Tuesday, 28 January 2014
(#284: 23 July 1983, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Nobody's Diary/Softly Over/Sweet Thing/Mr. Blue/Good Times/Walk Away From Love/Ode To Boy/Unmarked/Anyone/Happy People/And On
"I came from a small town and in school at one class there was me, a member from Depeche Mode and someone who went on to join The Cure. That was all in one class of 30 kids." - Alison Moyet
Pop music works best when little, if anything, is premeditated; when no one seems to know what is happening, risks are taken and few if any managers are around to polish up what happens. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke, both from Basildon, knew each other before the success of Clarke-era Depeche Mode, and so when Clarke left them - as he didn't like the dark edge that Martin Gore was bringing in - he phoned Moyet and they recorded a demo. Moyet had been in various bands in her youth, but Yazoo, as they were called in the UK, got from that demo to Top of the Pops in a month. The incredible speed of Yazoo's career meant they were wildly popular and unprepared for that popularity; Clarke wanted to break up their partnership after their first album Upstairs at Eric's went huge, but his publisher and Moyet convinced him to do one more album, the highly ironically titled You And Me Both.
I say ironic as they had effectively broken up before recording it, him doing his synth work in the morning, her coming in at night to give the bleeps and blips some physical grounding, her contralto the exact opposite of the clean electro sound Clarke likes. By this time they were avoiding each other, not collaborating on songs (only "State Farm"* is credited to both) and Moyet chose the cover photo of snarling dogs as a representation of how they were - such was the volatility and tension surrounding this album.
And yet it doesn't sound as strained as Synchronicity does, in part because Moyet and Clarke were separate and their gifts didn't exactly need the other's presence to emerge in full flight. Clarke's melodies and harmonies are bright and dramatic, pop as influenced by OMD ("Electricity" was his eureka moment w/r/t synths) and The Human League and John Foxx; Moyet being the Janis Joplin/chanteuse of Basildon, willing to take these songs - hers and his - and make them close, intimate, felt. This is the complusive sweet/salty combination that is tough to pull off (the Eurythmics' Annie Lennox comes close, but her chill gives a different dimension, and different possibilities, in contrast to Moyet's shadowy warmth). The album alternates between Moyet's songs and Clarke's, with Moyet beginning the album...
"Nobody's Diary" starts off with a curling and beckoning feeling, tentative, and with Moyet's lyrics, a desperate and demanding one. She is there with so much to say, but can say nothing (shades of how I will feel five years hence, though I can't imagine it in the hot summer of '83). A relationship reduced to nothing but paper and ink; as if it were not pleasure but business, cold and impersonal, a state Moyet can't accept. "Your gonna be mine for a long time" she sings to herself, unable to think of a thing to say to her Other, the happy and the sad both in the past for both of them, though she has hopes of winning him back (dubious hopes though, with "perhaps" and "maybe" showing she knows there's no use).
"Softly Over" is Echo calling out, waiting for some kind of answer - "understand me, can't you hear me call" - and this song glides and pauses and aches with a longing, quiet spaces punctuated like walking in snow, everything somehow sharp and soft at the same time. It is this tough quietness that Moyet does so well, and Clarke's mournful patient music matches her. Clarke understands his instruments as well as Moyet does her voice.
"Sweet Thing" is a leap into hi-energy, Moyet giving in to her Other, who seems to be leaving her, yet her "ooh!" at the end of the chorus suggests that she will have her day - her confidence makes this not a song of being abandoned but one of triumph, anticipated and eagerly longed for, over her Other. She may be submissive to him, but her I give "IN-IN-INNN-INNN" at the end hints that she knows if she submits then things will improve. "You were laughing at me the whole time" she sings, but her own laugh is never far away, not bitter, just confident.
"Mr. Blue" (nothing to do with the song by The Fleetwoods) is a pretty song about loneliness, hesitating, hymn-like, compassionate. It is a moving song about grief - death appears, and not for the last time, on this album. An old man slowly dies, a man is abandoned, with only a letter from her by the bed, "a child's life is never long" - Moyet sings it with authority (I have to keep reminding myself she's just 21 when she recorded this album) and tenderness; it is a far better expression of universal suffering than, oh, "King of Pain" could ever be.
