Sunday, 4 May 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now That's What I Call Music 3





(#300: 11 August 1984, 8 weeks)

Track listing: The Reflex (Duran Duran)/I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me (Nik Kershaw)/Thinking Of You (Sister Sledge)/Locomotion (Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark)/Dancing With Tears In My Eyes (Ultravox)/Pearl In The Shell (Howard Jones)/Don’t Tell Me (Blancmange)/Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now) (Phil Collins)/Two Tribes (Frankie Goes To Hollywood)/White Lines (Don’t, Don’t Do It) (Grandmaster and Melle Mel)/Nelson Mandela (The Special A.K.A.)/Love Wars (Womack and Womack)/You’re The Best Thing (The Style Council)/One Love-People Get Ready (Bob Marley and The Wailers)/Smalltown Boy (Bronski Beat)/I Want To Break Free (Queen)/Time After Time (Cyndi Lauper)/Love Resurrection (Alison Moyet)/Young At Heart (The Bluebells)/Robert de Niro’s Waiting… (Bananarama)/Dr Mabuse (Propaganda)/What’s Love Got To Do With It (Tina Turner)/When You’re Young And In Love (Flying Pickets)/Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (Wham!)/You Take Me Up (Thompson Twins)/It’s Raining Men (Weather Girls)/Dance Me Up/Susanna (The Art Company)/One Better Day (Madness)/Red Guitar (David Sylvian)

“I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero's head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
If a serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.“
(Wallace Stevens, “The Man With The Blue Guitar,” 1937)

Or can you bring around a world that has lost consciousness, or conscience?

Now 3 is one of the classic Now volumes because I suspect that, by now, the still uncredited compiler Ashley Abram had worked out exactly what kind of a mosaic he could construct from the thirty songs that he had available, and hence, despite the return of the corporate pig on the cover, looking complacent with sunglasses, the compiler is subverting the compilation. Its four sides can be readily divided into discrete categories, and the two albums equally so, that is, into destruction and reconstruction. The sides can be categorised thusly:

Side One – nuclear apocalypse, preparing for the end of everything.
Side Two – politics, both social and personal, and the reasons why they have caused destruction.
Side Three – Going towards sex and/or love, and trying to find a balance between both.
Side Four – Love, life and the emergence and ultimate triumph of art.

It is still 1984, there is still a Cold War and a miners’ strike, and yet somehow we are still in 1980 (despite the presence of two tracks from the latter half of the seventies), and Now 3, even now (or even Now), still sounds like the last album ever made. It represents such a radical leap from what we heard on Now II that one marvels that this was pop music – chart music - from the same year, and not from a different millennium. War on Pop? Pop as battlefield or rose garden; the choice was ours.

Chic Cheek

Two of the first three songs involve Nile Rodgers, who turned out, against all odds, to be this record’s most conspicuous survivor. Although "The Reflex" was their second number one and their biggest British hit, Duran Duran's career had begun a slight downturn, and, much as with Bowie a year earlier, Rodgers had been called in to try to turn a not obviously commercial album track workout into something resembling pop. This he did by the simple means of repositioning the group in Let's Dance land, but the familiar booming, distant drums, echoed instrumentation of indeterminate origin and Fairlight tomfoolery actually work far more effectively than they did with Bowie; there is light and contrast, and even some humour. I’m still far from sure about selling that Renoir and that TV set, but the remix does provide a cracking, enlivening start to the proceedings, and John Taylor does a fine job of avoiding being Bernard Edwards.

On the other side of Nik Kershaw, there was Rodgers again, with the rest of the Chic Organisation, back in 1979 with an album track which in Britain had been merely the B-side of the “Lost In Music” single. But the song was uncovered in the nascent stirrings of what became Rare Groove, began re-circulating in clubs, went back into the charts and singlehandedly revived Sister Sledge’s career. It remains a great example of restrained euphoria (“Oh, help me sing!” cries the then sixteen-year-old Kathy Sledge at a key point) given additional power by an exuberantly free-ranging conga solo by Sammy Figueroa.

Speak About Destruction

In two songs on Side One, the unlikely spectre of The Final Cut rears its head. There is something in “I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” – perhaps its Roger Waters-esque references  to “old men in stripey trousers” who “rule the world with plastic smiles,” more so its decidedly non Roger Waters-esque air of incurable optimism – which actually makes Kershaw’s stance on The Bomb more radical than that of Frankie, who positively exult in the prospect of total annihilation. It’s not really a surprise that “Sun” began life as a folk protest song; first released as a single in November 1983 and getting lost in the pre-Christmas rush, MCA gave it a second chance in the late spring of 1984 and it became his biggest hit as a performer, prevented from reaching number one only by “Two Tribes.” I think it still works very well; the overall air is of bubblegum Level 42 with an anxious Ultravox bridge and a cheery singalong chorus (“[The song is] saying that it probably won't do much good for one person to shout about these things,” explained Kershaw in No. 1 magazine that September, “but I'm going to anyway”) which doesn’t need to remind us that it had been ten years since Elton John sang “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.”

With “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes, “ however, we are very firmly back in the terminal world of “Two Suns In The Sunset”; Midge Ure is driving home from work in the full knowledge that World War III is about to happen , gets home and spends his final hours with his partner. The song title and sentiment stem from the thirties:

“For the most part…the heroes and heroines of modern songs meet with the rebuffs they deserve and take refuge in the unmute reproach of ‘Ain’t misbehavin’’, and ‘Mean to Me’, or the facile melancholy of ‘Dancing with Tears in my Eyes’…”
(Constant Lambert, Music Ho!: A Study of Music in Decline. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1934; Part Three [“Nationalism and the Exotic”], chapter [g]; “The Spirit of Jazz”)

Ultravox’s song, however, bears a more recent antecedent. On his way home, Ure switches on the car radio:

“The man on the wireless cries again
It's over, it's over”

We are therefore subtly reminded that this song could have been performed by Roy Orbison (see the latter’s reading of “I Drove All Night” to demonstrate how well this would have worked).

The singer and his lover drink (“to forget the coming storm”) and make love “to the sound of our favourite song…over and over” (those last three words sung heartbreakingly, and again there appears the background spectre of Abba’s “Dance (While The Music Still Goes On).” As with the characters involved in the Don McKellar film Last Night – although the latter does suggest that what is coming is not apocalypse, but rebirth, new lives – they triumph emotionally over their circumstances. They embrace, preparing to meet the end, and there is a protracted, uncomfortable fadeout with Ure’s increasingly frantic guitar commentary.

Generalised Dread

In 1984, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were being pressed upon to come up with some more hits, following the determined experimentation of the preceding year’s Dazzle Ships, which, as such under-observed records tend to do, went on to influence another generation’s music . And so they travelled the world – it was called tax exile – recording Junk Culture variously in Montserrat (Air Studios), Brussels and Holland.

I will not outline the album in detail as an admirable and comprehensive job is done here. But “Locomotion,” produced by the duo with Brian Tench – and bearing horn arrangements by Tony Visconti – was bright and catchy enough to give OMD their first top five hit in over two years. But that’s not all there is to it. The extended choruses may sound flash and fit for the Thatcherite go-get generation – though note the subtly disturbing and ambiguous bassline at the “Run down the boardwalk” mark – but the verses abruptly turn the song’s warm primary colours into somnolent grey, as Andy McCluskey sings, with quiet rage, about how he can’t stand up or even write his own address, or do much more than staring out of his window. Closer examination of the choruses reveal a fist in the colourful glove: “Run down the railways,” “But I wouldn’t have a notion/How to save my soul,” “It’s a power to the state” – the song is actually an attack on the Thatcher government’s treatment of the disabled (this was, after all, the era in which Edwina Currie announced that the disabled should “learn how to stand on their own two feet”; an era not that far removed from the present one). It was called New Pop.

