Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Tracy CHAPMAN: Tracy Chapman


(#368: 2 July 1988, 3 weeks)

Track Listing:  Talkin’ Bout A Revolution/Fast Car/Across The Lines/Behind The Wall/Baby Can I Hold You/Mountains O’ Things/She’s Got Her Ticket/Why?/For My Lover/If Not Now.../For You


“Few of us sufficiently recognise the importance of courage in the life of the imagination, and that it can make us free from fear and open to the fullness of reality.” – Max Harrison, The Wire, December 1986/January 1987


...and so spring has come, I’m still at Ryerson, condolences are given to me without much response on my part – my grief is private, my urges are to experience the new.  The world has blown down a door, a whole wall, and I am spending my time adjusting, ever so slowly, to this new view.  I help to choose the music for the memorial at Sheridan College but don’t attend (just as I didn’t attend my father’s funeral as my mom didn’t go either); I manage, come May, to pass all my courses and move on to the next and final year.  Music means everything and nothing, is either great or terrible, it either somehow touches me or it does not.  My chronology for this year is badly damaged and in this and other posts for ’88 I am not going to write about albums in their “proper” order.  I don’t even recall buying that much in the first half of the year, save for ordering Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father from the NME, which I listened to incessantly, as I did their other tapes from around this time, Indie City 1 & 2.  Instead I was caught, quite unawares, by poetry; the PBS station in Buffalo (channel 17) had shown the original run of Voices & Visions in ’87 and their modest sister station (channel 23) was showing it in reruns in the spring of ’88.  By chance one night (May 12th to be precise) I turned it on and there it was, a whole show about Robert Lowell.  I liked it, and tuned in the following week for a show on someone I didn’t know called Sylvia Plath. 




I don’t think there was another viewer more primed and ready to dive head-first into Plath’s life and work than me, and before long I was reading what I could get and I think I even got a tape or two of her reading her own work as well; this was a life and a language that I could understand.  I suddenly had a new standard in music – poetry – and plainspoken American poetry, at that.  I didn’t regard her extreme and intense life as odd, as being a “half-orphan” (as the government officially regarded me) already made me different from 99.9% of my fellow students at Ryerson.  I felt akin to her, without being much like her – she a Yankee, me a Californian – and I became more open to poetry in general, to the arts, to (big breath here) life itself.  At some point in late May I visited Washington D.C. with my mom to stay with my godmother Genie; and then in June, the Journalist himself visited us in Oakville while staying with his parents on his own little break.  My mom called him, not unkindly afterwards a “roundhead” and he wrote down a bunch of radio shows to listen to in London, and a place to eat that was cheap – we got along fine, and my mom regarded him favourably as she could tell he was not at all the sort of guy who would invite me to some illegal rave somewhere, give me Ecstasy, or anything like that.  He was (and presumably still is) about as square as a broadcaster could be, and thus by early July I got my hostel association membership, booked my room, and looked forward to my visit.  A few days beforehand my mom gave me Plath’s Collected Poems in paperback, and I took it and my Walkman with a copy of Indie Top 20 Vol. 4 and who knows what else – clothing, shoes, Woolite, a pen, a day planner, my Frommer’s Guide etc.  I was ready to meet whatever fate I was going to meet, all the while wishing I had already been in London....


....and here is where my chronology begins to warp.  I know very well Rank was released in the fall of ’88, but it had already happened in 1986; the concert, I mean, in London’s still-not-all-that-fashionable Kilburn area.  The Smiths are dead; long live the The Smiths.  Their end came around the time my father started to lose his memory, started just as that slow catastrophe was starting, and Morrissey’s solo single and then album in the spring of ’88 didn’t move me that much.  He seemed to be forever skirting around something without ever pointing to it, and I already lived somewhere where every day was like Sunday already, though it seemed so impermeable that the idea of a bomb or strange dust was unthinkable, unimaginable.  For me it was as if Morrissey was too come-hither but wasn’t really going anywhere or hithering to an actual solid feeling.   Whereas Rank shows The Smiths at their acme - fierce, playful, digging into the music and being passionate - with Rank there is no holding back.  Morrissey grunts and growls and the words sometimes sound as if he is not just singing but having a violent physical reaction, as if he has been waiting his whole life to do this one thing, and here he is and he is tossed and turned by the music, sad and angry and funny alternately, and there is no encore because there is nothing left to give.  This is the concert I never got to go to, so it’s not nostalgia for me to praise it, even though it might come off that way. 


At the same time, even then it felt like an echo of a previous age, a time when things were different, when I was waiting to see if Ryerson would accept me, when my own writing ambitions were nebulous, before the fall of ‘87/winter of ’88 formed me, more or less, into the young woman I was.  I didn’t have much of an idea about that – my ambition to write – especially as poetry made my language alter, just as learning French had changed my English.  A career in straight-up journalism where I interviewed, shaped a piece, tried to be neutral – was not for me.  I could hardly be neutral about anything.  At best I could be diplomatic, persuasive, but I had no outlet for that, my journal and my mom being the two outlets where I could talk about music (I didn’t write that many letters to the Journalist).  I knew I was too opinionated and naive to write about music just yet, but somehow I didn’t think even too much about that.  (I was wholly inspired by all the fine writing about music I’d encountered and never saw myself as “in opposition” to any of it.)


What with my mind being taken up with packing, getting new dresses, keeping a sharper ear than usual on the UK news, and wondering (besides the few errands my mom sent me on, to do with her craft jewelry business) what I would do when I got there.  I had no idea.  Into such a void all kinds of things can happen, and while I am loathe to write too much about the London I found in the summer of ’88, (which will be discussed in the next piece) I can say that I wasn’t thinking about finding anyone in any way, that I didn’t consider that I would be walking the same streets, taking the same Underground, sweltering in the same heat, as anyone who could at all become important to me, besides the Journalist himself.  I wasn’t even thinking that “Plath had found her guy in the UK, and so would I”  - even as I nestled my copy of her Collected Poems in my bag.  I know that I was intense – moody, you might say – due to grief; impatient, numb to everything at times, feeling everything at full force at all times.  An inner gear had changed.  My aesthetics were changing too, or maybe just being sharpened. 


Thus, The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj is another step back and forth – performed in London before I arrived, and yet not released as an album until October.  It hovers over this trip to London and my time there and after like fog.  Never mind that it is about someone from the Netherlands (my last name is Dutch, more accurately Frisian) coming to London and taking over.  It seems to be about the band itself, about music, about the then Thatcher government – all done live, with Michael Clark’s dancers, the songs just as intense as those on Rank, maybe even moreso?   I never got to see this either, so while those who did enjoyed it  don’t find the music apocalyptic, I do – something is ending here, or starting – hard to tell.  All music sounded final, terminal to me, raw, at least that could break through my scepticism, my need for the direct and actual.  The Fall are as sharp as possible here, the one-two punch of “Big New Prinz” and “Overture From ‘I Am Kurious Oranj’” making the stage-in-my-mind as big and dramatic as possible.  I always liked The Fall before, even when, admittedly, I wasn’t exactly sure what the heck Mark E. Smith was talking about – but here there’s a focus, something of a coherent story, and (to use a word I used back then) it was indeed (as is) a boss album.  The songs suit movement, slow and fast; there is real pathos in “Van Plague?” and sorrow in “Bad News Girl” but the moment it all comes together is their version of “Jerusalem.”  

I have heard joyous/dutiful choirs and crowds sing this before and since, but what can they bring besides the crushing realism of The Fall’s version?  It begins a lot like The Smiths' “The Queen Is Dead” only slower, the bass singing the song, and then the bare bones of the melody – “Da Dum Da Da, Da Dum Dah Dah” – over and over, as Smith more or less recites the poem by Blake (how could I not love this album – it’s got poetry in it!) and then the pause...as Smith talks about slipping on a banana skin and not getting anything from the government and being “very....disappointed.”  As if to say, you people, this is what Blake wanted and you just want (or will settle for) compensation.  “It was the government’s fault” the banana skin was there, he says, but as the music speeds up he gets back to the heart of Blake’s poem – “bring me my bow of burning gold/bring me arrows of desire/ my spear, o clouds unfold”  and then “and though I rest from MENTAL FIGHT/I will not rest until Jerusalem/is built in this greenanpleasantland” – and that phrase returns like an itch that cannot be scratched – “It was the fault...of the government” as the band goes full-tilt, as the many faults of the government seem to –well, to me – parade by.  “Jerusalem!  Jeru..salem” Smith sings in between, the green and pleasant land that is the myth of what some think already exists far away from what Blake is talking about – the “dark satanic mills” being the ugliness of Thatcher’s Britain, as much a mindset as anything directly visible or audible.  To hear a poem/hymn done like this was liberating, enlightening, not so much making something new as taking something old and showing that it wasn’t really all that old, after all.  An event like William of Orange being invited to take over the British throne was a moment for a nation that was struggling to deal the IRA, with the seemingly endless Thatcher government and its policies (including the by-now law of Section 28) and The Fall seized on it and made it make sense to me, a mere visitor.  The unreality of my life – my unwanted but fresh new life – was made more unreal by going to London, and I realize that there is a bigger-than-life quality to this music that must have made up for the grubby realities I was faced with, all the time...

