Saturday, 27 April 2013

Shakin' STEVENS: Shaky



(#255: 7 November 1981, 1 week)

Track listing: Mona Lisa/You Drive Me Crazy/I’m Knockin’/It’s Raining/Don’t She Look Good/Green Door/Don’t Bug Me Baby/Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles/I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter/This Time/Baby You’re A Child/Don’t Turn Your Back/Let Me Show You How/I’m Lookin’

Nearly six years after Max Boyce gathered up the Welsh working class vote, here we are again, but this time it is much more problematic. I have to admit that I do feel rather deflated coming out of Dare, and its promises for the future, only to find myself back in “The Fifties” or even earlier – “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” dates from 1935. Say what you will about this record or this artist, though; the demographic was almost entirely conservative (with a small “c”) blue collar working class, looking to roll back the carpets and push back the sofas of a weekend evening, open the drinks cabinet and get a party started, even if only to remember what they once were.

It ought to be remembered that Shakin’ Stevens still had a good degree of credibility when his cover of “This Ole House” went to number one in March 1981; most people saw it as due reward for a dozen or more years of hard, sweaty gigging. Similarly, his backing band of this period was far from rubbish, including as it did fellow Cardiff players like the late Mickey Gee on guitar and Geraint Watkins on keyboards as well as stalwarts like BJ Cole and bassist/producer/Shaky reinventor/updater/sometime Radio 1 DJ Stuart Colman (the saxophonist Sid Phillips was not the celebrated British dance band leader, who died in 1973).

So, to put it very simply, Shaky, as a record, knocks Showaddywaddy out of the ballpark; the music is lighter, more febrile, and Stevens and his players appear to be having a much better time making it; the feeling throughout is very much of a live performance – were there any overdubs? – with plenty of encouraging whooping and hollering from the singer himself. If all you wanted in 1981 was a straight down the line, good time party rock ‘n’ roll record, then Shaky certainly fit the bill.

It didn’t really matter that by the autumn of 1981 Stevens, who had in part risen to such great success on the back of the rockabilly revival, was not remotely hip, or that by November 1981 rock ‘n’ roll had ventured as far as Prayers On Fire or Damaged. Nobody I knew of my age liked him particularly, or bought his records. He just didn’t register on my radar. And yet he was phenomenally and persistently popular; statistically he is the most successful performer on the UK singles chart of the entire eighties, and probably the only artist to have Top 40 hits every year of that decade, without qualifications – Phil Collins appears every year between 1980-9, either as a soloist or one-third of Genesis; Cliff Richard had Top 40 hits as a solo artist every year except 1986, when he had two top three hits in collaboration with other performers; Paul Weller also turns up in each year, as a member of either the Jam or the Style Council (and honourable mention should be made of the Cure, who managed to get Top 50 hits every year of the eighties, even if, in 1981 and 1988, these did not penetrate as far as the Top 40). In overall 1981 singles popularity he was probably second only to CBS labelmates Adam and the Ants.

Why such popularity? Because Stevens supplied a security blanket for people living in fear of the future, of Mrs Thatcher and perhaps also of themselves. Listening to Shaky, one admires the technical skill of the players, the sharpness of the production and Stevens’ evident commitment to the music – but there is no thrill, no otherness, no Jerry Lee threats, no Vincent strangeness. There is certainly little in the way of Elvis, even the never-more-popular middle-stage Elvis Stevens played on stage in the year of punk; it rocks but doesn’t particularly roll.

And yet it is not accurate to assume that Shakin’ Stevens is free of menace. Remember that, in the late sixties, he and his band, the Sunsets (which at one point included Mickey Gee in their line-up), were making their reputation as a gigging band, playing, amongst other things, benefits for the Young Communist League, in the shadow of the Prague Spring. And looking at the cover and inner inset of Shaky does not set me at rest. On the cover, he is spotlit, on a staircase, grasping blindly at a banister, pointing his right forefinger away from the camera and towards the right, wearing a one-button pink drape jacket and black shirt and jeans; he is not quite smiling and his eyes exude a deep threat (he was now thirty-three). On the back year he is glaring from a chair, ready to pounce, with eyeshadow and mascara, bearing a curious half-grin; he looks almost like the uncle of that other troubled 1981 Welsh pop star, Steve Strange. Inside, we see a monochrome picture of him perched on the bonnet of a fancy car (number plate: AUR 32S) in front of a fancy country mansion (or perhaps it’s in Chiswick, just up the road from Eden Studios, where Shaky was recorded). He looks like Bryan Ferry, except that Ferry would never be seen dead in denim jacket and jeans, and also would never essay such a scowl; Stevens’ eyes never smile, suggest that they are capable of darker, worse things.

“Mona Lisa” is done √° la Conway Twitty’s version, reinstating the verse Nat “King” Cole left out. “Mmmm…” Stevens drools after the first chorus. “You Drive Me Crazy,” custom written for Stevens by Ronnie Harwood, once of Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, and kept off number one only by “Stand And Deliver,” features some good guitar work from Gee – towards fadeout he alternately tickles and growls – and some nice pop touches (the echo-chamber snare doubling Stevens’ “train on a track”). “I’m Knockin’,” one of five Stevens originals, suggests that he might be going for the Antmusic vote with a percussion-dominant background and a vocal which, not for the last time on this record, is reminiscent of Robert Plant (“I’m not saying this for su-hu-hu-hurrr-re”) with a terrifying cackle at fadeout; indeed, given the subsequent example of the Honeydrippers, one wonders whether a Zeppelin with a surviving Bonham might not have done something similar as a one-off roots revival record.

“It’s Raining” is Allen Toussaint and Stevens handles it very well with some outstanding piano by Watkins, but as a single it’s hard to see how it justified sharing chart space with “O Superman” and “Open Your Heart,” although there are moments – “I can hardly catch my bre-EATH” – when Stevens’ voice echoes that of the later Lennon. “Don’t She Look Good” continues to remind us that Stevens, by and large, didn’t go for obvious covers; this rocker was composed by Joey Spampinato, bassist of NRBQ. He handles “Green Door,” that mixed metaphor of a fifties song, with the right combination of camp and self-awareness, inserting several different varieties of laugh into his performance. “Don’t Bug Me Baby” is polite franticity (“You squirm like a lizard when you hold me tight”), though does imply some indirect awareness of the 1981 of Computer World (“I don’t wanna bug in my lovin’ machine!”).

Side two begins with a very decent Don Gibson reading (“Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles”) and Stevens has great fun with “Sit Right Down,” slowing it down to barrelhouse/Longhair tempo with handclaps (there are clap-along moments throughout the album, a subtler variant on CBS labelmates Star Sound) and superb soloing and comping from Gee. But note Stevens’ final, whispered “yeah” beneath Gee’s vanishing cloud of guitar flourish at song’s end.

“This Time” by Memphis R&B veteran Chips Moman, is handled with great aplomb, Stevens not at all put off by the bizarre flamenco Spanish guitar runs which open and conclude the song. The rest of the album is given over to Stevens originals, all modestly inventive variants on basic rock ‘n’ roll templates; though both “Don’t Turn Your Back” and especially “Let Me Show You How” make me think of Plant again (the lyric to the latter is absolute get-your-freak-on level Zeppelin) with Stevens having a shark of a time, if not quite a whale, talking to musicians, cueing musicians in, etc. The closing “I’m Lookin’” is “That’s All Right Mama” cranked up to 170 epileptic rpm, frantic, clucking and conclusive.