“Pearl In The Shell,” in these surroundings, once again demonstrates how good Howard Jones’ songs can sound in the midst of songs by others. “The fear goes on,” he sings gloomily; Davey Payne turns up for a saxophone solo and nearly, but not quite, goes over the edge. Whereas Blancmange always sounded, to paraphrase Cope, like wacky students or advertising agency executives playing at being Joy Division or Throbbing Gristle; I liked “Living On The Ceiling” quite a lot at the end of 1982, whereas the song now annoys me. But nothing else they did lived up to that peak – if peak it was - and “Don’t Tell Me,” a top ten hit, I suspect, on momentum alone, is deeply unsatisfactory, with Neil Arthur’s gum-chewing commodity broker tones not allowing for any empathy: “Don’t tell me I’m the Devil’s friend!” Also available to buy at this time was From Her To Eternity by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Meanwhile – speaking of former members of John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble – “Against All Odds” sounds completely out of place with what has preceded it, as though the end of humanity was as nought against the prospect of Phil Collins going out of his mind. Bob Stanley summed it up perfectly in Yeah Yeah Yeah; music for bitter male (prematurely) middle-aged divorcees drowning their sorrows in expensive wine bars, Collins the man who just couldn’t let go, the soundtrack for every bitter ex throwing stones at his former lover’s bedroom window at two-thirty in the morning, the rain pouring down on him (as it does on Collins in the video). “Take a look at me NOW!” exclaims the gaunt ghost of seventies rock (or “take a look at me, Now”?). “WOOAAARGH STILL BE STANDIN’ HERE!” The drums remain as gated as any proto-yuppie community. But he doesn’t forget to plug the movie the song is supposed to soundtrack: “If you coming back to me/Is AGAINST ALL ODDS.” Actually the movie wasn’t a half-bad remake of Build My Gallows High a.k.a. Out Of The Past; one is readier to believe in Jeff Bridges as a chump or fall guy than Robert Mitchum. But the best song on the soundtrack was “Walk Through The Fire” by Peter Gabriel. We’ll be taking a look at him soon in this tale.

War On Pop, or Pop Wars

"However, life is cheap, dirt cheap, according to this society, judged by the way it acts, the only true test, saw Christie, despite its pious mouthings. What it does in practice is not what it says it does. It does not care for human life: it shortens that life by the nature of the work it demands, it poisons that life in pursuit of mere profit, it organises wars from which it is certain mass killing will result...but you know the ways in which we are all diminished: I should not need to rehearse them further."
(BS Johnson, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry, chapter XIII: "Christie Argues With Himself!")
               
"It was not from modesty that I wanted to be a drummer in those days. That was the highest aspiration - the rest is nothing."
(Adolf Hitler, from the transcript of his final address to the judges at his Beer Hall Putsch high treason trial, 1924)

Much as the names Joy Division and New Order attempt to make right signifiers which are otherwise irretrievably wrong, so Horn and Morley's reclamation of the term Art Of Noise from the Italian Futurists who coined it can be viewed in a similar light. Marinetti and his disciples openly welcomed war and apocalypse, revelled in its promises of blood and carnage - and inevitably ended up cheerleading for Mussolini.

Trevor Horn has subsequently been rather diffident about "Two Tribes," claiming that it was more of an examination of the alleged glamour and attraction of war and slaughter rather than an anti-war record per se. While this certainly isn't wrong - the sleevenotes juxtapose sober reflections of the infancy and subterfuge of nations who need to keep the pretence of war alive in order to justify their military budgets with detailed lists of proposed Cruise and Pershing II missile deployments in Western Europe for 1985 and remarks about the Gurkas being "the kind of men one would wish to go into the jungle with" with a deliberate phallic bent, and on the B-side's cover of Edwin Starr's "War," Chris Barrie, impersonating Reagan, delivers a chilling "Relax" before admitting "I don't want to die" - Morley certainly had different ideas.

"Two Tribes" was designed to be to the summer of 1984 what "God Save The Queen" had been to the summer of 1977 - an inescapable and huge gauntlet of protest. The 12-inch itself featured pictures of Lenin and Reagan dead centre on either side, with the hole going through their foreheads as though they had just been shot. More than anything it was to be ZTT's Gesamtkunstwerk; a total work of art involving not just the basic song and its infinite remixes, but the sleeve design (the rear of the 12-inch sleeve features Thatcher and Reagan in mute hand-on-heart prayer, Thatcher's eyes closed as though in deep anticipation of imminent orgasm, Reagan smiling dopily, Donald Rumsfeld in shades and scowl lurking just behind both), the video (directed by Godley and Creme and featuring Reagan and Chernenko lookalikes slugging it out in a Jerry Springer-anticipating chat show arena), even unto the adverts and press interviews. Each element commented on, or amplified, or changed the perspective on, all of the other ones. It was New Pop's final battle; to put the rest of 1984's New Right pop to total and humiliating shame.

The contemporary impact of "Two Tribes" must be put in its proper perspective. In the summer of 1984, my generation of students could fairly be said to be divided into two unequal-sized poltical camps - the CND/Labour/National Union Of Mineworkers-supporting Old Left, and the Thatcherite what-me-worry-straight-to-the-City-and-don't-pass-the-slums New Right. Economic cold rationalism was already beginning to bite into the veins of academia, and increasingly large numbers of people saw no reason why unregulated free market economics should not be welcomed or embraced.

But to those of us still on the Left, disgusted if not surprised by Labour's rout in the 1983 General Election - although their 1983 election manifesto was described as "the longest suicide note in political history" its proposals seem perfectly reasonable when seen through 2014 (or, for that matter, 1983) eyes. But no one else believed it at the time, despite the Greenham Common protests and lock-ins, despite the utterly palpable dread of imminent nuclear holocaust - this was in the immediate pre-Gorbachev days, when nothing had been resolved. Nevertheless the threat of forthcoming extermination breathed fire down every properly fearful neck; but no, the weapons had to be kept and maintained and added to, since every Chile and El Salvador with the brass neck to try socialism was routinely routed from the viewpoint that They Had Been Put Up To It By Russian Guys In Big Furry Hats.

And then, more pressingly, there was the miners' strike, which lasted the best part of a year and revealed the fascism always latent in the British establishment when challenged at its root. I well recall travelling on the motorways of Britain that summer, seeing coaches of ordinary people being routinely pulled over and emptied by police ("We're arresting everyone this morning") because by default they were carrying flying pickets. At the coal depots themselves police hurled themselves at strikers with bloody battlecries and set about them on live television with truncheons, baseball bats and worse. Meanwhile the smugness of the Tory heartlands radiated like capitalist plutonium; Auberon Waugh remarking in the Telegraph that the South of England had sufficient reserves of coal for decades and that the underclass were getting what they had deserved since the days of the Chartists. Among the mining communities themselves there formed irrevocable splits and rifts; those too broke or too afraid to remain out on strike tried to return to work, with consequent violence, social ostracising and, in the end, fatalities (the music press too was silent that summer due to a National Union of Journalists strike - so there is a pleasant attendant irony that no immediate critical commentary on "Two Tribes" was ever made). But there were also differences within that community itself; Jarvis Cocker, then in his early twenties (though not a miner), routinely turned out for picket lines and NUM support in Sheffield and environs but he too was regularly ridiculed by miners for sitting in cafes wearing glasses and...gasp...reading books (to quote Alan Bennett's comment on another "scab" miner, filmed against a backdrop of shelves and shelves of books, "he was clearly on a different track from his brothers even before the strike began").

"Two Tribes" acted as a rallying call, a protest on the part of the sizeable minority who weren't blinded or bewitched by the alleged wonders of Thatcherism, a furious roar of defiance against the flimsy façade which 1984 Britain presented from all quarters. It was designed to flatten the opposition - and, at least in terms of that summer's alleged pop, it did.
 
The record was premiered on Radio 1 ten days before its release - and in those days that was considered a long time; normally new releases would only be played one week before release. Peter Powell opted for the "Annihilation" 12-inch version; audibly shaken, he stated that this was "the most exciting and startling record to come along in...years." The group were interviewed live on air - there was no way that the BBC could also ban "Two Tribes" despite its far more inflammatory nature; they had already been made to look sufficiently ridiculous. Powell urged listeners to go for the full 12-inch rather than the standard 7-inch mix (which really does only tell part of the story) and then played it in full, uninterrupted. At the end there was a silence which lasted for seconds, before Powell came back on to say that "All in all, it's more than I can cope with...I think it's stunning."

It was, and it is. Opening with air-raid sirens and Anne Dudley's biggest, boldest orchestral introduction to date, the timpani and drums explode like junior ICBMs as Barrie's Reagan presents himself as one of the record's two "narrators." "Ladies and gentlemen...Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Possibly the most important thing this side of the world," immediately followed by a Scouse snigger of "well 'ard" from one of The Lads before the gigantic beat kicks in - hard-on-the-one, like "Relax" but at double speed. Compared with even the mainstream dance music released in 1984 this sounded like Picasso among a shed of schoolboy scribbles.

The beat plateaus, Fairlight and orchestra re-enter, and "Reagan" intones the famous "You may pronounce us guilty a thousand times over..." speech - which is also taken from Hitler's final summation at the abovementioned Beer Hall Putsch trial. Comparing Reagan to Hitler was not unknown in the non-mainstream music and contemporary art of the time (see Peter Kennard's photomontages, for instance) but in the middle of the marketplace it was like a nailbomb being set off. Topped by his abstract "history will absolve" and an apposite quote from the chorus of "American Pie" it was also extremely chilling.