But, again, I must emphasize that even with the Journalist I had no hopes; I wasn’t going to London thinking anything would happen and yet...I read up on I Am Kurious Oranj and where were the live parts of it recorded?....somehow I was being propelled “slowly slowly” as Smith sings in “Cab It Up!” into the future, so slowly there was no way I could suspect it myself. 

Now, I must mention that this next album I bought in London, and no, I don’t know why either, as it had been available where I was since April, but...being so attuned to the UK press and release schedule, I dutifully read the NME interview with Public Enemy in the early summer of ’88 and then got it in London at (I think) a Virgin Megastore, possibly the one on Tottenham Court Road.  (Cue wistful sighs from those who wish any kind of music store was there now.)                    

It wasn’t like I didn’t know them – I had a tape of Yo! Bum Rush The Show after all – but something in me must have sensed that getting It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in London was somehow the right thing to do.  I do not recall the person at the counter giving me any kind of “you don’t look like the kind of person who buys this sort of thing” look.  Maybe I had already given myself away as an American and well of course I would buy this, they’re Americans too, after all.  But then there’s the act of buying an album, and the act of listening to it.  I put it in my Walkman, pressed play, and waited...

...                                                                                                                                                        


....

...somewhere between that pause and the noise, the eager anticipatory noise of the crowd, it is likely that nothing happened.  What I could not know – did not know – for a long time was that I had just crossed over a metaphorical bridge, from there to here, and that from here my future began.  I am going to slow down now and give you (in case you haven’t heard it) the full introduction...
“Hammersmith Odeon, are you ready for the Def Jam Tour?  Let me hear you make some noise!”
(crowd noise, growing, makes obligatory noise)
“In concert for BBC Television tonight and a fresh start to the week (referring directly to his own show, though I didn't know that at the time), let me hear you make some noise for PUBLIC ENEMY!”
Air raid siren starts...
“PEACE!  Armageddon has been in effect - go get a late pass – step.”
Air raid siren continues...
“This time around the revolution will not be televised – step.”
Air raid siren continues ...
“London England...consider yourselves...warned!”
So said Professor Griff in early November of 1987, right there in the city where I walked and sweated and searched in near vain for something to sustain me and it was right there, right there in my Walkman, right as I took a damn break at the yeah-you’d –think-they’d-bring-it-back-now-huh Harrod’s Health bar, where I got my expensive fresh orange juice and sat and looked at the lyrics and credits and could only wonder at what the hell was happening.  I had no time to listen to the radio with this on my hands, and it was just as well, as (from what I gather) hardly anyone actually played anything from it, unless they had to**.  This nice young woman from nowhere had stumbled into the avant garde practically without even trying.  It was not so much a conversion experience as something more intense.  It was as direct as that thirst-quenching juice, but how many loved PE as I did instantly in London?  What else could give me the courage to express myself?  Plath was good, but her example was not one to follow the whole way.  I couldn’t be PE either, obviously, but the freedom the album gives the listener is important, that courage Harrison mentions here, that opens the window and inhales...
...while Simon Reynolds might call this band and album “domineering” I just hear the actual YELP that goes back to Whitman, that rhymes (poetry again!) and samples and is damn close to being jazz at times (“Jazz is the umbrella under which all other musics stand” says Sonny Rollins).  I can only pity the UK music writers who didn’t get that connection, that PE were going back (in spirit if not actuality) to the Last Poets, Miles Davis, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane (more later), Charles Mingus, Max Roach...and with their willingness to make pure noise that makes sense/nonsense, they weren’t that far (for me) from The Fall, even.  Reynolds can talk about hip-hop being “heartless” but what is Chuck D but a big beating heart trying desperately to get something across?  And unlike Morrissey, he actually has a point – he is louder than a bomb.
...if someone had sat down next to me at Harrod’s Health bar and looked over and told me, kindly, that there was someone else also going around London also listening to this and further back, he was actually there at the Hammersmith Odeon (I had no idea, despite having an A-Z, where that was) making the noise Dave Pearce was requesting, well, what could I have thought?  It is just as well this didn’t happen, as how could I have believed it*? 
The heck, I didn’t even know it was Dave Pearce, let alone have a sense of providence that this, this was the key to so much, that after hearing it I wasn’t going to be the same, just as after watching the show on Plath I wasn’t the same.   I was far, far away from the studious music writer who would listen carefully and make notes and so on.  I was immersed, in some kind of new world, a world of both this and The Fall and The Smiths and the Wedding Present (I joked I just wanted to go to London to get a tape of George Best)... a world where so many bullshit notions of being on this side or that side of music wars or theories or God knows what made no sense whatsoever.  Nation of Millions isn’t an album that I can talk about normally, because of the extraordinary way it promised something to me, waking me up with an actual air raid siren, as if only now was something truly remarkable going to happen, but I had to stay awake, alert.

 And the first thing was to find my voice, the voice that had been stifled up in my room, my journal – and the trip to London was the first BIG step in that.  I knew I had to have that voice in order to even deal with the idea of that other person, let alone the actual other person...I was too much of a mess to even deal with myself most days, let alone meet anyone important, and getting to know this music was the main thing, beyond the basic necessities of life...it’s not an easy-going album, but then I wasn’t really an easy-going person.  The rhetoric of Chuck D was something I enjoyed as sheer language and message, and I didn’t regard hip hop as “paranoid schizophrenic” – which is Reynolds’ idea of the male ego at its extreme. What if your song was on the radio and then the DJ said “I promise you, no more music from the suckers”?  PE aren’t so much paranoid (I’ve always heard “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” as being about emancipating yourself from mental slavery, as Marley sang) as assertive, telling their side of the story, because not everyone in the music/media world liked them, or would even talk to them, and if a prominent DJ called them suckers repeatedly on the air, well, what to do, how to respond?  I was quickly learning that as much as I liked reading the UK music press, there was something amiss in it; too much wafting away on this theory or that, not enough solid consideration of where this music, literally and figuratively, was coming from***.

The sheer density of the songs ("Night Of The Living Bassheads" being my best example) meant that the still-used-by-some-broadcasters term "talking over records" is just plain wrong.  It's more a sound collage, with the records, as such, doing the talking as much as Chuck D or Flavor Flav.  That they sample themselves from their first album just shows how they are beginning with themselves to set up a whole new way of thinking about and creating music - this is a loud album and was recorded with the sound needles going over into the red (usually something no producer would do, but this is rap with a rock attitude).  The folks at Def Jam, Rick Rubin included, weren't allowed in the studio, and had to trust Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad knew what they were doing, which of course they did. 
One last thing - when Chuck D mentions John Coltrane in "Don't Believe The Hype" (I can only wonder what Alice Coltrane made of this) he says "writers treat me like Coltrane, insane/yes to them but to me we're a different kind/we're brothers of the same mind, unblind/caught in the middle and not surrendering."  I will be talking a lot more about John Coltrane and his supposed insanity in future TPL posts, but it's nice for Chuck D to note that before there was hip hop offending and confounding writers, there was jazz - not just anything, but something called "The New Thing" (a term that came from either Impulse! Records or LeRoi Jones).  Hip hop was the new thing now, and not everyone was ready, willing or even able to understand it.  But it made perfect sense to me, as I walked the streets of London..."Mandela, cell dweller, Thatcher you can tell her make way for the prophets of rage..."
Oh, I could go on about It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back - a title that Chuck D noticed a Toronto paper used as a headline for an article about his band, a line from "Raise The Roof" - you see how self-contained and yet somehow expansive this album is?  Okay.... 
By the time I got to London, Tracy Chapman was on the cover of Melody Maker (I think) and had become famous overnight for her appearance at the Mandela concert in mid-June; in a few months time (late September) I would see her as part of the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour in Toronto.  I was so preoccupied by Indie Top 20 Vol. 4 and Public Enemy at the time that I didn't get her album, but many did, and it is an interesting counterpoint to PE in that it's a solo female voice here, a young Tufts graduate who busked and wrote songs and didn't think she'd get a record deal, let alone one with Elektra, was a hit.  Why?  Were people a bit tired of the Reaganrock around them and wanted something simple and sincere and direct?  Well, yes; and while PE were talking about kind of the same things, Chapman appealed to those who were fans of fellow Amnesty tourmates like Sting, Peter Gabriel and especially, I'd guess, Bruce Springsteen. 
"Talkin' Bout A Revolution" is about the impatience of people but also their exhaustion - stuck in the unemployment line, waiting around for something good to happen - the "whisper" that revolution speaks in (the revolution here isn't going to be televised either), The poor are going to take what is theirs; but you better (and she sings this as if you really had better) "run run run run RUN" as revolutions tend to happen and end quickly, so you'd better be ready when it happens where you are.  Hear the whisper once and then do what you need to do. 
"Across The Lines" is about the dividing line between the whites and blacks in a town, and the town riots over the assault on a "little black girl" - boys on both sides get hurt, but most damningly, the girl is nameless but the town calms down collectively by deciding that "she's the one to blame."  This may sound like a protest album from the 60s (I'm guessing this is what Elektra wanted) but already the tone is different, somehow...