If you didn’t care to think about it more, you’d probably be happy enough with the record, although it should be noted that, even though it went platinum, it did not appear on CD until 2009, and then only as part of Stevens’ The Epic Masters box set. There may be reasons for this; there is one song I have held back – “Baby You’re A Child,” and it is with some dismay that enterprising listeners are thrown right back into the worst memes of pre-eighties rock and pop. It is a regrettable song in the way that “Young Girl,” “Hot Legs” and “Does Your Mother Know” are regrettable. It is cast more or less in the mould of Presley’s “Teddy Bear” – until it slows down to a raucous “The Stripper” tempo and Stevens yells, lasciviously, “So throw away your teddy!” and then the face of the listener freezes into rictus. If anything, it sounds, as much of the rest of Shaky sounds, old fashioned; old, exhausted ways of doing things which even in 1981 should have been more fiercely questioned. Who was buying this stuff in 1981? Perhaps it was the parents, aunts and uncles of the people whose idea of rock ‘n’ roll was more in the line of another of that autumn’s releases, namely For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) by AC/DC, a record next to which Shaky amiably curls up and dies. Perhaps it is best simply to move on as there really is nothing to see here.

Next: “What do you mean, the all-time biggest-selling album in the UK approaching?”

Monday, 22 April 2013

The HUMAN LEAGUE: Dare



(#254: 31 October 1981, 1 week; 9 January 1982, 3 weeks)

Track listing: The Things That Dreams Are Made Of/Open Your Heart/The Sound Of The Crowd/Darkness/Do Or Die/Get Carter/I Am The Law/Seconds/Love Action (I Believe In Love)/Don’t You Want Me

As this is a story about renewal of life, I am going to start with a couple of dead bodies.

Sometime on Friday 30 April 1982, in an apartment somewhere in New York City, Lester Bangs dies. He is found lying on the floor. He is approximately thirty-three-and-a-third years old. He had been suffering from the ‘flu and had been taking Darvon and NyQuil. It was suggested that his immune system was shot due to an over-zealous cleaning-up of his own body following a lifetime of alcohol and speed abuse. But he was taking more than the recommended dose of both these remedies, and in addition had taken quite a bit of valium. There is a record spinning on his stereo, the needle locked in the run-out groove. The record was Dare by the Human League. It has not been specified which side he had been listening to, or what song he was hearing at the point where he may have realised that life was sliding away from him. No one could know; he left no notes, not having planned to die.

I don’t know what he would have made or thought of it. He might not have been in the optimal frame of mind to discern the Iggy, Reed or Ramones references. A few months earlier, he had submitted a blank Pazz and Jop ballot form, explaining that he could not bear to have to choose between pap and mud (although that would have made an interesting alternate title for the poll). I suspect that he would not have viewed Dare as a daft, snappy, lemonade-coloured pop record, think that it would probably have irritated him as so many things – including rap (which he thought was “nothing, or not enough”) – seemed to irritate him towards the close of his life.

But the concomitance of the death of Lester Bangs and the record which he was hearing, if perhaps not listening to, serves, I think, as a boundary line; the end of one era of thinking and the beginning of another. There are those who still maintain that music criticism died with him, and that it will never be as great again, however one chooses to define “great.” On the contrary, I believe that Bangs almost killed music criticism, in the same way as Joy Division almost killed rock music; both spawned multitudes of bad imitators, in Bangs’ case squadrons of poltroons who thought that they could match his monomania, his expletives, his dang-it-hang-it-bang-it-all approach, his outrage and his humour. Lots of misapplied swearwords, loud hitching on to wrong bandwagons, made-up slang which had no connection with actual life, and thereby closed off a lot of promising other avenues, or made them seem effete, indulgent. I think that over the last thirty years music criticism has had to do a lot to shake off the Bangs influence; to let the genuine inner voice breathe, not to be constrained by egregious self-hatred or mockable “attitude,” to say what heart and mind conjoin to say. And that might go for rock music, too, still labouring on under the misapprehension that “1976” is going to happen again, but only in a way that it understands.

There is another, parallel, more recent body now to record; that of Margaret Thatcher, and as with Lester Bangs’ adherents, it is questionable whether how much, or at all, people can move on from her “influence.” It stands there still, like a huge, grey, overarching bendy sarcophagus, daring (that word again) anyone or anything to do something to warrant its disapproval. One can only wonder how she felt, there in bed at the Ritz, with whichever book she was reading, when the pneumatic drill began to sound in her ear and the decisive, swamping head pain took hold; she may briefly have wondered, drily amused, why it had taken so long for death to find her.

There are people still, less than a fortnight after her passing, who wonder if politics and government can ever progress from her example, let alone live up to it. There is that wider group of people who not so secretly wish she was still in a position to govern them. That was her secret; to present herself as a handy repository in which her people could invest some form of belief, to be a symbol who could be admired, respected, in some cases loved. No matter how destructive, imbecilic or monomaniacal her policies, she prospered because she stood for something, which people felt was better than standing for nothing, or too many things. She said things straight, rather than cushioning them in focus group-pleasing PR nothingness.

So it didn’t matter that her period in office was spent overseeing the deliberate deconstruction of her country’s manufacturing industries, with a near-Aspergic insistence on seeing people as individuals (and if that sounds contrary, it’s intended to do so; the tragedy of Thatcher was her final inability to view individuals, from cabinet members downward, as people with thoughts, ideas and ambitions of their own), a blinding belief in theories which when put in practice gave the exact reverse result of what they had promised, and a bloody severance of any link between individuals and the society in which they were obliged to exist; she was recognised internationally as the Prime Minister who had pulled Britain back from Third World status by…deploying Third World economics. Thatcher could only see “society” as a suffocating slough of Communist residue, where no one dared (that word – again) to say or think anything different, from which no one could escape. No, she brewed her unique cocktail of post-war Good Housekeeping (or nineteenth century Manchester Liberal grocer shop thinking; her background was a Henry Pooter bastardisation of Gandhi as shopkeeper) and brutalist futurism, and anyone unable or unprepared to keep up with the changes was stubborn, old-fashioned, dull, grey, restricting, a museum piece, should be starved to death to make them more competitive. She gave orders, or homilies disguised as orders, and Britain obeyed, having a deeply ingrained national trait of secretly loving being bossed about by Nanny. The British people were able to excuse themselves from thinking about their own fears and inadequacies, and even shift them onto other, easier targets, because Thatcher had This Aura of…being Somebody, unlike Nobody, which is what most British people thought they were.

That having been said, she was less inapt and more subtly cunning than those who followed her, at least in her early years of governance; she listened to her colleagues and advisors a good deal more than she is given credit for, and until pushed by media pressure to put her name to farragoes like Section 28, believed, like a good social liberal, that the purpose of a government was essentially to run the economy properly and defend its country adequately, rather than to tell its citizens how they should live their lives (whereas with Cameron, the clock has now been pushed back to the early nineteenth century, where unemployment is once again viewed as a “sin”); despite the initial lumbering iceberg campaigns, her administration actually handled the Aids crisis far more sensitively and proactively than was believed at the time, and I was on hand to observe some of the things that were done, at least in West London. And, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the Falklands war, she did succeed in bringing down a Fascist dictatorship – “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” indeed.

That triumph brought hubris, however, and after 1982 Thatcher gave the increasing impression of being unwilling, or unable, to listen to anybody else. Why should she have done? She went on to win another two landslide election victories, one of which was directly ascribable to the Falklands effect. But stubbornness was increasingly being mistaken for singlemindedness, incipient mania for independence of thought. In her 1987 Smash Hits interview she is nice and motherly, while all the time taking acute care not to answer directly any of the political questions she is being asked. The country needed consensus and got her bark. The poll tax came and out she went; in 1991 she would probably have been clobbered by a Labour Party led by anyone except Kinnock. And then the slow descent into being…not quite all there, always nodding and never listening, hard, single-thought-containing…until she ended up as this woman on a park bench in Battersea Park, with two carers attending to her, a month or more before she died, and she is staring blankly out at a world she used to run…haven’t I seen that face before somewhere? And it hasn’t looked like that before; that air of finality.

Was, as Javier Bardem’s executioner might have asked, it all worth it if this is how you end up?

Alone, in the middle of a desert island surrounded by a lake in the middle of another desert island?

Left, with nothing but the dimming conviction that…oh, what was that conviction again? Conservatism. Ah, yes.

Staring at the sky and DARING oneself not to detach and float in one’s own space forever.

