Wednesday, 18 December 2013

U2: War




 (#276: 12 March 1983, 1 week)

Track listing: Sunday Bloody Sunday/Seconds/New Year’s Day/Like A Song…/Drowning Man/The Refugee/Two Hearts Beat As One/Red Light/Surrender/“40”

The effects of Thriller were immediate – big, unambiguous sounds bearing big, unambiguous (or deeply ambiguous) messages – but with U2 the game plan had been there all along. Buried in the middle of side two of their debut album Boy is a quiet, reflective and rather brief study called “The Ocean.” In it Bono sings: “…I felt like a star/I felt the world could go far/If they listened/To what I said.” He seems to have made making the world listen to him his primary subsequent ambition.

When I first listened to U2’s third album over thirty years ago I, along with many others, experienced a sinking feeling, a great swelling of disappointment. Bombastic, simplistic and hectoring, War seemed a terrible comedown from the radical ways in which the group had once indicated they were going to reshape rock music. The downhill path from Boy – a rock record so musically radical that the loudest instrument on the record was the glockenspiel – to stadium rock crusading, or cheerleading, was a depressing spectacle to witness, though not quite as depressing as the global success that followed rapidly in War’s wake.

It can’t all be blamed on Thriller; after New Pop had gone off the boil somewhat, the trend in the music and style press veered towards “hard.” Musicians now had to show how loud and tough they could be, how long theirs was – the shift from the very deliberate femininity of New Pop back to on-the-nail masculinity was merely the latest demonstration of the misogyny, and possibly also the homophobia, latent in most music writers of the period.

So U2 felt moved to prove they were Men. The cover star of War – Peter Rowen, who had also been the cover star of Boy some twenty-nine months earlier – was still youthful but now scowled, looked both angry and afraid, hands up behind his head as though a gun were being pointed at him. Listening to the record itself was not a dissimilar experience. It gave me a headache and felt like being hit on the head with a rolled-up copy of the Christian Science Monitor for forty-two minutes. All credit to the group for wanting to essay convincing and powerful Christian rock music without the Anita Bryant trappings in an age where it was felt smart to believe in nothing, but I felt that I was trapped in a lecture.

It also convinced me that I really didn’t like Bono very much, and he remains the chief obstacle to my appreciating U2. On nine of the ten songs of War he is perpetually in your face, frantically waving and shrieking (“Wipe your tears away,” “Take my hand,” “Hold on tightly,” “I sing it for you”). He never shuts up and never seems to listen. He is like Chris Evans or The Fast Show’s Colin Hunt, forever sandbagging the hapless listener. But then take Bono out of the equation – as occurs on “Seconds” which is largely sung by The Edge – and you have little more than a proficient Comsat Angels B-side with a few Full Metal Jacket effects sprinkled on (the military drill sample comes from a gruelling 1981 Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill documentary entitled Soldier Girls, about US Army women training in Augusta). So with U2 it’s Bono or nothing, bigness or next week’s Kid Jensen tip for the top.

Listening to War again in the week before Christmas 2013, after some considerable time away from it, I do think that I can understand it more, if not like it much more. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was written by a piqued Edge after an argument with his girlfriend and, like “Theme From Harry’s Game,” is extremely careful not to take sides; premiering the song at a gig in Belfast, Bono told the audience that if they didn’t like it, he wouldn’t sing it ever again, but the song went down a storm.

The version here is different in tone and timbre to the more familiar live take, mainly because of the lividly eerie scrapings of Steve Wickham’s electric violin. The story goes that Wickham, then completely unknown, approached The Edge at a bus stop and asked that he be kept in mind if the band ever needed a violin player. The Edge remembered him and sent for him, and the main purpose of his presence appears to be to detour U2 from becoming another Zeppelin. One could have wondered why the band didn’t go the whole hog and hire Ornette Coleman to play violin on the song, but Wickham’s dislocated squeaks and shudders were compelling enough for Mike Scott to use him again five years later on Fisherman’s Blues (where Wickham is particularly striking; see, for instance, “We Will Not Be Lovers”).

Over this soundtrack Larry Mullen tattoos for Ireland, The Edge thrashes like a newly-stung Steve Jones, and it has to be admitted that Bono performs his vocal with palpable and visceral commitment. But “Seconds” is lumpen rock which its theme of nuclear annihilation does not overcome. The band does better with “New Year’s Day,” a song Bono originally wrote as a love letter to his girlfriend and future wife Alison but then modified to take in and commemorate Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. The basic riff appears to have been adapted from John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 theme tune, but the slow-motion, slightly flattened piano figures make one impatient for the five-year-old Chris Martin to grow up. “I…I will begin again,” sings Bono at one point, as though resuscitating rock and restarting its pulse. Meanwhile, The Edge, who elsewhere proves what a useful and interesting guitarist he is by not soloing, plays a simple but arresting single-sliding-note guitar figure as Clayton and Mullen step the pace up behind him. It is as though anybody could form a rock band, just as the Human League had already suggested that anyone could be in a pop group (and both bands recorded songs entitled “Seconds”).

When the single of “New Year’s Day” made the UK top ten, ahead of the album’s release, Bono commented that the record’s success reflected a feeling of general disillusionment on the part of the music-consuming public. In a chart filled with the likes of “Too Shy,” “Down Under,” “Best Years Of Our Lives” and “Twisting By The Pool,” it is easy to see how something like “New Year’s Day” – and, for that matter, “The Cutter” – would stand out. But its early 1983 release and skilful marketing – a limited edition double 7-inch – perhaps had more of a role to play in its success.

In “Like A Song…” U2 do remember that they might still want to reshape rock music radically, and musically the song does disperse, or dissolve, into many unexpected places; under and around Bono’s agonised, rhetorical lyric – “Is there nothing left?,” “Is honesty what you want?” – the rest of the group, chiefly The Edge, are intent on cutting up “rock” into random slices of sound. All the components of rock are reassembled, and not quite in the “right” order. Meanwhile, on the devotional “Drowning Man,” Bono regularly breaks out of his preacher’s collars for high, desperate vocal flights, as if about to turn into Billy MacKenzie – indeed, the U2 of War seem to exult in taking aspects or tropes from Magazine, the Teardrop Explodes and the Associates (and Joy Division and yes Led Zeppelin and dare I say it the Boomtown Rats) and reassembling them in a globally palatable order.

But on side two’s “The Refugee,” produced by Bill Whelan of future Riverdance fame (Steve Lilllywhite oversaw the rest of the record), we are faced with a huge percussive workout, with playground chants on top, which recalls Adam and the Ants, but this regularly dives into anthemic ambience (again, predicating Coldplay and Keane). I don’t think U2 have ever had a trace of New Pop around them, not even in their Zoo TV phase; they work parallel to New Pop without ever really relinquishing their position in the post-punk lineage. They are intrigued but not overwhelmed by New Pop.

Hence their use of August Darnell’s Coconuts – they arrived in Dublin on tour, hung out with the group and got to sing on two of their songs – on “Surrender” and “Red Light.” The first is a rampaging slip of would-be punk-funk more or less held together by Kenny Fradley (Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ trumpeter) whose solo is inventive and provocative. The second finds the Coconuts suspended in ambient amber, not that far away from Dr Buzzard’s “Sunshower.” In both songs the voices never sound gratuitous or grafted on for the sake of trendiness. They are there because they are needed.

With “Two Hearts Beat As One,” U2 sound intent on beating Simple Minds at their game; Adam Clayton is no Derek Forbes, but The Edge’s “post-rock” guitar does, I reckon, bear a sizeable Charlie Burchill influence. The song sweeps along in fine “I Travel” style (and the often guitar-less, live-sounding soundscape paves the way for “Vertigo” a generation later) and even Bono’s protestations (“I CAN’T! Stop to DANCE! MAYBE! This is my last CHANCE!”) are not too bothersome.

The album comes to a prematurely weary end with an adaptation of Psalm 40, wherein Bono prays to God for salvation and is given at least another chance. Even this promise is not free of threat, however, as he sings: “Many will see/Many will see and fear.” The song eventually turns into a hypnotic going-home roundelay: “How long to sing this song?” – thus tying up nicely with the opener’s “How long must we sing this song?” – and millions believed and willed themselves into a better tomorrow. Or so U2 hoped. Lines 15-16 of the original Psalm – which go: “May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!”/Be appalled at their own shame” – are not retained, nor is most of the original pleading and promise not to conceal God’s love and faithfulness “from the great assembly.” But there was enough of a photocopy of conviction present for people who did believe to feel that they were being saved as fortuitously as rock music.

I am still unsure whether I like War that much – it is an early example of the modern rock habit of sounding committed but never committing itself to any specific cause, a vague, all-embracing Christianity notwithstanding, and its loudness is often detrimental to its overall impact (it really is Larry Mullen's album; his click track-driven whiplashes, even on "Sunday Bloody Sunday," are as violent and unanswerable as David Palmer's drums on Lexicon) – but it is clear from re-listening to it that U2 were still in the very early stages of development and that they subsequently and significantly improved on much of what is present here in relatively embryonic form. In addition, their ineluctable Irishness – for most of the otherwise inexplicable elements of their music can be traced fairly squarely back to the Irish folk tradition – brings to mind another four-piece group who were busy starting up at the time of War’s release; all Mancunians, but all of Irish descent, and on a similar mission to reinvent or recodify “rock,” a band, moreover, that U2 themselves would swiftly acknowledge as both meaningful competitors and a major influence on their own subsequent approach to music – and with a similarly uncompromising and individualistic lead singer and lyricist who would either profoundly beguile or annoy audiences. That War wasn’t really what U2  had initially promised in 1980 – the implications of Boy, in particular its determined quietude, would not really resurface in rock until Slint’s Spiderland – of course probably didn’t matter to the millions of people who had been unaware of them before the white flag was raised towards a reddening sky.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Michael JACKSON: Thriller




(#275: 5 March 1983, 1 week; 19 March 1983, 1 week; 21 May 1983, 5 weeks; 28 January 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’/Baby Be Mine/The Girl Is Mine (with Paul McCartney)/Thriller/Beat It/Billie Jean/Human Nature/P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)/The Lady In My Life

Scenario 1: “OK, guys,” said Quincy Jones to his team as they prepared to record Thriller, “we’re here to save the recording industry!” A recording industry which – at least from an American perspective – had singularly failed to deal with disco and punk and had been superseded by those new-fangled video games. It is true to say that the recording industry had no real idea what to do with disco, and one wonders how many people at the major recording companies had even heard of punk.

Michael Jackson’s disquiet following Off The Wall is therefore understandable. Hadn’t the record at least attempted to break down so many boundaries? But it was almost entirely ignored at the 1980 Grammy Awards; Jackson won Best R&B Vocal Performance (Male) for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” but Record of the Year went to 52nd Street by Billy Joel; “What A Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers won the equivalent single award. In the same year Jackson attempted to get Rolling Stone interested in doing a cover feature on him but was curtly told that black faces on the magazine’s cover meant a drastic reduction in readership numbers.

Putting aside the idea – which remains prevalent – that the judging panels are in the unfortunate habit of giving out Grammys to the kind of records which don’t really get made anymore, displaying deferential adherence to a twisted relationship between art and commerce which I’m not sure they really understand (in 1980, “I Will Survive” won for “Best Disco Recording,” but that award has never been given before or since), it is easy to see why an angry Jackson should consider Off The Wall “not good enough” and wish to top it with a record which nobody could ignore, which had to be played and, more importantly, loved everywhere. Whatever “loved” meant.

Scenario 2: Rod Temperton in his hotel room, thinking of a title for what will be the title track of the new Michael Jackson album. Temperton has freely admitted that he hates writing lyrics, that it’s his least favourite part of songwriting, but he couldn’t quite get this one right. “Starlight”? “Midnight Man”? He fills a notepad with some four hundred possible titles, but none clicks, none has that extra-special factor that will make people take notice. So he sleeps on it and awakens the next morning; a metaphorical ray of light strikes him – of course! “Thriller”! It’s so simple, so directly communicative – and he thinks how everyone will clean up on the merchandise that will follow in its wake.

And so was generated the idea for Thriller, a record that would cut across customs posts of race, creed, sexuality and musical prejudices, an album where every track was a hit, a phenomenon whose notes and looks would be known everywhere from Timbuktu to Vladivostok. An album whose speed and colour could compete with any video game – even if it proved instrumental in dragging popular music down to the level of video games.

Make no mistake; if you were, say, ten years old in 1983, Thriller is likely to be your pop year zero, a beginning of time as definite and irrevocable as Please Please Me a generation before. Many informed commentators happily proceed to assess music today as though Thriller were the original ancestor; anything before it doesn’t really communicate to younger people in the same way, become virtual dinosaurs, the Records That Rocked Like CDs or Downloads. A commenter on I Love Music said the following about my reluctance to continue with Then Play Long:

“I don't feel it as keenly as MC does, because the world of pop that it represents was largely gone, or seen as hugely old-hat, by the time I really started listening. That world isn't mine, what it represents isn't woven through the fabric of my understanding of pop…”

I suspect that this gets truer by the year. But if you accept what pop music has done to us as a direct or indirect result of Thriller, then you have to recognise that Thriller is the line in pop’s sand, and ultimately was disastrous for pop.

After Thriller, it seemed that just being a pop record wasn’t enough. Astute observers will say, well, wasn’t that why the album came along in the first place – because some snobs thought that 78s weren’t enough? And perhaps the story which this blog has tried to tell between 1956-83 is one which can only be regarded in the past tense. It is on the cards that albums will eventually disappear, that people will get back into their original habit of listening to individual songs, that these songs will transcend identity or even their recording and become part of a generalised folklore.

But Thriller represented the firing of the starting, or stopping, pistol. After Thriller, it was taken as read that every pop record had to sound “big,” be an “epic,” appeal to the lost video game generation (broadly: 12-24 years), say yes to some kind of future or worship its own present tense. The market for small, ambiguous, complicated low-budget records – and musicians – began to shrink, such that even in the eighties those bravely still scouring the indie coalface could be accused as pedalling “music for losers.” If you weren’t a winner in the age of Reagan and Thatcher, you simply didn’t count.

