College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 11

11. U2, Rattle and Hum

The swirling stars have barely settled into place above the snowy mountain peak in the Paramount logo before Bono announces, “This song…Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” In no time at all, U2 is positioned as saviors and protectors of no less a band than the Beatles, and by extension maybe all of music itself. They are collectively the Robin Hood of rock ‘n’ roll, bringing the purity of intent and message back to their chosen form of artistic expression, fighting the good fight against oppressive forces. Elsewhere on the double album soundtrack and companion piece to Rattle and Hum, they take aim at heartless capitalism, televangelists, South African apartheid, and acid rain. Indeed, the band is in such a fighting mood that they shape one whole song to be (most notably, anyway) an attack on Albert Goldman’s controversial biography of John Lennon, then so notorious that it was even fodder for Saturday Night Live. This is U2, then, at their most grandiose and righteous, puffed up by the phenomenal success of The Joshua Tree and stretched to the length of a movie screen. It is also when U2 was still a damn good band. That makes all the difference.

Bono the social justice crusader may be in full evidence on Rattle and Hum, but the main thesis of the album is a celebration of the extended richness of American music traditions. Viewed less charitably, the album plays like U2’s inelegant attempt to wedge themselves in among the greats, exemplified by them covering Bob Dylan and writing near-pastiche songs suited for guest appearance by Dylan and B.B. King. They record in Memphis’s Sun Studios and invoke Billie Holiday. There’s undoubtedly earnestness to the spiritual quest to the soul of American music (if there’s one thing U2 is never lacking, it’s earnestness). There’s also a thick fog of beaming self-congratulation that sets the band continually stumbling on the not-so-fine line between tribute and appropriation. Their take on “All Along the Watchtower” is more indebted to the Jimi Hendrix version than the original, which would presumably be acknowledgement enough of the master guitarist for most. Including a snippet of one of Hendrix’s performances of “The Star Spangled Banner” as a separate track on the last side of Rattle and Hum does start to feel like a greedy snatch at transferred legend.

By any reasonable, evaluative measure the album Rattle and Hum is a mess. To a large degree that’s because the underlying purpose of the album is unclear. It’s sort of a soundtrack, but a huge number of songs in the movie don’t make their way to the record (I had a friend in college who had his own cassette-version of Rattle and Hum that he’d dubbed from a VHS copy of the film — it was far more satisfying of a listen). About half of it was brand new music, studio recordings presided over by Jimmy Iovine, who was easily the hottest producer at the time. There was enough freshly recorded material that it could reasonably be considered the proper follow-up to The Joshua Tree. But then the other half was largely live recordings, all captured during the tour that followed The Joshua Tree, as the band blew up to an astonishing degree. Further complicating matters, most of the new music seemed slightly out of step with what U2 had created previously. Lead single “Desire” was a big hit for the band (topped the Billboard Album Rock and Modern Rock charts and climbing all the way to #3 on the Hot 100), but it was decried by some of the faithful for its mild glammy, disco-ish underpinnings. This wasn’t what the band that made rock ‘n’ roll sound like a trip to church was supposed to sound like. Already well-trained in my first semester in college radio, I was quick to decry it as sell-out material, plenty pleased when its rapid ascension up the popular charts meant a red dot indicating “no play” was affixed next to it on our station’s copy (we had a strict policy against any track that has crossed into the Billboard Top 40, a prohibition that lasted at least two years). Now it’s one of my favorite U2 singles, invested with a liveliness and joy that’s missing from too much of the band’s work.

The messiness of Rattle and Hum is now one of the things I love best about the album. Listening back to it now, it truly seems like a release from a band that was knocked back on its heels, totally unprepared for the level of global fame they’d just achieved. A band that had previously been so prepared to make a high-impact statement with every last song now seemed to have a little bout with cottonmouth. To a degree, the album is the sound of a band trying to rediscover itself There was still an undeniable level of pretension there (seen most clearly in the film, filled with scenes of the band members visiting memorials and other quasi-sacred sites in somber black and white), but it is undercut by the freedom of exploration. Somewhere in the midst of the process that resulted in this album, U2’s ability to make any new music without extremely high, downright stultifying expectations was demolished as assuredly as if it had been hit straight on by a bulldozer. U2 had come a long way from a batch of Irish boys who ached to sound like Joy Division. They were now a global enterprise, suddenly so firmly established in pop culture that even their very best new songs flirted with self-parody. In that context, Rattle and Hum is the last gasp of the who they once were: a band that believed in the simplicity of three chords and the truth. I (and many, many others) take shots at U2 for their agonizing self-importance, but humility was no longer a viable option for them by the late nineteen-eighties. For better and worse, the overstatement of Rattle and Hum was their new default artistic route.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 12

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12. Mission of Burma, Forget

Among the things that characterize the typical college radio experience for a student programmer, it’s possible that the most frustrating is a melancholy longing for the music that was released sometime in the five to ten years before they set foot in the station. It’s not merely the perpetual dissatisfaction of youth that leads to this sullen impression. Music, particularly highly influential music, can take some time to gestate, meaning the best older records are automatically elevated in the mind’s assessment. There weren’t that many college radio stations playing, say, Nirvana’s Bleach when it was nestled in rotations as a new release, but a few years later all of the disciples of the pre-Nevermind effort from Seattle’s finest could wax poetically about how great it would have been to introduce it to their eager listeners. If an artist had the added cachet of a limited recording output, with the implication that they ended before their time was truly up, all the better.

