Sunday, 24 February 2013

STAR SOUND: Stars On 45



(#245: 23 May 1981, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Stars On 45/No Reply/I’ll Be Back/Drive My Car/Do You Want To Know A Secret/We Can Work It Out/I Should Have Known Better/Nowhere Man/You’re Going To Lose That Girl/Ticket To Ride/The Word/Eleanor Rigby/Every Little Thing/And Your Bird Can Sing/Get Back/Eight Days A Week/It Won’t Be Long/Daytripper/Wait/Good Day Sunshine/My Sweet Lord/Here Comes The Sun/While My Guitar Gently Weeps/Taxman/A Hard Day’s Night/Things We Said Today/If I Fell/You Can’t Do That/Please Please Me/From Me To You/I Want To Hold Your Hand/Stars On 45 (Medley) (Star Sound)/Stars On 45/Boogie Nights/Funky Town/Video Killed The Radio Star/Venus/Sugar Sugar/Cathy’s Clown/Breaking Up Is Hard To Do/Only The Lonely (Know The Way I Feel)/Lady Bump/Jimmy Mack/Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again/Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini/Stars On 45 (Medley) (Star Sound)/Do You Remember/Lucille/Bird Dog/Runaway/Bread And Butter/That’s All Right [Mama]/Rip It Up/Jenny Jenny (Medley) (Long Tall Ernie and The Shakers)/Golden Years Of Rock And Roll/Sherry/Wooly Bully/Buona Sera/Slippin’ And Slidin’/Nutrocker/At The Hop (Medley) (Long Tall Ernie and The Shakers)

Look, I’m not trying to be John Ruskin here and insist on unshakable aesthetic absolutes. But nor am I being an uncritical leveller, trying to paint a picture where every number one album is exactly as good, or as bad, as every other number one album – much as one might wish in an ideal world. The key word on the tagline at the top of this page is “might”; I’m not for one moment suggesting that anybody would want to listen to every one of these records, simply that many deserve some form of reconsideration and re-addressing.

This doesn’t just mean that some number one albums are “better” than others but also that some number one albums stink to low hell. And that’s not just a standard objective versus subjective internal brain-tearer. I recognised the inaudible collective sigh of relief when this blog got to Please Please Me after some eight months of what many considered tedious preliminaries, a list of records which might still adorn the average Sunday playlist on BBC Radio 2, an unceasing cycle of Hollywood musicals, Elvis, Frank, Cliff, Shadows…and three albums by the George Mitchell Minstrels, which I’d be surprised if anybody played any more (I recall one comment on an early Bob Dylan entry which expressed relief that we were past all those “minstrel abominations”) with their interminable singalong/clapalong medleys of tunes which might once have been good.

The point is that when the Beatles came along, the George Mitchell Minstrels were part of what they had come to overthrow, the stultifying non-culture, the refusal to allow teenagers to be anything other than miniature replicas of their parents, the continuing, unquestioning, suffocating cap-in-hand deference to an unspecified, but presumably superior, past. They represented a fresh start, an end to all the compromise that had been settled for before they came.

So you may understand my residual dismay at how, a generation later, and with one of the Beatles recently dead, this record felt as though the George Mitchell Minstrels were circling around the corpse and reclaiming it as one of their own, all along. Side one of Stars On 45 is a gruelling listening experience, with its implicit suggestion that, really, “The Beatles” never happened.

The concept had its accidental generation in Montreal, where a studio group under the name of Passion put together a bootleg mix of various songs and snatches, including “Sugar Sugar” and “Venus” as well as a four-minute segment of Beatles songs, sampling the original recordings (there had been in 1977 a single called “Disco Beatlemania,” a sequenced medley by another studio group calling itself DBM, but this has no apparent relation to Star Sound). One Willem van Kooten, the head of the Dutch music publishing firm Red Bullet Productions, heard the record in a shop one day. He was impressed by it but realised from the unauthorised use of “Venus” – to which Red Bullet held the copyright – that it was probably illicit. He contacted Jaap Eggermont, the somersaulting ex-drummer of Golden Earring, who commissioned a group of session players and singers to go into the studio and record two long soundalike medleys, incorporating the elements from the Passion disc (which was entitled “Let’s Do It In The ‘70s – Great Hits”) and avoiding any undue legal calumny – although the “Stars On 45” theme itself borrows heftily from Sparks’ “Beat The Clock” and the SOS Band’s “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” without crediting either.

The initial single took off immediately and a slapdash album, which in various parts of the world had different titles, different covers, different track listings and even different artist names, was assembled. The single version closely followed the Passion original; the album mix funnels out the Archies and Shocking Blue elements and concentrates on the Beatles for fully sixteen minutes.

