(#357: 21 November 1987, 1 week)
Track Listing: Heart And Soul/I Will Be With You/China In Your Hand/Friends Like These/Sex Talk/Bridge Of Spies/Monkey House/Valentine/Thank You For Goodbye/You Give Up/China In Your Hand (reprise)
There is a certain category in Popstrology (if I keep referring to it that’s because it’s a great book) called You Had To Be There. At certain points in history, a song and/or band is briefly very popular, for reasons that, looking back, may be hard to understand, unless you were there at the time.
Now, I don’t remember this time all that well –I am not who I was in the summer, nor am I like how I will be in midwinter – so the moment here for me is (in a non-creepy sense) historical; there hasn’t been a woman-fronted rock band on Then Play Long for some time, let alone one from Shrewsbury. Carol Decker – who is looking askance at something/someone on the cover, not at the viewer – is not, as you might expect, someone who has been singing in a band since she was a teenager; in fact she only got into making music in her twenties, having been encouraged by someone who had overheard her singing at art school. T’Pau (named after a Vulcan princess from Star Trek) came together in Shrewsbury in 1986, though she had been in bands for five years before – and had, crucially, grown up hearing big female voices, whether they were the jazz greats, Dusty and Cilla, opera stars and disco divas – and yes, the Pretenders, too. All of this she heard and absorbed, and Decker’s voice is as big and dramatic as all those references would imply. (She also, like Corinne Drewery, liked to go out to Northern Soul clubs.)
T’Pau’s fame is a You Had To Be There moment as women – one by one, all of them quite different – began to have success in the charts and acceptance in the critical and (if I can put it this way) female world. It was women who immediately understood T’Pau and put Bridge Of Spies here, women who may or may not have gotten the Frankenstein references of “China In Your Hand,” but who certainly understood the physical aspect of the song – the delicate thing that must be handled carefully. I can even see the song as anti-Thatcher, as a plea for gentleness and slow steady progress as opposed to someone who is pushing way too hard, who maybe should let some of her ideas simply remain ideas, and not become realities.
The crash of ’87 has happened, the Great Storm has happened – there are forces that are bigger than mere people, and the yang/yuppie/greed-is-good vibe of '87, repugnant at the time and now revived and once again becoming obsolete, is being replaced by something else. Sure, the blonde ambition of Madonna is everywhere, but even in her next album, she realizes there is something greater than herself. But I digress...the women who buy this may not be buying it for the music as such, but for what it stands for - what it represents, if you like. "China In Your Hand" - which is a big rock ballad about not going too far - is a song that can come off as British Pat Benatar, only Decker is more pleading, less snarly; at no point does Decker come off on the album as someone different or Other; she's no Kate Bush, singing from the point of view of the creator or monster, just as the observer who sees that life is difficult and can't always be solved by mere rock oomph or the triumph of someone's will.
"Heart And Soul" is a song I associate with a very specific time and place that hasn't happened yet; I will get there eventually, but in the meantime, what a song! Written by Decker and her bandmate/boyfriend of the time Ron Rogers, it poses two overlapping voices - one singing, one kind-of rapping - against each other, one counterpointing the other, the speaking voice remembering how it was, the singing voice yelping "Living in a fantasy/Was never any good for me!" She begs and pleads for "a little" of what she needs, but her romantic needs are so great that you sense a little of anything isn't going to be enough - the song builds and drums circle and thwack, the bum-bum-de-de-bumpa-bum becomes more insistent, as if she is going to fall into a damn whirlpool of agony if the Other doesn't at least realize that she wants him. "You never want me for myself" is a line many women would have co-signed on immediately, and she will or will not beg him to love her, depending on which voice you believe. It is as if the inner and outer dialogues within a woman are revealed here, which is different from Bowie's modest/wry echoes of himself on "Ashes To Ashes."
"I Will Be With You" is (as the title almost guarantees) T'Pau doing their best Bon Jovi - the album's producer is Roy Thomas Baker after all, so the rock thing prevails, and this is the most stock, if I can put it that way, of songs, though I don't know if Bon Jovi would sing "And I have such memories/But I don't like to resurrect them." The demand for reality, not fantasy, is constant in this album; and there is a toughness to it, too, a refusal to look back.
"Friends Like These" looks at the world - again I think of Thatcher - of elders and betters, "friends" who only know one way of doing things, and who won't change, could never alter or modify themselves - "They see how you should feel/But oh how/The mighty all fall down/Heavy in a sea of principles/They drown." All this in a Eurovision-friendly "Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da" way, as if to say the time of such high and mighty people is coming to an end; oh they mean well, but they are patronizing and presumptuous and no one from Shrewsbury (or elsewhere) is going to be impressed by them anymore.
