Thursday, 11 September 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now That's What I Call Music 7





(#334: 23 August 1986, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel)/Sing Our Own Song (UB40)/Let’s Go All The Way (Sly Fox)/Lessons In Love (Level 42)/Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money) (Pet Shop Boys)/Sinful! (Pete Wylie)/Camouflage (Stan Ridgway)/Paranoimia (The Art of Noise with Max Headroom)/The Lady In Red (Chris de Burgh)/Absolute Beginners (David Bowie)/Invisible Touch (Genesis)/All The Things She Said (Simple Minds)/Happy Hour (The Housemartins)/Look Away (Big Country)/Brilliant Mind (Furniture)/Call Of The Wild (Midge Ure)/The Edge Of Heaven (Wham!)/My Favourite Waste Of Time (Owen Paul)/Too Good To Be Forgotten (Amazulu)/Spirit In The Sky (Doctor and The Medics)/Venus (Bananarama)/New Beginnings (Mamba Seyra) (Bucks Fizz)/Hunting High And Low (Re-Mix) (a-ha)/Holding Back The Years (Simply Red)/A Kind Of Magic (Queen)/When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going (Billy Ocean)/Set Me Free (Jaki Graham)/I Can’t Wait (Nu Shooz)/(Bang Zoom) Let’s Go Go (The Real Roxanne with Hitman Howie Tee)/Amityville (The House On The Hill) (Lovebug Starski)/Headlines (Midnight Star)/You And Me Tonight (Aurra)/On My Own (Patti LaBelle & Michael McDonald)

(Author’s Note: the cover design went to print before “A Kind Of Magic” was confirmed, and so some copies, including my first-generation double cassette edition, came with a sticker on the front indicating a “BONUS TRACK”)

Though not uniformly brilliant – at times it is the very antithesis of brilliance, the song “Brilliant Mind” included – Now 7 was nonetheless the most entertaining volume in the series since Now 3. The back cover continued to insist that we “FEEL THE QUALITY” but – as the television commercial confirmed – the design was essentially that of a brown paper bag. Oh, all right, a designer department store holdall.

The trouble with the record, from your perspective, is that what you see is what there is. There aren’t the hidden crevices and detours that enabled me to delve deeper into some of the music and people represented on Now 6. But it’s a far more coherent listen and a reminder of the notion that, despite the many excellent and in some cases groundbreaking albums released throughout the year, the deepest understanding of 1986 pop remained within the DNA of the single, still at that stage the quickest route to re-imagining and rethinking the connections between song and song, musician and musician, with the knowledge that there are as many maps of connection as there are human beings, that what matters is not so much the history, but how each piece of music impacts on the listener within multiple contexts.

My feeling is the same as it was with Now II, namely that The New is once again trying to break through and The Old are resisting as muddily and drearily as possible. It wasn’t even possible for me to draw an easy line between American lightness and British ponderousness since that begs the question about what to do with “Happy Hour” and “On My Own.”

But it was a terrific year for bubblegum, the great, head-revolving one-offs.

Peter Gabriel

Even “Sledgehammer” sounds different and rejuvenated in the context of a pop compilation album, and if you blanch at the thought of music criticism being “reduced” to comparing different Now volumes, then I would ask you the difference between Peter Gabriel 3 and Peter Gabriel 4. Pop music as magazines for small, mobile, intelligent units. Actually, set free of Gabriel’s album-length tortuous soul-searching and gentle global re-moulding, “Sledgehammer” is revealed as a terrific pop record, the Man-ness of soul-biased Mods being slowly and elegantly debunked. It may well be that 2003’s Hit compilation is Gabriel’s best record; it really doesn’t miss much out.

