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Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: College Rock 1981-1990
College Rock, in the sense that it is most commonly used, is almost synonymous with indie rock, but with a few key differences.
As a term, it first surfaced in the mid-1980's to describe bands like R.E.M., The Replacements, and The Smiths; all indie bands who garnered airplay on college radio stations. It differs from indie rock in that select major label bands qualified as well; The Joshua Tree by U2 was a classic College Rock favorite of the 1980's as well, as was Peter Gabriel's So.
As an era, College Rock began around the time of MTV's debut in 1982; in many respects, it was the antidote to MTV. It lasted until the dawn of the alternative rock era, which saw the same types of indie rock bands crossing over to the mainstream and being embraced by MTV. This establishes a timeline of about 1982-1990; if we roll it back a year, we can include the entire 1980's, with the 1990's representing the alternative rock era.
College radio had an importance it never had in the 1970's and lost in the 1990's; during the 1980's, it was the only hope of promotion for many indie bands. It can be safe to say that seminal 80's indie rock bands like the Meat Puppets, The Violent Femmes, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Let's Active and others would have found next to no audience at all had it not been for the college stations that embraced them.
As a genre, it is quite broad, reflective of the college stations' playlists; it includes a lot of the indie subgenres of the 80's, including jangle pop, neo psychedelia, cowpunk, postpunk, noise rock, roots rock, American hardcore, and British new wave. The mainstream acts that got college airplay like U2, Gabriel, Sting, and a few others were quirky, genre-bending ones with an experimental bent. Sonically, many of these bands have little in common beyond a 1980's ambience; however, all share an approach that usually involved redefining rock for the 80's outside any notions the mainstream harbored; pop, metal, r&b and 70's holdovers weren't included.
College rock never really went away, but MTV's embrace of alternative rock, and the growth of alternative package tours and alternate means of music distribution meant that college radio lost the clout it had developed in the 80's; nowadays it is merely one more outlet of distribution, and not a particularly important one anymore.
So: a salute to the golden age of college rock of the 1980's; the original alternative rock era.
There's no way to fit everyone in, so this is more of an overview.
Some important/influential College Rock songs/artists include:
1. R.E.M.: Fall On Me
R.E.M. is the most important band of the college rock era, and college rock was critical to R.E.M. The Athens, GA band's first three albums were only played on college stations, for the most part, yet they found enough of an audience in this fashion to chart their albums in the top-30; very solid sales for an indie act. By the time of their fourth full-length album, Life's Rich Pageant from 1986, word was beginning to leak out into the mainstream about the band. The album itself seemed to anticipate this; it featured a bolder, more radio-friendly sound than their earlier work. "Fall On Me" a cryptic, apocalyptic piece of jangle pop, featuring ringing guitar and good vocals from Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills (who was beginning to take a more active role as background vocalist). The band would have their breakthrough the following year, with Document, which led to their signing with major label Warner Brothers in 1988; catapulting them into the mainstream.
2. The Replacements: Left of the Dial
"Left of the Dial" is an ode to college rock itself, referring to the position of most college stations on the radio dial. The Replacements were one of the Big-3 of college rock, along with R.E.M. and Husker Du, with a sound punkier than either, but also tempered by jangle pop and power pop sensibilities. The song itself became a huge college radio favorite, and helped edge the 1985 album Tim into the lower reaches of the top-200. The Replacements (who were hometown competitors with Husker Du) never came close to R.E.M. in commercial muscle; their best showing was Don't Tell A Soul from 1989, recorded after the departure of guitarist Bob Stinson. The band's legacy, however, is tremendous, as one of the real precursors of "alternative rock" as a sound, insofar as such a thing can be said to exist, and their 1984-1986 peak, which yielded Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me, was as good a three album run as any band ever achieved.
3. Husker Du: Makes No Sense At All
Minneapolis-based Husker Du existed and thrived under the mainstream radar throughout most of the 1980's, and ultimately left a huge footprint; they can be considered one of the first practitioners of progressive punk, emo in the non perjorative sense of the word, and grunge. During their peak they benefited from the presence of two excellent songwriters, guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart, and managed to create unabashedly noisy punk-metal with subtly complex lyrics and song construction. Husker Du, along with The Replacements and Soul Asylum, were spearheads of the Minneapolis rock scene of the early 80's, one of the most vital in the country at the time. Their 1984-1986 peak stretched across the last three albums they recorded for SST, Zen Arcade (a double album, one of the only indie doubles of the 80's), Flip Your Wig, New Day Rising, and their first album for Warners, Candy Apple Grey. Flip Your Wig is arguably the best; it rescues the very worthy songs from the murk and infuses them with a punch. "Makes No Sense At All" has all the guitar noise that made them famous, as well as a great melody and lyric; it conveys a sense of fresh musical discovery and assurance that has seldom been heard since the 60's. The band abruptly broke up in 1987; Mould has worked solo, and with his band Sugar, in the years since.