"Behind The Wall" is a good example of this - an acapella ("rock the acapella G" as Flavor Flav puts it) about a husband abusing his wife - "domestic affairs" that the police say they can't do much about.  Chapman hears and is an audio witness, but will she call the pollce anyway?  More screaming, and then an ambulance; and then the police try to keep the peace, but not before.  The song is stark, uncomfortable, and challenges you to wonder what you would do.  Also, did "911 Is A Joke" come from this?  What do you think?
"Baby Can I Hold You" is by far the most conventional song here (later covered by Neil Diamond and by Boyzone), in that it's one of romantic yearning, yearning for words of humility and true love - trust me, love means always having to say you are sorry, to ask to be forgiven, to profess that love again and again.  The Other here has yet to learn this and you have to wonder at the patience of the narrator, who has had to put up with this for a long time, and has to sing this song to tell the Other to say "baby can I hold you tonight."  It is a kind of bossy song that way, but love does mean being bossy at times, or at least decisive...
"Mountains O' Things" is a cold look at the cycle of wanting, having and then realizing that having things isn't really enough - that by "exploiting other human beings" you have lost your soul - that "mostly you are lonely" as the "good people" who have helped you are just your "stepping stones" and so forth.  The narrator keeps his/her mountain o' things as a literal barrier against his/her enemies, and these things are consolations for having no friends and no soul.  All those status symbols that rock and hip hop people are always going on about?  Traps, says Chapman, even as her narrator thinks that they can actually take these things with them in "a grave that's deep and wide enough." 
"Why?" is a stark song about just why is it that the world is so awful - "Why is a woman not still not safe when she's in her home" echoes "Behind The Wall" - and immediately reminded me of the episode of The Prisoner where a computer explodes once the simple question of "why?" is asked.  Those who know don't speak above that whisper, but Chapman says that once "the blind remove their blinders/and the speechless speak the truth" the reason why will be explained.  Well that's nice you might think, but who are these blind people, these quiet folk?  Again, is this you, the listener? 
"For My Lover" is a study, a profession, of insanity.  You'll do what?  Two weeks in a jail, twenty thousand dollars bail - what the hell is happening here?  Why is the narrator doped and psychoanalyzed?  The narrator seems to know that s/he is crazy, that s/he "follow(s) my heart/And leave my head to ponder" this, and wonders if all these sacrifices are worth it, if doing something/anything "for my lover" is really enough.  "Deep in this love" is where s/he is though, and from that perspective, everything is worth it, including being jailed, possibly even considered by the straight world as crazy.  The craziness of love wears off however, and the narrator is in the difficult place of having to decide whether suffering itself is a requirement of love, or not....
"She's Got Her Ticket" is about a girl who most certainly does know what she wants, and has not one ponderous moment to waste - "too much hatred corruption and greed" have repulsed her, and perhaps this is the girlfriend of the man who wants "mountains o' things" who has her ticket and is going to fly away.  Is she a runaway, a failure, a drop out - again, this is how the straight world sees her, but she is setting her own agenda of escape, of freedom - anything is better than where she is now, and if she has "no roots to keep her strong" then she will have to be a pioneer and make her own.  This is the happiest song on the album, in that the young woman is determined, optimistic, and has the sort of spirit that will see her prosper in her own "place in the sun."
"If Not Now" is a bit Morrissey, in that the song is gently downbeat like a Smiths song, all about how love must be grasped immediately, or else it somehow it's not real or free - that love not claimed in the moment is a denial of life itself.  "We all must live our lives/always thinking/always feeling"....the feelings take over at the end, with "For You" admitting that language itself it not able to express "this feeling inside."  With just her guitar, Chapman sings about how she loses her ability to speak once she looks into her heart, and it's Cordelia's song if it is anyone's, that intense feelings make you "no longer the master of my emotions" and thus the album ends, with literally no words left to say, no way to get across feelings...
I have left "Fast Car" for last as it is the most famous song from this album, and a song that has become a standard of sorts.  It keeps popping up on the UK charts, usually when someone performs it on a tv show like Britain's Got Talent or X Factor, and it's the single that's covered, not the whole song.  The single version of the song shows the ambition of the woman who wants a "ticket to anywhere" and the guy has the car and together she figures they can go places, literally and figuratively; when she's in the car with him, she gets the feeling that she can (the pathos of it) "be someone."  The narrator says she has "nothing to prove" but then hatches a plan - she's going to get a job, save money, and then they can both go get jobs later in the city and prosper, so she can get away from her father (who has been abandoned by her mother; the song suggests she's tired of looking after him and is going to abandon him too).  The single, however, doesn't take us to the crushing end of the song, wherein they do have that house in the suburbs that they want - and kids - and he goes out to the bar with his friends more than he sees her or their children. 

The car isn't the subject here, but her being stuck - at first at home with her father, and now as a working mom in the suburbs who is neglected by her husband, who is told that he can "keep his fast car and keep on driving."  Take it or leave it, this is where ambition and love collide, and the single version leaves you wondering if they will make it out there, and the album version gives the sorry truth that they do, but the fast car is no solution any more, but part of the problem, if anything.  The constant longing to "be someone" is not answered by work, or where you live, or even having a fast car or knowing someone who does, though I suppose those all help; to the person who feels they don't belong, nothing can help (not even the modest mountain o' things the suburban life signifies).  The song "She's Got Her Ticket" shows the woman who is free of such ideas, but the narrator of "Fast Car" wants a normal life and ends up being trapped by it, the slightly despairing melody of the song rising to some happiness with her in the car happy to be intoxicated by its speed, but then the sober reality of her life comes back to her once again...
Towards the end of the 80s there had to be a step back to something realistic, something crossing over from the blues or folk to pop, something connected to the world - something that would bridge the generations, a album of unquestionable goodness that whispers more than anything about how life is and how it could be, and the courage (that word again) necessary to make things change for the better.  It also shows a generational shift, as Chapman is part of the (at this point, not yet named) Generation X; in 1988 she is only 25 and suddenly is a superstar folk singer, her album's lyrics (the one I have here on cd) translated into French, Spanish, German and Italian - so folksingers all over Europe can start singing these songs in their own languages.  (It's nice to see this, and of course the ones in French look most romantic to me ["Pour Mon Amant" et "Pour Toi"] and the Spanish ones look the most revolutionary ["Hablando De Revolucion" y "Por Que?"])  It's a generation that is just starting to express itself, and I would say that it's the women of this generation who have the most to say; it feels awkward to call this a timeless album that could only have gone to the top at around the summer of '88 but so it is.  So much of it deals with problems that are still with us, from greed and violence and racism to the more intimate problems of honesty and realizing that so many things aren't all they are cracked up to be. 
And so I sit, kind of nervous, the night before I fly with my own ticket to London; I know I am not escaping from anything beyond a house that is now all too quiet, on a quiet cul-de-sac on a street where there isn't even a real sidewalk.  I live next to a ravine full of wild creatures, yet can see my old high school from my bedroom window.  I have to go, but have no real idea outside of my Frommer's Guide what to expect.  Big things are going to happen, a whole new world awaits....

.....next on TPL - is music enough?  Is writing about music ever enough?
*If this certain someone had told me later in ’88 that the same person was also in the audience for the concert parts of I Am Kurious Oranj (in Edinburgh in August) I would have had some kind of breakdown.  Who is this person?  It has to be a guy, right?  I mean, the hell?
And yet this is actually true.       
  ** John Peel didn't play any hip hop because he had a problem with its attitude towards women, but I would like to kindly point out that Russell Simmons signed Oran "Juice" Jones to Def Jam and his "The Rain" has to be one of the most mean songs about a woman ever recorded.  Simmons didn't even like PE until they started to sell a lot of albums, which shows you how disliked PE were, even by their own label.  I don't think Peel played "The Rain" either, but my point is all of music has a problem with its attitude towards women, not just hip hop.
***I’ve been quoting from “Hip Hop:  The Minimal Self” In Blissed Out by Simon Reynolds (Serpent’s Tail, 1990). (Sigh, I try not to be in opposition to others, but a young woman’s got to make a stand now and then...)