UB40

Words of justified anger, resentment and uprising, all processed into a Dairylea triangle which somehow manages to make an eight-piece band sound like Ali Campbell with a Bontempi. “Sing Our Own Song” was about apartheid, and although some of its words might be applicable to present day Scotland, this is no “Cap In Hand.” Uselessly scrubbed, latter-day UB40 records – like so much of 1986’s “approved” music – come across as stuffed-shirt classroom-induced music you’re supposed to like, while you secretly reach for your copy of the absent “Rock Me Amadeus.” Four hundred years? Yes, but Falco cites Kant!

Sly Fox

Now THIS is how to do protest pop. The most radical pop record to make the charts in 1986 – much more so than the “WOW! The future! But we love it REALLY?” cheerleading of “Love Missile F1-11” (not on this album, but available on the accompanying video) – “Let’s Go All The Way” is about NOT going all the way, i.e. with Reaganomics; every debit line, from factory slavery via rich numbskulls to asphalt neutralisation, is breathlessly itemised with the instruction that “We need heaven on Earth today” and all set to brutalist marching/grinding Tackhead drum patterns balanced against a gloriously woozy psychedelic chorus that could have come straight from the Lemon Pipers. The link between “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” and Roxette’s “The Look.” Somebody on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 Popmaster quiz yesterday thought that this was Sly and Robbie; well, co-lead singer Gary “Mudbone” Cooper sang lead on 1987’s “Boops (Here To Go),” so she was sort of right.

Level 42

A very advanced sneak preview of their next album, of which latter much more when we get to 1987, “Lessons In Love” was also their biggest hit, and yet its furious propulsion masks a deep and slow regret; another failed love affair is pondered over in extended maritime/nautical metaphors, but then the talk turns to egos and unlived dreams and homes and we realise that it’s actually a song about, and to, New Pop; Mike Lindup’s Greek chorus in the middle-eight (“When will we ever learn?,” “I’ll wait ‘til you return”) underlines the subtext, and in the chorus King sings “If we lose the time before us/The future will ignore us.” The dream looks as though it evaporated, but it’s in our power to make it work and matter again. On which subject…

Pet Shop Boys

A different mix to the one on Please, this “Opportunities” emphasises the M25 hardness underscoring 1986’s Big Bang, Tennant’s voice rising only here and there, and sometimes at random, amidst the multiple jackhammers of percussion (see also Test Dept’s “Fuckhead” from The Unacceptable Face Of Freedom, one of 1986’s most important albums which throws beige dreck like “Sing Our Own Song” into proper perspective), the tones of a chancer trying to dodge being crushed by the wheels of industry.

“Opportunities,” of course, also takes great pains to remind us that it’s all bluster and bullshit – the singer has clearly never been anywhere near the Sorbonne and never even sat at a computer, let alone know how to programme it. So the picture is one of two conspirators, hapless in their foreknowledge that none of it will work, that they will never make any money out of doing this. Not that it dissuaded the Cameron/Johnson generation from taking the song straight.

Pete Wylie

The Belated Entry of the Crucial Three into Then Play Long, Part 1 of 3: Wylie is a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Bill Shankly without any of the other BS. He loves Liverpool and socialism and hates fakes, schmoozers and destroyers. The irony is that after years of multiple Wah!s, he finally appears here under his own name with a record whose fame is mostly owed to its unlikely second life (in its twelve-inch format) as an Ibiza dance anthem. But you can hear Liam Gallagher coming through in the sparse double-speed verses, Lydon at Winterland paraphrase included, and as a martial chant of revenge it far exceeds UB40 and takes its place as an unstoppable Big Scouse Country.

Stan Ridgway

Like I say, one-offs were where it was at in 1986, and “Camouflage,” released just ahead of the general, belated cinematic interest in Vietnam, threatened to take us back to the days of Frankie Laine. It doesn’t quite do that, though, since Ridgway’s Barstow drawl never comes across as less than vaguely threatening, and some of the song’s lyrics become super-real to an unnerving extent; does the ghost soldier really pick up palm trees and wave them at passing helicopters, and has his body really been here, in the humid jungle of war, “all week long”? Notions that this might be back-door Reaganism were refuted by the song’s parent album The Big Heat – in the year of his death, this was almost a musical equivalent of Raymond Carver’s short stories – and in particular by pronounced anti-Reagan fulminations like “Pick It Up (And Put It In Your Pocket)” (“But the scale is loaded down/With the weight of sixteen tons”).