The petrified doxa of Politics, with that of Rock Music; the two monsters which stalk this record, and its sister.

* * * * * *

Did I mention there was a third body? Oh, all right then; not just yet.

* * * * * *

I can’t get away from the fact that it’s now October 1981 and my life has changed, or I made it change, and that by doing so I might be more of an unconscious Thatcherite than I think. You see, to me Glasgow, and the places surrounding it where I grew up, represented the past, the world that would just not - could not – move on. Perhaps it secretly wanted to, but Thatcher’s administration helped ensure that it wouldn’t; the European City of Culture status only happened when Thatcher’s administration was dying on its feet. And I knew I wanted - needed - something else, and somewhere else. Don’t just take my word for it; read Maggie And Me, the slyly ambiguous memoir of Damian Barr. Growing up just a few miles down the motorway from me, in Newarthill, Barr had it far worse than I did (but not that far worse; I could tell you a lot of horrific stuff about my own childhood but the world is not in need of another one of those memoirs) and in his own, side-on admiration of Thatcher as a gesture of rebellion in itself I sense a distinct kinship; the need to escape this pain, the act of getting away and making something of yourself in itself a Thatcherite gesture. Some bits of seventies Glasgow were like eighties Bucharest.

So I got away, to St Andrews and then to Oxford and London, and I’m sorry to say it but even as a newly-bereaved son leaving my newly-bereaved mother behind, I felt liberated. At last, my life was there to be lived as I wished, and everything seemed different and bigger and more glamorous than back at home. In Thatcher terms this was of course smoke and mirrors; the reason why it was such a great thing to live in eighties London was much more to do with Ken Livingstone’s GLC than Thatcher’s government – the air of benevolent, if unspoken, municipal socialism which meant that both capitalism and socialism could happily coexist within the same space, that new and exciting buildings could go up – as a bit of an unapologetic Futurist, myself, I did get an undeniable kick from seeing things like the Lloyd’s building and the M25 (before it got clogged up again) and thinking This Is Now – but that people wouldn’t be left behind by progress, that what dullard commentators term a “vibrant art scene” could flourish, that there would be plenty of good cinemas, theatres, bookshops, record shops and so forth, and that despite the seemingly relentless onward march of Nowness, and the crowding and congestion (these things aren’t new), there was more room and space for everybody…and everything.

Of course, it couldn’t and didn’t last, but the policies initiated by the Thatcher administration in the eighties did at least help to bulldoze the way for the mess we have now; where tanning salons are deemed adequate substitutes for record shops, where speaking up for things like civility, common decency and basic good manners is liable to earn you, at best a sardonic shut-up-Grandad-do-you-hate-fun smirk, at worst to prematurely pushing up the daisies. If there’s no such thing as society, then everyone’s now an individual, if only in the sense of I’ll do what I want, and fuck you and everybody else, you don’t even EXIST if I don’t look at you. A society where anyone or anything that doesn’t pay its way must be wiped out, and stamped into the ground as punishment for living in the past. Except for Thatcher, who in her passing has become merely an overbearing signifier, like “The War” – soon there will be no one who remembers the latter at all.

As opposed to “The War” still very much being feared in the autumn of 1981.

* * * * * *

I do remember that as a university student Dare was one of the first three albums I bought with my grant money. The others, which I bought at the same time, were U2’s October and Joy Division’s Still, the expensively embossed (but still grey) double album of live tracks and selected rarities – the live stuff is mostly out-of-tune and unlistenable while the Heart And Soul box set has long superseded the latter. Most people at the time, me included, bought it for “Dead Souls”; “They keep CALLING me!” October in retrospect, and perhaps even at the time, was only a fraction of the record that Boy was (and Boy got much more play on my stereo at the time), but Joyce’s Dubliners was on my English Language and Literature reading list and it’s easy to get a little sentimental when you’re newly far from home. And there were singles, singles, always new singles, new revelations about music practically on a weekly basis, things that I hadn’t heard anybody trying before, if even they’d thought about trying them.

And there were the charts. The thing which Martin Fry and Paul Morley had co-conspired to call “New Pop” had now made itself known. Records were charting in October which wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of being a hit even six months earlier. The action had, as intended, moved towards the mainstream, and the standards were almost embarrassingly high; look up the Top 40 for, say, the week ending 17 October and marvel at a chart where an eight-and-a-half minute minimalist conceptual performance art piece about America, communication and alienation – Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet),” my second favourite single of all time - could not only get into the chart but also only be the second best single in that chart.

The best, at #38, was “Everything’s Gone Green” by New Order. Strictly speaking it was a double A-sided 7-inch with the excellent “Procession,” but a 12-inch came out not long afterwards, perhaps to offset the downbeat concept of their excoriating debut album Movement, and if there are five-and-a-half better minutes in pop music I haven’t heard them. Why is it such a great single? Because it tells the story – indeed, acts it out, in real time, before the listener – of a group on the verge of death rediscovering life and inventing something new in the process.

It begins with a hissing drum machine that is soon joined by a bumpy, programmed electro riff; a noisy guitar slide provides the passage into a fervent, three-chord strum that sounds like skiffle or “Louie Louie” offset by solemn, chiming foghorns of bass, out of which comes a voice: “Help me somebody, help me/I don’t know where I am.” There are traces of melodica, out of Augustus Pablo. The momentum patiently builds up until the singer pleads: “Show me the way, show me, show me, show me…” and then the synth riff recurs, with both drumkit and drum machine going simultaneously, until everything eventually fuses together – the thrilling moment where the main riff is not quite in harmonic concordance with guitar and bass – and the group realise that they’ve come up with something that hasn’t been done before. They whoop joyfully, and repeatedly, and there comes an air of catharsis, as though they have found and created a new life for themselves. Some more drum accents, a repetition of the main riff from the stately synths left over from “Decade,” some speaker static, and that’s it. If “Temptation” and “Blue Monday” found them refining and perfecting that model, then “Everything’s Gone Green” is, literally, where everything begins, at a point where, I’m sure, the group thought they had lost everything.

On which subject, to the Human League, and to this album which, as I said above, really cannot be written about without taking its sister album into account.



There are conflicting and confusing reports about what happened with the Human League in late 1980. Who started what argument? Who fired whom? The testimonies don’t tally, but in broad terms the sequence of events appears to have been as follows:

1. Bob Last, manager of the Human League, notes that they have released two albums and a handful of singles and EPs without much to show for their work. They have not broken through into the Top 40 and are heavily in debt to their record company. In addition, there have been arguments; Martyn Ware wants to take the group further into experimental electronica, whereas Phil Oakey wants to go down the pop route.

2. Thinking that two splinter groups might actually help get them somewhere, Last engineers a situation wherein he goads Oakey to “sack” Ware and see if they can’t carry on from there. Oakey duly does so, but doesn’t anticipate that Ian Craig Marsh will take Ware’s side and depart with him. This causes a lot of bitterness, particularly on Ware’s side, much of which is evident throughout the first Heaven 17 album.

3. Oakey and slides operator Philip Adrian Wright get to keep the Human League name. Ware and Marsh set up a production company/business called the British Electronic Foundation (B.E.F.). Heaven 17, formed with Glenn Gregory, the original (but at the time unavailable) choice for Human League lead singer, will be just one of many “new” acts they will be contracted to find and produce. In addition they agree to be paid 1% of all royalties on the next Human League album. After all, it’s down to the singer with the funny haircut and the guy who does the slides – they’re not exactly going to get anywhere, are they?

Initially, it seems that Heaven 17 have the head start. “Fascist Groove Thang,” a melange of Peaches and Herb (“Shake Your Groove Thing”) and the Pop Group (“For How Much Longer Must We Tolerate Mass Murder?”), is one of 1981’s key singles, probably at the time the fastest dance record ever made (it clocks in at 157 bpm; Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was a mere 152 bpm), and a brilliant fusion of dance clich√© and far-Left ideological tract, powered on one hand by Marsh’s gloomy, Bowie-referencing saxophone line, and on the other by the incredible bass and rhythm guitar of local 17-year-old Sheffield funk musician John Wilson (who by all accounts was laidback, relaxed and a bit uncertain about his bass playing). It felt like a line being drawn in the sand, although the inevitable radio ban kept it from making the Top 40; it was a far bigger record than its chart performance might suggest.