"Knocking For A Good Time" is a video-game-synth workout of funk, somehow utterly tacky and adorable at the same time. Moyet sings it with gusto, tired of being alone, she wants to be "a part of it all and all right here - and now." Her "Whoo!" is one of joy, even as she describes herself as "A BARGAIN HONEY!" who is a "giveaway" - she is beside herself for that good time, to belong, to fit in and be valued. Her laugh near the end is like a rough wind ruffling your hair, brusque and friendly at the same time. And the tape ran until her actual laughter appears, happiness in the midst of the tension around the rest of the album...
"Walk Away From Love" is the single that never was (as in it could've been one, maybe if they'd stayed together it would have been) - bright catchy and forward, skipping along in a "Just Can't Get Enough" way. The verses are about her adamant need to walk out, the chorus is the response from the Other, telling her that she is still loved and isn't the Other's love enough? Moyet sings both straight - perhaps it's her Other telling her these things, or perhaps her conscience? It is an Erasure** song in all but extra oomph, clearly pointing to what Clarke will be doing in a little while....but for now...
"Ode To Boy" is the stand-out Moyet song, a quiet blues about a boy she knows and obsesses over, whom she cannot stop looking at - his hands are so feminine they are "almost American" and he is out drinking and then at the end weeping, not knowing she is watching..."in awe of his despair" as her fascination turns into love, his lips and hands and if he "caught her looking" he quickly forgets. He is caught up in his own drama, his face seeming to change and age as the song progresses, with Moyet near-whispering her observations and sensations. It is a song Henry Green would understand, moving in the dark, the "And when he drives I love to watch his hands" sensuality that puts us right there.
"Unmarked" is a Falkland war song in all but name, Moyet's voice mean and contemptuous as she talks of all of war's falsities, "We were proud in them days" and "Even Jesus cheers us on/Against the other side." Clarke's song is clunky and blunt, but then prettiness isn't needed when the song ends with more death - "I'm glad 'cos all I wanted/Was to kill another man" - the grotesque need come to light, the song ending abruptly, fierce as it is...
"Anyone" is an astonishing song, the narrator's life full of sadness - lost love, the flowers shadowed and the dead leaves waiting, but in the dark...and the song yearns with her for something beyond a place where "I can find no light/My goals are out of sight"...."fate" seeming to hang over her doomily, the tide taking away her Other, her purpose in life...in this darkness she closes her eyes and can "be anywhere" and "be anyone." I call this astonishing as Moyet sings it as if this is her escape, not a destructive illusory one but one of freedom. This could be a secular gospel song, the tension rising and then dissipating with her "surprise" of not whee-hee joy but an unexpected satisfaction. The imagination is that powerful and arrives just when it is needed...
Now then - "Happy People" has to be one of the least interesting songs that I've heard during Then Play Long experience and that it was such a bad song Moyet wouldn't sing it - it's sung by Clarke - makes the case for it to be part of the slowly-growing Worst Songs From Then Play Long songbook. The people are self-satisfied and happy, the song's la-la-ness emphasizing just how dull and nothingy these happy people are, and not unless you are a completist do you need to hear it.
"State Farm" is, however, a whole different thing. This is Essex geek funk, and immediately I can see b-boys breakdancing to it from NYC to Detroit to Chicago to LA, and Moyet and Clarke finally work together on a song, gears click in, breaths and yells of "GO!" and sizzling wobbling synths loop and beat in time like nobody's business. Moyet's freestyling here (there are no printed lyrics in the booklet) are badass, "Souped up jacked up cracked up stacked up" and "And don't it make you feel good" and "Puts the liquor in his stomach and the powder up his nose," her "that's right" sounding like a testimony, a satisfaction of a different sort from the Tears For Fears-primal scream method of release. "You're a bad stain and you need to be cleaned up!" Moyet judges as the synths clappity-clap and generally ggg-get-down (boy) get down. I feel sorry that this isn't on the UK version of the album, but had to be found on import; it is a necessary moment of relief before the closing song...