The Art of Noise with Max Headroom

I emphasise the “The” since they didn’t have a definite article in their ZTT days. However, they thought they knew better than Horn and Morley and went off to become another instrumental novelty hit act with guest stars; first Duane Eddy, and then a computer-generated television presenter voiced by a Canadian actor (actually Matt Frewer was born in Washington DC but grew up in Peterborough, Ontario and has dual nationality). He does his best with the under-promising can’t-get-to-sleep vibe, which Faithless did better on “Insomnia” a decade later, but I would have preferred the twelve-inch mix, in which he announces that the members of The Art of Noise are Peter O’Toole, Martina Navratilova, Cher and the Pope.

Chris de Burgh

Is this how Nick Drake might have ended up had he survived? Drake and Chris de Burgh were contemporaries at Marlborough School in the early sixties and even played in a band together. Then again, de Burgh's music has always been decidedly less complex and troubled, at least on its placid surface. Musically and lyrically he is the equivalent of a Jilly Cooper or a Jeffrey Archer; easy emotions designed to appeal to the widest possible demographic.

"The Lady In Red" was his biggest hit, helped not a little by the contemporaneous and coincidental wedding of top Sloane Rangers Andy and red-headed Sarah (unlike Chas and Di, the shops and offices did not close down for the occasion). The production is one of expensive-sounding minimalism; a drum machine, a wistful Fairlight, tasteful fills from guitar and bass. Of its kind it's a ruthlessly constructed across-the-board hit single, perfectly symmetrical and ending with a whispered "I love you," though de Burgh's anxious vocal, wherein he manages not to rhyme "dance" with "romance" with "chance," is like being kissed with Marmite-covered lips. But the cynicism of the whole enterprise is reinforced by the fact that, despite the song being written about his wife, he was actually making whoopee with the nanny at the time. Sadly, not that many cared, or noticed.

David Bowie

“I’ve nothing much to offer/There’s nothing more to take.” Or, as might have been sung by a younger, hungrier Bowie a decade later: “You sure you wanna be with me?/I’ve nothing to give.” Had it not been for the incessant subtext of film plugging – “I ABSOLUTELY love you,” “I’m an ABSOLUTE BEGINNER” – we might be with Morrissey, or even an impressionable eighteen-year-old Brett Anderson (“The rest can go to HELL!”).

There was a long queue at the cinema when Absolute Beginners opened; we weren’t sure whether we were going to be able to get in. But we did, and by the time of the closing credits we noted that the auditorium was two-thirds empty. For the film really didn’t have much to do with, or convey any raging message from, its source novel, and much more to do with mid-eighties central London crate-digging. The emphasis was on jazz – Patsy Kensit was an adequate female lead, given the film’s emasculation (if that’s not a contradiction) of the Crepe Suzette character, but Eddie O’Connell was hopeless and never heard from again – and specifically about mid-eighties London record “collectors”’ attitude to jazz, rather than the rock music that was actually being listened to in London at the time. Gil Evans took a welcome paycheck for scoring the movie, but Out Of The Cool – an album recorded at the end of 1960 and not released until February 1961; so much for this being “the fifties” – had little impact on any Big Society, was too elusive and abstract to change people’s ways of thinking (as opposed to changing the world of individuals). In tandem with the era’s wretched “jazz” “revival,” which nearly killed British jazz forever, audiences decided that the film had nothing to do with their lives.

