College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 1

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1. The Who, Who Are You

Let’s start with the bloke seated in the chair there, the one turned around backwards with the instructional message “NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY” stenciled on it. Keith John Moon celebrated his thirty-second birthday five days after the release of Who Are You. Fifteen days after that he was dead, one of the least surprising casualties of rock ‘n’ roll. He was living in a flat owned by Harry Nilsson that just so happened to be the place Cass Elliot died four years earlier. In Pete Townshend’s memoir, he noted that he’d told Nilsson not to worry about any sort of bad luck that might befall Moon while staying in an abode with such a history. “Lightning wouldn’t strike the same place twice,” Townshend insisted. Moon was on a regimen of Heminevrin, intended to combat the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal while he tried to get sober. He took thirty-two tablets on the evening of September 6th, 1978. Overdose was listed as the cause of death.

If it’s not really the Who without Moon–and that vicious drum-punishing beat provides a significant portion of the band’s power–then Who Are You can be viewed as the final album by the band, no matter how many other releases bear their name. If so, it makes for a fascinating finale. For one thing, the sound of the band is quite different. After years of building up the muscle of rock ‘n’ roll with a near legendary devotion to loudness and garage band viciousness, the Who embraced electronic sounds to a degree unprecedented for them. The album is full of synths and other digital effects, often swirling around in bizarrely invigorating combinations. It’s easy to chalk up such experimentation in this era as a direct result of the flaring success of disco, but Townshend instead claimed he was trying to meld punk rock and progressive rock into a singular sound. Some might say that’s the exact equation to create New Wave.

The album opens with a jolt. “New Song” springs to life like a laser gun powering up. Roger Daltrey’s typical virile rock god vocals rest unfamiliarly (or, in a less charitable description, awkwardly) atop a pinging, restless electric melody. Keyboard flourishes simulate a pounding rain and the enveloping sound of thunder. Townshend and his cohorts are trying out music as a fully evocative soundscape, exactly the sort of approach that could be expected from creators who’s established the notion of trying to bend the simple station-to-station path of rock ‘n’ roll albums to a more cohesive whole. Many of the songs are shards of Townshend’s fabled Lifehouse project, the follow-up to Tommy that he took many swings and misses at over the years. That’s interesting when it leads to the the extreme busyness and elusive message of “Sister Disco” or the oddball anxiety of “Guitar and Pen.” It’s less satisfying when the band veers towards borderline pretension, as with the syrupy strings of “Love is Coming Down.” Still, Townshend was clearly interested in trying something new, moving his music forward in a way that was attuned with the modern times instead of merely copying trends. That’s more than could be said about many of his contemporaries.

Even the album closing title cut, the one track from this album that entered into the Who’s classic rock canon (and the song that has maybe made Townshend more money than any of his compositions by virtue of its appearance in fourteen seasons’ worth of CSI: Crime Scene Investigations opening credits), is full of easily overlooked little electronic flourishes. All of it gives the song a different dynamic, sounding like a familiar Who song filtered through an entirely different and fresh sensibility. It’s not quite at the level of full-fledged reinvention, but it does have the feel of shrewd, strategic forward progress. The Who was a band that belonged to rock fans from a generation earlier than the college deejays who were playing Who Are You in 1978. But the album makes a decent argument that the Who merited attention from the younger kids, too.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly
–4: Living in the USA
–3: Tormato
–2: Wavelength

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 2

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2. Van Morrison, Wavelength

I saw Van Morrison play live once, as the capper to a day-long festival of mostly Irish artists sponsored, of course, by Guinness. This was towards the end of the nineties, so Morrison was well past the point that he new music was garnering anything but the most meager attention, critically and especially commercially. It also meant he was safely an elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll, someone who could justifiably be called a legend. He was strikingly disengaged in some respects, coming to the microphone in between extended smoke breaks backstage and belting out his songs as a tight band wailed behind him. And yet he was fantastic, gifted with the kind of presence, certainty, and soulful singing voice that made every song into a powerhouse, even as he seemed almost perturbed by the need to do his job.

