I suspected that the rush of new posts over the last week or so was too good to be true, and so it has proved. There has been some very bad family news this morning; I'm not going to go into the details here, but suffice to say that it is bad enough to warrant suspension of this blog until further notice. There's no point in either of us writing about old albums here if we're upset, and so until such time as matters are sorted out it is best that we take a break. There's far too much to do as it is.
Please note that this does not mark the end of Then Play Long; it is my hope, and I know also Lena's hope, that we can return to this blog at some point. However, it would be bogus and hypocritical to do any more writing here at this stage under the pretence that everything is going well. When there are new updates we will announce them on Twitter, so please keep an eye on the blog for now and don't take it off your bloglist.
Many thanks to the many readers, regular and new, who have helped sustain this blog since August 2008. We will be back - but right now we don't know when.
Thursday, 26 February 2015
(#366: 21 May 1988, 1 week)
Track listing: Eye No/Alphabet St./Glam Slam/Anna Stesia/Dance On/Lovesexy/When 2 R In Love/I Wish U Heaven/Positivity
(Author’s Note: The first song is listed with an “eye” symbol in its title rather than the word “eye.” Also, I only have so much time on this planet.)
Getting to Prince this late is a bit like Bowie’s first number one album being Lodger, except that Bowie hadn’t suddenly withdrawn a “darker” record before releasing the latter. The elaborately rude whiteness of the Jean Baptiste Mondino cover shot contrasts, as I am sure it was meant to do, with the eternal night of The Black Album, which was supposed to sneak out just before Christmas 1987 but was pulled by its creator in apparent distress.
Actually, withdrawing The Black Album was the best thing that he could have done with it, since the record is more embarrassing than shocking. “Dead On It”’s jibes at hip hop are on a par with Stan Freberg’s “Old Payola Roll Blues” and carried the risk of making Prince suddenly seem very old-fashioned. The best thing about “Cindy C.” is Steve “Silk” Hurley’s closing reference to the two-year-old “Music Is The Key.” “Bob George” is no more than moderately disturbing. “Superfunkycalifragisexy” is none of these. The album eventually slunk out as an official release in November 1994, to a world newly aware of Snoop and Biggie who reacted to it with near-total indifference.
Whereas Lovesexy was his last lascivious flourish whose invention sends its immediate TPL predecessors to another planet. “Eye No” is perhaps the record’s most conventional song (the whole was initially intended as a continuous 44:58 sequence of music), ushering us in via a Radiophonic Workshop sample (“Passing Clouds” by Roger Limb if you must know) and the quiet voice of Ingrid Chavez, the future wife of David Sylvian, intoning “Welcome to the New Power Generation” and other things. This all resolves into an agreeable, but no more than agreeable, funk jam, the likes of which would become progressively less agreeable as they became the mainstay of Prince’s subsequent and quite overextended output.
The tune leads directly to “Alphabet St.,” his last great single (as Marc Bolan would have recognised “great singles”), although the car engine-starting effects, out of “Close (To The Edit),” suggest that Prince was already beginning to follow other people’s ideas rather than blaze a trail of his own. Cat Glover’s excitable rap is fun but takes the song far beyond its natural end.
“Glam Slam” suggests somewhere Bolan might have ended up had he lived, although the keyboard work in particular (the Fairlight takes the place of any string sections) seems more indebted to Miles’ semi-random organ blasts throughout Get Up With It. The song is immaculately constructed but gradually veers away from comfort and tonality, culminating in a pointillistic free Fairlight cadenza which slowly runs out of steam.
But “Anna Stesia,” the record’s best song, sets out the record’s central battleground, between good (Camille) and evil (Spooky Electric – who said Iron Maiden?), most effectively and movingly. Rising from, and finally returning to, the same eight-chord piano motif (see also “At Last I Am Free”), the song builds up from troubled lonesome-soul ballad to handclapping redemption; well, if I want to hear people singing “Love is God, God is Love,” this would be several galaxies ahead of Erasure’s yahooing.
Side two is as dense and confrontational, as in daring the listener to keep up, as the second side of On The Corner. “Dance On”’s funk is progressively derailed by a skittering, randomly-stopping-and-starting rhythm which I am sure must have been an influence on early drum n’ bass. The title song takes the gender-swapping template of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and runs with it, Prince and Cat’s voices being varisped up and down a silver curtain rack of ecstasy. Even the two ballads aren’t straightforward; “When 2 R In Love,” the only song to survive from The Black Album, is sweet enough until you notice that Achilles’ heel of a catch in the bassline, and indeed the song turns on that dime of harmonic indeterminacy. Likewise, “I Wish U Heaven” is more a mantra echoing the distant memories of a love song than the thing itself; along with the segueing and studio chatter, the whole album gives the air of an eighties Something/Anything?
Both side and record close with the darkest of these nine songs: “Positivity” is advised more as a warning than a way forward, dispensing happiness like a blithely-spirited pharmacist before picking up on a couple of strands originating from Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” blowing them up and rubbing them in the listener’s face; the harmonic ambiguity of the song combines with the words to suggest that all of this might just be in vain.