Bowie’s best moment in the film – he wanted to appear in it as a condition of his writing and singing the theme – comes in a sequence called “That’s Motivation” where he writhes like David Brent’s dad in front of a huge, outsized typewriter. He turned up to record this song, and with time to spare, semi-improvised the song “Absolute Beginners” with the backing band.

It was not quite his last high-profile pop moment, but it was his last major “pop” hit, and he sings it as somebody creeping up to forty and not liking it. The song and performance are intentionally elegiac but, alas, somewhat bombastic; Langer and Winstanley’s booming production does Bowie no favours, and even Don Weller impersonating Bowie on sax at fadeout does little to alleviate an underlying air of fear and distress. And the song had absolutely nothing to do with the fifties.

Genesis

I mean, who remembers the video to this? (N.B.: do not comment if you remember the video to this.)

Simple Minds

The “Sledgehammer” rule doesn’t work with all displaced album tracks.

The Housemartins

Whereas this bunch of Hull psychopaths, somewhere between disappointed Christian Scientists and unrepentant Marxists, just kept hitting the bull’s eye, though not of course on the dartboard of the pub they loathe so much, as well as its attendant “culture.” “I think I might be happy if I wasn’t out with them,” pipes Paul Heaton plaintively, in a single which followed ones which decried charity and proposed punching the Queen, and derided the great mass of humanity as sheep. And yet David Cameron has gone on record about how much he admires London 0 Hull 4, proving that he never really listened to it. Heaton now runs a pub, from which he has barred Cameron. You have to admire him. Heaton, I mean.

Big Country

It’s worth remembering that Kate Bush’s other big guest appearance on somebody else’s 1986 album was duetting with Stuart Adamson on the title song of The Seer, a record which slowly began to reaccumulate the hope lost throughout Steeltown. Or so you would think, since, despite its punchly sprightliness, “Look Away” is yet another variation on “My Elusive Dreams”; he has killed someone, runs away, gets worse and worse, but still she follows him until finally it is too late: “I always knew we’d never find the sun,” and the final “Look away, look away” is so busy musically as to make you overlook how chilling a gesture it actually is. Seven days to go, at the time of writing.

Furniture

Who would have thought that such an anonymous group could have spawned two Melody Maker journalists and Transglobal Underground? H20 jamming with early Pulp to nullifying effect; one keeps waiting for Cocker to come in with his observations on underwear and wardrobes, and that’s not necessarily a plus point. One of the last hit singles on Stiff not recorded by the Pogues: “I’m ready for the real thing/But nobody’s selling.”

Midge Ure

The fourth single off The Gift, and you can see the problem here; very decent and energetic verses which get lost in under-involving, internalised choruses. As with latter-day Ultravox, it doesn’t really go anywhere, or stay still fascinatingly.

Wham!

For their farewell record Wham! took the "Beat Surrender" approach; an all-guns-blazing Valhalla cheerio of a main track and a double-45 gatefold-sleeved package. Fittingly the E.P. is an equally split curate's egg. The revisiting of old haunts that is the "Wham! Rap '86" remix is a somewhat redundant exercise; with their 1986 bank balances, were we still supposed to lap up George and Andrew's pro-dole pamphlet, which in their latter days looked uncomfortably like the whims of underemployed millionaires? "The Edge Of Heaven" itself, which basically adopts the template of an adult "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" strains just too hard to demonstrate itself as Real and Not Fluffy Boyband with its shrieking horns, car chase guitar solo, Elton John on Hammond organ and George's suspiciously less-than-spontaneous-sounding "Whoo!"s. Following a rather unsavoury first verse with its references to "lock you up," "chain you up" and "strap you up," the song settles rumbustuously into a celebration of one long last animalistic fuck before waving the whole caboodle goodbye ("One last time might be forever"). If it’s about sex – and, as George later admitted, he made it purposely hardcore on the assumption that nobody would listen to the words – then this is a loveless, even vicious affair, as the climactic “ONE DAY YOU’LL WAKE UP ON YOUR OWN – WHOO!!” cry demonstrates.