The version of Morrison on saw on that stage matches up nicely with the version I hear on his 1978 album, Wavelength. There’s a drabness to it, but also an undeniable authority. He performs like a guy who knows he doesn’t have to try all that hard to still be distinctive, arguably even better than just about everyone else plying the musical trade at the time. Hell, he’s even taking a smoke break on the album cover.

While not one of the albums from his vast career that’s still widely celebrated today, Wavelength was a significant hit for Morrison. Indeed, it was his biggest hit to that point, selling its way to a gold record certification with weeks, far faster than any of his other efforts. And the title cut brought him within a hair’s breadth (okay, two spots) of his first Billboard Top 40 hit since 1971’s “Wild Night.” In some respects, it’s not all that surprising. The record seems targeted at a broader audience with slick production, more direct songwriting, and little acquiescences to the popular music of the time, such as the disco-lite back-up singers who pop up across the two sides. This might stem in part from Morrison trying to make up for lost time. After his 1974 album Veedon Fleece, he’d taken a three year break from recording, an absolutely lifetime in the nineteen-seventies, when artists were expected to churn out a new album roughly every year. When his comeback record, A Period of Transition, was tepidly received, there may have been some added pressure to reassert himself as a viable commercial artist.

It’s a hit or miss affair, with a few more songs that can be slotted into the latter category. “Natalia” is a prime example of Morrison seeming to reach out to radio, while album closer “Take It Where You Find It” is clearly intended to play as one of Morrison’s long, beautiful soul workouts, only to wind up as a dull slog as it stretches on for nearly nine minutes. It’s still Morrison, though, which means there are pleasures to be had, embedded in each and every song. It surely helps that Morrison is unique in all of rock ‘n’ roll history for his ability to spin lyrics like “Listen to the music to music inside/ Can’t you hear what it says to you” (in the song “Lifetimes”) away from their inherent triteness towards something approaching profundity. The album’s peak is probably “Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession,” which marks the first time Morrison shared a songwriting credit on an an album, as the first song on the melded track was penned with Jackie De Shannon. Perhaps tellingly, both “Santa Fe” and “Beautiful Obsession” were originally written in the early seventies, well before the other material on the record.

His status as a significant performer solidly reestablished, Morrison started to test those boundaries, first by crafting songs with more over religious themes on follow-up album Into the Music and then the free jazz meanderings of his first album of the nineteen-eighties, the now largely forgotten Common One. Then it was time for the MTV era to push through the soil. An artist as churlish as Morrison had no chance in that environment. It was time to start the long process of easing into venerable music biz survivor status.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly
–4: Living in the USA
–3: Tormato

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 3

yes tormato

3. Yes, Tormato

The very first lyrics heard on the Yes album Tormato are “In the fountains of the universe: Set time in accord/ Sits the boychild Solomon: Every turning round and round,” sung over electronic trilling that sounds heavily fussed over. The song in question, “Future Times,” melds seamlessly (maybe imperceptibly) into the song “Rejoice,” which announces, “Rejoice forward out this feeling/ Ten true summers long/ We go round and round and round and round/ Until we pick it up again.” All of this is delivered without a hint of irony. Instead, there’s clear conviction in the profundity of the song, which I can admit is admirable in its own way. It is not, however, my kind of music, and those lyrics paired with that music establishes that with remarkable speed.

To allow that maybe I’m not entirely operating from a place of predetermined bias, Tormato is not exactly a favorite album of devoted Yes fans either. This was a band celebrated from their epic song workouts, often stretching across the entire side of an album. Tormato is filled with comparatively concise songs, with only one of the eight tracks clocking in at over seven minutes. For some bands, that might be evidence of greater focus. For Yes, the opposite is probably true: shorter runtimes are likely to me they were giving up on songs before they had totally worked them out. More problematically, the production is infamously bad on the record, evidently the result of longtime producer Eddie Offord leaving midway through the process of making the album and his replacements (the band and Brian Lane are officially co-credited as the album’s producers) misinterpreting how Offord had recorded the material. I’m not entirely convinced that a production snafu is the primary reason songs such as “Madrigal” and “Arriving UFO” are so painfully dopey.