Mission of Burma released exactly one full-length album during their brief initial existence. Vs. is widely considered a powerhouse classic of post-punk, suffused with an embrace of unpredictable sonics that held the promise of all the places that music might yet go. Even still, its importance trails that of the band’s debut single, the thrilling “Academy Fight Song,” and their first EP, the latter because it contains “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” a song that requires inclusion in any discussion of the all-time greats. The band didn’t last long after the release of Vs., in large part because the punishing volume of their live shows had already taken a physical toll, leaving lead guitarist Roger Miller with a severe case of tinnitus. Though they were officially done as a going concern in 1983, the band’s afterlife was robust. Before reforming some twenty years later (with the surprisingly strong ONoffON), Mission of Burma was the subject of no fewer than six releases, comprised standard “best of” collections, live albums, and assemblages of spare bits. Six releases across two decades doesn’t seem like much, I suppose, but it was effectively triple the band’s original output.

Officially, Rockpool lists our entry on the chart as Forget. I’m a little suspicious about that. Every source I can find, including those that are a little more reputable than the foggy wilds of web-based databases, lists Forget as a 1987 release, making it fairly unlikely that it survived on the charts for a full year or more or was ignored until the fall of 1988, when student programmers finally glommed onto it with collective urgency. I think it’s at least possible that the album actually charting in November 1988 was a self-titled comp on Rykodisc that represented one of the earliest attempts to make the band’s most famed material available on compact disc. That simple fact along could have been enough to make student deejays gravitate to it, in the same way that the Joy Division collection was getting ample attention. (Inconceivable as it may be now, CDs were still a novelty and a technological marvel in the fall of 1988, with radio stations announcing that all their music was played from that audio source as a significant selling point.) Then again, it’s certainly possible that the retrospective dating of Forget is incorrect or even that Taang! Records gave the collection a new push or an informal rerelease to capitalize on the interest that Mission of Burma surely generated.

Like a lot of such flotsam and jetsam collections, Forget is more interesting for what insights it might hold about the band’s creative process than it is as its own satisfying record. Largely made up of demos and rough passes at songs, the album is potentially revelatory for the most devoted Mission of Burma scholars in giving an aural sampling of the material that the bandmates decidedly, collectively or separately, simply wasn’t worth pursuing to a finished, polished product. Most of what’s here does sound like first passes at songs, new suits being tried on to check out the fit. Mission of Burma is a strong enough band to still delivering some damn fine material, even under those circumstances. The blistering album opener “Execution” has the charged heated of punk authenticity, and there’s a thrilling swerve between proper propulsion and unsettling musical discordance on “Playland” (the latter song eventually showed up again on ONoffON).

The band’s restless propensity for experimentalism is present throughout, as on “Manic Incarnation,” which starts collapsing in on itself midway through. Sometimes it does sound like the band merely slopping around, maybe or maybe not on their way to something better and more cogent (“Active in the Yard”). Certainly the stuff on here rarely sounds anywhere near finished (“Head Over Head” is the closest they come to the mind meld of punk abrasion and eloquent tunefulness that typifies their best work), making it a sort of permission slip to later bands like Pavement and Guided By Voices, proudly half-assing their way to acclaimed releases. The problem with that potential influence is that most bands don’t have the astonishing capability of Mission of Burma in their prime. The malformed material only sounds this strong if the talent in there to deliver a finished product in excess of what most can do. Mission of Burma had that. Their necessary few releases from the early eighties proved it. In its own unique way, Forget does too.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 13

13. Michelle Shocked, Short Sharp Shocked

I’m going to flip the script for this week’s entry. Usually, I track through where I was at in my musical growth when I first encountered the record featured, talk about the actual merits of the music, and then finish with a brief consideration of where the artist has gone in the twenty-five (plus!) years since. With Michelle Shocked, however, I feel compelled to begin with the unexpected anti-gay marriage rant from last year that earned her more prominent placement in the music press than she’s had in years. I would have quickly named Shocked as one of my favorite performers through the first half of the nineteen-nineties, but I largely lost track of her somewhere around the time she wrenched herself free of the label contract that inspired her to name a self-released album Artists Make Lousy Slaves. By the time I got to hear her output again a few years later, it sounded drab enough to me that I didn’t give it much additional thought. I certainly didn’t know she’d become a born again Christian, openly referring to herself as “the world’s greatest homophobe” when asked about the lesbian fan base that was instrumental in her early success. So the bigotry she espoused was entirely unexpected to me, especially since it was so completely at odds with the image I had of her from the time when I was an avid listener. She was a lefty protest singer when I left her. Now she was practically auditioning for a spot on a Fox News panel (well, except for getting arrested at Occupy L.A. protests).