4. The Smiths: How Soon Is Now?
College rock in America generally played mostly American music. British rock, which had been welcome since the Beatles, and was vital to the American rock experience as recently as the Pretenders, had very rapidly been rendered largely irrelevant by the mid-80's, as the more homegrown roots rock, cowpunk, jangle pop, and progressive punk bands dominated the college airwaves. Still, some British groups, managed to sneak through and find audiences in the States as well. Probably chief among them were the Smiths, whose "How Soon Is Now?" was one of the cult hits of 1985 in the States. Centered on the histrionic vocals of Morrissey and a mother of a clanging, warped tremeloed guitar riff from Johnny Marr, one of the most distinctive in rock history. For many, "How Soon Is Now?" is as deep into the band as they got; tacked on to Meat Is Murder for its U.S. release, and wasn't indicative of the rest of the album, which is less aggressive and danceable. Still, Morrissey remained compelling, and he maintains a cult in the U.S. to this day. The Smiths occupied an interesting niche that bridge the gap between early 80's British synth pop and early 90's guitar-based Britpop.
5. The Smithereens: Behind The Wall Of Sleep
The Smithereens, who came to college radio prominence in 1986, differed considerably from most of the other 1980's indie bands in the sense that their sound was a lot more explicitly British Invasion inspired, with vocal and guitar hooks galore, and a vaguely menacing, non-punky leatherclad image. Their music had a manic depressive quality to it; it never sounded joyous or fun. They racked up a sizable number of college radio hits, some of which broke through onto mainstream rock radio, "Only A Memory", "House We Used To Live In", and "A Girl Like You" among them. "Behind The Wall of Sleep" was the first, from their 1986 album Especially for You on Enigma; it's a sturdy 60's inflected, guitar rich number with a killer distorted guitar solo and Pat DiNizio's jaded, weary vocals. The Smithereens, from the greater New York area, were a hard-working band; their debut EP appeared in 1980, and they continued to tour into the late 1990's, long after most of the other bands on this list had broken up.
6. New Order: Bizarre Love Triangle
Along with the Smiths, New Order was one of the most successful British exports of the post-synthpop 80's. New Order is essentially Joy Division minus original frontman Ian Curtis, who hanged himself in 1980, plus new keyboardist Gillian Gilbert; guitarist Bernard Sumner assumed lead vocal duties. "Bizarre Love Triangle" is possibly their best known song, recently dredged up in an advertising campaign, and is a gloomy dance number, something New Order excelled at. Full of synth washes and synthetic dance beats, it avoids soullessness via Sumner's vocals and a complexity of production and texture that suggests hints of dream pop. The single was from Brotherhood, a 1986 release; New Order survives to this day. After a hiatus in the mid-90's, they re-emerged as an electronica act; Waiting For The Siren's Call reached #1 on the U.S. electronica charts in 2005.
7. The Cure: In-Between Days
The other major U.K. band of the college rock era was The Cure, whose discography spans over twenty five years. While much of that time the band has mainly been a vehicle for guitarist/singer Robert Smith (a frequent part-time member of Siouxsie and the Banshees, too), the band enjoyed a rare period of lineup stability in the mid-late 1980's, during which they enjoyed their greatest popularity on American college radio. "In-Between Days" was their college classic; boasting a perky rhythm, real playing, a melancholy air but stirring synth hook, it sums up the contradictions inherent in Generation X, whose existence has always been a hybrid of the organic and the synthetic, the manic depressive and elated. "In-Between Days" is from their 1985 U.S. breakthrough The Head On The Door, on Elektra (a major label, although the Cure always sold like an indie band). The Cure, released in 2004, was actually one of their most successful releases ever, reaching #7.
8. The Pixies: Here Comes Your Man
The Pixies were also one of the major indie acts of the 1980's, ultimately influencing alternative rock in a big way. Their primary strength was a seemingly effortless blending of rough, jagged, squealing guitars with catchy pop hooks; they had a primitive noise-rock edge, but a good arsenal of surf riffs, punk riffs, arena riffs, and melodies which they coupled with weird, sometimes degenerate lyrics. "Here Comes Your Man" has an instantly winning melodic bent with disarmingly straightforward shared chorus from Black Francis and Kim Deal, and plenty of good guitar licks. It almost sounds like a forgotten 60's classic, except for the somewhat surreal tweaks to the rhythm that leave the song just slightly off-kilter, and the strange lyrics which sound innocuous on the surface until you listen closely. The Pixies' 1987-1990 peak represents the end of the original college rock era; "Here Comes Your Man" is from the 1989 release Doolittle. Kim Deal saw alternative rock success with The Breeders in the 1990's.
