(#328: 29 March 1986, 4 weeks)
Track listing: The Sun Always Shines On TV (A-ha) /You Little Thief (Feargal Sharkey)/I'm Your Man (Wham!) /Manic Monday (Bangles) /Borderline (Madonna) /Digging Your Scene (The Blow Monkeys) /Imagination (Belouis Some)/Chain Reaction (Diana Ross) /How Will I Know (Whitney Houston) /If You Were Here Tonight (Remix) (Alexander O'Neal) /System Addict (Five Star) /Don’t Waste My Time (Paul Hardcastle) /(Nothing Serious) Just Buggin’(Whistle) /Alice, I Want You Just For Me! (Full Force) /Eloise (The Damned) /Suspicious Minds (Fine Young Cannibals) /Rise (PIL)/Hit That Perfect Beat (Bronski Beat) /It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back) (Eurythmics) /West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys) /Kyrie (Edit) (Mr. Mister) /The Captain Of Her Heart (Double) /Radio Africa (Latin Quarter) /Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) (Mike + The Mechanics) /No One Is To Blame (Howard Jones) /Come Hell Or Waters High (Dee C. Lee) /Hounds Of Love (Kate Bush)/Calling America (Electric Light Orchestra)
That said, there's only three artists here that were also at Live Aid, so we may as well start with them and meander into eventual greatness.
The Live Aid Generation
"Borderline" by Madonna is from her first album (a much better one than Like A Virgin) - so Hits 4 goes back to the fizzy days of 1983, and here is the real Madonna, singing in her own voice, in a song that may not always make sense but resonates anyway. The oddness of the line "love me 'til I just can't see" is attacked by Maggie Estep in her poem "Bad Day At The Beauty Salon**":
Madonna's song Borderline is pumping through the club's speaker system for the 5th time tonight: "BORDERLINE BORDERLINE BORDERLINE/LOVE ME TIL I JUST CAN'T SEE." And suddenly, I start to wonder: What does that mean anyway?
"LOVE ME TIL I JUST CAN'T SEE"
Screw me so much my eyes pop out, I go blind, end up walking down 2nd Avenue crazy, horny, naked and blind? What? There's a glitch in the tape and it starts to skip.
Nevertheless, it's a fine song, but I would advise against trying to dance in a strip club in too-high shoes (as the narrator here does) to it, as it would drive you crazy, as well.
You'll notice that Madonna is one side one tape one, whereas Howard Jones is on the mostly dull last side, with, yep, Phil Collins there drumming and singing and co-producing with Hugh Padgham, a combination that ensures "taste" and "refinement" and total dullness. Jones sings about various pre-Morissette situations of frustration and concludes that there is no one to blame, make do and mend, if you try to alter things you will no doubt make them worse. Whatever happened to "Things Can Only Get Better"? Jones is waving the white flag here to a world that is full of young thrusting Thatcherkids on one side and Red Wedge fans on the other, and clearly he wants no part of any of it. Well, that's fine, but as a result we won't be hearing from him again. Adios, Howard.
"It's Alright (Baby's Coming Back)" is supposed to be a warm hug of a song, but it always makes me a bit uneasy - she doesn't even care where he's been? Really? I mean, here she is multitasking away like crazy (a ledge, a flowering tree, a clock, a danger sign, even a stormy sea - it's like she's a Transformer or something) and so utterly happy he's there that he seemingly doesn't have to do...anything. Except "be yourself tonight" - whatever that means. And there are horns and Dave Stewart's delicate guitar picking and so on, but the warmth here jars somehow, as if this is the real Dave 'n' Annie and all that early stuff - so sharp, surprising, at times raw - has been cooked and condensed down to this pub bangers and mash with onion gravy that fills you up but gives you no pang, nothing unexpected.
The Tropic of "Meh"
While we're here at the No Excitement buffet, here's some more songs that are "meh" (not a term used, as I recall, in 1986, at least not in Oakville). "Kyrie" by Mr. Mister is well-meaning - after all, it's a prayer, with "Kýrie, eléison, down the road that I must travel/Kýrie, eléison, through the darkness of the night" as part of the chorus. I didn't know that that was Greek at the time, maybe even Ancient Greek, but I've got to respect them for at least using the total Reaganrock template to put something beyond the usual love song out there. Also, what to make of the line "Somewhere between the soul and soft machine/Is where I find myself again"? Could these guys, who got their name from a song by Weather Report, know about Robert Wyatt? Hard to tell, as unfortunately this is so darn manly/uplifting normal, and of course went to #1 in the US.