Friday, 6 March 2015

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Nite Flite





(#367: 4 June 1988, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Shiver (George Benson)/Shake You Down (Gregory Abbott)/Always (Atlantic Starr)/Sweet Love (Anita Baker)/If You Were Here Tonight (Alexander O’Neal)/Almaz (Randy Crawford)/Lovin’ You (Minnie Riperton)/Give Me The Reason (Luther Vandross)/Criticize (Alexander O’Neal)/Weekend Girl (The S.O.S. Band)/So Amazing (Luther Vandross)/How ‘Bout Us (Champaign)/Rock With You (Michael Jackson)/Show Me The Way (Regina Belle)/Secret Lovers (Atlantic Starr)/One More Chance (The Jacksons)

PRELUDE

As I said on Twitter, it isn’t flip-flopping, but coping. No doubt many will be sniffing: a week’s break and you have to make a drama out of everything? You weren’t floored by last Friday’s news like we were, and at that time we really didn’t see any way forward with the blog when bad things were happening elsewhere.

In the intervening week it has become abundantly clear, however, that there isn’t actually a lot that we can practically do at the moment; what’s happening is happening in another far-off country, and there is some room for hope (although such things are always relative). It is probable that there will have to be some travelling, and considerable handling of matters, and so it is more reliable to propose that TPL will in the course of all this be updated rather more fitfully than we would like.

But, as I also said last week, this is by no means the end of the Then Play Long road. Indeed, both Lena and I have been very keen to find ways to keep it going, all of which culminated in a discussion last night which, in conjunction with the final record being played on a radio show (and which itself is the concluding track on entry #371), led or inspired us to want to continue taking the blog forward.

I therefore present the piece which I had begun to write seven days ago before the bad news broke. Please note, however, that Lena will be writing the next two entries, both of which will be long-form and require considerable thought and application, given her first-hand experience of Britain in the summer of 1988. So the ensuing pause will probably be a lot longer, but absolutely worth the wait.

* * * *

It was advertised on television, and although I cannot find the ad in question online, you should take care not to be fooled. A very different proposition from the last CBS-dominant soul compilation album to make number one – what a difference a dozen years make – the target audience, at least in the UK, were young upwardly mobile couples, listening to Robbie Vincent or Tony Blackburn on the radio, and following the instructions to open the freezer door, light up the candles at the dinner table, and so on.

Given that CBS were also responsible for distributing the Def Jam catalogue at that time, you could also maintain that Nite Flite is defined by what it omits; one possible alternate title could be Don’t Worry, This Is Not Public Enemy. And I have to say that there are times, and indeed an initial impression, which suggest imminent immersion in Radio 2/Ford Cortina (or Mondeo)/furry dice/bedroom CD player in luxury Docklands apartment land. “Shiver” sees Benson taking his thing about as far as it could commercially go, while “Shake You Down” is utilitarian flatpack R&B, carefully designed to stimulate its intended target, although I cannot imagine that telling a woman that you want to shake her down, in 1986 let alone now, would not provoke a response involving a can of Mace (I think of its late 1986 chartmate “The Rain” by Oran “Juice” Jones, which latter, of course, does not make an appearance here). Atlantic Starr, represented here by two hits from two different albums, are much too smooth and untroubled for my palate (even though the lyric of “Secret Lovers” is deeply troubled). Nor does Regina Belle make much of an impression (it is not a Peter Frampton cover, and the parent album All By Myself was a minor hit here, but that was all). Meanwhile, “How ‘Bout Us,” though dating from 1981, was originally recorded by Champaign in 1975, and sounds it; the last dance before the disco is closed forever.

The music included on the rest of the record, however, is music that is very close to my own heart, and moreover is music which goes some way towards subverting the picture of sham elegance which its packaging might suggest. I have always thought, for instance, that the unsullied glide of Anita Baker’s voice is a gift which would lend itself well, and maybe even startlingly, to unexpected other environments – I am very surprised that 4AD never enlisted her for any This Mortal Coil project – and “Sweet Love,” a song so strong that Courtney Pine covered it in the way Coltrane covered “My Favourite Things,” typifies the hurting elegance of Rapture, the NME critics’ choice for second-best album of 1986; a slow-motion study of a patiently blossoming passion which didn’t need to shout its truth at its listeners. “You Bring Me Joy,” “Caught Up In The Rapture,” “Same Ole Love,” and even the unjustly forgotten Rod Temperton ballad “Mystery” – all very fine (Janet’s Control, third in that same NME poll, could be said to act as a darker, dirtier, lustier flipside of the same coin).

And this was also the time of Jam and Lewis, as producers and song constructors, represented here by three tracks; “If You Were Here Tonight” was actually written by the duo’s Time colleague Monte Moir, but O’Neal gives a splendid performance, the crux of which is his slowly ascending semitone in the second syllable of the second chorus’ “tonight” like a reluctant rebel stepping back from the gallows. But “Criticize” and “Weekend Girl” are superlative Jam and Lewis records, both of which interestingly turn on extended dialogues between lead and backing singers; the girls heard on the choruses of “Criticize” are arguing back with O’Neal’s disgruntlement, although the song’s deeper subtext – don’t you EVER call me a sellout, whitey – is as profound as ever (and I cannot think of another American pop song which uses the expression “fed up,” let alone mean it so pointedly as O’Neal does). The semi-random organ runs which decorate the multiple crescendi of “Weekend Girl” articulate the unspoken or unspeakable desire of the song’s subject.

There was also “Almaz,” a late return to the charts for Randy Crawford; I first heard it on the radio in early 1987, laid up with ‘flu and surrounded by records of noisy, confrontational music, but still recognised it as a song of melancholy greatness. Not actually a song about her husband, “Almaz” is about an Ethiopian refugee couple, and their newborn child, who lived next door to the singer (who wrote both music and lyrics herself), and the attendant blend of fear and hope (minor-to-major and back again; “She’s young and tender/But will life bend her?”) arising from their situation. What the song suggests is, if you listen to it, quite radical.

As, structurally speaking, was “Lovin’ You,” the oldest song here, the reluctant fourth single from 1974’s Perfect Angel, drawing a line between what came before (Rotary Connection) and what was to come a lifetime later (The Orb). A simple 1967-type song in many ways; producer Stevie Wonder liked the background birdsong so kept it going throughout the entire record, and there is little else save electric piano and a lost nightingale of a voice. Would such a record even have a sniff at the Top 100 now, let alone sprint to number two? And that’s saying nothing about the accidental poignancy of “Stay with we while we grow old” being sung by somebody who never got to grow old; mainly because it was a number two hit, and will therefore be covered more fully in the other place.

No arguments either with Luther Vandross, albeit with two songs from two different albums (like Alexander O’Neal); Marcus Miller’s productions and arrangements are so skilfully deserted, like a sunny, newly depopulated island with a hidden landing strip, that they would have done the Miles of Tutu proud (although the cosmic sofa-surfing of 1985’s “The Other Side Of The World” remains Vandross’ great ballad performance). There will be plenty of chances to catch up with “Rock With You” later in TPL; for now, it’s enough to wonder just how perfect a pop record this is, insofar as there is nothing wrong with it at all, right down to the spaces and the “Popcorn” single-note keyboard solo and the chord changes.

But Michael’s is just one of several voices – though one of the more prominent, there in the background – on the closing “One More Chance,” this record’s curveball and you might have to scratch your head a little to remember from which Jacksons album this came. Actually it comes from maybe the least heralded album of their career, 1984’s Victory, and is written and lead-sung by Randy Jackson. It is such a magnificent ballad performance that it shames the terrible singles that were taken from the record. He knows he’s been wrong, with her and with and to himself, and now he waits in limbo, pleading, his diminishing cries of “Say you love me…say you love me…I want you to say it…say it…” emanating from the bottom of an unreachable well. Marti Pellow is nowhere in the running. And so this “comforting” compilation ends on a discomforting note, the night now encroaching rather than enriching. Where the hell do we go from here?

Friday, 27 February 2015

SUSPENDED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE

I suspected that the rush of new posts over the last week or so was too good to be true, and so it has proved. There has been some very bad family news this morning; I'm not going to go into the details here, but suffice to say that it is bad enough to warrant suspension of this blog until further notice. There's no point in either of us writing about old albums here if we're upset, and so until such time as matters are sorted out it is best that we take a break. There's far too much to do as it is.

Please note that this does not mark the end of Then Play Long; it is my hope, and I know also Lena's hope, that we can return to this blog at some point. However, it would be bogus and hypocritical to do any more writing here at this stage under the pretence that everything is going well. When there are new updates we will announce them on Twitter, so please keep an eye on the blog for now and don't take it off your bloglist.

Many thanks to the many readers, regular and new, who have helped sustain this blog since August 2008. We will be back - but right now we don't know when.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

PRINCE: Lovesexy





(#366: 21 May 1988, 1 week)

Track listing: Eye No/Alphabet St./Glam Slam/Anna Stesia/Dance On/Lovesexy/When 2 R In Love/I Wish U Heaven/Positivity

(Author’s Note: The first song is listed with an “eye” symbol in its title rather than the word “eye.” Also, I only have so much time on this planet.)