Apropos the merchandise, it also became the unquestioned case that after Thriller, pop records no longer really existed as things in themselves; they became merely the most prominent link in the merchandising chain, a chain which would also involve videos, tours, T-shirts, commemoration mugs, profits being diverted away to fund multinational arms companies. The video for “Thriller” which appeared almost exactly a year after the album’s release set this in concrete; how many people could listen to the record alone after seeing Jackson act out what pop had done to him, and by extension was about to do to the rest of us?

So the stage was set for pop music whose entire field of interest and methodology of presentation began and ended in adolescence; shouldn’t adults be going to the cinema, or listening to jazz (although the horrendous mid-eighties “jazz revival,” which jazz itself was lucky to survive, demonstrated that the tentacles of Thriller stretched out as far as, and frequently further than, they needed to have done)?

Given the sphere of inescapable influence that the record has had, it is, however, interesting to note that initially Thriller nearly died a death. Released in November 1982, it was predictably swamped by the Christmas market, and was generally reviewed scathingly. This may in large part have been due to the still bizarre choice of a lead single: “The Girl Is Mine.” It was the first song to be recorded for the album, back in April 1982, and a nervous Epic may have thought that it was a play-safe option.

In the event, it proved to be too safe; although the song reintroduced interracial love rivalry to pop for the first time since West Side Story (let’s leave Catch My Soul out of this for now), it was a bland broth; as McCartney swapped good-natured Radio 2-friendly platitudes with Jackson over a neutralised soundtrack, it was hard to credit that this was the same man responsible for “Penny Lane” and “Helter Skelter.” Observers and fans saw the record as a sellout to whitey; in Britain the single, which was not accompanied by a video, rose in kneejerk fashion from 33 to 9 before people suddenly did a doubletake, say “hold on; what IS this shit?”; the record climbed just one place higher before falling back precipitously and dropping out of the Top 75 altogether after barely two months.

And Thriller, upon its release, was slammed. This was no Off The Wall; gone was the easy charm of “Rock With You,” the dervish intensity of “Don’t Stop.” In their place was – what? A jagged, snarling, paranoid “Don’t Stop” wannabe (startin’ somethin’) clone. And “Baby Be Mine” was nice but no “Rock With You,” not by the longest of chalks. Furthermore, what was it with all those hammy guest stars – Eddie Van Halen? Vincent Price? Had Off The Wall needed any of that?

It was regarded as a major disappointment, and thus its initial commercial progress was relatively muted. It looked set to be the season’s, if not the year’s, if not the decade’s, most expensive flop. Then came the single of “Billie Jean,” and the slow turnaround, and then the video, and then Motown 25, and then suddenly Michael Jackson had clambered, or surfed, onto the top of the whole pop heap, for better or worse (ours and his). The irony about such a superficially unassuming record like Thriller pulling it off is that it was clearly a transitional piece of work; about half the record looks back, warmly and lushly, at the seventies and Off The Wall and is, in that regard, deeply conservative and consolidatory. The other half looks radically and remorselessly at the future, with songs built on rhythm first and melody second, and overall a far more brutal rhythmic tow. All of that other half was based on songs written by Michael Jackson; he also wrote “The Girl Is Mine,” perhaps as a desperate wave back at what he once was, and clearly with McCartney’s “Girlfriend” – which he had performed on Off The Wall – in mind, but on the album sleeve the lyrics to the latter are accompanied by a deeply disturbing drawing by Jackson of McCartney and himself, both grimacing and playing tug of war with a screaming woman caught in mid-air between them; the entire upper half of her head is invisible, such that one cannot tell whether she is horrified by or laughing at the act of being pulled apart (she’s stuck in the middle, and her pain is thunder).

In addition, Jackson’s lyrics were anything but reassuring.  “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is, on its surface, a retread of “Don’t Stop,” but where the latter’s groove grooved, so to speak, fluid and natural, this song’s beats and propulsion are all gritted-teeth aggressive, ruthless, jittery, agitated. “Don’t Stop”’s naïve Star Wars foreplay is replaced by an extended “Soul Makossa” climax – where “Don’t Stop” steadily atomised to its essence, “Startin’ Somethin’” adds more or more, even if what is being added is mostly padding. David Williams’ midsong rapid-fire descending guitar lines are technically impressive but impassive; the listener does not necessarily get the feeling that these are being played by a human being.

Meanwhile, Jackson sings of rumours, harassment, the sudden absence of fun involved in being a pop star and the attendant paranoia. Billie Jean is introduced in the third verse almost as a joke – the song’s real intent is to set the stage for the rest of the record – and Jackson’s mock-exasperations (“They said she had a BREAK-down!”) uncannily presage Robin Thicke’s “Tried to do-MESTICATE you!” of three decades hence. But then there are bland homilies from the Reagan Book of Uncommon Prayer – “If you can’t feed your baby! Then don’t have a BABY!” – which in part seem to mask the possibility that the cause of Jackson’s suffering is an actual, rather than metaphorical, baby, or else that the “baby” is his own soul, slowly dying.

But why the “Soul Makossa” turnaround at the end? Why, in that case, “Soul Makossa”? It has been cited as one of those records which, by accident or design, causes history to be rewritten or redefined or clarified; and yet Manu Dibango wrote and recorded the song as a B-side for a promotional single about the Cameroon national football team (“Mouvement Ewondo”). Still, it is fortunate coincidence that the DJ David Mancuso chanced upon a copy in a West Indian record shop in Brooklyn, began spinning it at The Loft and, well, started something, as well as demonstrating how closely James Brown’s thing echoed the multitextural rhythm-upwards propulsions of African music. Did it start “disco”? Whether it did or not, its existence, discovery and projection – within weeks of Mancuso playing the record at The Loft, at least two dozen cover versions hit the streets – meant that an awful lot of music which wouldn’t have happened without it, including the solo work of Michael Jackson from 1979 onwards, happened.

As the chant spreads, Jackson presents a Spartacus-like picture of defiance: “Lift your head up HIGH!/And scream out TO THE WORLD!/I know I am SOMEONE!/And let the truth UNFURL!” A little later, he asks: “Yes, I believe in me/So, you believe in you?” Or perhaps it’s an instruction: “So – you believe in YOU!” And the song lifts itself out of its singer’s morass, even if only temporarily.

Temperton’s “Baby Me Mine” indeed is no “Rock With You” but is pleasant enough in a backward-looking way; there’s a lovely little cross-channel tingle of string synthesiser notes falling like icicles from neglected December curtains over the line: “I guess it’s still you thrill me” – five people are credited with synthesiser on the song but Temperton did the arrangement. Then on the album comes “The Girl Is Mine,” which is forgotten as soon as, or before, the song disappears.

Side one concludes with the title track, which really is a rather traditional song under its Great Pumpkin deelyboppers; the spectre of “Boogie Nights” haunts the entire piece, but what is more haunting, to the point of being profoundly disturbing, is Jackson’s calmly demented vocal. We already received notice on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” that something wasn’t quite right in MJ’s world – all 362 seconds of that song exist to disrupt and unnerve the listener – since besides the gossip note-taking and the “We Are Soul Makossa’s World” shoutouts, there are words, buried in the mix, like “You’re a vegetable…Still they hate you…You’re just a buffet…,” sung in as frightening and distorted a procession of voices as any that could be found on the Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion Technician half a decade hence; a strangulated gasp-cum-umbilical cord cackle which reminds us at at the time of Thriller Jackson also recorded and narrated a children’s storybook adaptation of the film E.T.; on his projections here, the sounds more powerfully resemble the voices buried within the television set on that other side of the E.T. coin, Poltergeist,  than any amiable mongrelisation of Carl Sandburg and Debra Winger.

But the entirety of Jackson’s vocal performance on “Thriller,” the song, is designed to give the listener nightmares, and not the commoner or more expected ones either. Every fibre of Jackson’s larynx, lips and teeth are dedicated to the highest possible intensity of delivery, such as those gasping and grunting tics, hitherto punctuation marks as natural as Lester Young’s periodic play-your-own-bassline tenor sax honks, now become atoms of oxygen, things he needs to do in order to stay alive.

And what exactly is Jackson proposing in “Thriller”? Why precisely is he making his partner sit down and be scared witless by a horror movie on TV? As written by Temperton, the lyrics are comic book ticksheet hokum worthy only of Bobby “Boris” Pickett on an off day. But as sung by Jackson, the words become creepier, more painful, more fascistic. It is as if he is chasing his lover – if his lover she be – around the house, promising her the apocalypse with the grimmest of smiles. He systematically locks all escape routes and positively chuckles in triumph when he reaches “There’s no escape from the jaws of the alien THIS TIME! (his own backing vocals: “They’re open wide!”)/This is the END of your LI-IFE! WHOOOOHH!!”

“I mean, white Reaganite fuckers,” he appears to be implying, “I’m just going to EAT your fucking WORLD and get my REVENGE!”

Then the remote control and the collective huddle on the sofa, and the song slowly backs off from its own implications. To a point, anyway; Vincent Price got the job because he was a friend of Quincy Jones’ then wife, the actress Peggy Lipton, who recommended him. He was by all accounts an absolute gentleman, and did his work in two takes. There was a second verse of his “rap” which was omitted from the final recording but can be found as a bonus track on the Thriller: Special Edition CD.

But in any case, Price performs what is actually an extremely corny sequence of lyrics with the straightest of faces; this cultured, affable and palpably harmless man, a former member of Welles’ Mercury Theatre and long-standing art adviser to Sears Roebuck, knew that  he was boss of the shallowest genre in cinema, and that his position was borne out of a paradoxical goodness of heart multiplied, or divided, by disillusion with what little forties Hollywood could find to do with him (hence his breakthrough role in House Of Wax was a reaction against always being seventh on the cast list). So he needs do little on “Thriller” other than intone some off-the-peg horror nonsense as though it were The Last Trump and bury pop with his Number 2 cackle.

It was enough, though, and a year later the song’s video appeared with an even more sinister subtext; now all of pop’s audience were doomed only to be eye-dead zombies, looking, dressing, dancing and breathing the same as their steel cube of idolatry which on closer inspection was made of the purest paper. Jackson’s werewolf glance back at the camera at the end of the video suggested that there was no turning back; I am pop’s future, shrink back and go back to jazz.

Side two begins with chimes of doom; not the Dies Irae but a Synclavier, possibly sampled (actually played live by Tom Bahler but adapted from a 1981 demonstration record entitled The Incredible Sounds Of Synclavier II). Then drum machine and drumkit enter sequentially, and not quite locked together; for the record’s token rock song, “Beat It”’s beats never quite beat – there is a sideways shuffle surprisingly reminiscent of Slade. Jones was reportedly looking for something in the ballpark of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” although Devo’s “Whip It” and especially “Let It Whip” by the Dazz Band are more readily called to mind.

But, once again, the desperate urgency of Jackson’s performance overrides any need to resolve gang wars (despite Jackson casting members of rival L.A. gangs the Crips and the Bloods to perform in the video) or get black music on MTV; this seems to be about more than just run-for-your-life-Tony stuff. As Jackson sings lines like “They’ll kick you and they’ll beat you and they’ll tell you it’s fair,” the spectre of his own father springs much more readily to mind; the real source of his pain, the reason why he kept having to run away, escape and change. Jackson raps on the side of a drum case with a beater, and Eddie Van Halen solos (remember, Van Halen is what most of late seventies America had instead of punk). Oddly, his solo, played with what music writers tend to label as “commendable gusto,” is the antithesis of the macho moves being played out around it, suggests that there is more to rock than waving one’s plectrum.

Then there is “Billie Jean,” the principal reason this record is what it is, and the horrific hall of mirrors at the centre of the labyrinth, where pop is forced to look at itself, and doesn’t like what it is being made to see.

To put it plainly, this isn’t something you would have expected from Donny Osmond.

The voice of a weekday morning Radio 1 DJ, early 1983, playing “Billie Jean” just before it becomes a big hit: “Give it a chance. It’s a grower.”

A twenty-five second intro, and Jones didn’t want that; too long, Michael, you’ll alienate people, you’ve got to give it to them on the nail.

You don’t understand, Quincy, he replies, I want to go somewhere new. It’s good for segueing at discos. What’s wrong with disco music anyway?

And what about Marvin?

Twenty-five seconds, twice as long as the introduction to Gaye’s “Grapevine,” although even that was considered audacious in its day.

On the full album version of the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” it’s a good three-and-a-half minutes before Dennis Edwards remembers, remembers, the third of September.

“Billie Jean” – unimaginable, of course, without Norman Whitfield setting the precedents; not just of space and the beat, beat, beat of that drum, but also the stoked-up, possibly unfounded paranoia.

The child is turning into an adult, and doesn’t like it. All the spring and bounce of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” has solidified into an air of petrified wariness. The ceaseless multirhythmic matrix remains in “Billie Jean” but now the rhythms and guttural punctuation whoops are all tensed, coiled, hunched into its thin, turned-up lapels. Whereas Jackson previously yelled out of exultation, now his gasps tremble in their own dread. Now the jagged guitar lines and cross-cutting percussion are like surfing barbed wire rather than waves of passion.

But it was those waves of passion which led Jackson into his own shadow; here he is being pursued by someone whose child may or may not be his – and the tension is made uncomfortable (and therefore generated) by the knowledge that, despite his would-be assertive denials in the chorus, he suspects that he is likely to be the father; witness the anguished howl of “People always told me, be careful what you do!” or the quivering “oh no” which responds to “his eyes were like mine.” He is shitting himself.

The surface, however, has to stay as smooth as possible; he moonwalks perhaps to avoid his bowels and bile spilling out onto the video’s neon Yellow Brick Road; a video directed by the same man who directed the video for “Don’t You Want Me.” Dancing only with himself, and maybe only for himself.

Jeffrey Daniel may have moonwalked first, and taught Jackson how to moonwalk; the important thing was that it was Michael who was doing the moonwalking, on a corny variety commemorative TV show which Berry Gordy practically had to beg him to do. Suddenly he floated on the stage, and the rest of show business ceased to exist.