As I noted, my disinterest in her more recent music is entirely on its merits (albeit merits gauged in the equivalent of glancing blows) and not predicated on a personal aversion to her bigotry, though that reaction is firmly in place. I’ve long said that if I got rid of every album in my collection that was created by everyone who I was pretty sure could be reasonably termed as an asshole in real life, I wouldn’t have much much music left to listen to. Still, I take a certain satisfaction in the fact that it’s now been a long, long time since I’ve supported Shocked in any way, while simultaneously feeling a little tingle of what can best be called regret whenever one of her old songs shuffles up. All that typed, Short Sharp Shocked is a terrific album.

Released by Mercury Records in the fall of 1988, Short Sharp Shocked was Shocked’s second album, and it was a clear statement of purpose. Her debut release, The Texas Campfire Tapes, is exactly what title implies. The album is what the lo-fi kids dream about: it’s nothing more than Shocked sitting out in the open air, playing her guitar and singing her songs. There are crickets in the background. The starkness of unadorned music presented her as a songwriter, first and foremost. She was a nimble musician and possessed an evocative voice, but the selling point was her ability to craft compelling songs that told stories both simple and profound. That established, Short Sharp Shocked seemed positioned to prove how much more she could do. The opening track, “When I Grow Up,” is layered with different studio adornments, as if to jar any listener expecting more of the same. It’s hardly a New Order song or anything like that, but it is loaded with strange, bendy noises that alter the dynamics of the song, heightening the sense of oddity as Shocked announces in the lyrics that she plans to have well over a hundred babies, adding, “We’ll raise ’em on tiger’s milk and green bananas/ Mangoes and coconuts and watermelons/ We’re gonna give ’em that watermelon when they starts yellin’.”

Across the album, Shocked balances folk-punk sensibilities with an earthier brand of studio polish, the latter provided by producer Pete Anderson, a longtime collaborator of Dwight Yoakam. Lead single “Anchorage” even alludes to this, as the reported correspondence with her friend who’s relocated to “the largest state in the Union” asks her “What’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker” and notes that her husband, Leroy, urges her to “keep on rocking, girl.” He also wants a picture. While Shocked made a case for herself as a pointed, politically-minded folk singer, she clearly didn’t want to be pigeonholed either. Thought that would become even more clear on subsequent releases, Short Sharp Shocked is already filled with songs that convincingly make the case that Shocked can zip across different styles: the bluesy grind of “If Love Was a Train,” the punk blast of hidden track “Fogtown,” the protest song repackaged as oblong jazz rumination with “Graffiti Limbo.”

That diversity of sound combined with the strength of her point of view had me convinced that Shocked was one of those artists who was in it for the long haul. This wasn’t just an interesting voice, I though. It was an important voice. I stuck with that conviction for a while, thought Shocked kept doing little things to convince me otherwise, including the one live performance I saw, circa 1996, when she alternated between daffily charming and borderline basket case. Still, I never foresaw how far off the rails she’d someday go, so far that it’s inconceivable she can find her way back to the sturdy, steel pathway ever again.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 14

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14. They Might Be Giants, Lincoln

When I arrived at the campus radio station in the fall of 1988, I was a relative neophyte when it came to college rock. I certainly put on airs that I knew more than I did, the cool kid culture of college radio necessitating a reasonable amount of knowledge to earn respect (or so I thought). And I was an eager, fast learner. Still, I had only the barest exposure to many of the bands that were staples on our airwaves, so anytime I encountered an album from a band I felt I knew a little better, I was extremely grateful. Therefore, I felt very lucky that my arrival coincided with that of Lincoln, the sophomore release from They Might Be Giants.

Now, it’s not as if I knew the band comprised of the Two Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh), but their very first single, “Don’t Let’s Start” (off of their self-titled debut), became an unlikely MTV staple, thanks to an attention-getting, oddball music video. That coincided with just enough laudatory press to raise their stature in my limited view. I caught other songs from them here and there (their follow-up music video, stray favorites that got played in the strange corners of one of the local radio station’s programming schedule), meaning I roughly knew what to expect with Lincoln. Namely, the songs would be catchy, quirky, and demonstrate a giddy freedom to bound across genres, adopting a reshaping everything they touched to their own smart aleck sensibilities. Even the trade publication ads touting the album took a cheeky tone, proclaiming Lincoln as the proud successor to other much-loved items that shared its name, from a president to a town to delightfully fun logs.