Getting to Prince this late is a bit like Bowie’s first number one album being Lodger, except that Bowie hadn’t suddenly withdrawn a “darker” record before releasing the latter. The elaborately rude whiteness of the Jean Baptiste Mondino cover shot contrasts, as I am sure it was meant to do, with the eternal night of The Black Album, which was supposed to sneak out just before Christmas 1987 but was pulled by its creator in apparent distress.

Actually, withdrawing The Black Album was the best thing that he could have done with it, since the record is more embarrassing than shocking. “Dead On It”’s jibes at hip hop are on a par with Stan Freberg’s “Old Payola Roll Blues” and carried the risk of making Prince suddenly seem very old-fashioned. The best thing about “Cindy C.” is Steve “Silk” Hurley’s closing reference to the two-year-old “Music Is The Key.” “Bob George” is no more than moderately disturbing. “Superfunkycalifragisexy” is none of these. The album eventually slunk out as an official release in November 1994, to a world newly aware of Snoop and Biggie who reacted to it with near-total indifference.

Whereas Lovesexy was his last lascivious flourish whose invention sends its immediate TPL predecessors to another planet. “Eye No” is perhaps the record’s most conventional song (the whole was initially intended as a continuous 44:58 sequence of music), ushering us in via a Radiophonic Workshop sample (“Passing Clouds” by Roger Limb if you must know) and the quiet voice of Ingrid Chavez, the future wife of David Sylvian, intoning “Welcome to the New Power Generation” and other things. This all resolves into an agreeable, but no more than agreeable, funk jam, the likes of which would become progressively less agreeable as they became the mainstay of Prince’s subsequent and quite overextended output.

The tune leads directly to “Alphabet St.,” his last great single (as Marc Bolan would have recognised “great singles”), although the car engine-starting effects, out of “Close (To The Edit),” suggest that Prince was already beginning to follow other people’s ideas rather than blaze a trail of his own. Cat Glover’s excitable rap is fun but takes the song far beyond its natural end.

“Glam Slam” suggests somewhere Bolan might have ended up had he lived, although the keyboard work in particular (the Fairlight takes the place of any string sections) seems more indebted to Miles’ semi-random organ blasts throughout Get Up With It. The song is immaculately constructed but gradually veers away from comfort and tonality, culminating in a pointillistic free Fairlight cadenza which slowly runs out of steam.

But “Anna Stesia,” the record’s best song, sets out the record’s central battleground, between good (Camille) and evil (Spooky Electric – who said Iron Maiden?), most effectively and movingly. Rising from, and finally returning to, the same eight-chord piano motif (see also “At Last I Am Free”), the song builds up from troubled lonesome-soul ballad to handclapping redemption; well, if I want to hear people singing “Love is God, God is Love,” this would be several galaxies ahead of Erasure’s yahooing.

Side two is as dense and confrontational, as in daring the listener to keep up, as the second side of On The Corner. “Dance On”’s funk is progressively derailed by a skittering, randomly-stopping-and-starting rhythm which I am sure must have been an influence on early drum n’ bass. The title song takes the gender-swapping template of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and runs with it, Prince and Cat’s voices being varisped up and down a silver curtain rack of ecstasy. Even the two ballads aren’t straightforward; “When 2 R In Love,” the only song to survive from The Black Album, is sweet enough until you notice that Achilles’ heel of a catch in the bassline, and indeed the song turns on that dime of harmonic indeterminacy. Likewise, “I Wish U Heaven” is more a mantra echoing the distant memories of a love song than the thing itself; along with the segueing and studio chatter, the whole album gives the air of an eighties Something/Anything?

Both side and record close with the darkest of these nine songs: “Positivity” is advised more as a warning than a way forward, dispensing happiness like a blithely-spirited pharmacist before picking up on a couple of strands originating from Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” blowing them up and rubbing them in the listener’s face; the harmonic ambiguity of the song combines with the words to suggest that all of this might just be in vain.

Overall, then, Lovesexy is the last dazzle of light before the bulb burns out completely (although it is far from Prince’s last number one album). I don’t buy what he says, either here or on The Black Album, but the least that can be said is that this music would still stand up as a lugubrious appendix to Black Messiah.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

ERASURE: The Innocents





(#365: 30 April 1988, 1 week; 14 January 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: A Little Respect/Ship Of Fools/Phantom Bride/Chains Of Love/Hallowed Ground/Sixty-Five Thousand/Heart Of Stone/Yahoo!/Imagination/Witch In The Ditch/Weight Of The World

(Author’s Note: both the cassette and CD editions included two additional songs; “When I Needed You (Melancholic Mix)” and “River Deep, Mountain High (Private Dance Mix).”)

This is the first of five number ones by Erasure, and I have to say almost immediately that there may be a problem. In the early days of I Love Music, somebody – I think it was Dave Q – described the duo as being “scarier than Depeche Mode and catchier than the Pet Shop Boys but sadly not vice versa.” Many people consider Erasure the acme of eighties electropop. I suppose your favourite sixties group might have been the Hollies if you hadn’t heard much else.

The Innocents was their third album, and the first that did anything in the States, and I don’t really get it at all. On a purely melodic basis, the first five or so songs work quite brilliantly – the hits here are definitely frontloaded. There is an appealing sunset poignancy to the bridge of “Chains Of Love” (a sort of Somerfield/Gateway “Being Boring”) and in some of the changes in “Hallowed Ground,” but already I note Andy Bell’s lyrical tendency to begin telling a story and then repeat the beginning and middle over and over without ever coming to a conclusion. If “Hallowed Ground” is meant to be a New Pop “In The Ghetto” then this matters. What actually happens with the girl and boy in “Phantom Bride” we are never told.

It is all very agreeable, if unchallenging, listening until the instrumental sixth track turns up, sounding like the theme from a failed daytime television chat show or ‘phone-in. Thereafter we are presented with a plethora of B-sides, songs so dull that I forgot them even while I was listening to them. Unlike Alison Moyet, Bell’s words are so meticulously coded – or only semi-developed – that it’s impossible to grasp the essence of what he is trying to communicate or to empathise with him. “Yahoo!” takes us to church, rather questionably, and both that and the two songs which follow it include lyrics worthy of Iron Maiden (“Heart Of Stone” warns against looking in the “eyes of Medusa”).

Eventually the album tails off in an uninteresting aesthetic backwater. Do these songs constitute a kind of protest, an ironic methodology? Possibly the saddest answer to that question is that I stopped caring enough to wonder whether or not they did. Stephen Hague produces a bright lido filled with ripples of blankness, but really anybody could have done the job. The record has to date sold over five million worldwide and remains their most commercially successful album. My suspicion is that this is Alan Partridge’s idea of electropop, something that sounds nice in the car but falls apart when you pay closer attention to it. In comparison, thirty seconds of Actually made me wonder why they even bothered. Bell does a decent Gahan/Gore impression on “Ship Of Fools” but given that Depeche Mode themselves were at this point capable of things like “Behind The Wheel” and “Never Let Me Down Again” it sounds as though the duo turn away from the song’s wider implications. Yes, I know that it was music like this that paid for You Must Be Certain Of The Devil and Tender Prey. But there is a huge brick wall standing between Erasure and my appreciation of their music, and I’m not sure which of us built it.

Monday, 23 February 2015

IRON MAIDEN: Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son





(#364: 23 April 1988, 1 week)

Track listing: Moonchild/Infinite Dreams/Can I Play With Madness/The Evil That Men Do/Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son/The Prophecy/The Clairvoyant/Only The Good Die Young

Hip music writers did their damnedest to “rehabilitate” rock music in 1988 but Iron Maiden was a theoretical bridge too far for them. What could have been less “hip” in 1988 than a forty-one-minute prog-metal song cycle loosely based on the writings of Aleister Crowley and Orson Scott Card? Even sympathetic ears recoiled in horror at the presence of synthesisers and damned the project as “too European.” Others cried sellout.

Actually Seventh Son was Iron Maiden’s biggest album in six years because it was also their most focused album since The Number Of The Beast. Besides which, I’m always sympathetic to any musicians who paraphrase Vivian Stanshall (“Moonchild”’s “And the mandrake screamed”), while “Can I Play With Madness” and “The Evil That Men Do” saw the band finally attend to putting together something called a pop song.

It isn’t my universe at all, but holds together pretty coherently and is performed with casual expertise (same line-up as Beast but with Nicko McBrain at the drums). The epic setpieces. “Moonchild” and the title song, proceed patiently through many styles and approaches (the Jean-Claude Vannier-esque choral interlude in “Seventh Son” is entrancing, and the same song demonstrates an equally instinctive understanding of loud and soft contrasts as anything Steve Albini was recording at the time) and I wonder how lauded these pieces would have been had, say, Saint Vitus or Blind Idiot God put them out on SST (Maiden’s “Moonchild” knocks Fields of the Nephilim’s “Moonchild” into the cockiest of hats). “Infinite Dreams” in a different setting with a different singer would be a deep soul classic. And as for the dreaded synthesisers, these seem to be mainly one-note string synthesiser lines played as an adjacent to, rather than being the centre of, these songs; it is hardly Rick Wakeman time.

