College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #704 to #701

manzanera

704. Phil Manzanera, K-Scope (1978)

Phil Manzanera was a busy fellow in the late nineteen-seventies. Undoubtedly most famous as the lead guitarist for Roxy Music, Manzanera was dabbling in all sorts of other projects. Tops among them was the band 501, which included fellow Roxy Music veteran Brian Eno. Originally conceived as a live act only, the group gelled well enough to release the studio album Listen Now, in 1977, and they started working on a follow-up shortly thereafter. Things shifted, however, and that material wound up as the core of K-Scope, officially the second solo album from Manzanera.

Drawing on the creativity of many contributors, Manzanera makes an album that zips zanily around rock subgenres, somehow managing to feel wholly apart from the most tired trends of the day. Not every track is strong — or even particularly good — but the freewheeling spirit keeps K-Scope consistently buoyant. Among the better cuts, “Remote Control” has a new wave crispness, and “Slow Motion TV” is like the Damned circa Strawberries, when they followed poppier instincts. On the downside, reggae-influenced “Cuban Crisis” lands somewhere between 10cc, Steely Dan, and Sting at his most blandly appropriative, and “Walking Through Heaven’s Door” starts at drippy soft rock then shifts into a bland musical trot that sounds like a discard from a markedly misguided rock opera.

The instrumentals on the album are generally stronger, whether the punchy, jazz-inflected explorations of the title cut or the edgy musical probing on “N-Shift.” There’s nothing particular wrong with the vocals or the lyrics, but there’s an inescapable sense that what Manzanera and crew really want to be doing is noodling around with different tones, melodies, and rhythms until they land on something novel. They reach that goal enough to make K-Scope a solid enough record to overcome its flaws.

 

clash rope

703. The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

The Only Band That Matters were formally introduced to U.S. audiences with Give ‘Em Enough Rope, their second album. The Clash’s label, CBS Records, simply felt the band’s self-titled debut was too brash and raw to make any headway stateside. Record-buyers in the U.K. were a varied enough lot that Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols could levitate all the way to the top of the album chart (amusingly taking over peak position from Cliff Richard and the Shadows and ceding it to Bread), but the equivalent U.S. sales tally was all Rumours all the time.

To increase the likelihood that the Clash would make a more marketable album in their sophomore outing, CBS Records paired them with Sandy Pearlman, the regular producer of Blue Öyster Cult. For a band that was used to bashing out songs and then picking up the pieces — or, more likely, letting the pieces lie and rot — the persnickety polish Pearlman brought to the recording process was tedious. But Pearlman wasn’t trying to disguise the Clash’s insurrectionist soul. If anything, he shaped the platform to properly showcase the Clash, distinguishing them from other punk acts whose no-fucks-to-give disregard for the niceties of performance could come across as a reactionary insolence of youth, born of uncertainty and bound to fade. Despite CBS’s misgivings, The Clash is a great album. It’s also true that Give ‘Em Enough Rope is the album that proved the Clash were a realer deal than their contemporaries.

As if to prove that refinement doesn’t necessitate softening, the album opens with the immediate explosion “Safe European Home,” about the troubles endured by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones when they were seen as easy marks on a writing trip to Jamaica. The cut is political, fevered, conflicted, and wry in its miserable self-appraisal. There’s nothing easy about it, and matters remain similarly knotty on the propulsive “Guns on the Roof” and “Tommy Gun,” the latter highlighted by the rat-a-tat drumming of Topper Headon, new to the lineup for the second album, as Strummer rages about the glorification of violence.

“Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” is downright jaunty, partially attributable to the barrelhouse piano playing by Blue Oyster Cult’s Allen Lanier. Jones take his turn at the lead microphone on “Stay Free,” which takes nineteen-sixties sunshine pop and gives it a hard twist, and the album closes with the melancholy autobiography “All the Young Punks,” which was renamed “That’s No Way to Spend Your Youth” on original U.S. pressings of the album. Across all the tracks, the band plays with an urgency that suggests the plugs might be pulled from the amps at any moment, so if they’re going to say something, they’d better say it now.

As the label’s overt stab at creating product that would work in the U.S. market, Give ‘Em Enough Rope didn’t really work out. While it performed admirably in the U.K. the album stalled at #128 on the Billboard chart, two places lower than the peak of The Clash, when it saw its delayed U.S. release in 1979. Even so, Give ‘Em Enough Rope must be seen as pivotal. If nothing else, it is what the band built on and corrected from when they made their next studio full-length, an album that is unerringly in the mix in any reasonable, informed discussion of the greatest rock albums of all time.

