Wednesday 28 November 2012

BLONDIE: Eat To The Beat

(#216: 13 October 1979, 1 week; tied with entry #217)

Track listing: Dreaming/The Hardest Part/Union City Blue/Shayla/Eat To The Beat/Accidents Never Happen/Die Young Stay Pretty/Slow Motion/Atomic/Sound-A-Sleep/Victor/Living In The Real World

Mike Chapman again provided the sleevenote for the 2001 CD edition, and makes it clear that the follow-up to Parallel Lines was markedly less fun to make than its predecessor. It was a predictable path; taken aback by sudden stardom, the group fell under pressure to come up with another hit, were swamped by external yes-men and maybe-men, fell in with Studio 54, Andy Warhol and drugs. In addition, the existing tensions within the group itself were widening out; Debbie and Chris, Clem and Jimmy, Frank and Nigel – three cliques who only communicated with each other when they needed to.

Chapman felt the songs were forced and rushed – “Dreaming” and “The Hardest Part” were the only ones finished and ready to run once the recording sessions started. Eat To The Beat; was this a concept? Chapman asked Harry, only to be answered in her characteristically evasive manner; and it is noticeable that several songs on the album lyrically hedge their bets - is “Shayla” about suicide, or abduction by UFO, or drugs, or all or none? The group were trying to reach out to their audience, but all they had to give were crossword puzzles.

If the album does have a unifying theme, it is one of stress and the desire to escape from it. “The Hardest Part” retraces the plot of The Wages Of Fear; a job so dangerous and stressful that one mistake might mean death. In addition to the drug and scene-infused late spring of 1979 when the album was recorded, by the time it came out, nuclear Armageddon was again a pressing issue; there is the feeling, listening to the record, that it seems to have been recorded as quickly and frantically as possible, for fear that there might be no time left to record the next one.

There is an air of drive fuelled by desperation throughout these dozen songs, and a less-than-firm grip on what the group perceived around them. The record begins with the question: “Pleasure’s real, or is it fantasy?” and ends with the answer: “I’m invisible and I’m twenty feet tall.” Starting and ending with dreams, with a will to self-destruction palpable in between; the irony, presumably intended, is that the nihilism of “Die Young Stay Pretty” is cast as a jolly reggae communal singalong, not that far removed from early 2-Tone (the Specials’ second album, 1980’s More Specials, is the real answer record to Eat To The Beat, marching stridently into Muzak-soundtracked apocalypse; the “Enjoy Yourself” bookends, the pilot-less ‘plane falling from the skies, to the accompaniment of sundry screaming Go-Go’s, on “International Jet Set,” and “Do Nothing” which sounds like the first reggae record one might hear after World War III – more so in its 45 rpm “Ice Rink String Sounds” manifestation, wherein it also turns into one of many elegies for Ian Curtis).

In terms of performance, Eat To The Beat is far more dynamic and committed than Parallel Lines; unsurprisingly, the group sound as though they are playing for their lives (they sound far more “punk” than “new wave” here), and Debbie Harry in particular produces some extraordinary vocal work, especially on the final two tracks. This is balanced, however, by the knowledge that the songs are by and large not from the top drawer; four Jimmy Destri writes or co-writes should have given that away (although one of them is “Atomic”).

“Dreaming” relies almost entirely for its effect of power on Clem Burke’s hyperactive drumming, sounding as he does not unlike Joy Division’s Stephen Morris, a stark contrast to the rest of the song, which is essentially performed at half the drummer’s tempo. Buried deep in the middle eight are the words “Fade away, radiate.” Despite the presence of Ellie Greenwich on backing vocals, this sounds a little too frantic, a tad too discomforting, to be standard Blondie pop; a suspicious British public thereupon stopped the single at #2. Is Debbie in love or just imagining love – the answer, as ever, is in the mind of the listener.

“The Hardest Part” sounds remarkably like Talking Heads (who at the time were dealing with their own brand of paranoia on Fear Of Music) covering “Trampled Underfoot,” with Harry giving the lyric more gravitas and guts than it would normally merit. “Union City Blue” musically again sounds like Joy Division – Peter Hook could have come up with that high-tuned bass riff – with Burke again joining some drumming dots; he reproduces Ringo’s fills from “The End” in the instrumental break, though overall his work looks forward to that of Max Weinberg on “Born In The U.S.A.” The lyric reads like a movie plot synopsis, which is effectively what it became; as a single it was their first to miss the UK top ten since “Picture This.” Harry’s calmly determined lead vocal points a clear path to Madonna.