That the E.P. also serves as a calling card for Solo George is demonstrated by its other two, rather more intriguing tracks. "Battlestations" is topped and tailed by a sardonic female voiceover, the first an answerphone message and the latter a French monologue. Clearly influenced by Prince, Michael's vocals give the song a little too much in the way of beef, but musically it wanders hitherto unchartered nooks; the dolorous electrowhine recollects Cabaret Voltaire, the lugubrious, echoing trombone suggests a "Ghost Town" antecedent.

But it's the fourth track which suggests, pace Morley's Blitz! interview, that George knew exactly what he was doing with Wham! from second one; a cover of "Where Did Your Heart Go?" from the first, incandescent Was (Not Was) album, released on Ze Records two weeks before my father died, hailed by Morley as the Escalator Over The Hill of pop, a declaration of New Pop principles just when it was all starting to blossom. Now, at the other end of the half-decade, with the promise apparently in ruins, Michael turns to the song, with its "rusty can of corn" and its suicidal ending, and gives it the "Careless Whisper" treatment to demonstrate just how A can evolve, or degradate, into B. Its long, resonant, voiceless fade seems to bid a vaguely tearful farewell to an era, and even though New Pop was slowly and subtly being assimilated into the mainstream, its status as a resigned requiem is still moving.

Owen Paul

He was from Glasgow, the song was an old Marshall Crenshaw B-side, and it was a commendable attempt to prove that “power pop” could work in the unforgiving eighties. Paul delivers the words with a barely suppressed lust that’s slightly reminiscent of Marmalade’s Dean Park; his ecstatic, just-scored-the-winning-goal shriek of “And the bells GONNA RING!” is one of the happiest moments of eighties pop.

Amazulu

“Listening to Lulu, Amazulu/Come in and let’s pretend” sang Suede in their gloomy “Asbestos” (the title is never mentioned in the song, which is a reflective postscript to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Suburbia”) and Amazulu were a six-piece, mostly female band (who halved in size, Thompson Twins-style, during 1986) whose biggest hits were undistinguished cover versions. “Too Good To Be Forgotten” was a lousy song even when the Chi-Lites hit with it (Eugene Record’s seeming obsession with school tropes in his songs does get wearying very quickly) and Amazulu do it no favours. Not that anybody who got drunk to it, suburban boys or otherwise, gave a fuck.

Doctor and The Medics

The second of this song's trio of visits to number one, in the second of three different generations, does confirm its inner strength as a song; but alas, where the Greenbaum original rises and bubbles and, above all, swings in a way which suggests that the record is being made by living, breathing human beings playing and working together, this cover epitomises everything that was awry and wrong about '80s pop production. While Doctor and The Medics had already built up a considerable reputation as a sort of comedy Goth group on the indie circuit - a slapstick Sisters of Mercy, if you must - and indeed that same reputation has subsequently seen them through twenty years of freshers' balls and similar, their "Spirit In The Sky" is an utterly null pop record; the Doctor himself (with a very un-Goth real name of Clive Jackson) sings the song flatly as though ordering a kebab.

There is no bend or flow in the record; everything is pitched on the same trebly level, above all those blasted bargain basement synthesisers standing in for a horn section. Dynamics are absent, and the impression is that progression from this world to the next is a task equivalent to visiting the laundrette; particularly when compared with the astonishing, semi-spoken, semi-freeform reading of the same song later that year by We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Gonna Use It!! –everything that Amazulu weren’t, and the closest this tale gets, for now, to the elephant in the year’s pop front room that was C86 - which sounds like the Raincoats covering Meri Wilson's "Telephone Man" and would have had a 10 had it been released as a single and reached the top. In fairness, though, the Doctors' "Spirit" is still not the worst version of the song to get to number one; that, I am pleased to report, will have no bearing on this tale.

