Tuesday, 28 January 2014
(#284: 23 July 1983, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Nobody's Diary/Softly Over/Sweet Thing/Mr. Blue/Good Times/Walk Away From Love/Ode To Boy/Unmarked/Anyone/Happy People/And On
"I came from a small town and in school at one class there was me, a member from Depeche Mode and someone who went on to join The Cure. That was all in one class of 30 kids." - Alison Moyet
Pop music works best when little, if anything, is premeditated; when no one seems to know what is happening, risks are taken and few if any managers are around to polish up what happens. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke, both from Basildon, knew each other before the success of Clarke-era Depeche Mode, and so when Clarke left them - as he didn't like the dark edge that Martin Gore was bringing in - he phoned Moyet and they recorded a demo. Moyet had been in various bands in her youth, but Yazoo, as they were called in the UK, got from that demo to Top of the Pops in a month. The incredible speed of Yazoo's career meant they were wildly popular and unprepared for that popularity; Clarke wanted to break up their partnership after their first album Upstairs at Eric's went huge, but his publisher and Moyet convinced him to do one more album, the highly ironically titled You And Me Both.
I say ironic as they had effectively broken up before recording it, him doing his synth work in the morning, her coming in at night to give the bleeps and blips some physical grounding, her contralto the exact opposite of the clean electro sound Clarke likes. By this time they were avoiding each other, not collaborating on songs (only "State Farm"* is credited to both) and Moyet chose the cover photo of snarling dogs as a representation of how they were - such was the volatility and tension surrounding this album.
And yet it doesn't sound as strained as Synchronicity does, in part because Moyet and Clarke were separate and their gifts didn't exactly need the other's presence to emerge in full flight. Clarke's melodies and harmonies are bright and dramatic, pop as influenced by OMD ("Electricity" was his eureka moment w/r/t synths) and The Human League and John Foxx; Moyet being the Janis Joplin/chanteuse of Basildon, willing to take these songs - hers and his - and make them close, intimate, felt. This is the complusive sweet/salty combination that is tough to pull off (the Eurythmics' Annie Lennox comes close, but her chill gives a different dimension, and different possibilities, in contrast to Moyet's shadowy warmth). The album alternates between Moyet's songs and Clarke's, with Moyet beginning the album...
"Nobody's Diary" starts off with a curling and beckoning feeling, tentative, and with Moyet's lyrics, a desperate and demanding one. She is there with so much to say, but can say nothing (shades of how I will feel five years hence, though I can't imagine it in the hot summer of '83). A relationship reduced to nothing but paper and ink; as if it were not pleasure but business, cold and impersonal, a state Moyet can't accept. "Your gonna be mine for a long time" she sings to herself, unable to think of a thing to say to her Other, the happy and the sad both in the past for both of them, though she has hopes of winning him back (dubious hopes though, with "perhaps" and "maybe" showing she knows there's no use).
"Softly Over" is Echo calling out, waiting for some kind of answer - "understand me, can't you hear me call" - and this song glides and pauses and aches with a longing, quiet spaces punctuated like walking in snow, everything somehow sharp and soft at the same time. It is this tough quietness that Moyet does so well, and Clarke's mournful patient music matches her. Clarke understands his instruments as well as Moyet does her voice.
"Sweet Thing" is a leap into hi-energy, Moyet giving in to her Other, who seems to be leaving her, yet her "ooh!" at the end of the chorus suggests that she will have her day - her confidence makes this not a song of being abandoned but one of triumph, anticipated and eagerly longed for, over her Other. She may be submissive to him, but her I give "IN-IN-INNN-INNN" at the end hints that she knows if she submits then things will improve. "You were laughing at me the whole time" she sings, but her own laugh is never far away, not bitter, just confident.
"Mr. Blue" (nothing to do with the song by The Fleetwoods) is a pretty song about loneliness, hesitating, hymn-like, compassionate. It is a moving song about grief - death appears, and not for the last time, on this album. An old man slowly dies, a man is abandoned, with only a letter from her by the bed, "a child's life is never long" - Moyet sings it with authority (I have to keep reminding myself she's just 21 when she recorded this album) and tenderness; it is a far better expression of universal suffering than, oh, "King of Pain" could ever be.
"Knocking For A Good Time" is a video-game-synth workout of funk, somehow utterly tacky and adorable at the same time. Moyet sings it with gusto, tired of being alone, she wants to be "a part of it all and all right here - and now." Her "Whoo!" is one of joy, even as she describes herself as "A BARGAIN HONEY!" who is a "giveaway" - she is beside herself for that good time, to belong, to fit in and be valued. Her laugh near the end is like a rough wind ruffling your hair, brusque and friendly at the same time. And the tape ran until her actual laughter appears, happiness in the midst of the tension around the rest of the album...
"Walk Away From Love" is the single that never was (as in it could've been one, maybe if they'd stayed together it would have been) - bright catchy and forward, skipping along in a "Just Can't Get Enough" way. The verses are about her adamant need to walk out, the chorus is the response from the Other, telling her that she is still loved and isn't the Other's love enough? Moyet sings both straight - perhaps it's her Other telling her these things, or perhaps her conscience? It is an Erasure** song in all but extra oomph, clearly pointing to what Clarke will be doing in a little while....but for now...
"Ode To Boy" is the stand-out Moyet song, a quiet blues about a boy she knows and obsesses over, whom she cannot stop looking at - his hands are so feminine they are "almost American" and he is out drinking and then at the end weeping, not knowing she is watching..."in awe of his despair" as her fascination turns into love, his lips and hands and if he "caught her looking" he quickly forgets. He is caught up in his own drama, his face seeming to change and age as the song progresses, with Moyet near-whispering her observations and sensations. It is a song Henry Green would understand, moving in the dark, the "And when he drives I love to watch his hands" sensuality that puts us right there.
"Unmarked" is a Falkland war song in all but name, Moyet's voice mean and contemptuous as she talks of all of war's falsities, "We were proud in them days" and "Even Jesus cheers us on/Against the other side." Clarke's song is clunky and blunt, but then prettiness isn't needed when the song ends with more death - "I'm glad 'cos all I wanted/Was to kill another man" - the grotesque need come to light, the song ending abruptly, fierce as it is...
"Anyone" is an astonishing song, the narrator's life full of sadness - lost love, the flowers shadowed and the dead leaves waiting, but in the dark...and the song yearns with her for something beyond a place where "I can find no light/My goals are out of sight"...."fate" seeming to hang over her doomily, the tide taking away her Other, her purpose in life...in this darkness she closes her eyes and can "be anywhere" and "be anyone." I call this astonishing as Moyet sings it as if this is her escape, not a destructive illusory one but one of freedom. This could be a secular gospel song, the tension rising and then dissipating with her "surprise" of not whee-hee joy but an unexpected satisfaction. The imagination is that powerful and arrives just when it is needed...
Now then - "Happy People" has to be one of the least interesting songs that I've heard during Then Play Long experience and that it was such a bad song Moyet wouldn't sing it - it's sung by Clarke - makes the case for it to be part of the slowly-growing Worst Songs From Then Play Long songbook. The people are self-satisfied and happy, the song's la-la-ness emphasizing just how dull and nothingy these happy people are, and not unless you are a completist do you need to hear it.
"State Farm" is, however, a whole different thing. This is Essex geek funk, and immediately I can see b-boys breakdancing to it from NYC to Detroit to Chicago to LA, and Moyet and Clarke finally work together on a song, gears click in, breaths and yells of "GO!" and sizzling wobbling synths loop and beat in time like nobody's business. Moyet's freestyling here (there are no printed lyrics in the booklet) are badass, "Souped up jacked up cracked up stacked up" and "And don't it make you feel good" and "Puts the liquor in his stomach and the powder up his nose," her "that's right" sounding like a testimony, a satisfaction of a different sort from the Tears For Fears-primal scream method of release. "You're a bad stain and you need to be cleaned up!" Moyet judges as the synths clappity-clap and generally ggg-get-down (boy) get down. I feel sorry that this isn't on the UK version of the album, but had to be found on import; it is a necessary moment of relief before the closing song...