If “Shayla” muses about what happens to those who don’t escape the piss factory, Harry does a great Patti Smith impression on the cartwheeling punk of the title track (“I remember sitting in the bathroom drinking Alka-Seltzer”). Harry sings “Accidents Never Happen” as though delivering a manifesto (“I never lied, I never cried”) and the group rises to her level of commitment (Harrison’s lovely downhill bass slalom after Harry’s “And you, you knew so well”); it’s one of the album’s more successful songs, as is the enigmatic bubblegum of “Slow Motion” which does indeed predicate the Go-Go’s.

“Atomic,” not a single in the USA, was the only song from the album to make number one in Britain – in an early 1980 which really did feel like The End, Russians in Afghanistan, etc. – and if Eat To The Beat is construed as a kind of post-Armageddon girl group record, then this is the sort of pop heard in the first five minutes following death. The video was pretty scary – the partly disfigured band performing in a sort of post-holocaust nightclub – and the Morricone guitar ricochets and the return of Ellie Greenwich at the back suggest that, if the Cuban thing really had blown everything to bits in 1962, this would have been the first thing heard after the fallout sirens died; what do the words mean? Was the song just the result of an improvisatory jam session? It doesn’t matter; the sixties minor-over-major echoes are timed to perfection with a major hint of the context of its actual times (including bass solo and percussion break) – it sounds like a steelier, far less friendly “Heart Of Glass,” and it still sounds like The End Of Pop. One only notices much later how dependent the song is on a suggested, but never explicitly stated, reggae framework; listen to Harrison’s bass in particular (and then hear its blood brother, “Life During Wartime,” to get the full perspectival picture; Byrne worries and frets – and cites CBGBs while doing so - but always finds a way through; the Fripp of “Fade Away And Radiate” turns up again, more cheerfully, on “I Zimbra”).

“Sound-A-Sleep,” with its strong hints of Pachelbel’s Canon, revisits “Fade Away And Radiate,” but with Robert Fripp replaced by insomnia and with more meander than impact. But “Victor” is frantically exceptional, a Volga boatmen chorus alternating with Harry’s screeching lead vocal, somewhere between Lydon and Lydia Lunch, and with a musical backdrop that somehow manages to unite Emerson, Lake and Palmer with Adam and the Ants; strong and fairly (and, to my ears, pleasingly) extreme stuff to be putting on a follow-up to a multi-million selling album. You can’t fault Blondie for not trying. “Living In The Real World” is the same story, Harry barking and screaming about her detachment from reality, as all the ghosts of girl groups past – all those Marys and Cindys flashing by, like one’s life while falling from the top of a skyscraper - while the singer welcomes her imminent extinction.

It was that kind of time; the urge, the need to get your thoughts down on record while life remained. That Eat To The Beat is also almost certainly an album about drugs (never more than suggested, but on songs like “Shayla,” “Sound-A-Sleep” and “Living In The Real World” the spectre does lurk, like an unpaid dealer) probably does not need to be emphasised, but more than that it represents the standard scenario of sudden star unable fully to cope with their stardom. The world did survive into the eighties, and so would Blondie, coming back towards the end of 1980 with a markedly calmer fifth album. But Eat To The Beat still sounds a little too agitated to provide the relatively straightforward comforts that Parallel Lines had done; hence it became the first album here since Love Is The Thing, twenty-two-and-a-half years previously, not to be an outright number one. The record with which it tied comes up next, with its own perspective on what it is like to be living in a world filled with uncertainty yet not be paralysed by fear; sometimes the pop star requires a certain degree of innate confidence; rather like, one might say, a sleeping bee.

Saturday 24 November 2012

BONEY M: Oceans Of Fantasy

(#215: 29 September 1979, 1 week)

Track listing: Let It All Be Music/Gotta Go Home/Bye Bye Bluebird/Bahama Mama/Hold On I’m Coming/Two Of Us/Ribbons Of Blue/Oceans Of Fantasy/El Lute/No More Chain Gang/I'm Born Again/No Time To Lose/Calendar Song

(Author’s Note: the above is the actual track order as appears on the original LP issue – Atlantic catalogue number K 50610 – and as is listed on the record label itself; both outer and inner sleeves give a slightly differing track order for side two, with the title track coming between “No More Chain Gang” and “I’m Born Again” – this was the running order on initial copies, but was quickly changed to this standard issue listing)

There does exist a German CD edition of Oceans Of Fantasy but I was unable to find it in any shop and couldn’t really be bothered ordering one from Amazon. In any case, notwithstanding the fact that the CD edition is actually some 2½ minutes shorter than the LP original, the otherwise inexplicable appeal of some number one albums can be more readily explained by their original packaging. From climbing a ropey rope ladder into space on the front of Nightflight To Venus, our less than fab four are now pictured on the cover as the world’s worst surfers. On the rear they appear to be imprisoned in a diamond in Neptune’s shell. The inner gatefold design is enough to make you wonder whether Europe got past 1971, dotted as it is with sub-Roger Dean fantastical aquatic beasts – how does a moon rise and shine, and chemically how does a fire burn, under water? – before it unexpectedly opens up to reveal hapless Bobby Farrell sitting atop a throne, wearing a Christmas cracker crown, the ladies draped uncertainly around him.