Overall, then, Lovesexy might be interpreted by some as representing the last dazzle of light before the bulb burns out completely (although it is far from Prince’s last number one album). I don’t buy what he says, either here or on The Black Album, but the least that can be said is that this music would still stand up as a lugubrious appendix to Black Messiah.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 13:08
Tuesday, 24 February 2015
(#365: 30 April 1988, 1 week; 14 January 1989, 1 week)
Track listing: A Little Respect/Ship Of Fools/Phantom Bride/Chains Of Love/Hallowed Ground/Sixty-Five Thousand/Heart Of Stone/Yahoo!/Imagination/Witch In The Ditch/Weight Of The World
(Author’s Note: both the cassette and CD editions included two additional songs; “When I Needed You (Melancholic Mix)” and “River Deep, Mountain High (Private Dance Mix).”)
This is the first of five number ones by Erasure, and I have to say almost immediately that there may be a problem. In the early days of I Love Music, somebody – I think it was Dave Q – described the duo as being “scarier than Depeche Mode and catchier than the Pet Shop Boys but sadly not vice versa.” Many people consider Erasure the acme of eighties electropop. I suppose your favourite sixties group might have been the Hollies if you hadn’t heard much else.
The Innocents was their third album, and the first that did anything in the States, and I don’t really get it at all. On a purely melodic basis, the first five or so songs work quite brilliantly – the hits here are definitely frontloaded. There is an appealing sunset poignancy to the bridge of “Chains Of Love” (a sort of Somerfield/Gateway “Being Boring”) and in some of the changes in “Hallowed Ground,” but already I note Andy Bell’s lyrical tendency to begin telling a story and then repeat the beginning and middle over and over without ever coming to a conclusion. If “Hallowed Ground” is meant to be a New Pop “In The Ghetto” then this matters. What actually happens with the girl and boy in “Phantom Bride” we are never told.
It is all very agreeable, if unchallenging, listening until the instrumental sixth track turns up, sounding like the theme from a failed daytime television chat show or ‘phone-in. Thereafter we are presented with a plethora of B-sides, songs so dull that I forgot them even while I was listening to them. Unlike Alison Moyet, Bell’s words are so meticulously coded – or only semi-developed – that it’s impossible to grasp the essence of what he is trying to communicate or to empathise with him. “Yahoo!” takes us to church, rather questionably, and both that and the two songs which follow it include lyrics worthy of Iron Maiden (“Heart Of Stone” warns against looking in the “eyes of Medusa”).
Eventually the album tails off in an uninteresting aesthetic backwater. Do these songs constitute a kind of protest, an ironic methodology? Possibly the saddest answer to that question is that I stopped caring enough to wonder whether or not they did. Stephen Hague produces a bright lido filled with ripples of blankness, but really anybody could have done the job. The record has to date sold over five million worldwide and remains their most commercially successful album. My suspicion is that this is Alan Partridge’s idea of electropop, something that sounds nice in the car but falls apart when you pay closer attention to it. In comparison, thirty seconds of Actually made me wonder why they even bothered. Bell does a decent Gahan/Gore impression on “Ship Of Fools” but given that Depeche Mode themselves were at this point capable of things like “Behind The Wheel” and “Never Let Me Down Again” it sounds as though the duo turn away from the song’s wider implications. Yes, I know that it was music like this that paid for You Must Be Certain Of The Devil and Tender Prey. But there is a huge brick wall standing between Erasure and my appreciation of their music, and I’m not sure which of us built it.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 12:34
Monday, 23 February 2015
(#364: 23 April 1988, 1 week)
Track listing: Moonchild/Infinite Dreams/Can I Play With Madness/The Evil That Men Do/Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son/The Prophecy/The Clairvoyant/Only The Good Die Young
Hip music writers did their damnedest to “rehabilitate” rock music in 1988 but Iron Maiden was a theoretical bridge too far for them. What could have been less “hip” in 1988 than a forty-one-minute prog-metal song cycle loosely based on the writings of Aleister Crowley and Orson Scott Card? Even sympathetic ears recoiled in horror at the presence of synthesisers and damned the project as “too European.” Others cried sellout.
Actually Seventh Son was Iron Maiden’s biggest album in six years because it was also their most focused album since The Number Of The Beast. Besides which, I’m always sympathetic to any musicians who paraphrase Vivian Stanshall (“Moonchild”’s “And the mandrake screamed”), while “Can I Play With Madness” and “The Evil That Men Do” saw the band finally attend to putting together something called a pop song.
It isn’t my universe at all, but holds together pretty coherently and is performed with casual expertise (same line-up as Beast but with Nicko McBrain at the drums). The epic setpieces. “Moonchild” and the title song, proceed patiently through many styles and approaches (the Jean-Claude Vannier-esque choral interlude in “Seventh Son” is entrancing, and the same song demonstrates an equally instinctive understanding of loud and soft contrasts as anything Steve Albini was recording at the time) and I wonder how lauded these pieces would have been had, say, Saint Vitus or Blind Idiot God put them out on SST (Maiden’s “Moonchild” knocks Fields of the Nephilim’s “Moonchild” into the cockiest of hats). “Infinite Dreams” in a different setting with a different singer would be a deep soul classic. And as for the dreaded synthesisers, these seem to be mainly one-note string synthesiser lines played as an adjacent to, rather than being the centre of, these songs; it is hardly Rick Wakeman time.