I’m not sure if I can term Lincoln as the first album from that autumn semester that I fell totally, irretrievably in love with (that honor is probably reserved for the album up for discussion when the countdown reaches the number five slot), but it is certainly the record that made me appreciate the value in music that was clearly shaped by a distinctive, singular voice and yet was incredibly diverse. I could return to Lincoln week after week and always feel like I was playing songs that kept my playlist fluidly different. I could incorporate the jerky honky tonk of “Cowtown,” the bizarro jazz of “Lie Still, Little Bottle,” or the art piece aggression of “You’ll Miss Me.” When the holiday season rolled around, my general aversion to Christmas songs fell before the thumping charms of “Santa’s Beard.” That’s a big batch of songs that I was happy to drop the needle on, and I haven’t yet covered the real pinnacles of the album.

I once read a music piece that cited “Ana Ng” as one of the greatest love songs ever recorded, an assertion I original found ludicrous. Then I thought more about it. Lincoln‘s spectacular lead single is ostensibly about a doomed romance between the song’s protagonist and the Vietnamese woman of the title, with the lament “Ana Ng and I are getting old/ And we still haven’t walked in the glow/ Of each other’s majestic presence” serving as a poignant, pointed explication of the enduring misery of unrequited love. The song is filled with lyrics of great affect, including, “When I was driving once I saw this painted on a bridge:/ ‘I don’t want the world, I just want your half,'” as well as the vivid imagery of the opening: “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular/ To the name of this town in a desktop globe/ Exit wound in a foreign nation/ Showing the home of the one this was written for.” (The latter was reportedly inspired by an old Pogo comic strip.) The whole track is stealthily ravishing.

At the time, I was maybe even more taken with the direct heartache of follow-up single “They’ll Need a Crane” (“Love sees love’s happiness/ But happiness can’t see that love is sad”). But then I found a new potential favorite with nearly every shift: “The World’s Address,” “Purple Toupee,” “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go.” Lincoln had a total of eighteen tracks, and I think it’s likely I played every last one of them — some of them multiple times — before it completed its journey through the station’s rotation. Of course I did. Lincoln represented a safe zone for me, a band I had some amount of command over, a knowledge level that wasn’t all that dissimilar from anyone else in the station. Besides, they were funny, lively, and a little bratty, although harmlessly so in the case of the latter quality. I suppose I could relate.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 15

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15. Game Theory, Two Steps from the Middle Ages

Like most of their contemporaries, the band Game Theory was headed towards the practically inevitable reunion. There were plans afoot to record a new album (the working title was Supercalifragile), which would have been the first release of new material by the band since 1988’s 2 Steps from the Middle Ages. The plan was demolished for the most tragic of reasons. Band leader Scott Miller died unexpectedly in the spring of 2013, at the age of 53.

Miller was one of those songwriters who never seemed to get the attention he deserved, either with Game Theory or with his later band, the Loud Family. He was the kind of creator that inspired fervent devotion from those who found intricate, intellectual magic in his songwriting, but was probably too complex to every find anything other than a cult audience. 2 Steps from the Middle Ages was something of a last stab at commercial success. As with their previous releases, the band worked with producer Mitch Easter, who had a gift for making college rock records that simultaneously handsomely polished and roughly hewn. It had been years since Easter had worked with R.E.M., but the crossover success the little ol’ band from Athens, Georgia was enjoying in the late-eighties heightened interest in their foundational efforts with Easter behind the boards. There were few other producers at the time who could generate positive attention with college rock fans just by signing his name to a project. On the sticker affixed to the front of the album, Easter’s name was prominently featured: “WEST MEETS EASTER (MITCH) FOR A TANTALIZING TASTE OF PROVOCATIVE POP.”

Miller was convinced he was making quality, enduring music, and 2 Steps from the Middle Ages is littered with songs that prove his belief. “Room for One More, Honey,” “Wyoming,” and “Throwing the Election” stand as prime examples. They were extending the brilliant, beautiful power pop once practiced by Big Star, roughing it up a little bit, just like the Replacements did, but building in a thrilling chewiness that demonstrated a beloved belief in the strength of fine songwriting. If Paul Westerberg always seemed reticent to put his heart and soul into the grooves without just enough of a disreputable indifference so he could plausibly call it all bullshit if things got too real, then Miller was his opposite in temperament. The Game Theory albums were urgent, unapologetic testimonies. 2 Steps from the Middle Ages has an even more pronounced version of this quality. It’s a dive off a cliff.