That’s about as much as Farrell has to do with this record. The inner sleeve features a photograph of the “FRANK FARIAN CREW – THE 5TH MEMBER OF BONEY M” (what, all of them?) in the studio, beaming like the 1979-80 Borussia Dortmund First XI. The men are credited as per a secondary school team photograph – “K. Forsey,” “M. Cretu,” etc. – and only Farian and his chief engineer Tammy Grohë are billed under their full names. Indeed, Farian seems to have been determined on this record to give due credit where credit is due, mainly to himself. There is no pretence of Farrell being present; Farian is credited among the vocalists, and it is especially noticeable that of the other members of Boney M, only Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett contribute any vocals. In other words, only half the group pictured is present on the record.

Inevitably, this makes Oceans Of Fantasy a rather anonymous, or anonymising, record. Contrary to what was promised on the inner sleeve of entry #212, “Hooray! Hooray! It’s A Holi-Holiday” is conspicuously not present, but its B-side “Ribbons Of Blue” is here, albeit in severely edited form (i.e. the fader is pressed about two minutes in), as though Farian were unsuccessfully trying to cram it onto the end of an already over-stuffed first side.

Not, I suspect, that that would have made much difference, for Oceans is a wearying listen, albeit a very efficiently assembled wearying listen. The scant evidence of personality, imagination and contrarianism present on its predecessor has vanished, leaving yet another bland attempt to please “everyone.” At times I had to be reminded that I was listening to Boney M; when Eruption’s lead singer Precious Wilson (“Special Guest Star Of Boney M”) takes over at the end of “Let It All Be Music” or sings “Hold On I’m Coming,” one is listening to an Eruption record. Lennon and McCartney’s “Two Of Us” is done as Woolworth’s reggae.

Of the rest, “Let It All Be Music” begins with the promising spectre of Shriekback playing Abba, but quickly de-evolves into routine mediocrity. “Gotta Go Home” is far better experienced as a sample on Duck Sauce’s “Barbra Streisand” (i.e. without the intrusive steel drum reprise). “Bye Bye Bluebird” is background music for SuperSavers With Don Maclean, with some horrendous and endless synthesised flute and an understandably gutsy tenor solo from Bobby Stern. “Bahama Mama” is unremarkable apart from a mid-song exclamation: “What’s the MATTER with men today?” “Ribbons Of Blue” is an unsuccessful attempt to recapture “Rivers Of Babylon” down to its title having the same initials, despite some incongruous pedal steel musings.

The title track would like to be one of those extended aquafunk masterpieces waiting to be rediscovered by Ross Allen or Gilles Peterson a couple of decades later but just comes off as bad Earth, Wind and Fire and is additionally creepy due to the fact that Farian – unusually high-pitched – does the double-tracked lead vocal. In other words, he is now standing in for the girls in the group as well as poor Bobby. It isn’t quite the uncle to “Southern Freeez” that it would like to be. The track, as far as I can see, has absolutely nothing to do with “Boney M” whose album this is supposed to be.

Worse are the attempts to broaden out. “El Lute” is an interminable “Fernando” wannabe, complete with panpipes, while the similarly-themed “No More Chain Gang” – wrongly imprisoned oppressee makes a run for freedom – is diverted into a strange and overlong mid-song percussion break; Farian’s whispered snarls here remind me of no one as much as Dieter Meier. “I’m Born Again” is a Songs Of Praise waltz with Cretu again prominent on synthesised accordion and (ghastly, sub-Oldfield) electric guitar. “No Time To Lose” wants to be sexy, irreverent funk (“There’s no denyin’/He sends me flyin’”) but sounds like the Barron Knights trying to do Heatwave (also, the song peters out into nothingness halfway through before wearily resuming). And they couldn’t find space for “Holi-Holiday” – I’m not really going to complain about that – but still find room at the end for the awful “Calendar Song” which was hideous when the Trinidad Oil Company took it into the bottom of our Top 40 in early 1977 (on Harvest, the label of Pink Floyd, Roy Harper and the Saints) and sounds no better here.