Bananarama

Crappy, processed cover versions; that was what was wrong with mid-eighties British pop music (and don’t come waving your copy of Filigree And Shadow at me either).  You have to feel for Bananarama; all that work, the originality of their own songs, or the ones they co-wrote with SAW (here still busy working out their hit template), and the one that keeps getting revived on radio is the cover version, with a hideous, slowed-down “VEE-NUS WOZ HERR NA-YAME!” which makes them sound like losers in a Tom Bailey soundalike contest on Blackpool’s Central Pier. In September. And this wasn’t even the biggest version of the song in Britain. Nor was Shocking Blue’s. It was Don Pablo’s Animals in 1990, which reading more or less ignored the song completely. And that never gets revived.

Bucks Fizz

Very sad; all this loud talk about new beginnings, Mike Nolan back from the last rites, Shelley Preston in for Jay Aston, and it was the last hit they ever had. And if it sounded a little familiar at the time, that’s because Andy Hill had tried it out in 1985 with a group called Force 8, who were actually the Dooleys. Still, with the central four singers asked by Hill to sing a semitone out of tune, and with children’s choirs and a trilingual lyric (English, Spanish and Swahili) as well as violent Test Dept-level percussive workouts, this was a Nordic pop funeral, going up in flames but exuberant. It makes “Sing Our Own Song” sound like David Whitfield’s “Ev’rywhere” as covered by Champ Butler in 1958. Recorded in a steam sauna. In pre-gentrification Shoreditch High Street.

a-ha

The “Re-Mix” meant that Alan Tarney retooled the track and added in an orchestra, and while Morten Harket certainly sounds windblown and committed (“DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO LOVE YOU?” – OK, OK MORTEN, I’VE GOT IT!!!) the song is not as fun or as grandiloquent as their first two hits, and the suspicion that the campaign to reconstruct pop with Tales From Topographic Oceans as the main building block continued unhindered. Wonderful use of the Picardy third, however.

Simply Red/Queen

Incongrous juxtapositions; everybody talks about Mick Hucknall’s multiple vocal influences and nobody ever mentions Freddie, which is absurd considering that on these two songs they sound extremely similar. But “Holding Back The Years” began life as a shouty punky song for the Frantic Elevators, and even slowed down and polished up still bears the air of a meditation set to music rather than a song. Hucknall’s clearly trying to do a Tim Buckley, but his voice is too reedy for that to work; Leo Sayer is nearer the mark (as is Mercury). Tim Kellett’s muted trumpet reminds us that this phenomenon called Durutti Column still exists, and consider that Hucknall was the Leo Sayer lookalike in the audience at Manchester Free Trade Hall a decade earlier. Just imagine the words of “Holding Back The Years” being rearranged and performed by Ian Curtis, fronting Joy Division. “I’ll keep holding on”; “They keep calling me.” Strange how the habit lingers, isn’t it?

Billy Ocean

Sir William’s greatest qualitative triumph came with the theme song to Jewel Of The Nile, a deliberately anachronistic and somewhat racist sub-Indiana Jones romp. Sourcing its basic template from Change's six-year-old "Searching," "The Going Gets Tough" bounces along with the wrong sort of bigness and its loveless Reaganite pledges ("I'm gonna put this dream in motion," "I'm gonna get myself 'cross the river" - not presumably in the Sam Cooke manner - "Your love's like a slow train comin'") make it catchy but unlovable, like shingles.

Much of the record's popularity stemmed from the video which featured a white-suited Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito doing the Temptations walk as though they understood it, though Musicians' Union fury ensured that a sequence of DeVito miming the glutinous sax solo was edited from the British version. It stands as a slightly forlorn monument to an eighties which could not comprehend subtlety, where everything had to be signalled out in cold Fairlight blasts, could only soundtrack the most bombastic of minor films, could imagine that this was a new gold dream whereas it was the polished but rusty old nightmare. And "When The Going Gets Tough" is also a candidate for the least sexy "ooohh"s on a number one. Yet Mutt Lange was a co-writer, if not the producer, and you can sense “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” waiting to emerge from the song’s undertow.