Bruce Dickinson brings all the record’s diverging strands – fortune telling, spirit mediums, second sight, apocalypse, saviourhood, resurrection - together with a mournful-cum-outraged delivery which puts him squarely in the tradition of Arthur Brown (as the flaming colander atop Eddie’s head on the cover makes explicit) and it’s sad that this piece should coincide with the news of his recently diagnosed (but apparently, and happily, successfully treated) tongue cancer – get well soon, Bruce! As would be expected with Maiden at their best, this music is finally all very silly – and really how sillier is it than, say, So Far, So Good…So What? or …And Justice For All (both in themselves very fine albums)? - but done with the gravest of seriousness. I don’t remember it being reviewed at all in Melody Maker or NME, but it has lasted a good deal better than some of the things that were reviewed in either.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 12:31
Sunday, 22 February 2015
(#363: 2 April 1988, 3 weeks)
Track listing: Always On My Mind (Pet Shop Boys)/Heaven Is A Place On Earth (Belinda Carlisle)/Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car (Billy Ocean)/Say It Again (Jermaine Stewart)/Gimme Hope Jo’anna (Eddy Grant)/C’mon Everybody (Eddie Cochran)/Suedehead (Morrissey)/Candle In The Wind (Live) (Elton John)/Angel Eyes (Home & Away) (Wet Wet Wet)/Turn Back The Clock (Johnny Hates Jazz)/Valentine (T’Pau)/Hot In The City (Billy Idol)/Mandinka (Sinéad O’Connor)/Tower Of Strength (The Mission)/Give Me All Your Love (Whitesnake)/I Should Be So Lucky (Kylie Minogue)/That’s The Way It Is (Mel & Kim)/Come Into My Life (Joyce Sims)/Who Found Who (Jellybean featuring Elisa Fiorillo)/I Can’t Help It (Bananarama)/Oh L’Amour (Dollar)/Joe Le Taxi (Vanessa Paradis)/Stutter Rap (No Sleep ‘Til Bedtime) (Morris Minor and The Majors)/Beat Dis (Bomb The Bass)/Doctorin The House (Coldcut featuring Yazz and The Plastic Population)/House Arrest (Krush)/The Jack That House Built (Jack ‘N Chill)/Rok Da House (Beatmasters featuring The Cookie Crew)/I’m (sic) Tired Of Getting Pushed Around (Two Men, A Drum Machine And A Trumpet)/Rise To The Occasion (Climie Fisher)
For many years I imagined this to be one of my favourite Now volumes; I remember being thrilled by the cover’s soaring skyscraper reflecting the sun breaking through the clouds when I bought it, and by what the records (or in my case, Walkman-friendly cassettes, which I again used for this piece – their condition, after almost three decades, is really not bad at all) contained. Having now listened to it again, I’d still propose that side four, which constitutes the last seven songs in the above list, is among the greatest individual sides of music addressed in this tale. I’m not at all sure about the rest. However, its story is a far less complex one than that of its predecessor, mainly because it is outlining the processes of a straightforward but game-changing story.
The record’s story is of how pop music got taken over by, or changed hands with, that anxious thing called House music which had been busy knocking on its door for the previous eighteen months or so. The music that it contains goes back as far as a further three decades, yet it contains pop records which would have been unimaginable even in 1985 – a new pop which, it has to be said, mainstream radio and television did its best to ignore and overlook while it was happening, in the hope that the old order – as dully represented in most of the record’s first half – would, or could, reassert itself. I have to qualify that by saying that, although Radio 1 and co. appeared still to be stuck in a permanent 1965 (with listeners who remembered Caroline, Radio London and the Light Programme in 1965), the situation was very different in London, with not only innumerable pop-up pirate stations – the DTI-baiting politics of the “keep this frequency clear” soundbite used in “Beat Dis” essentially acted as a call to arms – but also commercial radio getting and staying with the game; I well remember Chris Tarrant, of all people, playing things like “House Arrest” and “Doctorin The House” on his Capital Radio breakfast show and approving of them.
There is also a circularity to the story that Now 11 tells that I find appealing, in that it starts and ends with old (or old-ish) songs presented to the listener in a new way.
Pet Shop Boys
Maybe the truest version of the song was the quiet, shattered dignity of Willie Nelson's acoustic reading, one of the legions of great singles released in 1982 but seldom acknowledged as such (except in Scotland, where it was a big hit). Elvis sang it like a brute belatedly tamed, probing into his deepest, least hardened arteries to discover the core of tenderness which would still justify his asking "Love Me Tender" in Vegas, and as with most of his later work was interpreted as simply another chapter of signifiers in his dysfunctional descent.
The Pet Shop Boys were asked to participate in an ITV special in the summer of 1987 called Love Me Tender to mark the tenth anniversary of Presley's death. They settled for "Always On My Mind" with the declared intent of making it sound as little like Elvis as possible. On the programme they came across as a wiser and disillusioned Flanagan and Allen, mournfully bearing haversacks as they proceeded slowly down a back-projected railway track. As a performance it was as decidedly at odds with most of the others featured in that programme, as the duo themselves were defiantly at odds with the suffocating blandness of the upper reaches of 1987 chart pop. It elicited a massive response, and though initially reluctant to release it as a single, they went back into the studio with Julian Mendelsohn and recorded a full version; too late to appear on the Actually album (though it was added to later pressings), it was rush-released at year's end and became the best Christmas number one since "Don't You Want Me?"