"Imagination" by Belouis Some puts a damper on what, as you can see, is a fine first side here. He's trying so hard to sound sexy! He's failing so badly! His girl is all about "American Dreams" (cut to me looking at UK music papers/magazines at this time and seeing nothing but stereotypical "American" stuff in ads, a trend that baffles me, an actual American) and wants him to use his imagination, which is a big request, considering how this song is so irritating. And yep, this is another example of how the Chic organization - Tony Thompson, Bernard Edwards - passed 1985, by helping one Neville Keighley make a record which is trying way too hard.
"Chain Reaction" must have looked fine on paper - Diana Ross! The Bee Gees! But The Bee Gees were no Chic here either, and in hearing this I end up feeling like I'm playing a fairground game of Whack-A-Metaphor. I mean, there's the chain reaction from nuclear explosions (hence "You let me hold you for the first explosion"), "Shine a light for the whole world over" "You get a medal when you're lost in action" - the Brothers Gibb make love sound like war, but what to make of lines like "We get a picture of our love in motion" or "You make me tremble when your hand moves lower/You taste a little then you swallow slower"? I don't know, but then the key changes make it tougher and tougher for Ross to sing at the end, so The Bee Gees, frustrated by not being able to take center stage on their own record, take over, as they can sing in a higher range than Ross. It is an awkward song no matter how you look at it, and yet it got to #1 in the UK, number nothing in the US, despite Ross' best efforts.
Concerned People Being All Concerned About Things
"Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)" is a R2 staple so you know that it's sung by Paul Carrack (what would R2 do without him?), written by B.A. Robertson and Mike Rutherford of Genesis, and is so White Male Anglo-Saxon Protestant that it's scary. Except it's not; it's too spaced out and gloopy and, well, square, jack. The narrator is warning his family - after all, he's ahead of time of them, he's in space! - to get their guns and ammo ready for the coming anarchic period of Earth warfare. Just hide out in the cellar like good Survivalists, and raise the kids to rebel, all the while saluting whatever flag's being flown. Atta boy, dad! How about using your from-the-future powers to stop all this chaos to begin with? Maybe they can't hear him, and will use their common sense instead. As a protest song it's no "Won't Get Fooled Again" and it certainly isn't "World Machine."
Latin Quarter are just as meh here as Mike + The Mechanics, though they are at least talking about the here and now, and not some dystopian time-travelling future. "Radio Africa" - which only seems to broadcast sad news. What puzzles me here is not the Stingesque concern for, uh, Robert Mugabe, but the fact is this was a Top 20 hit but hasn't lasted as a protest song. I think it's because the whole thing screams Camden Social Services (where Paul O'Grady worked in the 80s, fact fans) - earnest, but dull. It lopes along in a way to suggest they actually listen to music from Africa, but it in the end is a bit too mopey to really make you care about the purse-strings being white and how it's not just Ethiopia/South Africa that's in trouble, kids. Leaflets outside Sainsbury's probably made more of a dent than this single did, all told.
Poor Five Star! They seem to be only slightly afraid they're turning into what they beheld - "System Addict" is probably about being stuck on Tetris 24/7, or some such thing. Or maybe they're just really into Filofax. Whatever it is, they are certainly positive about it, like Gary Numan on Prozac or a cheerier Roy Orbison doing "Penny Arcade." This sure ain't "You Are In My System" by The System, amongst many, many other things it's trumped by. God willing and the creek don't rise, Five Star will get the, uh, most positive writing possible here at TPL. One hopes.
The Obligatory Mention of ELO Part
Jeff Lynne really couldn't wait to get to America, could he? This defines "phoned in" in all ways, and yes, finally he gets to leave. Next stop: The Travelling Wilburys. I don't even think Roy Wood could have saved this from being as, uh, naff as it inevitably was going to be.
Also, Hits 4 people, where's "Kiss" by Prince or "Living In America" by James Brown? Compilations that end with a damp squib aren't going to work, you know.