Unfortunately, it was a cliff dive into the shallowest of pools. There was no big splash for Game Theory, and the band effectively crumbled. Miller tried to replace his departing bandmates. There was some touring with the new line-up and enough time in the recording studio to provide some material to help fill out the collection Tinker to Evers to Chance. That was it for Game Theory. That was about to change. I’m not a excited proponent of reunions, but listening back to this material I must admit I land on a sad conclusion: it’s a shame that the silence was forced to endure.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 16

16. The Dream Syndicate, Ghost Stories

As the title implies, Ghost Stories is a fairly gloomy record, at least lyrically. That surely stems from the uncertainty the Dream Syndicate endured on the road to their fourth studio album. Each of their three previous full-lengths had been on a different label, and they had gone through at least one aborted break-up precipitated by the heavy disappointment over their music business struggles. If other bands sometimes filter their own discontent to forecast the imminent demise of the group on what proves to be their final album, the Dream Syndicate wrapped up their collective career as a recording outfit with a release that instead smacks of post-mortem examination.

If the lyrics are often grim, if wryly so, the music certainly isn’t. Chief songwriter Steve Wynn always had a way with a pop-rock hook, and Ghost Stories is filled with terrifically catchy songs. There’s acid in the bonbons, though, as with album opener “The Side I’ll Never Show,” which keeps coming back to a chorus that announces, “Every cloud has a silver lining/ Every doubt has an answer, I know/ But in my heart there’s no light shining.” In general, the song titles do a fine job of conveying the sensibility of the record: “Weathered and Torn,” “Someplace Better Than This,” and “When the Curtain Falls.” Even the inevitable cover song gathers foreboding clouds, as Wynn and company snarl through Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” There was certainly a healthy dose of cynicism present on previous albums by the Dream Syndicate, but Ghost Stories brought it to a whole different level.

By some accounts, a decent amount of the toughness and even anger that comes through on the record was due to the manipulations of producer Elliot Mazer, best known as Neil Young’s go-to guy in the studio. Mazer reportedly decided that Wynn performed better when he was a little on edge, so the producer routinely antagonized him during the recording process, which probably didn’t contribute to the long-term health of an already ailing band. On the evidence of the record itself, Mazer’s strategy may have been sound. Wynn barely comes across as a punk rocker on Ghost Stories (maybe a little bit on the bitter, stomping blues of “Weathered and Torn”), but there’s a fire there that elevates the whole album. Glum as it is when focusing on the words, the music conveys the tale, perhaps inaccurate, of a band fighting for their shared life. That friction is a major part of what makes Ghost Stories a great record.

Of course, the quality of the record can be directly traced to the skill of Wynn’s songwriting, too. There’s the buzzing punchiness of “My Old Haunts” (“These streets are paved with stories/ Of faded hopes and glories”) and the tender elegance of “Someplace Better Than This,” which sounds like the missing link between Harry Nilsson and the National. “Whatever You Please” has the melodic wistfulness of the Kinksin the nineteen-seventies, with Wynn even giving it his best world-weary Ray Davies inflection when he sings, “Well, I used to care/ That was a long time ago.” Over and over again, the band delivers with the consummate skill that made their many (but not plentiful enough) true believers lament them as one of the great bands of the eighties that never got the attention they deserved. Already reanimated, the band may have known full well this would be their last studio outing together, but they don’t sound defeated at all. To use a tired but apt phrase, they go down swinging.
Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 17

17primitives

17. The Primitives, Lovely

Certain as I am that the following statement can be refuted many times over by countless music fans with their own predilections, I’m still going to put it out there: No debut album begins in better fashion than Lovely by the Primitives. “Crash” wasn’t their first official single. In the U.K. it was preceded by a bevy of other songs, most of which also showed up on Lovely. But “Crash” is such a glistening piece of pure pop perfection that it’s an announcement of resounding necessity. The Primitives are a band that demands to be heard, not by the sheer force of their playing, like the punk icons of a decade earlier, but through startling command of songcraft. Penned by chief songwriter Paul Court, along with bassist Steve Dullaghan and lead singer Tracy Tracy, the song begins with a quick, tingly riff like steadily falling rain. It goes for almost ten full seconds, before a punch of sound and then Tracy launches straight into the chorus: “You go way too fast/ Don’t slow down, you’re gonna crash.” It’s over in two-and-a-half minutes, because sometimes that’s all the time greatness needs.

The Primitives first formed in 1985, although initially without Tracy, and the Primitives without Tracy is unthinkable. A tiny bottle blonde with a presence that demonstrates how icy certainty can be the most beguiling quality of all, Tracy brought a casual command to the songs. Whether singing about heartache or ongoing affection (the Primitives trafficked in both, meaning the point of view of the records seems to be all of pop music’s possibility and purpose), Tracy brought the same tone, slightly disaffected but also sweet. There was a sugary quality to the songs, laced with something just a little bitter, like the zest of a lemon rind. The singing cuts through the Jesus and Mary Chain-styled gloppy buzz of “Thru the Flowers,” for example. Her vocals are beams of sunlight leaving marks more akin to razors. In look, in sound, in everything, Tracy is exactly what a band like the Primitives needs to feel complete.