Even the band wasn’t so happy. For one, they didn’t care for the cover art that was provided by seventies rock design superstar Hipgnosis. The eventual official cover featured a tomato that had been smashed against the original commission, reportedly the actual review of a band member. (The album title was changed from Yes Tor to Tormato to better coincide with the image.) That was a minor snit compared with the conflicts on the way. Within a few months of the September 1978 release of Tormato, both lead singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakemen had quite the band, the former staying off the roster until into the nineteen-nineties. Anderson was back sooner, returning to the fold in time to help his bandmates shave off the prog trappings to better appeal to the booming MTV audience, which in turn brought them their biggest U.S. hits by far. I’m sure they were hit with “sell out” charges by the faithful, but that material, while still not great, sounds a lot better to me. It’s certainly better than anything on Tormato. Apparently, there are a lot of fans who would agree with that assessment.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly
–4: Living in the USA

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 4

4. Linda Ronstadt, Living in the USA

In 1978, Linda Ronstadt was about as big as a rock ‘n’ roll performer could get, though most of the superlatives that got flung around centered on her gender. After a slightly belated breakthrough with her fifth studio album, Heart Like a Wheel, Ronstadt started stacking up accomplishments. She became the first solo female to have three straight million-selling albums when her 1976 release Hasten Down the Wind crossed that tally (she eventually could claim nine straight Platinum-certified albums). The 1977 album Simple Dreams spent five weeks atop the Billboard album chart, holding the distinction of knocking Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours from the perch, ending its record-setting four month run there. (Well, ending isn’t entirely right since Rumours was back in the #1 position a couple months later.) Simple Dreams reportedly sold over three-and-a-half million copies in the span of less than a year. Again, that was a record for a female artist. It was that enormous hit record that Ronstadt was officially following up with Living in the USA, released almost exactly one year later, in September of 1978. Continuing her string of notable accomplishments, it was the first album to ever ship Double Platinum, some two million copies pressed and sent out before even a single disc had been sold.

Living in the USA took its title from a recurring lyric in Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.,” which Ronstadt covered for the album’s opening track and lead single. While a Top 40 hit, her ninth since her career started blazing with the chart-topping “You’re No Good,” the track exposes the chief creative shortcoming of Ronstadt’s album. Ronstadt was first and foremost a skilled interpreter of other people’s songs, essentially an ace covers act. There’s no shame in that. Many of his hits may have been penned just for him, but the same can be said of Elvis Presley (who, incidentally, Ronstadt knocked out of the top spot on the country albums chart with Living in the U.S.A., an especially impressive feat given that it happened just a few months after the King’s death, when instant nostalgia was giving him a mighty commercial boost). The problem was that Ronstadt’s tepid take on Berry’s rocker suggested she was running low on inspiration, possibly a result of releasing new music as a very steady clip to meet the huge demand of her swelling fan base.

Ronstadt is at her best when a song seems to surprise her a little bit, pulling out different dynamics in her melodic, emotive vocals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is more likely to occur on Living in the USA with the more unfamiliar songs, such as “All That You Dream,” which is smooth but propulsive, effectively showcasing Ronstadt’s voice as she goes from a gently keening croon down to the occasional growl. Then there’s Warren Zevon’s offering to the record, almost a given at this point in Ronstadt’s discography thanks to her sterling turns with his songwriting previously. “Mohammed’s Radio” demonstrates exactly why Ronstadt was the ideal singer of Zevon’s songs, even better than the man himself. His cynicism brings out her innate, often untapped toughness, and her velvety voice reveals the loveliness of his melodies and verbal phrasings, often concealed by his default croaky, languid delivery. (And man alive, does “Midnight Radio,” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, ever owe something to this particular track.) It’s performances like these that prove there was real artistry to what Ronstadt was doing.