Then "Reagan" disappears, to be succeeded by the closer-than-the-ear-can-hear voice of actor Patrick Allen. It was Allen who had been booked to do the voiceover for the absurd Government Protect And Survive nuclear war public information campaign in the sixties (Britain's Duck And Cover) and he was hired by Morley to recreate his announcements in this new and startling context. To hear Allen's grave authoritative baritone reading out ludicrosities like "If you're caught in the open, lie down" over Horn and Dudley's increasingly harder and menacing backdrop scared the shit out of me and everyone else who heard the record for the first time that summer. Most chilling of all is the seemingly snagged tape loop of the instruction "If your mother (or grandmother) or any other member of your family should die whilst in the shelter, put them outside, but remember to tag them first for identification purposes" with shrill string and percussive screams behind Allen's voice. This was purposely uncomfortable listening.

That storm eventually breaks, and "Reagan" re-enters with some gallows humour - "Ha! It's enough to make you wonder if you're on the wrong planet!" - and then, after a quadruple quadriceps revving-up of the bass, Holly's howl comes in and the song proper begins. Though in itself "Two Tribes" is not much more than a list of dissolute signifiers ("Shirts by Van Heusen," "Cowboy Number One") with the usual sexual metaphors ("Switch off your shield/Switch off and feel") and the occasional pointed, pertinent jibe ("Working for the black gas" - then as now), as a record, and in terms of purpose-driven bigness, it is all that is required. In the instrumental break (as opposed to the Prokofiev quotations and "Love and life" beseechments in the 7-inch) Allen returns with more pointless instructions ("You will hear three bangs like this" - followed by utter silence). After his exclaimed "Keep the door shut," Allen and Holly intermingle for one final rush, Johnson's screams trying to climb above Allen's determined, robotic bureaucracy. With the final reckoning of "Are we living in a land where Sex and Horror are the NEW GODS?" the final nails into the coffin of humanity are banged in again and again...and then it ends (the truly scary postscript, tucked away right at the end of the B-side, features Allen over creeping, sinister electronic drones, intoning "Mine is the last voice you will ever hear. Do not be alarmed").

By about 10:30 on the Monday morning of release, my local record shop was out of 12-inches and kept having to order and re-order. Queues formed outside the shop. With advance orders of close to a million, "Two Tribes" was guaranteed to enter the chart at number one, but even then few could have anticipated the gigantic side-effects. In that first week it outsold all of the singles occupying numbers 2-37 in the chart put together. They were welcomed back to TOTP and treated like royalty returning from exile. They made everything else on the programme look timid. Thanks to the usual string of remixes and remodellings - but also in part because of a worrying lack of competition - "Two Tribes" remained at number one for nine weeks, the first single to do so since "You're The One That I Want" six years previously. Its orbit was so remorselessly attractive that it even pulled "Relax" back up the charts in its slipstream, all the way back up to number two - Frankie thus becoming the first act since the Beatles to keep themselves off the top. They owned the fucking summer and they knew it - Johnson in particular was dazed that they had become to 1984 what Bowie and Roxy had been to 1973, except that neither Bowie nor Roxy had even managed a number one single that year. With a few very notable exceptions - Prince, the Smiths, Scritti, Sylvian, Bronski Beat, Melle Mel and precious few others - the difference was like pop before Elvis and pop after Eno - instead of CHOOSE LIFE, Frankie's Hamnett-derived T-shirts urged ARM THE UNEMPLOYED. The original Annihilation 12-inch mix was and remains a work of peerless pop art, as sadly relevant now as it was a generation ago. At the time it seemed like the final and glorious revenge of New Pop, which looked to be triumphant and omnipresent in ways at which even 1982 had only hinted

But what happened next?  This piece, in true Frankie/ZTT fashion, is a retouching of a comment I made on Popular, and it has to be said that the version of “Two Tribes” which appears on Now 3 is not quite the 7-inch edit. Allen’s opening announcement has extra echo on it, the backing instruments are mixed differently – drums frequently drop out, and the whole song palpably relaxes in the bridge, whence is added an “Enjoy!” instruction from Johnson that does not appear on any other mixes. It was the song of the season – the week Now 3 debuted at number one was also the ninth and last week that the single spent at number one – but, perhaps mindful of the downward sales spirals of singles once they had appeared on such compilations, the “Two Tribes” you get here is not really the one you heard on the radio or bought from HMV; this mix only otherwise appears on the 7" picture disc (with the parenthesis "We Don't Want To Die"). The song which did replace “Two Tribes” at number one – which it would have done regardless – will be discussed further in the context of entry #306. For now, I wonder whether the record owes its excitement more to a gesture of rearguard protest than to a sheer exhilaration at the prospect of global wipeout.

The Drugs Don't Work: So You Hope

Later covered by Duran Duran - the video for which version involved the participation of Melle Mel and at least some of the Furious Five - the original "White Lines" was another record which not so much entered as confronted the charts; certainly daytime radio, not for the first or last time, opted to stare at its feet and pretend that the record didn't exist, playing it (grudgingly) only when it had to, for instance on chart shows.

And the record took some seven months of gradually accumulating attention and interest before finally breaking the Top 40, although it only peaked at #7 - forty places higher than it had managed on the Billboard Hot 100 - it was on the chart for just over a year and was 1984's thirteenth biggest selling single; I believe that its status as the largest selling of all #7 hits was only surpassed by Leann Rimes' "How Do I Live?" just under a decade and a half later. All for a song which Melle Mel and Sylvia Robinson had originally written as an ironic celebration of cocaine culture (they modified its message to an anti-cocaine warning only when they realised that a pro-cocaine song stood little chance of airplay or exposure).

It has to be said that, listening to the record now, it does sound like a frightening "YES!" of a song. The plaintive little tinkles which accompany the lines "A million magic crystals/Painted pure and white" sound as though it is Christmas morning. The song's determined but circulatory rhythmic framework - the Liquid Liquid "Cavern" bassline looping endlessly like toxins flowing, unending, throughout veins and arteries - heightens the sense of enticement and invitation more than any warning, including from Melle Mel's sonorous but gradually more gullible pronouncements.

More ambiguous and troublesome than "The Message" - the latter stays in a minor key throughout while "White Lines" defiantly remains in the major key; in Britain the artist credit was a puzzling "Grandmaster and Melle Mel," presumably to downplay the fact that Grandmaster Flash had long since left, but then again, Flash himself does not appear at all on "The Message" - Melle Mel warns of the drug's dangerous attractions over a skeletal backdrop of bass, rhythm and occasional brass synthesiser blast, with ominous backing singers reminiscent of the Undisputed Truth, rhythmic (cocaine) sniffs, the occasional Melle interjection - "bass, "baby" - which is randomly reminiscent of what Cale and Reed do on the Velvet Underground's "Lady Godiva's Operation." He speaks of double standards in ways worthy of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century; the businessman caught with twenty-four kilos was assumed to be the late John de Lorean. But all the while you can feel the stroboscopic thrust suck him in, slowly, until you don't believe his admonition "Don't BUY it!," and there seems little ironic about the reprise of his laugh from "The Message." At times his voice sounds like a deeper but unwiser George Michael. And meanwhile the bass doesn't stop. And the song doesn't stop. The song goes on. As it did when I first heard it on Radio 1's American chart show in November 1983. But it was now summer. And one Christmas later. But the bass doesn't stop. And the song doesn't stop.

Let's Change The World With Music

One assumes that Abram knew exactly what he was doing with this second side; pop that fights back, confronts, argues, questions. You buy this record for graffiti gloss; you also get an extended and explosive series of sermons. Not to mention what is unquestionably, by all objective standards, one of the most important songs in the history of pop music.

Few people, outside those who would be expected to know such things, knew anything about Nelson Mandela before the song was conceived. Even Jerry Dammers, the man who wrote it, knew nothing in particular about Mandela until he attended an anti-apartheid concert in London in 1983. He certainly did not expect the song to have the impact that it did; or maybe he had an inkling, since "Nelson Mandela" is one of the angriest and most celebratory-sounding of pop records, a definite wake-up call. Apart from the odd wag who wrote to magazines complaining that they bought the single and didn't get their free Nelson Mandela (the editor's standard response was: "For your free Nelson Mandela, please write to South Africa House, Trafalgar Square..."), the song caught on, and its UK chart peak of #9 doesn't reflect its eventual, shattering impact. Back in South Africa it was adopted as an anthem, played at ANC rallies and even at sports events, and the raised awareness of Mandela's plight that the song provoked was beyond question influential in terms of eventually getting Mandela released from prison and restoring him to his rightful place in South Africa. Bob Marley did not live to see any of this happen, but would have undoubtedly been overjoyed at what he might have witnessed.

