Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The POLICE: Every Breath You Take: The Singles






(#337:  8 November 1986, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  Roxanne/Can’t Stand Losing You/So Lonely/Message In A Bottle/Walking On The Moon/Don’t Stand So Close To Me '86/De Do Do Do De Da Da Da/Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic/Invisible Sun/Spirits In The Material World/Every Breath You Take/King Of Pain/Wrapped Around Your Finger



"The constant challenge is what next?  In the space of two albums we've sold more records than people do in ten.  In England our album is quadruple platinum, or something.  The constant challenge is to forget that, because it is a distraction, it really is.  You've got to try to come up with music that is valid and relevant, not just feeding the industrial machinery that all of a sudden is all around us."   Sting in 1980 - Ask by Paul Morley.


When I was at Sheridan College, one of the courses I took was about human relations - how to get along with other people, no matter what kind they were.  It was a bit of an odd thing, but as supposed future secretaries we were bound to meet all sorts of psychological types, and this was Sheridan's way of gearing us up, so to speak.  The teacher was someone who (by her own admission) had something of a short temper, but she tried her best to get across to us the importance of understanding others.  The 70s was full of pop psychology, and we got some of it in the form of what I think was called Transactional Analysis (it was actually Psycho-Geometrics, but we got it all, trust me); something to do with squares, triangles and circles and other shapes and how they could all, with some patience, learn to cooperate with each other.
As you can see, the designer of the cover here definitely knew something about this idea, as above each member of The Police is a different-colored shape:  blue square for Sting (I'm sure Sting would think of himself as a star or a hexagon, but no), a yellow circle for Andy Summers and a red triangle for Stewart Copeland.  And these are all fitting symbols, seeing as how The Police pretty much ended due to the perpetual disagreements between the square and triangle, with the circle haplessly looking on.   

The cover emphasizes the fact that here we have three different people with different outlooks on life who have come together to do nothing less than become the (then) biggest band in the world.  That they started as newly bleached-blond for-a-chewing-gum-ad New Wavers born out of necessity seems almost beside the point.  "Roxanne" is a sharp song, the chords rough yet precise, the emotion raw and yet old-fashioned.  It is a last-ditch plea to a woman who "doesn't care if it's wrong or if it's right" and here's Sting to come along and tell her it's bad, that he loves her and doesn't want her to sell herself anymore.  It's something of a fantasy, this song - how many men fall in love with prostitutes and try to save them? - but the increasing tension in the song is damn real, and Sting's yelping (I can't think of another singer for whom that verb is more apt) indicates that he knows just how dangerous it can be for a girl out on her own in the night.  I don't know if the blue square is prone to I-know-better-than-you-doism, but the whole band here is united and the sound is a bit claustrophobic and we even here some sarcastic laughter in the beginning, which I've never been able to understand, unless it's some arrogant pimp joking around.  Who knows?

If "Roxanne" borrows a bit from reggae, then "Can't Stand Losing You" borrows a bit more - choppy chords, door-slamming drums, the singer's mind is made up - no one's trying to talk him out of his decision - and the accumulating details are sad but also adolescent ("my LP records and they're all scratched" would strike terror into a vinyl hipster today).  How reliable is the narrator?  What did he do to this ex-girlfriend that was so terrible?  Instead of some introspection on how maybe there's a reason for her brother's wanting to kill him and her sending his letters back, there's just self-pitying "you'll be sorry when I'm dead" and an inability to take responsibility for his actions, swallow his pride and admit he's wrong.  Again and again he can't stand losing this girl, the whole song pogos to this at the end, over and over.  Even at the time I don't think I was that much impressed with this song, but they do it straight and Sting's self-awareness makes his singing convincing and a little frightening.  

"So Lonely" could be seen as a different way of dealing with being alone - and the relaxed beat here immediately puts the listener at ease.  Summers free ranges over the off-beats, and Sting uses the word "soul" - it's an upbeat song about not having anyone, about having a broken heart and yet bounding along, using sorrow as a springboard to something greater.  "Low low low" chants Sting at one part, or is that "Lone lone lone" - metaphorically here are The Police, all alone, not really punk, not really reggae, not really rock, but something of all three, with some jazz thrown in for good measure.  Their only rivals here were The Clash, but it wasn't in the nature of The Police to do double or triple albums, and having a fairly libertarian red triangle with Copeland meant that a certain impatience was built into the band from the beginning.  

"Message In A Bottle" is just about everything The Police are great at, all at once; our lonely hero is a castaway with nothing but old John Dowland and Bob Marley records on his desert island, and somehow he finds paper, a bottle and something to write with to see if he gets any kind of response back.  It's like a cartoon, this song, but that fusion they wanted to make cooks up here very well, and the suspense of whether there will be a response is met with an avalanche, a rush of energy and for all the girls who loved The Police because of Sting, there were an equal amount of guys who were impressed by the band's ability and skills and general coolness.  And thus, with Reggatta de Blanc they took on the world very easily.

"Walking On The Moon" has to be one of the quietest number one singles in the UK; which is to say, when you listen to it, you have to turn it up and turn everything else off.  The bass and guitar call and respond; the drums drop in and out with ease; something subliminal seems to be happening, dreamlike even.  The choruses have ringing, shining sweetness, as the lyrics about love - that first swooning unreal feeling that doesn't let go - finds its equivalent here in the drumming, sense of weightlessness that spaaaaaans and leaps and floats...up...and up...(and here I think of the instrumental break in "Strawberry Letter 23" by Brothers Johnson, which I also could listen to many times in a row)...and then gently comes back down, to walk in the normal world, or at least a bit closer to it.  "Keep it up" could refer to the band's playing itself, or to the feeling the song's about, or to who knows what.  A song as big as the world.  And how to follow that up?

It is very awkward to have to report that when The Police got together in '86 to record again, instead of new songs Sting just wanted to cover their old hits.  Yes, believe it or not, the idea was to record all their singles again, but Copeland had an accident and this odd untenable idea was thankfully scrapped.  (Copeland and Sting apparently got into a fight over a drum machine or something, too.)  The original of "Don't Stand So Close To Me" was the band's attempt to do something a bit different - the ominous beginning, the fantasy threatening reality, the resolution, if there can be one, in the typically upbeat chorus- all this is lost in the re-recording of the song, where there's no tension, where it sounds as if the whole thing has indeed happened before, the end credits are running and people and standing and stretching at the end of the movie*.  Lolita is now "that famous book" and the whole thing sounds busy and tired, a waste of time and energy, on the band and producer Laurie Latham's part**.  It's impossible to imagine a song like this making the charts now, but if you just shift it a little, it's the dilemma of a famous pop star/blue square who has hordes of young girls screaming at him every night, who has to deal with that pressure...

And with a sigh, we come to the gentle skank of "De Do Do Do De Da Da Da" which is almost textbook Police, a song about how most rock lyrics are meh and how most communication is meh and jumping around signing nonsense is at least unpretentious and somehow more true to rock than heavy messages.  If only Sting could've kept more to these words...(I may as well add here that it's entirely possible to do a great compilation of The Police from non-singles, and indeed some think their best stuff is their non-singles.  "Voices Inside My Head" from Zenyatta Mondatta would be on mine, for instance.)   

I've written about Ghost In The Machine before so I will politely skip the next few songs, except to say that the mysterious Canadian sound appears in "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and gives this side a warm start that it desperately needs...

...because I find the songs from Synchronicity to be metronomically precise and a little cold; Sting has been dumped and is paranoid and lonely, a stalker on the prowl; and yet this is interpreted as a love song, the plea of a lonely man for her to come back, and Sting is trying (?) to have it both ways here.  The song is quiet and spacious, like a mansion; empty like one too, circling around and around itself, as Sting sings "you belong to meee" in a way that is again self-pitying and yet hapless.  I am always convinced he feels bad, sure, sure he does, but why the constant watching?  The song wills itself to be calm, stay cool, but it broods and sulks instead.

"King Of Pain" is about more suffering, endless metaphoric suffering, enough to make Phil Collins green with envy.  It's not just that he suffers, but it's his destiny, man; how a little black spot on the sun could be interpreted, either by the narrator (hopefully viewing the sun indirectly) or anyone else as "my soul up there" remains to be seen, but this man is in a groove where all he can see is pain, and he is the rich man on his golden bed, hoping that you - the lost love - will come back and somehow end this whole situation.  The song lumbers along, as one awful image after another is presented, and Summers' solo is dutiful, as is the fade in-fade out around that little black spot on the sun.  This is a world away from the fightback against being "So Lonely" - the clip-clop here is resigned and somehow proud, as if Sting wants to be the King, to be the top at something.   

"Wrapped Around Your Finger" is a nasty song, pure and simple.  Sting uses all his education - hello Mephistopheles, hello Scylla and Charybdis - all to talk meanly about his ex-wife, who has no capacity to answer back.  Sting portrays himself as an apprentice who then becomes a master, who is somehow corrupted and then triumphs over said corruption.  Or something like that.  The whole song makes me itch, the ugliness of the lyrics made worse somehow by the classical references, made worse by the blandness of the song, where Sting is so upfront that the other two are there, sure, but not as felt as before - this is Sting and Co., not The Police, and hearing all these songs together shows just what they were able to do at their prime and how they couldn't perceive - not once but twice - when to call it a day and move on.  

How this fits into 1986?  This seems to be a year where a lot of the old - if I can put it that way - gets to the top, in lieu of the new.  One last lap of honor here for The Police; already by '86 standards they seem like a generation ago, a time when MTV didn't exist (there's an offer in the cassette insert for a video version of this album for £15.99, which was a lot back then), Walkmans were unheard of, Smash Hits was a new phenomenon and so on.  There is a uniqueness to The Police at their best that can be heard in bits and pieces to this day (see Bruno Mars) and it remains fresh; the delicacy and openness and fun in that are hard to pull off, as the musicians have to be tough with each other, demanding, in order to make it work, stubborn in their own shapes.  A better compilation than this one exists, but this is the one that got to the top, which is where The Police made most sense; we will get to the blue square in due course, but for now here is the late 70s/early 80s neatly parcelled out, as if a certain time and feeling are being commemorated, as the black and white cover photos would suggest; something to remember, as a new era dawns...   


*It's a very "for improved sound quality, this track has been re-recorded by one or more of the original musicians" but it's all three of them and it's still awful.

**Sort of the proof that Paul Young's albums were very much his creation, with Latham just making the whole thing sound good.




Monday, 15 September 2014

Paul SIMON: Graceland





(#336: 4 October 1986, 5 weeks; 31 January 1987, 3 weeks)

Track listing: The Boy In The Bubble/Graceland/I Know What I Know/Gumboots/Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes/You Can Call Me Al/Under African Skies/Homeless/Crazy Love, Vol II/That Was Your Mother/All Around The World or The Myth Of Fingerprints

Browsing through the various reviews of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Graceland, I still detect a lot of bogus fence-sitting. “He broke a United Nations cultural boycott BUT…,” “He was condemned by the African National Congress and blacklisted by the UN BUT…,” the rather unwelcome implication being, well it was a quarter of a century ago, everything’s been sorted now, can’t you people keep quiet and celebrate an alleged work of genius?

And it may be that this is merely the tip of the West-knows-best, Third World-keep-your-ingrate-mouths-shut cultural iceberg, and that its tentacles extend deeper into the realm of what, in 1986, began to be termed World Music – at the time of its conception, purely a marketing tool to distinguish various records in shops and to concert promoters and broadcasters. My long-standing bugbear with World Music is that the West has not opted merely to observe and better broadcast the music of other cultures, like Starship Enterprise FM, but to try to influence and divert the course of that music. Hence labels like Shanachie and Earthworks, and records like Buena Vista Social Club and Talking Timbuktu which, though more than worthwhile, are presented like a classroom lecture, rather than something one might dance to or enjoy.

Add to this the fact that Q magazine got going in 1986, in great part as a response to the dead end into which weeklies like the NME appeared to have rammed themselves, and the ages of the musicians who suddenly decided to get into African and Indian ways of music and the critics who wrote about them, and you may detect a collective tiredness on the part of the babyboomers who never complained about rock when it was “their” time but were now middle-aged and growing weary with newness.

This feeling – on a plane halfway between smug and resentful – is summarised by Paul Simon in the midst of the song “That Was Your Mother” in the line: “You are the burden of my generation” (itself following on from the couplet “Before you was born dude/When life was great”). And so Graceland was welcomed and hailed as “new” music to which old people could listen.

Acres of analysis, including at least one PhD dissertation, have been expended on the album and its background, as well as its internal conflict; go to South Africa and break the boycott – which was in place for a myriad of good reasons – but expose its music and musicians to the outside world and slap Pretoria in the face with the culture it was trying to suppress.

I didn’t think it was that simple at the time, and even less so now. Graceland can be summed up as Third World music being loaded with a serviced debt of First World problems. On one hand you have Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing not quite serenely about death and destruction, on the other deliberately obfuscatory ruminations on cinematographers’ parties and Fulbright scholars (I do not believe that erstwhile Fulbright scholarship recipient Sylvia Plath, had she lived, would have had the slightest of time for Graceland). You have Simon being very careful with attributing composer credits to his umbaqanga songs, paying the SA (and, in some cases, Nigerian and Senegalese) musicians triple union scale; and then he rips tunes off Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters and Los Lobos without giving them any credit. “As if I didn’t know that/As if I didn’t know my own bed,” complains Simon on the title song – and the highly unwelcome subtext is that our (i.e. the West’s) affluently quirky problems are what the 1986 world is all about, rather than apartheid.

“The Boy In The Bubble,” dependent on Forere Motioheola’s slo-mo accordion, Vusi Khamalo’s gavel-like drums (oddly, or not so oddly, reminiscent of Levon Helm) and Baikithi Kumalo’s Wrigley’s chewing gum bass, works best because Simon at least attempts to address the modern world as an increasing, encroaching nightmare where bombs in buggies are part of a tapestry which also includes non-stop CCTV surveillance, the dominance of rich technologies over deliberately primitivised paupers; Simon sees the end coming as surely as Cohen did in “The Future” six years later – when he reaches the “dying” of the final “distant constellation/That’s dying in the corner of the sky,” he sounds finished with humanity.

As for the South African tunes – and I note that SA and American tracks on individual songs were more or less recorded separately – the miserable conclusion is that they’d sound great if it weren’t for Paul Simon (but then the paradox of, if it weren’t for Paul Simon, would we even be hearing this music in the first place?; it is certainly better recorded than most African records of the period, and some credit for this has to go to stalwart engineer Roy Halee - Simon lists himself as producer).

When a fusion is attempted, as in the title song, it sounds awkward; the Everly Brothers and King Sunny Adé’s pedal steel player pinned onto its surface like passport stamps. The opening imagery (“Through the cradle of the Civil War”) is quite arresting, if not really Robbie Robertson, but the song quickly degenerates into a whine about his first wife who done left him, and we are left with the problem that this is really not far away from Phil Collins – “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” is just an platinum Amex “Uptown Girl” with horns which could have come from Earth, Wind and Fire.* By the time we get to “Crazy Love,” with its squarely thudding drums, we might as well be listening to No Jacket Required.

(*Youssou n’Dour, making his second appearance this year as a validifying guest on a prosperous white man’s record, contributing some percussion to “Diamonds,” is a case in itself about the pitfalls of the World Music wagon; 1984’s Immigrés may have been Bill Laswell’s idea of a Youssou n’Dour record, but its two extended meditations on displaced friends and fellow travellers cut deeper than Simon wittering on in the back of a cab about a friend who’s had a breakdown. But 1986’s Nelson Mandela saw him steadily moving his focus towards the profitable West, and despite (or maybe because of) the Spinners cover, and was a whole lot less fun or radical than the Étoile de Dakar cassettes which I bought out of Stern’s in the early eighties. On 1989’s The Lion, however, there were signs that he was coming West on his own terms; “Old Tucson” is an astonishing Senegalese counterpart to Van Morrison’s “Coney Island” and far more adventurous and disturbing in its implications than “Graceland.”)

But far more disturbing than any of the above is Simon’s stupid, stubborn refusal to address apartheid to its face. Ladysmith Black Mambazo prove on “Homeless” that they don’t really need Paul Simon, their lines inventively weaving with each other, with the occasional soloist (mainly Joseph Shabalala) cutting loose; indeed, when Simon’s voice reluctantly comes in at the beginning of the song’s second section, he sounds annoying and utterly superfluous.

Worse is “Under African Skies,” a duet with fellow boycott breaker Linda Ronstadt where one verse describes Shabalala’s young life in very general terms, but another talks of Ronstadt’s early life in detail (“I said, take this child, Lord/From Tucson, Arizona”). As with Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, where privation and revolution in turn-of-the-century Russia take second place to Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, the song seems like an attempt to downplay strife, poverty and racism as deeply as possible; yes, there is apartheid, and there have been bloody deaths, and there are shanty towns, the song implies, but what is all this when set against the rise of one of the foremost singers in seventies American pop/rock?**

(**Something similar happens in “You Can Call Me Al”; lyrically the old Paul Bowles scenario of dumb, rich tourist lost in a place he doesn’t know but gradually absorbing himself into its fibre, but in its video the song becomes merely an excuse for Chevy Chase and Simon to lark around. Again we are left with the implication of “we’re more important than you.”)

The Cajun and East L.A. romps which end the record sound like afterthoughts rather than completing a fusional circle. As with the African songs, however, one has the urge to listen to the musicians themselves, without Simon burbling on about retired talk show hosts (I mean, who CARES?). Simon saw this as a new start after the non-performance of Hearts And Bones, but the irony is that the latter is the better record, with Simon saying what he feels about Magritte and Lennon without having to hide behind a mask of ethnic quirk. Ultimately, though – and given the resemblance of “I Know What I Know” to “Double Dutch” – one pines for a genuine shyster like McLaren to come and rip politesse to shreds and create fantastic new shapes with the residue. Put it this way: Duck Rock still sounds extravagant, funny and bombastically brilliant. Repeated listens to Graceland will send you to sleep.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

FIVE STAR: Silk And Steel





(#335: 27 September 1986, 1 week)

Track listing: Can’t Wait Another Minute/Find The Time/Rain Or Shine/If I Say Yes/Please Don’t Say Goodnight/Stay Out Of My Life/Show Me What You’ve Got For Me/Are You Man Enough?/The Slightest Touch/Don’t You Know I Love It

Excerpted from the individual member pocket biographies in the inner sleeve (have we had any of these on a number one album since the Rollers?):

Responses to the question “Ambition”:
Deniece: To be the best group in the World
Stedman: To be successful at the things we do
Doris: To be this perfect for the rest of my life
Lorraine: To be a very successful writer and the biggest group in the World
Delroy: To be an outstanding phenomenal producer and engineer

The cover sees them, obviously posed, in a hypermodern room which doesn’t look very comfortable – they look like they’re in a fire station, nervously contemplating how to slide down those poles, and the flowers sprouting out from between Delroy and Doris don’t look real either. Go to the rest of the sleeve, however, and it is revealed that they are posing in and around the Lloyds Building, in mid-1986 only just opened (the only other album from the period that I can recall making a fetish out of the Lloyds Building on its cover was Time Boom X De Devil Dead by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Dub Syndicate).

Some people grunted and grumbled at Five Star’s unconcealed, unambiguous monetarist approach to pop and ignored the five-star (ahem) review Jonh Wilde gave Silk And Steel in Sounds, not to mention the record’s appearance in the year’s unranked Top 50 albums list as voted for by the writers of the then newly-opened Q magazine. Maybe they should have checked to see whether Wilde and Q were actually right, because if you’re harrumphing at what the Pearson siblings said at the top of this piece, you have to realise that the package is really not that far away from what Sigue Sigue Sputnik were promising (if rarely delivering).

Now, I had and have no time for miserable types who have or had no time for Sigue Sigue Sputnik, particularly as they were so evidently funnier, more colourful, more engrossing, and infinitely more 1986, than all the scolding grey rubbish like View From the Hill and the Redskins that we were “supposed” to like. I embarrassed the proprietors of a certain record shop by gleefully bopping all over the premises to Flaunt It! “They’ll never get this in Britain,” I said, “but they will understand in Italy and France!” I bought the big Japanese robot package that the album came in (and I’ve never gotten rid of it either). So what if they didn’t manage to sell half the between-songs advertising breaks? So what if they only basically had one song (how many rock ‘n’ rollers could you say that about?)? They were a terrific flash which barely lasted beyond the record’s just under forty-two minutes, and how right that Moroder, of all people, knew what to do with, for and to them.

I mean, the Weather Prophets weren’t even in it. But even I have to admit that what Sputnik mostly promised, Five Star actually saw through. Everything about Silk And Steel screams, or coos, money, and privilege, and futurism (apart from when you look at the credits, and see old names coming back – Richard James Burgess, Paul Gurvitz, Pete Sinfield, Billy Livsey, Pete Wingfield who managed to produce both Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, a record which asks its listeners; what do you want from a record?, and Sunshine On Leith by dangerous Marxist insurrectionists the Proclaimers, including this week’s number one single “Cap In Hand”) – but Five Star’s success was arguably the greater achievement because instead of hanging out with broadsheet music journalists loudly proclaiming what they were going to do, they played the game straight. For two-and-a-half years the group seemed glued to British television; switch on the box and they were always on somewhere, doing something. They played by the rules, even if these were the rules that had been laid down by their parents.

Responses to question “Worst Experience”:
Deniece: Fire alarms going off in the hotel in America
Stedman: Having a 3” splinter stuck in my hand
Doris: My trousers falling down on TV
Lorraine: Not having one!
Delroy: Car accident

Buster Pearson was from Jamaica, came to Britain in the sixties and did the rounds as a touring guitarist, backing visiting stars such as Wilson Pickett and Desmond Dekker. He then set up a number of reggae labels in the seventies and early eighties.  Having had more than enough of “authenticity,” he presumably resolved that his children would not go through the same thing and, moreover, saw them as a potential Jackson 5 UK, Black Britain’s own Osmonds (although I note that in the sleeve photographs great cosmetic care was taken to make the Pearsons look as white as possible). Hence Five Star was his idea, and when he could afford it, he bought a huge, gated mansion, complete with guard dogs, barbed wire etc., in which the band would both live and work.

Hence there isn’t, in Five Star’s work, the sound of young people necessarily expressing themselves, but acting as their parents might expect them to act. There is therefore a surfeit of caution in their music which makes the idea of Five Star more attractive than the reality.

“ALTHOUGH WE’RE NOT RELIGIOUS, WE DO BELIEVE IN GOD”
(from the sleeve credits)

With the singles – and, in various countries, no less than seven of these ten songs were released as singles, six of which were in Britain (and Doris’ “Don’t You Know I Love It” was a B-side) – there is a little more evidence of inspiration and intrigue in their work. More streamlined than their debut Luxury Of Life – you did get the feeling that songs like “All Fall Down” were being made up as they went along – Silk And Steel’s first three songs are more than adequate avant-bubblegum, which is hardly surprising, given that at least some of them were recorded in and around Los Angeles with top-dollar players like Greg Philliganes and Paul Jackson Jr to hand. “Can’t Wait Another Minute” is teenybop SOS Band, while “Find The Time” is really quite sublime – both songs offer crashing drum programmes, malfunctioning/sampling CD-is-stuck stutters (on my prehistoric CD copy, there is even a dinky little CD sign on the bottom left hand side of the cover, just to remind you that this is a CD), glorious chord changes. “Rain And Shine,” co-written by Pete Sinfield, is different again and quite charming and even moderately affecting in its Robin Hood/Major Tom juxtapositions (it sounds like a modest and settled update on what Sinfield attempted on Bucks Fizz’s “The Land Of Make Believe”).

All good enough for a remixed 1973 Jackson 5 album, you might think (side one). But then the record loses impetus. “Stay Out Of My Life,” written by Deniece, isn’t bad in an “Everybody Wants To Rule The M25” schaffel sense but the rest is humdrum and extremely lightweight R&B which highlights a central problem with Five Star; their voices have no palpable personality. Most of these songs are Deniece plus backing singers, and when Stedman and Doris briefly step out front, you are almost embarrassed for them; if the intention was to create a Romford equivalent to DeBarge, then it failed, since Stedman’s wan attempt at balladry (“Please Don’t Say Goodnight”) falls limply at the majestic ankle of El DeBarge’s immediately identifiable voice – since DeBarge only really had the one, highly atypical, big hit single here, British audiences are mostly unaware of glories like “What’s Your Name,” “All This Love” and “Time Will Reveal”; their second album, 1983’s In  A Special Way, would have been acclaimed as a masterpiece had Thom Bell produced it a decade earlier.

But off-the-peg producers and songwriters varying from track to track were not the way forward – as DeBarge’s own paradoxically flat third album Rhythm Of The Night had demonstrated – and consequently it is difficult to establish what, if anything, was going through the minds of the Pearsons as they rehearsed, choreographed and recorded these songs. It feels as though they are being imposed upon – and you couldn’t even have said that about the Ronettes in, say, 1964 – and so I hear three-and-a-bit smart slices of teenpop and an awful lot of airless, fatally over-cautious filler.

“IT’S BEEN A LOT OF HARD WORK BUT FUN MAKING THIS ALBUM. WE HOPE YOU ENJOY IT AS MUCH AS THE LAST ONE.”

Does that remark imply that they didn’t?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now That's What I Call Music 7





(#334: 23 August 1986, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel)/Sing Our Own Song (UB40)/Let’s Go All The Way (Sly Fox)/Lessons In Love (Level 42)/Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money) (Pet Shop Boys)/Sinful! (Pete Wylie)/Camouflage (Stan Ridgway)/Paranoimia (The Art of Noise with Max Headroom)/The Lady In Red (Chris de Burgh)/Absolute Beginners (David Bowie)/Invisible Touch (Genesis)/All The Things She Said (Simple Minds)/Happy Hour (The Housemartins)/Look Away (Big Country)/Brilliant Mind (Furniture)/Call Of The Wild (Midge Ure)/The Edge Of Heaven (Wham!)/My Favourite Waste Of Time (Owen Paul)/Too Good To Be Forgotten (Amazulu)/Spirit In The Sky (Doctor and The Medics)/Venus (Bananarama)/New Beginnings (Mamba Seyra) (Bucks Fizz)/Hunting High And Low (Re-Mix) (a-ha)/Holding Back The Years (Simply Red)/A Kind Of Magic (Queen)/When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going (Billy Ocean)/Set Me Free (Jaki Graham)/I Can’t Wait (Nu Shooz)/(Bang Zoom) Let’s Go Go (The Real Roxanne with Hitman Howie Tee)/Amityville (The House On The Hill) (Lovebug Starski)/Headlines (Midnight Star)/You And Me Tonight (Aurra)/On My Own (Patti LaBelle & Michael McDonald)

(Author’s Note: the cover design went to print before “A Kind Of Magic” was confirmed, and so some copies, including my first-generation double cassette edition, came with a sticker on the front indicating a “BONUS TRACK”)

Though not uniformly brilliant – at times it is the very antithesis of brilliance, the song “Brilliant Mind” included – Now 7 was nonetheless the most entertaining volume in the series since Now 3. The back cover continued to insist that we “FEEL THE QUALITY” but – as the television commercial confirmed – the design was essentially that of a brown paper bag. Oh, all right, a designer department store holdall.

The trouble with the record, from your perspective, is that what you see is what there is. There aren’t the hidden crevices and detours that enabled me to delve deeper into some of the music and people represented on Now 6. But it’s a far more coherent listen and a reminder of the notion that, despite the many excellent and in some cases groundbreaking albums released throughout the year, the deepest understanding of 1986 pop remained within the DNA of the single, still at that stage the quickest route to re-imagining and rethinking the connections between song and song, musician and musician, with the knowledge that there are as many maps of connection as there are human beings, that what matters is not so much the history, but how each piece of music impacts on the listener within multiple contexts.

My feeling is the same as it was with Now II, namely that The New is once again trying to break through and The Old are resisting as muddily and drearily as possible. It wasn’t even possible for me to draw an easy line between American lightness and British ponderousness since that begs the question about what to do with “Happy Hour” and “On My Own.”

But it was a terrific year for bubblegum, the great, head-revolving one-offs.

Peter Gabriel

Even “Sledgehammer” sounds different and rejuvenated in the context of a pop compilation album, and if you blanch at the thought of music criticism being “reduced” to comparing different Now volumes, then I would ask you the difference between Peter Gabriel 3 and Peter Gabriel 4. Pop music as magazines for small, mobile, intelligent units. Actually, set free of Gabriel’s album-length tortuous soul-searching and gentle global re-moulding, “Sledgehammer” is revealed as a terrific pop record, the Man-ness of soul-biased Mods being slowly and elegantly debunked. It may well be that 2003’s Hit compilation is Gabriel’s best record; it really doesn’t miss much out.

UB40

Words of justified anger, resentment and uprising, all processed into a Dairylea triangle which somehow manages to make an eight-piece band sound like Ali Campbell with a Bontempi. “Sing Our Own Song” was about apartheid, and although some of its words might be applicable to present day Scotland, this is no “Cap In Hand.” Uselessly scrubbed, latter-day UB40 records – like so much of 1986’s “approved” music – come across as stuffed-shirt classroom-induced music you’re supposed to like, while you secretly reach for your copy of the absent “Rock Me Amadeus.” Four hundred years? Yes, but Falco cites Kant!

Sly Fox

Now THIS is how to do protest pop. The most radical pop record to make the charts in 1986 – much more so than the “WOW! The future! But we love it REALLY?” cheerleading of “Love Missile F1-11” (not on this album, but available on the accompanying video) – “Let’s Go All The Way” is about NOT going all the way, i.e. with Reaganomics; every debit line, from factory slavery via rich numbskulls to asphalt neutralisation, is breathlessly itemised with the instruction that “We need heaven on Earth today” and all set to brutalist marching/grinding Tackhead drum patterns balanced against a gloriously woozy psychedelic chorus that could have come straight from the Lemon Pipers. The link between “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” and Roxette’s “The Look.” Somebody on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 Popmaster quiz yesterday thought that this was Sly and Robbie; well, co-lead singer Gary “Mudbone” Cooper sang lead on 1987’s “Boops (Here To Go),” so she was sort of right.

Level 42

A very advanced sneak preview of their next album, of which latter much more when we get to 1987, “Lessons In Love” was also their biggest hit, and yet its furious propulsion masks a deep and slow regret; another failed love affair is pondered over in extended maritime/nautical metaphors, but then the talk turns to egos and unlived dreams and homes and we realise that it’s actually a song about, and to, New Pop; Mike Lindup’s Greek chorus in the middle-eight (“When will we ever learn?,” “I’ll wait ‘til you return”) underlines the subtext, and in the chorus King sings “If we lose the time before us/The future will ignore us.” The dream looks as though it evaporated, but it’s in our power to make it work and matter again. On which subject…

Pet Shop Boys

A different mix to the one on Please, this “Opportunities” emphasises the M25 hardness underscoring 1986’s Big Bang, Tennant’s voice rising only here and there, and sometimes at random, amidst the multiple jackhammers of percussion (see also Test Dept’s “Fuckhead” from The Unacceptable Face Of Freedom, one of 1986’s most important albums which throws beige dreck like “Sing Our Own Song” into proper perspective), the tones of a chancer trying to dodge being crushed by the wheels of industry.

“Opportunities,” of course, also takes great pains to remind us that it’s all bluster and bullshit – the singer has clearly never been anywhere near the Sorbonne and never even sat at a computer, let alone know how to programme it. So the picture is one of two conspirators, hapless in their foreknowledge that none of it will work, that they will never make any money out of doing this. Not that it dissuaded the Cameron/Johnson generation from taking the song straight.

Pete Wylie

The Belated Entry of the Crucial Three into Then Play Long, Part 1 of 3: Wylie is a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Bill Shankly without any of the other BS. He loves Liverpool and socialism and hates fakes, schmoozers and destroyers. The irony is that after years of multiple Wah!s, he finally appears here under his own name with a record whose fame is mostly owed to its unlikely second life (in its twelve-inch format) as an Ibiza dance anthem. But you can hear Liam Gallagher coming through in the sparse double-speed verses, Lydon at Winterland paraphrase included, and as a martial chant of revenge it far exceeds UB40 and takes its place as an unstoppable Big Scouse Country.

Stan Ridgway

Like I say, one-offs were where it was at in 1986, and “Camouflage,” released just ahead of the general, belated cinematic interest in Vietnam, threatened to take us back to the days of Frankie Laine. It doesn’t quite do that, though, since Ridgway’s Barstow drawl never comes across as less than vaguely threatening, and some of the song’s lyrics become super-real to an unnerving extent; does the ghost soldier really pick up palm trees and wave them at passing helicopters, and has his body really been here, in the humid jungle of war, “all week long”? Notions that this might be back-door Reaganism were refuted by the song’s parent album The Big Heat – in the year of his death, this was almost a musical equivalent of Raymond Carver’s short stories – and in particular by pronounced anti-Reagan fulminations like “Pick It Up (And Put It In Your Pocket)” (“But the scale is loaded down/With the weight of sixteen tons”).

The Art of Noise with Max Headroom

I emphasise the “The” since they didn’t have a definite article in their ZTT days. However, they thought they knew better than Horn and Morley and went off to become another instrumental novelty hit act with guest stars; first Duane Eddy, and then a computer-generated television presenter voiced by a Canadian actor (actually Matt Frewer was born in Washington DC but grew up in Peterborough, Ontario and has dual nationality). He does his best with the under-promising can’t-get-to-sleep vibe, which Faithless did better on “Insomnia” a decade later, but I would have preferred the twelve-inch mix, in which he announces that the members of The Art of Noise are Peter O’Toole, Martina Navratilova, Cher and the Pope.

Chris de Burgh

Is this how Nick Drake might have ended up had he survived? Drake and Chris de Burgh were contemporaries at Marlborough School in the early sixties and even played in a band together. Then again, de Burgh's music has always been decidedly less complex and troubled, at least on its placid surface. Musically and lyrically he is the equivalent of a Jilly Cooper or a Jeffrey Archer; easy emotions designed to appeal to the widest possible demographic.

"The Lady In Red" was his biggest hit, helped not a little by the contemporaneous and coincidental wedding of top Sloane Rangers Andy and red-headed Sarah (unlike Chas and Di, the shops and offices did not close down for the occasion). The production is one of expensive-sounding minimalism; a drum machine, a wistful Fairlight, tasteful fills from guitar and bass. Of its kind it's a ruthlessly constructed across-the-board hit single, perfectly symmetrical and ending with a whispered "I love you," though de Burgh's anxious vocal, wherein he manages not to rhyme "dance" with "romance" with "chance," is like being kissed with Marmite-covered lips. But the cynicism of the whole enterprise is reinforced by the fact that, despite the song being written about his wife, he was actually making whoopee with the nanny at the time. Sadly, not that many cared, or noticed.

David Bowie

“I’ve nothing much to offer/There’s nothing more to take.” Or, as might have been sung by a younger, hungrier Bowie a decade later: “You sure you wanna be with me?/I’ve nothing to give.” Had it not been for the incessant subtext of film plugging – “I ABSOLUTELY love you,” “I’m an ABSOLUTE BEGINNER” – we might be with Morrissey, or even an impressionable eighteen-year-old Brett Anderson (“The rest can go to HELL!”).

There was a long queue at the cinema when Absolute Beginners opened; we weren’t sure whether we were going to be able to get in. But we did, and by the time of the closing credits we noted that the auditorium was two-thirds empty. For the film really didn’t have much to do with, or convey any raging message from, its source novel, and much more to do with mid-eighties central London crate-digging. The emphasis was on jazz – Patsy Kensit was an adequate female lead, given the film’s emasculation (if that’s not a contradiction) of the Crepe Suzette character, but Eddie O’Connell was hopeless and never heard from again – and specifically about mid-eighties London record “collectors”’ attitude to jazz, rather than the rock music that was actually being listened to in London at the time. Gil Evans took a welcome paycheck for scoring the movie, but Out Of The Cool – an album recorded at the end of 1960 and not released until February 1961; so much for this being “the fifties” – had little impact on any Big Society, was too elusive and abstract to change people’s ways of thinking (as opposed to changing the world of individuals). In tandem with the era’s wretched “jazz” “revival,” which nearly killed British jazz forever, audiences decided that the film had nothing to do with their lives.

Bowie’s best moment in the film – he wanted to appear in it as a condition of his writing and singing the theme – comes in a sequence called “That’s Motivation” where he writhes like David Brent’s dad in front of a huge, outsized typewriter. He turned up to record this song, and with time to spare, semi-improvised the song “Absolute Beginners” with the backing band.

It was not quite his last high-profile pop moment, but it was his last major “pop” hit, and he sings it as somebody creeping up to forty and not liking it. The song and performance are intentionally elegiac but, alas, somewhat bombastic; Langer and Winstanley’s booming production does Bowie no favours, and even Don Weller impersonating Bowie on sax at fadeout does little to alleviate an underlying air of fear and distress. And the song had absolutely nothing to do with the fifties.

Genesis

I mean, who remembers the video to this? (N.B.: do not comment if you remember the video to this.)

Simple Minds

The “Sledgehammer” rule doesn’t work with all displaced album tracks.

The Housemartins

Whereas this bunch of Hull psychopaths, somewhere between disappointed Christian Scientists and unrepentant Marxists, just kept hitting the bull’s eye, though not of course on the dartboard of the pub they loathe so much, as well as its attendant “culture.” “I think I might be happy if I wasn’t out with them,” pipes Paul Heaton plaintively, in a single which followed ones which decried charity and proposed punching the Queen, and derided the great mass of humanity as sheep. And yet David Cameron has gone on record about how much he admires London 0 Hull 4, proving that he never really listened to it. Heaton now runs a pub, from which he has barred Cameron. You have to admire him. Heaton, I mean.

Big Country

It’s worth remembering that Kate Bush’s other big guest appearance on somebody else’s 1986 album was duetting with Stuart Adamson on the title song of The Seer, a record which slowly began to reaccumulate the hope lost throughout Steeltown. Or so you would think, since, despite its punchly sprightliness, “Look Away” is yet another variation on “My Elusive Dreams”; he has killed someone, runs away, gets worse and worse, but still she follows him until finally it is too late: “I always knew we’d never find the sun,” and the final “Look away, look away” is so busy musically as to make you overlook how chilling a gesture it actually is. Seven days to go, at the time of writing.

Furniture

Who would have thought that such an anonymous group could have spawned two Melody Maker journalists and Transglobal Underground? H20 jamming with early Pulp to nullifying effect; one keeps waiting for Cocker to come in with his observations on underwear and wardrobes, and that’s not necessarily a plus point. One of the last hit singles on Stiff not recorded by the Pogues: “I’m ready for the real thing/But nobody’s selling.”

Midge Ure

The fourth single off The Gift, and you can see the problem here; very decent and energetic verses which get lost in under-involving, internalised choruses. As with latter-day Ultravox, it doesn’t really go anywhere, or stay still fascinatingly.

Wham!

For their farewell record Wham! took the "Beat Surrender" approach; an all-guns-blazing Valhalla cheerio of a main track and a double-45 gatefold-sleeved package. Fittingly the E.P. is an equally split curate's egg. The revisiting of old haunts that is the "Wham! Rap '86" remix is a somewhat redundant exercise; with their 1986 bank balances, were we still supposed to lap up George and Andrew's pro-dole pamphlet, which in their latter days looked uncomfortably like the whims of underemployed millionaires? "The Edge Of Heaven" itself, which basically adopts the template of an adult "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" strains just too hard to demonstrate itself as Real and Not Fluffy Boyband with its shrieking horns, car chase guitar solo, Elton John on Hammond organ and George's suspiciously less-than-spontaneous-sounding "Whoo!"s. Following a rather unsavoury first verse with its references to "lock you up," "chain you up" and "strap you up," the song settles rumbustuously into a celebration of one long last animalistic fuck before waving the whole caboodle goodbye ("One last time might be forever"). If it’s about sex – and, as George later admitted, he made it purposely hardcore on the assumption that nobody would listen to the words – then this is a loveless, even vicious affair, as the climactic “ONE DAY YOU’LL WAKE UP ON YOUR OWN – WHOO!!” cry demonstrates.

That the E.P. also serves as a calling card for Solo George is demonstrated by its other two, rather more intriguing tracks. "Battlestations" is topped and tailed by a sardonic female voiceover, the first an answerphone message and the latter a French monologue. Clearly influenced by Prince, Michael's vocals give the song a little too much in the way of beef, but musically it wanders hitherto unchartered nooks; the dolorous electrowhine recollects Cabaret Voltaire, the lugubrious, echoing trombone suggests a "Ghost Town" antecedent.

But it's the fourth track which suggests, pace Morley's Blitz! interview, that George knew exactly what he was doing with Wham! from second one; a cover of "Where Did Your Heart Go?" from the first, incandescent Was (Not Was) album, released on Ze Records two weeks before my father died, hailed by Morley as the Escalator Over The Hill of pop, a declaration of New Pop principles just when it was all starting to blossom. Now, at the other end of the half-decade, with the promise apparently in ruins, Michael turns to the song, with its "rusty can of corn" and its suicidal ending, and gives it the "Careless Whisper" treatment to demonstrate just how A can evolve, or degradate, into B. Its long, resonant, voiceless fade seems to bid a vaguely tearful farewell to an era, and even though New Pop was slowly and subtly being assimilated into the mainstream, its status as a resigned requiem is still moving.

Owen Paul

He was from Glasgow, the song was an old Marshall Crenshaw B-side, and it was a commendable attempt to prove that “power pop” could work in the unforgiving eighties. Paul delivers the words with a barely suppressed lust that’s slightly reminiscent of Marmalade’s Dean Park; his ecstatic, just-scored-the-winning-goal shriek of “And the bells GONNA RING!” is one of the happiest moments of eighties pop.

Amazulu

“Listening to Lulu, Amazulu/Come in and let’s pretend” sang Suede in their gloomy “Asbestos” (the title is never mentioned in the song, which is a reflective postscript to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Suburbia”) and Amazulu were a six-piece, mostly female band (who halved in size, Thompson Twins-style, during 1986) whose biggest hits were undistinguished cover versions. “Too Good To Be Forgotten” was a lousy song even when the Chi-Lites hit with it (Eugene Record’s seeming obsession with school tropes in his songs does get wearying very quickly) and Amazulu do it no favours. Not that anybody who got drunk to it, suburban boys or otherwise, gave a fuck.

Doctor and The Medics

The second of this song's trio of visits to number one, in the second of three different generations, does confirm its inner strength as a song; but alas, where the Greenbaum original rises and bubbles and, above all, swings in a way which suggests that the record is being made by living, breathing human beings playing and working together, this cover epitomises everything that was awry and wrong about '80s pop production. While Doctor and The Medics had already built up a considerable reputation as a sort of comedy Goth group on the indie circuit - a slapstick Sisters of Mercy, if you must - and indeed that same reputation has subsequently seen them through twenty years of freshers' balls and similar, their "Spirit In The Sky" is an utterly null pop record; the Doctor himself (with a very un-Goth real name of Clive Jackson) sings the song flatly as though ordering a kebab.

There is no bend or flow in the record; everything is pitched on the same trebly level, above all those blasted bargain basement synthesisers standing in for a horn section. Dynamics are absent, and the impression is that progression from this world to the next is a task equivalent to visiting the laundrette; particularly when compared with the astonishing, semi-spoken, semi-freeform reading of the same song later that year by We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Gonna Use It!! –everything that Amazulu weren’t, and the closest this tale gets, for now, to the elephant in the year’s pop front room that was C86 - which sounds like the Raincoats covering Meri Wilson's "Telephone Man" and would have had a 10 had it been released as a single and reached the top. In fairness, though, the Doctors' "Spirit" is still not the worst version of the song to get to number one; that, I am pleased to report, will have no bearing on this tale.

Bananarama

Crappy, processed cover versions; that was what was wrong with mid-eighties British pop music (and don’t come waving your copy of Filigree And Shadow at me either).  You have to feel for Bananarama; all that work, the originality of their own songs, or the ones they co-wrote with SAW (here still busy working out their hit template), and the one that keeps getting revived on radio is the cover version, with a hideous, slowed-down “VEE-NUS WOZ HERR NA-YAME!” which makes them sound like losers in a Tom Bailey soundalike contest on Blackpool’s Central Pier. In September. And this wasn’t even the biggest version of the song in Britain. Nor was Shocking Blue’s. It was Don Pablo’s Animals in 1990, which reading more or less ignored the song completely. And that never gets revived.

Bucks Fizz

Very sad; all this loud talk about new beginnings, Mike Nolan back from the last rites, Shelley Preston in for Jay Aston, and it was the last hit they ever had. And if it sounded a little familiar at the time, that’s because Andy Hill had tried it out in 1985 with a group called Force 8, who were actually the Dooleys. Still, with the central four singers asked by Hill to sing a semitone out of tune, and with children’s choirs and a trilingual lyric (English, Spanish and Swahili) as well as violent Test Dept-level percussive workouts, this was a Nordic pop funeral, going up in flames but exuberant. It makes “Sing Our Own Song” sound like David Whitfield’s “Ev’rywhere” as covered by Champ Butler in 1958. Recorded in a steam sauna. In pre-gentrification Shoreditch High Street.

a-ha

The “Re-Mix” meant that Alan Tarney retooled the track and added in an orchestra, and while Morten Harket certainly sounds windblown and committed (“DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO LOVE YOU?” – OK, OK MORTEN, I’VE GOT IT!!!) the song is not as fun or as grandiloquent as their first two hits, and the suspicion that the campaign to reconstruct pop with Tales From Topographic Oceans as the main building block continued unhindered. Wonderful use of the Picardy third, however.

Simply Red/Queen

Incongrous juxtapositions; everybody talks about Mick Hucknall’s multiple vocal influences and nobody ever mentions Freddie, which is absurd considering that on these two songs they sound extremely similar. But “Holding Back The Years” began life as a shouty punky song for the Frantic Elevators, and even slowed down and polished up still bears the air of a meditation set to music rather than a song. Hucknall’s clearly trying to do a Tim Buckley, but his voice is too reedy for that to work; Leo Sayer is nearer the mark (as is Mercury). Tim Kellett’s muted trumpet reminds us that this phenomenon called Durutti Column still exists, and consider that Hucknall was the Leo Sayer lookalike in the audience at Manchester Free Trade Hall a decade earlier. Just imagine the words of “Holding Back The Years” being rearranged and performed by Ian Curtis, fronting Joy Division. “I’ll keep holding on”; “They keep calling me.” Strange how the habit lingers, isn’t it?

Billy Ocean

Sir William’s greatest qualitative triumph came with the theme song to Jewel Of The Nile, a deliberately anachronistic and somewhat racist sub-Indiana Jones romp. Sourcing its basic template from Change's six-year-old "Searching," "The Going Gets Tough" bounces along with the wrong sort of bigness and its loveless Reaganite pledges ("I'm gonna put this dream in motion," "I'm gonna get myself 'cross the river" - not presumably in the Sam Cooke manner - "Your love's like a slow train comin'") make it catchy but unlovable, like shingles.

Much of the record's popularity stemmed from the video which featured a white-suited Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito doing the Temptations walk as though they understood it, though Musicians' Union fury ensured that a sequence of DeVito miming the glutinous sax solo was edited from the British version. It stands as a slightly forlorn monument to an eighties which could not comprehend subtlety, where everything had to be signalled out in cold Fairlight blasts, could only soundtrack the most bombastic of minor films, could imagine that this was a new gold dream whereas it was the polished but rusty old nightmare. And "When The Going Gets Tough" is also a candidate for the least sexy "ooohh"s on a number one. Yet Mutt Lange was a co-writer, if not the producer, and you can sense “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” waiting to emerge from the song’s undertow.

Jaki Graham

Whereas Jaki got it right (and so did writer/producer Derek Bramble). “Set Me Free” is superb, brassy, echo-laden post-Britfunk sixties pop with wonderful chord changes, a hugely emotional central vocal performance. And yet, what’s the song about? “He’s locked the door and thrown away the key,” “I know he means no harm to me/But building walls confining me”…see “Robert de Niro’s Waiting.”

Nu Shooz

None of this angst with Portland husband-and-wife duo Nu Shooz, since “I Can't Wait” is about commitment, forgiveness, encouragement and everything else that comes with being properly together. As a single it’s one of the year’s finest, the modest Partridge/Lynch surrealism of the performance countered by the soft blasts of Fairlight added on European mixing, and Valerie Day’s compassionate, come-on vocal performance does a tremendous job, not least of implying transitions into the minor key above the song’s bright, poolside surface.

The Real Roxanne

Does anybody remember the Roxanne Wars? It started out with UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne” and there was Roxanne Shanté, and dozens of answer records – it was almost internet messageboard hip hop ahead of the internet – and there was eighteen-year-old Elease Jack, from Queen’s, who was The Real Roxanne, and she and Howie Tee kicked pop up the arse and HURLED it into the future.

If pop history is a matter, not of what or who came from, or why, but how pop music HITS you, then you have to accept that its best moments occur after something new has been invented but nobody yet quite knows how to deal with it. Moments when influences, history, noises, are all thrown up in the air and land any damn which way they want, changing lives in the process (since, in true Marxist fashion, hip hop at its best is always about the process).

“(Bang Zoom) Let’s Go Go” has to be heard in its full twelve-inch glory, but the seven-inch edit here is shock enough for a nation of wannabe changeovers; the DC beat is harnessed and splattered back out like never before, doowop harmonies crash into Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny soundbites, Fred Astaire taps, Ready For The World (“In The Place To BE”) and even producers Full Force’s own “Alice.” Over and into it all, Roxanne and Howie caper like they’ve been given the keys to pop music, moving from fuck-you raps to sweet, half-speed R&B arias and back (“SO!!!”).

The record reminds us that no true innovation comes out of blank respect alone, that you have to rearrange the pieces and introduce new pieces all the time. Before it all settles down and turns into a new formula. But “Let’s Go Go” is rude, exciting, enlivening and saved pop from kicking the bucket.

Lovebug Starski

Born Kevin Smith (no relation) in the Bronx in 1960, he had his biggest success by turning hip hop into novelty horror schlock, when such things could still be done. In a different world Bobby “Boris” Pickett could probably have done “Amityville” with its Boris, Bela and William Shatner impressions, but he couldn’t have reproduced the insouciant helplessness of Starski’s shrieks of “HIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!” One wishes it could be as much fun these days.

Midnight Star

We’re in Tony Blackburn territory now, and “Headlines” proved that The Sound Of Los Angeles (Solar Records) still had a few tricks up its sleeve; a very hearty attempt to push Shalamar/Whispers modes into the future, with lots of ghostly scratching and stuttering, proto-Mantronix beats. Midnight Star were from Kentucky and there were a lot of them, but this is an almost forgotten delight.

Aurra

From Dayton, Ohio, what ended up as a duo of Starleana Young and Curt Jones was originally an offshoot from the group Slave (see also Steve Arrington). For legal reasons, “You And Me Tonight” was everywhere else credited to “Déjà” but here the original name stood; and it’s a lost wonder, a reversal of the Romeo and Juliet thing; she’s on the balcony, he’s on the pavement, desperately wanting to get in. But she’s changed the lock. He pleads and pleads, assuring her that he’s a changed man, but she isn’t buying it. On the album the song just fades out as they continue their standoff deliberations; one might imagine they could go on forever.

Patti LaBelle & Michael McDonald

The brief note to this on Now 7 indicates that it was kept off number one by Spitting Image’s “The Chicken Song,” a Virgin recording which could easily have gone on here, and might even have made a better ending. As it is, I can’t grasp “On My Own.” The song and performance are immaculate; the changes and structure are recognisably Bacharach, and both Patti and Michael perform as best they can. There is even a degree of hope as the song fades out, as their voices swoop around each other like lovelorn butterflies and there is the chance that, yes, they can overcome their differences and reunite.

But such constructs are undermined by the knowledge that Patti and Michael recorded their parts separately, and never even met (nor did they meet in the continuous split-screen video). Whereas on the three opening songs of Poet II, LaBelle is palpably standing next to Bobby Womack in the studio, and you can feel what’s happening between them, what and how they’re trying to communicate to each other. “On My Own,” on the other hand, sounds like the end product of a marriage of convenience. Not that you would replay “The Chicken Song” either.