My 1981 Listening Log (Part 1)

Back in January, I listened to one new-to-me album from 1997 every day for the entire month, and posted a few sentences about each one in the Rosy Overdrive Discord channel. When I was done, I cleaned it up a bit and put it on the blog, with a mention that I was planning on doing a different year soon. I ended up doing 1981, and, partially because I’m significantly less familiar with the 1980s than I am the 1990s, this one has gone on even longer than my 1997 project. So, I’m splitting it up into two parts, with part one going up today, and the second part (which is still in progress and you can see early if you join the Discord channel) going up probably next month.

Keep in mind, these records are all ones that I’d never listened to in full before. There are plenty of great albums from 1981 (Solid Gold, Stands for Decibels, Re*ac*tor, Black Snake Diamond Role, Youth of America, Odyshape, and at least a dozen more) I already know and love and thus do not appear here.

Bandcamp embeds are provided when available, but most of these albums aren’t on there, so I’ve created a playlist (Spotify, Tidal) of a song from each one of these records you can use to listen along if you’re so inclined. So, without any more ramblings from me, let us dive deeply into music from over four decades ago.

March 25th: The Gordons – The Gordons (self-released)

So this is the New Zealand band that eventually became noise pop/shoegaze group Bailter Space at the end of the decade. Given some of the other underground NZ music I’d heard from this time, I thought this might be some really ramshackle noise, but it’s actually relatively clear-sounding (if lo-fi and somewhat meandering) post-punk. Not going to get mistaken for Joy Division or The Cure audio quality-wise, sure, but it’s closer to that world than, say, the Dead C. There are some instrumental rave-ups here that prefigure Sonic Youth, wonder if Thurston Lee and Kim were listening. They save the real chaotic, almost Birthday Party kind of stuff for “Laughing Now” at the end. Really solid record, sounds better today than a lot of the “big stuff”.

March 26th: Siouxsie and the Banshees – Juju (Polydor)

This is a very good album. I don’t wanna say that you don’t hear music like this any more because that’s obviously not true, but it’s instructive in how it pulls together different kinds of rock music from around the time. Siouxise and the Banshees were “goth” and rightly described as so, but “Spellbound” is equally jangly proto-college rock. “Monitor” is, like, jammy swirling psych rock. “Sin in My Heart” goes harder than pretty much anything any contemporary punk group was doing. The rhythm section gets a post-punk workout throughout but they get mileage out of all kinds of guitar textures and styles as well. It all coheres, and it’s just more fun to listen to something like this than a “post-punk” band that’s just a Fall/Joy Division clone or an “indie pop” band that’s just recreating the Smiths or whoever.

March 27th: Thin Lizzy – Renegade (Vertigo)

Going to try to spread all these post-punk records out a bit, so we’re listening to Thin Lizzy today. Lizzy had a full-time keyboard player at this point in their career which is…not a great sign for them, and the record kicks off with a big old synth—but this turns out to be something of a fake-out. For the most part, this sounds like a 70s Thin Lizzy album. “Angel of Death” is one of the wildest Thin Lizzy songs I’ve heard—the rest of the album doesn’t go that hard but it’s a lot stronger and more consistent than most bands would be on their eleventh album. Other than “Angel of Death”, this feels like a record of album-track-quality Thin Lizzy songs (which is certainly fine, since their vintage album tracks are great). It does lose a little bit towards the end (“Fats” is boring and let’s just gloss over “Mexican Blood”) but “It’s Getting Dangerous” is a solid send-off.

March 28th: Josef K – The Only Fun in Town (Postcard)

A British post-punk record that’s highly acclaimed and I’ve always meant to check out but never got around to (get ready for a lot of albums that match this description to some degree). Josef K were a band, not a guy (named after a Kafka character apparently), this was the only album they released during their three years as an active band. It’s on the agitated and caffeinated end of post-punk, but not smooth in a Gang of Four way, much more shambolic (both have great bass work, though). Over in under 30 minutes. Everything feels a little off musically, especially on the fast ones, but even the “hits” are like interestingly disjointed. Certainly feels like it was destined to wind up in the “cult undercard” part of this whole movement.