"And On" is a spooky song, and not least because - was it just sitting there in the corner waiting to be used? - a Fairlight synthesizer is the main one here, as opposed to the Yamaha DX7 and whatever else was also available. It is also spooky in that death appears here as something that the narrator approves of...well, not approves of, but has already absorbed, understood. The setting is a funeral, the "thousand raincoats" reminding me of (with some inevitability - how long will this shadow fall?) of Joy Division. The narrator stays as everyone, including the grieving parents, has gone away. "I'm so glad that your life stopped now/Before it had a chance to die" seems mean at first, but the lines "They didn't even understand you-No!/They didn't even try" suggest that this deceased person - the Other? - a friend? - was beloved of the narrator but misunderstood by everyone else. "I ran my fingers through the long grass/Willing it to turn into your hair" is again sensuous and sad, the narrator touching the earth, sitting by the grave for a long time...and this is the real moment of grief that anyone who has felt it knows..."Expecting to turn and see you there." This too ends suddenly, the actual death drawing an end to the album, the existential death of the person - a living death - avoided only by an actual one.
The utter straight-forwardness of this album - there are, even with the last song, no frills and a sense always of huge urgency from Moyet - make me sad that Yazoo didn't continue to make more music. There is something uncompromising and tough about it, about how it confronts sadness and death, together with a profound value on what counts in life and how (again, as with Tears For Fears and Wham!) two Gen Xers view the world in quite a different way from their elders. That good time seemingly belongs to others but will belong to them; there is drama here, sure, but it is never drama for its own sake but empathic, moving. (No wonder Antony and the Johnsons count Yazoo as an influence.) Nothing is fake here, not even the now-antiquated synths sound not just cheesy but (dare I say it?) haunting. In the heat of '83 this is a nighttime album, one for pausing and contemplating, just as much as it is for defiant whoops of joy.
Next: children are father to the man.
*The US version of You And Me Both's replacement for "Happy People"; more anon.
**Amazingly enough, or perhaps not, Alison Moyet also knew Erasure's Andy Bell from school days. It is indeed a small world...
Wednesday, 15 January 2014
(#283: 9 July 1983, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Bad Boys/A Ray Of Sunshine/Love Machine/Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)/Club Tropicana/Nothing Looks The Same In The Light/Come On!/Young Guns (Go For It!)
The title, Fantastic, with its double meaning; something brilliant and splendid, or a fantasy, an ideal that exists only in the imagination, and with Wham! I think there was a touch of both. I remember an interview in the NME in early 1983 – I think Paolo Hewitt was the interviewer – where the duo talked movingly about being unemployed in the middle of a town where there was nothing going on, and their need to get away from that nothingness. It turned out that George Michael’s need was greater than Andrew Ridgeley’s, or it was Andrew who ceaselessly urged an unutterably depressed George, slumped over the kitchen table, to get up and do something with his life; this George Michael, who in childhood already had a horror of other people, or what they thought about him or the way that he then looked.
The actual story wasn’t that far away from the story they told Hewitt; both had already been in a ska band called The Executive which hadn’t gotten anywhere beyond an endless round of dead end gigs and record company rejections. Ridgeley reckoned that the A&R people were too old and out of touch; Michael wondered whether The Executive’s songs were really good enough. Certainly his father derided his ambitions in this area, only for Michael finally to turn around and exclaim that he had been listening to this criticism for five years now and it was doing him in. He, he had decided, was going to go down this path whether his father liked it or not.
When listening to the impertinent exuberance of songs like “Wham Rap!,” therefore, it is important to consider the extensive history of pain which lay behind the duo’s apparent laissez-faire approach to life and that thing called “work.” After The Executive rather messily broke up, George and Andrew sought out other musicians to start a new band, but these people drifted away, and they were finally left on their own.
“Wham Rap!,” which originally came out in May 1982, was viewed by most commentators as a cheery one-off, bridging the “dance, don’t riot” and “Hard Times/ripped jeans” cracker barrel philosophies (“Don’t let hard times stand in your way!” and remember the Human League). Actually, it’s more than that; the Penthouse And Pavement influences are easily spotted, from Ridgeley’s chugging guitars via Bob Carter’s deadpan piano chords to John MacKenzie’s “Good Times”-ish bass, but the song’s apparent good nature belies a very palpable anger, one I suspect directed at George’s forebears as much as the Government of the time. No, he exclaims, he’s not going to fit in, surrender to the nine-to-five anti-ideal; he will do exactly what he wants to do, instead of settling for twelfth best and rotting.
On Fantastic we hear the full 12-inch version, with different lyrics to the 7-inch edit, so miss pearls like “Well, listen Mr Average, YOU’RE A JERK!” and the slightly desperate “You can dig your grave, I’m staying YOUNG!” However, we do get things like “HEY-JERK-YOU-WORK!,” and “I CHOOSE to CRUISE!” and a general air of insurrection, particularly when we reach the call-and-response section (“Do you want to work?” “NOOOOO!!” “Are you gonna have fun?” “YEAAAHHHHH!!!”). There are attacks on Thatcher’s maladministration (“So they promised you a good job – NO WAY!”) and a more general feeling of nascent Generation X (both men were born in 1963) in that they are rejecting everything that “society” has to offer except what it can happily take from society (“Take pleasure in leisure,” “’Cos the benefit gang are GONNA PAY!”).
One critic at the time complained that only in his worst nightmares did he imagine that there would be a top ten song with backing vocals of “D.H.S.S.!” and saw it as a surrendering to Thatcherism. But “Wham Rap!” is, if anything, a furious REBUKE to Thatcherism; yes, we’ll take the surface of what your promise but know that nothing, but NOTHING, lies underneath. And yes, if you were out of work and had a family to feed, being on the dole was no fun at all. But if, in the eighties, you were young, you could probably find yourself a pretty decent standard of living without actually having to work; rents were cheaper, as was the cost of things in general, supplementary benefit could be supplemented by housing benefit, and if you really had something to offer you could go for the Enterprise Allowance Scheme – one of Thatcher’s very few good ideas - and get £40 a week (which went an awful lot further back then) to help get yourself up and running.
None of this, of course, is possible now; but “Wham Rap!” still, I think, speaks to the younger dispossessed, those who get routinely rebuked by newspapers for not going out and voting, when what the Westminster-centred/fixated press don’t understand is that the centuries-old system has simply failed to work for the next generation, who instead of stuffing envelopes with leaflets and knocking on doors have decided to ignore the system altogether and try to work out a new way of living as a society. Listen to this morning’s Prime Minister’s Questions, with the near-autistic spewing of clichés and corporate tropes (“hard-working,” “enterprise boom,” “who made a mess of such-and-such IN THE FIRST PLACE?”) and the fatally timid “attacks” from an alleged Opposition, all bearing the stamp, and about the same level of intellectual advancement, of baying public school debating societies – who as far as I can see promise only a politer variant of more of the same – and you can understand why people now, as then, decide that this is just not for them, does not speak for or to them.
But there are seven other songs on Fantastic, this tale of escape from the nothingness of suburban Hertfordshire – George Michael was born in East Finchley, and it could be argued that he has never really left the airy corridors of north (of) London suburbia; he grew up in Kingsbury which, though strictly speaking part of London (NW9), is in practice so far away from the capital he might have been in Lerwick (although he could get long, winding bus rides to Golders Green and Ealing), followed by stints in Radlett and, finally, Bushey, a place mostly glimpsed from the window of a speeding train, where there is nothing going on to speak of and a big night out would involve venturing out to, say, Watford – and overall I think it stands up. I love the sixties tactic of putting their shadowed logo on the record – two guys in dark silhouette, bopping around and having the time of their lives – and mostly, on the surface, the music is bright and catchy.