The song does not mourn or snarl, but is relentlessly joyful in its very clever fusion of ska and kwela (Elvis Costello produced, quite brilliantly), as the high-life music balances the ire of lead singer Stan Campbell ("Are you so blind that you cannot hear?," "ARE YOU SO DUMB THAT YOU CANNOT SPEAK?"). He pleads, he goads, for Mandela's torment to end, as carefully exuberant brass, rhythm and backing singers (among the latter, Caron Wheeler) cheerfully hammer home the message (on the 12-inch, the song even accelerates a little towards fadeout). This is not something that could have been imagined in a 1983 context of Genesis and Kajagoogoo; pop was moving on, and for one of the few occasions in its existence, was leading society in its wake.

When Two Tribes Go To War

The NME's top single of 1984, and it's not an unfair choice, since "Love Wars" plays like Sonny and Cher gone really bad. Such a luscious, gliding music; such vicious, vengeful lyrics sung in the manner of angel cake choristers ("I promise to stop boxing you round/So don't scratch my face," "I remember losing my head/And calling you things/Like dirty names"), and all supposedly reflected in the Womacks' own personal lives - "Love Wars" sounds like what a focused and directed Rolling Stones might have achieved in mid-eighties Memphis (Cecil sounds as though he would absolutely floor Jagger, line for line, scream for scream), though credit has to be given to drummer James Gadson - and percussionists Lenny Castro and Paulinho da Costa - for a deadpan authority worthy of the late Al Jackson, for example the onomatopoeia which accompanies "Bring it on home and drop them GUNS on the floor." We are also made to remember, of course, that "Love Wars" made our charts just after the shooting of Marvin Gaye; oh, if only Marvin and Tammi had lived to sing this, if only David Ruffin had behaved himself. Before marrying Linda Womack, Cecil had been husband to, and manager of, Mary Wells. The story rolls on. But those angel cake choristers - really, "Love Wars" is practically a country song, and the harmonies recall the Sacred Harp singers' two contributions to the soundtrack of the film Cold Mountain; unearthly, airy.

But more of the White Stripes later in this tale.

Make Love, Not War

Whereas Paul Weller sings of love. Deep, unshakable, heartfelt love. The rhythm backing again makes one think of Marvin Gaye - "Sexual Healing" especially - and it would have been easy to picture Gaye singing this. Bringing the cheek-in-tongue fantasies of "Long Hot Summer" out into the open, "You're The Best Thing" demonstrates, not for the first or last time, how so much more of Weller as a person and an artist comes through when he puts his ballad hat on. Saxophonist Billy Chapman, on loan from Animal Nightlife, breathes carefully in the music's ear, the string arrangement is not obtrusive, and one can only conject on how the seventeen-year-old Noel Gallagher would have been affected by this, as a fairly straight line, leading to "Wonderwall" and especially "Talk Tonight," can be drawn from here. But also consider "Heavy Seas Of Love," the spiritual which concludes and resolves Damon Albarn's Everyday Robots, and think of just how important the Style Council really turned out to be.

Apocalypse (Slight Return)

In this context, the return of Bob Marley and Curtis Mayfield is startling. You thought Frankie or even Ultravox set the standard? How about positively welcoming annihilation - of non-believers? I cannot leave out the sometimes explicit threats which Marley's voice poses intermittently throughout the song - his "ONE MORE THING!" knocks you out of your chair, like an angrier Pete Seeger, and his "I'm PLEADING to MANKIND!" is one final extended howl before the curtain falls forever. Upon which, he cuts loose and improvises like Rollins. But of course.

Higher Energy

If Now 3 enters a certain phase at this point, it was highly justified. A fuller picture might have been achieved by including other hits of the period such as "High Energy" by Evelyn Thomas, "Searchin' (I Gotta Find A Man)" by Hazell Dean and "You Think You're A Man" by Divine, but that has to be balanced with the still disgraceful attitude of the supposedly right-on music press of the time. "No one gives a toss what they get up to the dark, and that's what bothers them," read an NME "review" of Bronski Beat's The Age Of Consent. In contrast, the readers of Smash Hits voted Bronski Beat the Best New Act of 1984, ahead of Frankie; their gayness seemed more sincerely felt, as did their way of expressing and articulating the considerable quantity of shit with which LGBT people continued to have to put up in the eighties. And The Age Of Consent is an excellent and unsparing record, pushing the New Pop proposals one step closer to the abolition of irony; its songs were exactly what they looked to be about. "Why?" moulds the "Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag" template into a Tin Drum (Grass, not Japan) scream of immolated exasperation. "It Ain't Necessarily So" is one of the cleverest of Gershwin covers. "Junk" makes one wish Somerville would visit his lower register more often.

Where "Relax" was all explicit, in-your-face stuff (at times, literally), "Smalltown Boy" seemed an unusually quiet 1984 pop record, particularly its 12" mix, with its long and patient build-up. Jimmy Somerville does not make a particular exhibition of his falsetto, but uses it to alternately comfort and scold the song's subject and objects. The "run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away" choruses suggest a more restrained Talk Talk. The music has something in common with Depeche Mode but works with its hi-NRG foundations with undemonstrable brilliance, acknowledging and foretelling what New Order and the Pet Shop Boys had done and would do with the same elements. As for Somerville, as pained as is he in telling us how that ancient TPL construct "home" really isn't a refuge any more, he offers a surprisingly wide range of vocal approaches which predicate Jeff Buckley (see the latter's reading of Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol") more so than Antony Hegarty. "Smalltown Boy" was a sharp but sobering piece of reality wedged into a chart which in part seemed to want to continue escaping.

Or breaking free; it is not, I think, an accident that the first record ends with Bronski Beat and the second opens with Queen, who by virtue of their greater experience manage to fuse Frankie outrageousness with Bronski angst. "I Want To Break Free" is ostensibly about the rapid progress and end of an affair - the protagonist falls in love, gets frustrated and leaves, and finally can't stand being alone - but Freddie Mercury's showboating vocal (which again touches on proto-Jeff Buckley towards fadeout - "I want, I want, I want, I WANT to brea-a-a-a-a-k free-e-e-e-e") suggests another subtext. Along with "Radio Ga Ga" - and the song was composed by John Deacon - and "Machines (Or 'Back To Humans')," it represents the most adventurous use of electronics on the parent album, The Works (not a number one album in Britain, held in second place by Into The Gap). Even the solo, which sounds like a processed Brian May guitar, was actually played on synthesiser by one Fred Mandel. But when Mercury subsequently performed the song in Coronation Street drag, as per the video, at Rock in Rio, he was roundly booed; the Brazilian audience had adopted it as a freedom anthem and felt affronted.

And finally this sequence has to go forward a little and settle with "It's Raining Men" - a song co-written by Paul Jabara and Canadian Paul Schaffer (from Thunder Bay, Ontario) and offered to Cher, Diana Ross, Summer and Streisand before Sylvester's former backing singers took it up - the Weather Girls name was a direct result - in 1982; eventually, in 1984, Britain, or its charts, caught up and the record, a performance which redefines gaudy intensity (when Martha Wash and Izona Armstead sing, they transform gaudy into Gaudi), glorious, colourful and celebratory - and, as some were already suspecting, perhaps part of the last big party, the final great, yea-saying hurrah, before the big disease with the little name began to make itself known and provoke the end of many days.

Songs: From Experience To Innocence

Side Three of Now 3 can be considered a journey of love, from experience to innocence. "Time After Time" is in many ways an old-fashioned song; you could imagine the Beatles doing it in 1965 (it would principally be a George song) and the LinnDrum "shaker" rhythm is reminiscent of what Tony Williams does through most of side two of In A Silent Way; pregnant with expectations. Lauper wrote the song with Rob Hyman, a member of the Hooters; it is he whom you hear providing harmony vocals on the choruses (thereby also reminding us, yet again, of the Everly Brothers). Such a meditative, worrisome song; you could watch the video and interpret it as the kindest of goodbyes from a departing former lover - it could almost be the answer to "I Want To Break Free" - or observe how Lauper based the song on a lot of things which happened in her personal life around this period. But then, Lauper derived the song's name from the title of a forgotten 1979 science fiction movie starring Malcolm McDowell, wherein he plays an HG Wells who gets into his own time machine and goes forward to stop mankind destroying itself. Overall, though, it is very much in the line of times-are-tough-so-let's-hang-on-together soul-pop songs after "Reach Out, I'll Be There" and "Lean On Me."