Meanwhile Oakey and Wright had been to the Crazy Daisy disco and recruited Joanne and Susanne, but neither was involved with “Boys And Girls,” the 1981 Human League single nobody remembers (if you want it, it’s a bonus track on the CD issue of Travelogue) whose lyrics appear positively anti-pop (the chorus goes “Boys and girls, I love you dearly, but I hate to have you need me”) with a beyond-bizarre melange of church bells and…as it were…sounds of the crowd in the instrumental break. Its critical and commercial reception reminded Oakey and Wright of the necessity to recruit new musicians.

Under the B.E.F. aegis, Ware and Marsh released the cassette-only Music For Stowaways album, a playful collection of electronic instrumentals with titles like “Uptown Apocalypse” and “Music To Kill Your Parents By.” The title refers to the fact that the record was designed to be listened to on the then-new portable stereo player (in Britain, Sony models were still called Stowaways until 1981, although the Walkman name was being used more or less everywhere else). But the record was not so much a sequel to Travelogue as a companion piece to that other Bob Last-overseen artefact of the time, Lubricate Your Living Room by Edinburgh’s Fire Engines. It received much applause, but a second Heaven 17 single, “I’m Your Money,” did no business and was left off Penthouse And Pavement, probably because of its terrible sleeve, since as a song and concept it is extremely underrated (at one point Gregory declaims, “I’m offering you the post of wife”; Brecht would have understood that immediately).

In any event, by that time – spring 1981 – the old Human League were unexpectedly gaining ground and overtaking. Ian Burden, primarily a bassist, had earlier been temporarily recruited for touring purposes, but soon returned to become a permanent member. Jo Callis, lately guitarist of the Rezillos (latterly the Revillos) was recruited on Bob Last’s recommendation as someone skilled in writing songs. He would use his guitar to trigger off the synthesiser, rather than direct input programming and playing, which irked the electronic purist Oakey from time to time.

The most important “band member” was producer Martin Rushent, a veteran of then recent vintage (Stranglers, Buzzcocks) recruited because Oakey had been impressed by his work with Pete Shelley (Homosapien, etc.). Rushent had begun his musical career as a drummer, hence his unusually sensitive and adroit drum programming work on Dare; listening to the record, there is little doubt that it is basically a rock record, performed by a rock group, but not rock as even Genesis might have known it. His first act on arrival was to bin the demo of “The Sound Of The Crowd” and suggest that they now record it properly (and even then there were doubts; the version of the song on Dare is not the original single, but a re-recording). In addition, Rushent moved the group to his own Genetic Sound Studios in Reading, as there was apparently some unease about making the record in the same Sheffield studio where Heaven 17 were working on their first album (both groups worked alternating day/night shifts, although Ware has subsequently said that there was no real animosity and that each group was curious about what the other was doing).

The single was a breakthrough in many senses. Apart from giving the Human League their first major hit, it seemed, more so even than “‘Antmusic,’” to open the floodgates for New Pop; enough of the grey mourning and making-do-and-mending, here was colour, and colour-coded colour at that (the single was credited to “Human League Red,” “Red” standing for “dance record”).

Moreover, for a song which is in many ways unashamedly modern – influenced by both “The Model” and the old League’s “A Crow And A Baby” – both music and lyrics could have come from an imperfect memory of 1959. The music is rock ‘n’ roll, percussive and insistent – those guitar triggers going off like sten guns; sonically it is as aggressive and unbending as Killing Joke – while the lyric is imperfectly-remembered teenpop: “Put your hand in a party wave, PASS AROUND!,” “A fold in an eyelid brushed with fear,” “A hat with alignment worn inside.” Carbon mounts, prints…anything but the real thing.

But then the girl singers come through, echoing and pungent, and their first point of entry is still a startling moment – for maybe the first time in post-war pop music, we are hearing the audience singing along to the record, in the context of a song that is all about reaching your audience and assimilating yourself into them. “No need to stand proud/Add your voice to the sound of the crowd” – in other words, down with that star system as surely as any punk ever proclaimed it, get together, become as one with your audience. Invigorating, propulsive, “The Sound Of The Crowd” is where pop answers its recent past with a decisive, revolutionary “NO! We are TIRED of being sad and sorry. There are OTHER WAYS!”

Then came “Love Action” (another “Red” record) which did even better, and, in October, to trail the album, their first “Blue” single (“Blue” stood for “pop record”), “Open Your Heart” whose synthesised panpipes and defiant Oakey lead vocal act as a remedy to Abba doom. The song appears to begin halfway through (“And when it hurts you know/They love to tell you”), and even if it was inspired by a relationship which ended in adultery, its broader message is very palpable; “Potentially calling with open heart/Or with a spirit dead.” It is a call for pop to smile again, to matter to people once more, despite all the evidence they see around them. “Being an island…/Seems the easy way…/But there’s no future/Without tears!” sings Oakey, with the accent firmly on the “tears,” and again we feel what he is saying; don’t die in the past, come with us towards the future. As a rapidly descending series of keyboard strokes, like church bells, peal through the choruses, we know that we are witnessing an attempt at a new beginning.

Heaven 17, however, had not been idle, and Penthouse And Pavement, released on 14 September, beat Dare into the shops by four weeks, and maybe in the medium term bore more resonance; although it never placed higher than #14, it stayed in the chart for some eighteen months, and apart from being a record of near-incalculable influence on the pop music that would succeed it, Penthouse And Pavement was undoubtedly the hippest album to own at the time (Melody Maker voted it their Album of the Year, while in the NME end-of-year critics’ list it finished fifth, one place higher than Dare; numbers one and two in the latter were, respectively, Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing and Kraftwerk’s Computer World, two albums which could properly be said to have constituted between them the building blocks of eighties pop).

Listening to Penthouse in the early autumn of 1981 defined what it was then like to be “modern,” rollerskating away from the past in smart suit and tiny earphones slotted into place. Lyrically and thematically, of course, the record does anything but, but its only partially mocking air was persuasive enough for many to take straight. Men in business suits and ponytails! “The New Partnership – That’s opening doors all over the world.” Ware looking on the cover like a younger David Cameron, Gregory resembling Boris Johnson’s black sheep cousin, Marsh bearing a remarkable likeness to a younger, more hirsute Iain Duncan Smith. And on the inner sleeve there was more: a near-complete back catalogue (though including nothing by the 1981 Human League) advertised with the heading: “PLAINLY SPEAKING, THESE PRODUCTS OFFER YOU LIFE ENHANCEMENT THROUGH CREATIVE LISTENING.” Amongst the forthcoming attractions were British Electric Foundation’s Music Of Quality And Distinction (“To be released in November 1981”; it eventually came out in March 1982, and despite strong individual moments, mostly from Tina Turner and Billy Mackenzie, its strategy of using the history of pop to destroy pop could have been better realised). The Future Tapes (The Future being Ware and Marsh’s original group) was scheduled for October 1981 release but would not materialise until over twenty years later.

The “Pavement Side” still sounds lithe and fresh. In an era when even a rejuvenated Cliff Richard was getting in on the rollerskating/Walkman act (“Wired For Sound”), the four songs here, though firmly of their time, remain intriguing and compelling. The title track compounds the record’s central conflict – to mock modernism or praise it, to leave the past behind or stick with it; Gregory’s anguished, climactic Dr King paraphrase (“Make me free AT LAST!”) suggests that it is not working, as does the song’s internal duality between money and sex, opulence and prostitution, insider and outsider. “Feel safe in the crowd,” Gregory observes, “And no one admits they’re crying aloud.” They did try to deliver a coup de theatre by getting Diana Ross to sing the chorus, but their schedules clashed and so they ended up with Ross’ backing singer Josie James, who does a superb job, interacting with the unexpected piano chord changes and dovetailing with Wilson’s energetic bass, guitar and guitar synthesiser (which latter even quotes from the Starsky And Hutch theme). In addition, the song was a declared influence on “Wham! Rap” (down to using the verse chord sequence for its own chorus).