Bruce Dickinson brings all the record’s diverging strands – fortune telling, spirit mediums, second sight, apocalypse, saviourhood, resurrection - together with a mournful-cum-outraged delivery which puts him squarely in the tradition of Arthur Brown (as the flaming colander atop Eddie’s head on the cover makes explicit) and it’s sad that this piece should coincide with the news of his recently diagnosed (but apparently, and happily, successfully treated) tongue cancer – get well soon, Bruce! As would be expected with Maiden at their best, this music is finally all very silly – and really how sillier is it than, say, So Far, So Good…So What? or …And Justice For All (both in themselves very fine albums)? - but done with the gravest of seriousness. I don’t remember it being reviewed at all in Melody Maker or NME, but it has lasted a good deal better than some of the things that were reviewed in either.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now That's What I Call Music 11





(#363: 2 April 1988, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Always On My Mind (Pet Shop Boys)/Heaven Is A Place On Earth (Belinda Carlisle)/Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car (Billy Ocean)/Say It Again (Jermaine Stewart)/Gimme Hope Jo’anna (Eddy Grant)/C’mon Everybody (Eddie Cochran)/Suedehead (Morrissey)/Candle In The Wind (Live) (Elton John)/Angel Eyes (Home & Away) (Wet Wet Wet)/Turn Back The Clock (Johnny Hates Jazz)/Valentine (T’Pau)/Hot In The City (Billy Idol)/Mandinka (Sinéad O’Connor)/Tower Of Strength (The Mission)/Give Me All Your Love (Whitesnake)/I Should Be So Lucky (Kylie Minogue)/That’s The Way It Is (Mel & Kim)/Come Into My Life (Joyce Sims)/Who Found Who (Jellybean featuring Elisa Fiorillo)/I Can’t Help It (Bananarama)/Oh L’Amour (Dollar)/Joe Le Taxi (Vanessa Paradis)/Stutter Rap (No Sleep ‘Til Bedtime) (Morris Minor and The Majors)/Beat Dis (Bomb The Bass)/Doctorin The House (Coldcut featuring Yazz and The Plastic Population)/House Arrest (Krush)/The Jack That House Built (Jack ‘N Chill)/Rok Da House (Beatmasters featuring The Cookie Crew)/I’m (sic) Tired Of Getting Pushed Around (Two Men, A Drum Machine And A Trumpet)/Rise To The Occasion (Climie Fisher)

For many years I imagined this to be one of my favourite Now volumes; I remember being thrilled by the cover’s soaring skyscraper reflecting the sun breaking through the clouds when I bought it, and by what the records (or in my case, Walkman-friendly cassettes, which I again used for this piece – their condition, after almost three decades, is really not bad at all) contained. Having now listened to it again, I’d still propose that side four, which constitutes the last seven songs in the above list, is among the greatest individual sides of music addressed in this tale. I’m not at all sure about the rest. However, its story is a far less complex one than that of its predecessor, mainly because it is outlining the processes of a straightforward but game-changing story.

The record’s story is of how pop music got taken over by, or changed hands with, that anxious thing called House music which had been busy knocking on its door for the previous eighteen months or so. The music that it contains goes back as far as a further three decades, yet it contains pop records which would have been unimaginable even in 1985 – a new pop which, it has to be said, mainstream radio and television did its best to ignore and overlook while it was happening, in the hope that the old order – as dully represented in most of the record’s first half – would, or could, reassert itself. I have to qualify that by saying that, although Radio 1 and co. appeared still to be stuck in a permanent 1965 (with listeners who remembered Caroline, Radio London and the Light Programme in 1965), the situation was very different in London, with not only innumerable pop-up pirate stations – the DTI-baiting politics of the “keep this frequency clear” soundbite used in “Beat Dis” essentially acted as a call to arms – but also commercial radio getting and staying with the game; I well remember Chris Tarrant, of all people, playing things like “House Arrest” and “Doctorin The House” on his Capital Radio breakfast show and approving of them.

There is also a circularity to the story that Now 11 tells that I find appealing, in that it starts and ends with old (or old-ish) songs presented to the listener in a new way.

Pet Shop Boys

Maybe the truest version of the song was the quiet, shattered dignity of Willie Nelson's acoustic reading, one of the legions of great singles released in 1982 but seldom acknowledged as such (except in Scotland, where it was a big hit). Elvis sang it like a brute belatedly tamed, probing into his deepest, least hardened arteries to discover the core of tenderness which would still justify his asking "Love Me Tender" in Vegas, and as with most of his later work was interpreted as simply another chapter of signifiers in his dysfunctional descent.

The Pet Shop Boys were asked to participate in an ITV special in the summer of 1987 called Love Me Tender to mark the tenth anniversary of Presley's death. They settled for "Always On My Mind" with the declared intent of making it sound as little like Elvis as possible. On the programme they came across as a wiser and disillusioned Flanagan and Allen, mournfully bearing haversacks as they proceeded slowly down a back-projected railway track. As a performance it was as decidedly at odds with most of the others featured in that programme, as the duo themselves were defiantly at odds with the suffocating blandness of the upper reaches of 1987 chart pop. It elicited a massive response, and though initially reluctant to release it as a single, they went back into the studio with Julian Mendelsohn and recorded a full version; too late to appear on the Actually album (though it was added to later pressings), it was rush-released at year's end and became the best Christmas number one since "Don't You Want Me?"

In 1987 the Pet Shop Boys ruled pop - even if, other than New Order, the Smiths (defunct by year's end) and SAW at their best, there was so little competition. The ingenuity, originality and genuine (not second-guessed from quarter-century-old soul sides) honesty of their work was enough to make most other mainstream pop in 1987 feel ashamed to call itself pop (particularly most of its protagonists didn't really want to be pop but soul, or at least pub rock).

And "Always On My Mind" follows the tried and tested Hi-NRG template of delivering ballads at ballad tempo while the rhythm exultantly rushes along at double speed, but the Pet Shop Boys do it with exceptional élan, complete with the triple tease of the delayed intro. Neil Tennant delivers the song in the persona of someone who knows he's a bit of a shit (whereas Elvis simply sounds bemused and confused) but still needs that love, that company - he walks the sardonic/vulnerable tightrope with enviable skill, dropping down his "my mind" with the ingenious altered chord changes in the second half of the chorus as though challenging you to guess whether he has a mind, as such. As with Bernard Sumner, Tennant's "soul" is latent and inherent in his vocal uncertainty; unable and indeed unwilling to emulate the howls, screams and other "soulcialist" memes deemed necessary to signify Soul Passion And Honesty (and predictably the Pet Shop Boys turned out to be more genuinely socialist than most of the "real" acts of the time), Tennant’s vocal style verges on the deadpan but never less than tactile and, when he needs to be, is extremely moving (the record makes more sense if you imagine Tennant singing it as a folk song, as if it were still 1970 and he was still in the folk band Dust).

But the little addendum incorporated into the final, most minute seconds of the record's fadeout is one of the most chilling endings to any pop single; Tennant, strolling out of sight at the far end of the horizon, turning back briefly and saying, "Maybe I didn't love you." It is the portrait of the thrusting Thatcherkid so busy greedily sizing up his bonuses and stuffing himself with cold trinkets signifying nothing that not only didn't he have the time to say and do all those "little things," but indeed that he viewed the concept of "little things" with near-inexpressible contempt. Five years later, burned out in his bedsit, he suddenly wonders when the sun stopped shining in those now lonely, lonely times.

Belinda Carlisle

In 1988 Britain it was not unreasonable to wonder what the hell had happened to Belinda Carlisle. Gone were the Hollywood blonde bob and the punk attitude, in came a straight auburn hairstyle, corporate gloss and a lot of babbling bullshit about how great Reagan was (she was, and remains, married to former Reagan aide Morgan Mason). Conspiracy theorists wondered whether there had there been some sort of Stepford Wives scenario where the real Carlisle had been replaced by a dead-eyed robot.

“Heaven,” which you’d be forgiven for thinking was the only record Carlisle ever made if you listened to daytime radio, does not alleviate the issue. It is big, booming, unambiguous Reaganrock, and if Carlisle’s voice sometimes reminds you of someone else (especially when she growls, “Baby I-I…” in the bridges) then co-writer/producer Rick Nowels had indeed previously worked with Stevie Nicks.

My feeling is more that Carlisle found herself in the same dilemma as Morrissey; divested of the group of which she had been such a key component, she is left with what is basically a replica of herself.  It sort of sounds like her, vaguely looks like her…but the spirit which permeated records like Beauty And The Beat and Vacation (or even 1984’s underrated Talk Show) is entirely absent. Not newness, then, but a part of the old problem.