"Sex Talk" - well, there's a title - is actually about just that; the sex phone lines that existed in the 80s, and it's a song of justification, of need, of speed - it is a rock song, alright - of a woman in a room who just wants someone to talk to, who is (and this is never discussed) maybe afraid to go out and find an actual guy herself, who is too scared, who is so lonely that even a voice on the phone is better than nothing. Decker from the point of view of this woman with gusto and understanding, not looking down at her. As the song rocks along and Decker wails, "Love, love, love without a face" you can tell this is a cold and frustrating world for the narrator, and the anger has already erupted: "I never had any one to love me/Anyone to need me/I take what I can on the telephone" - in fact on Bridge Of Spies almost none of the songs are happy ones. There's an impatience and eagerness to get on with things, which again I think women would have understood - and still do - whereas some men would hear this and just interpret the album as one by a needy, unhappy woman. (Though there are some men who dig "rock chicks" and with her denim and big hair and earrings, Decker fits this very well...)
"Bridge Of Spies" is a nearly-happy song - she is so close to being with him, so close and finally free: "Your love is a distant thing that I kept deep inside of me/Now if I could show you where I lived in my fantasy
On the continent of dreams you'd be with me." It comes with the requisite rockin' guitar solo, but her ultimate happiness doesn't really come through musically; there is no explanation as to what the title means or why is it that she is unhappy in fantasy usually, but not here - because she gets to abandon it? So much of this album is about having to pretend, to fantasize, to live in some parallel universe just to get through the damn day. Is this the You Had To Be Thereness of T'Pau?
"Monkey House" is about freedom of choice, of movement, ultimately existence; it's the most overtly political song on the album, with the early mention of "no more dirty books" it's a revolt against the PMRC/Victorian mores that Thatcher was bringing in - "mental hygiene" is the phrase that sticks out here (again this song rocks like Pat Benatar, and Decker sounds her toughest). Just act and think nicely, says The Man, and Decker replies, the hell with that.
Well, as modern as Decker is, the roots of rock are dug deep in the world of romantic and hopeless longing: "Valentine" is one such song, not "oh-look-at-my-pain-as-I-stalk-you" like Adele, but full of stoic 50s suffering: "I know mine are the tears I never cry/I know mine is a love I must deny.../I see you every day/With happy home and child/I look the other way." I can't even tell if the Other even knew about her love in the first place; again there is at a deeper root a cowardice here, a too-cautious way of living, where her love is never expressed, and she winces when she sees him, which is apparently every day. This is a living death, and her song for him - this song - is giving her game away, using song to say what cannot be said otherwise. It's the heart (and soul) of this album - the need to do something, anything, other than nothing, because this is what happens if there's no courage...
"Thank You For Goodbye" is much more upbeat, with lots of "HHHHEEEEEEEAAA-AAAYYYYYYYYAAAA!" and "HAHHHHOOOOOWAOOOOOOHHH!s" from Decker, as she thanks someone for getting rid of her, as she is now "Here with someone new/Why do you stare/Cos you know/Our love is dead you leave it be/Don't come to me" - yes, this is the happy ending of the album, or so it seems; she is with someone who cares for her, she was dumped but is now able to look her ex in the eye with gratitude, and she has crucially moved on, out of the fantasy world and into an actual relationship. If only this were the end, but....
"You Give Up" is as relentless an ending to any album TPL has come across so far. She is clearly addressing her Other here, someone who is too fond of extremes, someone who needs to be (yes) more realistic: "Now why can't you reach/For a closer dream?" Decker wonders as she accuses this Other as being lazy, of not trying hard enough to get anything done, too reliant on excuses and alibis. And the caution and patience that "China In Your Hand" is crying out for meets its match here, in a tough song about how you've got to hang in there and be tough yourself. As if to emphasize this contradiction, the music of "China In Your Hand" appears again at the end, as if to say, "Yeah BUT." You can be pushy but be too pushy, too ambitious, actually achieve that extreme, and you will not enjoy the consequences. And so ends this album of dissatisfaction, thwarted desire, anger, a big voice from a (relatively, in rock terms) small place which itself is ambitious but has its doubts. Decker herself admits that the band, herself very much included, needed more self-confidence; more belief in itself.
Thus this is their only appearance on TPL (their appropriately titled follow-up Rage got to #4 in a year's time) and that is because, I think, they captured a moment; but the late 80s were a time of so many moments, some more lasting than others, and the Women In Rock one was going through some pretty intense times. The Blondes (The Primitives, Transvision Vamp, The Darling Buds) were coming up on the horizon, and the underground riot girrl scene in Seattle/Portland* would bring its own views to bear. Standard, solid and honest T'Pau couldn't keep going through all these changes and broke up in '91; but to give a real happy ending, they have a new album out, as if to say, we now have the confidence and belief, and Decker is now happy, looking directly at the viewer, not dubiously at her bandmates or inwardly, at herself.
Next up: some like to rock, but he just likes to roll.
*I wonder if a young Courtney Love heard this album.