College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #568 to #565

inmates first

568. The Inmates, First Offence (1979)

During the height of punk rock mayhem, in the latter half of the nineteen-seventies, performers took it as an imperative to adopt stage names that skewed toward the confrontationally putrid. That’s what makes it so bizarre to me that lead guitarist of the U.K. act the Inmates didn’t take advantage of his given name: Peter Staines. Of course, it’s telling that he instead opted to go by Peter Gunn, evoking the TV P.I. from about two decades earlier who was ushered into homes every week with one of the coolest theme songs the medium ever produced. Despite a propensity for rough and rattling guitar playing and feverish drum beats that helps carbon date them to the punk era, the Inmates were committed to mining the past for their sound.

On the band’s debut album, First Offence, the retro aesthetic extends to a bevy of covers. A faithful take on “Dirty Water” was the band’s calling card, and First Offence also includes a version of Arthur Conley’s “Love Got Me” with the soul knocked out of it in favor of some Rolling Stones stomp, and Thomas Wayne’s “You’re the One That Done It” Thomas Wayne as modernized, thrillingly raw rockabilly. The band’s originals follow the sonic template without ever coming across as mere pastiche. The headlong “Jealousy” and melancholy “If Time Could Turn Backwards” are position at opposite ends of the spectrum, and everything fills in from there. There are also hits that the Inmates have the gumption to become more than a pure nostalgia play. Placing themselves more squarely in their own decade, “Mr. Unreliable” is reminiscent of New York Dolls, complete with vocals that emulate David Johansen’s distinctive croak.

And the Inmates did indeed last. A steady stream of albums followed, and the band kept performing live shows well into the next millennium, with most of the original members still on the stage.

 

blow fruit

567. The Blow Monkeys, Forbidden Fruit EP (1985)

“Ninety percent of the groups in England start off with a record collection full of Mott the Hoople and David Bowie,” the Blow Monkeys’ frontman, Dr. Robert, groused to Spin magazine at around the time his band made their first real foray into the U.S. market. “Most of them are oblivious to the roots. The ideas become more and more diluted, and you end up with Spandau Ballet.”

The Blow Monkeys formed in 1981 and released their first single a year later. By the middle of the decade, they’d landed a major label deal with RCA Records and were prepared to show off their grasp of pop music history. Since singles were an iffy way to reach North American music fans, RCA took the track “Forbidden Fruit” and made it the lead track on an EP that was a sampler meant to make a proper introduction. “I have never seen a freak as wonderful as you/ It’s strange but it’s true,” sings Dr. Robert on the cut, sounding like a sweet, safe version of the Cure more than a band drawing on years and years of British music history.

There’s admittedly a lounge act chill to “Atomic Lullaby,” suggesting the band’s collective attempt at timelessness. And interrupting the groove with an explosion sound effect is very nineteen-eighties way to express anxiety about nuclear annihilation. On the EP, the Blow Monkeys sometimes sound more like a doorway to the future. “Wild Flower” forecasts Belle and Sebastian, especially the later iterations of that indie mainstay, when some of the tweeness fell away.

Forbidden Fruit was a decent start for the Blow Monkeys, but it was simply a throat-clearing for the unlikely breakthrough to come. As it turned out, the leap into the mainstream was only one single away.

 

green lunch

566. Green on Red, No Free Lunch (1985)

Formed in Tucson, Arizona and marinated in the Los Angeles music scene, Green on Red built a nice, devoted fan base with their first few releases, resulting in the coveted contract with a major label. In a turn that caused a certain amount of amusement, this band awash in country music sounds and other tingles of Americana inked a contract with the ever-so-British label Polydor. In a hurry to get music out with their new corporate partners, Green on Red delivered the EP No Free Lunch as their official major label bow.

Each side of the EP kicks off with a song about time passing. No Free Lunch opens with “Time Ain’t Nothing,” a countrified litany of mundane experiences that is a cousin to the charmingly downbeat assessments of life by the Gear Daddies. It’s answered on the flip by a wonderfully languid cover of Willie Nelson’s “(Gee Ain’t It Funny) How Time Slips Away.” Keeping the track list lean help ensure strong material all across No Free Lunch. The tender, forlorn “Honest Man” is like the Band with more twang, the title cut is crisp and amusing, and “Keep On Moving” is a near ideal representation of college rock songwriting, in all its pert and poignant glory.

No Free Lunch wasn’t an opening statement for Green on Red, but it was an assertion that they were ready to take advantage of the extra resources and promotion a major label could provide.

 

joan bad

565. Joan Jett, Bad Reputation (1981)

Joan Jett proved her mettle with the Runaways, but when it came time to launch a solo career, she couldn’t find any takers. Jett famously peddled her career to several labels, none of them willing to invest in a bad ass female guitar slinger. So Jett took matters into her own hands, abetted by producer Kenny Laguna, who cashed in accumulated studio credits for the recording process. Originally self-released under the title Joan Jett and sold well enough that some of the formerly indifferent labels came courting. Jett signed on with Boardwalk Records, and the album got a release the following year, now bearing arguably its best track: Bad Reputation.

“Bad Reputation” is undoubtedly the emblematic track, but it’s “Make Believe” that shows off the strange magic Jett can make happen. She merges her gravelly toughness with a sweet whooo-ooo-oooo pop song, and it sounds like something that never quite existed before, at least not in that way. Tying herself to the rock history she draws upon, Jett freely uses cover songs. Her take on “You Don’t Own Me” has a pared-down majesty, and “Shout” is given a fun jolt of hyperactivity. Perhaps most notably, Jett steals Gary Glitter’s “Do You Want to Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” right away from him.

Mostly, Jett impresses by simply delivering fine rock ‘n’ roll. “Too Bad on Your Birthday” is like a long lost Rolling Stones song, right down to the kinda dopey lyrics that somehow work (“And now you’re the girl/ With cake on her face/ Yeah, you’re the one who’s cryin’/ Blow out the candles and make a wish”). And “Don’t Abuse Me,” the only cut for which Jett claims a sole songwriting credit, has a cinder block solidity. Jett would make the declaration official soon enough, but it was clear from Bad Reputation that her love for rock ‘n’ roll was true.

 

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