On a musical level, despite Jones’ sublime deployment of space and echo – and the string synth exclamation marks in the second and third choruses may betray an early Lexicon Of Love acknowledgement – “Billie Jean” is maybe the blackest of all Jackson’s number ones, and in all senses; its circumferential catwalk of a bassline, its forceful, decisive, dead-on beat, its recoiling handclaps present a new dynamic to pop sonics, but its primeval fear…and that tom-tom beat, buried amid the gloss but still at the song’s centre…connect it directly to “Grapevine.” In addition, Jackson’s glaring, epileptic, wracked vocal is an exemplary portrait of someone on the crown point of falling apart.

It was one of the best pop singles of any era, almost certainly the best pop single of its year, and yet as a pop record it too helped to bury pop.

Why? Because where could pop have gone after this? What was left for it, when its rotten, corrupt, vicious, villainous centre was exposed so fully and pitilessly? It is as if Jackson is not just griping out a shaggy dog story about a groupie, but that he is holding all of pop culture to the hammer. These songs about undying love and undiluted passion for people whose ages rhyme easily, the very material of fandom, the point where it leaps off the bridge and transmutates into destructive worship…

…what do they all mean, what was it all worth, as Bardem’s executioner asks Harrelson’s bounty hunter in No Country For Old Men, if this is where it gets you?

You want to be a pop star? Good luck. Look at your predecessors, and how badly they did. This is where it gets you…

…because the baby might be yours.

…because the baby might exist.

…because IT IS ONLY HAPPENING IN THE TWISTED MIND YOU ONLY HEAR AT NIGHT. When you’re not lying nervously in bed, waiting for your father to clamber in through the open window in full ghost costume and scare you forever, making sure you’ll never be an adult…

We love you. OMG, we love you so much we want to BE you, tear you limb from limb if we have to because that’s how much we LOVE you…

I mean, why do you think Elvis retreated into security-sedated seclusion? Read the accounts of those early hayride/state fair tours and there were always pissed-off boyfriends looking to start a fight, idolising would-be lovers prepared to tear the skin off his back, never mind his shirt, strip down his car to find…what? He put up the screens just so that he could continue living, even if only for another couple of decades.

Because, with “Billie Jean,” pop hit a sudden but definite dead end. Somebody else was turning it around and showing the playground to have been a sham all along. A music based on being non-conformist, about being dirty and deviant and stinking and impolite…well, what if all of that turned out to be true?

What if pop was just a ghastly half-century of a mistake? An aberration, something to be swept under the dust covers of history in a few centuries’ time.

King of Pop, huh? Go ahead, Mike – you want to be the King of THIS?

She says the baby is yours. But you know that in order to become a father, to help beget and raise a family, you have to be an ADULT?

On the cover of Thriller

When Michael was nine, his father

Michael is reclining, in a white suit with black shirt, black belt and a yellow/red handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket. He looks slightly amused, more than a little sardonic – black or white, male or female, who from a visiting planet could tell?

On the frontispiece of Thriller: Special Edition he is in nearly the same pose but he is up, grinning a sickly grin, holding up a tiger cub as though he were holding it hostage. He thinks he’s pleasing everybody, providing entertainment for the whole family.

Maybe that’s what pop thought it was doing all along.

But “Billie Jean” suggests that pop may only ever have been an evil lie.

And what are adults doing listening to, or writing about, pop music anyway? Shouldn’t they be going to the cinema, or listening to jazz?

The cinema; the video store, which came into being almost entirely because of the The Making Of Thriller video. Thirty years ago pre-recorded videotapes were generally still too expensive to buy. But the Thriller video proved so popular that people who couldn’t afford to buy it wanted to rent it out. And so entire industries came into being because of Thriller. No bad thing, of course – but what happens when things move on, when tastes or technology change?

But it was like – if you’re an adult, Thriller isn’t really for you. Not really.

(And there’s this theory, still quite popular, that “Thriller,” both song and video, are allegories about coming out; but I’d be surprised if Jackson ever knew what a closet looked like, apart from being somewhere to hide from his father.)

And it turned out to be like – if you’re an adult, pop music from now on won’t really be for you. Not really.

And then…things go quiet, just as they did on the second side of Off The Wall. The stuff like “I Can’t Help It” and “It’s The Falling In Love” which personally I would have been happy if Jackson had kept on doing.

Because it’s when things go quiet that a realer Michael Jackson, a more tactile Peter Pan, emerges.

“Human Nature,” one of the loveliest songs on the record, meditative, encyclopaedic, a song of the night as liquid and truthful as John Martyn’s “Small Hours,” a chord sequence Miles loved enough to record his own version…

…or so it would seem, because the song’s actually about a nocturnal urban stalker, looking for a girl (“She likes the way I stare,” sung as wistfully and painfully as once he sang about one day in your life), acting like a less comedic George Hamilton vampire (“Then let me take a bite”), almost sobbing with self-pity at times. “If they say why? Why?/Tell them that it’s human nature.” Why WHAT, Michael? What have you done? “I like lovin’ this way,” and, just before that, “Why, why, does HE do me that way?”

But the song’s final verse finds him in the morning after; they are lying together, he is awake and already impatient: “Reaching out/I touch her shoulder/I’m dreaming of the Street.” The song fades on the saddest closing chord since “Dreams.” The reverie has changed nothing, and does not put the uncertain heart at ease.

Then there is the placid bubblegum of “P.Y.T.” which slips by as though having been outtaken from The Dude, and finally, my favourite song on the record (and also, almost certainly, its least known and least played song), Temperton’s “The Lady In My Life” – it is as though the nightmare played out throughout the rest of the record has been dreamed, and the awakener has awakened, and somewhere it is still the seventies, always and forever. A wonderful ballad with a divine chord sequence to which I could listen forever (as well as paving the way for Erykha Badu, Jill Scott etc.), Jackson sings simply, and elegantly, and beautifully, about moments in love (although the album’s dedication – “lovingly dedicated” - may suggest that Jackson may in part be thinking about his mother). Like “Thriller,” the two of them are alone at night; unlike “Thriller,” there are no televisual horror demons lurking. As if this is how it has always been; if only Michael Jackson could always have been like this – when the song is finished, as such, Jackson takes off into a bliss-laden sequence of abstract slow-motion scat-singing, and we think not just of Miles and Coltrane, but of an unlikely counterpart; Elizabeth Frazer of the Cocteau Twins. Or perhaps not so unlikely, since, like Frazer, Jackson’s voice, at its best, frequently works as an instrumental voice, the words not always decipherable, but the emotions always clear.

And yet Thriller was the beginning of the end of pop’s life. As I hope I have demonstrated, what the record set in motion is not necessarily its fault – the adjective I could best use to describe Thriller would be “tentative.” It wants to be new, but at the same time is careful not to cast old Jackson fans aside. With a couple of exceptions, I do not believe it to be a great album. When it returned for the last time to number one in early 1984, in the wake of the “Thriller” video, listening to it was like playing PacMan, whizzing by as it did with hit after hit. But then again, why not just play PacMan? What happened after Thriller is, as far as I am concerned, the route down the other side of the hill. It was, and is, a disaster in which not even the artist who recorded Thriller could be saved, or save himself. I thought long and hard about writing this piece – is it better to tackle demons head on or avoid them altogether, for there are many demons now to come in this tale? The statistics are there to be found – to date, Thriller’s estimated worldwide sales range between 51-65 million. In the USA, it has sold 29 million units, and its place as the all-time best-selling album there is subject to a regular tug-of-war with the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975). If you believe what Greil Marcus has to say about Jackson, then Thriller marks the point where the pop star, rebel or otherwise, transmutates not into a god, but a commodity for compliant consumers existing in a world which fundamentally hates them. The thing around the thing, rather than the thing itself. And now, an exhibit on the ground floor of the museum to be glanced at with brief, bored respect before going upstairs to the colourful, loud, interactive features which will continue to interact in loud colours long after there have ceased to be people with whom it could interact.

On Thriller: Special Edition there is a bonus track of an unused song from the Thriller sessions entitled “Carousel.” It is among the most sheerly haunted of Michael Jackson songs, about a circus girl who ran away – or did she? “I’m from a world/Of disappointments and confusions” he sings, and later, after she’s gone, he ponders, chillingly: “What I can’t recall/Is if there was a girl at all/Or was it just my imagination?”

Running away with the circus girl. I wonder if Vincent Price ever saw Wings Of Desire, heard the words about “I’m an old man with a broken voice, but the tale still rises from the depths” and wondered sometimes about Michael Jackson.

Monday, 11 November 2013

MEN AT WORK: Business As Usual



(#274: 29 January 1983, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Who Can It Be Now?/I Can See It In Your Eyes/Down Under/Underground/Helpless Automaton/People Just Love To Play With Words/Be Good Johnny/Touching The Untouchables/Catch A Star/Down By The Sea

By the time Business As Usual had conquered the American and British charts, the album was just over a year old. Released in Australia in November 1981, two of its songs, “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under” (the latter reworked somewhat for the album), had already been Australian number one singles. Despite this, Columbia in the US twice passed on the record, but the band’s management were persistent and the album was eventually released in the States and Canada in April 1982. Interest and sales began in Winnipeg, and thence slowly spread eastwards and southwards; the band also promoted the record by supporting Fleetwood Mac on tour throughout both Canada and the USA. In combination with the then still relatively new phenomenon of MTV, their popularity systematically rose, and “Who Can It Be Now?” became a US number one that November, although a sceptical British public stopped the single at #45.

However, “Down Under” also shot to number one in the States, and when rush-released as a single in Britain at the beginning of 1983 – and heavily discounted in chart return shops – the feat was repeated here. By the time Business As Usual made number one in the UK, it was well into its fifteen-week run at the top in the USA. In other words, Men At Work had achieved the transatlantic double/quadruple, the first Australian act to do so. The albums it kept off number one here were the eponymously-titled debut album by treacly French MoR pianist Richard Clayderman, and Porcupine by Echo and the Bunnymen, a third album recorded under fairly trying circumstances and a tough (though not unrewarding) listen; the title track, largely because of L Shankar’s string arrangement, is as patient and desperate as “Kashmir,” while the closing slow-motion double punch of “Gods Will Be Gods” and “In Bluer Skies” has its own turning-back-on-the-band’s-past chewed-up logic (McCulloch reckoned that the songs benefited from the inter-band tensions).

But the question remains about what exactly the world of early 1983 found so attractive about Men At Work. “Who Can It Be Now?” had been routinely dismissed in Britain as Playdoh Police, but “Down Under,” particularly when accompanied by its “wacky” video, seemed either to confirm everybody’s worst stereotypical assumptions about Australia or to be somewhat ashamed of being Australian.

I think the song’s intentions are rather more complex than that; co-songwriter and lead singer Colin Hay has said that it was meant to represent the commercial overselling of “Australia” as a way of life and the manner in which the Australian spirit would naturally overcome any attempt at hype. So the song finds Hay on eternal walkabout across the globe, but every time he comes across an especially strange place or scary person – in Brussels, in Bombay, or wherever – his heart audibly lightens when he learns that he is speaking with one of his own. For people still “lost” in so many ways, this message was reassuring; do not search for Australia, since “Australia” is always all around you.

The removed exoticism of Men At Work was undoubtedly a major part of their appeal; they were from “far away,” not easily graspable – remember that the success of Love’s Forever Changes in Britain was ascribable to the band never touring, their “otherness” (and while you are at it, it is worth drawing some parallels between Greg Ham’s gumtree flute on “Down Under” and Tijay Cantarelli’s work on Da Capo). And when, some months later in 1983, Australia sensationally won the Americas Cup, “Down Under” served as the soundtrack to the latter’s television coverage.

So complaining about Business As Usual not being Junkyard or Send Me A Lullaby – or, for that matter, INXS, then three albums into their career - misses the record’s point. There is in any case a certain degree of perspectival relationship between light and space – feel how easy it is to breathe in the sunlit and distinctly un-American boulevards of “Be Good Johnny” – which is peculiarly Australian and persists even to later records like the Go-Betweens’ “Streets Of Your Town,” although songs like “I Can See It In Your Eyes” illustrate how effective the band’s music would sound on broad freeways.

It is also beside the point to talk about Men At Work being a Police stand-in act, although that was the principal impression given at the time. Hay’s voice doesn’t really sound like Sting’s, apart from the same irritating emphasis on cod-Jamaican labials – broken down periodically when the singer drops his guard and his Kilwinning diphthongs come to the fore; he came from the same county as Bill Shankly, and his voice if anything reminds me of a pre-emptive Paolo Nutini. Also, despite the band having two more members than the Police, the activity and dynamics are noticeably reduced in comparison; they sound less busy.

For in spite of all its good intentions – and the anti-corporate lyrical thrust of “Underground” confirms that they are on the right side – Business As Usual is uninvolving, unengaging and anaemic. They cast themselves as Numanoid isolationists on “Who Can It Be Now?,” which is only really distinguished by Ham’s aggrieved, gruff tenor sax riff, and more avowedly on “Helpless Automaton”; despite the occasional rhetorical computer bleat, the latter is undermined by its low budget Blondie musical setting – although the song’s last instrumental twenty seconds or so suggest a possible fruitful alternative musical road, one that won’t be properly grasped until Throwing Muses’ House Tornado.

The band never move out of this first gear. In such a context, “Down Under” sounds little more than a reluctant update of “Yellow Rose Of Texas.” By the time of “People Just Love To Play With Words” – their “De Do Do Do…” – Ham’s saxophone has become actively annoying (he does not really improvise as such throughout the record). No matter however Hay casts himself – the schoolboy misfit (“Be Good Johnny”), the self-deluding old wino (“Touching The Untouchables”), the reluctant reunion suitor (“I Can See It In Your Eyes”) – he always runs up against the brick wall of what I suspect is an inescapable Australian pub rock tradition which the band are really too timid to try to break down, or open. Even the closing epic “Down By The Sea,” which could have been a majestic achievement, Hay’s observer watching the gradual erosion of what he perceives as his country, doesn’t become a useful precursor to Blue Sky Mining; it finds its beat early on, and more or less stays there for the best part of seven minutes.