March 29th: Minutemen – The Punch Line (SST)

The first Minutemen album, which I’ve never heard despite liking the two biggest albums and most of the EPs/Post-Mersh stuff I’ve heard. It’s certainly no Double Nickels, it’s not What Makes a Man Start Fires, but that has to do with its brief length as much as anything else. If you thought their other albums had short songs, how’s 18 in 15 minutes? It’s also just not as refined as where they’d end up-they were definitely already weirdos, but they’re still holding onto a lot of the hardcore punk aggression that they’d mostly shed on their best work. This is maybe their darkest album, although it’s not completely black. D. Boon only has time to deliver a couple of lines in most of these songs, but songs like “History Lesson” and the title song are arguably enhanced by this. Also, RIP Spot

March 30th: The Church – Of Skins and Heart (Parlophone)

It’s pretty cool that I get to do one of these for a band whose new music I’d write about forty-plus years later on the blog. Anyway, Of Skins and Heart was the debut Church album, and it’s pretty far away from the dense psych rock that The Church are making now—it’s an incredibly shiny, friendly guitar-forward new wave/post-punk album. Choppy power chords, big choruses, a bit of a New Romantic attitude. They’d have to mellow out a bit to become the US college rock staples they’d be later this decade, but they were already ace pop songwriters, and stuff like the jangly “Bel-Air” shows off just a little bit of subtlety. The darker second half of the album hints at what depths The Church were capable of exploring, but the massive pop of the opening three tracks mostly set the tone for this album as a whole.

March 31st: Rosanne Cash – Seven Year Ache (Columbia)

And…now for something completely different! Funny how a lot of modern “alt-country” kind of sounds like mainstream country from forty years ago. At least (given that I’m hardly an expert on the subject), it sounds kind of like this album. Texas country rock ringer Rodney Crowell produced and contributed musically to this album, which I imagine helped shape this record’s rock edges (check opening track “Rainin’”, for one). It’s a bit all over the place, and it’s not just “the rockier ones are my favorites”—the title track and “Only Human” are both really nice mid-tempo piano pop, while on the other hand “What Kinda Girl?” is just….yeah, I have no idea what to say about that one.

April 1st: The Cure – Faith (Fiction)

Here were are on the silliest of days, listening to the most serious of albums. I’ve liked a Cure song here and there, but this is perhaps my most prolonged exposure, diving headfirst into what seems like one of the most Cure-y albums to ever Cure. I’m not going to try to wring fantastical takes out of every one of these for the sake of being fantastical; this is just to say—I thought this album was pretty fine. It’s about what I expected an early 80s Cure album to sound like. It’s definitely “good”, although I didn’t really connect with it in a major life-changing way. I feel like it deserves more listens at some point; I may just need to be more in the “Cure mindset” to be fully on board with it. Still, even if it’s just “above average dour 80s post-punk album” to me that’s nothing to dismiss.

April 2nd: Girls at Our Best! – Pleasure (Happy Birthday)

Flash-in-the-pan British indie pop (with power but not “power pop”) group—lasted long enough for a handful of singles and this, their only album. The punk/post-punk of the era are there, absolutely, but this is a pretty timeless-sounding record, which is nice to hear amidst the (still mostly good) music I’ve been listening to that sounds very ‘81. Extroverted, right-up-in-there record—it’s got a never-flagging pop energy but the impressive rhythm section that stands up against more “serious” bands of the time. A bit frontloaded (those first four songs are a high bar, sure), but there are highlights all the way through (“Fast Boyfriends” is one of their best). Definitely an undersung group/album—h/t Dan Gorman of The Discover Tab for putting this one on my radar.

April 3rd: MX-80 Sound – Crowd Control (Ralph)

So I’ve heard MX-80’s 1980 album Out of the Tunnel and it’s great—weirdo “art” punk album that prefigured a ton of stuff that was to come on SST/Touch and Go/Dischord etc. Crowd Control is the second half of this, and it kind of follows the “jammier, stranger follow-up” trajectory a la Up on the Sun or Solid Gold (although it’s still punk-y, and OOTT was decently jammy and weird). Regardless it’s a great, adventurous punk album, quite possibly as good as OOTT. Maybe a little less “out there” than contemporary Pere Ubu and Flipper, but it’s in this world.