This is a record which really could have come out with nobody’s name on it; why, then, did it enter our charts at number one? The Woolworth’s factor again? Unfussy kids? Holidaymakers coming into autumn and remembering the good, hot, sunny times two months earlier? I think that all of these were factors to some extent; disco? The record barely qualifies as such; it is efficient, regimented, character-free background noise, music (like so many of these entries) for people who fundamentally do not like music. I’m hard pressed even to find any camp elements (other than the mythical campfire singalong of “El Lute”). But note also that the record was only top for one week, and that the group were already on the downward slope commercially (neither of its two singles made the top ten); it is like a signoff from another time, waiting to be swiftly discarded in order for oceans of originality to make their waves felt.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Gary NUMAN: The Pleasure Principle

(#214: 22 September 1979, 1 week; 6 October 1979, 1 week)

Track listing: Airlane/Metal/Complex/Films/M.E./Tracks/Observer/Conversation/Cars/Engineers

I recently watched Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love: The Story Of Popular Music series for the first time since it was originally run on ITV in early 1977 (it’s all on YouTube). Technically it was quite an achievement; over seventeen episodes Palmer and his team travelled the globe, talking to and filming as many musicians as they could find. In fact, pretty much everyone who mattered in the story of popular music appears as an interviewee throughout the series; Palmer was fortunate that in the mid-seventies most of them were still alive to tell their story. In terms of editing and drama the series remains unbeatable.

That doesn’t mean that All You Need Is Love was itself a great television series; I prepared for re-viewing of the programmes by re-reading the book of the series, written by Palmer himself (or at least marshalled by Palmer; most of the chapters were based on essays commissioned from various authorities, from Leonard Feather to Stephen Sondheim), and it was a depressingly grumpy experience; important for the testimonies of its subjects, but in theory almost entirely wrong-headed and doom-laden. Moreover, by the time the series had come to television, punk had happened, and thus it appeared instantly dated and recherché (although in his defence it should be noted that Palmer had taken note of punk rock and wished to make an eighteenth episode about it, but couldn't get the funding to do so). Richard Williams in Melody Maker was not alone in condemning it, or its author.

This is not to imply that the series was free of merit. In fact, the sixteen episodes are so brilliantly put together that they still make me wish that they were right. Of particular note are the closing five or six minutes or so of the final episode (“Imagine: New Directions”). After forty-five minutes of watching Tangerine Dream at work in Coventry Cathedral, and various loose ends from Black Oak Arkansas to Lester Bangs popping up (another unintended source of the series’ value; how many times was Bangs interviewed for TV?), we are in Mike Oldfield’s studio. He is hard at work mixing his third album Ommadawn. Interspersed with shots of him strolling around Hergest Ridge, we see Oldfield at his desk, quietly concentrating, puffing away on a cigarette; his speaking voice is hushed to the point of inaudible, he seems somewhat uncomfortable with the camera and indeed with the process of appearing on television. He comes across as shy, reserved, someone who perhaps isn’t too happy at the concept of “other people,” who seems far more at ease with his equipment, his gadgets.

All of this was at striking odds with the music he was making. We hear the closing section of side one of Ommadawn, the tribal chant which suddenly erupts into the most pained guitar Oldfield ever played, over thundering synthesisers and percussion. There is an expressive grief quite new to Oldfield at the time; the percussion, indeed, is being played by various members of the South African exile musical community, and the record’s release was more or less concomitant with the death of Mongezi Feza – so there is anger in this music too. As the music rises to an unthinkable crescendo, Palmer goes into a jumpcut medley of all the strands the series has been weaving together, music and musicians from everywhere, Bing Crosby to Dizzy Gillespie, faster and faster, and just as the music is about to boil over and explode…

…it suddenly cuts off, leaving just the African drums, and Oldfield, filmed from side profile, hand on chin, staring intently into darkness. Freeze frame and roll credits over that final shot. The implication, or one of the implications, was clear; Mike Oldfield was the future, held the life of popular music in his hands.

In the spring of 1977 it seemed an absurd notion. Hadn’t the Pistols and the Clash and everyone else already exploded out (again, not Palmer's fault but that's how it was)? The series was derided and quickly forgotten. But it stuck with me – I don’t know how, or why – and I thought about some of the wider implications of that closing sequence, particularly that the future of popular music might lie with the isolated musician, sitting in their studio, or in their bedroom, looking at their mixing desk – or their laptop. Perhaps Palmer saw further ahead than any of us at the time suspected.

A couple of years later, when I heard Christopher Payne’s viola paraphrase a theme from Tubular Bells on Gary Numan’s “Complex,” I knew that sequence of television had somehow come home to roost. In part a break-up song, in greater part a song about fearing his fans (“Please keep them away/Don’t let them touch me”), it was one of the least likely top ten singles in that least likely of years, 1979. It was Cassidy’s “I Am A Clown” filtered through Philip K Dick.