 

split waiata

702. Split Enz, Waiata (1981)

If the original plan had been followed, the sixth album from Split Enz would have had a different title in practically every country in which it was sold. Waiata is a word from the Māori language, spoken by the indigenous people of Split Enz’s homeland of New Zealand, that translates to “celebratory song.” In Australia, the album was called Corroboree, because that is the rough equivalent of the same word in the language of Australian Aboriginals, that nation’s indigenous population. The band hoped and expected the album would be similarly retitled in every other country, honoring the people who had lived in each territory the longest. The scheme never came to fruition, and Waiata became the default name for the record. It was one of many compromises the band had to make that left them feeling disenchanted.

Split Enz were following up their biggest success to that point. The band’s previous album, True Colours, had topped the charts in New Zealand and Australia, and it had respectable showings elsewhere. In the U.S., it peaked at #40 on the Billboard album chart, and it’s centerpiece single, “I Got You,” had some success on commercial radio. Opportunities were lining up, including a spot as the opening act for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers following the release of Waiata. Presumably, the just needed the one song, hitting the ears just right, to push them over to mass appeal.

The chiming “History Never Repeats” was the obvious choice for a single, given its encapsulation of all of songwriter Neil Finn’s formidable skills as a pop craftsman. It’s not only the sense of introspection embedded in the first word of the title that made it a proper representation when Split Enz eventually needed a name for a “best of” release. The relaxed pop song “One Step Ahead,” and the zippy “Hard Act to Follow,” which sounds a little like Naked Eyes on uppers, are similarly rock solid examples of the way in which Finn, his brother Tim, and their cohorts could take the familiar blueprint of pop music and construction a finished product so clean and perfectly realized that others’ stabs at reinvention seemed almost foolish.

Elsewhere on the album, though, the band loses their way with their own iffy ambition. Some of the stretching is dandy, as is the case with the escalating post-disco goodness on “I Don’t Wanna Dance,” on which Split Enz sounds like an earthier New Order. But “Clumsy” to adopts a sort of Devo art pop vibe and it hangs on the band awkwardly.  “Ships” is like the product of a more rote version of XTC, and the yucky power ballad “Ghost Girl” is mostly kindly interpreted as a bad attempt at commercial crossover.

Waiata and its aftermath left the band with a litany of complaints. The album packaging fell short of their hopes, they hadn’t enjoyed their second-tier status on the tour with Petty, and things in the studio had been frustrating enough to inspire a split from longtime producer David Tickle. For their next album, Time and Tide, Split Enz were ready to push back against expectations.

 

crenshaw st

701. Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw (1982)

“I wanted to write hit singles,” Marshall Crenshaw told Jim Beviglia, as recounted in the book Playing Back the 80s: A Decade of Unstoppable Hits. “I was in love with the idea that hit singles were art. That was my medium, my platform, and that was really what I was going for with everything I did back then.”

Crenshaw first gained a foothold in the music business by providing “an incredible simulation” of another artist. Crenshaw was cast as John Lennon in Beatlemania, the theatrical production that set performers on stage impersonating the Fab Four. First an understudy to the original New York production, Crenshaw went on to play the role on the West Coast and then the touring company. It was during his many days in nights in hotel rooms waited to don John’s distinctive locks that Crenshaw started writing songs in earnest. Shortly after quitting the Beatles show, Crenshaw recorded a few for Crash Records, and lent a song called “Someday, Someway” to retro rock specialist Robert Gordon. Released as a single from 1981 album, Are You Gonna Be the One, “Someday, Someway” made it into the Billboard Hot 100 and was instrumental to Crenshaw signing with Warner Bros. Records.

“Someday, Someway” did even better when it was released as the lead single of Marshall Crenshaw, the singer-songwriter’s debut album. It nudged over into the Billboard Top 40 and settled into a long haul legacy as one of the signature songs of the era. There’s little doubt as to why. The cut is such a ideal distillation of all the charm and slyness and bright-eyed wonder of pop music — the art of the hit single which was Crenshaw’s aspiration — that it would have almost been understandable if the whole music biz had shut down upon its release, glumly convinced that the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll song had been penned and performed, making any further attempts to reach such a peak futile. That’s ridiculous hyperbole, of course, but it sure does feel close to true when living within the track’s lean three minutes.

So much of Marshall Crenshaw is a fine echo of that sterling track. Other songs might not be as crisp and clean, but they reverberate with a familiar sound. The splendidly bittersweet breakup song “There She Goes Again,” snappy “Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.,” spirited “Brand New Lover,” and soft rockabilly number “The Usual Thing” are all enticing. “Mary Anne” comes pretty dang close to pop perfection itself, and “Cynical Girl” brings a ringing energy to an atypical tale of pining for a romantic partner with some shrewdness to her character (“Well I’ll know right away by the look in her eye/ She harbors no illusions and she’s worldly-wise”).

Marshall Crenshaw received rave reviews, but the man whose name it bore was one of the less effusive fans. He felt the production was too sterile, a complaint that seems absurd until a listen to one of Crenshaw’s demo recordings offers corroborating evidence that’s hard to dispute.

 

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