Lovely is a stacked record, full of gems that have a touch of cloudiness to them, the kind of shadowing that makes a thing of beauty even more beautiful. There’s the post-punk brashness of “Really Stupid,” the narcotic-conked Go-Go’s sound of “Nothing Left,” or the dreamy tenderness of “Don’t Want Anything to Change.” The Primitives weren’t prone to wild veering stylistically, but they knew how to keep the dynamics of their songs from becoming rote. I love the way the echoing, Joy Division-y intro of “I’ll Stick With You” is washed over but not quite subsumed by a cheery tune that reaches back to girl group goodness without overtly aping it. It’s a simple, satisfying trick that shows up all over Lovely: songs zig when they seem like they’re about to zag (or, maybe more accurately, just barrel straight along), but the shift is always done with such verve and panache that there’s no noticing the sonic sleight of hand. As with any great entertainers, they coax the audience into wanting to believe in them, in their showmanship and charm. Listening to Lovely is engaging in a bear hug embrace of elation itself.

Shining like a flare at its peak, the Primitives were obviously not built for longevity. They released their sophomore album, Pure, one year later (that album’s stunning track “Way Behind Me” also showed up on later pressings of Lovely) and then one last effort that was almost entirely ignored when it bounced in and out of record stores in 1991. Like other bands from that era that enjoyed only modest success, the Primitives’ cachet only grew in the intervening years. In their case, it was thanks largely to the inclusion of a remixed take on “Crash” on the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack, of all places. The song has become one the retrospective standards of college rock, getting covered in the oddest ways. All that probably helped spur a reunion (not that old college rock bands need all that much prompting to get back together), leading the Primitives to release the decent Echoes and Rhymes in 2012, their first new music together in twenty years. It may be a mere echo of what came before, but Lovely is an album that deserves to reverberate forever.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 18

18smiths

18. The Smiths, Rank

Here is the sound of contractual obligation in the college rock world. By the fall of 1988, the Smiths were over as a going concern, the longtime fractious relationship between lead singer and Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr reaching an insurmountable impasse one year earlier, right around the time their last studio album, Strangeways, Here We Come saw release. According to Marr, the breaking point was the recording of a cover version of a Cilla Black, but surely it was only a matter of time anyway. The split was decisive enough that the Smiths remain one of the few shattered bands from the era who haven’t succumbed to the lucrative temptation to mount a reunion. It was a group full of people who were clearly fed up with one another. That’s even evident on Rank.

Though the band was done, they still owed a record to their label, hence the release of a live double album. Rank is culled from a 1986 concert at London’s National Ballroom. The performance wasn’t new to diehard Smiths fans, as the full show previously aired on BBC1 Radio. Morrissey did the trimming for the album, cutting such favorite songs as “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “How Soon Is Now?” in the process. There are plenty of potential explanations for this (led by the fact that the Smiths catalog was monumentally impressive, despite their fairly brief tenure as a band), but the overall drabness of the album can’t help but suggest that leaving out tracks plenty of fans would be excited to hear was simply another manifestation of Morrissey’s petulance in the immediate aftermath of the band he was overjoyed to leave behind. Well, as close as Morrissey ever gets to overjoyed. Maybe it’s more accurate to say the end of the band nicely fueled the self-pity and persecution complex that represent his most natural state. Formally closing out this era of his career with a lackluster recording must have just felt right to him.

Then again, I don’t know for certain that Morrissey considered the album one of the dullest possible contributions to his still-burgeoning canon. He did opt to title it with a bit of British slang for masturbation, which seems a fair clue as to his state of mind. Then again, that could be nothing more than some chipper rock star brattiness, especially since it was partially a reaction to the label rejecting his original choice for a title: The Smiths in Heat. Even though absolutely everything Morrissey does is fodder for intense speculation and explication among the fans, sometimes details like the naming of an album don’t carry all that much meaning. Morrissey’s debut solo album had arrived earlier that year to great acclaim. It’s reasonable to think any project or task connecting to finishing off the Smiths was little more than an afterthought.

Of course, that doesn’t exactly explain the mediocre live performance from a couple years earlier. The Smiths have a reputation as an excellent live band, but they sound incredibly disinterested throughout Rank. “Ask” is a typical example. It’s one of the band’s most vibrant songs, luxurious and spirited in the studio recording. On Rank, it’s perfunctory at best, sounding like the product of a band idly marking time as they await the moment they can leave the stage for the night. They were hardly global superstars at this point, but they had a strong enough fan base that they knew it didn’t necessarily take much to satisfy the faithful. Being there was almost enough, and it often sounds like being there is the totality of the goal in the concert documented on Rank. Even Morrissey’s tendency to aggressively roll his Rs begins to seem oddly mocking to the crowd, just another theatrical affectation he knows they’ll lap up. It’s not all dire, though the pleasures are isolated (I like the way the song seems to powerfully splinter apart at the end of “London”). Certainly one the best and most influential college rock bands of the eighties deserved a better final bow than this.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 19

