Cretones – Thin Red Line (1980): Forgotten Series

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If Lindsey Buckingham had written “Less Than Zero,” instead of Elvis Costello, the result might have sounded very much like “Mrs. Peel,” from the Cretones’ Thin Red Line album. Released on Planet Records in the spring of 1980, this was the debut from a band of seasoned L.A. musicians clearly in love with the new wave sounds coming out of Great Britain.

That might be all anyone needs to hear to dismiss Thin Red Line as hopelessly dated and perhaps unlistenable. It certainly tanked in its time, and all but disappeared. But hindsight, through the courtesy of a 35-year rearview mirror, offers a different perspective: It’s a great power pop album, full of pointy hooks and charming melodies, anxious energy to spare and (best of all) lyrics that aren’t embarrassingly trite.

And that (along with the chunky guitar and verse structure of “Mrs. Peel”) is the only thing binding the Cretones to Costello. Thin Red Line is not a tepid, bandwagon-jumping American clone; despite the occasional snotty vocal and cheesy Farfisa organ, it has its own multi-hued character.

That’s because singer/songwriter and guitarist Mark Goldenberg knew how to blend Southern California arrangements and vocal harmonies with three-chord rock ‘n’ roll. Along with producer (and Cretones bassist) Peter Bernstein, Goldenberg created an amalgam of styles that somehow doesn’t sound contrived. The best songs on Thin Red Line – “Justine,” “Ways of the Heart,” “Cost of Love,” “Everybody’s Mad at Katherine” – are insanely melodic and catchy. They stay with you long after the needle’s left the vinyl.

Goldenberg’s “I Can’t Wait” (co-written with Andrew Gold) is a better Fleetwood Mac song than almost anything on Tusk, the LP that group had out at the time. As a single, the harmony-rich “Real Love” scraped into the Top 100, unjustly ignored, but it probably sounded fantastic on a cruisin’ car radio.

The sonic through-line of Thin Red Line is reminiscent of the sound producer Jackson Browne gave Warren Zevon’s albums, or the Peter Asher/Linda Ronstadt ‘70s success formula.

That SoCal lushness was no accident. Goldenberg and Bernstein met while they were both working on Wendy Waldman’s Strange Company, done in that style, and three of Goldenberg’s songs appeared on Ronstadt’s Mad Love album. Her so-called new wave album showcased them next to three Costello numbers, where they more than held their own.

But Mad Love and Thin Red Line appeared almost simultaneously, so you can guess which one got all the attention. For the Cretones, the identity crisis began right here, at Point A. Ironically, the Ronstadt set hasn’t aged nearly as well as the Cretones album – which was never issued on CD.

The band made one more album (Snap! Snap!) before dissolving into the wind. Goldenberg wrote “Automatic” (the biggest Planet Records hit for the Pointer Sisters), and spent decades as a touring guitarist with Jackson Browne. Today, he’s a solo acoustic guitarist a la Wings’ Laurence Juber, his rock ‘n’ roll past apparently behind him. Bernstein writes music for film and television.

So much of the American music written and recorded at the turn of the ‘80s – when pseudo-punk and new wave were being absorbed into the commercial bloodstream – was pretentious, cash-in crapola. The Cretones and Thin Red Line were unfairly lumped in, and therefore consigned to the historical compost heap.

Find a copy, and check it out. You will not be disappointed. Mark Goldenberg’s aim was true.

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