Readers may be surprised to see Numan back so soon in this tale, but it was his time, and The Pleasure Principle, despite its general lyrical content, seems to me to find him in a much happier mood than he was throughout Replicas. Tubeway Army itself having naturally dissolved, Paul Gardiner was still on bass, but Cedric Sharpley was now the drummer, with the aforementioned Mr Payne providing supplementary keyboards and, indeed, viola. On the inner sleeve they still look like Supertramp auditionees compared with Numan, pictured on the cover in his check suit, viewing a red pyramid with some suspicion. On the rear, he puts the pyramid over his face as though wishing to hide.

On the album itself, he discards guitars in favour of synthesisers, most notably the Poly-Moog, whose baleful “Telstar” weep is one of the record’s most constant voices (sometimes the whole of 1979 TPL seems concerned with musicians playing with terrific new synthesisers they have bought). Despite, or perhaps because of, this, it has to be said that many of the ten tracks, for want of a better verb, rock; “Metal” is like an electro remix of “My Sharona” and Sharpely’s drums are very inventive throughout, particularly on “Observer,” which struts like a funkier variant on “Cars.” “You are not regular/You are just wrong,” sings Numan sternly, soon after claiming “We are not making claims/We are only boys.”

The same song’s reference to “There are no faces/This is my complex” helps to underline the possibility that The Pleasure Principle is a concept album in disguise, in that it could easily be viewed as one long track divided into ten movements; many of the songs reflect each other, both musically and lyrically, and the eventual appearance of “Cars” itself comes as a sort of catharsis; you realise that he is actually happy with this new state of affairs, with his loneness.

Much of the record concerns itself with being alone, or the wish to be alone, and the album may represent ten facets or angles of the same object, or subject. Once again, Steve Malins’ exhaustive essay and Numan interview in the booklet of the CD edition are admirably comprehensive, giving due credit to all the Afrika Bambaataas, Billy Corgans and Derrick Mays who were to appear in the wake of this music (of course “Cars” would be a huge hit in Detroit!) and going into intense detail about the thoughts and inspirations behind the record. It strikes me, however, that the album works as an attempt to fuse the opposing factions of Bowie’s Low; the instrumental introduction “Airlane,” for example, blends the rock dynamism of “Speed Of Life” with the mournful nostalgia of “Warszawa,” Gardiner’s bass arching like a humpbacked whale.

But the mood of the music is, paradoxically, bright and optimistic; throughout there are strong indications that the eighties are already here, an instant nostalgia for a future worth having. “M.E.” may lyrically be a gloomy meditation on being the last, dying machine on a dead planet (“Me! I Disconnect From You” indeed) but the viola foresees “Vienna” (Ultravox’s Billy Currie contributes violin to “Tracks” and “Conversation”), the synthesised handclaps prophesise “Bette Davis Eyes,” the overall feeling is comparable to that of a song that will end a future TPL entry, written and performed by someone who at this point is only eleven – and the riff itself was confident enough to be used by Basement Jaxx a generation later as the basis of “Where’s Your Head At?”

Throughout “Films” the listener becomes delightedly inpatient for the future to happen – this sounds so much clearer, less muddier, than what has come before it! – and the undertow is propulsive, insistent (even though the song itself reflects Numan’s continuing distaste at having to deal with people every day). Perhaps “M.E.” is seen by Numan’s protagonist as a happy ending; never mind humans, he’s perfectly content with machines.

Go any further into the lyrics and you realise that really this is not a future that anyone would reasonably desire, except for Numan himself (and we now know why he was so uncomfortable, as per my Replicas entry). Indeed, the closing “Engineers” raises a few doubts; its opening couplet of “All that we are/Is all that we need to be” simultaneously looks back at the end of Dark Side Of The Moon and forward to “All Apologies.” The staccato keyboards and treated drums trace a possibly more attractive alternative history of recent popular music, stretching from the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” via “Nutbush City Limits” and “Psycho Killer” into the future (Stereolab).

“We keep you alive. For now,” observes Numan, rather sinisterly, and then one notices that The Pleasure Principle is practically an instrumental album with only brief, concentrated spurts of vocals, as if anxious to get them out of the way as soon as possible. On at least two tracks there are long, meaningful pauses (“Metal,” “Conversation”) of booming, suboceanic electronica. Meanwhile, on “Engineers,” Sharpley’s drums spell out a military tattoo, and you are suddenly faced with a grey future in which war, according to some observers (though not this one), would come as a positive relief from boredom. The missing link between René Magritte and Janet Jackson, The Pleasure Principle looks at a future and sees light – or does it? “If I open my door, will you visit me please?” asks Numan on “Cars.” The difference is if that nobody does, he’s not necessarily going to crawl.