"And On" is a spooky song, and not least because - was it just sitting there in the corner waiting to be used? - a Fairlight synthesizer is the main one here, as opposed to the Yamaha DX7 and whatever else was also available. It is also spooky in that death appears here as something that the narrator approves of...well, not approves of, but has already absorbed, understood. The setting is a funeral, the "thousand raincoats" reminding me of (with some inevitability - how long will this shadow fall?) of Joy Division. The narrator stays as everyone, including the grieving parents, has gone away. "I'm so glad that your life stopped now/Before it had a chance to die" seems mean at first, but the lines "They didn't even understand you-No!/They didn't even try" suggest that this deceased person - the Other? - a friend? - was beloved of the narrator but misunderstood by everyone else. "I ran my fingers through the long grass/Willing it to turn into your hair" is again sensuous and sad, the narrator touching the earth, sitting by the grave for a long time...and this is the real moment of grief that anyone who has felt it knows..."Expecting to turn and see you there." This too ends suddenly, the actual death drawing an end to the album, the existential death of the person - a living death - avoided only by an actual one.
The utter straight-forwardness of this album - there are, even with the last song, no frills and a sense always of huge urgency from Moyet - make me sad that Yazoo didn't continue to make more music. There is something uncompromising and tough about it, about how it confronts sadness and death, together with a profound value on what counts in life and how (again, as with Tears For Fears and Wham!) two Gen Xers view the world in quite a different way from their elders. That good time seemingly belongs to others but will belong to them; there is drama here, sure, but it is never drama for its own sake but empathic, moving. (No wonder Antony and the Johnsons count Yazoo as an influence.) Nothing is fake here, not even the now-antiquated synths sound not just cheesy but (dare I say it?) haunting. In the heat of '83 this is a nighttime album, one for pausing and contemplating, just as much as it is for defiant whoops of joy.
Next: children are father to the man.
*The US version of You And Me Both's replacement for "Happy People"; more anon.
**Amazingly enough, or perhaps not, Alison Moyet also knew Erasure's Andy Bell from school days. It is indeed a small world...
Tuesday, 7 January 2014
(#277: 26 March 1983, 1 week)
Track listing: The Hurting/Mad World/Pale Shelter/Ideas As Opiates/Memories Fade/Suffer The Children/Watch Me Bleed/Change/The Prisoner/Start Of The Breakdown
"...young professionals in the car on their way home from the theatre, or to the restaurant, who want to listen to something familiar - like Kenny Rogers..." - R1's head Derek Chinnery's idea, as related to and by John Peel, as to what kind of audience Peel should be attracting.
"People complain if I play records...which are overtly political. In the same respect, a Duran Duran record is going to be played a lot more and is equally political - their Third World videos are monstrous as their holidays in the sun are holidays in other people's misery." - John Peel, on why he'd rather play Billy Bragg than Duran Duran.
When I think of The Hurting I think of lonely teenagers sitting on their bed or on the floor listening by themselves; maybe on a Walkman, maybe just through the speakers or some older headphones. The album as therapy? Why, yes. The Hurting is playing and the therapy session begins...
Tears For Fears emerged out of the not-much-going-on Bath in late 1981, Mercury Records' replacement band when Teardrop Explodes turned out to be a lot more unpredictable than they'd expected. Teenagers Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith had been in a ska group but then got a few Peter Gabriel and Joy Division and Talking Heads albums in their system and decided that they, along with Arthur Janov's book The Primal Scream, would be the building blocks for their work as Tears For Fears.
Which is to say, this is an album by two young men, reflecting on their childhood; and hello, Generation X. I doubt if John Peel ever bothered to play them, but I cannot imagine the idealized yuppies of Chinnery's imagination regarding them as "familiar." This is in part because of that generational difference - the aspiring-to-glamour couple in their car vs. the teenager holed up in his/her room, listening to this album because it speaks to them of something else which is terribly "familiar" - being lonely, misunderstood, confused, anxious...living in a world that seems, to all intents and purposes, bent on destroying itself. (The imminent nuclear apocalypse was always there, lurking in the corner, and was at its peak around this time, at least in my experience.)
..."The Hurting" knocks on the door, hesitantly, walks in, sits down and plainly states: "Could you ease my load/Could you see my Pain/Could you please explain/The Hurting." An arching and fading wail, like a baby's or a moment of Yoko Ono processed somehow, appears as the child cries; a moment of Mike Oldfield strumming comes in here and there, pointing somehow to the fact this is not an album from a big city but is out in the country - isolated, wide, predictable and either too noisy or too quiet...