Billy Ocean

In his eximious 1989 volume The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh places this Mutt Lange/Ocean-penned cynical cut-and-paste job at #339 – well up into the list’s top half – but finds no room anywhere for “Good Vibrations.” This may explain why the book was so rapidly remaindered; it’s a reasonably useful guide to doo wop and pre-Beatles pop but after 1963 reminds us that “idiosyncratic” so often translates as “unreliable.” Throwing in references to previous and better pop, including Art of Noise, the Stones, the Beatles and Johnny Burnette, the record does not represent an advance on Lange’s work with AC/DC or even Foreigner but jogs on its smug spot, Reaganrock demanding that it be applauded for breathing. Slap it on the box? There are maybe 100,001 other songs that would be ahead of it in the queue. At a deeply conservative estimate. For car as allegorical myth transforming into actual object of desire, it limps several hundred laps behind “Warm Leatherette” or “Motorslug.” It is also, at 4:44, the longest song on this album.

Jermaine Stewart

Assuming the Jaki Graham role of Now rep reliable, it’s a wonder that something as stillborn as “Say It Again” – a song I’m sure I heard previously in performances by MoR acts – got an audience at all, never mind limped into the top ten while the world around it was changing. The crass advice would have been for Stewart to invest in a hearing aid or obtain an ENT referral for de-waxing under local anaesthetic, but it’s much too late for that now.

Eddy Grant

His last big hit as a performer, though not as a songwriter, and it’s a sprightly and righteous anti-apartheid protest song which, despite the highly questionable lyrical device of personifying an oppressive political regime in the form of a woman, still punches as it is packed, particularly with its references to complicit and/or compliant media (“She even knows how to swing opinion/In every magazine and the journals”) which indicate that the situation now, generally and globally, has sunk below even hopelessness.

Eddie Cochran

Revived for a Levi’s ad, the oldest recording on this album – and, clocking in at 1:55, also the shortest recording to have appeared on any Now album thus far – actually sounds amongst its most radical, or maybe it was penance for not having Sigue Sigue Sputnik on Now 7. Cochran’s most urgent contribution to the development of rock was his sense of juddering minimalism; like Acid House, everything is pared back to bass, drums and voice(s) with an acoustic guitar strum in the middleground. Nor does Cochran waste any time; he and his pals want to party and celebrate now, and if they have to pay for it, either now or in forty years’ time, his gruff laugh of “WHO CARES?” is one of the biggest fuck-you-John-Doe payoffs of any rock record. “C’mon Everybody” still hasn’t dated, but “Suedehead” and the then barely five-and-a-half-year-old “Hot In The City” sound decidedly old-fashioned and marooned, as did Elton in his Mozart get-up – where are we? Sydney? Let’s record a live album. What happened to the applause? To the audience? – singing a fifteen-year-old song about an actress who had been gone a quarter of a century. It was clear that this sort of thing wouldn’t work any more. Who knew what was going to happen, and how an altered version of the same song would come to rule pop less than a decade later, a rule so large and total radio stations dare not play it, and the artist has to wish to revisit it ever again?

Was this what she was listening to in 1988?

Sinéad O’Connor

She first came to my attention as the singer on a 1986 collaboration with The Edge called “Heroine,” taken from a movie entitled Captive, enough so to make me sit up and wonder. And then The Lion And The Cobra happened, about a year later, and I only got around to hearing it after “Mandinka” had entered the charts (my usual post-New Year habit of catching up with things I’d missed in the previous year).

My God, there was something new and frightening here. “Mandinka” – it’s an African tribe from whom Kunta Kinte came in Alex Haley’s Roots (and the practices of the Mandinka tribe fill out the background to, among many other things, the meaning behind Brenda Lee’s “Let’s Jump The Broomstick” – only scratched the surface; why, there’s Marco Pirroni on guitar, here are some very Ant-like percussion pile-ups, and at the front there’s Sinéad sounding like even Patti Smith wouldn’t have sounded in 1987 (“I don’t KNOW NO SHAME!/I FEEL NO PAIN!”), and yet (towards the song’s end) also like Elizabeth Fraser. The album’s big setpiece “Troy” remains inviolable; Enya (an important part of the other end of 1988) turns up reciting the 91st Psalm at the beginning of “Never Get Old,” Leslie Winer not only appears on but also co-writes the closing “Just Call Me Joe.” Ignored in end-of-year critics’ lists which found space for the likes of The Sect and Blyth Power, The Lion And The Cobra was 1987’s most startling debut album, a prolonged scream of beauteous defiance.

The Mission

Ah, Goth, the poor trashy brother of rock music, the one everybody points at and laughs at in the street, the music that nobody will take seriously (even though most of the readers of the Melody Maker, by now far ahead of the NME in setting agendas and pushing the music writing envelope, were avid Goths) – a music responsible for one of the most profound moments on this record.

Those who weren’t around in the late eighties or only dimly remember them might not realise that the process of, shall we say (plenty of writers said it at the time), “rehabilitating” the music of, say, Led Zeppelin or Fleetwood Mac was only a recent practice. Punk/1976 was still regarded as Year Zero, and any trespass beyond that aesthetic Customs gate was tantamount to treason. Zep sample-loving hip hop went some way to breaking down that gate, while Ian Astbury grew his hair and wondered aloud why nobody realised, or wished to realise, how great Zeppelin really were? 1987 was the year when this tendency went overground, specifically with The Cult’s Rubin-produced Electric – don’t worry, we’ll be getting to them, if not for some while – but then there was Jim Steinman’s work on Floodland, and finally The Mission themselves, from the same Leeds streets as, but noticeably less “cool” than, the Age of Chance.

And “Tower Of Strength” was their moment, and maybe Goth’s moment. Explicitly indebted to “Kashmir” to the point of hiring John Paul Jones himself to produce and arrange the strings, Hussey, at the time of recording the father of a newborn daughter, sings a moving song of love and devotion, not just to young Hannah, but also – and this is what really gets me about it – his fans. How many pop or rock stars have sung odes of love to their fans? But here it is, Hussey getting his McCulloch-isms just right, his pained yet ecstatic howls, while the song proceeds like a stately ship behind him. As great a record as Frankie Vaughan’s “Tower Of Strength” and it should have been number one for a month. The Mission bring back devotional rock, and in the process make Whitesnake sound aridly old-fashioned, as though it were still 1972 and power cuts and Maudlin Street.

Whereas “Tower Of Strength” stands for bodhisattva, the forgoing of rock nirvana – for now – to save pop.

Girl In A Sportscar

She was already in the car driving towards the city, even if she wasn't herself driving, in one of two videos made for "I Should Be So Lucky." She is cruising through the bright, yellow city of Melbourne, gleefully giggling her song of unattainable fantasy to camera, mounted on the back seat. In this imagination her adulthood is no complication.

The other, more widely circulated video, however, seemed determined to keep her as the overgrown child star she strenuously didn't want to be. She flips herself around a teenager's boudoir, with crudely chalked "LUV"s and flower stems on a blackboard. "But dreaming's all I do/If only they came true," she sings, another frustrated teenybopper (then already pushing twenty) who knows she'll never get to meet...Rick Astley?

Naughty commentators at the time accused Kylie of not singing on her hit, and assumed that it was a speeded-up Astley; but really there is no doubt that this is Kylie singing; Pete Waterman has confirmed that they had barely forty-five minutes to get the song recorded and mixed, and indeed when she arrived at SAW's Southwark studios directly from Heathrow they professed to have little idea about who she was, or of Neighbours, despite the latter having scored record audiences for the BBC, even in its daytime slot. Perhaps they wanted to deny the concept of Charlene Ramsey, sassy auto mechanic, in favour of...an Australian Mandy Smith? Even notwithstanding this, there is a strong case for arguing that the child in Kylie has never been truly eliminated; rather than being sensually attractive, she has tended to come across as a best mate, an upbeat sister, someone who'd nod sagely at Madonna's grey-green Abbess and carry on munching crisps regardless.

Pace Astley, however, "I Should Be So Lucky" proved that SAW's songwriting skills were far more suited to knowing bubblegum than attempted nu-soul; it bounces with unquenchable confidence and logic, it fizzes with the anti-anatomical ecstasy which comes from the foreknowledge of being yet young and alive, right down to its subtle motivic quotation from "(I've Had) The Time Of My Life" in its brief instrumental break; it senses that a past may have been lost, that a future is attainable (though "I Should Be So Lucky" might still be the lobby to the antechamber leading to her final freedom) but that the present, this early, still wintry 1988, was precious and had to be seized with hands of fervent, fragile grace (her downhill glide of "And I would come a-running," knowing that she doesn't give a damn about Captain Wentworth's bank balance, only that it is so absolutely RIGHT!).