Ronstadt made it to the cover of Time magazine the previous year, accompanied by the descriptor “Torchy Rock.” That assessment is spot-on, for good and ill. Ronstadt would eventually give in to that instinct altogether, but at the height of her popularity she was still trying to bridge all the different audiences that were snatching up her music, sometimes resulting in material that was tragically bloodless. That quality is exemplified by her take on Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” released by him only one year earlier. She takes a song full of emotional danger and wounded romanticism and turns it into something utterly vanilla. The best that can be said is that it’s pretty in an unassuming way. If Talking Heads, Blondie, and their kindred spirits were inventing new wave, Ronstadt was doing the same for adult contemporary. Costello hated her version of the song and didn’t mind telling anyone who’d listen (because he’s Elvis Costello and he’s always happen to vent his most vicious opinions). He liked the money all those record sales brought him, though. When Ronstadt’s management asked him for songs he thought might be better suited to Ronstadt, he sent along a batch, three of which made it onto her next album. He hated those, too. But I’ll bet he liked the size of the checks once again.

Ronstadt just kept selling records. It’s easy to look back at her career now and scoff. The hits that endure sound like pure filler, desperately dated in their laid back seventies cheer. Digging deeper doesn’t necessarily yield material that’s revelatory, but it does start to showcase someone who was often damn good at what she was trying to do. She was a powerful singer not because of her ability to hit big, brassy notes, but because of the way she could inhabit a song. She was popular for a reason, and that reason is best named with a single word: talent. That shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 5

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5. Heart, Dog & Butterfly

Dog & Butterfly was the second Heart album released in 1978. Sort of.

The band that famously features the Wilson sisters, lead singer Ann and lead guitarist Nancy, released their debut album on Mushroom Records in 1976. In short order, the group decided that they wanted to leave the label, in large part because they were angered by the salacious approach being taken in the marketing of their music. Heart made the move to Portrait, a new subsidiary of Columbia Records, but the folks at Mushroom didn’t actually feel like the band had the right to instigate the change. At roughly the same time Heart released their Portrait debut, Little Queen, in 1977, Mushroom cobbled together incomplete recordings the band left behind and dropped an album called Magazine on the market, even acknowledging the mess on the back cover with a disclaimer that read, “Mushroom Records regrets that a contractual dispute has made it necessary to complete this record without the cooperation or endorsement of the group Heart, who have expressly disclaimed artistic involvement in completing this record. We did not feel that a contractual dispute should prevent the public from hearing and enjoying these incredible tunes and recordings.”

Both labels argued that the other had no right to release music from Heart. The dispute made it all the way into the courtroom, where it was ordered that Mushroom had to recall the album, but that Heart also owed the label another record. They chose to go back and finish Magazine, remixing the recordings and adding some new material. The Heart-approved version of the album was officially released in April of 1978.

Six months later, Heart was out with another album, this their first for Portrait with no background business wrangling going on. Entitled Dog & Butterfly, it was intended to show different sides of the band, with the first side, “Dog,” containing hard rock songs, and the flip, “Butterfly,” mostly comprised of ballads (or power ballads anyway). Like their previous releases, Dog & Butterfly was a major success, yielding two Top 40 singles and earning a double platinum certification. It is a record deeply of its time, perfectly suited for all the album rock radio cropping up on the FM dial. It also sounds really dated now, with even the title cut, one of the band’s standards, unmistakably a product of the decade in which it was spawned.

Dog & Butterfly represented the beginning of the end of the early success of Heart. Although their next album, the unfortunately-titled Bebe le Strange, actually charted higher than any of its predecessors, it was also the first release from the sisters that didn’t make it to platinum sales. It was even more dire as the pushed into the eighties, at least until they reinvented themselves for the MTV era with their 1986 self-titled LP. Ridiculously glammed-up in videos that took great care to showcase Nancy Wilson’s frizzed up hair and bustiers, Heart had hits that well exceeded anything they’d experienced before. The older music lived on, though, giving them a foundation of familiar favorites to break out for audiences, and even recycle in the most unlikely places.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 6

6. Jethro Tull, Bursting Out

Look. It’s Jethro Tull, the band that brought flute solos into rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a double live album, because it’s the nineteen-seventies and double live albums were the standard filler on the discography of the bigger bands. If you want to hear it, the whole damn thing is online. Every once in a while in these countdowns, I give myself a pass. I’m giving myself a pass.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time