Whereas “Play To Win” clearly foreshadows “Club Tropicana” and is probably as forlornly ironic (Gregory, who for most of the record sounds like Oakey with a wider vocal range, even manages to sound like George Michael here) but the vibes and percussion were persuasive – this was the era of 23 Skidoo and Stimulin – and the song’s overall air of a key to a better world had influence, even though much of it reads like a Brion Gysin remix of a Tom Peters pamphlet. Finally, “Soul Warfare” warns of the trouble and pain to come – the chord sequences still unpredictable, with the funk undertow topped by a piano/synthesiser figure that could have come straight from Ultravox – in which Thatcher is essentially cast as Satan in a new setting of Faust. It sounds troubled and vaguely apocalyptic.

The “Penthouse Side” almost never gets talked about, and I suspect is listened to even less, routinely dismissed as it is as “experimental electronica.” But the side’s five songs lead us as surely into New Pop as those on the other side. After a brief Yes/Rick Wakeman parody, “Geisha Boys And Temple Girls” – actually a song about racism and two sides of privilege and entitlement – kicks off over a furious Latin drum programme with a viewpoint and chorus which point pretty directly to the Pet Shop Boys. Likewise, before “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money),” there was “Let’s All Make A Bomb” where the forthcoming apocalypse is viewed as something to be celebrated (in 1981, there were still plenty of artists acting as though this was the last album they were ever going to get to make) but with a residual and profound air of sadness (sometimes, as on the echoing “vapourise,” Gregory can sound like Jaz Coleman).

“The Height Of The Fighting,” with its bold grunts of “HEAT!” and “WAR!” and its chants of “They sent you to it, do it,” sets an obvious stage for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whereas “Song For No Name” could pass as a sort of extended jibe at Oakey (“But now, I am just the man who sings”) but more accurately reflects Ware and Marsh’s own tiredness putting the record together (see also “These fifteen days awake” from “Soul Warfare”). The final “We’re Going To Live For A Very Long Time” nails the smugness of the New Right; you might be going to hell, but we are righteous and will prosper, right through to the closing locked groove.

In that sense, then, the record has hardly dated at all, but as a musical experience Penthouse is ultimately oppressive; the songs hide in dark corners, are fidgety and restless, seem to want to conceal more than reveal. Gregory may technically have a greater vocal range than Oakey, but that does not necessarily make him the better singer. If anything Penthouse has more in common with the quietly raging paranoia of the third part of the 1981 Sheffield triangle, Cabaret Voltaire’s Red Mecca. Curlicues of shadows, carrions flying to postpone doom.

Dare, however, says “NO!” to this, to 1980 notions of This Is The End, maybe to every other notion that its 253 predecessors have raised (the Heaven 17 of Penthouse reminds me very strongly of the Genesis of Abacab; three nervous men uncertain about what more this modern world has to offer). That sleeve, for a start; pastels and skin on white, faces only, out of Vogue magazine (but also out of post-punk; see the Mekons’ song “Dan Dare”). No advertisements, no promises; for this is the actual product.

And I remember when we got the record back indoors, and switched on the stereo, and put the record on. A bare, clap-dominated rhythm track (is it the same one as “Penthouse And Pavement”?), a very linear synthesiser, Oakey singing about seeing the wonders of the world – my God, we thought, this sounds so flat compared with Penthouse; have we made a wrong purchase? – but memes of past pop speedily accumulate, trains, boats, Spain, China, girls, and when Oakey gets to the “Everybody needs love and adventure” bridge the synthesiser falls as though momentarily switched off, as on “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” our ears gradually perked up. The chorus made brilliant use of delayed minor-major Picardy third spillover. “March, march, MARCH across Red Square,” he urges, presumably cognisant of how dangerous it was to do that in 1981. “Do all the things you’ve ever DARED.”

By the end of the song, after he had namechecked Norman Wisdom and the Ramones – and “good times,” or should that be “Good Times”? – the girls make themselves known - like they are listening to the record and singing along with it - and we were singing along with the chorus. Those sneaky bastards had done it, and we realised that we were in the indirect presence of pop genius.

Morley’s NME review of the record was very perceptive in terms of formerly dejected post-punks getting to grips with the issues of everyday human living and finding, perhaps to their surprise, that they really enjoyed it. Morley said that he liked the idea of Dare knocking Genesis off the top of the album chart (although the Police, the missing link, ultimately came in between them) and that the League’s assimilation and recasting of MoR tropes was more important than their use, or otherwise, of electronics.

Then there was one of the hits, then another of them, and then “Darkness,” and even if Wright wrote the words after reading a horror novel in bed and falling asleep, the song itself, and via Oakey’s pained vocal, reveals the infinite pain underlying and justifying this new-found joy. “I hear voices/Calling far away” – is this really so far away from “Dead Souls”? “Don’t turn out the light or I’ll go over the edge”; when were lyrics like this so prominent in what is supposedly a straightforward pop song?

“Do Or Die” may be about another of Oakey’s failed relationships, but, like “Soul Warfare,” he appears to be singing the song to Thatcher (“Alsatians fall unconscious at the shadow of your call,” “Just like your feet, my goddess, my brain has turned to clay”); along with Scritti Politti’s “The ‘Sweetest Girl’,” it’s the only pop song of the period to make an explicit reference to the Government falling. It’s also the song on the album closest to the Police – a sort of liquefied electro-skank, though Callis’ guitar strokes appear to have wandered off a Del Shannon record. There is an extended instrumental break, though no solos; a breakdown and rebuild-up in keeping with 12-inch dance records before a triumphant re-entry into the main chorus.

Side two probes into even darker recesses. It begins with a sinister, high-pitched citadel; Roy Budd’s theme from the then decade-old Get Carter, a reminder of the old North that we were supposed to have left behind, but also, of course, a reminder that we are still in the North, albeit in Sheffield, one of the places Thatcher’s revolution left behind.

This segues without pause into “I Am The Law” with its Dixon Of Dock Green perambulating bassline and shafts of synthesiser echoes sounding like distant gunshots. In an era where most musicians assumed the function of the police to be on their back, “I Am The Law” stands out by being a pro-police song, though it is not without its own shadows (“My life – I’m a fool for you,” “A dog must bark/So evil calls/Both in the wild and/Within these walls”; Within These Walls being the name of a popular ITV prison drama series of the time. Is Oakey’s law enforcer holding someone captive (“You know I am no stranger”)? According to Oakey, the song had its genesis some years previously, when he was working as a hospital porter and one night got to talking with an injured club bouncer in A&E, the latter saying that everybody saw him as the Devil but that he was just there to stop people from doing worse, protecting people from themselves. Stil, it is far from reassuring, and without so much as another pause, goes straight into…

…“Seconds,” a faster, more urgent song, but with an even more pared-down lyric (“All day/Hiding from the sun” it begins, as though to reproach Heaven 17 for their darkness), ostensibly about JFK and Oswald, but that golden place…“for a second” KBAAANNNNNNGGGGGG!!!!

…and so the song is also about Lennon, and Chapman, and as Oakey sings “It took seconds of your time to take his life” over and over again, he sounds as angry as he gets on the record. The song eventually disintegrates into sirens, transmitter beams, percussive discordancy…life has to offer something better than this.

And so to the mewling cat synthesiser introduction to “Love Action,” best heard in the context of its original 12-inch form as the second half of a medley with “Hard Times” (Joanne and Susanne obligingly yell “HARD TIMES!” one crucial time within the song itself), before the band kick in with practised assurance and Oakey’s baritone booms “When you’re in love/You know you’re in love/No matter what you try to do.” The song builds up and up like patient neon Lego, the hard man, the kidding yourself, the million mouths; and soon, you realise that this is the song to which the whole of Then Play Long has been working towards, ever since Sinatra complained about anything going.