Friday 16 November 2012

LED ZEPPELIN: In Through The Out Door

(#213: 8 September 1979, 2 weeks)

Track listing: In The Evening/South Bound Saurez/Fool In The Rain/Hot Dog/Carouselambra/All My Love/I’m Gonna Crawl

Some people in 1979 might have been forgiven for forgetting that Led Zeppelin still existed; I think the group were by now on a mission to remind everybody of their existence. Even on the evidence collected in this tale, it is clear that since Presence - let alone The Song Remains The Same - the world had changed, and Zeppelin no longer fit into it quite as securely. Hence, amongst other things, the title; ejected from Britain, or so they felt, and possibly from popularity, they were trying to prove that they could still matter; getting back in through the door by which they had exited some time before.

Things were in many ways worse for the group than they had been in 1976; Plant’s five-year-old son Karac had died of a stomach infection in 1977 while his father was out of the country on tour. They remained tax exiles. By now, Bonham was in the grip of the grog and Page’s heroin habit had blossomed fully.

The album was supposed to have been available to coincide with their two headlining gigs at Knebworth in early August of 1979, but various manufacturing delays meant that it shuffled out rather later. Plant confessed that he did not find the Knebworth concerts – in which they played to a crowd of about 200,000 people, and which they only agreed to step in and headline after Jeff Lynne’s ELO had turned the concerts down – a particularly enjoyable experience; not having played properly together as a band for some years, they were rusty, messy, speeding up where they needed to slow down and vice versa.

No doubt the complexity of the original album package explained the record’s delayed appearance; a plain brown bag, with the artist, title and track listing stencilled in red ink, concealing one of six possible alternative covers, different perspectives on the same New Orleans barroom scenario. The buyer didn’t necessarily know which one they were going to get until they got the record home, opened up the bag and took the album out. I am more than sure that a few people endeavoured to track down all six. Moreover, although the cover picture was sepia-toned, if cold water were run along the sleeve, colours would reveal themselves underneath (sleeve designers, the perennial Hipgnosis, kept very quiet about that particular “bonus”). The analogy was clear; old times being swept clean to reveal newer, better ones.

I must admit that I did not purchase any of them, eventually settling for the standard CD edition which features just four variants of the cover (every one of which reveals a new perspective; chairs uprooted indicate there’s been a fight, the seemingly besuited man at the bar is wearing only his underwear on his right side, etc.). For the prospect of a new Led Zeppelin album in 1979 was not going to automatically excite teenagers of my age, and it’s arguable whether it excited anyone at the time; reviews were almost uniformly hostile, generally in the old-fart-grandads-trying-to-do-the-Twist mode.

But listening to the album itself, as is pretty inevitable, reveals a more complex story. In Through The Out Door is the work of a group of people who have realised that the old ways won’t work any more, but have difficulty acclimatising to the new world they’re expected to inhabit. That it sounds disjointed can be ascribed to the band now basically settling into two camps; the industrious Plant and Jones, busy putting songs together, and the wasted Page and Bonham, who would come in late at night and lay their parts down. Hence the predominance of keyboards and synthesisers, particularly the new Yamaha GX-1 model which Jones eagerly brought in – have you heard this story before somewhere recently? – but perhaps of greater significance is the fact that the album was recorded in Polar Studios in Stockholm; the home of Abba, the same studio (and possibly even some of the same equipment) in which Voulez-Vous had been made.

A lot of old rockers wouldn’t stand for it. Abba??!!? I am sure that the studio’s sumptuous capacities drew the band to wanting to work there; it afforded the chance for a little holiday, and I’m certain that Björn and Benny were thrilled and flattered to have Zeppelin’s company. But “In The Evening” almost instantly illustrates how the group seemed to want to wrongfoot its fans. Beginning with a long guitar/Mellotron drone with scalar improvisations from Page, the band then thunders in…or at least John Bonham does. But these keyboards! The seemingly scrubbed-down sound picture! Plant sounding rougher, grainier and deeper than ever before…what could it all mean, a bemused fanbase wondered?

In fact “In The Evening,” like much of the rest of the record, seems to be setting its stall out to welcome the eighties, and in particular eighties stadium rock; the mobile, probing bass and its relationship with drums and keyboards point yet another path to Simple Minds (does every 1979 number one album sound like Simple Minds? Meanwhile, the band themselves were on their second album, Real To Real Cacophony, where they were seemingly trying to sound as unlike Simple Minds as anything. You have to hand it to Arista Records; signing up Barry Manilow to pay the bills and then getting Patti Smith, the Alpha Band, Anthony Braxton and Simple Minds – amongst others – on their roster. Talk about lost ambition!). As the song settles down in its middle eight, Page’s somewhat mixed-back lead guitar lends it an air of proto-Guns N’ Roses. There are also yelps and clarion calls to be replicated and (partially) expanded in the work of U2. Everything, in fact, except the expected lowdown rock ‘n’ roll.