In 1987 the Pet Shop Boys ruled pop - even if, other than New Order, the Smiths (defunct by year's end) and SAW at their best, there was so little competition. The ingenuity, originality and genuine (not second-guessed from quarter-century-old soul sides) honesty of their work was enough to make most other mainstream pop in 1987 feel ashamed to call itself pop (particularly most of its protagonists didn't really want to be pop but soul, or at least pub rock).
And "Always On My Mind" follows the tried and tested Hi-NRG template of delivering ballads at ballad tempo while the rhythm exultantly rushes along at double speed, but the Pet Shop Boys do it with exceptional élan, complete with the triple tease of the delayed intro. Neil Tennant delivers the song in the persona of someone who knows he's a bit of a shit (whereas Elvis simply sounds bemused and confused) but still needs that love, that company - he walks the sardonic/vulnerable tightrope with enviable skill, dropping down his "my mind" with the ingenious altered chord changes in the second half of the chorus as though challenging you to guess whether he has a mind, as such. As with Bernard Sumner, Tennant's "soul" is latent and inherent in his vocal uncertainty; unable and indeed unwilling to emulate the howls, screams and other "soulcialist" memes deemed necessary to signify Soul Passion And Honesty (and predictably the Pet Shop Boys turned out to be more genuinely socialist than most of the "real" acts of the time), Tennant’s vocal style verges on the deadpan but never less than tactile and, when he needs to be, is extremely moving (the record makes more sense if you imagine Tennant singing it as a folk song, as if it were still 1970 and he was still in the folk band Dust).
But the little addendum incorporated into the final, most minute seconds of the record's fadeout is one of the most chilling endings to any pop single; Tennant, strolling out of sight at the far end of the horizon, turning back briefly and saying, "Maybe I didn't love you." It is the portrait of the thrusting Thatcherkid so busy greedily sizing up his bonuses and stuffing himself with cold trinkets signifying nothing that not only didn't he have the time to say and do all those "little things," but indeed that he viewed the concept of "little things" with near-inexpressible contempt. Five years later, burned out in his bedsit, he suddenly wonders when the sun stopped shining in those now lonely, lonely times.
In 1988 Britain it was not unreasonable to wonder what the hell had happened to Belinda Carlisle. Gone were the Hollywood blonde bob and the punk attitude, in came a straight auburn hairstyle, corporate gloss and a lot of babbling bullshit about how great Reagan was (she was, and remains, married to former Reagan aide Morgan Mason). Conspiracy theorists wondered whether there had there been some sort of Stepford Wives scenario where the real Carlisle had been replaced by a dead-eyed robot.
“Heaven,” which you’d be forgiven for thinking was the only record Carlisle ever made if you listened to daytime radio, does not alleviate the issue. It is big, booming, unambiguous Reaganrock, and if Carlisle’s voice sometimes reminds you of someone else (especially when she growls, “Baby I-I…” in the bridges) then co-writer/producer Rick Nowels had indeed previously worked with Stevie Nicks.
My feeling is more that Carlisle found herself in the same dilemma as Morrissey; divested of the group of which she had been such a key component, she is left with what is basically a replica of herself. It sort of sounds like her, vaguely looks like her…but the spirit which permeated records like Beauty And The Beat and Vacation (or even 1984’s underrated Talk Show) is entirely absent. Not newness, then, but a part of the old problem.
In his eximious 1989 volume The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh places this Mutt Lange/Ocean-penned cynical cut-and-paste job at #339 – well up into the list’s top half – but finds no room anywhere for “Good Vibrations.” This may explain why the book was so rapidly remaindered; it’s a reasonably useful guide to doo wop and pre-Beatles pop but after 1963 reminds us that “idiosyncratic” so often translates as “unreliable.” Throwing in references to previous and better pop, including Art of Noise, the Stones, the Beatles and Johnny Burnette, the record does not represent an advance on Lange’s work with AC/DC or even Foreigner but jogs on its smug spot, Reaganrock demanding that it be applauded for breathing. Slap it on the box? There are maybe 100,001 other songs that would be ahead of it in the queue. At a deeply conservative estimate. For car as allegorical myth transforming into actual object of desire, it limps several hundred laps behind “Warm Leatherette” or “Motorslug.” It is also, at 4:44, the longest song on this album.
Assuming the Jaki Graham role of Now rep reliable, it’s a wonder that something as stillborn as “Say It Again” – a song I’m sure I heard previously in performances by MoR acts – got an audience at all, never mind limped into the top ten while the world around it was changing. The crass advice would have been for Stewart to invest in a hearing aid or obtain an ENT referral for de-waxing under local anaesthetic, but it’s much too late for that now.
His last big hit as a performer, though not as a songwriter, and it’s a sprightly and righteous anti-apartheid protest song which, despite the highly questionable lyrical device of personifying an oppressive political regime in the form of a woman, still punches as it is packed, particularly with its references to complicit and/or compliant media (“She even knows how to swing opinion/In every magazine and the journals”) which indicate that the situation now, generally and globally, has sunk below even hopelessness.