The main reason why this is the case is because nearly all the records that I have written about prior to now have never quite got it right as far as love is concerned; it’s been portrayed as something to be betrayed, or viewed with suspicion, or lost, or imagined (so many albums have concerned themselves with an ideal of love as opposed to love itself; hence the elusive dreams are considered more important than the poor child who dies). Taken together, they tell a terribly unhappy tale.

But the Human League, as perhaps the first act to form in the punk era to assimilate mainstream pop with success, refute all of this, refute even what they’ve said elsewhere on Dare, elsewhere in this same song. The commitment, the loss, the tears, the resentment, the concealed, self-destructive arrogance…

…and then, seemingly out of nowhere, Oakey pulls out a line from, of all records to pull a line from, or throw down a line, Lust For Life.

“Jesus, this is Iggy,
You…you might as well come with me.”
(Iggy Pop, “Turn Blue”)

“But this is Phil talking
I wanna tell you…what I’ve found to be true.”
(“Love Action (I Believe In Love)”)

And then, with the natural swing of the 1963 Beatles, the ensemble goes into a chorus straight out of Barry White.

If that’s not enough, the bridge goes back to a more familiar, if still unexpected, reference point. “I believe, I believe what the old man said/Though I know that there’s no Lord above/I believe in me, I believe in you/And you know I believe in love.”

The “old man” in question released a song entitled “I Believe In Love” on a nearly forgotten 1976 album entitled Rock And Roll Heart, in which he also constantly refers to a quality called “good times.”

Phil Oakey is selling Lou Reed to 1981 pop pickers!

And he seems to defy the world as he cries, “No matter what you put me through, I’ll STILL believe in love AND I SAY!...”

(That “AND I SAY”; pure Paul Weller)

I’m sure Bolan would have agreed with that, and so would Lydon, and so might Beverly Moss or even Princess Diana. A hand-waving, flag-waving happy ending, then…

(and if you detect the Low/“Heroes” or The Idiot/Lust For Life story being replayed here, then you’d be right. Life being greater than no life, etc.)

But then, as Wilde observed, happy endings are only possible if you don’t tell the rest of the story.

One more song, a song Oakey hated and didn’t even want on the final record until Rushent and the rest of the group overruled him, a sequencer line like a chattering typewriter, an ominous, doomy introduction, and Oakey talks to the woman he thinks he rescued from nonentity, and perhaps only in his head, for now she’s made it and won’t see him, or doesn’t need him. Didn’t she listen to what he had to say about love for the previous five years? And yet his grief is overruled by rage; get back behind the counter, or else, am I not good enough for you any more? It was inspired by A Star Is Born, except that it’s Norman Maine who decides to destroy himself and Vicki Lester who stays and believes in him, no matter what he puts them through. Or perhaps it’s an anxious pop star worried that his audience might not exist in five years’ time.

And then, for the first time on Then Play Long, the audience answers back.

Susanne Sulley’s flat Sheffield vowels – indeed the vocal flatness is one of the central attractions of Dare, Oakey’s emotions humanised by his tendency always to sing a quarter tone out of key – give the other story, and it is as markedly unsentimental as Yoko’s rejoinder to “Beautiful Boy.” “I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar…That much is true”; remember that Oakey has already sung “I believe in truth, though I lie a lot.” His threats indicate that their time was not quite as rosy as he would like to imagine, and she is cutting herself off from him, perhaps to save herself.

The ominous synthesiser line returns, and in the video we are watching people watching a video, and at the end Philip Adrian Wright turning to us from his computer screen and shrugging his shoulders, and somewhere Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson see this, because what initially sounded like a dull, anticlimactic closer – I use the word Closer deliberately – turned out to be the biggest song of them all, the Christmas number one, the League triumphant on that season’s Top Of The Pops, for themselves and for New Pop, at the opposite end of a year where everything once seemed dead, a record which would go to number one in the States the following summer, a record which dragged the entirety of the Human League’s back catalogue back into the charts – “Being Boiled,” nobody’s idea of a top ten record in 1978, made the top ten in early 1982 – and which, by osmosis, dragged Kraftwerk to number one and even ensured that the Siouxsie and the Banshees Once Upon A Time greatest hits collection (they were namechecked in the sleeve thank-yous) stayed on the chart for six months. In other words, the Human League were central in changing everything, and Dare marks another, happier bend in the river. It suggested that maybe we didn’t need either Lester Bangs or Margaret Thatcher to get to the future, it said that daft pop could also be the profoundest pop, especially when at its most serious. There are people who look upon Dare with the same reverence they give to its 1971 equivalent, Electric Warrior (engineer: Martin Rushent). There are people who think that Dare is the best number one album.

”Did he suspect that this was only the penultimate imposture, not the center of labyrinth but only its antechamber? The thought had passed his mind, but to reach even so far as the antechamber was a good second-best when he had seen no more than an outer courtyard up to now.”
(Thomas M Disch, The Prisoner, 1969)

Next: “You squirm like a lizard.”

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The POLICE: Ghost In The Machine


 
 
 
(#253: 10th October 1981,  3 weeks)

Track listing:  Spirits In The Material World/Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic/Invisible Sun/Hungry For You (j’aurais tourjours faim de toi)/Demolition Man/Too Much Information/Rehumanize Yourself/One World (Not Three)/Omegaman/Secret Journey/Darkness

“Conscious and unconscious experiences do not belong to different compartments of the mind; they form a continuous scale of gradations, of degrees of awareness.” – Arthur Koestler

The story begins, appropriately, late at night.  It is August 23, 1981.  It is past 11, but it has been a hot day and only now is it starting to cool down.  My window is open, there is barely any breeze coming through the screen. My father is downstairs, on the phone in the kitchen talking to someone, angry that this noise is keeping him awake – what is it?  I can hear it too, this odd bass rumbling, not continuous, but sounding out now and then, a booomm that is loud enough to keep us all awake, along with the humidity.

I open the window a bit more and listen for that bass.  I know who it is; and my father, upon finding out, maybe is thankful we live where we do, and not any closer.  It’s The Police, at their own Police Picnic, and that bass is Sting’s; future Police Picnics will take place in Toronto, but for now it’s in Oakville, in an empty field called The Grove, and if I had known about any of the other bands playing that day I would have desperately wanted to go (to see The Specials and The Go-Go’s especially); but as it was I only knew about The Police.  Having only just moved back to Oakville six weeks earlier, I had no one to go with, no one known to me outside of my family.  And so I stood there listening for the bass as I was looking out at the other townhouses and rather indifferently at the other building I could see – my high school, White Oaks.  And got back in bed and went to sleep after I had heard it one more time.

In the fall of 1981 there were only a few good things in my life; among them were my French class and a radio station.  At 14 I found myself once again having to make friends at school (ending up at the freaks and geeks table during lunch break, somewhat inevitably) and trying and trying to do well, but coming up against Science and Math and being defeated by both.  I did best in French, which was a surprise to everyone but me as I liked learning languages (I had taken Spanish the year before in Berkeley) and that I was good at something kept me going.  And so did CFNY.