19petrol

19. That Petrol Emotion, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues

In my memory, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues sounds a little different. That’s because I have one particular track off the album that I faultily use to define the entirety. During the summer of 1989, I sat with the Station Manager of WWSP-90FM, where I was the Program Director, and we hashed out the fall schedule. Like most student-run stations, we typically took whatever programs came our way and shoved them in the schedule in a way that best accommodated the time availability of our volunteer disc jockeys. We wanted to approach it a little differently, especially on the weekends, when most of our specialty shows filled the program day. We built the schedule the way we thought it should be, then committed to finding the right DJs for the slots. It’s not all that daring, as we were mostly preserving an existing weekend schedule, but we did need to invent something for the vacant Saturday evening slot. What was required, we were sure, was a dance music program. Once we settled on the format, the next step was giving it a name, so I cast around for electronica and other disco-fied songs I’d played during my first year at the station, figuring one of them might provide a title worth nicking. We settled on “Groove Check,” which was also the title of a song on That Petrol Emotion’s third album, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, originally released the previous fall.

Listening to “Groove Check” now, it hardly strikes me as the sort of song that a true aficionado of electronic dance would have picked for the name of such a show, or even to play on it. (It’s entirely possible the Station Manager and I celebrated the conclusion of our scheduling task by putting on a Hüsker Dü album and grumbling about how only music that sounded at least a little like that could be considered remotely cool.) It’s hardly the kindred of music by bands like New Order, Erasure, or others suitable for left of the dial playlists who had some level of legitimacy on the dance floor. It’s funky and driving, but it sounds more like geographically misplaced Oingo Boingo that something that might help launch rave culture. Beyond that, it’s an aberration on the album, which mostly skews toward fairly straightforward guitar pop.

That Petrol Emotion was a London-based band with an American lead singer (Steve Mack) and a deeply-rooted Irish sensibility, the latter quality largely attributable to the contributions of songwriter John O’Neill. Formerly a member of the Undertones, O’Neill’s creative lineage meant that most considered That Petrol Emotion to be his band, even though the songwriting credits were dispersed among the whole membership. When End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues was released, for example, there was a lot of attention given to “Cellophane,” an O’Neill-written song that directly addressed the Irish “Troubles” (with the recurring line “I can only find the murder machine”). There was a certain subset of his fan base (or at least a certain subset of music critics) who’d been waiting years for O’Neill to address the topic, as if U2 made it mandatory for Irish bands to be political. Compounding the interest in O’Neill’s contributions to End was the announcement he made that he intended to leave the band after the album. It was tempting to hear the album as a final statement.

Listening now, though, the album sounds less like a final statement that a prescient push into the near-future. Released in fall of 1988, it sounds more like the brand of Britpop that would dominate college radio briefly in early nineteen-nineties, before grunge pummeled it into submission. Album opener “Sooner or Later” wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the earlier, gentler Blur albums, “Candy Love Satellite” has a pogoing exuberance, and “Here It Is…Take It!” is awash in the Madchester rubbery backbeat that would be desperately familiar soon enough. If the album had totally locked into this sound, then maybe it would be considered more foundational. Instead, it’s all over the place in a quietly thrilling way. “The Price of My Soul” is one of those intensely earnest, pop-laced ballads that bands felt empowered to take regular cracks at thanks to the colossal success of Tears for Fears in the mid-eighties, and “Goggle Box” has a buzzy freneticism that ties it to bygone post-punk without resorting to retro neediness. While all of this can sometimes give End of the Millennium Psychosis the feel of album made by a band without an identity, the unmoored qualities more often mark the album a product of admirable exploration.

O’Neill did indeed leave the band, but they continued on, releasing two more studio albums before packing it in sometime in 1994. As is now inevitable, there were reunion gigs years and years later, though I can’t really imagine there was all that much clamor for them. As opposed to other bands who have only grown in stature during the last quarter-century or so, That Petrol Emotion is largely forgotten. They’re certainly not given credit for how interesting they were, even from those who once used them to fill out their college playlists. Or even drew inspiration from them when it came time to bestow names on Saturday night radio programs.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 20

20. Joy Division, Substance

In the fall of 1987, New Order released a compilation entitled Substance. Designed as a collection of all of the band’s singles up to that point, including the B-sides, the album served as a means for the band to provide greater distribution for some tracks that were fairly hard to get, especially on this side of the Atlantic. It also provided an opportunity for some light revisionism, with the band remixing or even full-on rerecording several of the songs, making the album a different sort of “greatest hits” release. It wasn’t merely an appraisal of who the band had once been, but a consideration of who they’d become, the distance they’d journeyed from, say, the original version of “Temptation,” released in 1982 (a little tinny and combative), to the freshly recorded take from 1987 (more lush, warmer, clearly built for the dance floor). At least in the U.S., Substance represented by far the greatest success the band had enjoyed, charting in the Top 40 of the Billboard album charts (around sixty places higher than their previous peak) and yielding their first Top 40 single with “True Faith,” one of the tracks recorded specifically for the compilation. Clearly there was value in mining their own past, and they had a pretty artistically spectacular past to mine.