Revived for a Levi’s ad, the oldest recording on this album – and, clocking in at 1:55, also the shortest recording to have appeared on any Now album thus far – actually sounds amongst its most radical, or maybe it was penance for not having Sigue Sigue Sputnik on Now 7. Cochran’s most urgent contribution to the development of rock was his sense of juddering minimalism; like Acid House, everything is pared back to bass, drums and voice(s) with an acoustic guitar strum in the middleground. Nor does Cochran waste any time; he and his pals want to party and celebrate now, and if they have to pay for it, either now or in forty years’ time, his gruff laugh of “WHO CARES?” is one of the biggest fuck-you-John-Doe payoffs of any rock record. “C’mon Everybody” still hasn’t dated, but “Suedehead” and the then barely five-and-a-half-year-old “Hot In The City” sound decidedly old-fashioned and marooned, as did Elton in his Mozart get-up – where are we? Sydney? Let’s record a live album. What happened to the applause? To the audience? – singing a fifteen-year-old song about an actress who had been gone a quarter of a century. It was clear that this sort of thing wouldn’t work any more. Who knew what was going to happen, and how an altered version of the same song would come to rule pop less than a decade later, a rule so large and total radio stations dare not play it, and the artist has to wish to revisit it ever again?
Was this what she was listening to in 1988?
She first came to my attention as the singer on a 1986 collaboration with The Edge called “Heroine,” taken from a movie entitled Captive, enough so to make me sit up and wonder. And then The Lion And The Cobra happened, about a year later, and I only got around to hearing it after “Mandinka” had entered the charts (my usual post-New Year habit of catching up with things I’d missed in the previous year).
My God, there was something new and frightening here. “Mandinka” – it’s an African tribe from whom Kunta Kinte came in Alex Haley’s Roots (and the practices of the Mandinka tribe fill out the background to, among many other things, the meaning behind Brenda Lee’s “Let’s Jump The Broomstick” – only scratched the surface; why, there’s Marco Pirroni on guitar, here are some very Ant-like percussion pile-ups, and at the front there’s Sinéad sounding like even Patti Smith wouldn’t have sounded in 1987 (“I don’t KNOW NO SHAME!/I FEEL NO PAIN!”), and yet (towards the song’s end) also like Elizabeth Fraser. The album’s big setpiece “Troy” remains inviolable; Enya (an important part of the other end of 1988) turns up reciting the 91st Psalm at the beginning of “Never Get Old,” Leslie Winer not only appears on but also co-writes the closing “Just Call Me Joe.” Ignored in end-of-year critics’ lists which found space for the likes of The Sect and Blyth Power, The Lion And The Cobra was 1987’s most startling debut album, a prolonged scream of beauteous defiance.
Ah, Goth, the poor trashy brother of rock music, the one everybody points at and laughs at in the street, the music that nobody will take seriously (even though most of the readers of the Melody Maker, by now far ahead of the NME in setting agendas and pushing the music writing envelope, were avid Goths) – a music responsible for one of the most profound moments on this record.
Those who weren’t around in the late eighties or only dimly remember them might not realise that the process of, shall we say (plenty of writers said it at the time), “rehabilitating” the music of, say, Led Zeppelin or Fleetwood Mac was only a recent practice. Punk/1976 was still regarded as Year Zero, and any trespass beyond that aesthetic Customs gate was tantamount to treason. Zep sample-loving hip hop went some way to breaking down that gate, while Ian Astbury grew his hair and wondered aloud why nobody realised, or wished to realise, how great Zeppelin really were? 1987 was the year when this tendency went overground, specifically with The Cult’s Rubin-produced Electric – don’t worry, we’ll be getting to them, if not for some while – but then there was Jim Steinman’s work on Floodland, and finally The Mission themselves, from the same Leeds streets as, but noticeably less “cool” than, the Age of Chance.
And “Tower Of Strength” was their moment, and maybe Goth’s moment. Explicitly indebted to “Kashmir” to the point of hiring John Paul Jones himself to produce and arrange the strings, Hussey, at the time of recording the father of a newborn daughter, sings a moving song of love and devotion, not just to young Hannah, but also – and this is what really gets me about it – his fans. How many pop or rock stars have sung odes of love to their fans? But here it is, Hussey getting his McCulloch-isms just right, his pained yet ecstatic howls, while the song proceeds like a stately ship behind him. As great a record as Frankie Vaughan’s “Tower Of Strength” and it should have been number one for a month. The Mission bring back devotional rock, and in the process make Whitesnake sound aridly old-fashioned, as though it were still 1972 and power cuts and Maudlin Street.
Whereas “Tower Of Strength” stands for bodhisattva, the forgoing of rock nirvana – for now – to save pop.
Girl In A Sportscar
She was already in the car driving towards the city, even if she wasn't herself driving, in one of two videos made for "I Should Be So Lucky." She is cruising through the bright, yellow city of Melbourne, gleefully giggling her song of unattainable fantasy to camera, mounted on the back seat. In this imagination her adulthood is no complication.
The other, more widely circulated video, however, seemed determined to keep her as the overgrown child star she strenuously didn't want to be. She flips herself around a teenager's boudoir, with crudely chalked "LUV"s and flower stems on a blackboard. "But dreaming's all I do/If only they came true," she sings, another frustrated teenybopper (then already pushing twenty) who knows she'll never get to meet...Rick Astley?
Naughty commentators at the time accused Kylie of not singing on her hit, and assumed that it was a speeded-up Astley; but really there is no doubt that this is Kylie singing; Pete Waterman has confirmed that they had barely forty-five minutes to get the song recorded and mixed, and indeed when she arrived at SAW's Southwark studios directly from Heathrow they professed to have little idea about who she was, or of Neighbours, despite the latter having scored record audiences for the BBC, even in its daytime slot. Perhaps they wanted to deny the concept of Charlene Ramsey, sassy auto mechanic, in favour of...an Australian Mandy Smith? Even notwithstanding this, there is a strong case for arguing that the child in Kylie has never been truly eliminated; rather than being sensually attractive, she has tended to come across as a best mate, an upbeat sister, someone who'd nod sagely at Madonna's grey-green Abbess and carry on munching crisps regardless.