So the album plays like musical rice cakes, bite into it and you quickly find that there is little of substance. Their next album, Cargo, was a little more adventurous, containing as it did their one great song, the apocalyptically autumnal “Overkill” (“Ghosts appear and fade away”). But not long after its release, “Every Breath You Take” came out, and Men At Work rapidly drifted away from the foreground.

Worse was to come; the flute riff to “Down Under,” which Ham had added himself, was found to be derivative of the old nursery rhyme “Kookaburra,” which was still in copyright. The song’s publishers launched a lawsuit, and a judge found in their favour in July 2010, awarding 5% of back royalties (but only from 2002) and future profits. It could have been a lot worse – the publishers were lobbying for 60% of royalties – but the case and its outcome seemed to exhaust Ham, who in April 2012 was found dead at his home in Melbourne, of causes unknown, aged just fifty-eight.

The musicians have continued, and sometimes quarrelled, in their own ways. But the key to Men At Work’s influence on the rest of the eighties – particularly in the States – can be found in the jerky staccato organ and general rhythmic rush of “Be Good Johnny”; this is the template for a decade of Ferris Buellers, fast, unapologetic, amiable and invariably rather more old-fashioned than their surfaces might suggest. Then again, I finally remembered what, and whom, Ham's roughly mournful saxophone reminded me of; Jan Garbarek (another musician who always gives the impression of being a very long way away from anybody or anything else), and therefore, by extension, that four-note call to arms repeated throughout Public Enemy's "Show 'Em Whatcha Got."

Next: “And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver…”

Thursday, 7 November 2013

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Raiders Of The Pop Charts Parts 1 & 2







(#273: 15 January 1983, 2 weeks)

Track listings:

Part One: Our House (Madness)/Best Years Of Our Lives (Modern Romance)/Love Plus One (Haircut One Hundred)/Theme From Harry’s Game (Clannad)/Do It To The Music (Raw Silk)/Rawhide (The Chaps)/Cacharpaya (Incantation)/Zoom (Fat Larry’s Band)/Do You Really Want To Hurt Me (Culture Club)/Back On The Chain Gang (Pretenders)/Nightporter (Japan)/Let Me Go! (Heaven 17)/Fantasy Island (Tight Fit)/Johnny Rocco (Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin)/Mickey (Toni Basil)

Part Two: Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy (Kid Creole and The Coconuts)/Only You (Yazoo)/It’s You, Only You  (Mein Schmerz) (Lene Lovich)/I Confess (The Beat)/I Eat Cannibals (Toto Coelo)/The On And On Song (Precious Little)/Magic’s Wand (Whodini)/Thank You (Pale Fountains)/Give Me Your Heart Tonight (Shakin’ Stevens)/Someone Somewhere (In Summertime) (Simple Minds)/Some Guys Have All The Luck (Robert Palmer)/So Here I Am (UB40)/Night Nurse (Gregory Isaacs)/Blade Runner (Morrissey-Mullen)/Starmaker (The Kids From “Fame”)

Since it would appear that the royal road to recognition and success as a music writer is to pen “provocative” pieces which fundamentally say that music has gone to pot since the writer was nineteen – in other words, to confirm the prejudices of their readers rather than question or overturn them – here, as a balance, is an extended examination of some music which was very popular when I was nineteen. This, remember, is now 1983 – the year of Swordfishtrombones, Murmur, Duck Rock, Soul Mining, Synchro System, Head Over Heels, Power, Corruption And Lies, Violent Femmes, Hearts And Bones and The Ballad Of The Fallen (to name just ten examples off the top of my head). None of these albums makes it directly onto Then Play Long, and although not all of the twenty-one albums which did get to number one in 1983 are wretched and/or inexplicable, enough of them are to raise the question of whether the British music industry knew what the hell was going on in their own world.

This was the year in which Gallup took over compilation of the charts from the British Market Research Bureau, and the decline in quality was abrupt, steep and practically overnight. In 1983, let it be recorded, singles as important as “Hand In Glove,” “Cattle And Cane” and “Rock Box” did not even manage to make the Top 100 – whereas space was found for things like “Nora Batty’s Stockings,” “What Are We Gonna Get ‘Er Indoors” and “Uptown Girl.” No prizes for guessing which of these two groups of records got played more prominently on mainstream British radio.

Hype became easier as the BMRB’s handwritten diaries were replaced by Gallup’s computer terminals, which most chart return shops had no choice but to place on their counter, thus instantly marking out their status. It is hardly as though the identities of these shops were unknown – in the dying days of the BMRB contract, many aggressive attempts at hyping were manifest, and their consequences are visible in the singles charts for the fourth quarter of 1982 (if there’s a record there that you can’t remember, or never gets played on radio now, it was very likely hyped) – but as they went involuntarily overground, so the record companies threw everything they had at prospective customers. Beach balls, videos, and even whole albums, were given away free with singles purchases, and the charts distorted accordingly.

In tandem with this move towards hype was a retreat by the media away from the future which New Pop had only recently promised. Anything or anybody which smacked of danger was given the cold shoulder – Soft Cell’s provocative “Numbers,” for instance, was sold with a free copy of the “Tainted Love” 12” – and both broadcasters and audiences moved back, perhaps scared of what might be around the corner.

For in the wake of the Falklands war, the British public had decided that they were uninterested in the political and philosophical subtexts of New Pop, and it became clear that they only wanted the bright lights, the crazy colours, the hummable, grinning tunes, singers to scream at, or with. And so, as Thatcher notched up another electoral landslide in June 1983, a wider and deeper conservatism spread over pop music. Old hands found that if they brushed and scrubbed themselves up and appeared “modern,” they could clean up commercially, and swiftly. Thus returned many faces from before the age of punk, not quite suggesting that punk need never have happened, but affably shrugging their shoulders as if to say: well, tart up this pub rock and watch it fly out of the shops.

But it is not a rebuttal of the democratic urge to rebuke the British public for not voting for people who weren’t on the ticket. If this tale is in part an attempt to confront “history” then it has to be acknowledged that history itself is written, and thereafter constantly rewritten, by whoever are deemed to be the winners. I can fully understand how No Parlez can be considered the best album ever made by somebody who has otherwise only listened to Body Wishes by Rod Stewart, or George Benson’s In Your Eyes. We appreciate what we are given to appreciate, rather than look for other superficially more dangerous but ultimately brighter and longer-lasting sources of appreciation.

It may be that in 1983 people didn’t really want any more than that, transient novelties and gently smug confirmers of their own new status. But it also has to be said that 1983, in terms of number one albums, represents a threshold, a change from one method of being to another. The year is bookended by two thirty-track double album hits compilations; in some senses, it is like walking from 101 Strings to the Human League in a relative instant. The first of these records is a symbol of what once was, but is now dying, whereas the second stands for the future, or somebody’s future, even though several artists are common to both.

And yet, of all the TV-advertised compilations which have bothered this tale since 20 Dynamic Hits, this might be the best of them all, as well as the last to go all the way. Raiders Of The Pop Charts was still packaged as a BOGOF pair of records (and there is another single-artist BOGOF compilation to come later in the year) but somebody at Ronco – presumably Ashley Abram, who was in charge of compiling these records – had clearly decided that it was time to drag the format into something approximating the present tense. The title and design – a Harrison Ford lookalike, with female companion, wandering around a florid studio – were reasonably topical (and the extra carrot-on-stick was a competition to win an “Indiana Jones jacket”), but the package looked more serious than its predecessors. And embossed on the lower rear cover of both volumes, black on yellow, was this important message:

“THE TRACKS CONTAINED IN THIS ALBUM ARE THE COMPLETE, UNEDITED SINGLE VERSIONS, AS ORIGINALLY RECORDED.”

Note also that there were only thirty tracks spread across two albums, as opposed to the more familiar ten-a-side methodology. This indeed meant that singles could now be heard in their entirety; a common complaint of the public was the seemingly random cram-‘em-in editing policy of previous compilations. And it has to be said that hearing these songs complete does alter the listener’s perspective. It was as if Ronco were suddenly taking this business with the utmost of seriousness.

How do the records themselves sound, in sequence? Overall, it seems to me that Raiders represents the end of something, maybe a whole age or era; a pop which has perhaps grown too big for such humble compilations. Again and again, these songs focus lyrically on the differentiation between dreams and reality, concern themselves with truth versus lies; and the records contain not only some of the best music to appear in this tale, but also much of the worst, and at least two of the most baffling and confounding things I have heard in this context.

To draw further on this theme on the end of things

(and bearing in mind that 1983 could only really begin with a survey-cum-burial of 1982):


Madness



“It’s the happy version of ‘She’s Leaving Home’!” exclaimed Lena, and while comparisons have certainly been made between Madness and the Beatles, the increasing, encroaching, claustrophobic darkness of their records puts the seven more on a parallel with Abba. They followed up the success of Complete Madness with a stand-alone single, “Driving In My Car,” which did little other than remind people that they still existed; its succession of whole tone piano chords, falling like slow-motion ice pellets, has some of the troubled gaiety of Robert Wyatt.

But in October came The Rise & Fall, their best and most disturbing album. On the cover they mug and pose like defeated refugees from The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film in the middle of a park on a severely overcast and darkening autumn afternoon; the Post Office Tower and Centre Point lurking in the distance confirm that this is in fact Primrose Hill. What they are actually doing is recreating the song titles on the album; on the rear cover, a couple of teenagers with shopping bags pass by, looking at the group with amused bemusement. On the inside of the gatefold sleeve, the same people are creating the same poses on a small music hall stage, watched by a couple of appreciative pensioners.

But the record itself contains little, if any, hope. Like Sgt Pepper, the original intention had been to do a suite of songs about the band’s childhood, growing up in Archway and Camden, but the group got quickly distracted; “Our House” is the only real remaining evidence of the initial concept. Elsewhere, Thatcher and the Falklands war get a good kicking (“Blue Skinned Beast”), there are sombre vaudevillian skanks likely to leave a mark on impressionable early eighties teenagers in Colchester (“Sunday Morning” pretty much leads directly into Modern Life Is Rubbish), there is, in “Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day),” a lament for imminent non-existence bearing a jaunty despondency worthy of mid-sixties Ray Davies, and, in “Primrose Hill” itself, one of the bleakest songs New Pop had to offer; unlike the observer of “Waterloo Sunset,” the subject is more or less barricading himself, or herself, into eternal darkness; through the pores of the peeling wallpaper seep the disquieting tones of a brass band, arranged by David Bedford.

“Our House,” however, was the clear standout song, and while the single was not, strictly speaking, the group’s only US hit, it was by far the bigger of the two hits that they did have, briefly (via the video) opening the door to an otherwise incomprehensible world. But there is something desperate in the record, pulling us away from the desired picture of nostalgic jollity. Suggs itemises the details of his and his family’s former lives as though making careful, anxious notes in the wake of complete destruction; did they really live this life?

There are signals; throughout the second chorus we hear a parallel voice in the background, singing, at half speed, “Something tells you that you’ve got to move away from it.” The song veers between present and past tense; while reminiscing about his mother, Suggs sings: “She’s the one they’re going to miss, in lots of ways” with enough affable menace to conceal his move from first to third person.

It is like a scarcely remembered or digested dream (“Two dreamers,” says Suggs in the double-speed prelude to the final verse, unconsciously or consciously referencing “Moon River,” that old gateway to a new world) and all the while Bedford’s strings – remember that he was involved in Hergest Ridge just eight years previously – tug at and sometimes try to pull apart the song’s structure, shivering, hovering or quietly diminishing in a sacrificial weep towards non-existence at the end; over the second chorus a Psycho string line slashes like two-dimensional bulldozers.

Most movingly, the strings arch and rise – and, yes, fall – around the final verse, as the life these people knew is about to be demolished; this is now clearly a recollection of a past which cannot be reattained. “Our house – WAS our castle and our keep,” “Our house – that was where we used to sleep” (can you picture it, there in the middle of that greying car park?). As though something is about to be over.

Modern Romance

For about three years – even though they only really had hits for two of them – Modern Romance were inescapable; they were always on television, always reliably turned up, waving their meaty hands and yippee-ing amidst primary-coloured tinsel and small audiences pretending to be happy. They were New Pop’s Tremeloes, with Geoffrey Deane as Brian Poole.

They were perceived as unashamed stylistic ambulance chasers, a perception not helped by the knowledge that Deane and co-conspirator David Jaymes’ previous group, the Leyton Buzzards, had gained a recording contract with Chrysalis as top prize in a competition organised by The Sun. Their best-known moment was the single “Saturday Night Beneath The Plastic Palm Trees” – a title which could fairly apply as an umbrella for Modern Romance’s career – but even a TOTP appearance couldn’t get the record above #53, and the contract soon ended rather ignominiously.

Deane and Jaymes then proceeded to form Modern Romance, initially going for that electropop thing, but after two flop singles they shifted their focus, read the NME and The FACE and decided that this new Latin thing was the way forward. In fact they had already formed a limited company, called Business Art Productions, before signing to WEA; they therefore could reasonably say that, unlike some artists who spoke about forming companies rather than groups, they had actually gone and done it.

“Everybody Salsa” was really nothing, but it got them into the Top 20 in the late summer of 1981; Deane on TOTP in business suit and Peter Bowles pencil moustache with Club Singer voice tended to resemble a smug unused-car salesman, and this impression was reinforced by some of the group’s interviews. Worse – in the eyes of the London media – they put out a soundalike follow-up, “Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey,” head to head with “Me And Mr Sanchez,” the heavily-promoted debut single by Blue Rondo Á La Turk, that season’s intended new Spandau Ballet, and wiped the floor with the competition; “Ay Ay Ay…” was deliberately dumb, but in the context of a cold, vaguely apocalyptic 1981 November it proved to be exactly what a lot of people wanted and outsold its predecessor. In the meantime; well, I did buy (and still have) the 12” of “Me And Mr Sanchez,” but while undeniably more inventive, dynamic and powerful a record than “Moosey,” it really wasn’t pop, and climbed quickly to #40 before falling down the chart again slightly less quickly. The band’s career did not really recover (by the time their long-delayed and “Sanchez”-free debut album crept out, almost a year later, the circus really had left town) and there was some residual ill feeling in the music press with talk of “carpetbaggers.”