It’s too bad that the album begins with perhaps its worst song; “Bad Boys” was Wham!’s third single, after “Wham Rap!” and the breakthrough “Young Guns,” and although it was also, at that time, their biggest hit, being kept off number one only by the omnipresent “Every Breath You Take,” it never gets played now, and listening to it you can see why; the soulboy/dole boy theme was palpably running out of steam, and so it turned into an attack on that oldest of pop tropes, the parents who Just Don’t Understand. “Don’t try to keep me in tonight,” warns George, “because I’m big enough to break down the door!” But elsewhere in the song he says, “Now I’m nineteen, as you see,” and as Julie Burchill commented in the NME at the time, his poor parents are probably wondering why he’s still living with them. He’s nineteen – in fact, when this album came out, George had just turned twenty – and the underlying question has to be: why is he still there, why has he not moved out into his own place, got on with his own life? So his complaining now comes across as petulant rather than defiant.
But “A Ray Of Sunshine” is fabulous post-Lexicon pop, with vibey keyboards, subtle speeded-up backing vocals (“Watch out boy”), purposeful handclaps and one of the greatest beginnings of any pop chorus: “Sometimes/You wake up in the morning with a bassline.” The song’s stride just makes you want to leap out of bed, go out and get a suntan, but there are also hints of a hidden vulnerability (“Can’t you see that I’m ready to dance?/Without this beat my life would fall apart”).
“Love Machine,” a cover of the Miracles’ 1976 hit, is done as a pretty faithful replica of the original (down to the recurring walrus groan, although George’s vocal is rather more like Smokey Robinson than Billy Griffin) and also serves as a tribute to the duo’s roots and a reminder that not everybody in the mid-seventies was touched by punk; a considerable number of people adhered to soul and disco, got down to Double Exposure, T-Connection and Roy Ayers (indeed George’s own musical epiphany came one Saturday evening while in the bath; he had Capital Radio on, and on came the Gap Band’s peerless “Burn Rubber On Me.” George leapt out of the water and knew that this was what he wanted to do).
If “Wham Rap!” is challengingly defiant, then “Club Tropicana” reminds us of the fantasy element implicit in the album’s title. The song is bookended by sound effects; first, somebody getting out of a car (echoes of “Love Is The Drug”) and walking towards a club, with booming music increasing in intensity the nearer it gets; then, at the end, chirping crickets and an air of exotic otherness, as if the clubgoer has been transplanted into another part of the world. Rather than being an unthinking celebration of Thatcherite indulgence – a conclusion nobody could draw from watching the video, which depicts George satirically pouring the contents of his drink into the water in which he is bathing – “Club Tropicana” is a tribute to the ability of The Club to transform the ordinary person and make their life transcend itself; the notion that you can go to a crappy-looking nightspot in St Albans or Hitchin and end up somewhere else. You are always aware that this is not exactly real, but there is something within the walls of the club which the clubgoer can’t get from their normal life. There is some terrific jazz piano from ex-Sensational Alex Harvey Band keyboardist Tommy Eyre and some fine bass slapping from Deon Estes. By the end of the song, the point is that you are ready to get on the ‘plane and fly away, get the hell out, exceed yourself.
Whereas “Come On!” could aptly be retitled “Occupy The Disco”; it is the most political song on the album, as George puts the boot into “greedy men in far-off places” and dares them to stop his party, his fun, his life. “No way that they’re gonna spoil your fun!” he sings. It doesn’t matter if The Man tries to shut his scene down (“Don’t even bother to let us know/When you flick the switch and stop the show/…And we’ll still be dancing, AS YOU RUN NOW!”). Remember that, in 1983, the world could still have ended at any moment, and George is acutely aware of this: “Oh no, don’t think that I’m not scared,” he says, “I just take each day as it comes/Because it may – it may – IT MAY BE THE LAST ONE!” He is past caring: “I know they don’t care about me…/And I know they don’t care about you/You may – as well – enjoy your life as I do!,” echoing “Wham Rap!” The music is the kind of life-affirming funk-bop that stops graves from being dug.
The record ends with their second single and first hit, “Young Guns,” a fine and punchy record musically (and note the presence of, amongst others, Anne Dudley and Brad Lang in the line-up) and lyrically an unintentionally hilarious one – or was there another subtext in its warning against marrying too young? Andrew is finding it a drag being dragged around furniture stores (the female rapper is Shirlie Holliman, the future Mrs Martin Kemp) compared to the great times he had hanging out with George. Their extravagant dance routine on TOTP – maybe leather and studs were where they were at – pretty much completed the subtext for those prepared to read it. Still, the final, cross-vocal tug of war – “GET BACK! HANDS OFF! GO FOR IT!” – is exciting enough to make you want to read on; the album proper ends with a silly slapstick run-through of Winifred Atwell on the piano (“Black and White Rag”?).
But, as is not uncommon in such cases, one song on the album isn’t like the others, and here it is “Nothing Looks The Same In The Light,” the record’s only ballad (though it’s more midtempo than slow), written, sung and almost entirely played by George Michael – the only thing he doesn’t play is the drums, which, as on most of Fantastic, are handled by Trevor Morell, formerly of the really very strange sixties/seventies jazz-soul-MoR trio The Peddlers – and all of a sudden we get a glimpse of where this insecure young man is heading. There is no real indication on Fantastic that one of these people will become one of the most popular musicians on the planet, just as one has to remind oneself constantly that this is a duo (Ridgeley’s guitar chugs along like a reliable suburban train throughout most of the record, although his only co-writing credits are for “Wham Rap!” and “Club Tropicana”). However, “Nothing Looks The Same…” is a reflective, almost ambient ballad about what is essentially a one-night stand; George is waking up in the morning – so much of this record is about partying, but only this song really deals with what happens the morning after - but instead of basslines or rays of sunshine, he merely observes the sun, shining on the bedsheets.
He is not quite sure what to do, or whether he still feels for this person what he felt and probably said the night before. A large part of him wants to go: “It’s been a pleasure – see you around,” goes the refrain, answered by a falling keyboard figure like the world benignly crashing down around him. His Other – note that he’s very careful not to give his lover a gender – is still asleep, but he himself cannot sleep. It gradually transpires that in reality he’s afraid of himself, and he wants to stay. Why? “Because you’re the first,” he whispers tremulously, sounding exactly like David Cassidy. So the song is about revelations, and newness, and natural fear and doubt. But it is a confronting of the gulf between two different perspectives on the word “fantastic,” and the record’s clearest sign that he won’t be happy staying at this merry level. The album is dedicated to Andrew Leaver and Paul Atkins. Both were schoolfriends – Leaver even played in The Executive – but one died of cancer aged just twenty, and the other in a car crash. Already with George Michael, the ghosts of his life are threatening to become the wildest of winds.
Next: Basildon bond.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 15:20
Tuesday, 14 January 2014
(#282: 25 June 1983, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Synchronicity I/Walking In Your Footsteps/O My God/Mother/Miss Gradenko/Synchronicity II/Every Breath You Take/King Of Pain/Wrapped Around Your Finger/Tea In The Sahara
(Author’s Note: Cassette and CD editions of the album – indeed, Synchronicity may well have been the first major album to enjoy simultaneous release on all three formats – included a bonus track, the single B-side “Murder By Numbers” which, though excellent, does not in my view make for a satisfactory ending to the album. The above track listing, therefore, comprises the sequence of this album as I understand it.)