April 4th: New Order – Movement (Factory)

Another big one—at least big in my circles. I’m a very staunch New Order > Joy Division person, so it makes some sense that the only pre 21st-century New Order album I hadn’t gotten around to is the one that’s thought of as their most Joy Divisiony. Listening to it in full pretty much bears this out; this band was about to advance light-years with their next few of albums and singles. This is like the definition of a transitional album. It’s dark and hard to grab onto anything here immediately, but still, I think there’s something to it (it’s another one where it’d benefit for me personally ignoring the name on cover).

April 5th: Suburban Lawns – s/t (I.R.S.)

Oh, yes, this is good. This is certainly not the most well-known album on this list, but it IS one of the most “surprised I’d never listened to this in full” ones before in hindsight. Its influence on a lot of the modern garage punk/post-punk/“egg punk” that I listen to feels pretty obvious. Suburban Lawns would be a contemporary RIYL Devo and (especially) Talking Heads band, but they have a looseness and a garage-y feel to them that those other, more buttoned-up groups don’t (which is why this record feels arguably more “current” than any of those other bands’).

April 6th: Public Image Ltd. – The Flowers of Romance (Virgin)

So—never cared about The Sex Pistols in any way, really, but I’ve always been intrigued by PiL. And “intriguing” is the right word for The Flowers of Romance, I’d say. It blows up one aspect of punk/post-punk to the point where most of the record is a thundering rhythm section with occasional caterwauling over it by John Lydon. Certainly one of the least immediate records I’ve done in this (unless the previous description is your definition of “immediate”, somehow). I am into it, though. It works—none of it would really work on its own (cough cough later PiL), but together it makes something nice, cold and energetic. Obligatory John Lydon is a twat, also.

April 7th: Lizzy Mercier Descloux – Mambo Nassau (Philips)

This is an interesting one. Mercier Descloux comes from the big post-punk hotbed of France, released a couple records and kind of disappeared and died in the mid-2000s (there’s a good Pitchfork piece about her from a decade ago that I read if anyone’s more curious about her). Mambo Nassau is a fun funk/afrobeat-influenced dance punk album that holds up pretty well to my ears. It’s more minimal/no-wave than what the Talking Heads were doing around this time (maybe we made a mistake of only canonizing one band’s style of this kind of music?) but certainly not any less legit-sounding because of it. Shoutout bassist Philippe Le Mongne, who seems to have only ever played on French things I’ve never heard of.

April 8th: Echo & the Bunnymen – Heaven Up Here (Korova)

Maybe they added more of the new wave/college rock sound I always assumed they had later, but this is purely a post-punk record. It reminds me of (but isn’t quite) Joy Division in how it sounds driven and intense. It’s a very tight-sounding record also, with the rhythm section being locked in—it stays in its post-punk lane very carefully. I’ll admit though that, while it does sound impressive, I’m not really connecting to this one very much. Perhaps I’m just tired of this type of post-punk, both in terms of modern bands who are doing something similar, and in the context of this project, where the last few have all broadly been post-punk. I have some decidedly non post-punk things lined up for the next few days, though, so stay tuned.

April 9th: Peter Tosh – Wanted Dread and Alive (EMI/Rolling Stones)

And with that, we veer into reggae. Peter Tosh was fairly accomplished at this point—he was in The Wailers and this is his fifth solo album—and this album feels like an attempt to reach out beyond his reggae roots. This is most obvious with single “Nothing But Love” (which incorporates R&B and 70s pop) and the piano ballad “Fools Die (For Want of Wisdom)”, but as a whole it feels very polished and some of-the-time horns and keyboards are applied to the whole record. Definitely mixed results here, and the more purely reggae tracks (like “Coming in Hot” and “Guide Me from My Friends”) feel like the highlights here. The European and North American editions of the album are different, listening to everything that was on either runs about an hour and there are highlights exclusively on both versions (“Guide Me…” and “That’s What They Will Do”).

April 10th: Electric Light Orchestra – Time (Jet)

Whoa, this is actually very good. Not that I expected it to be bad, mind you—I like plenty of ELO singles and this album is fairly well-regarded—but I didn’t expect what I’m pretty sure is the first ELO non-greatest hits album I’ve ever listened to in full to be one of the biggest highlights of this so far. It has the big welcome orchestral Beatles pop sound of all their 70s hits just about equally merged (shockingly well) with a pretty timeless version of contemporary synthpop. The sci-fi concept stuff isn’t exactly the draw for me but it was clearly a great source of inspiration for Jeff Lynne. Later Apples in Stereo and New Pornographers were clearly massively influenced by this record.