Listeners’ confusion mounted. “South Bound Saurez” is based on a nervy staccato piano shuffle, like 1972 Elton John avoiding an earthquake, in which Plant sings of his love of dancing as though he were…Barry Gibb. “Fool In The Rain,” which actually came out (albeit edited) as a single in the USA (it reached #21 on Billboard), finds the band veering between AoR – “Welcome Back” via Andrew Gold, anyone? – and a full-blown samba workout (as Bonham skilfully and slowly builds up the polyrhythms), Plant sounding exactly like Elton, and a general subtextual awareness of the contemporaneous work of Fleetwood Mac (the album is a subtler inducement to downright WTF?-ness than Tusk).

Finally – on side one – we’re suddenly back in the Sun studios, or at least with the band’s Swan Song label mate Dave Edmunds; “Hot Dog” essentially lays down the ground for the forthcoming rockabilly revival. The cry went up: “What the hell is going ON here?” But note that Plant’s habitual “baby”s don’t quite mean what they used to: when he (double-tracked high and low, like father and son) sings “Now my baby’s gone, I don’t know what to do,” there is something here that emotionally doesn’t quite fit.

“Carouselambra” is the record’s big epic, but its ten-and-a-half minutes are markedly less compelling than, say, “In My Time Of Dying”; in fact they seem to flit by very rapidly. The introduction, with its staccato synth riffs, sounds like Abba, and it looks as though Zeppelin are trying to make up a lot of lost ground; I’m not arguing that they were trying to get “hits” off this album, but here is the glorious pomp of Queen (Mercury could easily have sung this song, which is lyrically very silly but seems to link to earlier Zeppelin epics; “guard the seed” etc.), there is some skinny tie New Wave organ, over there…why, it’s a poppier Yes! The song slows down to gather breath before Jones’ sequencers usher in 1985 once again. Instead of climaxing, the song just potters on, though not disagreeably, towards its rather rapid fade.

Before pondering on whether the group are attempting to give birth to Asia or Bon Jovi, the album suddenly takes a sideways, then downward, step into two rather astonishing closing songs. “All My Love” begins exactly like Abba – one can easily imagine Agnetha singing the song (plus it is in the opposing key to “The Name Of The Game”; A minor to Abba’s A major) – and Plant’s voice lends the song and lyric an emotional candour which evidently counts for rather more than a girl who just done walked out on him; he puts an unusual emphasis on the line “He is a feather in the wind.” Meanwhile, Page in his solo is still channelling Hank Marvin, and as the song slowly disappears Plant’s hurt is superseded by a slowly coruscating grief; in its fading moments he appears to cry, again and again, “Stop dying!” (to which Bonham immediately responds with a cocked head tom-tom breakout). His parting call is a searing, extended “to YOU” – there is no doubt whom he is really singing about.

And, finally, there is “I’m Gonna Crawl,” the last word from Zeppelin – not that in 1979 anyone knew that; Page was already planning to follow it up with a return to The Rock Formula – and one of the greatest things they ever did.

It begins with a startling, possibly synthesised, string introduction; one almost expects Martin Fry, or even Scott Walker to step up to the microphone. Then the band, or Bonham plus the band, enter (it’s only through Bonham that the unwary listener is even reminded that this is a Led Zeppelin record), and it’s a slow, slow blues, though far more wracked and terminal than “Tea For One”; the song’s unsettling chord sequence sets us up for what in part appears to be an extended homage to Peter Green – the tune, tempo and arrangement recall “Need Your Love So Bad,” when they don’t venture into the territory of Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” (“Every little bit of my love…OHH!!”). All hope appears to have been eviscerated; Plant’s voice is as despairing and despondent as I have ever heard him, passing by ominous lyrical signposts – “she can never do wrong” is phrased to sound like “she can never grow old,” the line “somebody please bring me down” is topped by an elongated, agonised cry of “DOWN” as though there’s nowhere lower to go. Plant’s improvisations towards the end also conjure up James Brown – never wanting to let the song, or its subject, go – but the pain is too much, and the whole thing culminates in some terrifying primal screams that outdo even the Lennon of “Mother.” At last, when attending to and singing about things and people he really cares about, Plant reveals himself; the song, like its predecessor, is really about his departed son. The closing moments sound like a dozen years of hurt compacted into one apotheosis, or nadir, of betrayed emotion.

And yet the song is so peaceful, so disturbing in its deceiving amble, that one only eventually realises the other song that so strongly resembles it – “Pumpkin” by Tricky (“I smell of she” – oh yes, Plant would have got that in an instant). The nineties, not even the eighties, is where In Through The Out Door intends to go, and yet “I’m Gonna Crawl” was their final living word; a year or so later, Bonham was dead, and so were the band. I am fully aware that the imminent (at the time of writing) Celebration Day may well give them a late return to this tale, but as things stand, Led Zeppelin, the group who opened these seventies, now bow out of the decade with eight number one albums, not having scored any other number ones in any other decade. So it follows that, although there are still seven albums to go before we properly leave the seventies, the decade’s story must necessarily shadow their story, or vice versa. A decade that started out with such forceful promise, now finds itself…where? Where has it been? Where have they been?