Like the Tremeloes, they scored heavily in the singles market while leaving virtually no impression with their albums; Adventures In Clubland did not chart, despite including these two singles and a lesser but far superior hit, “Queen Of The Rapping Scene (Nothing Ever Goes The Way You Plan),” which featured an accordion as lead instrument (and owed more than something to Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real”) and a female “rapper” with a palpably fake French accent; unlikely, but it worked.

The next single, “By The Way…,” missed the charts completely, and so it was time to reassert the old formula; they returned to the Top 20 a couple of months later, when New Pop was decidedly on the wane, with a reading of the old pre-rock hit “Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White” so bloodless that it made Eddie Calvert seem like Lester Bowie, and so smarmily presented that one wondered whether their mission was to pretend that rock had never happened.

But then Deane quit the group to go for a solo career, and revealed himself as more of a wit and all-round good sort than he had been painted within Modern Romance; he was briefly a very funny and acerbic singles reviewer for The FACE before releasing one flop single – “Navy Lark,” credited to Geoff Deane and the Valley Girls – and another solo single ruefully entitled “What About Romance,” co-writing Divine’s gloriously bellicose 1984 hi-NRG hit “You Think You’re A Man” (an early production success for Stock, Aitken and Waterman) and eventually finding his true feet as a successful comedy writer for film and television.

Backing singer Michael J Mullins – a thoroughly amiable and competent chap who grinned gamely through his mullet like it was still 1978 – was promoted to lead vocalist, and “Best Years Of Our Lives” was the initial result and by far the group’s biggest hit. This does not make listening to it any less depressing an experience; despite some endeavour to find façade – “You tell me lies,” “Please tell me if all this is true,” “I can’t understand why you tease me this way” – the song is brash and bright enough to give me a headache, and overall carries the impression of being an unambiguous celebration of the “great” “new” world which Thatcher was perceived to have created. Why bother with subtexts if this is all that people wanted from New Pop – the old games in brighter colours, and lyrics (“I thank my good fortune that you are still mine”) which seem intent on denying that World War II, let alone rock, ever happened.

The song was Brideshead for Young Conservative Club types everywhere – trust me, readers; I was there, I saw it happen – and a horrible distortion of everything New Pop said that it stood for. It was also Modern Romance’s commercial highpoint; two less successful soundalike follow-ups later, followed by a plodding ballad (“Walking In The Rain”) and another unsuccessful album (Trick Of The Light, which, like the Leyton Buzzards, peaked at #53) – and, if you will, a partly re-recorded greatest hits album released on Ronco – it was over; they persisted, even going for the rock crossover market (their last album in 1985 was the appropriately-titled Burn It!), but to no avail; Mullins returned to being the reliable session singer that he essentially was, and David Jaymes moved upstairs to artist management. But how to know these are the “best years of our lives” while you’re still living them? We’ll be hearing about those “best years” again shortly.

Haircut One Hundred

It is with no small joy that I observe that Nick Heyward, the unknowing alchemist of New Pop, and Haircut One Hundred finally overcome the status quo to make their mark in this tale (and thus remind us that Raiders might be a review of, and requiem for, the whole of 1982). No record announced "Spring Is Here" in a less ironic way than Pelican West, complete with its free stickers (collect the set!) and pastel-coloured sticker album/lyric booklet. It was a deliberate return to the idea of childhood, a return to the child's obliviousness to things like responsibility or reason. Unimaginable perhaps without the precedent of Orange Juice - and Edwyn Collins was certainly pretty bitter at the time about what he viewed as soft Southerners tidying up his carefully chaotic act. Was it worth taking sides? Only on two sides of a C90 as far as most knowledgeable consumers at the time were concerned - You Can't Hide Your Love Forever on one side, Pelican West on the other. Both valid. Dolphins or triangles. One could live with both (that having been said, I remember at the time feeling decidedly disappointed with Hide Your Love, consisting as it did, or so I thought, of overproduced, over-determined, life-sapping versions of songs done definitively on Radio 1 sessions or on Postcard B-sides. But it remains available as an import CD, so perhaps the intervening decades have treated it with kindness).

Nick Heyward was artful about his lyrics not "meaning" anything. Of course they did. They existed to justify his life and to add punctum to the music (as was proved by what Haircut One Hundred minus Heyward ended up sounding like a year or two later; essentially, a low-budget Shakatak). The "surrealism" worked because it was not intended to be surreal; like Billy MacKenzie, it just seemed to come out of him. It felt necessary at the time, rather than the grafted-on, sweated-at incomprehensibility of lyrics with which this 1983 story will make us wearily familiar.

Listening to it over thirty years later, what strikes me most about Pelican West is the astute fusion which Haircut One Hundred achieved between three very separate strands of then-contemporary pop developments; firstly, the franticity inherited from the No Wave/James Chance/Zé Records mob - hear the near epilepsy of the rapid funk guitar strokes in "Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)" complete with horn section deliberately laying back half a beat, knowing when to come in or to stay out (they are rushing to get the song played, to make it exist before everything else ceases to exist).

Secondly, the apparent effortless proficiency and attention to middle-range sonic detail which came from the still unheralded Britfunkers of the time - Beggar and Co, Light of the World, Central Line, Freeez - and in particular the way in which ambiences from American funk/rock were appropriated and adapted easily into a British environment.

Thirdly - and this is the most obvious legacy from the Orange Juice/Postcard side of things - an alert awareness of chimerical "pure pop" elements (Beatles harmonies, McGuinn guitars, even a foreshadowing of the lo-fi of Beat Happening/K) without being trapped within the Camden Town Good Music Society cul-de-sac.

Even the two elements of the title "Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)" attend to this duality, as did the visuals - Heyward in his daintily knitted Fair Isle cardigans, one shirt collar dutifully poking out from underneath, guitar held high and at right angles to his body. No suits, no "sweat" even. Girls loved it and knew immediately what he was trying to communicate, particularly in front of what would otherwise have come across as a weekend jazz-funk scratch band. Except of course they were no scratch band - despite the artful naivety of the music, the songs demanded chops.

"Love Plus One," which appears on Raiders, is driven by a marimba, which always results in great romantic pop ("Just My Imagination," "And I Love You So"), and its amiable canter is counterpointed by the double-time attack of the drums and guitars. Hear in particular how Heyward's guitar excitedly speeds up into "Favourite Shirts" mode in the final chorus as he exclaims "Ring ANNA ring ANNA!" and also the foursquare yawning bass introduction into the song’s main body (Heyward at times here sounds as bucolic as Andy Partridge, and XTC’s contemporaneous English Settlement is a nice parallel case study for someone with more time and resources than me to tackle). Sublime pop on at least four different levels, and deservedly their biggest single (#3 in January 1982).

Chops? "Lemon Fire Brigade" saw to that. And the blissful spring in this track's step is what Danny Baker picked up on in his brilliant review of Pelican West in the NME. Here, at long last in British music, was a group throwing the gauntlet down to the Americans and able to compete. The lovely, largely instrumental, track is, as Baker noted, worthy of Steely Dan, and is made all the better by Heyward's sole, plaintive lyric, "Why, oh why?/Lemon Fire Brigade/WHY?" It was this element on which less astute descendents subsequently picked up and polished to the point of lifelessness, without any of the mischief or interest (we will come across them in 1987 or thereabouts).

The slowly-demisting "Marine Boy" initially reminds me, at least instrumentally, of Joy Division; that vague fog of uncertainty, before the skies clear, as they must. "Milk Film" is exuberant power-pop (there's no other word for it) but with a distinctly English sensibility. There's little more exhilarating in 1982 pop than Heyward singing at this song's climax "Glad that I live am I/Glad that the sky is blue/Glad for the country lanes" - and this is no John Major-misquoting-Orwell utopia either, but a more palpable one. The song tells you, in its own sweet-natured way, not to die (listen out for the brief Elvis Costello send-up when Heyward sings "mountain").

Thereafter the album switches between pre-post modern jazz-funk and blissful 1968-as-it-never-actually-was pop. Of the former, "Kingsize," "Baked Bean" and "Love's Got Me In Triangles" are essentially a poppier Pigbag, elevated by Heyward's escalatingly bizarre non-sequiturs and untranslatable yelps. If anyone today quoted Toblerone in their lyrics (as Heyward does in "Triangles") it would be beyond the Robbie Williams-imposed pale. Here, it strikes you as entirely logical.

"Fantastic Day" is "Milk Film" as spring liquefies into summer (the "Penny Lane" trumpets). I love how Heyward always gets more excited - and the way in which the band surreptitiously speed up - the nearer he gets to the end of the song. Listen to his "'cause I'm SO in LOVE with YOU!" in the final verse of "Fantastic Day," puncturing the opiate shimmer of the saxophones in the mid-ground (excellent sax playing by Phil Smith throughout, by the way, even indulging in a few harmolodics on "Baked Bean").

"Snow Girl" would be a number one for anyone now; but would they have the arranging genius to include the orgasmic, out-of-tempo blissout which arrives unexpectedly in the middle of the song, Vincent Sullivan's trombone sliding into infinity behind Heyward's craving for the Other's "elbow"? I doubt it. And the Butterflies of Love would have to labour for several further decades of archiving before coming up with such a "perfect pop" song as "Surprise Me Again." The song is constructed as a double-bluff; initially Heyward seems to be breaking up with the Other ("At the start it was great/In the middle I stayed/But at the end I was sick" is a precis as good and acute as Costello at his hungry best), but listen to how the whole band suddenly swings up into the sunlight with him as he sings "then suddenly you smiled." Such an ecstatic chorus. Such hope. Such a future.

Nothing left to do now but to wrap everything up, which they do with "Calling Captain Autumn." Another funkout, but crucially parenthesised by mock cricket commentary, staged as though they were listening to it on the radio. So this stands as a complete redefinition of "Englishness," incorporating black elements, unimaginable without them (the Brixton riots were still fresh in everyone's memory at the time, bear in mind), and a subversion and ultimate rebuttal of what the Mail/Telegraph would want us to accept as England.

The fact that, by the beginning of 1983, all of this had effectively ceased to exist does not pass the astute listener by.

Clannad

There is something quite startling about this fog of silence which drifts across the debris of side one’s jollity, as well as a sign that, despite 1982 being almost over, not all of the lessons of New Pop had been neglected. If Japan’s “Ghosts” introduced the elements of deliberate silence and stillness in a manner which pop had not hitherto known, then the hourglass-like stillness – or the patient stillness of a sniper or assassin – was returned to the table by Clannad.

Composed by the group’s Pól Brennan as a theme to the Yorkshire Television thriller series about the Northern Irish Troubles, lead singer Moya Brennan trembles her way authoritatively through her lament – and lament it be, the lyric (sung entirely in Irish Gaelic, an attribute which no other hit single yet boasts) comes down to saying that in times of war and violence, no side will win, and all sides will lose (the song is very careful not to take sides). There are long periods of the record which consist of nothing more than Eno (or Avalon?)-type ambient Fairlight drones. As pop was largely, and already, straining towards insisting that things be done NOW and FAST, this was radical, and a dire warning to the pop to come in its (literal) wake.

(As this song is routinely attributed to the younger Enya, it should be noted that Enya, in 1982 still only twenty-one, had already been and gone as a member of Clannad; the long-term effects of “Theme From Harry’s Game” would be felt dramatically less than six years hence.)

Raw Silk

My 12” of “Do It For The Music” begins with the echoing vocal: “No time for criticisin’,” but evidently (i.e. by this evidence) the 7” didn’t (instead we get a cough). Never mind; like fellow Nick Martinelli-mixed “Beat The Street” by Sharon Redd, this was inescapable in late 1982 London, and a fine late disco hit it was too – they were a Crown Heights Affair spinoff (and the group’s Bert Reid may be responsible for the probing tenor sax solo) and the song’s easy, patient drive probably renders it undanceable in today’s climate - but the extraordinary high notes (“Do it for me,” “DO IIIIIIIT!” – Jessica Cleaves, I think, was the lead singer here) are relishable, before she glides back down to a more comfortable mid-range which, frankly, reminds me of Sarah Cracknell.

The Chaps

No, I wasn’t able to find out who they were either, except that this came out as a single on Stiff – catalogue number: PRAW 1 – and is the old Frankie Laine cowboy theme sung in a possibly fake Glaswegian accent with asides of the calibre of “Haggis, beer an’ fishin’” and “Pints of heavy in East Kilbride,” continued fourth-wall critiques of the record and an accordion which bursts randomly into “The Black Bear” or “I Belong To Glasgow.” Like the previous year’s “Hokey Cokey,” a Christmas Top 20 hit for “The Snowmen,” (a) this may or may not have been the work of Extremely Famous People messing about, and (b) I could care less. It’s a bit like a younger KLF covering McLaren’s “Duck For The Oyster.” Perhaps I am making it sound too interesting. I don’t remember it being played at all on radio at the time.

Incantation

Side one of Raiders is useful in a globetrotting way; three years before the marketing concept of “World Music” was invented, we’ve been to Ireland, “Glasgow” and now the Andes. Actually Incantation were a multinational group of musicians writing for the Ballet Rambert, who collaborated on a successful 1981 production entitled Ghost Dances; the success won them a recording contract, and their second album Cacharpaya: Music Of The Andes, with the help of a television series, made the top ten. The title track went Top 20 as a single and is a harmless panpipe knees-up, making with the accelerando at the end (the subtitle “Andes Bumpsa Daesi” may give some notion that the music wasn’t to be taken too seriously, even though nothing could really be taken more seriously than the rebel music of Chile). They continued to prosper – they provided the panpipes for many film productions, including The Mission. Most interestingly, however, Incantation member Simon Rogers eventually resurfaced as a member of The Fall, notably on 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace.