“The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight…”
(WB Yeats, “The Second Coming”)
It is easy to forget just how major an event Synchronicity was in the summer of 1983, and from a British perspective almost immediately on the heels of Mrs Thatcher’s second election victory. The Police could not unreasonably be described as the biggest band on the planet at that time. Most contemporary reviews were sympathetic, and then some; interviewing the band in Atlanta later that year for the NME, the late Richard Cook remarked, “...if that record (Ghost In The Machine) was difficult, Synchronicity is like Chinese algebra. Its relentless exposure refuses to obscure that Synchronicity is a deep, complex collection, as profound an achievement as rock is going to throw up.”
Listening to the record a lifetime later, it is easy to marvel in retrospect at how easily people were taken in by it. But then, set next to the likes of War, Thriller and Let’s Dance, it has to be admitted that the album did seem challenging and involving. However, divorced from its time, I now view it with scepticism. It has also become clear to me that Ghost In The Machine – the Police venturing out to face the world – is the superior record; better written and played, more thrilling, more of a sense of three musicians playing together (despite multiple effects and overdubs, as well as the occasional guest player). Whereas Synchronicity finds the Police out in the world, but unsure what to do with it.
Their nominal main inspiration was the theories of Carl Jung, although I suspect that Koestler’s explanation of synchronicity in The Roots Of Coincidence had a greater effect. By this point the three musicians were hardly speaking to each other, and indeed recorded their parts in separate rooms at AIR Studios in Montserrat – Andy Summers in the studio, Sting in the control room and Stewart Copeland in the dining room. There is therefore next to no palpable feeling of a group playing; instead, they all exist at something of a distance from each other except when they (or, more accurately, Copeland’s drums) turn the heat up (i.e. both title tracks). It is appropriate that Hugh Padgham should produce, since this is rock music as a gated community might know it.
The two “Synchronicity” songs are fine in themselves; “I” gets the album off to a rousing start with its beginner’s guide to Jung, even if it does sound like Yes covering the Fifth Dimension; but then the sag comes – where Let’s Dance’s hits were all front-loaded, the Synchronicity hits mostly turn up on side two, so the “experimental” stuff appears first. “Walking In Your Footsteps” fails to recapture the effortless spaciousness of “Walking On The Moon” – with lyrics of the calibre of “Hey Mr Dinosaur/You really couldn’t ask for more,” you wouldn’t really expect it to do so – although Summers’ increasingly discordant guitar does its best to retain the listener’s interest, even as Sting muses about power, extinction and atom bombs. “O My God” is another of Sting’s Messages To The World – and its pleas to “Take the space between us” might intimate some familiarity with Avalon – but one of his more directionless ones, first signalled by an extended paraphrase of the second verse of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” but finally scuppered by a semi-improvised chorale of the great man’s unlistenable saxophones (I suppose Sting’s saxophone playing might be quite exciting to anybody who hadn’t heard Ornette Coleman, but it’s no surprise that when he went solo he immediately hired Branford Marsalis).
Then, the disaster of three-way democracies; Summers’ preposterous “Mother” is in terms of Then Play Long badness down there with “Ito Eats” and “She Was One Of The Early Birds.” It is so terrible that it makes Genesis’ “Mama” sound like the Intruders’ “I’ll Always Love My Mama.” Summers thinks he’s Peter Hammill (vocally) and Robert Fripp (musically) and it is a complete, irredeemable, hysterical mess, like Peter Glaze (who had anyway died in February 1983) impersonating David Byrne; sub-sub-Exposure stuff. Summers was, at the time, in his early forties. This is followed by Copeland’s “Miss Gradenko” which musically is a little better and far more to the point – it lasts only two minutes, and is sung by a distorted Sting – but its hackneyed noo wave-isms emphasise that it’s only because of Sting that these songs were released at all. “Once Upon A Daydream,” the morbid B-side of the “Synchronicity II” single, thereby completing a somewhat gloomy package (its downbeat thoughts soundtracked by what sounds like a backwards harmonium), would have been a much better choice at this point, as indeed would have “Murder By Numbers.”
Matters are greatly relieved – or perhaps the listener is woken up - by the appearance of “Synchronicity II,” one of the Police’s great rockers and a not-too-cringeworthy shaggy dog story about the Repressed Common Man in tandem with the emergence of the Loch Ness Monster. The mood remains Yeatsian – the reversal of man into its savage status as described in “The Second Coming” – and it is notable that “Synchronicity I & II” are really the only songs on Synchronicity which talk about synchronicity. Nevertheless, as someone said on I Love Music, it does mark the moment where the band said “Fuck it!” and decided to be Rush – specifically, the Rush of “Subdivisions,” from their 1982 album Signals (“Be cool or be cast out”). Sting mouths phrases like “a humiliating kick in the CROTCH!” with real relish, and there is a feeling of systematically increasing horror, even if the subject matter does stem from Copeland’s four-year-old “On Any Other Day.”
Then come the big hits. I recall watching American television at some point in the mid-eighties and coming across Marie Osmond and Andy Gibb, in the midst of some JC Penney's bargain basement Grammy award ceremony, cooing at each other with lovelorn eyes and waning toothy smiles "Every Breath You Take," and I took that performance as final proof that most people simply want the pop song to be a simulacrum, to take their pleasure from its melodies and atmosphere while placidly ignoring the words that are being sung.
Inspired by Sting's messy divorce from his first wife - he sings the song from Ms Tomelty's perspective, thereby making himself the object of desired compassion - "Every Breath You Take" was the biggest-selling single of the Police's career, and melodically achieves the rare knack of sounding like a song which has been around forever; more than one DJ at the time mistook it for a reworking of a golden oldie. But as a song it is determinedly nasty, squalid and brutish; you can see Sting's golden eyebrows narrowing to the focus of radar as he runs off the various ways in which he plans to stalk the object of his disaffection. The fact that he clearly sees himself as the injured party - compare with "King Of Pain" where we are asked to believe that all the sins of history are collected up and manifest themselves in the form of Sting's huge golden field of a face, scowling ruefully over the rest of humanity - becomes apparent when the piano cascades break the song open in its middle eight in order to allow Sting to reclaim his "Message In A Bottle" vulnerability (that last "please" which trails off, unfinished, into the sizeable ether). But then the song retreats into its guilt-flooded shadows and the warning is repeated for a fadeout which lasts for nearly a minute.
Unlike the close-up attack of their early hits, the Police now sounded as expensive as any pop group has ever sounded; the haze of Padgham's polished marble halls of sound putting the band at one distance from the listener. Where they were once intimate, they had now sealed themselves off and were gazing down at their audience from a self-constructed podium, as though about to launch into space.
Sting began to maintain the distance that he kept. Back to Richard Cook: “Ghost In The Machine and Synchronicity explore a spiritual bereavement in the midst of a rich, overspilling world that is at these privileged fingertips: Sting, in his splendid isolation, is looking out as a citizen of a world he can't return to. In his masterpiece, 'King Of Pain', his soul - his last private possession - is suspended over the globe. It's a tragedy which they are all rather enjoying.”
That ambivalence, I think, nails it. “King Of Pain” has to be one of the most self-pitying songs in the history of pop or rock. Super Sexy Sting sees wounded animals, rulers and losers all over the world and points to them: “That’s me, that is.” To which one could reasonably retort: well, isn’t this what you wanted in the first place? Apart from emphasising Sting’s vocal similarity to that other displaced Geordie jazzer, Alan Price, I find the song uninvolving, pretentious and portentous. “I’ll ALWAYS be King of Pain!” sings Sting at fadeout with no small exultation (and with Summers’ incongruously loud and punchy guitar). Underneath these molten grey skies, he is still Mr Lonely, an ECM Phil Collins; “Wrapped Around Your Finger” continues to obsess expensively on the divorce/woe-is-me theme – it sounds like Spandau Ballet for distressed middle-aged people, though its central keyboard/guitar figure reminds us that “Decades” is still, three years on, not that far away.