...which is a good description of where I lived as well; my turf was on any ordinary day very small (I could see my high school from my bedroom window, we lived catty-corner to it) and I sat at the freaks and geeks table during lunch period, of course.* Orzabal writes of living in a "mad" world when he says he may as well use the word "bourgeois" to refer to the conformist and boring scene before him in Bath. In a place like that you have to grab hard on to something and hope that it, whatever it is, pulls you out; for Orzabal and Smith it was Primal Scream therapy** as a method of work and subject matter alike. "Mad World" is like a dam breaking, "I find it hard to tell you because I find it hard to take" - that "take" spat out, Smith fed up with everything he sees, in himself and outside too. Oh teenage angst! The mood is ominous, there's mocking laughter in corners, and yes, an admission of nothingness, a longing for non-existence, all sung to a song that is percussion-based (the Gabriel influence - to build up from rhythm) and hooky as anything. Tears For Fears may not be New Pop, but their influences were the same and that lesson - build a R1-friendly and slick surface and smuggle things inside it - is definitely here.
"Pale Shelter" is as elegant as anything - that guitar strum, that rising and falling line, the call-and-response - Curt Smith as the new David Cassidy, asking "how can I be sure" and singing it not to a girl but his parents, the world even. "You don't give me love" he cries out, about as far away musically as the blunt Lennon songs that emerged from therapy could be. The mood is sorrowful but somehow also uplifting - as in the old Greek idea of catharsis, a cleaning out, is the relief after tragedy. Therapy requires a lowering of guard, an openness that goes against the usual British sense of reserve; this album is against the grain of all that reserve, which is why it didn't get reviewed very kindly, being so obsessively about pain and its causes and solutions.
"Ideas As Opiates" has stark piano chords and a thumping OMD percussion of beat and echo; discordant notes pop up, clanging as Orzabal testifies to how "lies spread on lies" and ego-tripping separate people from their inner selves. There's a saxophone solo (well, it is the 80s) by Mel Collins, sympathetic to this Radiohead-predicting wail of vanity and ideas being valued over feelings.
"Memories Fade" is about repression - and it's another song of lost love, straight out of Janov but now predicting The Verve, Smith's voice singing/yelping "What can I do/When History's my cage/Look forward to a future in the past!" as if it's perhaps not just him who needs therapy but a whole country that is stuck looking backwards, preferring to do that than look at their own selves and figure out what they, singly and collectively, need. The little boy on the cover - not like U2's defiant boy, even in surrender, but in pain, holding his head because everything is too much - is that inner child the band is trying to reach, isolated, feeling scared, longing for some kind words and gestures. This is a long way from Duran Duran, and it is safe to say (again in my high school experience) that you either liked them or Tears For Fears, but never both. The song ends with more saxophone and a tense rising note, a distressing hum, percussion stiff as well, that needs some shaking out.
"Suffer The Children" is very OMDesque, Orzabal's crooning about the "sad affair" when a child cries out in the night and no one is there, the "only child in the only room" who has been brought into this world out of love, only to not have any real love given to him. The song skips along as if to say, ha-ha, we too are part of that legendary month, November 1981; the music may be derivative but the essence of the thing is here, the alienation from parents and existential loneliness. Orzabal's wife Caroline sings along la-la style, and it was their first post-ska song, their first time playing around with sequencers and drum machines, and that naivete somehow gets into the song as well.
"Watch Me Bleed" seems to be the only truly self-pitying song here; oh watch me as I repress the Pain, etc. I can imagine this is where reviewers would throw in their figurative towels, saying to themselves, "Oh Orzabal could you please get over yourself, you're not the only one who's ever suffered!" But in any therapy there's got to be a low point, a place where emotions and reason meet. "Where do I go?/Where do I run?/What's left of me or anyone when we've denied/The hurting?" And at last the important word "we" comes in. Not the ugly "we" of assuming headlines, but the "we" as in "we're in the same boat" sense of community and united purpose. The "we" of that teenager who has realized that s/he is just as messed up as anyone else, and that oddly enough in that messed-up state there is some cause for hope. This is an obsessive album, meant to be listened to again and again, just as long as it is needed - again, like therapy. And this is the turning point of The Hurting...