Pace Astley, however, "I Should Be So Lucky" proved that SAW's songwriting skills were far more suited to knowing bubblegum than attempted nu-soul; it bounces with unquenchable confidence and logic, it fizzes with the anti-anatomical ecstasy which comes from the foreknowledge of being yet young and alive, right down to its subtle motivic quotation from "(I've Had) The Time Of My Life" in its brief instrumental break; it senses that a past may have been lost, that a future is attainable (though "I Should Be So Lucky" might still be the lobby to the antechamber leading to her final freedom) but that the present, this early, still wintry 1988, was precious and had to be seized with hands of fervent, fragile grace (her downhill glide of "And I would come a-running," knowing that she doesn't give a damn about Captain Wentworth's bank balance, only that it is so absolutely RIGHT!).
There will be more cities for her car to approach, drive through and exit; some flimsily bright, some blearily dark, gates of gold, suburbs of setbacks, avenue of triumphant comebacks. It will be one of the strangest and most drawn-out stories to be told in Then Play Long, but for now let us preserve in our inner eyes Kylie in her first car, enthusiastic and not yet defeated; and that "I Should Be So Lucky" defies its subject matter, and perhaps even its writers and producers, to bring tactile hope. The world should be so lucky.
Other SAW Productions Available
“That’s The Way It Is” peaked at #10, low by Mel and Kim’s standards, although it was one of their, and SAW’s, best. They did not perform it on television, and were not featured at all in the video. The reason for this was made clear when the duo appeared on Terry Wogan’s show in April of that year; Mel Appleby had been undergoing treatment for spinal cancer and, although she discharged herself from hospital so that she could record her vocals for the song – and, according to Pete Waterman, she had a whale of a time in the studio, totally getting into the record - was too ill to publicise the record in person. So this record was Mel’s farewell and its sentiments, ostensibly about offering comfort to a jilted lover, carry some inevitable, if inadvertent, poignancy. Had Mel been well enough to record it, the duo would have sung on “I’d Rather Jack”; as with their other hits, SAW push that additional button to make it stand out. “I Can’t Help It” is not top-drawer Bananarama or SAW, seeing both singers and producers rather too keen to go for a Mel and Kim thing, and it was indeed their last record to feature Siobhan Fahey (then, like Sinéad, heavily pregnant).
Notice how, from Sinéad to the Cookie Crew, when it comes to making the change in late eighties pop, it’s mostly women who are responsible?
An involved yet also detached vocal from Sims on this restless ballad produced rather wonderfully by Curtis Mantronik; for the rap response, see “Love Letter (Dear Tracy)” from Mantronix’s In Full Effect album (what do you mean, you haven’t got the first four Mantronix albums, including the one without MC Tee and with “Got To Have Your Love”? What’s wrong with you?).
A wonderful and by 1988 standards rather old-fashioned disco tune. Sung by future Prince collaborator Elise Fiorillo, then only eighteen, “Who Found Who” is the kind of song I wistfully wish Madonna still had it in her to record (see also Michael Jackson and “I Can’t Help It”).
As if to give their blessings to this new pop that was happening, Dollar, absent from the charts and indeed from existence since the end of 1982, briefly returned to prominence with a fine reading of the Erasure song, just to prove they had been right all along. Their 1981-2 Trevor Horn tetralogy of singles stands as one of the strangest and most compelling in all of pop; Bazar’s final downward shiver of “Only ghosts are lovers on the screen” at the end of “Videotheque” is as chilling and free of camp as “Past, Present And Future.”
Try to imagine anything like this getting anywhere near our Top 100 now, let alone top three (#2 on NME) in 1988. Joe is a taxi driver; like the lawyer Paolo Conte he knows everything that he sees, hears and feels around him, dreams idly of escape but is aware that he will always let the train go. Patrick Bourgoin played all the saxophones, the song bears a grave lightness that sounded new and welcome in its time (and today), and its parent album M&J, and in particular its standout “title track” “Marilyn & John,” must be heard.
Morris Minor and The Majors was the idea of comedian Tony Hawks – he who later hauled a fridge around Ireland on his back and attempted to write a second hit ten years later which did quite well in Albania – and it remains depressing and a telling indictment of Britain that “Stutter Rap” did better in our charts than any Beastie Boys single (even “Intergalactic” stopped at #5). This is not to say that the record is entirely without merit – the Neighbours theme sample still makes me laugh – and the Beastie impressions aren’t totally useless, but everything falls rigid with the dull, sub-Barron Knights chorus. Yes, Britain, let’s treat this rap thing as a transient laugh while we creep back to our Mr Mister albums, why don’t we?
But side four of Now 11 wipes “Stutter Rap” off the fucking map.
Because it was the same with this dance music thing, wasn’t it? Ah, rock and roll; don’t worry, it’ll soon pass and we’ll be back to proper singers and proper songs whose words you can understand.