College Countdown: The First CMJ Album Chart, 7

7time

7. Neil Young, Comes a Time

Comes a Time, released in October of 1978, was the ninth solo release credited to Neil Young. It was at once a departure and a return to form. After a batch of prickly, complex, critically lauded albums through the middle part of the decade, which were largely met with tepid sales, Young returned to the sparse, folk-inflected style that represented his strongest commercial prospects. Harvest, released in 1972, had topped the charts on its way to earning multi-platinum sales, and Comes a Time is obviously its kindred spirit, to the point that it comes across as a quintessential Young release as surely as the earlier hit record. Accordingly, it was his first release to make it into the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart since Harvest. In a way, it cemented a truism of Young’s career. No matter how many stylistic digressions he made from album to album, he could always come back to placing his wavering voice atop a plaintive acoustic guitar and satisfy a strong subset of his fandom.

Even so, the original conception of Comes a Time wasn’t necessarily an automatic cause for celebration for Young’s label, Reprise. Perhaps attuned to the fact that the top of album charts that in 1972 was the home to the likes of Carole King, Don McLean, and was six years later dominated by a very different sort of record, the label asked Young to beef up some of the songs. To that end, he brought in his regular backing band, Crazy Horse, to play on “Look Out for My Love” and “Lotta Love.” Neither of them exactly turned into a scorcher with the supplementary instrumentation. The latter track was even arguably overshadowed by the version Nicolette Larson released as a single almost exactly one month after Young’s album hit stores. (Larson also provided backing vocals on much of Comes a Time.) While Young didn’t get much traction with his two singles from the album, Larson managed to make it into Billboard‘s Top 10 with his song.

Young was closing in on his thirty-third birthday when Comes a Time was released, but he already sounds like an old man. Songs like album opener “Goin’ Back” and “Peace of Mind” are heavy with melancholic reminiscence, better suited to a guy who’s, well, the age Young is now. Of course, that’s been part of his charm from the get-go, that he arrived on the scene as a grizzled songwriting soul. It winds up being another way Comes a Time just makes sense and stands as a vital touchstone in the pantheon of Young’s wildly wavering career. No matter where he went musically (and his next album would be the raw and dark Rust Never Sleeps), this familiar weary journeyman was always in there somewhere.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 8

I got a call earlier today from my friend Sarah. Long-time listener, not a first time caller. She’s one of the few people I know who still makes radio broadcasting her profession, and she was nearing the end of her air shift when word came over the wire that Casey Kasem had died. I hadn’t heard yet. Sarah is the one who let me know, just as she was instrumental in a bunch of radio listeners getting the news, not unexpected but sad all the same. We talked for a bit, and Sarah told me about how she used to listen to Kasem’s syndicated radio show American Top 40 every week, tracking the progress of her favorite songs up and down the chart. For her, Kasem provided a unique introduction to radio as something other than background. Instead, it was a medium built on personalities and dependable shows, the sorts of programs that were worth making a point to catch. I think Kasem probably provided the introduction to that concept for a lot of us.

So for my friend Sarah, in memory of the man who taught us all how to count backwards, we’re sending out this long distance dedication. It’s not a song that ever made those charts that Kasem tracked through, but maybe it should have.

And now…on with the countdown…

8twin

8. Dan Fogelberg & Tim Weisberg, Twin Sons of Different Mothers

Well, it was fun while it lasted. After three straight weeks of splendid classics that helped define new wave and essentially represented what I imagine college radio to sound like when I close my eyes and conjure up an idealized 1978, we’re back to bland, fusion-based elevator music. Dan Fogelberg had four prior albums to his credit when he connected with flautist Tim Weisberg for the collaborative effort Twin Sons of Different Mothers. Weisberg has been releasing his own records at a steady clip since the early nineteen-seventies. Together they formulated a release that is long on intricate noodling and short of, well, just about everything else that one would hope would go into an album released as the end of the seventies were looming. Song after song just slips out there, with nothing much to draw attention, except for those who really get off on twee flute jams.