April 11th: Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll (Boardwalk)

Ay, this one’s real fun. I’ve heard the first Joan Jett album and it’s fine, but this is a much more solid front-to-back record. I don’t ever need to hear the title track again, but at least it’s first so we get it out of the way. “(I’m Gonna) Run Away” and “Love Is Pain” are some still-great sounding punk/power pop, and while doing “Crimson and Clover” I’d consider pretty cliche now I have no problem with this version (hell, this is probably a big part of why it’s a cliche). Second half of the album is pretty solid as well, with only the “Little Drummer Boy” cover feeling inessential—and at least it’s at the end, so I can dip out early.

April 12th: Split Enz – Waiata/Corroboree (Mushroom/Polydor)

Alright, time to see what the Finn brothers were up to in 1981. This is not the most well-known Split Enz record (in fact, it’s sandwiched between arguably their two biggest ones), but I’m enjoying it. It has an interesting sound—it’s got the keyboards and excited energy of “new wave” but it’s less polished than a bunch of stuff that came to define that genre. Not a punk album, but I could believe “punk” mutated into this. I know these guys were big influences on Ted Leo (who I’m a big fan of); it particularly shows on “History Never Repeats”.

April 13th: Ramones – Pleasant Dreams (Sire)

Sounds like a Ramones album.

Alright alright I’ll say a little more. Already knew the well-known songs from this one, “She’s a Sensation” (great), “We Want the Airwaves” (okay), and “The KKK Took My Baby Away” (fascinating, beyond the scope of this exercise). It comes right after the Phil Spector album, and it feels like a compromise w/r/t that album’s mixed success—definitely higher production values than the first few Ramones albums, but not as much as End of the Century. Truthfully I don’t think any of this matters too much—like I said, it’s a Ramones album, it’s got a bunch of catchy pop punk songs and I enjoyed it but it didn’t shatter my world or anything.

April 14th: Colin Newman – Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish (4AD)

Colin Newman’s first solo album, A-Z, is basically a lost fourth Wire album, comprised of songs that were slated to follow up 154. A real hidden gem. This album is…not like that. Twelve (mostly) instrumental tracks (titled “Fish 1” through “Fish 12″) that certainly fall under the “experimental” end of Newman’s work. If they were just Wire-esque songs without vocals, that’d be one thing, and some of the songs sort of approach that, but mostly it alternates between a minimalist post-punk sound and more ambient-atmospheric stuff. Not quite as out there as what his former and future Wire bandmates were doing in Dome, but far from Pink Flag as well.

April 15th: The Go-Go’s – Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S.)

I’m not sure why this was never really on my radar until now. Maybe I dismissed it because of its massive pop success, but I like The Bangles and Blondie and this is pretty clearly in the same category as those bands. I’m on my second listen and enjoying it more this time—I guess I need to be in the California pop rock mood. I get that this is a big “80s pop album” and I’m sure that it’s influential for…several reasons, but it’s also striking to me how far off this sounds from the synth-pop-rock that defined this decade’s mainstream “alternative” music. This is almost all guitars! Good stuff, too, if a little frontloaded.

April 16th: The Cramps – Psychedelic Jungle (I.R.S.)

Hey, it’s The Cramps! Another band I certainly enjoy/respect but have never been in a hurry to hear their full albums. This is their second album, the one with Kid Congo Powers on second guitar. I was surprised by just how much of the album is covers—the two “Cramps classics” I already knew here, “Goo Goo Muck” and “The Crusher”, both are. Truly masters at making songs their own. Like the Ramones, you pretty much know what you’re going to get with a Cramps album, but unlike Pleasant Dreams, they’re clearly at their peak here. Front to back quite strong, I think I enjoyed this more than Songs the Lord Taught Us. Do the hammer lock, you turkey necks—the vampire lesbos are after me.