The Police Picnic would have been unthinkable without CFNY; they undoubtedly played them first in Toronto and the band’s touching loyalty and faith in response was really kind of sweet – did I mention John Otway and Killing Joke were also on the bill? – CFNY played what other stations would think way too out of bounds, left field, weird…and to someone who had heard nothing but ordinary San Francisco radio (we were in the Bay Area for a little while, before father decided working with macho “Hollywood” types wasn’t for him) that pumped out either Journey or the various versions of Jefferson Airplane/Starship on a regular basis, CFNY took some getting used to.   I had to listen to CHUM – a Top 40 station, also on fm – to get back my bearings, at times.  I had never heard anything like what CFNY was playing, and at first it sounded like pure noise, odd and awkward and provocative.  The Police were one of the few bands both CFNY and CHUM shared, what with The Police being the biggest band in the world, more or less.  As I continued to do worse and worse at White Oaks, I got used to CFNY more and more, gradually, and Ghost In The Machine was a virtual land bridge from the one ‘normal’ station to the more experimental one.  I got it as soon as I could, on tape, and listened to it as I adjusted to my new circumstances; I was an outsider who lived kitty-corner across from my school, a part-time dropout who was dedicated to French class, who listened to the radio as an escape in a place where there really wasn’t much going on…
 
This album is about darkness and light; about the spirit that has to get used to (or not) being stuck in a body, a dumb body of habit and anchored weight, a body that can only do so much.  This is exactly the kind of adolescent frustration anyone who ever had to attend classes against his/her will can understand immediately; I was having my very own existential crisis that fall, a time when the world seemed intent on self-destruction (reinforced by my seeing Dr. Strangelove, commercial-free, on TVO in September) and I was depressed over that, as well.  From world leaders to my cruel and indifferent teachers, nothing made sense and seemed endless, repetitive, essentially meaningless in the face of possible nuclear war. 

And that is where this album is coming from; that same point.  The Police being world famous didn’t mean that much to Sting; he was a dad now, and his focus was on not just now but the future.  (Or as Devo would put it, Duty Now For The Future.)  Not that there was much of a future to look forward to; believe me, no one at this time was thinking about the 90s; not with the totemic year of 1984 growing ever closer.  Things were so dubious that even getting to that year looked doubtful.

But still, there are eternal verities, and Sting was essentially trying to bring Koestler’s book to life, to inspire people who heard this album to read his book of the same name; whether anyone did I don’t know, but I do know that this was not rock ’n ’roll as it was commonly understood.  I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but listening to CFNY I began to understand there was a whole other world of music which was talking about things besides love and its vicissitudes.  The Police sang about things directly – information overload, the false divisions between “us” in the first world and “them” in the third world – but the music on CFNY was more oblique, indirect, talking about something by talking about something else, dropping signifiers, but also being so, well, POP that the songs couldn’t help but crossover to the more commercial stations.  This was something different, something which had a name but I didn’t know it yet; I did know that The Police were far too obvious to be a part of it.  And yet somehow without The Police to make way for others, people like OMD would have had a tougher time getting heard*.  In short, I was hearing the New Pop movement take shape and gather amazing momentum, but had no idea of it at the time.  
 
New Pop was going against regular chart pop, and starting to win – Soft Cell was the real “a-ha!” moment for many (including myself ) in Canada in ’81.  And only a few weeks after having heard the whole 12” of their single, at about the same time as I heard Sting’s bass rumble through the humid night air, appeared Ghost In The Machine.  (Note:  it took me a long time to figure out the cover; I can only imagine Kraftwerk admiring it.) 
 
And so then, to the album; since it’s an album best understood as it goes, I’ll be looking at each song in sequence.  

Hmm…this is a kind of synthesized skank; and oh look, there’s Sting attempting to play the saxophone.  I will get this out of the way now – The Police clearly thought that they needed to stretch themselves, and bringing in more synth and Sting’s sax playing was the way to do this, without needing any outside musicians.  Some – Marcello in particular – may well grimace in pain as Sting plays, but these folks can take solace in Sting’s mere competency by knowing that Stewart and Andy were probably laughing behind his back, one way or another.   I mean, it’s not like Sting ever claimed to be great, is it?  He just wanted to try something new.  For the general benefit of mankind, however, he hired Branford Marsalis for his first solo album, instead of continuing to play himself.  He isn’t as good as Bowie is on “Sound and Vision” which may be where he got the idea, in the first place….

“Spirits In The Material World” is a light-footed look at the various ways The Man tries and fails to control and subdue others, from laws and rules to “rhetoric” – because we are spirits stuck in the material world, uncontrollable and unsatisfied with just living day-to-day.  “Is there something we can buy?” Sting sings pathetically, as if soul power was something he could pick up at the BHS.  “There must be another way.”  The body-mind dichotomy that exists in Koestler’s book is laid out here pretty clearly.  Once you are aware you have a soul, a spirit, you can’t really ignore it and claim it’s not there – you can be distracted or distract yourself with gross material things, including your body, but that’s not really going to work with the threat of annihilation on hand, is it?  No.  But there you are, stuck in the drag that is the material world…well, may as well have some fun while you’re here….

“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was the only song on the album to be recorded in Canada – at the now neglected Le Studio in Quebec, to be precise – and it has a joie de vivre about it that knocks sharply against everything else on the album.  It was put on against the band’s wishes  – the Man wanted a chirpy love song as a single, and so, here it is.  But it is a strange song – once again, about the incoherence and maybe meaninglessness of speech – the verses in shades, the chorus in pure sun struck colors, the lover in love and riding high on the joy of that love, even if it is unrequited and he has no nerve to propose to her on the phone (all things considered, it’s just as well he’s too nervous).  The label was right to insist on this being included; there is a spirit here that cannot be contained, that is exuberant, too big for words and perhaps too big to be ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ love.  This is a dizzy spin, eee—oohhh-ooohs  of warmth and elegance, a very Canadian sounding song (to me anyway) of a lover being in love with his beloved and rejoicing in that love, as a way to unify that spirit, to be uplifted.  There is another song that talks about this later on, but there’s much darkness as well…         

…and here it is, seemingly 1980 again with the song being counted in to six.  I am writing about “Invisible Sun” on my blog Music Sounds Better With Two in time, but again this is a song about negation, about not wanting to be a number (paging Bob Seger) either on a “government chart” or in prison.  It is specifically about Northern Ireland (Sting’s wife Frances Tomelty was from there and knew people in the Maze prison) – the mention of the armalite rifle harks back to the song of the same name by Gang of Four, a band Sting admired even though he knew probably hated him anyway.  The song is dolorous, flattened, a huge weary sigh; the sun is there, somehow, giving people hope, even if that hope is tattered and stained – it’s still there.  It is a grey day of a song (paging Madness), a lament.  That it was the first signal from this album showed how ambitious The Police were, how much of a risk they were willing to take; this was the year of Bobby Sands, after all, and other hunger strikers, and what the hell, maybe Gang of Four actually liked this song…

“Hungry For You (j’aurais toujours faim de toi)” captured my attention at the time as hey – I’m learning just enough French to kind of get the song.  Well.  My French wasn’t that great back then, so a lot of this sounded more than a little than I could handle, in more ways than one.  Sting sang it French because the lyrics were “filthy” and almost immediately now I want more singers to do this with their songs – write stuff like “Can’t get to sleep tonight/I want you until I am dry/But our bodies are all wet…You have devastated my heart/And me I have drunk your blood.”  Cough.  Oddly enough the song is a kind of James Brown workout, all easy swing and not at all indicative of  “The world is mine/I won it in a card game/And now I couldn’t give a damn/I won it too easily” self-criticism at its heart.  Even lying there in cold sweat, the world at his feet, he is insatiable and his mouth is bloody and his “beautiful treacherous” Other has him jealous, unsatisfied…there is again a linguistic peek-a-boo here, with only “No matter what I do, I’m still hungry for you” being sung at the end, as if what is really being said is too ugly.  The world of The Police is many things, but can it be ugly?  Can such a tight group ever loosen up? 