Most of the album is comprised of instrumentals. Tellingly, the two singles released from the record were two of the three tracks that include lyrics. The first single was a cover of “Tell Me to My Face” by the Hollies. While the original, a retort to an ex-lover who’s delivered a “Dear John” letter, was a typical sixties Brit-pop nugget, clocking in at just over three minutes, Fogelberg and Weisberg stretch their repetitive version over the seven minute mark. Though the lyrics are fairly barbed (“You just took the coward’s way to say goodbye”), there’s no passion or real emotion at all to the song. Similarly, the second single is achingly drab, although this one at least has AM Gold written all over it, almost literally. “The Power of Gold” brims over with faux intensity, the shaky shadow of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion perfectly suited for those who were aging into weariness but wanted to hold onto some vestige of the music they once loved.

Fogelberg and Weisberg both went back to their own individual career tracks after Twin Sons of Different Mothers, eventually reuniting almost twenty years later for the cleverly-titled No Resemblance Whatsoever. Their reforged camaraderie was fairly short-lived, however. Within a couple years, Weisberg sued Fogelberg for breach of contract and fraud, alleging he was owed money for the reunion album and tour.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 9

9. Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

For any up-and-coming band, it’s useful to have some advocates who have already established themselves in the cutthroat music biz. Circa 1978, a band couldn’t do much better than David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Brian Eno. Devo, the brilliantly bizarre art rock outfit from Ohio, had already released a bit of music by the late nineteen-seventies, including a trio of singles that were collected on an EP from the revolutionary British label Stiff Records. The EP, appropriately enough, took the title from the third of those singles: “Be Stiff.” But they were officially without a label when Bowie and Pop got their hands on and ears around one of Devo’s demo tape. The interest that was piqued evolved into full-fledged passion when Bowie saw the band play in New York City, in 1977. “This,” Bowie asserted, “is the band of the future.” At the same time, Bowie announced he was planning to produce Devo’s debut full-length release, a plan that ran into complications because Bowie had his own robust career to attend to. Producing duties fell instead to Eno, with Bowie stopping by to pitch in occasionally.

The resulting album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! certainly does sound like a dispatch from the future. It’s not accurate to say that Devo’s music sounded like nothing else–the most obvious parallel act is Kraftwerk, already a half-dozen albums deep into their career by this point–but it’s not just originality that makes an album striking. Are We Not Men is frighteningly alive with anxiety, conveying the regressive humanity in the face of modern progress that is the band’s mission statement (as exemplified by the de-evolution concept that gives the band their name). The blistering opener “Uncontrollable Urge” makes fellow expresser of urban (and urbane) agitation David Byrne sound, in comparison, like he offers his performances from the comfort of a hammock. The music is synth-driven, but it’s got a helluva lot more punk to it than disco.

The hint of punk comes through in Devo’s straight-on run at the conventions and already atrophying venerated history of rock ‘n’ roll. There’s, of course, the band’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ most famous song, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which repurposes the cry of disaffected youth with a robotic rendering, stripping it of the angst-ridden romance and exposing the privileged brattiness at its core. “Come Back Jonee” similarly runs straight at Chuck Berry’s foundational “Johnny B. Goode,” deconstructing the quasi-mysticism of the country boy with a beat-up old guitar simply by presenting a similar character with repetitive, emotion-free lyrics. If rock ‘n’ roll and even all of society were rushing headlong towards a brick wall, Devo was ready to help press down the gas pedal and bring about the crash.