Then a satisfying, if terminal, end with “Tea In The Sahara.” Inspired by a Paul Bowles story – you can tell from Sting twice crying “Beneath THE SHELTERING SKY” – the song does find the group once again inventive and exploratory, atomising before our eyes into AR Kane land. The story? The one about the three sisters prepared to wait in the desert to dance and have tea with an unspecified “young man” in the Sahara desert. But the man never returns and they end up dead from the heat, their cups full of sand. Waiting for the miracle that was never going to come. As terminal endings go, this rivals that of The Final Cut, but there is an additional metaphor; three musicians, not really communicating with each other any more, on their way towards three separate exits.
And so the Police petered into semi-existence with an album which, in the final analysis, can only be described as “not bad,” and lacking the direct engagement of its predecessors. More than anything, you can hear Sting already mapping out his future route as “Tea In The Sahara” dissipates into systematic nothingness. They were here, they were a great singles band who never made a great album, they showed that Men At Work who was boss, and they finally fitted into the sunburned glossiness of the early eighties only too well.
Next: The sound of a suburb.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:06
Sunday, 12 January 2014
(#281: 14 May 1983, 1 week)
Track listing: Pleasure/Communication/Code Of Love/Gold/Lifeline/Heaven Is A Secret/Foundation/True
The stories about Spandau Ballet and Trevor Horn vary, according to who tells them and when they are told. The most common is that, following The Lexicon Of Love, Horn had two choices of job; to produce the next Spandau Ballet album (the “safe” option) or to go around the world, or a bit of it, with Malcolm McLaren and put together Duck Rock (the “risky” option). Horn weighed up both options and decided on adventure. The other story, which I remember reading and hearing more of at the time, is that Spandau Ballet had begun working on their third album with Horn at the controls but the two parties didn’t really get on – I remember a comment from Gary Kemp in Smash Hits complaining about Horn’s “schoolmasterly” approach – and the group finally opted for the more approachable south London production team of Tony Swain and Steve Jolley, then best known for their work with Imagination and Bananarama.
The truth – in connection with an album about truth – is probably somewhere in between; Horn had returned the faltering Ballet to the top ten in the spring of 1982 with his magnificent remodelling (remix is too modest a word in this context) of “Instinction,” a record which helped explain why some of us at the time did not need Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin when there was so much glorious new pop demanding our attention. And it is beyond question that some of the songs on True – notably “Gold” – do proceed with an eye on Martin’s lexicon, complete with dramatic piano flourishes and meditational sax solos.
I am not sure that Horn would have smothered these songs under tons of instruments and effects, and certainly none would have benefited from that overload. Swain and Jolley had already proved that the secret of their success as producers was their use of space in music; listen to something like “In And Out Of Love” or “Shy Boy” and you’ll see how the less-is-more approach can be made to work with startling results and understand the importance of not putting too much sound into each mix. But Horn was tangentially involved with at least some of the album; two of its most striking songs, “Code Of Love” and “Pleasure,” take their lead from his original arrangements, and both demonstrate an understanding of spaces and silence which Horn would continue to use to great effect; it’s not that long a way from the disturbing synthesiser drone left hanging in the air like a threatening cloud throughout the long outro of “Code Of Love” to the considered stillness of “Moments In Love.”
The deployment of huge, field-like spaces and the subtle deployment of echo in the music both suit the ambience of True, an album made to be listened to on a Walkman on an extremely hot and sunny day, preferably in the presence of a vast sea (from personal experience I recommend listening to it on a July midweek afternoon in North Berwick, across the Fife coast from St Andrews); indeed that is how I listened to True at the time – on the very same chromium dioxide cassette that I am using for this piece (and which, I am pleased to report, still plays perfectly after nearly thirty-one years).
The music on the record reflects this troubled sunny outlook, too; it was recorded, but not mixed, at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, and the opulent Lynn Goldsmith band photograph reflects the mood perfectly – there’s Tony Hadley at far left, happily bouncing around like a newly-fed leveret, John Keeble standing to attention in his Lonsdale T-shirt, Steve Norman sitting down and grinning. Meanwhile, Martin Kemp glares warily at the camera, underneath a hat, at the back of the picture; to the far right, and with his back turned to the rest of the group completely, is Gary Kemp, in skipper’s cap, sitting on the edge of the sea wall and solemnly contemplating the ocean – Bing Crosby starring in Existential Society.
I am bound to say that I greatly enjoyed True at the time and generally didn’t mind Spandau Ballet, and am aware that in certain early eighties quarters both activities bordered on the illegal. Their initial run of singles was never less than interesting and often considerably more than that (“Chant No 1,” “Instinction” and its strange B-side “Gently,” the 12-inch of “Glow”) and their second album, 1982’s Diamond, was good enough for me to purchase in a multi-12 inch single box set (outrageously priced at £7.99); I particularly recommend “Coffee Club” as an example of how the neurosis of “Born Under Punches” could be creatively recast for a noisier and more optimistic Soho-via-Essex Road club culture.
Many saw True as a sellout, its inherently aspirational nature (or so it initially appeared) too close to Thatcherism to call, and viewed Big Tony as an eighties David Whitfield, bellowing and unsubtle. I’m inclined to be a lot kinder myself; Hadley was never going to be Al Green or Steve Arrington, but his approach – belting out alternating with considered sotto voce – works perfectly well in the environment of the songs which Gary Kemp wrote for him to sing, and has subsequently revealed a very endearing, self-deprecating side to himself. He knows that he is seen by some as being a little absurd, but still tries his best and is happy to sing a song if its melody attracts him and retains his interest, perhaps irrespective of what the song might be saying.
That latter aspect is fairly important, since there are two ways in which True could be viewed. One is as a crass betrayal of former promises of futurism, a white-flagged surrender to cabaret. The other, I think more fruitful, option is to regard it as a rather clever record which isn’t quite what it pretends to be.
It is true (that word again) that, in the early eighties, Kemp didn’t want to stay a “cult” and wanted his songs to have greater commercial appeal. But the eight songs collected in these admirably economic thirty-six-and-a-half minutes do not represent a Bowie-style turnaround. They show a lot more imagination and creativity than anything on Let’s Dance for a start. Why? Because, I think, Spandau Ballet were ambitious, but knew their limitations. They don’t travel beyond their field of smooth jazz-funk (Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love” might be the template for the whole thing) but do continue to reflect a past of Roxy Music (Steve Norman’s alto is strictly in a late-period Andy Mackay setting with bits of Grover Washington Jr) and even Mott the Hoople (Kemp has said that citing Marvin Gaye in “True” was his tip of the hat to Bowie, via Ian Hunter, citing T Rex in “All The Young Dudes”).
But what are the songs on True about? “Code Of Love” might be the record’s key song, since all of the lyrics appear to be written in some kind of code, signifying something else; on one level the songs are about the difficulties that Men and Women have in communicating with each other (“Communication let me down” indeed) with these unspecified “he”s and “she”s. On that surface it is a concept record about a relationship that never goes anywhere, that almost certainly never actually happens. Everywhere Kemp, via Hadley, is let down one way or another – “Pleasure” reasserts the charging, funky Spandau to a distressed vocal which sometimes sounds like Simon Le Bon (the “holding” in the line “Warm within the hand she’s holding”). “Communication” sets its deliberately ungainly swing against an organ motif that could have come from Tarkus.