Jaki Graham

Whereas Jaki got it right (and so did writer/producer Derek Bramble). “Set Me Free” is superb, brassy, echo-laden post-Britfunk sixties pop with wonderful chord changes, a hugely emotional central vocal performance. And yet, what’s the song about? “He’s locked the door and thrown away the key,” “I know he means no harm to me/But building walls confining me”…see “Robert de Niro’s Waiting.”

Nu Shooz

None of this angst with Portland husband-and-wife duo Nu Shooz, since “I Can't Wait” is about commitment, forgiveness, encouragement and everything else that comes with being properly together. As a single it’s one of the year’s finest, the modest Partridge/Lynch surrealism of the performance countered by the soft blasts of Fairlight added on European mixing, and Valerie Day’s compassionate, come-on vocal performance does a tremendous job, not least of implying transitions into the minor key above the song’s bright, poolside surface.

The Real Roxanne

Does anybody remember the Roxanne Wars? It started out with UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne” and there was Roxanne Shanté, and dozens of answer records – it was almost internet messageboard hip hop ahead of the internet – and there was eighteen-year-old Elease Jack, from Queen’s, who was The Real Roxanne, and she and Howie Tee kicked pop up the arse and HURLED it into the future.

If pop history is a matter, not of what or who came from, or why, but how pop music HITS you, then you have to accept that its best moments occur after something new has been invented but nobody yet quite knows how to deal with it. Moments when influences, history, noises, are all thrown up in the air and land any damn which way they want, changing lives in the process (since, in true Marxist fashion, hip hop at its best is always about the process).

“(Bang Zoom) Let’s Go Go” has to be heard in its full twelve-inch glory, but the seven-inch edit here is shock enough for a nation of wannabe changeovers; the DC beat is harnessed and splattered back out like never before, doowop harmonies crash into Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny soundbites, Fred Astaire taps, Ready For The World (“In The Place To BE”) and even producers Full Force’s own “Alice.” Over and into it all, Roxanne and Howie caper like they’ve been given the keys to pop music, moving from fuck-you raps to sweet, half-speed R&B arias and back (“SO!!!”).

The record reminds us that no true innovation comes out of blank respect alone, that you have to rearrange the pieces and introduce new pieces all the time. Before it all settles down and turns into a new formula. But “Let’s Go Go” is rude, exciting, enlivening and saved pop from kicking the bucket.

Lovebug Starski

Born Kevin Smith (no relation) in the Bronx in 1960, he had his biggest success by turning hip hop into novelty horror schlock, when such things could still be done. In a different world Bobby “Boris” Pickett could probably have done “Amityville” with its Boris, Bela and William Shatner impressions, but he couldn’t have reproduced the insouciant helplessness of Starski’s shrieks of “HIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!” One wishes it could be as much fun these days.

Midnight Star

We’re in Tony Blackburn territory now, and “Headlines” proved that The Sound Of Los Angeles (Solar Records) still had a few tricks up its sleeve; a very hearty attempt to push Shalamar/Whispers modes into the future, with lots of ghostly scratching and stuttering, proto-Mantronix beats. Midnight Star were from Kentucky and there were a lot of them, but this is an almost forgotten delight.

Aurra

From Dayton, Ohio, what ended up as a duo of Starleana Young and Curt Jones was originally an offshoot from the group Slave (see also Steve Arrington). For legal reasons, “You And Me Tonight” was everywhere else credited to “Déjà” but here the original name stood; and it’s a lost wonder, a reversal of the Romeo and Juliet thing; she’s on the balcony, he’s on the pavement, desperately wanting to get in. But she’s changed the lock. He pleads and pleads, assuring her that he’s a changed man, but she isn’t buying it. On the album the song just fades out as they continue their standoff deliberations; one might imagine they could go on forever.

