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