Before there was New Order, of course, there was Joy Division. New Order members Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner were all in Joy Division with the brilliant, doomed Ian Curtis. Well, they were initially in the band Warsaw together (up until almost the moment the band first took the stage, they were actually known as the Stiff Kittens, but Morris wasn’t yet a member at that time), but that name was jettisoned because they were continually getting confused with fellow U.K. punkers Warsaw Pakt. They took the name Joy Division from the 1955 novel House of Dolls. The Joy Division was the name German soldiers gave to the portion of the concentration camp that they set up as a brothel, forcing captive Jewish women into sexual slavery. Paired with the beautifully grim music the quartet created, it was a name with more brutal irony than just about any band could bear. But Joy Division wasn’t just any band.

Almost one full year after New Order released Substance, a compilation with the same title but devoted to the music of Joy Division arrived. Compiled with roughly the same conceit of roping singles and their B-sides onto one disc, this Substance was an even more vital document than its predecessor. During Joy Division’s existence, they released only two full-length albums, both vital, and there had been just one previous collection since the devastating 1980 suicide of Curtis hastened the end of the band. That album, 1981’s Still, is comprised on leftover studio material and live recordings (including the entirety of their last concert, just over two weeks before Curtis took his own life), making it more of a clearing of the Factory Records vaults than an encapsulation of the band. Though Substance makes no real claims of being complete, it does manage the worthwhile trick of being defining in a useful way. In touching on every bit of Joy Division’s brief existence — from the first track on their first EP to the morose single released mere weeks after Curtis’s death, almost inevitably becoming the band’s signature song — it captures in an ideal hit-and-run fashion why the band was so thrilling and important. The necessary incompleteness is part of the charm.

On opener “Warsaw,” Joy Division sound like any number of their contemporaries in the punk scene (including Warsaw Pakt). The continuing Holocaust fascination is fairly unique (the song is about Nazi Rudolf Hess, including a reference to his eventual prisoner of war number in the cried intro “3 5 0 1 2 5 Go!”), but otherwise songs that sounds like this were found on any number of vinyl offerings from angry young British lads. A major part of the appeal, then, is listening to the more familiar and celebrated version of Joy Division congeal. It doesn’t take long. By the collection’s third track, “Digital,” (originally found on the December 1978 EP A Factory Sample, along with songs by the Durutti Column, John Dowie, and Cabaret Voltaire) the richer tones and offbeat rhythms are beginning to appear. “Autosuggestion,” recorded in the spring of 1979 and released in the fall of that year, expands the sonic palette further with a spooky airiness, forlorn vocals, and guitar parts that sound like tactical attacks being developed through trial and error. “Transmission” closes the first side, and the sound is fully there. First released as a single in October 1979, the song is menacing, soaring, stirring, and propelled by a rhythm that recalls a racing pulse. Maybe it’s not the invention of post-punk, but it’s the sudden, thrilling perfection of it.

The flip side is escalating genius rattled by existential agony. “She’s Lost Control” is goth laced with with the residue of an industrial stew, the instrumental “Incubation” would make a great soundtrack to a dream state chase through a pace-deadening morass, and “Dead Souls” is a roundhouse punch in the darkness with lyrics florid enough to make Jim Morrison blush (“Where figures from the past stand tall/ And mocking voices ring the halls/ Imperialistic house of prayer/ Conquistadors who took their share”). Curtis seems to earn the drama, though. It’s not just knowledge of his ending that makes it clear he was genuinely grappling with a wounded soul. Substance ends with the majestic, gloomy romanticism of “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the latter song surely the one that defines the band for the majority of people. Their evolution was impressive, and, as it turns out, complete.

It’s no wonder that college radio embraced this record when it came across their messy desks. While I maintain that student programmers are likely to champion the new music at hand when they started serving their time on the left end of the dial, there’s also a instinct to indulge in nostalgia for the era that was just missed, certain of how splendiferous it would have been to be in the studio when that one bygone classic album first arrived. As New Order was straying further from those Joy Division roots (the first couple of New Order albums really do sound like extensions of the Joy Division sound, but “True Faith” is a distant cousin, at best), it had to be especially pleasing to drop the needle on music that had no hint of sell out. (1988 was the year of Neil Young’s “This Note’s For You.” Crying “Sell out!” was always a favorite pastime of college radio kids, but the metaphorical pump was especially well-primed.) Substance was a distant promise, not quite kept. It was oddly reassuring to have it whispered — or, rather, roared — into ears anew. Maybe the blistering future of music was yet achievable after all.

Previously…
An Introduction