“Code Of Love” has stayed with me, however; its quietly needling guitar line suggesting Culture Club-style reggae-lite, and yet the song never truly resolves – it simply, and very slowly, fades into the distance with Norman’s melancholic sax, Kemp’s Brothers Gibb-ish backing vocal and that haunting, static synthesiser cloud (Moon Safari is a mere fifteen years down the highway). Nor is “Gold” particularly reassuring, driven as it is by two conflicting motors; the urge for material prosperity and the corresponding traduction of human relations. Conservative or Labour – which way to go? The song’s essential unrest is reflected in the ingenious chord modulations heard within its verses, and Hadley’s “always believing” sounds very far from a man convinced.
But then there is “Lifeline,” a bigger hit than “Instinction” in the autumn of 1982, and it seems to be about more than just boy meets and fails to understand girl; “Changing her colours, she’s off to the shore,” “There’s a power in his voice and it makes her feel so sure,” “A democracy of sorts that justifies the sun (or justifies The Sun)” – is this about the Falklands war, and are there two women being sung about on this record, one bearing the name of Thatcher? This can, of course, only be conjecture; whereas “Heaven Is A Secret” is at root a very touching song about being “far from her arms tonight,” being at a distance from the one you love and not knowing whether or how to touch, to make things known. In contrast the determinedly upbeat “Foundation” could, with some change of perspective and arrangement, be Weller’s Style Council (“We’ll build a foun-DA-TION!”). But the writer knows that this can never really be built up.
And so the record ends with the title song, an inevitable number one probably from the moment it was conceived (and plaudits have to go to the “sixth member” of Spandau Ballet, Jess Bailey, who provides most of the keyboard work throughout the album), and a song addressed expressly to the listener, or possibly even a single, specific listener, all about the difficulties of writing a song, about the impossibility of saying what you actually want to say out loud (nowhere on this record do the words “I love you” appear, although “Live and let live in love” does turn up in “Lifeline”), about listening to Marvin Gaye all night long, knowing that he was all about rising above his circumstances, and wondering if you’ll ever have the nerve to do anything like “I Want You” or “Just To Keep You Satisfied,” wondering why it won’t come, listening to and taking in “Sexual Healing” and Midnight Love, paraphrasing that book by Nabokov that she sent you (for “seaside hands” read “seaside arms,” and “With a thrill in my head and a pill on my tongue” comes from the same source), thinking about Paul bloody Weller (“I’ve bought a ticket to the world/But now I’ve come back again” echoes the “I scoured the whole universe/And caught the last train home” of “English Rose”) and…waiting and wondering, as the song slowly fades into the ether, with one heartstopping suspension of rhythm in the fadeout, as though breathing had temporarily ceased, before life starts again.
“Bring me closer!” cried Clare Grogan, the secret addressee of True, a couple of months later on a phenomenally good album with the very pertinent title of Bite, while warning: “Something that you do to me/Fills me with unease.” Heaven is perhaps not so much of a secret now, since Gary Kemp revealed in The Guardian last May that he did indeed have a crush on Ms Grogan, to the point of travelling to Glasgow to have tea with her parents, but that nothing came of it (the late David Band designed the sleeve for True and its attendant singles, as he had done for the early works of Altered Images). So the truth which he wanted to be made known was an unrequited passion, and the knowledge that getting famous, and having them spell your name correctly in Vladivostok, was not enough in itself, not in the eighties. And True hit so big, I suspect, because it bore a near-naked personal nature; the compass then moved outward, the detail became blurry. But the record worked, and I think still works, by virtue of its demonstration that even walking in the prosperous early eighties sunshine with the blue in the air and a Walkman clamped to one’s ears is only enjoyable when you know that life isn’t just about that. I would give this album the alternative title of Boué.
Next: Caught between Loch Ness and the Sahara.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 14:39
Saturday, 11 January 2014
(#280: 23 April 1983, 3 weeks)
Track listing: Modern Love/China Girl/Let’s Dance/Without You/Ricochet/Criminal World/Cat People (Putting Out Fire)/Shake It
“That's what the kid standing behind us in line was saying as the rioters who got a fin apiece from manager Tony De Fries came storming across the street at the door for the third time: 'I like Bowie's music, but I don't like his personality. He's too weird.' He went on to say that he wanted to buy a copy of The New York Dolls album but didn't because he was afraid somebody would see the cover lying around the house and get the wrong idea. He, like most of this audience, leaned much farther to denims than glitter. In fact, they were downright shabby. In the traditional sense.”
(Lester Bangs, “Johnny Ray’s Better Whirlpool,” Creem, January 1975)
“I want something now that makes a statement in a more universal, international field.”
(David Bowie, interviewed by David Thomas, The FACE No 37, May 1983)
It was Friday 1 July 1983, it was the Milton Keynes Bowl, and it was bloody, stuffily hot. Towards the end of my second year at university many of my peers, who even at that age should really have known better, spoke with excited worshipfulness of attending this concert, seeing this man. I paid for two tickets so knew no better myself. The support acts were, in order of appearance, The Beat (nearing the end of their life) and Icehouse, and nobody really paid either any attention.
Then, after an interval, a man calling himself David Bowie bounded on stage, though looked more like Beckenham’s Young Businessman Of The Year David Jones (36), in a ludicrous carrot-top bouffant, smart suit and no tie (he reminded me of a glam Alexander Walker). He launched into “The Jean Genie” and things were all right, even if it didn’t really sound like the “Jean Genie” of ten years previous, and all that that had implied. He was playing to the smugly happy Thatcher generation – all right, it was my generation, although there were still a few stalwart hippies and bikers to be found amongst the suffocating crowd, people who just about remembered what a “free festival” had been – and it did its work; the hero of their younger years, but without all that problematic weirdness, cleaned up, efficient and ready for the enterprising eighties (there was no “Sound And Vision,” although he did do both “Breaking Glass” and “What In The World”). I should have known from the accompanying album and not risked the searing disappointment.
Everybody knows that “Bowie” self-destructed with Scary Monsters, or rather Lennon got shot, which for Bowie amounted to much the same thing; he surrounded himself with high-level security and largely retreated to Switzerland for the best part of two years, in great part to look after his son (the young Duncan Jones, who in 1983 would have been twelve). While there he proceeded to disengage himself messily from RCA and MainMan management, eventually signing a contract with EMI which some said awarded him $17.5 million.
But he continued to travel, not quite as much as he sometimes claimed, but enough to place him in a New York nightclub somewhere in the second half of 1982 where Billy Idol, who may or may not have been drunk, may or may not have introduced him to Nile Rodgers. The days of Chic domination were already a couple of years in the past; Rodgers was not quite the force that he had been (although Chic themselves continued to release excellent, if unsold, albums until they split in 1983) and was no doubt flattered by Bowie’s expressed wish to work with him, even if he was to be disappointed that Bowie did not want him to produce something darkly experimental, but rather give him hits, get him back on the radio in America where he was largely regarded as a seventies one-hit disco wonder. Do something for the Kansas farmers.
The generation of Let’s Dance itself was swift if no less messy. The entire album, according to Rodgers, was recorded and mixed in something like seventeen days, during December 1982. People who had known Bowie before were also to be let down. Tony Visconti had cleared time in his diary to work on the album, only to be told that Rodgers had already been at work in the Power Station for a fortnight; affronted, he did not speak to or work with Bowie again for almost twenty years. Carlos Alomar was asked to provide guitar but offered only a scale fee; Alomar told Bowie’s people what they could do with his scale fee and consequently does not appear on the record (though was certainly onstage, along with old sparring partner Earl Slick, at Milton Keynes). Instead Stevie Ray Vaughan, who had chatted with Bowie at that summer’s Montreux Jazz Festival, was brought in, and almost immediately boxed in; kept on a leash for much of the album, he did seem to have as deep and instinctive an understanding of Bowie’s music as any guitarist since Mick Ronson when given the opportunity to prove it (as on both “China Girl” and the title track; Lena describes his work on the album as being “like homemade icing on a boxed cake”). This was more than could be said for a largely bemused Rodgers, who spent hours at a time in the studio working up grooves in an effort to approximate what he thought Bowie wanted. It was therefore not surprising that the end result sounded rushed, hasty and a lot shorter than its allotted thirty-nine minutes; in his review of the album in The FACE, Paul Rambali remarked that “this is music in a hurry, bustling, eager, not caring to be definitive.”