April 17th: Yellow Magic Orchestra – BGM (Alfa)

This one was already on my list before Ryuichi Sakamoto’s death last month—now it feels as right as ever to finally give Yellow Magic Orchestra some attention. It seems that BGM, the fourth YMO album, is an important electronic rock/synthpop work—genres that I’m not super familiar with. It sounds very cool and ambitious—these songs all stretch out and it’s impressive how they develop stuff this early in the history of this genre. Still not exactly my “thing” but glad I heard it. Not really about individual songs here, but the “hit” is “Cue” (キュー).

April 18th: Fela Kuti – Coffin for Head of State (Kalakuta)

Like YMO yesterday, Fela Kuti put out (at least) two albums in 1981. Unlike YMO, I’ve already heard the other one, Original Sufferhead, but Coffin for Head of State I’m fairly certain I’ve never listened to. I do know the story behind it, which definitely adds a lot to the single 22-minute song (it involves the murder of his mother by the Nigerian government). Like most Kuti albums/songs, its starts with a lengthy jam, before Kuti begins singing. The topic is hardly unique for him, but he is understandably quite single-minded here, focusing entirely on the corrupt, destructive, and violent regime of his home country.

April 19th: The Cars – Shake It Up (Elektra)

The Cars—that’s a good band. The short version of their career is that after their debut album they were on a downward trajectory until Heartbeat City revived them, but this one actually did a little better than the previous one, 1980’s dark and underrated Panorama. Shake It Up is fine—you can certainly do a lot worse with new wave/power pop—but it does suffer a bit in comparison to their other albums. It’s not wall to wall hits, nor does it have much of a unifying theme. The singles are the first four songs, and for the most part (nods to “Think It Over”) they’re the best ones, so it’s pretty frontloaded. Again, not an issue for most bands, but this IS The Cars.

April 20th: Rickie Lee Jones – Pirates (Warner Bros.)

Another left-turn here with an album that doesn’t sound like anything else that I’ve done in this exercise yet. Piano-based singer songwriter pop rock album with a bit of jazz influence (yes, Donald Fagen is a contributing instrumentalist). This isn’t my primary musical area (I remain ambivalent about Steely Dan), but Jones seems like an interesting songwriter. A couple songs don’t really grab me at this point, but there are compelling songs both in the pop-friendly areas (the title track) and weirder ones (“Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train…”, a jazz-funk song that works better than it should). Also, according to Wikipedia this is a breakup album about Tom Waits. Wild!

April 21st: Monitor – Monitor (World Imitation/Ata Tak)

This is definitely one of the most interesting things I’ve found by doing this. Monitor lasted for one record and were a mostly-unremembered California experimental punk band (their drummer is probably the most well-known member; he went on to play with Mazzy Star and Opal). It’s pretty clearly the work of a rock/post-punk group, although it’ll veer into weirder corners quite a bit. It’s somewhere between the more accessible side of This Heat and the less accessible side of Pere Ubu. The Meat Puppets play a proto hardcore punk song toward the end of the record. I pretty much immediately liked this, even though it feels like an album that asks for patience a little bit. Recommended!

April 22nd: Shoes – Tongue Twister (Elektra)

Ah, Shoes. The pride of Zion, Illinois. I listened to Black Vinyl Shoes forever ago and it didn’t do much for me, but maybe I need to give it another go, because this album is some solid power pop. It has a very interesting sound in that it “rocks” but is somehow a little muted about it—Shoes didn’t self-produce this, but they are studio rats, so I bet they had an intentional hand in that. Some good, hooky rock songs like the first couple and the last one, but also pulls out 60s pop (“Karen”) and jangly stuff (“Yes or No”, “Only in My Sleep”).

April 23rd: Godley & Creme – Ismism (Polydor)

Good lord, this album. When the great 10cc fractured in the mid-70s, the more pop half of the band kept the name and the two “weirdos” (Kevin Godley and Lol Creme) started their own group. And Ismism is certainly the work of uninhibited weirdos. It veers from the extremely goofy novelty of “Snack Attack” (which is actually pretty good for what it is, if entirely too long) to the dark, serious, and minimal “Under Your Thumb”. This is a very British album—“Joey’s Camel” sounds like one of those weird XTC/Martin Newell songs that most people skip to get to the ones that sound like The Beatles, but it fascinates me. I thought I was going to pan this at first, and there’s still rough stuff (“Ready for Ralph” feels like purgatory in a bad way) but it’s just too interesting for me to dismiss.

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