Moyet wastes little time with "Love Resurrection" and sex metaphors abound, with a Swain and Jolley production which make the record sound like a more grown-up Bananarama. But then comes "Young At Heart," a song co-written with Siobhan Fahey and first, and rather differently, recorded by Bananarama for their Deep Sea Skiving album (shades of "Our Lips Are Sealed"?). The song itself is a rueful examination of how, or what, you feel about your parents; its moods shift between subliminally angry recollections (“They told us tales, they told us lies/Don’t they know they shouldn’t have told us at all?”) and a new-found serenity (“How come I love them now?/How come I love them more?/When all I wanted to do when I was old/Was to walk out the door?”).

Bobby Valentino’s vital violin lines, squiggling and snaking their way in and out of the genial acoustic country-rock romp, reveal something of a debt to the Dexy’s of Too-Rye-Ay, blending the catchy thrust of “Come On Eileen” with the lyrical generosity of “Old.” Good-naturedly peaking at number eight in the summer of 1984, “Young At Heart” was the biggest hit to come out of the shortlived Bothwell post-Postcard scene, though Friends Again hit hard in Scotland, as did their subsequent spinoffs Love And Money and The Bathers.

Its belated ascent to the top nearly a decade later came as the result of its inclusion in a Volkswagen car commercial (other companies were slowly absorbing the lessons of Levi’s), and although the Bluebells had long since dissolved they genially agreed to reform to promote the reissue. On TOTP they dressed and were treated like royalty, resplendent in white ties and tails, with singer Ken McCluskey not missing an opportunity to ad-lib during the instrumental break, usually either “Shabba!” or, memorably, “TECHNO TECHNO TECHNO TECHNO!”

Finally come Bananarama themselves. Despite the slapstick pizza delivery payoff to its video, "Robert de Niro's Waiting..." really is a dank and disquieting top three record, essentially about a rape victim refusing to go outside any more, contenting herself with her idolatry of de Niro, an image who can never become real, never hurt her (the group eventually and briefly met up with a polite but diffident de Niro). Their earlier Fun Boy Three connection was pertinent, since this song is, in many respects, a sequel to "The Boiler."

A Less Secret Wish

"There is another point on which the works of [Mary] Shelley and Stoker diverge radically from one another: the effect they mean to produce to the reader. The difference, to paraphrase Benjamin, can be put like this: a description of fear and a frightening description are by no means the same thing. Frankenstein (like Jekyll and Hyde) does not want to scare readers, but to convince them. It appeals to their reason. It wants to make them reflect on a number of important problems (the development of science, the ethic of the family, respect for tradition) and agree - rationally - that these are threatened by powerful and hidden forces. In other words it wants to get the readers' assent to the 'philosophical' arguments expounded in black and white by the author in the course of the narration. Fear is made subordinate to this design: it is one of the means used to convince, but not the only one, nor the main one. The person who is frightened is not the reader, but the protagonist."
(Franco Moretti, Signs Taken For Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms. London, Verso (revised edition): 1988, page 106, Chapter 3, "Dialectic Of Fear"; translated by Susan Fischer, David Forgacs and David Miller)

"A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past - which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation á l'ordre du jour — and that day is Judgment Day."
(Walter Benjamin, "On The Concept Of History," paragraph III)

The above Moretti quotation comes from an extended study of Dracula and Frankenstein and the respective roles that they filled in their nineteenth century society. Moretti is a Marxist, and readily identifies Dracula as capitalist and Frankenstein (the monster, I trust, since the novel is actually named after the scientist) as worker; master and servant, Dracula as one of the self-perpetuating idle rich who superciliously really need do nothing for the rest of his life, since he, and therefore what he represents, is immortal; whereas Frankenstein's creation symbolises the common worker with radical ideas which frighten the conforming nerds who did, and do, constitute the majority of humanity, and who therefore needs to be destroyed. Dracula, in contrast, needs nothing to survive but the blood of others; as Moretti points out, he seeks not to end lives but to use them. Both, of course, are feared because of the perceived threat that they present to "the ethic of the family," the maintenance of the status quo.

The original Dr Mabuse, as Norbert Jacques, and then Fritz Lang, would have conceived and known him, was far closer to the Dracula model - but his surrounding twenties/thirties German context cannot be dismissed. All he has to do is stare at his victims and hypnotise them into doing anything he wants them to do. In Lang's original 1922 Dr Mabuse the Gambler there is much sexuality (and sex), as rapid a fire of editing as could have been achieved nine decades ago, but like Frankie and WWIII I suspect Lang loved the idea of Mabuse much more than he feared it - and so Mabuse's would-be opponent, State Attorney von Welk, is as dreary as van Helsing.

In the same director's The Testament of Dr Mabuse, made ten years later (and with the same actor, Rudolf Klein-Bogge, playing the master manipulator who, as the 1922 titles said, stands over his city like a huge tower, even when locked up in an asylum, even when dead), it does help that his adversary on this occasion, Otto Wernicke's police chief Lohmann, is a far more ambiguous, and therefore far more interesting, foil, if simply because he might be merely the other side of Mabuse's coin. The ambition of the "man without shadows" is not so much to terrorise people, but to systematically undermine people's confidence in themselves. The film springs along with the terrifying self-belief of the younger Orson Welles; stay with my speed, it warns, or fall off and be left behind. It demands everything from its audience.

Propaganda's "Dr Mabuse" asked much of the same of its listeners, but I am not sure that the 1984 audience was quite ready for it; a dazed Peter Powell announced that the record was "way ahead of the rest of us - this is music for the nineties," but coming so rapidly, if you will pardon the phrasing, after the rise and infamy of "Relax" (whose structure "Mabuse" cleverly echoes), it might have been a little too much for unprepared ears, and thus did not rise above #27. Nevertheless, it is here - no doubt as part of a deal which said "you want 'Two Tribes,' you have to take this as well" - and therefore found its way into 600,000 or so homes, so we have to take Propaganda into serious consideration.

As a pop single, "Mabuse" had its deadliest impact in its original seven-inch mix (which is what appears here). What the record reminds me of is not so much "Abba from hell" - a phrase which I first read in Peter Martin's review of the single in Smash Hits - but Boney M, with the late Andreas Thein's doomy baritone narrator resembling a truly Teutonic Bobby Farrell. And I am not altogether convinced that the song digs any deeper into the attractions of fascism than "Ma Baker" did into Depression era gangsterism. As a production, however - and along with "Two Tribes" - it is so far ahead of most of what else is on this collection that it is almost embarrassing, very nearly carrying the impact of a violent slap, as though the "M" on its cover signified a considerable advancement on what Robin Scott had proposed in "Pop Muzik" less than five years previously.

"Mabuse" roars out of its Gestalt paddock in 12 different directions. The Martians' idea of a Bond theme tune. Percussion drops like Ali left-hooks or the gates closing in on McGoohan. Orchestral orgasm to rival "A Day In The Life” (or “Relax”). On the LP/7" version, the "Don't be a fool" instruction is followed by what would eventually be a patented Pet Shop Boys poignant descending chord sequence. Sell him your soul; never look back. The initial 12-inch edition, though still compelling listening, lacks the punch of the 7-inch, although its second and third sequences, wherein atonal Andrew Poppy string swathes give way to a mournful electropop coda - the Brookside theme as restaged by Herzog - give the record a satisfying symmetry.

The album, A Secret Wish, was more problematic. Had it been completed and appeared in 1984 it would have provided a steely companion to the primary colours of Welcome To The Pleasuredome, but the (not really anticipated) Frankie phenomenon swallowed up nearly all of ZTT's limited resources and thus both the recording and release of the album were put back to the following year, and as Trevor Horn had disappeared to carry out pre-production work on entry #309, and was therefore unavailable to produce the record ("Mabuse" is the only Horn-produced song on the album, although Horn did supervise the mixing of the definitive 5.1 SACD edition issued in 2003), the job was passed on to his assistant, Stephen Lipson. By the summer of 1985, ZTT were not exactly hip; in an age of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Hüsker Dü and Run-DMC, A Secret Wish did give the impression of being grandiloquent, ploddy and a little old hat, with its extended Steve Howe and Stewart Copeland solos (on "Dream Within A Dream"), and Scritti Politti seemed better able to handle the menu of endless remixes and Philosophy Now quotations because of their essential lightness. Morley made sure that A Secret Wish's cover was smothered with acres of quotations; in particular, one from each of the Moretti and Benjamin texts which i have cited above, the Moretti quotation specifically coming from chapter 8 ("From The Waste Land to the Artificial Paradise"), with the Wilhelm Dietzgen quotation cited in the Benjamin piece ("Every day our cause becomes clearer...") and one from Camus' An Absurd Reasoning ("Without love, beauty and danger, it would almost be easy to live"), but it was unclear what, if anything, these quotations lent to appreciation of the music. In the middle of 1985, ZTT were in danger of coming across as obsolete and obfuscatory bores. The album made the top twenty but made little in the way of palpable general impact; "Duel," despite being a popular single, was kept at #21, probably by a rather stiff and lacklustre TOTP performance.