But what is really remarkable about side four of Now 11 is the colourful nature of its happiness. Like she who left home, it is having fun, something much of the rest of the record seems to have forgotten about. “Beat Dis” would probably sound hopelessly hackneyed to newcomers now – not helped by the legally-required extrication of a sample from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly – but back then it signified the start of something new.
I remember seeing the Bomb the Bass and Coldcut singles as new (12-inch) releases and from their sleeves onward they looked and sounded much more fun than the earnest indie rock that was then being proffered as what was happening. When they burst into the charts the following week – at numbers 5 and 25 respectively – it felt that the battlements had been overthrown.
Why? Because, as with most great pop music, it happened before people became sure of things, when they didn’t quite know what to do with what they’d found, or invented. In Derek Bailey parlance they were good until they thought they were good. And yes, a big part of the attraction of records like “Beat Dis” and “Doctorin The House” was the implication that you and I, with a spare turntable and portable cassette player pause button, could easily have made them. The looping and piling up of samples on “Beat Dis” might sound almost wilfully amateurish to contemporary ears, but the happening-without-your-permission thing was the hook.
These records, and others like them, flooded the charts. Krush, from Nottingham and signed to a Sheffield-based industrial indie label, made the top three (and again #2 on the NME) with an aggressive and languidly threatening record that barely hung together as a “song” at all. The groove was of overriding importance. I know nothing of Jack N’ Chill other than they were two guys named Vlad Naslas and Ed Stratton, but their one (instrumental, save for a percussive Janet Jackson sample) hit is really rather splendid, a fusion of Simple Minds’ “Theme For Great Cities” with Shakatak and Joe Meek, bursting with joy at this great new Fairlight toy that they have and the funny things they can do with it. Respectful of the past but not remotely tied to it.
The Beatmasters begin a brief but distinguished chart career with their hip house being instantly and completely overrun by Clapham’s Cookie Crew (“with a drrrrrrummmmANABASS!”); totally bewitching and compelling (hello Riot Grrl in its own way). Two Men, A Drum Machine And A Trumpet were Fine Young Cannibals minus Roland Gift and plus a Humphrey Bogart sample and, I think, Graeme Hamilton (who had contributed very similar trumpet playing to “Johnny Come Home” in 1985).
All this culminates in “Rise To The Occasion,” a nice, easy-going pop song such as can be found on either of the first two sides of this collection. But somebody – perhaps producer Stephen Hague – took it upon themselves to take liberties with the song and play about with it in the hope of introducing it to hip hop. And so the original song sounds slightly petrified when put against the up-to-the-minute-end-of-1987 rhythm track and samples, as if old pop is being eaten by the new. If “Pump Up The Volume” had thrown down the initial gauntlet, its influence and infiltration were now total. How right that this record should end with a mix by the man who co-produced its beginning – Julian Mendelsohn – and how fitting that it should choose to walk into the future. Pop hadn’t been this fun in years. It wasn’t going to let even a skyscraper stunt or halt its growth.
Jazz Insects Postscript/Envoi/Aposiosesis
And nothing, not even the rest of side four of Now 11, aims or reaches higher than “Doctorin The House.” Coming from what we might charitably view as the Wire side of affairs, from people who knew only too well what 1987 meant to them and why and how they should keep going, Coldcut came, via the “Beats ‘N’ Pieces” white label and the “Paid In Full” remix, into the centre of the stage and “Doctorin The House” is outrageous, outspoken, optimistic and optimised. Yazz doesn’t have to do much except sing the title and hum a little abstract line or two, since most of it is left to Coldcut and what I understand were mostly cassette player pause buttons, skippier and slinkier than turntable rhythms. There is a grand and rather regal sadness redolent of William Walton submerged in a suboptimal radio receiver, as comets of snatches and hooks fly by and sometimes circle around like falcons and sometimes pile up on top of each other to interfere and go somewhere beyond NO-TONALITY, not really that far from what Cardew’s AMM had proposed a generation before; that slow-motion ellipse your brain makes when you are witnessing something fast, new and unprecedented but need to slow yourself down in order to make sense of it, confirming that “Planet Rock,” the blood which secretly or not so secretly flows through the veins of all these songs, was The Most Important Record Of The Eighties, zooming in, on and past Casey Kasem (“Oh BOY what a great RECORD!”), Dave Collins (confirming that “Double Barrel” was One Of The Most Important Records Of 1971, and then that great rising organ of scratch, everything blossoming in acidic worship, and then the bells, the BELLS, for this is our 1967 and SAY KIDS WHAT TIME IS IT and it is OUR time and the margins collapse and become the centre and even Simon Bloody Bates (“The Music Maker”) and TWO false endings for some old sixties superhero thing, daring you to take it off, challenging the need to “end” a pop record, and the next one’s going to go to number one and right we’re on.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 16:01
Friday, 20 February 2015
(#362: 26 March 1988, 1 week)
Track listing: Alsatian Cousin/Little Man, What Now?/Everyday Is Like Sunday/Bengali In Platforms/Angel, Angel Down We Go Together/Late Night, Maudlin Street/Suedehead/Break Up The Family/The Ordinary Boys/I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me/Dial-a-Cliché/Margaret On The Guillotine
The story goes like this: sometime in the autumn of 1987, Stephen Street submitted some very basic demos to Morrissey with the suggestion that he might want to use them for his first solo record. But the demos were so simplistic and banal that they were unusable, and so Vini Reilly was drafted in to polish them up and help turn them into songs. The album was recorded, Street got full composing credits for the music and Reilly was paid £800 for his work; a fairly reasonable sum by 1988 standards but nowhere near what he should have received. For his own part, Reilly is sanguine; interviewed in Rogan’s Morrissey And Marr: The Severed Alliance, he says that the songs weren’t up to much and that he wasn’t asked to do anything particularly challenging – his view was that getting in a decent session guitarist would have done just as well.