Fat Larry’s Band

One of several singles on this collection to peak at number two – and therefore to be discussed more fully in Music Sounds Better With Two – “Zoom” in this context plays like the last ray of old-school soul light before the future engulfs it. The band were from Philadelphia, and despite occasional club favourites like “Center City” and “Act Like You Know,” “Zoom” – co-written by Len Barry, of “1-2-3” fame – was their moment; lead singer “Fat” Larry James’ performance, a semitone out of tune, is perfectly charming, though the reversal of the standard day-into-night light analogy is modestly startling. The song sounds like a fond farewell, and James himself exited this world, from a heart attack, in 1987, aged just thirty-eight.

Culture Club

The reviewer in Smash Hits – a chap named David Hepworth - approvingly compared the single, and its singer, to Dennis Brown, but there are many more aspects of lightened loss to the voice of the artist previously known as "Lieutenant Lush." He far more immediately calls to mind Ali Campbell, of UB40, but his extraordinary purity is comparable with Russell Tompkins Jnr, and there is even a touch of the polite vulnerability of Neil Sedaka ("I have danced inside your eyes").

But there is undoubtedly hurt here, bleeding through every nodule of the singer's tonsils. What does he mean by "do you really want to hurt me?" With pained references to "precious kisses, words that burn me," "let me love and steal" and "if it's love you want from me then take it...away" (he is on the verge of collapsing altogether on that "take it") it could be about the fear of commitment, or spiritual as opposed to merely carnal bonding. Or, as some commentators would have it, it's an extended mild bitch at alleged ex Kirk Brandon.

But given the enormous controversy aroused by his performance of the song on TOTP - the first time Boy George had been exposed to the public at large beyond NME addicts, Bow Wow Wow adherents and the London hipster circuit - and also the video, shot in a courtroom, the question could viably be interpreted as a rhetorical one; note that opening line of "Give me time to realise my crime," as though he had committed any. Let me be, what have I done to you, what makes a man a man - "Everything is not what you see" (and several radio DJs who indeed "did not know" assumed that it was a woman singing).

So "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" is very close to a statement, or even a polemic, sent out as New Pop declined into ignominious ambulance-chasing; but such a serene setting. The first two Culture Club singles, "White Boy" and "I'm Afraid Of Me," were promising but didn't yet live up to what writers like Paul Morley was claiming about them - but everyone had to stop and take notice of the third, for it was extremely special, and that rarest of things, a natural number one.

The music is so quiet and so deftly handled by the musicians; the mood is lovers' rock, not so much in the manner of Dennis Brown than after the fact of such great one-offs as Louisa Marks' "Caught You In A Lie" or Trevor Walters' "Love Me Tonight." But the song continually bends down like an agonised question mark, so elegant the transition from major to minor, so reluctant the return. Roy Hay's sitar-guitar immediately recalls "You Make Me Feel Brand New," but this is the sound of something, or somebody, slowly dying; in the instrumental break just before the final chorus, the swathes of dub synth winds blow like a shroud ready to be laid, and right at the end, after the final sitar-guitar query, a drum machine is revealed, and ticks on regardless.

Boy George's is one of the great chart-topping vocal performances, and certainly the most passionate and controlled of any 1982 number one – the only one of thirty singles featured here to go all the way, in more ways than one - you instinctively hurt in tandem with his desperate "hurt me"s in the chorus, you trail away symmetrically with his wounded "cry." It turned out to be Culture Club's first masterpiece, a fully deserved number one - though it would take others, notably the polarised opposites of Jimmy Somerville and Holly Johnson, to remove that shroud for good.

Pretenders

The single could have been said to have ended a whole process, the closing down of possibilities, not all of them voluntary. The song was originally meant to be about Hynde and Ray Davies – thus the lyrical references to the media, nostalgic glimpses back into a common, unreachable past (“Those were the happiest days of my life,” Hynde’s voice vaults, not sure whether to laugh out loud or cry in quiet), the pain in the apparent knowledge that “the world,” not they, had sundered them apart.

That wasn’t quite the whole truth – Hynde and Davies’ relationship was on the hurricane side of stormy (love your idols? Do you dare?) – but by the time the single was released it had all become academic, since guitarist James Honeyman-Scott was by then dead from a drug overdose, dying one day after bassist Pete Farndon was sacked (and Farndon didn’t have long to live either) – and so the song became a reluctant requiem, a furtive upside to the inward torment of the group’s version of Davies’ “I Go To Sleep” (a top ten single in that darkest of months, November 1981) with key changes and strange chords (including an E7 augmented by an F, hitherto only heard in the Beatles’ “I Want To Tell You”) lending the performance an unbearable poignancy (“And I’ll die as I stand here today”).

Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers were the only two “Pretenders” on the record – the other musicians were guitarist Billy Bremner, on loan from Rockpile, and bassist Tony Butler, shortly to become part of Big Country (I am not sure who plays the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” synthesiser line at the end, unless it is processed guitar) – and the single’s B-side, “My City Was Gone,” which gave a picture of an Akron more unrecognisable and derelict than anything Devo did, cemented the notion of pop single as angry memorial. Both songs eventually resurfaced on 1984’s Learning To Crawl, by which time The Pretenders had evolved into a rather different group; but here it stands as a farewell to New Pop, sixties idealism, perhaps even seventies punk – what happens when you go home and home cannot be seen?

Japan

For the year or so when Japan were popular – which, coincidentally or not, was the last year or so of their existence – theirs was among the most confusing of chart careers. Realising that they had been somewhat ahead of the curve, their old label Ariola/Hansa reissued “Quiet Life” from 1979 and saw it sail into the Top 20 in 1981. Simultaneously the group, now signed to Virgin, were trying to promote their newer and more advanced work, specifically the Tin Drum album. A stream of alternating singles ensued from both sides which meant that two Japans were effectively battling each other in the charts. Was the group which slowed pop’s heartbeat to a chilling standstill with “Ghosts” the same people responsible for a rather arch reading of “I Second That Emotion”?

I don’t know whether too many people noticed, or were fully occupied covering their bedroom walls with David Sylvian posters. Nonetheless, the threatening, quiet brilliance of Tin Drum has not diminished in the thirty-two years or so since it was first released – close down the world with “Sons Of Pioneers” or the John Cale-ish celeste which surfaces towards the end of “Cantonese Boy”; listen to “Still Lives In Mobile Homes” and wonder just how enormous and silent an influence Joe Zawinul was on New Pop – and “Ghosts,” as a single, performed motionless by the group on TOTP in March 1982, Sylvian an alabaster Osmond frozen by Medusa, or perhaps his own reflection, is one of the most staggering achievements in all of pop; the ability to navigate silence or near-silence, the lengthy stretches within the lament where nothing seems to be happening save for the turmoil in the singer’s mind, the sour ring-modulated trombones from Escalator, a chord sequence worthy of Kenny Wheeler (with whom Sylvian would work two years hence), a lament which stretches from Brian Hyland via David Cassidy to Tricky (via Mark Stewart) – the world was there for the taking, but something (the past? The singer’s own fears?) froze him in his stealthy, scared path – all of this formed the bluntest, if gentlest, challenge to the notion of the “pop song” (little wonder that, several years hence, Sylvian would record a stand-alone single entitled “Pop Song”). That pop songs didn’t need to be noisy. That being “in your face” could represent an embrace rather than a challenge.

That there was a different road to take from the one which you expected to take.

By the time “Nightporter” was released as a single in the late autumn of 1982, Japan no longer existed. Students sitting in the Junior Common Room on Thursday evening. Students watching the television. Students watching Top Of The Pops. The Top 40 countdown. It was Thursday 2 December 1982. 7:41 in the evening. Numbers 40-11.

At 29 it was a six-place climber; “Nightporter” by Japan. Cheers swiftly followed by boos when the countdown didn’t stop. They’re not going to be on? But they’re climbing! Nobody knew then that Japan had ceased to exist. Were not available to do Top Of The Pops.

At 28 it was a six-place faller; “Ooh La La La (Let’s Go Dancin’)” by Kool and the Gang. No reaction.

At 27 it was a two-place climber; “It’s Raining Again” by Supertramp. A couple of cheers from the back of the room. But the countdown did not stop.

At 26 it was a seven-place faller; “Muscles” by Diana Ross. Written by Michael Jackson. About his pet snake. It was agreed that he was a strange one, that Michael Jackson.

At 25 it was a new entry; “Friends” by Shalamar. No reaction.

At 24 it was a twelve-place faller; “That Girl Is Mine” by Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. It was agreed that he was a strange one, that Michael Jackson. It was noted that the record hadn’t really done that well. And that the new Michael Jackson album was no Off The Wall. Far from it. Students would go to Woolworth’s and point at the piles of unsold copies, laughing. It was really too bad.

At 23 it was a three-place climber; “Talk Talk” by Talk Talk. Their debut single, remixed but not so you would notice. A little more piano, perhaps. It would have done. But the countdown didn’t stop.

At 22 it was a nine-place faller; “Cry Boy Cry” by Blue Zoo. Ye whit? said one voice. Who hell they? enquired another.

At 21 it was an eleven-place faller; “Maneater” by Daryl Hall and John Oates. No reaction.

At 20 it was a twelve-place faller; “Theme From Harry’s Game” by Clannad. Respectful murmurs. Deserved to do a lot better than number five.

At 19 it was a four-place faller; “State Of Independence” by Donna Summer. Respectful murmurs. Deserved to do a lot better than number fourteen.

And at 18 it was a three-place climber; “Best Years Of Our Lives” by Modern Romance. The camera dissolved to Modern Romance in the Top Of The Pops studio. The group were waving their meaty hands and yippee-ing amidst primary-coloured tinsel and small audiences pretending to be happy. The students in the Junior Common Room let out an almighty, amplified SIGH of exasperation and disappointment, with some supplementary “fucking hell”s.

It was confirmed, at that moment, that “we” had lost.

But Japan were already lost.

“Nightporter” was not even current Virgin Records and Tapes Japan. “Nightporter” was already two years old, from a 1980 album entitled Gentlemen Take Polaroids. Recorded at Air Studios, high above Oxford Circus. A transitional record in several ways. Guitarist Rob Dean realised his redundancy and left the group after the record was released. Ryuichi Sakamoto came on board for the magisterial, record-closing “Taking Islands In Africa.” Sylvian began to look beyond Japan, and had begun to wonder what other musicians could bring to his own visions.

Air Studios constituted a kernel of sociability. Paul and Linda McCartney were there most nights, working. Linda was a huge Japan fan. Paul also liked them and offered to do some guitar work on their songs if they needed it.

And there were these kids from Birmingham, these five kids, working in the next studio to Japan, and it was confirmed, at that moment, that “Japan,” and perhaps pop music, had lost.

These five kids from Birmingham were Japan fanatics. They nervously presented the group with a rough demo tape. One song. “Girls On Film.” Japan spluttered amongst themselves. What a pile of garbage! they thought. Like us a couple of years ago, before we dropped all that nonsense, or Moroder eased it out of us. But they are just kids from Birmingham. Be diplomatic. Tell them we’re very sorry but we can’t produce them right now.

The five kids from Birmingham took the rebuff well. Although the five kids from Birmingham thought that they were already above such things as rebuffs. One of them had gone up to the keyboard player for Japan, Richard Barbieri, and told him: “We’re going to be bigger than you because we want it more.” Barbieri smiled agreement. He knew they didn’t know what “it” they wanted. But inwardly he sighed, knowing that yes, the five kids from Birmingham were going to be “bigger” than amiably arty Lewisham/Catford types Japan. If all they wanted was to be “bigger.” Bigger than life? Japan remembered James Mason, Nicholas Ray and cortisone. Not one of them thought that “God is wrong!”

Japan also remembered the 1974 European arthouse movie The Night Porter. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling. Bogarde played an ex-SS officer. They treated business as pleasure and pain as payment. And so, this slowly patient waltz, out of Satie, perhaps, but to the same extent that Hampstead is out of Kelvingrove. Voice, piano, discreet electronics, some woodwind and strings. This last, un-wild waltz. “Could I ever explain this feeling of love?” Sylvian sang as though having examined Cassidy, Osmond and Soul and found them all still wanting. The song never lifts itself out of whispers. “Longing to touch all the places we know we can hide/The width of a room that can hold so much pleasure inside.” As Sunday stately and as acutely damaged internally as Ute Lemper and Scott Walker’s “Scope J,” the lovers love, or paint a picture of love. Dissipating in “a quiet town, where life gives in,” the man waits for the night – like Fat Larry’s Band and Heaven 17 – so that he can experience life again: “And catching my breath, we’ll both brave the weather again.”

I lazily thought that the additional instrumental colours were the work of Mick Karn. But the oboe on “Nightporter” is not his, and the rustling, ascending low-level leaf behind Sylvian’s voice is not that of a bass clarinet, but of a bowed double bass.

The double bass player was Barry Guy, the great improvising bassist and composer, one third of Iskra 1903 and leader of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra.

And even though Guy, in retrospect, recalled Japan's hairstyles more readily than he remembered the session, I like to think that this is where the New Pop nettle, before “New Pop” was even thought of as a phrase, was grasped, that Sylvian knew that to survive it had to justify its glories and be able to move music and life forward. And so he put the standards – the Reed, the Bowie, the Dolls, the slide rule of historicism that subsequent generations of musicians could or would not ease themselves past – to the back and considered other ways, listening to musicians creating on the spur of the moment, taking into account the record labels which don’t routinely appear in pop music histories. Labels like Incus, Ogun, Bead, Matchless, Mosaic, FMP, ECM, JAPO, ICP, BVHAAST, Horo, Steam, Steeplechase, Tangent, Black Saint, Soul Note, Delmark, Nessa, IAI.

Or perhaps Sylvian just listened attentively to BBC Radio 3’s Jazz In Britain broadcasts, particularly the one recorded in March 1980 by Barry Guy and the London Jazz Composers Orchestra – Stringer (Four Pieces For Orchestra) – and in particular the second part, which was a slowly rising palindromic compositional arch there to cushion the trumpet improvising of featured Torontonian soloist Kenny Wheeler – a musician who, as mentioned above, by 1984, would be working and recording with David Sylvian – and it is a beautiful, oddly tonal, restrained reflection of somebody’s soul which not so oddly is a little reminiscent, in mood if not in structure, of Japan’s “Nightporter.” And eventually Sylvian would learn about more of these players, and the players with or around or alongside them, and grow. Gone To Earth, Blemish, Manafon – “Nightporter” marks the point where he, and New Pop, had already begun to grow.