But the record did the job that Bowie had intended it to do; the title track was the biggest single of his career, the album restored him to the upper reaches of the Billboard Top 200 and overall sold some seven million worldwide. The man without whom, it was felt, neither New Romanticism or New Pop would have existed – “the granddaddy of them all,” as a rather dejected Dave Rimmer observed in Like Punk Never Happened – was back to prove who was boss, even if it was hard for him to demonstrate how he had got to be boss in the first place.
For I suspect Bowie viewed, and for all I know continues to view, pop music as something curled up in the corner of the living room, or squatting by a fire hydrant – a snake or a sedative. I think that in 1983 he was much more interested in acting than he was in being a musician or a pop star; whether it’s as a vampire, or Brecht’s Baal silently dining on vulture soup, or a prisoner of war in a Japanese WW2 camp, there is a commitment in his work – even if the acting itself isn’t very good – which contrasts sharply with his early eighties attitude to music.
What I am working up to here is that Let’s Dance, the album, is a disgrace, one of the laziest and most contemptuous records ever released by a major rock performer. Its eight songs whizz by in an uninteresting and uninvolving blur and commit to nothing except Bowie’s need to be David Bowie for another year. Never mind Elvis squatting in the dark – “Aw shit, I might as well sing sittin’ down as standin’ up” – or Dylan at the Free Trade Hall; it’s a surprise that nobody in the crowd at Milton Keynes shouted out “JUDAS!,” and unutterably depressing that nobody in the crowd at Milton Keynes felt the remotest need to do so.
Why this pallid sketchbook of half-baked songs and winsome cover versions, or recyclings? Did Bowie, like Elvis, think that his talent was wasted on the public, that Joe Kansas Farmer would lap up any old shit by him if it sounded good on his rollerskate Walkman? It was almost enough to make one question whether he had meant anything he’d written or done or sung or played in the seventies. I have to say that I did and do not think much of the whole Ziggy Stardust thing (and Let’s Dance was easily Bowie’s worst album since 1972); whereas Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane are exciting, inventive and genuinely disturbing pieces of work, it may well be that I was four or five years too young, or too old, to appreciate the alleged opening of floodgates that Ziggy was said to represent. All I hear in its grooves are undercooked rockers and bathetic, hammy ballads with an overall air of a secondary school rock opera. Even at eight I had no time for the flaccid nursery rhyme that was “Starman,” despite the 250 million people said to have watched him perform it on Top Of The Pops on 6 July 1972. I myself watched that show in a boarding house in Blackpool, where we were on holiday – it was a lousy summer that year – and don’t remember much about it other than laughing nervously at a film clip of Dr Hook performing “Sylvia’s Mother.” The song had entered the Top 30 at #29, and if everyone who said they had watched the performance and it changed their lives had actually gone out and bought the single as a result of watching it, it would have rocketed to number one the following week. In actual fact it climbed nine places to #20 and continued to climb unspectacularly for another couple of weeks, peaking at #10. The number one song at the time was “Puppy Love” by Donny Osmond.
The song and TOTP performance from that month which I do remember vividly, and which caused a much greater controversy than Bowie putting his arm around Ronson’s shoulder – and which may even have appeared on the following week’s episode – was Alice Cooper, with children’s choir and fish-eye camera lens, doing “School’s Out,” and that shot to number one within the month and provoked questions in Parliament. So I am sceptical of the “phenomenon” status of Ziggy Stardust, but have to admit that even in things like “Five Years,” Bowie is playing his role with detail and economy. I can see why some people might have been affected by the record.
Move forward a decade, however, and that detail and economy have gone, to be replaced by roughly nailed carbon-copied sketches; Bowie is simply not paying attention to the mechanics of his music any longer. Like Peter Sellers, the closely observed portraits, the detailed character studies, even the inhabitation of characters of which Bowie was once capable were superseded by one-size-fits-all blandness; Let’s Dance is the beginning of Bowie’s Pink Panther phase, the start of his descent into the pop equivalent of international cops n’ robbers capers.
If that sounds overstated, consider the ludicrous arrangement of “China Girl”; originally recorded by Iggy Pop (with Bowie both playing and producing) in 1977, it is a tortured, fuzzy portrait of exploitation and ruination (“I’ll ruin everything you are”) by a man clearly at the end of his tether. We hear the rinky-dink chopsticks guitar intro and asinine backing vocals which begin Bowie’s reading and half expect a gong to sound and Burt Kwouk to emerge. There is pain and discontent – Bowie is not entirely unaware of the degradation which he is causing as the song progresses, and Robert Sabino’s icy one-note descending synthesiser figures suggest imminent apocalypse. And yet Bowie cannot decide whether he wants to be Iggy or Billy MacKenzie or even Mick Jagger (“She says: shhhhhh”) and so offers us fragmentary reminders of all three. Meanwhile, the Chic rhythm section (almost: one Carmine Rojas plays bass on seven of the album’s eight songs) strut warily as though getting ready for “Material Girl.” As a single, it was kept off number one in the UK only by “Every Breath You Take.”
And despite Bowie’s avowed intention behind the cover – mainly to raise some much-needed funds for the near-broke and wrecked Iggy Pop of the first half of the eighties – it is true that the success of Let’s Dance signalled to a lot of other pre-New Pop, and for that matter pre-punk, figures that it was possible to return with a modern-sounding sheen and sound up to the minute. Yet the title track does little other than hark back to the past, with its title (Chris Montez), its introduction (“Twist And Shout”), its middle eight (with its intimations of “Tired Of Waiting For You”), its horn charts (“Peter Gunn”), its guitar solos (Vaughan unconsciously echoing memories of Blues Incorporated and the early days of Mod) and even its hesitant nods to free jazz (Mac Gollehon’s modulated trumpet, the tenor/baritone sax duel between, I assume, Stan Harrison and Steve Elson, both of which hark back to late sixties/early seventies practices in European jazz and improvised music). It is said that originally the song took the form of a folksy acoustic lament, and that makes a lot of sense – done that way, it might have proved a soliloquy or lament worthy to stand beside “Wild Is The Wind,” something of which the Bowie of 1983 was certainly still capable.
As a statement of intent or declaration of principles, Let’s Dance resembled Penthouse And Pavement with scant evidence of pavement. Its mission was to Make It Big at all costs, including those of art; Bob Clearmountain’s mix allows no subtlety to pollute its affluent 25-lane highway of enterprise – all potential detouring elements, from Stan Harrison’s free-jazz saxes to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s gamma rays of blues guitar, are cut and pasted onto the template, are neutralised.
The “Twist And Shout” quotes at the beginning and the nod to “Tired Of Waiting For You” in the title track’s middle eight also suggest a ceremonial burial of all that the sixties stood for (if anything), this particular sixties survivor having matured, grown up and prospered, putting away childish things like subversion or adventure. There are those hushed sighs of dread in the second verse – “for fear your grace should fall,” “for fear tonight is all” – which do put the song several leagues above drivel like “Is There Something I Should Know?” even if one senses a dread of Billy MacKenzie in Bowie’s trembling tenor (Fourth Drawer Down and Sulk are the kind of “pop” records a hungrier Bowie and sterner Eno might have gone on to make, though Eno arguably transplanted the Berlin heart of Bowie into the Lower East Side soul of David Byrne – Remain In Light and Bush Of Ghosts really are everything that post-1980 Bowie isn’t, or couldn’t be). It’s still five years until the end of the world (“Because my love for you/Would break my heart in two,” the controlled shriek on the “flower” of “tremble like a flower”) but now, unlike Ziggy, the lease is renewable (and as for the video, what do Australia, or upright basses, or Aborigines observing far-off nuclear explosions, mean at all in this context?).
