like the missing link between Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant. The firm sense of purpose might come through best on “A Song to Be Beautiful,”  which was a thick forest of guitars and a call-and-response chorus that’s actually a touch inspiring: “For a song to be beautiful/ The artist must be brave.”

Following Craps, Big Dipper snagged a major label contract. Their third album, Slam, was released by Epic Records in 1990. The band had talent, but they were already out of the step with the tumultuous preferences of college radio kids, who were reveling in the Madchester sound in advance of a brutally codependent embrace of grunge rock. There was no place for a band that just delivered solidly crafted guitar pop. Big Dipper folded shortly thereafter, though their relatively obscurity didn’t prevent the all-but-inevitable reunion record.

 

 

bow candy

853. Bow Wow Wow, I Want Candy (1982)

It can’t be overstated: MTV completely scrambled the music business in the nineteen-eighties. Shortly after its launch, in 1981, the cable network programmed almost entirely with video clips of songs — the available material determined less by cunning strategies of record labels and far more by the near-random whims of performers who decided to goof around in front of cameras in a studio — was able to completely change the pathway for a song to become a hit. Billboard‘s single chart was no longer the clearest arbiter of what pop songs were demanding attention. “I Want Candy,” Bow Wow Wow’s cover of a forgotten nineteen-sixties hit by the Strangeloves, never made the Top 40 in the U.S. peaking at a meager #62. But it’s also one of the most recognizable hits of the era, and it certainly seemed ubiquitous at the time, all because MTV played the video with a frequency that suggested they were trying to fulfill some sort of regulatory requirement.

As Bow Wow Wow’s song took hold, their label, RCA Records, was desperate to get a full-length album into stores. Taking no chances, the label dubbed the hastily assembled compilation I Want Candy. The first side of the album was essentially the EP The Last of the Mohicans with the U.K. single “Baby, Oh No” (a little featuring especially strong vocals by lead singer Annabella Lwin) wedged in. The second side culled tracks from the 1981 album See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! The cut that most obviously comes from that disc is “Jungle Boy,” which provides indication of the flaws in the Bow Wow Wow approach when they weren’t reworking already established songs. “Jungle Boy” plays like a first draft, a vague idea that hasn’t been properly developed, leading to redundancy and vague jamming. A similar issue crops up on “(I’m a) TV Savage.”  The spry, careening “Go Wild in the Country” is really the only track on side two that feels like it is ready for release.

 

 

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