Heaven 17

One could understand Heaven 17 being slightly frustrated by the autumn of 1982. Penthouse And Pavement was a permanent fixture in the album chart but they still hadn’t had a Top 40 single, the Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume One project had fizzled away somewhat, and the Human League were…well, what were the Human League doing in the autumn of 1982? The absence of “Mirror Man” from Raiders can be ascribed to the fact that it was still riding high in the charts of Christmas 1982, was in no immediate need of a commercial leg-up (but its B-side, the ominous “You Remind Me Of Gold,” is the great lost Human League song).

But by Christmas 1982 the Human League were no longer really what they had been in January 1982, hadn’t fully come through on their promise. Then again, by Christmas 1982 New Pop was no longer really what it had been in January 1982, hadn’t been allowed to come through fully on anybody’s promise.

The exclamation mark at the end of “Let Me Go!” is necessary, to counteract the general air of frustrated exhaustion that marks the record. The single cover featured a close-up of Glenn Gregory, grasping a telephone receiver as though ready to strangle it, looking at us, angry, confused and tired. The sleeve’s grey shades make a striking contrast to Heaven 17’s previous white-on-white/primary-coloured all-is-welcome façade.

The song was Heaven 17’s masterpiece. It is best experienced in its 12-inch incarnation, as the mix carefully breaks down and highlights all the features which make it such a great and apocalyptic pop record:

  • The lonely Eno via Percy Faith single-note high synthesiser line providing the counter-melody to Gregory’s lead – or was it obtained from the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Slush,” Neil Innes’ laugh looped to hell and never back?

  • John Wilson’s characteristically generous guitar chords, waddling, lost penguin synth bass and acoustic guitar commentary.

  • The Free Design-out-of Sudden Sway vocal counterpoints (“Ba-do-do-ba-bo-ba-bo-bar-up-BOP!”).

  • The eerily still harmonies which remind us that once there was 10cc and “I’m Not In Love.”

This is the seven-inch edit, however, which gathers up all of these elements at once. And the song – “Let Me Go!,” let New Pop go? – plays as though it might be the last pop song ever recorded.

The debris, the wreckage, lie around the group, and they are tidying up as best they can after the threads have been cut forever, knowing that their task is a necessarily forlorn one. From a funk-pop perspective the song is Raw Silk taken to the next level.

And yet Gregory’s voice, angry, confused and lost though it may be, is always carefully controlled. Dignity – ALWAYS dignity. He sings at about half the speed of the song, as though trying to catch the driftwood of human life that has irretrievably fled into space, wondering where, how and why everything went wrong, but knowing that this is the end, or an end.

“Once we were years ahead, but now those thoughts are dead.”
There once was life, an unbroken path, unspecified days of brilliance. But now there is “a torture less sublime.” He knows that he tried (“a thousand times”) but also that it just wasn’t enough, and that everything from hope onward came crashing down. As though their scheme had failed. Their strategy backfired.

Enough.

Enough’s enough.

Enough is enough.

“All I want is NIGHT TIME!”
“I don’t need the DAYTIME!”

Let there not be light if the only light to be glimpsed is a falsehood.

And yet: “the hope of it (that “it” again) survives,” “the facts of life unspoken.”

But, as with Boy George, Gregory is defiant. “Found guilty of no crime!” he sings more than once.

“But now the bank is broken” and all he has left is the last card, to turn down, in either sense.

And, in the middle there, somewhere:

“The best years of our lives.”
“They were the best years of our lives.”

I’ll turn the last card down rather than look at “modern romance.”

The record slips down the lift shaft.

The record slipped away, nearly unnoticed. It peaked at that most fatal of chart positions – number 41.

It told a story that nobody in the early autumn of 1982 wanted to hear.

That wasn’t how, or where, the story New Pop was supposed to go.

It was a “best kept secret.”

Yet the breakthrough would come. But would they still be who they once were?

Tight Fit

Who now knows whether or not the 12-inch of “Fantasy Island” was “actually better” than Led Zeppelin III? It’s out there, that 12-inch, in charity shops across the country, yours for next to nothing, and it is…different from Led Zeppelin III. “Great group, Abba,” commented Peter Easton on BBC Radio Scotland’s Top 40 countdown show while fading out “Fantasy Island.” “Tight Fit seem to think so, anyway.”

But “Fantasy Island” was Tight Fit’s moment, in part a justification for New Pop being what, in May 1982, it was – the boom-clap-boom-clap medley band, hitherto in 1982 the midpoint between “Sugar Baby Love” and “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)” (Paul da Vinci sang the uncredited lead vocal, Paul Young played the uncredited session guitar, and Tight Fit’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was not as good as Eno’s version), broke free, for three-and-a-bit minutes, to record a song about Thatcher’s Britain and involving water and scenery as a sort of metaphor. It was attractive and catchy, it blurred lines between dream and reality (hey hey hey, suggesting that life itself was the strangest dream of all), and it was produced by Tim Friese-Greene, who six years later would produce, with Mark Hollis, Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, a record hugely influenced by the work of Roy Harper, after whom the final song on Led Zeppelin III was in part named. True love, holding everything together.

Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin

The Canterbury School’s Secret History of Pop Music never quite picked up pace again after “It’s My Party” just as Marty Wilde’s pop singing career never quite picked up pace again after he got married; Adam Faith songwriter Les Vandyke wrote “Johnny Rocco” – a Western fantasy, rather than a spinoff from the 1958 American gangster B-movie starring a different Russ Conway – for Wilde, and it stalled at #30 in the early spring of 1960. Stewart and Gaskin don’t really do anything too different to the song, other than making its chord progression more, so to speak, progressive, and emphasising the anti-macho root of the happy payoff, as Gaskin sighs in pure Kentish tones: “Oi think foighting is pa-THE-TIC!” A comment on the Falklands?

Toni Basil/Kid Creole and The Coconuts/Yazoo

Three number two hits in a row, and therefore three records to be written about more fully in TPL’s sister blog (in the fullness of time), so I will confine myself to the following observations, one on each:

  • The dawn of the video age; also the eclipse of the Chinnichap age, one last, fond hurrah before being swallowed up by the future (Gwen Stefani, at this point, is fourteen)?

  • August Darnell; such class, such élan, such persuasiveness does he use to make us believe in his cohorts’ backing vocals (“Ona! Ona! Onomatopoeia!,” “Break it gently to me now!”), the busy percussion and the lazy trombone, all the better that we don’t see the feral misanthropy at this song’s heart, worthy (if “worthy” is the word) of Howlin’ Wolf at his most nihilistic?

  • Yazoo, the old ways kiss the new dawn, or is it a false dawn? “Wonder if you understand/It’s just the touch of your hand” (low voice, confidential, encouraging, fatal pause) “Behind a closed door” (the disappointment, the ruptured rapture).


Lene Lovich

Quite the life Ms Lovich has lived; born in Detroit of Serbian and American parentage, moved to Hull as a teenager, involved in no end of alternative happenings since the late sixties, wrote the lyrics to Cerrone’s “Supernature,” was one of the “future Parliament” in the audience for Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling”…but “Lucky Number” was an NME number two so I’ll leave it to Lena to tell Lovich’s full story.

In the meantime, “It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz)” – note the song’s strategic placing right after “Only You” – just about got into our Top 75 (peaking at #68; in the States it reached as high as #51). A cover of a 1979 Herman Brood/Nina Hagen song, Lovich attacks the number with agreeable relish, sounding remarkably like Patti Smith.

The Beat

It’s remarkable that it has taken until now to get to the group some still call “The English Beat,” at the point where they were practically finished. I’ve written about I Just Can’t Stop It – one of 1980’s great party albums in a year of great party albums – before, didn’t think much of Wh’appen? and reckon Special Beat Service somewhat underrated (my favourite of all Beat records might be the 12-inch of “Too Nice To Talk To”), including as it does the number one which should have been, “Save It For Later,” and much purposeful experimenting leading fairly directly to Fine Young Cannibals and General Public alike. “I Confess” somehow manages to turn its implied skank into a tabla-driven raga, while Dave Wakeling sings one of the reddest-faced pop vocal performances: “I confess I've ruined three lives/Now don't sleep so tight/Because I didn't care ‘til I found out that one of them was mine.”

Toto Coelo

Toto Coelo were not Bananarama. Toto Coelo were not The Belle Stars. Toto Coelo were not Girls At Our Best. Toto Coelo were not The Au Pairs. Toto Coelo were not The Slits. Toto Coelo were not The Raincoats. Toto Coelo were not Pulsallama. Toto Coelo were not Raw Silk.

Toto Coelo were all-round family entertainers. Toto Coelo were Seaside Special. Toto Coelo were 1-2-3 with Ted Rogers and Dusty Bin. Toto Coelo were available. Toto Coelo were reliables who always turned up, and on time. Toto Coelo were showbiz troopers.

And “I Eat Cannibals” really belonged in 1974. “I Eat Cannibals” makes better sense in the bizarre 1974 world of its author and producer Barry Blue. Bizarre? You haven’t heard “Pay At The Gate.” But in terms of “Miss Hit And Run” and the extravagant “Hot Shot,” “I Eat Cannibals” made a whole(some) lot more sense. In the bizarre 1982 world of New Pop “I Eat Cannibals” looked and sounded like an insult to everything New Pop said that it stood for. But “I Eat Cannibals” made number eight because that was what people seemed to want. The waving of lusty hands and yippee-ing amidst primary-coloured tinsel and small audiences pretending to be happy.

Toto Coelo never had another hit. The follow-up “Dracula’s Tango” is perhaps only remembered by members of Toto Coelo. Toto Coelo were one-hit wonders. Toto Coelo were not The Runaways.

Precious Little

This has to rank as the most obscure piece of music that Then Play Long has unearthed. I do not remember “The On And On Song” coming out as a single – and I didn’t miss very much back in 1982. I don’t recall it ever being played on the radio, even though Radio 1 seemed desperately dependent on “novelty” records as a distraction, and not necessarily from New Pop. It was certainly never a hit. I don’t even remember it “bubbling under.”

Did the single of “The On And On Song” ever exist? Or was it only recorded in the hope that it might fill a spare slot on a thirty-track double album “hits” compilation? Why has the song apparently fallen through every black hole that the pop universe has to offer?

I undertook some detective work, and discovered that the single of “The On And On Song” did indeed exist, and was mostly to be found, at the time, in 10p cutout bins. It was recorded somewhere in Wandsworth, released on the world-beating KA record label, and the B-side was an instrumental, designed for singalong/proto-karaoke purposes. Or perhaps it was just a quick and convenient way to fill up a B-side.

The song appears to have been written and performed by one Trisha O’Keefe, of whom I have been able to find no meaningful subsequent trace. All I do know is that “The On And On Song” perhaps belongs on a compilation like the Bevis Frond’s Music For Mentalists, alongside Rusty Goffe’s “I Am The Music Man” or Reginald Bosanquet’s “Dance With Me.” It is a cheery Cockney piano singalong – like Lynsey de Paul discovering Chas and Dave – and lyrically something of a precedent to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Its basic piano/drum machine arrangement is augmented by effects including a cracking whip, a children’s television choir which may well be multiple speeded-up Trisha O’Keefes, a chorus of kazoos, Basil Brush laughs, and octave-jumping piano vamps which are reminiscent of those to be subsequently found in House and Rave music; indeed, these vamps will be the effective lingua franca of the Top 40 a decade hence.

Trisha is feeling daft because her bank manager won’t give her an overdraft to sail the world in her homemade raft. It feels like a refugee from Milligan’s The Bed-Sitting Room, and I briefly wondered whether this was a Crass-style socio-political wind-up. But it was not, and so the song cheerily goes on and on and on and on, this funny little song (one surefire way to ensure that a song remains unfunny is to call it funny), because Britain goes on and on and on and never really changes anything least of all themselves and in truth never want change because they’re an island and they know what’s what even if they become dependent on Red Cross parcels and all get herded into the workhouse to service global lieges but it is Britain and so let’s go on and on and on until the last star fizzles out and the world turns orange as it melts and it goes on and on and ON

Whodini

Such a relief to come across a song which sounds like the late 1982 “now” and perhaps even the next century, let alone the current one. Whodini were three hip hop guys from Brooklyn – in fact, were in on hip hop more or less from the beginning – and “Magic’s Wand” was conceived as a tribute to WBLS radio personality Mr Magic (on whose show the young Marley Marl served as DJ) with considerable help from Thomas Dolby. Now Dolby’s agreeably bending synthesiser lines, like PG Wodehouse shaking your hand in a field of daffodils on Neptune, may sound as quaint as the Farfisa organ on Johnny and the Hurricanes records, but the mood is good-natured and as a low-calorie equivalent to “Buffalo Gals” (to which Dolby also contributed) it makes one briefly nostalgic for times when “rap attack,” “heart attack” and “Big Mac attack” meant nothing more than what they said.

The Pale Fountains

The reaction was to pretend that it was still the sixties. There was a lot of it about as 1982 crawled to what looked like being an anticlimactic end. In 1982 Radio 1 “celebrated” its fifteenth anniversary. On Thursday 30 September their daytime shows played records from 1967 only. I was back at university by then, and spent that day at home studying and writing up this and that, and had Radio 1 on as background. It was an eerie experience, hearing this fifteen-year-old time capsule of records which already sounded as distant as Marie Lloyd and Billy Bennett, yet still not of this world; 1967, like 1982, was a year in which pop exceeded itself, decided to make of itself more than it probably was, and just because bumptious ballads dominated the top end of the charts didn’t cancel out all of the strangeness surrounding them. It felt sinister, not quite right – I think pretty much every non-MoR/novelty hit of the year got played at one point or another.

And as the autumn skies steadily darkened, so that feeling must have slowly spread. “House Of The Rising Sun” and “Hi Ho Silver Lining” returned to the charts without any obvious precipitating factor. “Love Me Do” got its twentieth anniversary “reissue,” finally made the top five and ensured that history was rewritten in the winners’ favour. There were also sixties pastiches, most of them feeble (e.g. “Danger Games” by the Pinkees, Mari Wilson finally making the top ten with her worst single, where two previous singles of genius had failed).