..."Change" leaps out sprightly, out of the gloom, sparkling and smooth, the words a kind of reaching out to someone else, someone who is "cool" and untrue to themselves, with the insistence that this person who has disappeared can change, can reappear, can be himself again. It is an encouragement, a back-and-forth motion of a song, overtly poppy and just the sort of thing that that yuppie couple might nod their heads to after a long night out. (It got to #4, so they must have heard it.) "Where does the end of me/Become the start of you?" Smith sings as if trying to repair something in himself as much as the other person. You aren't happy so I'm not happy, in other words; that Pain is recognized in others now, not just the self.
"The Prisoner" (nothing to do with the tv series) is the song most indebted to Gabriel, all big beats and quiet scary singing and strong rhythms and odd bleeps and bumps. This is the inner self finally out, making a run for it, "Here anger is me/Love sets me free/Feeling and not believing." The strong feelings have been released, and it's the atmosphere of the song that really counts - urgent, as if that thing they grasped is in their hands and it's finally going somewhere, at last. It is as brief as a run out of, or into, a house...
..."Start Of The Breakdown" is that house being shaken at last, ice melting, the "final demand" of the body to collapse and renew itself. The resolution is here, the repression is over, and now healing (not "closure"- Primal Scream therapy isn't really about that) can begin, that old Pain can be confronted and dealt with. The very earth itself - a "burial ground" - comes in, a kind of "going back to my roots" moment, the music all descending and resolving, as if something has been found, or let go. The session is over...
If you count this psychological examination - a reliving of trauma in order to get your self (not just your mind but your whole body) into a healthier place as a personal act only, then this isn't a political album. But if you count the personal as the political, that a nation of free (as opposed to repressed) people is better politically than not, then this is by definition an political album, even if most of the people who bought it weren't old enough to vote.
For such a confrontational album, alien to almost everything else in the charts (U2 had the same kind of angst but were because of their faith more optimistic to start with) it did amazingly well, staying in the album chart for well over a year. The duo became pop stars, pin-ups (the usual "Oh Curt you're too beautiful to suffer!" takes a new meaning here) and heroes to the teenagers in nowheresvilles in the UK and around the world, to influence not just Radiohead but My Chemical Romance, Mansun and The Smashing Pumpkins and just about anyone who is "emo" - verily we have the beginning of emo right here, more or less. That they also influenced Wyclef Jean and other hip-hop people shows that this album is far more than two awkward middle children reading Janov and inventing their own therapy session with an acoustic guitar. If this is political then it stands right with Bragg, Robert Wyatt and the rest, all those folks that Peel continued to play even as Chinnery shook his head and decided in future to reduce Peel's on air time to just three days. Meanwhile, this album took hold and spoke to and for a generation that happily stayed up to hear things that weren't familiar. A new generation was making music to help itself, ultimately, and in turn those who listened gave back that influence in the 90s and beyond...
Meanwhile I listened to this (on vinyl, downstairs when my parents weren't around - I didn't have a Walkman yet and wouldn't for a few years) and only bought it as I heard them on CFNY; by this time I listened to no other station and now count myself lucky to have been able to listen to it at this time when radio was becoming more conservative, less ready to take chances. Station head David Marsden (I could've thanked him in person at a school dance but didn't, alas) made sure it played not just Duran Duran but also Tears For Fears, U2, Echo and The Bunnymen and so on. Unlike Chinnery he didn't care about catering to yuppies; he knew there were enough misfits like me out there to make the station possible, and I imagine he took note of Peel's (and Kid Jensen's) playlists and not just what was in the charts. This station kept me going through my not-one-date adolescence, reminded me - just as The Hurting did - that there were a lot more people in my position than not, even if we were all by ourselves, listening...
...next up: 1944 and everything after.
*I wonder, looking back, how many people would have considered theirs to be that table; but I can tell you mine was, and this situation lasted the whole time I was there.
**As a therapy it was popularized right away in 1970 by John Lennon, whose influence on this album is indelible and inevitable. The success of this brought the book back into fashion, though in my experience teenagers don't really need that much encouragement to scream.