The album is filled with songs that are equal parts engaging and fascinating, led by the fierce call and response of “Jocko Homo,” the surprisingly tuneful “Space Junk”, and “Too Much Paranoias,” with its recurring rhythm motif that sounds like its trying to tear itself apart. It may have represented the future of music–or at least one possible future–but it would still be a couple years before a majority of listeners were ready to catch up to it. Devo wouldn’t have a real hit until 1980, when “Whip It,” the second single from their album Freedom of Choice, made it into the Billboard Top 20. It was their only foray into the Top 40, although they came very close on one other occasion. Then again, number of hits is hardly the best measure of the band’s influence. As Bowie knew, Devo held the keys to the future, some of them anyway. There are any number of bands currently toiling over electronic equipment, pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable for a pop song, that owe some debt to them.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 10

10food

10. Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings and Food

I don’t mean to denigrate the very fine–underrated, even!–album Talking Heads: 77 when I note that More Songs About Buildings and Food seems like the real debut of the most important band to ever come straight outta the Rhode Island School of Design. The most obvious reason to tag this as the true starting point for the astonishing and influential music of Talking Heads is the inaugural involvement of Brian Eno, the production genius who would preside over three straight masterworks by band: More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light. Eno’s contribution to the uniquely jagged and creative post-punk art rock crafted by David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth can’t be overstated. In particular, Byrne’s vision for transformative music was formidable. Eno helped make it happen, or at least happen in a way that sounds stridently right.

Eno came into the band’s orbit when they were touring Europe as the support act to the Ramones. Eno introduced himself to the band at one of the gigs and wound up chatting with them for hours. Besides his work with Roxy Music and on defiantly oddball solo releases, Eno had just produced David Bowie’s Low, all of it adding up to an implicit promise that he was the right person to harness and heighten the daring of Talking Heads. Byrne, with the solidarity of Harrison, insisted on Eno’s involvement in the band’s sophomore album, eventually wearing down the skepticism of the bigwigs at Sire Records. Eno’s impact was simple and yet profound: according to Harrison, “Eno taught us to use the studio as an instrument, to be fearless.” One potential measure of the effectiveness of the collaboration is that the album’s track listing is largely made up of songs that were available for 77 but ultimately rejected for one reason or another. And yet, the leftovers add up to a far stronger album.

More Songs opens with the jaunty “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” which almost sounds like it transform into Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” before Byrne’s sharp, keening lead vocals come in, cutting against all expectations of conventionality. Naturally, that’s the general mode throughout: exemplary songcraft and surprisingly astute pop sensibilities ingeniously upended by the collaborators’ more off-kilter instincts. There are constant surprises, from the jittery funk of “With Our Love” to the sonic wanderings of “Warning Sign” and the punching force of “Found a Job.” In some ways, the album belongs to the drummer Frantz and bassist Weymouth, Eno bringing their brilliantly bizarro rhythms to the forefront. The precursor influences to Talking Heads songs can be discerned with a little imagination, but the music mostly sounds revolutionary and totally unique. Nothing else sounded quite like this, at least to this point.

None of this sounds tailor-made for radio attention, but More Songs does deliver the first of the three Top 40 hits for the Talking Heads. Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” was a favorite of Byrne’s (while Talking Heads were quickly distinctive enough that covers could often feel overly foreign, they’d been delivering their own versions of Green songs as far back as their founding band, the Artistics). Talking Heads preserved the soulfulness of the original while dressing it up in a striking new wave sheen. It wasn’t all that dissimilar from a cover of the same song that Bryan Ferry released around the same time on his album The Bride Stripped Bare (see #13 below). What sets the Talking Heads’ take apart is the considered steadiness of it, which heightens the drama and intensity of the song. It made it to #26 on the Billboard chart. It’s maybe not strange now that the track–and many other Talking Heads songs that never even sniffed the Top 40–is practically a standard, maybe better known than Green’s original. At the time, though, it was a laudable and unexpected breakthrough for a band built around splendidly uncompromising creativity.

As the band neared completion of the album, their mutual dissatisfaction with the working title, Tina and the Typing Pool, led the member who was potentially lending the record her name to supposedly remark on the difficulty of coming up with a satisfactory title for a release that was “just more songs about buildings and food.” It provided the perfect blend of challenging directness and deadpan embrace of the offbeat to define the band and their sound. Like everything contained within the grooves, it offered a definitive, purposeful statement of their art. It is who they are, and they would only get better and more interesting with immediately subsequent releases. It wasn’t their official beginning. And yet it was a helluva start.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines