Friday, 28 August 2015

Tina TURNER: Foreign Affair

(#396: 30 September 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Steamy Windows/The Best/You Know Who (Is Doing You Know What)/Undercover Agent For The Blues/Look Me In The Heart/Be Tender With Me Baby/You Can’t Stop Me Loving You/Ask Me How I Feel/Falling Like Rain/I Don’t Wanna Lose You/Not Enough Romance/Foreign Affair

In the last week of September 1989, two albums by leading black female artists were released. I don’t really know whether it is possible to find any meaningful link between the two but some may yawn that, yet again, the lesser of the two was the one to make it to the top. Not that anyone should yawn at Tina Turner, somebody who has lived through things so horrible that even Annie Lennox could never imagine them; I can’t think of anybody else who better deserves to be an international pop star, or brand, whose name they know how to spell in Vladivostok.

She sprang back into life five years before with Private Dancer and then, like Presley in Vegas, settled down for maximal tourist/hotel lobby appeal. Indeed the snapshots on the cover of Foreign Affair suggest a jetsetter who can go anywhere and do anything. Sashay up the Eiffel Tower? No problem! Look at the Herb Ritts centrespread and you might wonder how much of this the eight-year-old Beyoncé took in.

So Tina earned her global fame, and much of this, the third studio album of her “second” career, caters to the global market with a practised expertise which makes the Madonna and Whitney of that period sound jejeune (as I am sure was the intention). Still, she could hardly be said to be happy; in song after song (the titles speak for themselves) her voice tears through the bland music (the panpipe keyboards dotted throughout are particularly irritating) with hurt, rage and sometimes (the ending of “Be Tender With Me Baby,” with just an acoustic guitar to cushion her) blood, as if she is fighting against the eighties, wanting to smash the affluent glass ceiling. One is continually reminded who might be on her mind while she sings these songs.

She is markedly happier away from the Albert Hammond/Holly Knight/etc. Hits 4U machine (“The Best,” a cover of a song first recorded the year before by Bonnie Tyler, is for me far too redolent of bad MBA seminars to work – David Brent was only confirming what some of us already knew – although for co-writer Mike Chapman it must have been the biggest payday of his career) and working with Tony Joe White (his friend Mark Knopfler got him the gig). With four songs on the album, including the patiently melancholy title track, this represented a major revival in White’s career – the swamp man was never going to go disco – and Tina sounds far more relaxed and involved. “Steamy Windows” is sensual without having to have it underlined; her vocal performance on “Undercover Agent” is a masterclass in using the voice to act out a story, with its multiple pauses, slurs, squeals, hisses and scatting, all of which are as carefully placed as any of Nicholson Baker’s commas. “You Know Who…” is nicely modernistic (only Tina could sing “devastated MEEEEEE!!”), and the closing title song, with Knopfler providing his best guitar work in several years, is superficially fast but hugely slow-paced in its central resigned lament, which concludes with a devilish cackle from the singer to fadeout.

It’s just that this also came out that week, and peaked at number four, beneath Tina, the Eurythmics and Gloria Estefan (have we said that TPL 1989 is essentially the women’s story?):

I think Rhythm Nation represents the point where I finally lost faith in the music press, British or American. It had a deadingly indifferent critical reception and you may search the end-of-year critics’ polls for it in vain – it only appears in Christgau’s list. A lot of alleged critics yawned in a it’s-not-1986-anymore manner – as though titans like The Wonder Stuff and Mega City 4 were up to the minute – but really it taught me that the primary function of music “criticism” was to big up your friends and your old favourites, and that the big-uppers were predominantly, and suffocatingly, male and white.

Because Rhythm Nation was the year’s best and deepest pop record. As soon as the martial crunch-down supersedes the abstract electronic miasma and launches into the titanic title track you are immediately roused to get up and dance, or at least shake a fist, in the same way that the opening credits sequence of Do The Right Thing dares you to stay seated (still one of the most exhilarating cinematic experiences of my life, watching that on opening night at the Ritzy in Brixton with its predominantly black audience, all rising up to dance to “Fight The Power,” arguing back with the actors all the way through the movie, generating internal debates). P-Funk, yes, a Sly Stone sample, yes – thank you falettin’ Janet be herself again - but absolutely, overwhelmingly and triumphantly 1989 now as in, well, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written in 1814 (hence the album’s subtitle) but 175 years later our people need a new anthem of faith.

The album bustles along as exhilaratingly as anything on Def Jam or Alternative Tentacles at the time, songs linked by random TV scans or gnomic pronouncements (“Ain’t no acid in this house”), songs of jubilant protest, demanding change and newness. Halfway through side one, following songs about education, homelessness and drug addiction, Janet asks whether we got the point – A&M wanted her to do an album called Scandal about her personal life but Janet, and indeed Jam and Lewis, had other ideas and stood firm – says good, and invites us to dance. Yet “Miss You Much”’s underlying drone still creates an ambience of doom, as if already mourning something lost.

There are few more sheerly euphoric moments in eighties pop than the long, multi-armed snake procession of “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” which also, however, carries an air of triumph, of unstoppability, as if the I is going to become the We whether you smug fuckers like it or not; the creation of a new society. Buried deep in its mix is a dinner party guest from the sixties, Herb Alpert. And yet this celebration comes to the deadliest of halts at the end of side one to usher in the clearly deeply-felt “Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make),” which culminates in the voice of a newsreader grimly informing us of the Stockton playground massacre and reminds us of the innumerable mountains still (in 2015) to be climbed and overcome. And running like a scared spine through the song’s centre is Janet’s sudden cry, twice repeated, in the same key and at the same tempo, of “Save the babies! Save the babies!”

Side two is half hard dancefloor, half slow jams, but throw a similar description at A Love Supreme and see how inadequate that is. “Alright” hammers its defiant sticks like Neubauten pop celery. “Escapade” – apparently originally inspired by Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere To Run” (see for parallel purposes N.W.A.’s “100 Miles And Runnin’” from one year later) – is Prince worthy of Prince (or at the very least Sheila E). “Black Cat” rocks “Beat It” right out of the aeroplane door (kudos to Loud Heavy Rock Metal guitarist Dave Barry).

But the slow jams are the record’s slowly but intently beating heart, and are not really three songs as such but one song in three movements. “Lonely” lowers the lights and tempo and the record settles down to regain its breath – we are reminded that Janet was as inspired by Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman as Sly when it came to making this record.

But then “Come Back To Me,” one of Then Play Long’s greatest ballads, up there with “All Of My Heart,” “When Two Worlds Drift Apart” and “This Woman’s Work,” and a song which over a quarter of a century later does not fail to engage or move me. Like Paul O’Grady and Cilla’s “Alfie,” this gets me every time. It sounds like the end of everything, not just a “foreign affair.”

Why does the song move me so? It is difficult to listen to at this time of the year and normally it is one of these pieces of music which I keep fenced off for emotional overload reasons. But I think its sadness is more deeply rooted, because it is the one song on the record where she sounds like her brother – her brother in the mid-seventies, that is, the way he used to sound before fame,the world and life did things to him…and maybe it is that Michael whose return she is begging, the same Michael who in 1989 was so high up in the world that he was unreachable. It already feels like a premature requiem, building up melodically in ways not dissimilar to “Human” before slowly disintegrating into the same hanging F minor seventh chord which closes “Dreams”; the saddest chord in all of pop.

But, without any fuss, there then comes a happy ending, another Motown reference – “Someday we’ll be together…well, tonight is that ‘someday’ – and it is with “Someday Is Tonight” that Janet tries to channel the spirit of Marvin Gaye; hers is a brilliant performance, easily worthy of side one of Let’s Get It On (“If I Should Die Tonight” etc.), with her entirely satisfied murmurs and breathing settling to something approaching…utopia (meanwhile, a muted Herb Alpert returns to do a pretty mean Miles, and at the fadeout we hear a riff - can it be? - "West, End, Girls"...remember, we're all one...).

However, there is one last drone of warning – the ghost of “Livin’ In A World” (just as the ghost of “Come Back To Me” flutters briefly across the closing moments of side one, as if each side were a ghost of the other) returns as Janet gives the following warning:

“In complete darkness we are all the same.
It is only our knowledge and wisdom that separate us.
Don't let your eyes deceive you.”

If you have to credit What’s Going On? and To Pimp A Butterfly – and you must - Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is the midwife.

Thursday, 27 August 2015


(#395:  23 September 1989, 1 week)

Track listing:  We Two Are One/The King And Queen Of America/(My My) Baby's Gonna Cry/Don't Ask Me Why/Angel/Revival/You Hurt Me (And I Hate You)/Sylvia/How Long?/When The Day Goes Down

"The door closed and I just waved good-bye, and when I began descending, I was shaking a bit - but the backseat drifter was gone.  I was released from the obsession, and before I'd reached the lobby I couldn't believe what a brain-dead glutton I'd been - for sex, for humiliation, for pseudodrama...And I planned right there never to repeat this sort of experience ever again.  The only way you can deal with the Tobiases of this world is not to let them into your lives at all. Blind yourself to their wares.  God, I felt relieved; not the least bit angry." Douglas Coupland, Generation X

There comes a time in any band's life when it should (or has to) come to an end; some bands have that end dictated to them, others just wear themselves out or go on a "hiatus" which turns out to be permanent.  Eurythmics, though, had to record this album before they split up for their own good - Dave and Annie weren't getting along anymore, and this disunion, if I can put it that way, is the subject of the album; Eurythmics being, if anything, a band that is definitely in control of itself.

That control was especially evident in their previous album, Savage, which makes a very handy guide/prequel to We Too Are OneSavage was the Eurythmics cutting loose after making the please-the-record-label Revenge,  and it includes the delirious, mocking "Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)," "Shame" (wherein Lennox looks at her generation and its gullibility towards the media and glamour), "You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart" (love as a commodity as opposed to love as something warm and free).  It's core, though, is "I Need You", where Lennox sings alongside Dave's acoustic guitar to a room full of happy cocktail hour people who aren't understanding anything she is saying.  It is one of those unexpected New Pop moments that takes the band and the audience and shows just what a gap there is, a kind of silence; or even makes it seem as if no one is listening at all and that she is singing to herself, more or less...

...and then there's "I Need A Man," where Lennox does a better Mick Jagger than Jagger himself, and her "Huh!" at the end shows her contempt for the whole rock rigmarole. 

How appropriate, then, that We Too Are One beat Steel Wheels to the top of the UK album chart, as Lennox and Stewart's dead-eyed stare at the camera was virtually saying, well here we are one more time, separate yet apart, not sarcastic or sharp like last time, but calm, with that cleansing sense that things are over, they are done, with nothing else needed to happen.

It starts with a steady, heavy backbeat and some wahh-woohs that sound half-human, half-mechanical - I thought it was going to be a first-song freakout, going back to Lennox's Redbrass days, but instead it is the first of many heavily ironic songs that says exactly what it doesn't mean.  "We Two Are One"?  Hmm, maybe.  It is, in fact, "Uncle" Charlie Wilson making noises as if he was playing a harmonica - yes, Wilson from The Gap Band!  The song is a vow of love, of fidelity - "We're gonna live forever."  In this upbeat song (which has Wilson also singing in the background), nothing is bad, though the fact that they can't be separate is because they are too "messed up" to live otherwise.  This is an album that may sound confident and big on the surface, but look underneath....

...and here are "The King And Queen Of America" who don't exist, who can't exist, but have such self-belief that they think they do.  "We're the all-time winners in the all-time loser's game" - another big brassy song steams along.  "The king of nothing and the queen of rage" is what they really are, on their "glittering stage" - is this the Eurythmics themselves?  Or just any couple who aim big but get little, really, in return?  What it boils down to is a near parody of David Bowie's Let's Dance, showing up that shiny emptiness for what it is, and of course the king and queen here end up going into outer space, the normal Earth having nothing good enough for them....

"(My My) Baby's Gonna Cry" is the first key song here - an anti-"I Got You Babe" that trundles along with David and Annie singing to each other, with Jimmy Iovine as the ref (he was brought in to settle any and all disputes, and I'm guessing there were a lot). Yes, we hear them both, flat and done, with no relish, because this is real.  The guitar break has fake audience applause in it, as if to say - yes, you the audience, you too are involved in this, applauding our misery up here, go ahead, we're beyond irony now.  The line between a song being a song and a song being something happening right in front of you, as you listen, is very narrow here, though the punctum has yet to fully appear...

"Don't Ask Me Why" is in the traditional Eurythmics style, with plucked strings and a delicate, but harsh line from Lennox.  "I don't love you anymore, I don't think I ever did" is a  painful thing to admit.  A lot of pretenses are being dropped, and the efforts of a whole decade are coming up as empty, with nothing good in the distance.  The 80s have been, from this perspective, a letdown, and a lot of soul-searching is the answer, but in the hubbub, the rush to the end, is self-knowledge even possible?

"Angel" is ostensibly about the death of Lennox's aunt, but hearing this at the time - those "57 winters" jumped out at me  - my own father dying at 58, in the winter.  Did I think of my father as an angel flying over me?  No, most certainly not.  The first verse is longing and plaintive and lovely, but then come these lines - "She took her life in her one can tell her what to do now."  Did she die naturally, or not?  I don't know, and don't want to presume, but this song too has a way of sounding utterly normal Magic-104.5-friendly and yet barbed, as if this angel is faulty, protective but fragile, too.  I don't doubt Lennox's sincerity here, and it would inevitably be the song Lennox would re-record for the 1997 tribute album to the late Princess Diana...this is a long way off "There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)."

"Revival" is a song that sounds as if it could be a way forward, telling others (themselves?) to get up, get out, get on with it - and Wilson is again here in the background.  It sounds more than a bit like "She Drives Me Crazy" but that's not a bad thing, right now.  "Living in a bad dream" is a phrase which jumps out, and the woman in the next verse - Mona Lisa to his Superman - is twisted, bitter, beaten-up.  To revive is to come back to life; and Lennox wants to do this, but there's wanting to do something and then doing it.  This song, as well-meaning as it sounds, doesn't have enough oomph to truly do the job; it's too pat, too easy.  Even Lennox doing her best to invoke James Brown at the end only makes me want to hear the actual James Brown - a man who needed some reviving himself at this time, if I'm right...

"You Hurt Me (And I Hate You)" starts with Lennox greeting the new day (as she did at the end of Savage) with the sun entering her room, the light spreading across her, as she slept "like a baby."  The song picks up, with Lennox at her fiercest, claiming "I'm not an angel, I'm not that quaint" (thus damning the previous angel?) and saying she doesn't need a preacher (bringing back her "Missionary Man" to diss again).  She has been the broken nail to his hammer, and her hate seems to be invading everything, her sureness in her being in the right and his being in the wrong is absolute.  "You put me down" she sings in the background, as she vows to make her scorn inescapable for him.  This is a bright and sprightly song, but again feels a little...cursory?  Everything here is still a bit guarded - this is like a therapy session of an album, inviting you in to hear things being said, but there is no resolution in sight.  Catharsis, cleansing - those are the aims, but instead a kind of terrible truce is being acted out here, before Lennox storms out, done and exhausted....  

"Sylvia" is a song I took to be about Plath at the time, and its eerie harmonies and pauses are near psychedelic - we are looking at a young woman, a woman who longs to be nothing - "the queen has lost her crown today."  "Passing through the underground" is something I knew, could feel.  Only in sleep can she "forget herself" but there she is in London, painted and ready to be adored, only to meet with "cold caresses" - this is Lennox herself, running to London from Aberdeen, and now alone, her partnerships over, missing, truly gone.  The anger of the previous song has turned into wanting to be gone, be forgotten, to be absent.  It is a stunning song, compassionate, sweet even, in its own way....

....and now, can there be a way out of the 80s?  Because it is going, and the Eurythmics with it...

"How Long?" looks out the window - it's 5 in the afternoon, the radio is on, the wind is casually shaking up the dust on the is in the details that change, positive change (hello Soul II Soul) appear.  And the band sounds a little different here - more bass-heavy, with a kind of space that is narrow, but you know is going to widen.  A little curtain on the 90s in the "fancy town" is dull, boring as frozen food, bare, immoral.  "How long will your love hold on, stay strong enough?" is the question, against the rising winds and growing dusk.  We are in the very roots of Curve here - the doctor's dotted line, the pavement's cracks, the sense of something wrong having to be endured over, prevailed....

....and then...

The last song, "When The Day Goes Down."  It starts gently, with Lennox directly addressing her audience - telling them not to cry, telling them that "you're as good as all them, of this you can be sure."  But who are being addressed especially?  I don't think its herself, or Stewart, but the people who are to come.  "Don't think that you're the only one who's ever broke right down and cried" she says, giving those people her shoulder, her hand...

..."this is for the broken dreamers...the hopeless losers, the helpless fools...the burned-out and the useless...the lost and the degraded....the too dumb to speak."  These are not her peers she is talking to, not the yuppies, not even the strong-minded young women who have paid attention to the Eurythmics from the start.  No, this is the next generation, who have been on the wrong end of everything since they were born - who have witnessed terrible things, had terrible things done to them, and who have (as of yet) no real cultural voice of their own, no nickname even.  The day goes down on them too much; she is here to let them know that they are not alone (as so many of them feel and think) and that while she understands their misery, they cannot give up.  This is Generation X, the ones who don't fit in, just as Lennox says of herself - "I don't fit into any slot.  I am not really a rock and roller and I never really was a punk or a hippy..."  She is here as a misfit herself to acknowledge the others, to, at the very end, bring punctum.  Her hopeless obsessing over a dead relationship is gone, and her actual compassion and love are evident, and the long drum roll at the end brings even a kind of nobility. 

We too are one; the unity mocked at the start suddenly becomes real.  The night is coming, but it can be endured, because of this unity.  Thus ends the 80s from the Eurythmics' point of view - internally fractured, but not too self-obsessed to extend their empathy outwards, to encourage that positive change....

Up next:  two courageous generations.      

Thursday, 20 August 2015


(#394: 16 September 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Love Changes Everything/Parlez-vous-Francais?/Seeing Is Believing/A Memory Of A Happy Moment/Chanson d’enfance/Everybody Loves A Hero/First Orchestral Interlude/She’d Be Far Better Off With You/Second Orchestral Interlude/Stop, Wait, Please/Leading Lady/Other Pleasures/There Is More To Love/Mermaid Song/Third Orchestral Interlude/The First Man You Remember/Journey Of A Lifetime/Falling/Hand Me The Wine And The Dice/Anything But Lonely

(Author’s Note: I have confined the above to specific, palpable songs or sections of actual music within the musical. There are a total of forty-five scenes and I do not feel that itemising them in laborious detail would prove beneficial to anybody.)

It’s part of the alleged excitement of undertaking an exercise like this that you don’t necessarily know what comes next. Well, I know what’s coming next because I co-write the blog and we do plan these things out, but you know what I mean; the element of surprise and all that. Balanced against that has to the bafflement that one feels when certain albums go to number one. What was the attraction? I mean, it’s pretty clear why Cuts Both Ways, for instance, spent six weeks at the top; it’s a lively, original, meaningful and beautifully made pop album. Indeed it is one of its year’s very best pop albums, but you won’t find any mention of it amongst the joyless plough lines of hoary old time-servers and Sky Bet League One indie crap which dot 1989’s critics’ end-of-year lists.

Come to think of it, not that I’m ever going to be invited to one of those Classic Album Sundays things, but if I were I’d probably choose Cuts Both Ways. That Classic Album Sundays thing – probably done with the best of intentions but this really isn’t what pop or rock was supposed to be about. Sitting in hushed awe, no talking, no going to the toilet (even the Army lets you pay a visit when you have to), the Memphis Flash reduced to a (Sunday) school classroom (which I think is a huge scar on the British psyche; yes, I know the woman who set up Classic Album Sundays isn’t British, but it’s this characteristically British thing about everybody else being naughty schoolchildren at the back of the class who just need to be compelled to fall back in line). No, I’d play Cuts Both Ways on CD – none of this pristine v*nyl Antiques Roadshow bollocks – and take all the chairs out of the room so that you’d have to stand and listen to it, and better still dance to it and sing along with it. That’d learn ‘em.

Anyway, the point is I remain baffled as to why Aspects Of Love made it anywhere near the top of the charts. I don’t doubt that the show was popular – you can’t argue with 1,325 West End performances, and the album did go platinum – but there really is very little, if anything, here for the uncommitted listener to go on. Who bought it? Hardcore Lloyd Webber adherents who were expecting Phantom 2? Casual buyers attracted by the single of “Love Changes Everything”? People who don’t normally buy records?

As always, I approached the double album of Aspects – even on CD, it’s a double set – with an open mind but soon found that same mind drifting away. I quickly got bored with, then annoyed by, the lack of memorable songs, with the acres of dreary cross-chatter which stretch throughout the entire piece on the verge of sending me to sleep. Phantom 2? The Phantom Of The Opera was an exciting and challenging piece of work with an easily-followed plot, colourful characters and plenty of memorable songs.

Whereas Aspects essentially has the one tune which recurs in various guises throughout. Even the editions of “Love Changes Everything” which appear here are not the same as the single version – rising to number two, that record is if anything a throwback to the beefy balladeers who dominated our charts around 1968 – and otherwise the tunes appear to have no tunes. I could hardly remember any of the other songs, even while they were still being sung.

It doesn’t help that much of Aspects is essentially sung dialogue. In between discourses on the subtext of Ibsen, Turgenev, Huxley and Chaplin’s Modern Times and strange non-sequiturs (“And you, sir, are now the proud owner of this magnificent…donkey!,” “You don’t cheat at croquet,” “We’re talking drivel,” “So we are”), I gather that this is Lloyd Webber’s attempt to do his own Les Parapluies De Cherbourg, what with the “hero” going away to the war – it could even be to the same war – and coming back to drastically altered circumstances.

But Parapluies was conceived by a visionary – Jacques Demy – who had the wit to employ a composer – Michel Legrand – who understands exactly how music and cinema work together. Hence that work, which I recommend you hear on the unedited 2CD soundtrack package which came out in France in the late nineties (if you can find it), succeeds on all levels, including avoiding the pasted-on happy ending.

In Aspects there is simply too much plot and too much contrivance. It has to be noted that the show was adapted from a novella by David “Bunny” Garnett of the Bloomsbury Group – though was not published until 1955, when there were only a dozen or so of the Group still standing. Anybody watching the recent Life In Squares television mini-series has a right to be confused about why the Bloomsbury people mattered, since the series demonstrated little interest in the literature and art these people were creating, and was far more keen on their sex lives. It also did not help that it was written and directed by people who thought they were remaking The Hours and hence considered telling a story in a straightforward and recognisable manner a neoliberal conceit; thus the random time shifts, the inaudible, mumbled dialogue and the viewer’s final inability to tell who was who, or to care.

It may well be that the tangled plot of Aspects is directly related to the inordinate complexities of Garnett’s own love life. But are the threads worth disentangling? Bear in mind that this is a novella which Lloyd Webber manages to stretch out, achingly, to nearly two hours and twenty minutes. There’s seventeen-year-old Alex who is besotted with a twenty-five-year-old actress called Rose and after a fortnight or so of makin’ whoopee she decides to go off with his elderly uncle George but he has a mistress called Giulietta (some productions have Rose and Giulietta in bed together at one point) so Alex goes off to the Army and comes back twelve years later and Rose is still with George but they have a twelve-year-old daughter called Jenny and unfortunate feelings develop between her and Alex, and so forth and finally Alex ends up with Giulietta, George having conveniently died of a heart attack in the meantime. Are you still following this?

Really, are we supposed to feel anything for any of these people? Isn’t there something called the Algerian War going on somewhere? Certainly in Act One both Alex and George treat Rose like shit (but then women in Lloyd Webber musicals are generally treated like doormats, either indrawn saints or whimpering sinners; the character of Rose is simply too tough and self-aware for this to be remotely believable); Alex (who, remember, is supposed to be seventeen, though played by the then twenty-six [going on twenty-seven]-year-old Michael Ball) tries to shoot her but hits George’s Matisse painting instead, while George observes “Rose, I ought to strangle you!”

Act Two is mainly passively boring rather than actively annoying, but the whole still seems an aimless, tuneless melange of bits of Sigmund Romberg, Gilbert and Sullivan (“It seems, alas, a father’s life is not a happy one!”), Johann Strauss the Younger, Sondheim, Bernstein, Bartok and Britten – it is presumably not an accident that brash, brassy bitonality straight from Peter Grimes makes itself apparent when the Alex-and-Jenny thing gets too problematic.

And the Alex-and-Jenny thing is far too problematic. Are we supposed to have our hearts rendered and broken by the fact that they cannot be together? How old was Eliza Doolittle, anyway (Lena guesses nineteen, but being seduced by the fifty-year-old Rex Harrison hardly makes it any more right)? This monster raises its head periodically throughout Then Play Long and I’ve had enough of it. “Is that the same Then Play Long blog that purports to be a historical analysis but then deletes all references to artists the writers don’t approve of and would rather not exist?” said a commentator on Popular recently. “No thanks then, I’ve got some pubic hairs I’d rather burn off with a lighter.”

Quite apart from the fact that TPL has never purported to be a “historical analysis” – please read the Introduction again, paying special attention to the paragraph headed “PREJUDICES DECLARED” – it nonetheless is a fact that we’re not going to mention people and relevant things which shouldn’t be mentioned, or delete/re-edit them if changing circumstances demand it; if you want an encyclopaedia, Wikipedia is available. The story – and it’s one to which I intend to return before the eighties are done – is in part about taking a step back and asking: “Is ALL of this valid, or invalid?” (just as the Prisoner references in The Blue In The Air bore the subliminal message: I am not a number, I am a work of art).

I thought it might just apply to rock ‘n’ roll. But Aspects plays as though it were still 1889, not 1989; a Victorian parlour melodrama which finally amounts to nothing – and perhaps there is something deeply rotten embedded in the British way of doing things which powers these presumed feelings. But finally, with Aspects, we are dealing with immoral seduction, a West End Gary Puckett scenario, and expected to compare it with Romeo And Juliet. If I were doing Astral Weeks I’d come down as hard on “Cyprus Avenue.” It frankly gives me the fucking creeps.

Michael Ball, fresh from both Les Miserables (Marius) and Phantom (Raoul), does his best as Alex. Ann Crumb – American, and the daughter of George Crumb (!) – is Rose. Australian Kevin Colson – Sia’s uncle, no less – is George, standing in at the last minute for an allegedly hard-of-singing Roger Moore (a shame, since at least one plot strand would have provided an interesting counterpart to the real-life story of Moore and Dorothy Squires). Diana Morrison is mostly inaudible as Jenny. Kathleen Rowe McAllen is Giulietta. Don Black and Charles Hart wrote the lyrics. Trevor Nunn directed. Overall the listening experience numbed me to a degree I had not felt with TPL for some time. In April 1990, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote of the Broadway production: “Even when women strip to lacy undergarments, the lingerie doesn't suggest the erotic fantasies of Frederick's of Hollywood so much as the no-nonsense austerity of Margaret Thatcher's Britain.”

It all comes together in a really stinking fashion, doesn’t it?

Next: “You never close your eyes any more when I kiss your lips…”

Monday, 17 August 2015

Gloria ESTEFAN: Cuts Both Ways

(#393: 5 August 1989, 6 weeks)

Track listing:  Ay, Ay, I/Here We Are/Say/Think About You Now/Nothin' New/Oye Mi Canto (Hear My Voice)/Don't Wanna Lose You/Get On Your Feet/Your Love Is Bad For Me/Cuts Both Ways

As a woman writing about music, I tend to think - I like to think - that I am writing not just for my own self but my own sensibility.  And what is that?  More than a bit aimless; ready to listen to anything if it is good; appreciative that there are times when I don't want to listen to something that the (still overwhelmingly male) music-writing massive would call "important" or (ahem) "seminal."

Which is to say, Cuts Both Ways did not make the critical end-of-year lists in the NME, Melody Maker nor the Village Voice.  (As for Robert Christgau's review of this album...well...) It is at these times that I think the whole rock consensus as to who is good and who isn't really truly needs to be thrown out, as it doesn't value an album like this nearly enough.  (I may as well say the rock hegemony has a problem with women all together if they make pop/r&b - the "oh, that's nice" syndrome meets the "there can only be one at a time" problem and it's the same today as it ever was, alas.  At the same time, could there have been a Jennifer Lopez without a Gloria Estefan?)

It is their loss, of course, and those who kept this at #1 in the UK for over a month were likely those who don't pay much attention to the music press in the first place*.  This is Estefan's first solo album, and she sounds more upbeat here than on Anything For You; it is as if her apprenticeship as one of Miami Sound Machine (woman-machine) is over and now here she is, a woman in her own right (though MSM are still there, more or less).

Is this album worthy of one of those sit-down-don't-fidget Classic Album listening experiences?  Yes, it is - the album builds up, as all good ones do, with...

"Ay, Ay, I" begins the album with the main theme - "I can't do without you" - and all the troubles that come from this irrefutable feeling.  (This album is about feelings, and some boys - not men - have problems with feelings.) Musically it jumps along like Janet Jackson, and she sounds as determined to win back her Other, who she knows loves her, even though he sets her up, knocks her down.

Things slow down for "Here We Are" - is it wrong for me to think of a cool evening after a hot day, and it's the world of love and hurt that lingers, light as a perfume and just as sad, in a way.  She wants her Other, but for some reason (never stated) they cannot be together.  Is one of them...both of them...with someone else?  The focus is on the narrator and her crushing love for her Other, one that she calls "sublime" and one so intense it makes her cry.  Estefan wrote it (as she wrote most of the songs here) and sings it with a kind of elegance that comes out of an actual experience, remembered.  (I have no idea how autobiographical these songs are, by the way; but she sings them as if she knows what she's talking about - from the heart.)

"Say" is about wanting to hear from the Other - oh, I've had this too Gloria - where you get all excited by the Other but when are you going to hear that declaration back?  This is no mope, but an upbeat song (by the then-up-and-coming Jon Secada) that is like a cheerleader jumping around more than someone saying "please, please say something."  That said, waiting for someone to say "I love you" is tough - "don't wanna worry, but is our love alive?" asks Estefan, then recovers from her doubt, as her - yes - feelings about her Other are so strong, in the end.

"Think About You Now" begins with "Is it worth the time/To bring back a forgotten rhyme" - as if Estefan is now lamenting the loss of a poet, or of language itself.  The affair is over, but the thinking goes on, and of course there is no one else who "could have the same effect on me" - love is indeed the drug, and her Other has left her in half hope, half existential despair.  "It won't be long before I'll be with you somehow" she sings, sounding sure that something will be worked out, maybe once she can rouse herself out of the languorous longing of the song itself.  (And yes, that's Jon Secada in the background, sounding a bit eerie, a bit Michael McDonald.)

"Nothin' New" sounds like go-go, a little Frankie in the chorus (hoo-HAH-hoo-hoo-HAH) and is a weird song about how difficult love is and there is nothing new under the sun and whatcha gonna do about it, kid.  It is a "we" song - "life goes on no matter what you do" is the main thrust, and we are practically in Nein territory here.  There is nothing to do but love, and it's not new and so what.  You have to trust and do the best you can.

"Oye Mi Canto" is about being who you are, standing up for what you believe in, but also - how unrock! - "Find common ground/Go in between/Things aren't always what they seem" - and how feminine is a song that says "Why always take/The upper hand/It's better to understand."  All this to a salsa where she laments - about what? - "Hate is so common it's almost tradition."  I am guessing this has something to do with politics, and who could be happier about the US and Cuba having better relations than Havana-born Estefan herself? Hear my voice, the song says, and suddenly it's not just about the Other but about all Others - and the one voice becomes all voices as the others join in at the end.  Once the political is introduced, it of course goes on to shadow the other songs...

"Don't Wanna Lose You" is a ballad about hope, self-confidence and real love - love that gives of itself, that admits truths, and is willing be courageous and say the awkward, real thing.  Her Other may not want her, but she's sticking around, as she knows they are "gonna get through somehow."  The song is one of real devotion and is grounded, in the best way.  (Estefan's realism in love reminds me strongly of George Benson.)  Estefan's good faith is cheering, and continues with "Get On Your Feet" - a song to someone who is down - "so scared that life's gonna pass you by/Your spirit dying" - oh existential horror!  But Estefan & Co. are like a big hug and smile here, willing the listener to get up and dance and get going, that action is better than being a dull slugabed.  That's not very rock either, now that I think about it...

"Your Love Is Bad For Me" brings us back to the torture of "Here We Are."  The longing here is more explicit, and the badness is just part of her pleasure, in the end.  "I'd love you till you could not take it any more" is followed by "Then you'd walk out the door."  Estefan - or the narrator - is not messing around here.  "You don't belong to me" is the thorn here, the moment when all this sleepless insanity and melodrama has its reveal, and it's done lightly, as if the badness - he's cheating! with her! - is the cause of her love, as much as the Other.  (I can imagine whole Oprah programs about this, with guest psychologists and everything - I'm The Other Woman And I Feel Conflicted.)  What on earth could Emilio, her husband, make of all this?

The album ends with the title song, one that implies violence.  It is quiet and reflective, at first, as Estefan admits that she and the Other are "heading for a broken heart" - and then picks up when she admits that she loves her Other too much, they both want too much..."Don't be a fool/Haven't we already broken every rule?" she asks, as if the awful end is already in sight.  There is no way out; it's too dangerous, too dangerous to continue, and too dangerous, apparently, to ever really end.  If love is the drug then this is the comedown, the time when the actual situation has to be reckoned with, and Estefan's voice is tough, vulnerable.  Their love is like a knife; neither is strong enough, willing to sacrifice, to end it.  This is not the rock joy of extremes (or of overcoming extremes) but the blunt fact of how love is powerful and painful and is much, much stronger than any individual who thinks that with a bit of pep and realism for sure things can work out.  Well, says Estefan, maybe, but also maybe not - this is the ground of Cuts Both Ways, a place where the heart can be open and rebel and revel in its badness, only to be caught up short by that badness turning into something more complex, the lover realizing that they actually do have feelings that pierce and the knife may as well be an arrow...

It is because she is so willing to get into the guts of these emotions - many of them painful, if self-inflicted - that Cuts Both Ways works so well.  While it was at the top other albums appeared - Adeva's Adeva!, Shakespear's Sister's Sacred Heart, The Blow Monkeys' Choices, Fuzzbox's Big Bang! - which also had their realities and tough voices (and like this album mostly bought by women - including me). That Estefan was badly injured while on tour supporting this album - and came back, determined and grounded as ever - attests, as she might say, as to how strong an album this is, how its floods of emotion and cool intelligence balance each other out, how striving for the middle ground can actually be far more difficult and rewarding than giving up or taking the easy way out.  Neither of those are ideas Estefan could endorse, and the pleasures and agonies of the songs go well with a time when no one quite knew what was happening, when the decade was coming to a close and feelings and emotions were coming to the fore...a time for complexities to be faced and worked out, however painful, for the sake of the Other, or Others...not very rock, but then this is the ocean of sound, this is that cool night after the heat of the day, the long letting-go, emotions and waters that only look placid...

Next up:  look what Bunny wrote!             

* Not all of them, though.  I'm sure the Pet Shop Boys bought this and loved it. 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

SOUL II SOUL: Club Classics Vol. One

(#392: 15 July 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Keep On Movin’ (featuring Caron Wheeler)/Fairplay (featuring Rose Windross)/Holdin’ On/Feeling Free (Live Rap)/African Dance/Dance/Feel Free (featuring Do’reen)/Happiness (Dub)/Back To Life (Accappella; featuring Caron Wheeler)/Jazzie’s Groove

Did you watch, or listen to, the BBC Proms Grime Symphony last night? Fantastic, wasn’t it? Justification in itself for the licence fee, I’d say (together with the earlier and equally fantastic Boulez/Ravel/Stravinsky programme). There they all were; established giants like Lethal Bizzle (whose orchestral “Pow!” is one of this millennium’s greatest musical moments thus far, as succinct and direct in its way as Michael Mantler and Pharaoh Sanders’ “Preview” was forty-seven years ago), Wretch 32 (when “Something” finally makes it to record, he should do it like this) and Krept and Konan, who recently and narrowly missed out on a number one album (but this blog has its ways), together with newer names like Stormzy, Lewisham’s superb Fekky (a slightly more placid Giggs) and the sensational Little Simz (“ROYAL ALBERT FUCKING HALL MAKE SOME NOISE!!”). Throw in guest appearances by Shola Ama and Kano, plus Jules Buckley’s brilliant orchestrations (like Todd Levin if he’d meant it), and somebody called Chip who turned out to be the long-lost (and dramatically revitalised) Chipmunk, and the whole was pretty unassailable.

Of course there will be the purists – who when it comes to black music are invariably middle-aged white men – who will argue that last night’s music was not “true” grime, not like in the golden 2003 days, but frankly, sod them; Puritanism should have died with Cromwell. We know from the past how awkward these musical meetings can sometimes be but there was nothing awkward about last night’s music, which represented the consolidation of the long march which British black music in particular has had to undertake.

At such a point it is salutary to remember where it all started. I sat looking at another example of what some music writers still refer to as “landmark albums” – and if you’re going to call your debut album anything (if it’s a calling card, which it should be) then call it something like Club Classics Vol One; to hell with kow-towing disguised as self-deprecating modesty! – and wondering how I was going to write about it. I know that absolutely nobody is going to welcome another opportunity to gather round and listen to Grandpa Punctum telling you another story about the good old days and how great they were and how terrible things are now, because that gets nobody and nothing anywhere.

Still, what do I say about Soul II Soul that you can’t find out for yourself in the Wikipedia entry or in the sleevenotes to the 10th Anniversary Edition of Club Classics? If you want a detailed examination of the multi-threaded socio-political history which led to “Keep On Movin’,” read Paul Gilroy’s absorbing The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness but agree with its central point that Soul II Soul, and “Keep On Movin’” in particular, represent the moment when British black music started to answer back and influence what was happening on the other side of that ocean.

You could argue that the story of Britfunk and British soul remains the secret story of the eighties. The explosion presumed with the emergence, in and around 1981, of the likes of Light Of The World, Beggar and Co, Incognito, Imagination, Central Line, Junior Giscombe and Linx - supple, rhythmic and utterly relevant - never really came to pass, despite the best efforts of the Norman Jays and Paul Wellers of that world, and by the mid-eighties the "movement" as such had dwindled to a hardcore fulcrum on which balanced the likes of Loose Ends and I-Level. Although the former in particular were a group of rare power and originality - "Hangin' On A String," though produced by the American Nick Martinelli, remains one of the greatest and most startling soul records ever to emerge from a British studio - the fluffier teenpop variant of Five Star was the preferred mainstream option.

But the story, though relegated to the background, remained a vital undercurrent; both Camden's Soul II Soul and Bristol's Wild Bunch developed an awesome reputation through their sound system DJ all-nighters, utilising their love for the undertold story of eighties pop - an eighties of Odyssey's "Inside Out," Evelyn King's "Love Come Down" and Thelma Houston's "You Used To Hold Me So Tight" which still hasn’t received its just dues (think of Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further” as the movement’s very own “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”) - and mixing it with the residue of spirits from dub and post-punk to work towards a mix which could rightly be claimed to be their own art, their music.

To appreciate the full impact of "Keep On Movin'," the third Soul II Soul single but the first one to cross over into the Top 40, you really needed to have ambled through the imposing terraces of West London in that enlightened spring of 1989, since the overwhelming impression given by the record is one of elegance - an unhurried walk through the patience of reason. It slowed pop back down, made it breathe again rather than hyperventilate, even if the "keep on movin', don't stop" motif had social directions in mind; it was the perfect soundtrack for an idle wander around the outskirts of the Circle Line on an empty, cloudy Bank Holiday Monday, but much, much more as well.

But the story of Soul II Soul is specifically a North-West London story; Jazzie B is from Hornsey via Antigua, and it all came together in Camden. “Keep On Movin’” makes me think of Camden as it once was, and indeed the number 24 bus you took to get there (and beyond, to the threshold of Hampstead Heath). Unlike now, when the 24 is just another anonymously corporate red bus, the eighties 24 had art; it came in shades of turquoise and dark green. It didn’t look like any other bus and it could take you from the centre of town in a matter of fifteen minutes.

In those days Camden was a place worth going to; Compendium Books, almost directly across the road from Rhythm Records, and so many others (you can find them elsewhere if you dig a little). You’d travel there of a weekend with absolutely no idea of what you’d find or where you’d find it. And so when I hear Caron Wheeler singing, delicately, “Yellow is the colour of sun rays,” I not only think of the black gold of Rotary Connection but also what it felt like getting there, and coming back, on the 24 bus (in fact, taking Jon Savage’s atmospheric sleevenote into account, one could consider Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha as a very belated parallel to Club Classics, albeit using a partially different series of reference points).

Those of us who were present at the time recognised how important these first two Soul II Soul singles were going to be. You couldn’t walk through London in 1988 without hearing “Fairplay” or “Feel Free” blaring out through somebody’s car stereo or on an elusive pirate radio station. Even if you don’t think you know them, you do; one listen to Rose Windross’ “Bay-BAY! Bay-BAY! Bay-BAY!” on “Fairplay” should uncloud your mind (I can think of at least one other long-term resident of Hampstead and Highgate, and of Then Play Long for that matter, who was knocked out by that record). Meanwhile, “Feel Free” plays like a virtual blueprint for what the early Massive Attack would practise; ominous Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra strings, hip-hop beats which don’t have to bang on your head to prove their nowness, a direct and hugely disturbing vocal, as though threatening to shatter complacent glass forever (“Every day I look into the mirror and I see my-SELF!”), by Doreen Waddell, whose awful and entirely avoidable end can be looked up on Google. Unplayed on mainstream radio, unmentioned in the music press (though not in the fashion press; Soul II Soul sold clothes as well as club nights and records) – you either knew about these things or London wasn’t for you, much as the crowds at the Albert Hall last night enthusiastically sang along with, and knew every word of, joints which as of now exist only as downloads. This was the triumph of the music played at the back of the bus.

But “Keep On Movin’” was different, even (or especially) from the rest of what then constituted British soul or hip-hop music. “Don’t stop like the hands of time,” warned the song. “Click, clock, find your own way to stay” (the whip is in the grave, as The Band once sang; the world is now yours); “Why do people choose to live their lives this way?”

Those Oriental strings out of Chic. The courteous chutzpah worthy of imperial phase Prince. “The right time is here to stay,” “I hide myself from no one.”

It was black Britain’s “Anarchy In The U.K.” except it had something more to offer than nihilism.

Sure, one major purpose of this group and record was to promote a clothes shop. Wasn’t that the case with the Sex Pistols?

Indeed, you could propose that Soul II Soul demonstrated the only successful example of British popular music crossing over into business and making a go of it. Remember all that mock-corporate talk in the early eighties; Rhythm Of Life tinned peaches and what have you? I think some of these New Pop people wanted a piece of the action, really. Well, Jazzie B went ahead and did it, and maybe the Soul II Soul story is what Thatcherism should always have been about; the little person building up something from nothing and thriving instead of surviving. The trouble was that the other side of the coin – the one which talked about giving something back to your community once you had become successful, rather than keeping the profits for yourself – was, and for the most part continues to be, disregarded.

In this respect, Club Classics plays like a travelogue of late eighties London, a Camden Duck Rock, if you will (Jazzie B’s occasional pronouncements throughout the record do remind me somewhat of McLaren, but the Zulu musicians are far more subtly deployed, particularly in “Holdin’ On”); through its (just under) forty-five minutes you hear Deep House, hip-hop, the influence (though not the presence) of reggae, jazz (flautist Kushite has a ball on “African Dance”) and flashes of what else was good about those times (the staccato brass fanfare samples dotted throughout “Feeling Free”). The prototype of “Back To Life” is mainly Caron Wheeler and backing singers, but the tension keeps subtly building up, and when the deep beat bursts in it feels like a moment of liberation, of profound release, as well as immense exultation. Jazzie B himself brings proceedings to a close as he talks about the history of Soul II Soul and where he’d like it to go.

I listened to the cassette of this album on my Walkman all over London (I still have it, and it still plays perfectly). But you have to go to the 10th anniversary edition CD (which I found – and it was only right to find it there – in a charity shop in Hampstead) for the single of "Back To Life," which represented Soul II Soul’s moment of eternal summer. Despite the lyric's urges of "back to reality" and "back to the here and now" (yeah) there seems something wonderfully unreal, something evocatively 1967, about the record's straight delineations; as with "Time Of The Season" the absence of a musical centre - no guitars, hardly any chords or harmonies except for the occasional and thoroughly relevant interceptions of piano - widens the song's emotional space. For large stretches there is nothing to the record beyond Caron Wheeler's sublime, expansive lead vocal, a bassline and a drum program, but its movement remains sultry, decisively carnal but sociologically generous, coloured in at precisely the right moments by those Oriental strings – again, brilliantly remembering their Chic - drawing watery lines of art across the song's benign canvas. Wheeler, too, is patient: "However do you want me, however do you need me" - she both wants and needs her Other, but she is prepared to wait, smiling and welcoming (despite her "Let's end this foolish game" asides), until he's fully ready to embrace her spirit.

Of course, such references as "take the initiative," "make a change, a positive change" and "I live at the top of the block" (though the piano chords accompanying that line are the record's punctum – keyboardist Simon Law is the album’s unsung hero) suggest a wider agenda. It may well be that Club Classics succeeds so well because of the elegant (there’s no other word to describe it) programming work of producer Nellee Hooper - the far from missing link between Soul II Soul and what was about to evolve from the Wild Bunch into Massive Attack - whose intimate and instinctive understanding of space and structure helped lead to the latter's string of masterpieces, starting with Neneh Cherry's startling "Manchild," also a top five hit that spring (a co-production by Hooper and Cameron McVey, who between them paved the way for New Pop Mk II). But "Back To Life" stands tall as the last great number one of the eighties, summer seeping through its grooves like honey through a brightly coloured ladle of hope.

Me? I think that art in whatever way you want to frame or describe it is markedly better in London now than it was back then. And the centre of things may have shifted eastwards from Camden to Shoreditch. And London may on the face of things resemble a less friendly and open place than before. There are no Soul II Soul shops now – Camden has basically been reduced to a tourist trap – but their clothing imprint (“Funki Dred”) can be found at Harvey Nichols, just down the road from the Royal Albert Hall, and that must signify a real achievement, something better than what came before. And as far as Camden record shops are concerned; well, there’s another one which should be mentioned – Rock On, just next to the tube station exit (and also now long gone), to some people about as unhip as late eighties record shops could get, but I found some good things there. Once I came in and bought a copy of the theme tune to Fireball XL5 (which I note was sung by the man who is currently Russell Crowe’s father-in-law) and I was wearing a suit (because I liked bright, colourful suits in the eighties), though was certainly dangling no car keys. I know for a fact that Nick Hornby was a regular customer at Rock On, and that the shop in High Fidelity was in large part based on Rock On. In the book the main protagonist says this about a customer who comes in and buys the theme tune to Fireball XL5, wearing a suit:

“Do I want to be like him? Not really, I don’t think. But I find myself worrying away at that stuff about pop music again, whether I like it because I’m unhappy, or whether I’m unhappy because I like it. It would help me to know whether this guy has ever taken it seriously, whether he has ever sat surrounded by thousands and thousands of songs about … about… (say it, man, say it)… well, about love. I would guess that he hasn’t.”

You might want to think of my fifteen or so years of online and printed music writing as an extended response to, and pronounced negation of, that rhetorical question.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015


(#391:  8 July 1989, 1 week)

Track listing:  Baby I Don't Care/The Only One/Landslide Of Love/Falling For A Goldmine/Down On You/Song To The Stars/Kiss Their Sons/Born To Be Sold/Pay The Ghosts/Bad Valentine/Velveteen

 Lately I have been studying the art of display - how to arrange things so they can all be seen to their best advantage.  It is a tricky thing, though I enjoy doing it, and while learning I have once again come across the idea of "pulling focus."  There should always be something to catch the eye, to give some (but not too much) glamor, so that the whole display can work around the focal point and not clash with it, or make it seem ridiculous or out of place by comparison.  I am studying and arranging books this way, but album covers have to have their own internal logic as well, and just as with books you can actually learn a lot from an album cover...

...and are Transvision Vamp reflected badly by their cover?  Well, yes and no.  Is the focus of the group lead singer Wendy James?  Oh yes.  Are the other three in the background, looking a bit bored or distracted, as La James looks at the camera in her best sultry manner?  Yep.  Are they in a dressing room which happens to have a lot of signifiers around, like Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground and, uh, Mudhoney?  OH yeah.  (There is even a book called Sex In Movies there, just in case you forgot they are trying to be sexy.)  While this isn't as blatant as Rattle & Hum in its yearnings and idealizations of US culture, it does give me pause.  As an American I am always a little disconcerted by the idolization of these people, as if Transvision Vamp would have no real purpose or inner substance of their own, beyond making music that somehow reflects all this love for these people.

Except it doesn't.  I don't know if it's the fault of producers Duncan Bridgman or Zeus B. Held, but this is a very safe album.  (Remember how generally conservative the album charts are, compared to the singles one.)  The band are competent and put their songs (all written by Nick Sayer, more or less) through their paces, and James acts (more on this in a minute) the best she can.  But you can't put such revolutionary figures as Dylan and the Velvets on the cover and just make regular pop/rock music, can you?  Is just signifying enough to show that you are different from the other Chris Roberts Blondes* like Tracy Tracy from The Primitives or Andrea from The Darling Buds?

"Baby I Don't Care" is a declaration of pop love and the joys of things being "best left never said" and gets the full zoomy treatment, with James trying her best to get across her own insouciance, but the production from here on in is too timid, not willing to be rough or sexy enough, leaving James to carry, at almost all times, these qualities herself.  But there is only so much even she can do, only so much focus she can pull, before the songs become "songs" and her voice is just a "voice."  James had no hand in writing or playing any of these songs, and so it is her acting out the songs that distracts after a while; a lot of rock 'n' roll cliche is on hand here, and in her growl/whisper she tries to bring them to life.  But how can you bring pastiches of ye olde rock love songs like "The Only One" or the seemingly endless title track** to life when there's no Other actually being addressed?

Other songs fare a bit better - the endless list of stars who were "Born To Be Sold" is an acceptance of the whole we're-only-in-it-for-the-money/fame vibe that so many bands would deny - Transvision Vamp marched right into a corporate label office and demanded a deal, man.  There was no way they would go to an indie label, and this is them hooking their hopeful claim up to others who were also ambitious, as if mentioning "Little Richard and Lady Day" their successes would rub off on them.  (She sounds, believe it or not, a bit like Lawrence from Denim, years before Back To Denim - the music is suitably retro, as you'd expect.)  "Song To The Stars" is before this, where an ambitious man leaves his Other behind, with the requisite sadness in James' voice.  "Kiss Their Sons" is a bit rougher, a bit better, with real disgust in James' voice - this is where Mudhoney come in, I think.  (They are absent from the rest of the songs.)  It's still a bit too neat, but at least they are trying....

"Falling For A Goldmine" is interesting - "there's flowers growing on the Berlin Wall" - but this song about Marlene Dietrich (at least that is who I think it's about) is all starry-eyed wonder, but it's a bit too one-dimensional, not pop enough to be kitsch (a beautiful word), not spaced-out enough to live up to the words.  And what does the title mean?  "Marlene On The Wall" by Suzanne Vega is a lot better using Dietrich as a presence, giving her a character and voice.  With Transvision Vamp, she's an icon, and the song could just as well be set in Paris and refer to Edith Piaf...

"Down On You" is James growling away, but the music is slick, slicker than a water slide, when it should be very rough.  (It has this awful squelchy synth in it, and of course a guitar solo.  Sigh.)  Compared to fellow Blonde Band The Primitives' "Sick Of It" this just sounds like a snobby Sloane Ranger dumping on her ex-boyfriend, and not a real purge.  In the face of what is already happening and what is to come, Velveteen is dated, and I wonder how dated it even sounded at the time.  In such a fast-moving and unpredictable time as this period of fractals and Tiananmen Square, making only a partial effort to be different (and not changing your producer) hardly counts.

"Pay The Ghosts" is yet another song where James is expected to bring the roughness as the song goes along sounding like...library music rock.  Yes, that's what Transvision Vamp are doing here - making rock that sounds remarkably like the real thing, only...not.  So James sings "Pay me what you owe me" while Rihanna is still in diapers, but again there's a snag - pay the ghosts?  Who are the ghosts?  Yep, James screams at the end, but there's comic books that have better plot than this.  And so it goes, "rocking out" to the inevitable fade.

"Bad Valentine" is quiet, and sounds a bit like a try at Tom Waits/Bruce Springsteen, but even James can't really sell this one; she says she bad, sure, but do bad girls ever proclaim their badness?  No, they don't.  And I bet bad girls didn't buy Velveteen - Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Paula Abdul even - that's what the bad girls like, pure pop without a hint of self-knowing or irony.  They don't want near-ten-minute failed epics like "Velveteen" (it's got a string section and everything)!

So then, does the cover show what the contents reveal?  It wants to be all pink and purple and velvety and so on, but that US glamor is forever just outside their reach, and their nodding towards Seattle to make up for this isn't quite enough.  There's zero politics here, unless you count the awkward mention of the Berlin Wall, and James' acting is fine, but isn't enough to make up for everything else.  She never seems to be singing to the listener but to the producer; I get no feelings jumping out at me, no shuddering drama, no trashy overacting, nothing.  As much as they admire Americans, Transvision Vamp are British, and that reserve they have is doing nothing for them here. 

Perhaps all these songs came off better live; I don't know.  What I do know is that after their next album they broke up, James did a fine album of songs written for her by Elvis Costello and Cait O'Riordan called Now's Not The Time For Your Tears in '93, then went off to learn how to play guitar and write songs, first in London and then in NYC.  I am pretty sure that she is much happier doing her own thing now than she was before - when all she wanted was to be famous, pure and simple.  Velveteen marks the apex of the Blondes - the bands kept going, but sadly neither the more indie-identified The Darling Buds nor The Primitives got their own number one album.

Transvision Vamp meant well here, wanted to make a rough, bubblegum-girl group-garage classic, but the production diluted anything that was interesting, for the most part; and Wendy James got to see what fame was like, and enjoyed it while she could.  But there are greater things than being a pop star...   

Next:  meanwhile, in north London...       

*Chris Roberts had a whole obsession with Blondes in Melody Maker that was always over-the-top and yet also accurate in appreciating these three young women, all from bands that were pop and rock and indie and mainstream.  I think he felt they were part of the apocalyptic feeling of the end of the 80s - these girls were good/bad but not evil, they had a kind of insouciance about things and were more "sincere" in a way than your actual U2s or Dire Straits.  (I am sure one Courtney Love read all this and understood it immediately; in some ways she was the real Blonde of this time.)  I don't know if Roberts had a crush on all these young women, though a lot of guys did, James in particular.

**I realize now that it's a Velvets/teenager thing, but at nearly 10 minutes it has no real climax and dissolution, no real sense of drama.  (It thinks it does, like so much of this album, but it doesn't, and I remember at the time feeling let down by this.)  

Sunday, 2 August 2015

PRINCE: Batman - Motion Picture Soundtrack

(#390: 1 July 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: The Future/Electric Chair/The Arms Of Orion/Partyman/Vicki Waiting/Trust/Lemon Crush/Scandalous/Batdance

First of all, Batman was about the money. Warner Brothers owned and distributed the movie; Prince, then a Warners recording artist with critical acclaim increasing in inverse proportion to his record sales, owed them an album in his contract; and Warners wanted hits for multimedia cross-promotion purposes. So Prince was prevailed upon to provide a soundtrack of songs for the film, with the catch that he had to sign over all publishing rights for these songs to Warners; if you’re idly looking at a Prince best-of compilation and wondering why “Batdance” or “Partyman” is absent, this is the reason. It was really only a step from this to all the slave/symbol/emancipation business of the nineties.

Nevertheless Prince became quite interested in the project, to the point of proposing the enlistment of Michael Jackson to sing the ballads, while he himself would sing the fast, funky ones, although in the end nothing came of this. Hence he voices the songs under the banner of different characters; “Lemon Crush,” for instance, has him voicing Vicki Vale, whereas on “Partyman” and “Trust” he is The Joker.

Recording sessions were relatively quick for him; six weeks from early February to mid-March of 1989, with the use of three previously existing songs, “Scandalous” (co-written with his father), “Electric Chair” and “Vicki Waiting” (originally entitled “Anna Waiting” in honour of his then partner Anna Garcia). But the album was a success - his first Billboard number one since Around The World In A Day – while in both the States and Britain, “Batdance” became his biggest hit single in years. To date, worldwide sales of the album exceed eleven million. It was like another Purple Rain, which was exactly what Warners had wanted.

Critically, however, the Batman soundtrack marks the point where many Prince diehards  got off the bus. It received decent, if not outstanding, reviews at the time but was perceived by some as a sellout, the end of his imperial phase.

I actually wonder how many of these people blindly filed the record away as a flop without really listening to it. For this ranks with The Black Album as Prince’s darkest and most difficult work of the entire decade. Indeed, listening to the hyperactive-to-the-point-of-asthma funk of “Partyman” or the desperate sensualities of “Lemon Crush,” it is clear that Prince took the intentionally utilitarian funk and fury of The Black Album and brought them out into – a new darkness. Time and again the record twists away from the listener into the remotest of alcoves – in the case of the scary “Trust,” literally – and avoids easy escape routes. It is as if, fenced in by contractual and ownership requirements, Prince responded with some of his least compromising music: “So they want a soundtrack, huh? Well, let’s see if they like this,” you can imagine him saying.

The only one of these songs which doesn’t work is the boring ballad “The Arms Of Orion,” a Sheena Easton duet which is no “U Got The Look” and takes a very long time to go nowhere interesting. But the opening “The Future” slaps the listener right in the face with its nightmare scenario and jittery, bitonal funk. “Systematic overthrow of the underclass,” he chants over frantic sound effects and speech samples; somewhere in there are also the typically derailing orchestrations of Clare Fischer (taken from a then-unreleased 1986 song entitled “Crystal Ball”) and the voices of Sounds Of Blackness. “It’s just that I’ve seen the future,” sings Prince, three years ahead of Leonard Cohen, “and boy, it’s rough.”

It is as if Prince is already looking a quarter of a century ahead, to a time where, as you all know, we are living in a world where “The Joker” has essentially won, where someone who is prepared to murder a child’s parents, deface a gallery full of paintings and poison the town with toxic balloons is now in charge. In the forties Bruce Wayne and The Joker might have been called George Bailey and Mr Potter.

It is not even as though this was countered by any meaningful fighting back. Batman sends The Joker tumbling to his death at film’s end because he has to, but there is the merest of acknowledgements in Nicholson’s face that this is only the movies, that Gotham City has always been, and always will be, Chinatown.

Not that Batman is a great or even quite good movie. The soundtrack is so strong it virtually demands a better film; “Electric Chair” is hard rock gone wrong, its increasing guitar discordances (“It took my mind out like a G flat major with an E in the bass”) paralleling the keyboard wanderings of “The Future,” while “Vicki Waiting” plays like Bobby Rydell crouching at Pierrot Lunaire across the yard.

The trouble is that Burton knew the old zap-pow camp of the sixties wouldn’t be enough in the late eighties, but hadn’t quite worked out what to replace it with. So, in a direct contrast to Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton’s Wayne/Batman broods in dark corners, mumbles his lines, sometimes makes you forget that he’s there. He’s like a Michael Corleone who never gets out of the lakeside mansion at the end of Godfather 2, content to sit and ponder in slow motion forever as his older brother goes fishing on Lake Tahoe.

Anton Furst’s huge, dark sets are suffocatingly oppressive, in the same way as late-period Kubrick was prone to be – and I’m sure that was the intention, to batter the viewer over the head with darkness. There’s no light, not much humour; this is a Batman without a Robin, what happens when you take the gags away and apply a different kind of gag.

Any light that does shine through the movie comes with Nicholson’s Joker – he got top billing over Keaton and Basinger (functional but no more as Vicki Vale), not to mention the $50 million plus he received in payment and profit and merchandise cuts. Of course, he had been doing little save playing an edition of Jack Nicholson for a decade – The Shining was a side-splitting dead end, he was reasonable if no more in The Postman Always Rings Twice, overrated in Reds, backing into darkened corners in The Border, portraying a brand in Endearment and Eastwick, a little too top-heavy in both Prizzi’s Honor and Heartburn – but Batman is clearly his movie, and its indulgence of Nicholson was fatal. The obvious solution would have been for Keaton to play both hero and villain, but Nicholson was the bigger star and our old friend Jon Peters was co-executive producer.

Nicholson’s Joker is lively but so hammy that it undoes any credibility in relation to understanding how, and why, his character is really a nasty little piece of work. Barzini was the chief villain – if such terms can be used in a relativist sense – in the first Godfather movie but works so much better as an enemy because you hardly see anything of him; he turns up as a guest at Connie’s wedding, then coolly outdoes Vito at the peace summit, stares meaningfully at Michael during Vito’s funeral, and before his operatic death on the courthouse steps we are reminded that he is not quite the suave, urbane fellow he tries so hard to be – he contemptuously flicks away a cigarette butt when leaving the courthouse before carefully moving it to the side with his foot so that it won’t be spotted, and when his men get shot, he turns and runs away in a doomed attempt to save himself.

The character also works so well because he is played so brilliantly by Richard Conte, that veteran of innumerable film noirs. He underplays Barzini, and in his peace summit speech in particular, you do get the feeling that he has a better and more astute grasp of the future than his colleagues, that business (with maybe politics on the side) is the path towards tomorrow. Nonetheless he is responsible for nearly everything bad that happens to the Corleones (and others) during the movie, and he leaves little doubt that he would have done the same to anybody else as is eventually done to him.

But Nicholson overacts, fills the screen even when he’s not on it. It is as if he never really recovered from being Jack Torrance and the film of Batman has a resultant imbalance. Not so Prince’s soundtrack; “Scandalous” is the album’s hidden jewel, one of his great soul ballad performances (up there with “Condition Of The Heart” and “Adore”). Amidst cascading waterfalls of widely and violently varying tonalities – frequently the song sounds on the verge of coming off the rails altogether – Prince’s androgynous vocal (even more so than “If I Was Your Girlfriend”) splinters the sky with its increasing craving for sexual and sensual satisfaction (“2 hell with hesitations! 2 hell with the reasons why!”). Readers would be well advised to seek the album out for this song alone. Such penetrating deep soul is not in the past tense – as even a cursory listen to Tyrese’s recent, and amazing, “Shame” will prove – but “Scandalous” reminds us why we are supposed to think of Prince as a genius.

Thereafter there is nothing left but to tie up the loose ends. I’d forgotten how “Batdance” is one of Prince’s most sheerly entertaining singles, not to mention one of his most avant-garde ones; we begin with an “Uncertain Smile” loop, various dialogue snatches, choruses and a Miles-ish organ ready to decamp to Dark Magus. Both “The Future” and “Electric Chair” are referenced. Then everything slows to a strut for Vicki Vale before speeding up again and culminating in balloon apocalypse. There is no end to the record’s numerous diversions, wrong-footings and swift removal or reversal of expectations. It is as if Prince has succeeded in reintroducing this most solemn of Batmans to the vital concept of camp, the “healing power of laughter” of which this film has apparently not heard.