I bought the Hounds of Love 12" at the time and really liked it, as it broke down into pure drums and Bush sounding more frightened and obsessed than on the original. The b-side has "Burning Bridge" and "My Lagan Love" and I must have spent hours listening to either side, as it completes itself and the terror on one side is balanced by the joy and love on the other. One of my teachers at Sheridan College had seen me walking along with it, no doubt going home, and asked me before or after class what it was. She seemed pleased to hear it was Kate Bush, though she didn't look at all the type to know who she was. Maybe she did by then?
To Cover Or Not To Cover
Dee C. Lee, from Balham, was on Our Favourite Shop; here she is with a non-Top 40 single (well, at least it made the chart). It's a cover of a song by Judie Tzuke, and that means it's once again polite and elegant and Lee does her best, but this is a little too polite, the sort of thing Jazz Fm would play on a Saturday morning. Given the extremity of the song, you'd think it would have a little more oomph, but no. Soul as Alan Partridge would understand it.
There is no point in doing a laid back proto-lounge version of "Eloise" and The Damned here make as much noise as they can, though it's still not as tortured as the original. Goth pop is what The Damned did when punk ran out, and they made a good go at it, too. There is no getting away from the 60s, is there? I am still not sure how it is that Eloise exists and yet doesn't, but this is Goth, where death is but a small barrier to obsession.
So(ul)cialism, At Long Last
Is there any song here lighter and yet heavier than "Digging Your Scene"? It's enigmatic - I still don't really know what it's about, though I always figured it was about the gay club scene and the gay arts scene in general; this confirms it. Dr. Robert scats and sighs, sings in a way that he learned from Marc Bolan, and the whole thing is delectable and against the grain, somehow old-fashioned and way ahead of (almost) anything here. It's style and substance, which is always harder to pull off than it seems. A reminder that for some, death was real, and not just in a song...
"Suspicious Minds" is a paranoid song, or rather a song where an innocent man is driven crazy by his Other's paranoia, and the Fine Young Cannibals (featuring, as it would say nowadays, Jimmy Somerville) play it direct and harried, as if the singer was being backed into that trap and fighting like hell to get out. It grips and doesn't let go, and Somerville's backing vocals just make it that more insistent and strong, until it speeds up entirely and finishes and explodes. Yet another account, I'd say, of how Thatcherism was making people's relationships a lot more painful and making love much tougher to keep going through stresses and strains. Roland Gift sounds even more in pain than Elvis, which is saying something.
I figure Wham! are here as so(ul)cialists as they are going Motown right (unlike Diana and her boys) and in the trampoline-bouncy beat are able to get George saying any old thing and make you think he's taking soul to some new level, where he can say "Baby your friends don't need to know" and all that doing it right stuff is yeah what you think it is, but then maybe not. "I'll make you rich, I'll make you poor!" he says at the end, and he says "Do it on my own" as if he's Bono. Before Leonard Cohen could explain how he's your man, here's George sounding as if he just invented something yesterday. George is ready for you, but are you really ready for him?
Paul Hardcastle and Carol Kenyon make as if they've heard George's endless, boundless Olympian promises before and just aren't interested; she sounds a bit snooty, but who knows what lines she has been hooked on before, by what bait. Jazzier than "19" and tougher than you'd expect, though I still prefer Carol Kenyon singing about market capitalism on Heaven 17's "Temptation." Or maybe she's singing to the Tory Party here in general, that she's not voting for them in '87? Am I hoping for too much here?
A Star Is Born
It is difficult for me to regard this song as just another song by a performer. That is because it - the painful indecision, the longing, the hoping, the admitting that she is shy, her appeal to you the listener, because you "know about these things" - it is all I can do to stop running off to wherever they are working on a time machine (Switzerland, I guess) and go back and explain to Houston that yes you have to trust your feelings, you can't just get a daisy and pull the petals off, you have to watch what he does as much as what he says to know if he's in love. Love is far more that possessions, far more than words, though those help; it is chemical, in the best way. Her sunshine voice and openness and yes, youth make me shake my head as to how she could get love so wrong, including that love George Benson sang about, amour propre. Love yourself first, Whitney, and that will make it easier. If only.
It is interesting to note, btw, that Whitney bursts on to the US scene just as Diana Ross stops having hits, and that if it wasn't for Dire Straits her first album would've been #1 here, too.