One could say that Morrissey is key in terms of raising Viva Hate out of the seabed of banality; his vocals on the record are among the most playful he ever offered, and while some Smiths songs, even at their best, sometimes resembled blurred photographs of pop songs rather than the thing itself, “Everyday Is Like Sunday” is a majestically frightening pop record – the “strange dust” landing on “your hands and on your face” (Morrissey’s “you”s throughout the record can be interpreted as a conversational “you,” meaning “himself”) reminds us that the song’s central inspiration was not Betjeman on Slough but Nevil Shute’s On The Beach. On this coast, the apocalypse has already happened, and he is the glumly stumbling survivor.
Equally, “Late Night, Maudlin Street” is one of the first and best of Morrissey’s habitual long-form meditations on love and history. Drummer Andrew Paresi in particular never settles for the obvious beats here; the overall impression is that of an indie rejoinder to John Martyn’s “Small Hours,” though filled with entirely comprehensible lyrics which, like so much of Viva Hate, concern themselves with saying farewell to, burying and running as far away and as quickly as possible from the past ("1972, you know"). And “Alsatian Cousin” is perhaps the most disturbing and radical beginning of any Morrissey record, Reilly (and Street’s) atonal industrial hip hop scrapheap soundtracking a keenly and desperately echoed vocal in which the singer seems intent on exorcising all demons, including those van and car drivers – those semi-spoken incidents - referred to in the record’s other songs, including the one about the forgotten sixties television star, which in light of what we now know is perhaps the record's scariest song as well as its shortest (the chunky Duane Eddy guitar underscoring the "1969, ATV" references suggest somebody in Crossroads).
What the album isn’t, however – not even “Everyday Is Like Sunday” – is a band record. Would Viva Hate have sounded any different, or even have existed, had the Smiths continued? The band who recorded Strangeways was a band clearly at the end of its tether. The problem with Viva Hate lies in its presumed advantages; Morrissey free of the Smiths, on a major record label with larger recording and marketing budgets than Rough Trade – the single of “Suedehead” charted higher than any Smiths single had managed in its first week of release – but also a Morrissey without a Marr, without anybody to check his lesser instincts. There are no more “cover stars”; merely the man himself.
And so Viva Hate sounds simultaneously indulgent and tentative; the singer is clearly unsure where to go, and so we get routine sub-Smiths offerings like “Dial-a-Cliché” or “Angel Angel,” whose “Eleanor Rigby” strings introduce an element of sentimentality that had been entirely absent from the Smiths’ work, or “The Ordinary Boys” which only engages attention by virtue of Reilly’s nearly unhinged guitar work (which Lena compared to a “very compressed Eddie van Halen”). “Break Up The Family” trudges over wearily familiar Morrissey mores to a light AoR background that could almost be latter-day Fleetwood Mac.
However, Viva Hate is also a record filled with threat. It is hard to discern what exactly “Suedehead” is about – pace the video, it certainly isn’t about James Dean – other than the singer desperately and vainly trying to dissuade somebody else from looking at his diary. The pages are read, the illustrations are seen, the truth is revealed, the person presumably recoils in horror, and so Morrissey is left to croon “It was a good lay, good lay” with some embarrassment. But it doesn’t grip the listener.
Whereas “Margaret On The Guillotine” is out of keeping with everything the Smiths had stood for. The song sounds like “Meat Is Murder” but where Morrissey had once sung “This beautiful creature must die,” he now booms “Please die.” Finding he has little to say – although what he does say might be a crude condensation of what most recent TPL entries have been covertly trying to say – he exits the picture and leaves Reilly to turn the song into a Durutti Column piece, as backwards effects slowly turn reality into dream, before an abrupt chop brings proceedings to a close. But the song’s notion is an essentially foolish one.
And few songs in this tale carry more foolish notions than “Bengali In Platforms” which is the album’s stumbling block that I cannot get past. It is what Lena describes as “every shade of wrong” and actually throws the rest of the record, and Morrissey himself, into deep question; if he wants Thatcher gone, is this what he proposes to put in her place? It is an idiotic piece of work which probably found favour in those then twenty-something Oxbridge types who are now running, or plan to run, the country, and induces me to think: if you get this wrong, how and why should we trust you with anything else? Then I remember his comments in the 1986 Melody Maker about the charts, the radio and black musicians, and one’s face freezes. 1988 was a colourful, zany, rip-it-up-and-start-again year for music, and Morrissey felt and still feels out of place in its lit cloisters. Clearly thrown together rather quickly and superficially, Viva Hate, which made number one at a time when one of Morrissey’s spiritual ancestors, Kenneth Williams, had barely three weeks to live, represents the planting of a rather self-satisfied flag. Released in the same week, also on EMI, but only reaching number three, was Talking Heads’ final album Naked, on which Johnny Marr collaborated. Its air of colourful relaxation and engaging adventure contrasts rather starkly with Viva Hate’s determinedly monochromatic moonscape.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 10:45