But time has been kinder to the record, and it has to be admitted that - pace their B-side cover of "Femme Fatale" - Propaganda have proved to be the Velvet Underground of their generation; little acknowledged and, when acknowledged, generally ridiculed at the time (which also happened to be the time when, or a few months after, the Velvet Underground finally made their debut in the UK album chart with a record of outtakes which would in other circumstances have led to the third Velvets album proper. V.U. is still electrifying listening, though; the Velvets, and the Reed/Cale partnership in particular, always, I find, reveal something new in themselves, even when rescued from cuttings on the studio floor) but hugely, if gradually, influential on those who came after them; Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson were sufficiently impressed by the record to base entry #352 on it, and in a Lady GaGa age (or just after it), particularly in records like "Bad Romance," the Propaganda influence is inescapable. "Dream Within A Dream" is a fantastical odyssey of Poe escaping a kicking. "Sorry For Laughing" - one of the great, if few, disabled love songs - is performed with antsy restraint by its originators, Josef K, but Propaganda give it a Laibach bath. "The Murder Of Love" is persuasive and patient pop. "The Last Word/Strength To Dream" is the closing sequence from the "Mabuse" 12-inch, revisited and re-framed in a storm which seems ready to engulf the world. And "Duel" must be heard in tandem with its punk twin "Jewel," which latter always puts me in mind of an alternative soundtrack to one of the last great cinema advertisements.

What's "Love" Got To Do With It?

Written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, the song had done the pop bazaar clearance sale rounds; originally written for Cliff Richard, who turned it down, it then passed to Phyllis Hyman, whose record label boss Clive Davis wouldn't let her record it (Hyman subsequently committed suicide; and then there was Whitney), then to Donna Summer, who did nothing with or about it for two years, and, almost finally, to, of all people, Bucks Fizz - Jay Aston had heard the demo and wanted to sing lead, but the group's producer was sceptical about its suitability for a female voice and so Bobby G ended up as the lead singer (their version would remain unreleased until 2000). Eventually it passed to Tina Turner, who treated the song as none of the above could have treated it, who was careful not to over-sing but to sing and audibly think in the gaps between words, and sometimes syllables; her audience knew it could only have been about her and Ike, and I'll address the song in greater detail when we reach entry #482, but mark that on both sides of the Atlantic it was the biggest hit she had had since "Nutbush City Limits", and that its parent album, Private Dancer, was so much more about authority than it was about vulnerability.

Tunes Help You Breathe More Easily

Live From Her Majesty's wasn't quite Sunday Night at the London Palladium, just as the eighties weren't really the fifties. But ITV had persisted with the notion that the Sunday night British television audience would tune in to watch an all-star variety show, and although Her Majesty's Theatre in Haymarket, now home to The Phantom Of The Opera, didn't carry the same cache or aura as the Palladium, fifteen minutes' walk away in Argyll Street, there remained the dream that a country could still be united by the most conservative of entertainments.

Not that Live From Her Majesty's could particularly be described as "all-star"; an uncharitable observer might point out that it now more resembled a bargain basement, filled with young performers on the way up and old stars who had once enjoyed a certain level of fame. Jimmy Tarbuck - a nod to Palladium days - compered, but the bill on Sunday 15 April 1984 was a fairly unexceptional example of what to expect from the show. Aside from Tarbuck, it included an Irish stand-up comedian called Adrian Walsh, of whom I'm afraid I remember very little; Donny Osmond, who had been absent from the charts since 1976; and former Broadway and MGM musical matinee idol Howard Keel, a throwback to the earliest days of Then Play Long. The intervening decades since his days of stardom in Annie Get Your Gun, Showboat and Kismet had not been kind to Keel; his broad style of singing had gone entirely out of fashion by the late fifties, and his fortunes were not helped by a chronic alcohol problem. Hence, for the next twenty or so years he wearily travelled the world, performing for anyone who'd have him and pay him. Around 1970, he divorced his first wife, remarried and quit drinking, but times remained tough; I remember seeing him materialise on The Wheeltappers and Shunters' Social Club in the mid-seventies and my father wondering how he had been reduced to this.

But at the beginning of the eighties, just when he was about to leave the business altogether, he was called by the producers of Dallas, and after a few guest appearances became a regular, as Clayton Farlow. He became famous all over again and eventually resumed his singing career; it was quite a comeback, and he appeared on Live At Her Majesty's just a couple of days after turning sixty-five (it is a measure of Keel's renewed popularity that he himself is unlucky not to be included in the 1984 TPL rundown in his own right; he prospered anew, and lived on for a further twenty years).

Also on the bill were the comedy double act Les Dennis and Dustin Gee, the latter bearing a peculiarly threatening glare; the Flying Pickets, performing their then-new single, a pretty faithful cover of the old Marvelettes song "When You're Young And In Love"; and Tommy Cooper.

But Tommy Cooper, introduced by Tarbuck in the following manner: "If you asked one hundred comedians who their favourite comic is, they would all say...the one and only...Tommy Cooper!," was not top of the bill. Generally regarded as the funniest British man ever to appear on a stage, he was not even second on the bill. He closed part one.

In fact, Cooper's career was in decline. It was not that he was in imminent danger of being out of work; he continued to earn a more than good living playing the club circuit, and there were always new projects on the horizon. But he was not quite the star that he once was, if he can ever have been said to be a star. A lot of this was to do with his personal problems; a ceaseless roundabout of cigars, wines and late nights had conspired to cause him heart trouble from the late sixties onwards. But he did not slow down; if anything, he became worse. He became a chronic alcoholic, and before long the alcoholism was seen to have had an effect on his work. So he descended from hour-long shows to hour-long one-off specials, to half-hour shows and then to increasingly infrequent appearances on other people's shows.

Watching any of his work from the seventies, it is easy to believe that the British showbusiness industry didn't have a clue what to do with him. He had kept the same agent, a dour Glaswegian ex-dance band trombonist called Miff Ferrie, since the late forties, who Cooper sometimes felt kept him away from potentially lucrative work offers and directed him down the apparent cul de sac of comedy character acting. But Cooper's testimonies were not always the most reliable. If you watch any of his early-to-mid seventies shows for Thames Television, you may be baffled at the relative lack of what he did best and is best remembered for doing, namely comedy magic. The shows crowded him out with nondescript singers and dance troupes, and directionless sketches, usually involving support straight man Allan Cuthbertson, who did not possess an obviously funny bone in his body and of whom far too much is seen in these shows altogether. Sequences where Cuthbertson "interviewed" Cooper were unfunny, overlong, dissipating and directionless.

But all of this was put in place to cover for Cooper's alcoholism; Thames cherished him but did not trust him to front a show of his own after 1980. In the clubs, too, owners began to complain to Ferrie of late arrivals and shambolic five-minute performances, and wondered whether Cooper really was worth the exorbitant sums that the clubs were paying him. Waiting to go on stage in Rome in 1977, Cooper suffered a near miss with a heart attack. But he did not slow down or give up drinking.

I have been reading Tommy Cooper: Always Leave Them Laughing, John Fisher's obviously loving, or lovelorn, biography of the man. Like Catch A Fire, no more definitive biography of its subject is ever likely to be written; Fisher spoke to everyone who loved, lived with, worked with or otherwise knew Cooper. As a television producer for the BBC and Thames, Fisher worked with Cooper personally, and moreover, as an internationally respected, award-winning magician, he is able to give us a thorough debriefing, not only of Cooper's near-lifelong love of magic, but also of the hitherto rather mysterious world of the post-war British magician. Running in parallel with the world of post-war British comedy entertainers, this realm has seldom been written about, and Fisher does a tremendous and very evocative job of describing its somewhat nocturnal nature.

Certainly it is a welcome alternative to the standard ENSA/Nuffield Centre/Windmill Theatre/Variety Bandbox etc. pathway which every post-war British comedian seems to have trodden. It was particularly striking to learn of how Cooper would spend an average Saturday in the late forties and early fifties, when he had started to gain a reputation, i.e. he would do the rounds of all the magic shops in London that he knew, always on the lookout for new tricks. Round the West End and then a tube ride to Colindale. Those old enough to recall the magic Saturdays when one could do the rounds of all the record shops in London and always find surprising new records, or sometimes more surprising old ones, will feel Cooper's urge in their bones already and empathise with it. Like Marley, "magic" seemed central to the way in which Cooper lived his life; it is a wonder that Orson Welles, that other great magician, never sought him out for work (and there was, as Fisher points out, a time when the two men's paths converged; Cooper and his fellow magicians would spend Saturday mornings/lunchtimes at Davenport's magic shop in New Oxford Street, and whenever Welles happened to be in town, he would join them, their pilgrimage frequently ending in the nearest Lyons Corner House).