A Certain Longing
Speaking of Switzerland, Double's "The Captain Of Her Heart" is more of a notion of a song than a song; like a more mellow Yello, a modest and sweet song that meanders and settles, the quiet satisfaction of this man's return is far more believable than that of the Eurythmics; it is the closest thing to a proto-lounge moment here, utterly European and sophisticated in a way I could only, in Oakville, long to be. (We will reach the height of that European brilliance in a while.)
Tell Them Christopher Sent You
The Bangles were from Los Angeles and picked up the baton from The Go-Go's as the big all-girl group that could sing and play and started out as a punk band, The Bangs. This song, by Christopher (a.k.a. Prince) is a joy, the best song about being late to work ever, and the activities of Sunday become the Valentino dreams of Monday morning, a lingering delicate Paisley melody letting you know that maybe the boss too has had a good time the previous night and all is well. Time, it goes by so fast...
Hip Hop Wars, Anyone?
The NME was about to get embroiled in an imbroglio (a contretemps, some might say, a brouhaha) that has become known as the "hip hop wars." In retrospect it was a sorry state of affairs - every time they put a hip hop artist on the cover, sales (which were already sliding) would dip further. And yet who could resist Whistle's "Nothing Serious (Just Buggin')"? Six full years of hip hop (called rap at the start, not really sure when it began to be called hip hop) and there is a knowing sense in this song that hip hop is indeed here to stay, that quoting the Green Acres theme and what would become "Stop This Crazy Thing" by Coldcut a few years later is what music is really all about in 1986 - they're here to have fun but are no one's fools, and there is a freshness and insouciance here that is fun, sure, but they also mean business.
Um, is this mic on? "Alice, I Want You Just For Me!" (not enough songs with exclamation marks in them these days, methinks) is from Full Force's first album; it features Howie Tee as the DJ and the Brooklyn hip hop group as slightly clunky ("Let me be your carpenter I want to lay your tile" is Block That Metaphor time) but otherwise solid and charming (the narrator wants to take Alice to the "picture show" after school - which decade is this anyway?) and almost every utterance of devotion is met with a horn skronk, like Victor Borge's audible punctuation. Full Force will go on soon enough to work with Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, The Real Roxanne, etc. But for now they are disarming and "In The Place To Be" as they say. "Baby, you're the greatest" they say at the end, to hip hop fans everywhere. Including the NME.
I am pretty sure the first or second copy of Melody Maker I bought had John Lydon on the cover, being contrary as ever, no doubt. This song stands for so much - Ginger Baker pounds out the beat big enough for future hip hop gods to sample (has it been sampled though)? Lydon doubts himself as as much as Houston does, but with a steely purpose - as if indeterminacy was a power itself. Bill Laswell (bass, production) is huge as well, and oh look, there's Steve Vai on guitar! And L. Shankar on violin, all working to the drum's beat, along with Tony Williams and Ryuichi Sakamoto. "They put a hotwire to my head!" "Your time has come, your second skin" - just in hearing this vertiginous song I knew something was going to happen, that music wasn't going to be quite the same again. That it is an anti-apartheid song should've been obvious to me at the time, but wasn't (and I'd just marched against it in Toronto)! Anger is an energy? May the road rise with me? Remember I didn't hear any punk the first time around, so this was new to me, daring, encouraging. Important. Tutu addressed us that day at Queen's Park and praised us, but this is praise too, a blessing. To hear something like this on the radio afterwards was a vindication.
To show how quickly 1985 moved, when it began Jimmy Somerville was part of Bronski Beat but by 1986 he'd left and John "Jon Jon" Foster had replaced him as lead singer. "Hit That Perfect Beat" is hi-energy, "to close for comfort" but immersed in music, the music providing a refuge - the boys are "hiding from the danger that's been sent from hell." How many people felt this way in 1986? That music was the one thing that they could feel and enjoy and draw from with no chance of danger? The music somehow suggests this is a good idea but not an ideal one, but what else is there to do? (This reminds me, only slightly, of "Dr. Beat" by Miami Sound Machine, and the meaning's much the same, too.)