9. Midnight Oil: Best of Both Worlds
Midnight Oil's "Best Of Both Worlds", from the 1984 album Red Sails In The Sunset, wasn't this Australian punk band's biggest college radio hit, but it was their best, with its loud, brisk descending chord hook, Peter Garrett's righteous sounding Aussie-centric lyrics and big chorus. Midnight Oil was already past their peak as a band by the time Americans heard of them; their debut, which was a lot more hardcore than they'd become, was released in 1978. Their biggest hit on college radio was "Beds are Burning" from the 1987 album Diesel and Dust, by which time they had become a much more conventional band; Garrett had even run for the Australian Senate.
10. Sinead O'Connor: Mandinka
Sinead O'Connor appeared out of nowhere with "Mandinka" in 1987 which became a big club hit and college radio favorite. O'Connor's distinctive vocal style which was somewhere between a keen and a wail but firmly under control, stood out from the crowd instantly, and the strange, angular, Peter Gabriel-esque guitar rock seemed neither punk, rock, or pop. Her debut album, The Lion and The Cobra straddled a fine line between club rock and college rock, and dabbled in dance; "I Want Your Hands On Me" was another college rock/club rock crossover. With her 1990 sophomore album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, which featured "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Prince, she briefly entered the mainstream and lost much of her college audience; she's led an erratic but interesting career since.
11. Camper Van Beethoven: Take The Skinheads Bowling
Camper Van Beethoven was one of the quintessential college bands of the 80's; virtually nobody knew them except college students. Their music was defiantly oddball and eclectic, mixing in goofy references from folk, ska, punk, garage rock, roots rock, jangle pop, country, whatever they could find. Their lyrics were wry and ironic; in some respects they were the precursor to Pavement. "Take The Skinheads Bowling" is from their excellent 1986 debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, and is a disarmingly charming, harmonic piece of tuneful jangle pop with lyrics that almost border on elegiac despite their archness; therein lies one of their primary appeals. The band remained largely under the radar throughout their career, but released five excellent albums through 1991; in 2004 they reunited for New Roman Times.
12. B-52's: Mesopotamia
Athens band the B-52's first gained a sizable audience with "Red Lobster" in 1979, predating the college rock era somewhat; however, it was the Athens college crowd who first put them on the map (CBGB's later provided an even bigger boost), and the B-52's subsequently put Athens on the map as a major breeding ground of indie talent. The B-52's weren't indie themselves; they recorded for major label Warner Brothers. However, they never lost their college cred; throughout the 80's they remained college radio staples. "Mesopotamia", from the 1982 EP of the same name, is a David Byrne-produced number with funky "Superstition" style keyboard and absurdist lyric delivered in Fred Schneider's semi-fruity deadpan. Mesopotamia was greeted with mixed enthusiasm; it replaced the gonzo humor of their first two albums with a drier, more art-school approach (which may well have been Byrne's influence). However, Byrne himself was on a roll in those days and Talking Heads were always a college rock favorite; "Mesopotamia" clicked with those listeners who also appreciated the B-52's fairly brave step forward from what could have become formula.
13. XTC: Dear God
XTC is the oldest band on this list, having made its debut in 1977. By the time Skylarking was released in 1986, much had changed. While they were known for angular, punky, art-rock at their outset, their sound progressed in a lush direction, adopting an otherworldly psychedelic patina that was wholly and uniquely theirs. This evolution came about under peculiar circumstances, as founding member Andy Partridge suffered a severe anxiety attack onstage and forswore performing live ever again, effectively turning the band into a purely studio creature. Skylarking was the strange, luscious fruit of this cocooning. One of the most gorgeously ornate albums ever recorded, with every song its own wondrous, wry, or ominous little perfume river under tangerine skies. Left off the first American releases was the single "Dear God" a bitter, disillusioned paean to atheism, it rivals John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band in simple, harrowing straightforwardness. Adding to the blasphemy is the chorus of children singing. It's a strangely incongruous song in the context of Skylarking, as it interrupts the hallucinatory dreamscape with nightmarish reality. But in the end, it adds a dimension to the album. Skylarking, and its overtly psychedelic and satiric follow-up Oranges and Lemons marked the band's peak in America.
14. The Sugarcubes: Motorcrash
"Motorcrash" appeared on college radio in 1988 and instantly stood out in its crazy synthesis of everything in sight, yet sounding like nothing it synthesized. It had kind-of B-52's, sort of Excene Cervenka style vocals, pseudo-ska synthetic horns, a guitar that recalled both surf and rockabilly yet sounded like neither, Eurodisco sound effects, weird accents, all in the service of an insanely catchy song. The Icelandic group wound up with one of the most distinctive college radio hits, just as the era was on the cusp of transformation. While the Sugarcubes had a couple of bigger hits in the early 90's, "Motorcrash" is the classic from the era, from the album Life's Too Good. In subsequent years as a solo performer, lead singer Bjork became one of the biggest names in electronica.