And it is vile. Not so much as a wake of mourning at Lennon as outright necrophilia. I have heard the Passion original, and the cutting and pasting, using original sources, is skilful and clever. In addition, the selection of Beatles songs used is far from obvious. But Star Sound dismisses all this in favour of gloomy Dutch voices doing their best to sound like John (reasonable), Paul (not too good) or George (dismal; see “Here Comes The Sun” for an especially gruesome example). At no point do you not think that you are listening to anything other than a smudged Xerox of something that was once great, crucial even; all the art, from “Taxman” to “You Can’t Do That,” traduced to a cold procession of cheap-sounding “best bits” (and the interjections of “Eleanor Rigby” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” into the unchanging boom-CLAP-boom-CLAP rhythm track are as painfully ungainly as you’d imagine). It is like putting an enlarged cardboard cutout of John Lennon at the dinner table and pretending he’s the guest of honour.

The medley suggests, in a longer-term setting, that the Beatles amounted to nothing but an assortment of cute bits which can be easily chopped up and set to a “dance music” beat. At least Frank Farian’s Boney M had some semblance of personality with their absurd cover versions, even if it was usually Frank Farian’s. But who is this Star Sound? And who cared? This isn’t even the knowing anonymity of the Top Of The Pops records, with session singers making the best of a bad job, but dead-handed nothingness. Listen to it from three rooms away and it might vaguely sound like the Beatles. Listen to it close up and it sounds like pop gruel. The stupid theme comes back at the end, hangs around and then slowly fades, as if it’s going to live forever. Nothing is changed, no one is really moved.

And I’m not necessarily looking for “depth” in these albums – not all the time, anyway – but just some evidence that life and thought have been put into them. Side two is so awful it almost makes side one sound like Echo and the Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here - a record from the same period and a far more fitting tribute to Lennon, in its own across the Liverpudlian universe way. The other “Star Sound” medley plays as if someone cut up a list of hit records and pulled them randomly out of a hat. A mash-up of “Boogie Nights” and “Funky Town” is attempted. The rest is unlistenable; “Cathy’s Clown” glued over boom-CLAP-boom-CLAP is so inept I could have done it. Not fun, not camp, not ironic – God forbid – and not even that disco. Who would be dancing to this?

Long Tall Ernie and the Shakers? Viewers of the recent 1978 TOTP repeats may shudder at the name, and with good reason; they were on doing the “Do You Remember” segment of this record (yes, it was also produced by Eggermont, hence its pad-out-the-album reappearance here) and if rock and roll ever had anything to do with anything, there’s no evidence of it here. The “Little Richard” sounds like the “Paul McCartney” on the other side. Elvis? Didn’t he mean something…once?

“Golden Years Of Rock And Roll” is, however, worse, if that is possible; lyrics which sound constructed using primitive BabelFish (“Had a good time/Milkshakes and wine” – WHAT?) with impressions of Holly, Presley and even Paul Anka (“I’m so young and you’re so old/Another record that went gold” – readers, I kid you not) so bad I’m convinced they were deliberately so, as if to undermine and even ridicule what these people might once have meant. Buddy? Ah-well ah-well isn’t it time for Blankety Blank? Here, Sam the Sham and Louis Prima (though “Buona Sera” sounds here as though “sung” by Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers) are put through the same lowest common denominator coffee grinder, stamped out of individuality and even existence. “At The Hop” is sung like Elvis and the singer vomits halfway through. The end of the record can’t come soon enough.

And yet FIVE weeks at number one. WHY? This raises in my mind questions that I maybe don’t even want to think about. No self-respecting disco, mobile or otherwise, would have played this. Who was it for? Get your mates in, push back the sofas, roll up the carpet, open up the Watney’s and aWA-HEY you go? I mean, it goes beyond even the point of people wanting songs rather than singers as such. The soundalike albums we’ve done before may have been cynical to a point but at least they gave you whole, unbroken songs.

But this…well, the copy I bought still has its blue, yellow and white “BLITZ PRICE £3.99” sticker on it – and I paid substantially less than £3.99 for it – which I seem to remember was from Our Price, or was it Virgin, or who knows (it’s so long ago it’s fled my memory)? All I know is that you could have bought anything else for that price, or cheaper, at the time; not just Heaven Up Here but Computer World, or Flowers Of Romance, or even Mutant Disco - a dance record that truly is everything that Stars On 45 isn’t, and one I still play for pleasure to this day. Or Nightclubbing.

But no, people wanted to grasp on to…I don’t know what. Not a memory, probably not even much to do with John Lennon or the Beatles. Just…people who don’t only buy only ten albums a year, but probably don’t like music that much. It has a beat of some sort, and apparently that is enough. And unlike everywhere else in the world, where Stars On 45 was treated as a charming little novelty before humanity moved on, Britain was plagued by a veritable St Vitus’ Dance epidemic of copyists and ambulance chasers, such that by July or August of 1981 the singles chart was in danger of being choked by the multiplicity of crappy dance medleys dominating it. Then “Tainted Love” went to number one, and the picture changed again, and for the better, and the medley craze slowly slithered out of sight and out of the charts. It is as if Britain had been gripped by a temporary madness of mass delusion.