There will be more cities for her car to approach, drive through and exit; some flimsily bright, some blearily dark, gates of gold, suburbs of setbacks, avenue of triumphant comebacks. It will be one of the strangest and most drawn-out stories to be told in Then Play Long, but for now let us preserve in our inner eyes Kylie in her first car, enthusiastic and not yet defeated; and that "I Should Be So Lucky" defies its subject matter, and perhaps even its writers and producers, to bring tactile hope. The world should be so lucky.

Other SAW Productions Available

“That’s The Way It Is” peaked at #10, low by Mel and Kim’s standards, although it was one of their, and SAW’s, best. They did not perform it on television, and were not featured at all in the video. The reason for this was made clear when the duo appeared on Terry Wogan’s show in April of that year; Mel Appleby had been undergoing treatment for spinal cancer and, although she discharged herself from hospital so that she could record her vocals for the song – and, according to Pete Waterman, she had a whale of a time in the studio, totally getting into the record - was too ill to publicise the record in person. So this record was Mel’s farewell and its sentiments, ostensibly about offering comfort to a jilted lover, carry some inevitable, if inadvertent, poignancy. Had Mel been well enough to record it, the duo would have sung on “I’d Rather Jack”; as with their other hits, SAW push that additional button to make it stand out. “I Can’t Help It” is not top-drawer Bananarama or SAW, seeing both singers and producers rather too keen to go for a Mel and Kim thing, and it was indeed their last record to feature Siobhan Fahey (then, like Sinéad, heavily pregnant).

Notice how, from Sinéad to the Cookie Crew, when it comes to making the change in late eighties pop, it’s mostly women who are responsible?

Joyce Sims

An involved yet also detached vocal from Sims on this restless ballad produced rather wonderfully by Curtis Mantronik; for the rap response, see “Love Letter (Dear Tracy)” from Mantronix’s In Full Effect album (what do you mean, you haven’t got the first four Mantronix albums, including the one without MC Tee and with “Got To Have Your Love”? What’s wrong with you?).

Jellybean

A wonderful and by 1988 standards rather old-fashioned disco tune. Sung by future Prince collaborator Elise Fiorillo, then only eighteen, “Who Found Who” is the kind of song I wistfully wish Madonna still had it in her to record (see also Michael Jackson and “I Can’t Help It”).

Dollar

As if to give their blessings to this new pop that was happening, Dollar, absent from the charts and indeed from existence since the end of 1982, briefly returned to prominence with a fine reading of the Erasure song, just to prove they had been right all along. Their 1981-2 Trevor Horn tetralogy of singles stands as one of the strangest and most compelling in all of pop; Bazar’s final downward shiver of “Only ghosts are lovers on the screen” at the end of “Videotheque” is as chilling and free of camp as “Past, Present And Future.”

Vanessa Paradis

Try to imagine anything like this getting anywhere near our Top 100 now, let alone top three (#2 on NME) in 1988. Joe is a taxi driver; like the lawyer Paolo Conte he knows everything that he sees, hears and feels around him, dreams idly of escape but is aware that he will always let the train go. Patrick Bourgoin played all the saxophones, the song bears a grave lightness that sounded new and welcome in its time (and today), and its parent album M&J, and in particular its standout “title track” “Marilyn & John,” must be heard.

“Comedy”

Morris Minor and The Majors was the idea of comedian Tony Hawks – he who later hauled a fridge around Ireland on his back and attempted to write a second hit ten years later which did quite well in Albania – and it remains depressing and a telling indictment of Britain that “Stutter Rap” did better in our charts than any Beastie Boys single (even “Intergalactic” stopped at #5). This is not to say that the record is entirely without merit – the Neighbours theme sample still makes me laugh – and the Beastie impressions aren’t totally useless, but everything falls rigid with the dull, sub-Barron Knights chorus. Yes, Britain, let’s treat this rap thing as a transient laugh while we creep back to our Mr Mister albums, why don’t we?

But side four of Now 11 wipes “Stutter Rap” off the fucking map.

Side Four

Because it was the same with this dance music thing, wasn’t it? Ah, rock and roll; don’t worry, it’ll soon pass and we’ll be back to proper singers and proper songs whose words you can understand.

But what is really remarkable about side four of Now 11 is the colourful nature of its happiness. Like she who left home, it is having fun, something much of the rest of the record seems to have forgotten about. “Beat Dis” would probably sound hopelessly hackneyed to newcomers now – not helped by the legally-required extrication of a sample from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly – but back then it signified the start of something new.

I remember seeing the Bomb the Bass and Coldcut singles as new (12-inch) releases and from their sleeves onward they looked and sounded much more fun than the earnest indie rock that was then being proffered as what was happening. When they burst into the charts the following week – at numbers 5 and 25 respectively – it felt that the battlements had been overthrown.

Why? Because, as with most great pop music, it happened before people became sure of things, when they didn’t quite know what to do with what they’d found, or invented. In Derek Bailey parlance they were good until they thought they were good. And yes, a big part of the attraction of records like “Beat Dis” and “Doctorin The House” was the implication that you and I, with a spare turntable and portable cassette player pause button, could easily have made them. The looping and piling up of samples on “Beat Dis” might sound almost wilfully amateurish to contemporary ears, but the happening-without-your-permission thing was the hook.

These records, and others like them, flooded the charts. Krush, from Nottingham and signed to a Sheffield-based industrial indie label, made the top three (and again #2 on the NME) with an aggressive and languidly threatening record that barely hung together as a “song” at all. The groove was of overriding importance. I know nothing of Jack N’ Chill other than they were two guys named Vlad Naslas and Ed Stratton, but their one (instrumental, save for a percussive Janet Jackson sample) hit is really rather splendid, a fusion of Simple Minds’ “Theme For Great Cities” with Shakatak and Joe Meek, bursting with joy at this great new Fairlight toy that they have and the funny things they can do with it. Respectful of the past but not remotely tied to it.

The Beatmasters begin a brief but distinguished chart career with their hip house being instantly and completely overrun by Clapham’s Cookie Crew (“with a drrrrrrummmmANABASS!”); totally bewitching and compelling (hello Riot Grrl in its own way).  Two Men, A Drum Machine And A Trumpet were Fine Young Cannibals minus Roland Gift and plus a Humphrey Bogart sample and, I think, Graeme Hamilton (who had contributed very similar trumpet playing to “Johnny Come Home” in 1985).

All this culminates in “Rise To The Occasion,” a nice, easy-going pop song such as can be found on either of the first two sides of this collection. But somebody – perhaps producer Stephen Hague – took it upon themselves to take liberties with the song and play about with it in the hope of introducing it to hip hop. And so the original song sounds slightly petrified when put against the up-to-the-minute-end-of-1987 rhythm track and samples, as if old pop is being eaten by the new. If “Pump Up The Volume” had thrown down the initial gauntlet, its influence and infiltration were now total. How right that this record should end with a mix by the man who co-produced its beginning – Julian Mendelsohn – and how fitting that it should choose to walk into the future. Pop hadn’t been this fun in years. It wasn’t going to let even a skyscraper stunt or halt its growth.



Jazz Insects Postscript/Envoi/Aposiosesis

And nothing, not even the rest of side four of Now 11, aims or reaches higher than “Doctorin The House.” Coming from what we might charitably view as the Wire side of affairs, from people who knew only too well what 1987 meant to them and why and how they should keep going, Coldcut came, via the “Beats  ‘N’ Pieces” white label and the “Paid In Full” remix, into the centre of the stage and “Doctorin The House” is outrageous, outspoken, optimistic and optimised. Yazz doesn’t have to do much except sing the title and hum a little abstract line or two, since most of it is left to Coldcut and what I understand were mostly cassette player pause buttons, skippier and slinkier than turntable rhythms. There is a grand and rather regal sadness redolent of William Walton submerged in a suboptimal radio receiver, as comets of snatches and hooks fly by and sometimes circle around like falcons and sometimes pile up on top of each other to interfere and go somewhere beyond NO-TONALITY, not really that far from what Cardew’s AMM had proposed a generation before; that slow-motion ellipse your brain makes when you are witnessing something fast, new and unprecedented but need to slow yourself down in order to make sense of it, confirming that “Planet Rock,” the blood which secretly or not so secretly flows through the veins of all these songs, was The Most Important Record Of The Eighties, zooming in, on and past Casey Kasem (“Oh BOY what a great RECORD!”), Dave Collins (confirming that “Double Barrel” was One Of The Most Important Records Of 1971, and then that great rising organ of scratch, everything blossoming in acidic worship, and then the bells, the BELLS, for this is our 1967 and SAY KIDS WHAT TIME IS IT and it is OUR time and the margins collapse and become the centre and even Simon Bloody Bates (“The Music Maker”) and TWO false endings for some old sixties superhero thing, daring you to take it off, challenging the need to “end” a pop record, and the next one’s going to go to number one and right we’re on.