About how good a magician Cooper was, on a technical level, Fisher is equivocal. The joy in watching Cooper in performance, apart from the clear pleasure that he took from being on stage, and his ability to communicate that warmth to his audience, is that you never quite know whether his tricks go wrong intentionally or on purpose (he would sometimes wrongfoot an audience by performing a trick perfectly). But Cooper argued that it was still hard work to get the tricks wrong on purpose. In any event, what audiences saw, and laughed at, was the manner with which Cooper handled his apparent ineptitude. In comedic terms, no one else in Britain was doing anything similar, nor were they as funny.

But Cooper was rarely relied upon to carry an entire stage show; as late as 1971, when he tops the bill at the Palladium, he is obliged to share stage space with the likes of Russ Conway, the nine-fingered pub pianist from Leeds who had not had a hit record in almost a decade, and Dad's Army star Clive Dunn, then recently number one in the charts with "Grandad." There was also Anita Harris, who came in as a last-minute replacement for Clodagh Rodgers (and I'll not hear a word said against Harris, who made one of the great British freakbeat singles of the sixties with "The Playground" and whose recent years, on a financial and emotional level, I would not wish upon anyone; she turned up onstage at the Half Moon in Putney last October to perform the X-Ray Spex song "Exploited" as a tribute to the late Poly Styrene). But nobody really trusted Cooper to handle an entire evening on stage by himself.

Fisher indicates various possible reasons why this might have been the case, such as outdated philistinism - the one-size-fits-all variety template had in truth been wearing thin throughout the sixties - or obstinacy on Ferrie or Cooper's part, or simply a refusal on the part of British showbiz to know and respect a comic genius when they saw one. But at a risk of sounding like a Smash Hits AL Rowse, the obvious reason appears to have been glossed over, or not really touched upon. Cooper was not an all-round entertainer, somebody like Bruce Forsyth, Max Bygraves, Des O'Connor or even Norman Wisdom; a performer who could do a lot of different things and keep an audience enthralled and on their side throughout an evening. The television shows and appearances perhaps answered this question in themselves; Cooper did one thing, comedy magic, brilliantly, and was best witnessed in ten-minute slots. It is possible that, schooled in the old music hall way of doing things - i.e. have one act, tour the country and make a good living out of it for decades (the circuit of theatres was so extensive that you could go several years without returning to a specific theatre) - anything longer than ten minutes was a problem.

(Pure magic was sustainable. Paul Daniels is a skilled and original magician who just happens to have a ready Middlesbrough wit [despite coming from the other side of the Pennines, he can frequently sound like a lost son of Eric Morecambe]. David Nixon, a household name for a quarter of a century who is not at all remembered now, was a smoothly-spoken, urbane Home Counties fellow who had an obvious love for straight magic and a more obvious one for television [although he was no stranger to comedy, having acted as Arthur Askey's stooge for a spell in the early fifties]; like Benny Hill, television became his thing, his propeller. This routine from the early seventies - involving Anita Harris, no less - remains one of the most startling things I have ever seen on British television, not because of the trick, as such, but because of the way it's done:



Unfortunately Nixon was also a heavy smoker, and contacted lung cancer; one of the biggest television stars of the seventies, he did not live to see the eighties, dying at the end of 1978, not quite fifty-nine years old.)

What I described above limited Cooper's options, but so did his health issues; not to mention the fact that he was simultaneously in love with two different women and that his wife can be more or less assumed to have had a terrible time of things - the late Gwen "Dove" Cooper cooperated fully with Fisher on his book, and while she obviously loved him until the end of her own life, and while Fisher doesn't go as far as to label Cooper a "wife beater," it is indisputable that there were drunken fights (he was drunk, they fought, although Mrs Cooper apparently gave as good as she got) and that home life in Chiswick was frequently less than pleasant.

So his prospects steadily dwindled, and so it was he found himself, rather nervous and just turned sixty-three, closing the first part of Live At Her Majesty's on Sunday 15 April 1984. I watched the performance on television as it happened, was rather mystified at how his act ended, and only after catching the BBC news about half an hour later did I learn that it had been his final performance. I have not found it necessary to view the performance again - no doubt somebody has exhumed it for YouTube, but if they have, I don't want to know about it - but then Fisher gives a pretty comprehensive analysis of it in his book. I do remember that he came on stage wearing a giant packet of Tunes lozenges on his head, and then he went through what was virtually an anthology of his entire career as a comic magician, a greatest hits set.

Then he beckoned for his stage assistant - one of the Brian Rogers Dancers, as I recall - to put a huge, magnificent cloak (I remember it being golden, but Fisher says that it was scarlet) on his shoulders. He then paused for a moment, seemingly lost in thought, and then abruptly collapsed on the floor of the stage, as though dragged down by the weight of his cloak, to howls of laughter from the audience. He sat there for a while, breathing heavily, and then, moving himself towards the safety curtain, carefully fell behind it and lay flat; you could only see his lower half, his hands and feet twitching. The audience continued to rock with laughter, and a commercial break signal suddenly came on. What a strange way to end an act, I thought, but there's Tommy Cooper for you, and gave it no further thought.

When the programme came back for its second part, Les Dennis and Dustin Gee were on, going through their Mavis Riley and Rita Fairclough routine. The stage seemed smaller that it had done before. This was because backstage, desperate efforts were being made to save Cooper's life; eventually he was transferred to an ambulance and taken to the nearby, and now defunct, Westminster Hospital in Page Street, but it is likely that he died before he reached there. As I say, I saw the BBC news shortly after the programme ended and learned what had actually happened.

And so it is the case that I cannot listen to the Flying Pickets' "When You're Young And In Love" - you see what I mean about experience leading back to innocence? - without being reminded of the context in which I originally heard it. Of the other participants, Dustin Gee had known heart problems, about which he did nothing, and died in early 1986, still in his early forties, while Brian Hibbard, lead singer of the Flying Pickets and in later life a well-known actor on Welsh television, died of prostate cancer in 2012, aged sixty-five; a few years earlier he had given his backing for the campaign for a memorial to Cooper to be built in his hometown of Caerphilly.

I do not quite trust Fisher's aesthetic opinions; he is perhaps the only person, with the possible exceptions of Dick Hills and Sid Green, to assert that "their freshest and greatest personal comedic hour had arguably (my italics) been working for Lew Grade at ATV in the Sixties."* Additionally, his tales of Cooper's apparent generosity to some do not fit with the general, and documented, impression of Cooper as a parsimonious freeloader. But Always Leave Them Laughing is both a love letter to an age now expired and a cautionary tale for anybody who think it might be fun to become an entertainer.

*I have to say something here about Morecambe and Wise. Poor old Eric Morecambe, shocked by Cooper's death on television and who would outlive Cooper by just over six weeks. If only they had retired after the 1977 Christmas show, still on top. Contrary to what Fisher says, the duo's sixties ATV shows are cramped, their sketches overstuffed with extras, Hills and Green's writing never really rising above a certain vaudevillian level. They never seem to have room to breathe. It was only when they moved to the BBC and hired Eddie Braben to re-create them, as slight comic book exaggerations of their own selves, that they became really comfortable and produced truly exceptional comedy.

But Thames waved their chequebook at the duo in early 1978, and they succumbed. It was a dreadful mistake. Their 1977 Christmas show had been watched by roughly half the country (although the Mike Yarwood Christmas special which aired immediately afterwards got slightly higher ratings). It involved Penelope Keith, "There Ain't Nothing Like A Dame," Elton John and Francis Matthews. Few remember their 1978 Christmas show; the attempted coup de theatre was the guest appearance of Harold Wilson, but the great man had been out of office for nearly three years and looked listless and distracted (it was possibly a predication of his later Alzheimer's). Also involved were Frank Finlay and Leonard Rossiter. It is never revived on television.

The subsequent shows are by and large best forgotten. By the early eighties, Ernie Wise in particular had aged quite rapidly; he often looks haggard. Complex sketches and dance routines continued, none of which helped Morecambe's already precarious heart condition - his first heart attack had occurred in 1968, when he was just forty-two, his second in 1979, and he was extremely lucky to survive both. But raised in Depression era Northern England, with first-hand experience of relative poverty and deprivation, Morecambe was loath to return to nothing, even though he had more money than he could possibly have spent in his life. He tried writing novels, planned a coastal car trip up and down the USA - and yet still signed another contract with Thames in 1983. He could not stop working. Part of the reason why they had signed the Thames contract was that they might get the chance to make more films under the company's Euston Films subsidiary. The result was a TV movie in 1983 called Night Train To Murder which did nothing for the reputations of anybody involved in making it.