There were things which forced themselves to stand out, like “Parade” by Roy White and Steve Torch. Dismissed by most at the time as a pallid “tonight Matthew we’re going to be the Walker Brothers” shadow of a record, I knew at the time that this record was saying something more, was more urgent and threatening (“I’m KILLING YOU!” went the throaty chorus). Steve Torch was first choice as bassist for Dexy’s, but didn’t feel he was up to it and passed on the offer, though did co-write several songs for the group (notably “Liars A To E”) – hence the muttered, if mistaken, belief among some listeners at the time who thought it was Kevin Rowland singing. It remains a dark, twilight cloud of a record about sexual jealousy and personal uncertainty, with dynamic chord changes, most of which were carefully ironed out and simplified for Rhydian Roberts’ 2011 nice try at a cover version.

And then there were Liverpool’s Pale Fountains. Signed to Virgin for a LOT of money, the label needed a hit more or less straightaway. Hence, the big Fairchild compressor orchestral balladry of “Thank You,” where a humble song (its sentiments echoed by Michael Head’s disconcerting – in this fulsome context - Edwyn Collins-ish vocal) is blown up out of its natural proportions by strings, choirs, and Andy Diagram’s “Penny Lane” trumpet. The record sounded exactly like what it was – scally indie made to wear an uncomfortable tuxedo – and so stopped at #48.

They never got close again, not even with 1983’s immensely superior follow-up “Palm Of My Hand,” whose failure to chart I can directly ascribe to the fact that at the time the single was bloody impossible to find. By the time they belatedly reached their debut album, 1984’s Pacific Street, the group had moved on somewhat, and any potential audience remained baffled.

1985’s …From Across The Kitchen Table, possibly an even better album, fell on largely deaf ears, and the band split in 1987. Head then went on, via many well-documented troubles, to form the group Shack, but it wasn’t until 1995 and the release of their rescued debut album Waterpistol – then already four years old – that the critical tide began to turn his way. A second Shack album, HMS Fable, was also widely saluted, if hardly bought, but Head’s best and most intense work might be found on 1997’s The Magical World Of The Strands, released under the banner of “Michael Head Introducing The Strands” (they had lately backed Love’s Arthur Lee on his British tour); “Loaded Man” in particular, an anything but funny or little song which goes on and on and on, is not for the squeamish – an effort to make “the sixties” matter again. And a word to Chris McCaffery, Head’s best friend at school and bassist for the Pale Fountains, who died of a brain tumour not long after the group split.

Shakin’ Stevens

“I don’t want to hear a lie”; strange how this truth-or-dare thing permeates Raiders. There are the accordion and the castanets, the Latin tempo; if only Shaky were David Hidalgo this could easily be Los Lobos. Nashville’s Billy Livsey wrote the song; the ambience of a slightly claustrophobic recording studio remains audible; and the single, the title track of a top three album, peaked only at #11. It might have climbed higher if Stevens hadn’t had to cancel a Top Of The Pops appearance; the vacant slot was given to the single at #38 that week – “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” by Culture Club.

Simple Minds

The Four Seasons of 1982 New Pop:

Winter going into spring: Pelican West.
Spring sliding into summer: Sulk.
Summer eliding into autumn: New Gold Dream.
Autumn moving into winter: A Kiss In The Dreamhouse.

1981 had seen Simple Minds with hope. With Steve Hillage, a memory of the musicians’ days of buying Virgin records out of the old Virgin Records shop on Argyle Street, producing; with hope. With Jim Kerr, monologued by Morley in the NME (it also appears in Ask), warning that the old games won’t work anymore, telling critics not to do them down and mark them like recalcitrant school pupils. The rocking old game of talk them up one year, mark them down the next. Like Sons And Fascination was a bloody fourth year essay. An ink exercise partially crossed out with a red critical pen saying “See me.” But Sons And Fascination transcended all of that nonsense – to paraphrase Russell Brand said in The Guardian just now, when music critics criticise musicians for using “long words” and making “pretentious records,” they mean they’re using their long words, making the critics’ pretentious records – and the record (and its Sister) spelled out hope. A hope in a record which appeared just after the death of Bill Shankly and not long after the death of my father either. A record which meant something extraordinarily special to the people who knew, or lived in, or were leaving, the Glasgow of September 1981. An overall patience, as opposed to the liberating, agonised rush of Empires And Dance. You could listen to “Theme For Great Cities” and know exactly which cities the Minds had in mind. Or to “The American” – the most exciting final thirty seconds of any pop record, as Peel rightly said – or “Sweat In Bullet” or “Seeing Out The Angel” and you knew you weren’t walking alone.

New Gold Dream – and never forget its not-quite-subtitle, ’81-’82-’83-’84 (how thrillingly futuristic the notion of “’83” was in 1982, at least the way Kerr exclaimed or proclaimed it) – represented pop’s better afterlife, a quietly, modestly (or so it would appear; no less than three drummers turn up in different places, and sometimes in the same place, throughout the record) enveloped example of what we could have if we admitted to ourselves that we wanted it. “Somebody Up There Likes You” – remember that corner you turned nine years before and suddenly the sun grinned away the grey overlay of cloud? A raised, beatific eyebrow from somebody’s god? And yet, and especially throughout the second half of the record’s second side, a realisation as resigned as “Mr Blue Sky” that this can never last, that something darker and perhaps more forbidding looms up: “The King Is White And In The Crowd” – all build-up, no release, no rush; just waiting, waiting.

The hits – “Miracle,” “Glittering,” Abba, we were fed up with not having a hit, Peter Powell’s astonishing introduction on his Tuesday teatime chart recap to the Minds making the charts at last; yes, these are our days, Burchill’s nearly one-note but multichordal, silently screaming guitar solo, the wider screen, the sheet-sweeping drums, Forbes’ midfield bass suddenly buckling up like its knees had gone and then shooting into the top corner when nobody was looking or expecting, “Prize” the Abba up to the news heaven that many dared not dream.

And, above all, the song which opens the record.

And why Peter Walsh? He was a staff producer at Virgin, had worked on Penthouse And Pavement and the group said fine. Then he worked with Peter Gabriel and China Crisis and then Scott walked by and said, hey, can I have him for Climate Of Hunter and three tilting, drifting decades later he is still there.

But Scott walked by and asked Virgin for Peter Walsh because he had heard New Gold Dream and couldn’t believe what he was hearing. A dream for sure, unlike any pop record ever produced, not even that much like Abba.

“Someone Somewhere In Summertime” seems to begin mid-song, or open up like a box of jewels. As a song it feels as if it is being played on stilts forty thousand feet high, removed from any easy notion of physicality. It ticks like God’s clock pasted onto Jodrell Bank, all the better to time the stars. It moves with one hundred and one orchestras of strings.

And all the time, Jim Kerr reaches out to his Bowie, from station to station:

“Stay, I’m burning slow.”
Walking in the rain, but it won’t last. Because moments burn, like gunfire.

The King is white and in the cloud.

He is returning from somewhere, a journey unspecified. “Once more see city lights”; if he sees a light flashing, does this mean that he’s not alone?

But “Brilliant days. Wake up on brilliant days.”

At the time, I could think of nothing else except waking up on brilliant days, coming to consciousness in a new and better world that was yours, only yours. “Shadows of brilliant ways will change me all the time” – and something happens which doesn’t happen often, if at all, in pop music; the keyboards strike a Picardy third, minor-to-major, while bass continues in its minor-key drone, Burchill’s guitar an uneasy yet completely logical halfway house between the two.

And it builds up, as such things build up – because it is already built up, far above us – as Kerr sings: “Somewhere there is some place that one million eyes can’t see/And somewhere there is someone who can see what I can see.” A place for us as drums and bass pick up, church organ sounds out and the rising bustle of “Eye Of The Tiger” is met far more satisfactorily. A cry, a hope, no pain, only semi-bewildered joy.

And this was the lesson of New Gold Dream; the shadows were leavening but New Pop couldn’t die or be killed or supplanted; it proved itself endlessly able to twist into new turning shapes, it would outlive all the racketeers who would profit in its pseudo-wake. There was never going to be a wake for New Pop, travelling, seeing out all angels, on a clear day seeing forever.

Robert Palmer

The song was written by Jeff Fortgang about forty years ago. His attempt to break into the songwriting business proved stillborn and he instead opted for a career as a clinical psychologist. But the song didn’t die. People found it, stumbled upon it. And sometimes altered it out of all recognition.

Including Robert Palmer – now, Lena and I have been thinking very hard about who does and doesn’t constitute New Pop, and we think that it should incorporate those who had already been around for some time but didn’t find their (im)proper selves until New Pop allowed them to do so. So Scarborough’s Robert Palmer, rocking the pubs with The Alan Bown! and Vinegar Joe, only really comes to life, or into view, when he asks Gary Numan for a tune on his 1980 album Clues, and the record still sounds as bustling and foreboding as anything on early eighties Island Records.

And so his “Some Guys Have All The Luck,” before Rod Stewart and Maxi Priest’s boring textbook readings (though after Palmer died, Stewart began to use his rearrangement onstage), where Palmer essentially cuts the song into little pieces of white paper, throws them in the air, sees where they land and sings what he sees. Which is mostly inarticulate grunts, squeals, mutters and shrieks counteracted by an electrifying Russell Mael falsetto. He happily, politely rebuts the concept of a pop song in this pop song released and in the charts at the same time as “Poison Arrow” and “Party Fears Two.” And he was loved and couldn’t be stopped by anybody except him.

UB40

Wake up on less than brilliant days? The rhythm squelches along electronically, as though trudging through puddles to that bloody bus stop. The relationship of bass to guitar and rhythm oddly parallels Simple Minds. Morose horns – noticeably greyer than those on “Ghost Town” but perhaps UB40 recognised the greyness more readily – bring down the clouds and help pave the way for Roots Manuva (Run Come Save Me in particular feels like an extended appendage to “So Here I Am” with some Dammers mischief sprinkled). Even Brian Travers’ normally placid tenor sax is rather angry, threatening to break into George Khan multiphonics at any time in his solo.

But who in late 1982 was walking with UB40? Not too many people. Their first two albums, Signing Off (1980) and Present Arms (1981), both peaked at #2 (they both topped the equivalent NME chart), and remain shockingly sober reflections on a world which didn’t seem to rise much above the depths of Digbeth. Sober and patient; even their stand-alone 1980 single “The Earth Dies Screaming” – so much quieter, far more frightening than “Two Tribes” – scarcely raised its voice. They found sober pride in their form of reggae (whereas Dammers was itching to prove that the world wasn’t flat and Madness had moved off to their own arena of matey darkness); it is like Bill Shankly’s idea of reggae, and more and more people gradually drifted off.

So “So Here I Am,” not quite their last 45 statement before 1983’s big turnaround, and Ali Campbell is at the bus stop, wishing he were somewhere – and probably somebody – else. There is no hope, not even the merest glimpse of sunshine other than something mercilessly watery. The fadeout seems to last forever as a final mockery of Those Fabulous Eighties.

Before UB40 reached back and became part of Those Fabulous Eighties.

Gregory Isaacs

A single of its year, maybe of any year. No, it wasn’t a hit because it “sold in all the wrong shops.” But everyone knew it anyway. Art Garfunkel. And Green Gartside. These were the only two singers to come close to what the Cool Ruler managed – deep emotion stated in a throwaway fashion, so throwaway that it translates into the song of a choirboy.

“This heart is broken in love,” purrs Isaacs over a steadily rocking electro-skank pulse which hardly changes throughout the record. His “Tell her it’s a patient called Gregory” outranks the entire career of Roger Moore (indeed, he even conveys something of the prematurely [s]exhausted-spirit of Sylvian on “Nightporter”). “Oh GOSH” – and then comes the holiest of pauses – “oh the pain is getting worse”; and he has never sounded more content. He sings “I’m hurt in love” deadpan – melisma is entirely absent – and immediately you empathise with him as you would do with the Green of “Simply Beautiful” or the Gaye of “If I Should Die Tonight.” At that fadeout, another, conclusive, Gielgud-esque “Oh GOSH…” beaming like a slowly awakening fire hydrant.

Oh yes, Robert Wyatt. There was always a fourth voice.

Morrissey-Mullen

“Let me tell you about my mother” – it could be a line from Fame, couldn’t it? You will have probably long since guessed that despite the many glimpses of hope on this particular transition, the story is fated not to end well. I have said things about Blade Runner previously on TPL and don’t propose to reiterate them here, except to say that Vangelis’ soundtrack must be listened to, making such startling use of old chart ghosts (Peter Skellern, Mary Hopkin, Demis Roussos), and that its saxophone solos are performed by Dick Morrissey.

The theme here is the “Love Theme,” if it can so be called, and here is subjected to the news-in-two-minutes mid-afternoon radio jazz-funk treatment. No stain on the character of either the late Mr Morrissey, a hard bop tenorman who had been a stalwart on the British jazz scene since the days of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes and who at much the same time as this performed the saxophone solo on Orange Juice’s “Rip It Up,” nor of Glasgow jazz guitarist Jim Mullen, but their interpretation is, to put it diplomatically, uninvolving. But some of their backing musicians would wash up, towards the end of the decade, within the menacing contours of Chris Rea’s The Road To Hell – a record far closer to what Blade Runner implied.

The Kids From “Fame

Like I said, it’s the end of something, and this is the fulsome picture of the hell to come; people pretending to be happy when their souls and their homes have been stolen away, the school choir unity of too many charity records to come, the desecration of gospel that will culminate in Cowell, the central assembly point for people who don’t want subtext, excitement or outrage – or even mild difference – but shiny conveyor belt shite that will fit in the checkout with the Brillo pads and Johnson’s air fresheners. Throughout 1983 it will be a repeated story of what “we” might have had instead of what we have been left with, and in at least one of these twenty-one cases the edict “he got what he wanted but lost what he had” will have a singularly and unpleasantly bitter aftertaste.

This music was no better when I was nineteen.


But, these days we have seen.