Still, it is unsettling, and to me something of an insult; you spend a year with number one albums, building up and up in quality and importance, and suddenly you are thrust back down to the dregs. As I said, 1981 was a year of violent extremes of reaction; the two record-shopping tribes now perhaps gone to war. But if that had only been the end of it, instead of which, as the eighties jog to an end, up pop Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers to thrust us back into the Bronze Age once again – and maybe Stars On 45 was a first and fateful step to the current state of atrophy where people no longer seem to want songs, with beginnings, middles, endings and points, but 30-second segments of songs (“Harlem Shake” is 30 seconds of mediocre imagination left to run for three-and-a-half minutes). Where listeners no longer wish to listen, or even to work, at music; it’s all there, carefully filleted for their instant gratification. There is just no life here, least of all John Lennon’s.

I have no hesitation in naming Stars On 45 the worst album I have so far listened to as part of this exercise. And it’s not as though there isn’t worse to come (unbelievably, there is). But if Adam and the Ants – on the same label as Star Sound, never let it be forgotten – offered “Antmusic,” then Star Sound offer “ANTI-music.” One listens to this record and wonders if the people behind it actually hate music. It would certainly persuade the undecided listener never to bother with music again.

Oh, and Jaap Eggermont didn’t remember “Twist And Shout” since it’s not included. I have no doubt that the shade of Bert Berns was enormously grateful.

Next: every action has an equal and opposite reaction – the worst number one album is displaced by one of the most extreme number one albums.

11 comments:

Billy Smart said...

Oh dear! I have a recommendation for how to cleanse your palette and recover your equilibrium after your unfortunate experience. Listen to the Portsmouth Sinfonia's 'Classical Muddley' - a number 38 smash at the end of the summer of '81 and surely the only medley single of that year that can be listened to with pleasure. It's certainly a work of handcrafted humanity - even their boom-CLAP-boom-CLAP rhythm comes from a flawed humane wonky source, and the applause at it's conclusion is the appreciative sound of humility and creativity.

Radio Ember said...

Did people not know what they were getting? You might have to be fairly credulous to think you could fit 61 full-length tracks onto an LP but it seems that people might have bought it by accident, especially if they weren't all that engaged with the music scene as was.

(also: while the concept of "music for people that don't like music" has rightly been kicked to death, I feel like "music for/by people who hate music" has legs)

arniesnarb said...

Yikes! Sounds like an even nastier attack on pop than The Residents' own medley from 5 years earlier, The Third Reich 'N' Roll!

JG said...

Radio Ember, good point about copies being purchased 'by accident.' I never thought of that possibility, but it seems inevitable that there'd be some people who'd be fooled in such a way (even if it wasn't intentional).

Or customers who realized it wasn't the original versions, but were game enough to buy it anyway out of curiosity.

Not sure how to say this without sounding a bit elitist, but putting questions of taste aside, I think a fair part of the audience for something like this is people who relate to music more intellectually than emotionally. The *idea* (especially 30 years ago) of splicing and disco-fying a bunch of Beatles songs is actually pretty interesting to me. But the concept alone isn't enough to overcome a horrendous execution. However, I can imagine other listeners letting it wash over them, exclaiming "wow, isn't this cool?" Like they're first in line for the newest Apple gizmo.

Mark G said...

The appeal of those medley singles can be sourced from how the TV Adverts for some of the K-Tel / Ronco compilation ads were more 'exciting' than the albums in question

londonlee said...

There were lots of mobile discos that weren't so self-respecting as I've heard this at quite a few weddings and other family dos along with things like 'The Birdie Song'

Marcello Carlin said...

There comes a point in the mainstream where neither intellectualism nor emotion really comes into it; Lena told me last week she saw a guy in the supermarket, at the CD section, asking an assistant if they had a particular song, or failing that, anything with a beat. Strikes me that sums up Stars On 45 pretty readily; the consumer who really isn't too bothered about music one way or the other, but just wants "anything with a beat."

MikeMCSG said...

There's a whole chapter exploring this idea in "The Best A Man Can Get" by John O' Farrell who might ( but probably won't ) be MP for Eastleigh by the end of the week. His protagonist is commissioned to compile a CD of classical music bits as heard on commercials, his wife suggests a compilation novel, goals videos are thrown in the mix and so on. His boss tells him "the sort of people who'll buy it won't be able to tell it sounds shit".

Besides "Classical Mudley" I thought the Squeeze medley on the B side of "Labelled With Love" was quite good. I remember the medley summer very well ( an extended break between O and A Levels). Peter Powell always used to get agitated when he had to play one on his Tuesday chart rundown which was almost, but not quite a reason to cherish them.

mildboy said...

God this seemed to infest everything at the time - even indie land. Though I always had a soft spot for orange juice's riposte with blokes on 45 and a girls at our best peel session - going nowhere beautiful fast.


Tom Albrighton said...

Stars on 45 presciently embodied the fragmentation of culture in the digital age. What is Twitter if not a medley of meaningless snippets of other people's lives, set to the crushing beat of our own self-regard?

Marcello Carlin said...

I try to make at least some art out of it.