Patti LaBelle & Michael McDonald

The brief note to this on Now 7 indicates that it was kept off number one by Spitting Image’s “The Chicken Song,” a Virgin recording which could easily have gone on here, and might even have made a better ending. As it is, I can’t grasp “On My Own.” The song and performance are immaculate; the changes and structure are recognisably Bacharach, and both Patti and Michael perform as best they can. There is even a degree of hope as the song fades out, as their voices swoop around each other like lovelorn butterflies and there is the chance that, yes, they can overcome their differences and reunite.

But such constructs are undermined by the knowledge that Patti and Michael recorded their parts separately, and never even met (nor did they meet in the continuous split-screen video). Whereas on the three opening songs of Poet II, LaBelle is palpably standing next to Bobby Womack in the studio, and you can feel what’s happening between them, what and how they’re trying to communicate to each other. “On My Own,” on the other hand, sounds like the end product of a marriage of convenience. Not that you would replay “The Chicken Song” either.

2 comments:

Champiness said...

May I just note how happy I am to see Was (Not Was) turn up for a brief bit in this story - I adore them, and previously had to make do with your vague namedrop of them in the Time piece, which wasn't much to go on. So this Wham! cover was my only, slim hope of seeing something more substantive, and I'm glad to see it fulfilled. "Incandescent" wouldn't be the first word that sprang to mind when I thought of their debut, although your use of it does make me think about the ways in which so much of their music belies a faint shimmer of hope and earnestness in a world of sneering abstraction (and I suppose this hope makes it out of their debut much safer than it does on, say, What Up Dog?, where it's allowed to shine brighter only to be snuffed out violently at the end, in a manner that should have been visible all along). And "Where Did Your Heart Go?" is certainly the most incandescent of their songs. It's the one that made me a genuine fan, where before I was merely enticed by the shimmering, shadowy, angular rhythms of "Wheel Me Out" and slightly baffled as to how they reached "Walk The Dinosaur" from there. The way it offered its romance and dinginess in such equal measures - a melody that always seemed to descend when it most needed to ascend, lyrics that painted a picture of total, crushing defeat in love filtered through film-noir imagery that emerges more from instinct than any actual reference ("down in Mexico" not so much implying a backstory as showing how untethered our tiny narrator's become from a life, and love, that have gotten bigger than can ever be handled, the "can of corn" bit showing us the extent of what he can manage within them). We don't get anything quite this vivid from them again - though that might owe more than a little to Mack Pitt's mandolin, the star player here and what gives the "Mexico" line its weight. A New Jersey native like myself, he eventually joined the pool of session musicians in Detroit that the Was brothers recruited for their records - and I find it a bit poignant that this album is the only credit the internet is willing to afford him, as though he somehow belonged uniquely to it. There are certainly worse things to have the internet only know you for (well, not quite). If their debut really is the pop Escalator (though perhaps it's just that the Was brothers had disco as an additional reference point as opposed to some sort of fundamental difference in approach) then I can certainly understand your passion for the latter.

Well, that got a bit out of hand. Thanks for your patience, I've just waited a while for this chance and it doesn't seem like it'll be popping up again any time soon.

Patrick Mexico said...

Argh, yet another Bananarama song I thought was a work of gonzo pop genius as a child, but found out it was yet another sixties classic thrown in the car-crushing plant.

I'm morbidly fascinated with that sub-sub-genre, though - imagine the faces of the sixties baby boomers when Tiffany tackled I Saw Her/Him Standing There, or the misty-eyed Northern Soul nostalgists when Sinitta professionally fouled Love On A Mountain Top.

Champiness - my dad bought Are You Okay? in 1990, and for the last quarter century (eek!) it's been THE go-to album when I crave brutal electro-funk with a brutally sunny disposition and lyrical themes beyond explanation. I do have a feeling Carter USM stole a lot from them, cloak and dagger!