And that seems to sum up the problem of eighties Bowie for me; the magnification of his less attractive factors which had always been present, even at his seventies peak, notably the avoidance of direct engagement and the smouldering contempt for Other People. That is why Low is his masterpiece; he can disappear into the music completely and yet still summon up all his demons of emptiness in the still shocking (because so rarely revealed) open vulnerability of “Be My Wife,” a song as central to any understanding of Bowie as “Madame George” is to Van Morrison, since the rest of his career could be said to consist of running as far away from that vulnerability as his accountants can manage – its equivalent on this record is “Without You,” the only song to feature Bernard Edwards on bass (and you can instantly feel the difference), an earnest enough ballad with lyrics that would embarrass Boyzone.
But the album cover screamed what Bowie hilariously and inexplicably called “Serious Moonlight”; there he is, stripped to the waist in half-darknesss, throwing boxing shadow punches like a reborn Daniel Mendoza (of whom Peter Sellers was a direct descendant); ready to shed the weirdness, go back out into the world and mean business. Its opening track, “Modern Love,” showed that Beckenham’s Young Businessman Of The Year was ready to spar with the best, and worst, of them. Opening with Rodgers’ guitar coughing into life, like the engine of a Delorean car, the drummer - both Tony Thompson and Omar Hakim are credited with drums on the album but I think it’s Thompson, although with the now obligatory gated sound the difference is made minimal – starts up and Bowie begins his speech to the Beckenham Young Conservatives: “I know when to go out/I know when to stay in/Get things done,” he announces, his voice midway between Michael Caine and Ricky Gervais – and it’s a warning; don’t expect any avant-gardey weirdouts on this record.
He then proceeds to recite a lyric which makes no sense at all, even as it paraphrases “Walk On By,” My Fair Lady and “Imagine,” other than a generalised disillusionment with This Shallow Eighties World. What better way to fight that world than to sound as much like it as possible? And so we get the stupidest backing vocals in pop since Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” (“Sci-ENCE book,” “French I took,” “Church on time”), a baritone sax solo so wooden I thought Bowie played it (he only sings on this record; Robert Aaron’s closing tenor solo is much better) and an overall feeling of…what? It is akin to Sellers’ no-good pirate in Ghosts In The Noonday Sun rapidly turning in his cabin to pray to four different holy shrines – whatever the option, Bowie doesn’t go for it, and so is he offering a scalding indictment of the hollowness of Thatcher/Reagan culture? And if he is, how would, or could, you really tell? As a single, it was only kept off number one in the UK by “Karma Chameleon.” No wonder Bowie felt, despite his repeated reassurances of “But I try,” he didn’t really need to try. Not in the eighties.
Foreshadowing a future cardinal rule of big-selling albums, Let’s Dance gives you the hits up front at the front – but there’s still the rest of the album to consider. Side two really is nothing (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s no “there” there). “Ricochet” is a disastrous attempt at seventies David Bowie which ends up in an eighties nowhereland with Peter Gabriel-esque polyrhythms, would-be Laurie Anderson cut-ups and a song which would have been far better suited to Bryan Ferry, except that Ferry would have been too smart to write the song in the first place (although Jim Kerr might also have done it better justice). Its worst factor is perhaps its lyric, a would-be indictment of brutal modern society which sounds as though taken from cut-and-pasted Daily Mail headlines; set against Roger Waters’ songs on The Final Cut, which stay acutely close to their targets and name names, Bowie’s yawning laxity here verges on the offensive.
Whereas his sanitised reading of Metro’s “Criminal World” is just wrong on too many levels. Remember what so many people claim to have felt with “Starman” and how comprehensively the businessman Bowie of 1983 rubbishes their hopes and ideals. Metro were the sort of act now routinely referred to as “proto-eighties electronic duo,” which doesn’t do them any sort of justice; they were Peter Godwin and Duncan “Journey” Browne (and later also Sean Lyons) and the melancholia of their work put them about halfway between Gabriel’s Genesis and post-1983 Tears For Fears. “Criminal World,” a much-lauded single which sold very sparsely, was an undisguised song about bisexuality. What tribute did Bowie, a man who had once spectacularly described himself as bisexual, mean to pay the song?
He paid tribute by reworking the song entirely and surgically removing anything in its lyric liable to upset the farmers of Kansas. This coincided with an interview with Rolling Stone in May 1983 in which he cheerfully denied that he had ever been anything except heterosexual; the interview was trailed by a characteristically sensitive cover headline of “DAVID BOWIE STRAIGHT!” At a time when the Aids nightmare was making itself known, and in the context of a decade where attitudes to Aids and HIV seemed to suggest that humanity had not advanced a jot since the Middle Ages, this was seen as a terrible betrayal – in wanting to get on the radio and into record stores, he had turned his back on his heartland. His version of “Criminal World” is also musically tame compared with the original’s fiery ambiguity (the rhythm section now sound as though rehearsing for “Like A Virgin”). Overall the unpleasant experience made a lot of people wonder whether Bowie had ever meant or believed in anything, whether in fact he was nothing more than pop’s Anthony Burgess, a vaudeville charlatan, a chancer two crucial points ahead of his followers who agreed with every question an interviewer asked him (in his FACE interview he speaks movingly of his attempts to overcome his fear of flying; this was somewhat undermined by the later revelation that he and his entourage had a private jet booked for the entirety of the Serious Moonlight Tour, in which they reportedly wined and dined like royalty), someone with lots of ideas, even if they weren’t his own and he tended to forget them a couple of minutes later (the running gag in early eighties NME of Bowie expressing enthusiasm for such-and-such a band or artist: “I’ve got all their records at home – sorry, who is it we’re talking about again?”).
I never thought much of the original, Moroder-produced 1982 reading of “Cat People,” but it is like Diamanda Galas’ “Wild Women With Steak Knives” compared with the pub rock re-recording essayed here; Bowie misses the initial “gasoline” run entirely – in fact, dives to avoid it – and his palpable disinterest is so manifest that when we get to the “been so long” section it is (as Lena said) rather as if Bowie is waiting for his club sandwich. The crass skinny-tie organ makes it sound like Racey, and it’s a tragedy that this is the same keyboard player who once closed “At Last I Am Free” with such bruised elegance. The record ends poorly with “Shake It,” a nondescript downsizing of “Let’s Dance” with some appalling lyrics, or juxtaposition of the words of others: “We’re the kind of people who can make it if we’re feeling blue…When I’m feeling disconnected, well I sure know what to do.” Which in Bowie’s case means quoting the ancient television game show What’s My Line? His closing rendition of “Bring Me Sunshine” is awaited in vain. And, amazingly, this was not Bowie’s last number one album of the eighties, nor his worst. From New Pop he appeared to have learned nothing other than the need to “get ahead,” and as the decade wore on he did wonder where and how he had ended up. Looking back in 1997, in an interview with Steve Pond for Live! magazine, he said: “At the time, Let's Dance was not mainstream. It was virtually a new kind of hybrid, using blues-rock guitar against a dance format. There wasn't anything else that really quite sounded like that at the time. So it only seems commercial in hindsight because it sold so many. It was great in its way, but it put me in a real corner in that it fucked with my integrity.”
Myself, I think Let’s Dance couldn’t have been more mainstream; it more or less defined the mainstream of its time. “So it only seems commercial in hindsight”; but he had told Nile Rodgers in 1982 that he specifically wanted hits. The melancholic conclusion here has to be that to fuck with someone’s integrity, one has to have some integrity in the first place.
Next: Cabaret Futura.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 19:59