15. Hoodoo Gurus: What's My Scene
Hoodoo Gurus were, along with Midnight Oil, one of the most visible Australian bands to gain significant airplay on U.S. college radio. "What's My Scene" is a classic single from their classic album Mars Needs Guitars!, released in 1985. It's a brisk jangle pop with garage band grit and nicely drawled cowpunk vocals from singer Dave Faukner. Mars Needs Guitars!, is an album that plays almost flawlessly in much the same way early R.E.M. records do; 60's rock fans might like this as much as 80's rock fans. Unfortunately, the band never could break out beyond college radio; Mars Needs Guitars! peaked at #140; their most successful album, Magnum Cum Louder, reached only #101, but not for want of hooks. The band broke up in 1998, but reformed for Mach Schau in 2004.
16. Wall of Voodoo: Mexican Radio
This was a gigantic college radio hit in the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor and still turns up on college radio in that region to this day. Wall of Voodoo is a Los Angeles vehicle for Stan Ridgway, who originally formed the band in 1977 to record film soundtracks. "Mexican Radio" is a 1982 single from the band's second full length album, Call of the West. Featuring a great little Casio accompaniment, a guitar riff as simplistic and repetitive as anything the Seeds could ever dream of, and a loopy lyric, "Mexican Radio" is a classic example of the post-punk pre-jangle pop college rock era, when modest little songs like this could become radio classics in their own alternate universe.
17. Echo & The Bunnymen: The Killing Moon
"The Killing Moon" takes the Bono-esque vocals of Ian McCulloch, and couples it with an ambitious arrangement featuring eerie tremeloed guitar, chiming jangle pop style guitars, a little mellotron, delicate and emotion-wrought crescendos, hints of the British Invasion and omens of Morrissey. The song is fairly remarkable in its complexity and generally wistful tone; it found a home on college radio, and helped push Ocean Rain to a respectable #87 in 1984, the band's best-ever showing. Interest in the band waned in the States after that, although the band is still active, releasing Siberia in 2005.
18. Tracy Chapman: Fast Car
Tracy Chapman, along with Natalie Merchant, Suzanne Vega, and a few others, represented the political/PC wing of college rock. An earnest singer/songwriter, she debuted in 1988 with Tracy Chapman, a low-key effort featuring the kind of spare acoustic arrangements that had largely died out in the early 80's. Such music was largely at odds with the mainstream, although her success would help other earnest singer/songwriters gain acceptance in the 90's. "Fast Car" is like "Born To Run" for folkies, with a soft-focus social conscious added. Her "Takin' 'Bout A Revolution" was a favorite among Dukakis supporters in 1988. Tracy Chapman peaked at #2 on the charts, a surprisingly strong showing, but her sales started eroding fast with her next album. A fluke hit in 1995, the Aretha Franklin-esque soul workout "Give Me One Reason" helped restore her commercial fortunes, although by then her audience had changed to a much older one, primarily nostalgic Baby Boomers.
19. The Cult: She Sells Sanctuary
The Cult is perhaps best known for their 70's revivalist quasi-heavy metal albums, Electric and Sonic Temple. However, their 1985 debut, Love, was their first taste of college radio success. Unlike their next few albums, Love wasn't metal or even pseudo-metal; it was a brisk, Gothy, punky psychedelic rock with Ian Astbury recalling Jim Morrison to a degree, and guitarist Billy Duffy recalled the Edge in places. "She Sells Sanctuary" is the classic from this first phase of their career, and is one of the beefier British rock hits of the decade. Producer Rick Rubin altered their sound considerably for the 1987 album Electric, and while the band enjoyed some mainstream success for awhile, they were never quite as good as they were on the debut.
20. The Violent Femmes: Blister In The Sun
Milwaukee-based Violent Femmes were about as cult as a cult band could be. Their 1983 debut, Violent Femmes, never sold in big enough quantity to enter the charts. Nonetheless, it frequently was album via which many college kids began their exploration of the indie underground; so many in fact that despite its failure to chart, it ultimately attained platinum status about a decade after its release. "Blister In The Sun" is typical; edgy acoustic playing, crazed druggy, angst-filled lyrics that recall Lou Reed. The herky-jerky rhythm was particularly odd; there really wasn't anyone working the same side of the street. They pursued their mix of folk/punk through the 80's, although by the mid-80's they began working with producers (like Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads) who gave them a more conventional sound, for better and worse. In 2001, the band released an mp3-only album, Something's Wrong.
Sunday Morning Playlist is Wednesday Evening Surprise this week.
Listen to Wall of Voodoo: Mexican Radio (1982)