Just one more, just one more, he pleaded, then I'll stop. It was as a favour to friend and fellow comedian Stan Stennett that Morecambe appeared, alone, at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury; the duo had started working separately just to prove that they could. He appeared in an interview setting, reminiscing about his life and times, and proved extremely popular. He left the stage, but as the band struck up, he rushed back onstage, playing as many instruments as he could find, took six curtain calls and collapsed in the wings. He was fifty-eight. As for Leonard Rossiter, he died of a heart attack in October of the same year, in the dressing room of the Lyric Hammersmith, in the interval while appearing as Inspector Truscott in a revival of Joe Orton's Loot. He was fifty-six.

Take Me Out To The Go-Go

Now, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go"; there's a song with myriad subtexts, and you're going to have to wait until entry #306 for me to analyse them.

Haven't I Seen You Somewhere Before?

"You Take Me Up," love as labour, work for life's sake, ready to drop, ask Tommy Cooper. Or perhaps Arista said, if you want this, you're also going to have to take that...

25 Songs Which Should Have Been On Now 3 Instead Of "Dance Me Up"

"(Bring On The) Dancing Girls" by Nik Kershaw
"Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)" by Scritti Politti
"So Many Men, So Little Time" by Miquel Brown
"Coup" by 23 Skidoo
"Street Dance" by Break Machine
"It's My Life" by Talk Talk
"The Lebanon" by the Human League
"Thieves Like Us" by New Order
"People Are People" by Depeche Mode
"C.R.E.E.P." by The Fall
"Track Three" by Scott Walker
"Automatic" by the Pointer Sisters
"Someday" by the Gap Band
"Perfect Skin" by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
"Taxi" by J Blackfoot
"Tell Me Why" by Bobby Womack
"Bachelor Kisses" by the Go-Betweens
"In The Ghetto" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
"Pearly Dewdrops' Drops" by the Cocteau Twins
"No Sell Out" by Malcolm X
"Venceremos (We Will Win)" by Working Week
"Tinseltown In The Rain" by the Blue Nile
"Speed Your Love To Me" by Simple Minds
"Don't Go Back To Rockville" by R.E.M.
"Hip Hop Bommi Bop" by Die Toten Hosen ft Fab Five Freddy

Yes, I know they weren't all "hits," but you know...

Europe Endless

The Art Company were from Tilburg, Holland, and their actual name was VOF de Kunst. "Susanna" was an uncomplicated and probably live bierkeller singalong which topped the Dutch charts in 1983 and made #12 here, after much Radio 1 airplay, the following summer. The Adriano Celentano version, released shortly afterwards, is quite something.

Getting Near The End

"The feeling of arriving when you've nothing left to lose," and Madness were slipping away from us. A soft, sentimental samba with some Sadé-type saxophone; two homeless old people in Camden with nothing to do and nowhere to go pass the time with each other because it's better than death. But Madness sounded like they were headed for death. Blur again ("To The End," "Under The Westway").

Slowing down to nothingness?

Or a new escape option?

I Recognise No Method Of Living That I Know

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how it finishes. A top twenty hit which you couldn't imagine getting anywhere near the top twenty or any Now album now. An exit which is a door to another world.

There have been in this story, as I have said, two main threads (and I choose that noun deliberately); destruction, and moving towards sex and/or love in an attempt to find a balance between these two things. And David Sylvian's "Red Guitar" wraps it all up, literally, as though packaging and protecting this exegesis of love, war, death and life and sending it off to whoever is generous enough to receive and accept it. "Red Guitar" is the point where ART - and THIS was ALWAYS the point - suddenly leaps up and presents itself as the real point of this record's emotional reconciliation. With its delicate jags, its sonorous bitonalities, "Red Guitar" helps this compilation justify itself, as art must always do in the face of war, reflecting, as it does, back on the record's good songs.

So in a Damon Albarn sense both "One Better Day" and "Red Guitar" map out territories which, in the future, he will walk. But Sylvian remained true to that thing called New Pop, the record's quietest and maybe most radical voice. A chord structure which is Monk-like - specifically, "Well, You Needn't." Ryuichi Sakamoto's dislocated piano solo, like Bill Evans' "Peace Piece" minus the Bernstein undertow. Wayne Braithwaite's heroic bass. Steve Jansen's imperturbable drums. Mark Isham's solemn trumpet.

And above and among all this, Sylvian muses on art, music and life - well, he seems to sing, this is what I do, take it or leave it; you know its purpose. That the record goes full circle, from Duran Duran to the musician Duran Duran once hoped to emulate, but had not surpassed, cannot be an accident. This is taking a bold step outside without necessarily losing anybody; Brilliant Trees made #4 and is indispensable; Holger Czukay's eyebrow-raised French horn on "Pulling Punches," Kenny Wheeler, absolutely majestic on "The Ink And The Well" and something more than that on "Nostalgia," and the breath-stopping final title track, where four worlds - Sylvian, Sakamoto, Czukay and Jon Hassell (with Jansen) - converge and work together into dwindling, awe-filled silence, suggesting as surely as Brian Godding's final commentary on Westbrook's "Erme Estuary" that there is something else, will always be something or somewhere else to see, absorb and assimilate.

"If you ask me, I may tell you," says the man with the red guitar. "It's been this way for years."

The conscience, and therefore the world, awakens.

Here you stand, making my life possible.

"I know that timid breathing. Where
Do I begin and end? And where,
As I strum the thing, do I pick up
That which momentarily declares
Itself not to be I and yet
Must be. It could be nothing else."
(Wallace Stevens, op. cit.)        

(As ever, many thanks to Lena for the many ideas, and in some cases words, she contributed to this piece. The good ones are all hers.)

3 comments:

Simon said...

I think this may be my favourite piece, apart from the Lexicon Of Love one. Not the music actually - 1984 is my least favourite pop year of the decade - but for the comedy magic things. My dad was a comedy magician/hypnotist so Cooper's death resonated in my house like Presley's had. Far more than John Lennon. Which looking back seems really really odd. ,

Bob Stanley said...

As Simon said, one of the best TPL pieces yet.

The middle of 1984 I remember for Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper's twinned deaths, likewise James Mason and Richard Burton's. This really felt like the end of something, personally; I was 19. These were real heroes - Burton and Mason had possibly the greatest speaking voices I'd ever heard. Things felt like they were going into reverse. Long hair was back, shockingly, as pop stars like Midge Ure (see TOTP Dancing With Tears In My Eyes) let down their '83 pony tails.

This album also marked the end of K-Tel, as you said. As far as I can tell, the last K-Tel album in the current hits-style was a double called Hungry For Hits, which shared a few tracks with Now 3, but had its usual idiosyncratic running order, very different from Ashley Abrams' considered collation. How about this run for stylistic confusion:

Pat Benatar – Love Is A Battlefield
Depeche Mode – People Are People
Sandie Shaw – Hand In Glove
Mel Brooks – Hitler Rap
SOS Band – Just Be Good To Me
Weird Al Yankovic – Eat It

The end of K-Tel coincided with the end of most independent labels in the UK having a non-defined, jangling, intentionally under-nourished sound. Creation would have its first major success later in '84 and independent (whether it was James Blood Ulmer, or a record company on the Western Avenue that also sold kitchen knives) became indie.

The Riverboat Captain said...

Thanks for that terrific piece, dazzling stuff especially on Frankie and Propaganda. And Cooper too: I meant to comment a while ago, so if you will forgive a little reminicsence..

I was taken by my parents to see Tommy Cooper in a matinee performance in Scarborough, possibly the Floral Hall in '69, but more likely not. My dad says Nat Jackley and Max Wall co-starred (which begged the question all these years later just how much comedy marching up and down did we need of an evening?) so maybe it was already the time when Tommy required the presence of seasoned variety veterans to carry a show. I can't quite recall whether Tommy was 'on' or 'off' that night, save for one ray of light shining through the fog of failing memory - the opening to the show, which I have never forgotten.

The lights go down, the announcer announces, the crowd applauds.. and applauds.. and nothing happens, so the applause dwindles. Bemusement. A few embarrassed titters in the darkness, but wait.. a microphone is on backstage. And for the next five minutes, very possibly more, Tommy goes through his opening routine, unseen. "Go on? What, now? Where's me shirt?" and many other ingenious bits of comedy business, he rambles on and on and on. We're in tears, stomachs aching with laughter, destroyed, until finally, the house totally wrecked, the lights come up and there he is. Hysteria. Whatever 'it' was, he had 'it' at the start of the show that night. I've never seen anything else like it.

I have seen the film, and you're right not to look. It can't be unseen.