“Demolition Man” was written by Sting for Grace Jones and in fact she got her version out (on Nightclubbing) before The Police did, so their version cannot help but suffer by comparison.  Sting’s voice doesn’t have the harsh authority that Jones’ does, so the song’s very physical and relentless side is best reflected here by Andy Summers’ blues work-it-on-out guitar, not to mention Stewart Copeland’s as usual on point drumming.  (It really is Copeland’s album, overall, though this is Andy’s song.)  At the time I had no idea about Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (science fiction is not my strong suit, as anyone who knows me well knows).  There’s simpler sax here, as there was on the previous song, to the point where you want Sting to stop so you can hear Andy better.  The band at this point is starting to fracture, to not quite sound as unified as they should…

What is this, Pigbag?  No, it’s “Too Much Information.”  Hmmm.  One can only imagine how much information there was back then, as opposed to now; but here I should note that the song – veering from one chord to another, endlessly – has Sting again on sax, this time signifying the “overkill” of the song, the endless stupid repetition, which is driving him and everyone else insane.  This is like my old Media Sociology teacher with a party hat on, more or less.  And as Marcello said, the sound of this song will be picked up by other bands to come on TPL, influencing them in good and bad ways… 

And now…it’s a Stewart Copeland song.  Only it’s not.  Sting rewrote the lyrics, kept the music, and I can only wonder how Koestler felt about having his notions of people regaining their individual dignity and identity to a fast skank.  Still, this is the song where TPL reaches the “c” word (to rhyme with National Front, of course) and I can only wonder if anyone in said group ever did try to “rehumanize” themselves and what that led to.  And then I look at the news these days and wonder if it’s not just factory workers who are alienated from what they do.  But that line about “violence here is the social norm” must reflect what the streets of the UK were like by this time; I can’t ignore that this album appeared after a whole spring and summer of riots, some of them deadly.  The music itself is as busy and detailed as you’d expect something by Copeland to be, fast and slightly sardonic, and I hope he liked Sting’s lyrics.  Hmmm…so far we’ve had information overload, sexual insatiability, humans as violent/fascist robots…with only that invisible solar power keeping anything going.  What comes next?

Well, it’s The Police’s own dub Bob Marley tribute of sorts, “One World (Not Three)” that’s what.  This is a very typical song for the group – only a little sax from Sting, no synth, prominent bass, arrows of chords from Andy, a very jazzy sound from Stewart…an upbeat song about how the world is “one big boat” that says “it” gets a “little closer every day.”  That the world actually was like this was something I was learning at the time – a place that confusingly had a “first” and “third” place but no second, a place of extremes, a world where people wrapped themselves up in flags and asserted domination, a world where the utopian ideals of the 60s – hell, of the late 40s even – were screwed up.  The early 80s were a time of “us vs. them” to an almost rabid degree, a time of battening down.  Sting looks at all this and skanks along, seeing the unity and chiding those who are hiding from it, who cannot see that the world is – God help me, I’m going to quote Disney here – a small world after all.  Very small, and getting smaller – due to information technology, amongst other things – all the time. 

“Omegaman” is the only Andy Summers song on this album, all sleek and desperate, quick and dream-like at the same time.  (This song is inspired by the movie The Omega Man, a movie whose music is not unlike that of The Prisoner.)  Here is another alienated man – not the walking disaster area that “The Demolition Man” is, but a man who is (as the name implies) at the end of his rope, the end of life itself.  “The edge of time closes down as I disappear.”  He may well be the only sentient being left alive; we are getting close to Gary Numan territory here.  “The pretense of another world comes close to me.”  After the Omega comes the Alpha, of course; but this song doesn’t sound as if it’s depicting someone who wants to be a top dog.  This is the extreme of alienation; a song of someone who is trying to reach a “perfect life.”  To get away from all the chaos and too-muchness of the previous songs.   He is tired of being who he is.  So what next?

I can’t tell you how much I love the next song; the whole album leads up to it, in a way, and yet I don’t think anybody has ever said so.  This must be why this album doesn’t get enough praise – because it is a trip through alienation to…mysticism.  Yeah.  Not very fashionable, I know, and yet, here it is.  It is like a promise, a promise that at 14 I was all too ready to accept and understand.  I SO wanted to go on my own secret journey it wasn’t even funny, but where I was that amounted to going to the mall or library by myself, which was a start but not really the genuine thing.  This song promised that the real thing was out there and I was just going to have to find my way before I saw light in the darkness, before things made sense.  My most reliable and far-reaching secret journey was in listening to CFNY of course; to grasp and understand what was new, to willingly make a fool of myself, to be quiet and just listen.

The song opens with a 1981 wash of synth, classical and portentous; and back comes that thudding bass (as in “Invisible Sun” – c’mon, this is like the actual sun being revealed; it's also a second cousin to "Walking On The Moon") – and he meets a blind man who nevertheless has more vision than he does.  The song practically describes Meetings With Remarkable Men – we are away from Koestler now, free of that false mind vs. body dilemma – and while I had no idea about that book either, I was more than ready to find joy in sadness, to quit being so lonely.  That this song might be seen as mysterious or pretentious by others I can understand, because – not to put too fine a point on it – not everyone has time to hang out with holy men, or to even read very much.  And if you’ve had a mystical experience, this song is as obvious as the daylight it represents.  Summers’ guitar spans and reaches, the music rises and falls like waves, and now all of a sudden the general understanding of the world is turned upside down.  A whole world is inside yourself, a world apart from chaos and violence, and it is worth exploring.  This isn’t narcissism; this is beyond mere “rehumanizing.”  The holy man knows the world is in pain; he knows loneliness; but the secret journey brings such a wider perspective on these things that – oh, what can I say? – that the world afterwards is just the same – as we’ll see – but also very different.  This is the “other way” that Sting looked for at the beginning; one that is only available if he stops thinking about himself so much (including what he tries and fails to say) and actually pays attention to someone else for a change. 
 
There is so much isolation on Ghost In The Machine, so many people who are alone and unhappy; very publicly unhappy, at that.  And wasn’t another song from this year – the most important song, really – a plea for direction, for guidance, as well?  “I wonder where I am…please show me the way” pleaded another Northerner in an equally humble manner, while the music around him was like another sun coming up, one lighting up an even more terrible darkness.   The terrible fragmentation of 1980 is being dealt with here, bit by bit something new is vividly and gratifyingly coming to life…

And so we end in “Darkness.”  Even if you have a mystical experience – in fact I can say especially if you’ve had one – you crave times when you can be alone, as Copeland’s song (his lyrics too, I should add) suggest.  Darkness is both friend and enemy – making him fumble (as the music sounds vaguely as if it is being played backwards, even though it’s not) and yet giving him time to be in that world where he could “be someone that nobody knows.”  The music warps back and forth like time-lapse photography, the light appearing and disappearing, or is it the darkness?  The door is wide open.  Once you have an experience, it is a comedown to say the least to have to deal with mundane reality again, when life was “boring” all the time.  (Cue the noise of thunderstorms, of a bit of squealing sax, of ‘normal’ existence, irritating again on purpose.)  Life is a lot easier if you adhere to the standard and don’t go on that secret journey, whatever it is; but this is not an album about easy things.  It is a crushing album, one that bluntly states how things are, not just for Sting but for everybody.  And then it goes to another level, to a whole new dimension really, and maybe this let some people down at the time.  Sometimes this whole album feels like a Social Studies class, like I’ve suggested.  Despite his wariness around words, Sting is going to try to communicate something, something worth saying in the chaos of 1981; and in the end the way out of the mess is one of adventure, of self-reflection, and of a willingness to learn, to stretch, to be inspired.  To be enlightened, and then to return to the darkness of life and see something else in it, besides itself. 
 
This is hard work, in hard times.  The Police’s juxtaposing groovy rhythms and funky beats with so much ugliness isn’t New Pop as such, but it helps it along, makes way, yelping and hooting and “ee-ooh—ohh”ing.  And then sitting down and contemplating the world for a bit, to the point where the dualities of so much of life, political and personal, all dissolve into one.  In the weeks after this album came out, a veritable avalanche of New Pop albums were released, each their own light in the darkness, full of their own signs and wonders.  I got some of them, eventually, but for my own turbulent time this sufficed; an album which can be exasperating and elegant, sweaty and tidy, an album that didn’t pretend things were at all fine.  But there was that promise of joy and love; the sun that is indeed there, no matter what...
Next up:  “I want to tell you what I’ve found to be true.”
*Please note that in the fall of 1981 I had no idea about Joy Division and hence New Order for me was just another New Pop group, more or less.  I was as ignorant of post-punk in the fall of ’81 as I was of punk, really.