He Said, She Said
"A Good Heart" was written by Maria McKee about her relationship with Benmont Tench; and "You Little Thief" is Tench's reply. She asks him to be gentle, but in this Tench says she crushed him, left him with "nothing" and Sharkey sings it as if he is stunned too, abandoned, yet somehow still in love - note is quiet "you little girl" as if this was the case (and it's true; McKee was nineteen). It's a Dave Stewart produced stomper but don't let that put you off; Sharkey gives the song his all and his "you watched me faaaaaaaallllllllllllllllll" is better than anything from Be Yourself Tonight. Such emotion from a man who claims that he has "no feelings at all."
"If You Were Here Tonight (Remix)" by Alexander O'Neal is the kind of song that looks and sounds old-fashioned and it is; how I wish there were more songs like it. It's not really like anything else here. Sorry if I sound a little stunned, but it's just so real and lovely and beautiful. And it doesn't rhyme, which makes it more real, somehow. As if you're overhearing someone, their real love, their real life. O'Neal's voice is direct and open, actual soul - not fussy, not showing off. And then he whispers! If a guy had put this on a mixtape for me in '86, then I would've known it was for real. A modern classic.
And now we begin to ascend...hip hop is the future...but New Pop is back back back....
Norway To The Rescue
I doubt if anyone expected three guys from Norway to help save New Pop at its darkest hour, but that's how it was - this Alan Tarney-produced cathedral of sound stormed up to #1, as if anything could possibly stop it. And it can't - the song carries you up with it, ennobles you, takes you out of the darkness into something Other. "The Sun Always Shines On T.V." is a big enough song to encompass love, media "reality," the imagined and the real. There is something feverish about the song (and indeed two of the band had high fevers when it was recorded). "Please don't ask me to defend/The shameful lowlands of the way I'm drifting gloomily through time/I reached inside myself today/Thinking there's got to be some way to keep my troubles distant" - this worried man glides through a miracle of a song, as it rises and rises to merely ask for love, to be touched and made real. There is so much bustle and energy here, urgency and need, but the music is a balm, a promise, that New Pop is not dead, just on a camp bed raring back to life, hurtling into the stratosphere...
From Lake Geneva To The Finland Station
I first heard "West End Girls" in its first incarnation at the end of 1984 on CFNY (which should tell you how cool a station it was at the time). And I was hypnotized; I had never heard anything like it, had no idea who they were - beyond English, obviously - and had no idea how something like this could have a basis on...poetry? I wasn't - oh, the irony - a very poetry-taken person at the time, didn't know much about it, have a feel for it, etc. But I knew a good rhyme when I heard one ("unstable" and "table") and wondered about the calm - the apparent calm - of this man as he sang about someone who is dangerous and crazy - a threat to himself and others. I didn't really know what "west end" or "east end" meant; just that they were opposites, just as girls and boys are opposites. (1986, the year that brought sides together, or pulled them apart - the binary year.)
And then there was capitalism - "Do you get it/Have you got it/If so how often/Which do you choose, the hard or soft option?" The boldness of Tennant's calm was something else; the just-out-of-peripheral vision music was another. This song nudges and suggests; it is with you, not talking down to your level but with you somehow. There's the backing singer, the saxophone, but they are deep and distant, dreamlike - and the song continues, "just you wait 'til I get you home" - recited, not sung - "Got no future, got no past, here today, built to last" - with only a few words Tennant looks askance at everything and then concludes this is how it is everywhere - "from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station."
At the time I didn't know what that meant, just that there might be something cold or chilly about this world he was describing. The song carefully and nonchalantly leads you to the history of revolution, a place where maybe there's not so many shadows or whispering voices, a place where freedom of expression and meaning are encouraged. This is practically New Pop explaining itself, and yet so hummable and even sing-a-longable that it got to #1 in the US. There are few 80s singles greater than this. It's my pleasure to welcome the Pet Shop Boys to Then Play Long.
1986, the year that saved music? An exaggeration, perhaps. But it definitely saved New Pop, and sustained me through this uncertain year, of which more later.
Next up: Flowers for you, Mr. Ferry!
*I first came across the NME in the summer of '86 at the main library in Oakville and attempted to read it but found it dense and difficult; I bought a copy of Melody Maker around the same time in Toronto and found it much easier, though I kept trying with the NME as I sensed there was an energy it had that came clearly from some kind of friction, which much later I found out was the case.
**From the great album No More Mr. Nice Girl (1994).