Other albums released in August 1979 included Unknown Pleasures.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Best Disco Album In The World

Image result for the best disco album in the world

(#212: 28 July 1979, 6 weeks)

Track listing: Le Freak (Chic)/Knock On Wood (Amii Stewart)/One Way Ticket (Eruption)/Painter Man (Boney M)/I’m Every Woman (Chaka Khan)/One Nation Under A Groove (Funkadelic)/He’s The Greatest Dancer (Sister Sledge)/Flashback (Ashford & Simpson)/Love Don’t Live Here Anymore (Rose Royce)/We Are Family (Sister Sledge)/I Want Your Love (Chic)/I Can’t Stand The Rain (Eruption)/Fire (The Pointer Sisters)/Wishing On A Star (Rose Royce)/Young Hearts Run Free (Candi Staton)/Weekend (Mick Jackson)/You Really Touched My Heart (Amii Stewart)/Hooray Hooray, It’s A Holi-Holiday (Boney M)

The best – or the last? “So capture the moment before it’s all over,” sings Amii Stewart near the end of this compilation, and it is difficult to decide whether the record represents an elegy for disco rather than a celebration of it, or alternatively a long-term retrospective victory salute.

Yet it spent a longer amount of time at number one than any other album in 1979, precisely at the moment when the wheels had partly come off the disco wagon, or were presumed to have done so. Its genesis was straightforward; looking at EMI’s success with Don’t Walk – Boogie, WEA decided to do a similar TV-advertised repackaging of whatever acts were available to them. I would guess that slightly more thought went into putting this record together; for a start, the twenty-track formula was cut down to a more manageable eighteen tracks. But I emphasise the “slightly” because this may be the most lopsided disco album in the world. I imagine it worked a treat at unfussy suburban parties, but as it stands we are presented with a juxtaposition of some of the best music yet to appear in this tale with some of the worst.

In the “best” category must primarily fall the Chic Organization. Indeed, one senses an air of defiance about the whole record beginning with a song which originally was called “Fuck Off.” From the off, “Le Freak” dares you to read any rites. Simultaneously celebrating and giving the middle finger to Studio 54 and the “culture” that surrounded it, or uprooted it, “Le Freak” is structured, as was Chic’s wont, as essentially a rock song, and they do come across as a rock band playing dance music. Or a European group rekindling distant and possibly second-hand memories of “America.” The riff-based structure allows the musicians and the song to swing, while one is also constantly aware of the record’s nearly ahuman metronomic precision. Like Kraftwerk, there is no space for dithering, and instead looms an awe-inspiring and slightly intidimating certainty; listen to how the strings and rhythm steadily fugue their way upwards under Bernard Edwards’ dogged bass “solo” (inspired by James Jamerson, Edwards would go on through this work to influence would-be bass players everywhere from Glasgow to Birmingham) and marvel at how few late seventies hits could utilise the words “Oh, what a joy!” with a straight face. The “Stompin’ At The Savoy” reference puts the song fully in the lineage of the black music that preceded it, and yet there is still the sense of musicians breaking away from R&B’s Rich Tapestry and heading off somewhere else entirely.

“I Want Your Love” is better still; a song of unbearable craving turned into the lushest and liveliest temptations in pop. Again, the near-mechanical placement of string and horn lines, and the key emotional pauses (“I want…/Your love”), bring Kraftwerk very readily to mind, but the adagio string chords, set against the busy-ness of the rhythm section, have a central, calm stillness that is highly reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s orchestrations. Paul Lester has previously written about the Damascus-like remote beauty of this record, describing the arrangement as “glorious cascading strings that sounded approximately like a choir of angels atop five glass mountains on fire” (in his piece ostensibly about Chic’s album Risqué in the Unknown Pleasures booklet which came free with the 4 March 1995 edition of Melody Maker). When the antiphonal strings and brass run Philip Glass undulating figures towards each other at the record’s climax, there is something of the holy about the performance; the parent album C’est Chic stopped at #2 in the album chart (though made #1 in the NME listings) but that should not stop you from immediately investing in a copy, including as it does other delights such as “Savoir Faire” and the shiveringly brilliant, seven-and-a-half minute long “At Last I Am Free,” disco’s very own “Hey Jude”; not to mention their sorely underrated follow-up from later that year, the aforementioned Risqué, featuring as it does the historic “Good Times” and one of the most sublime second sides of any soul-pop album this side of Barry White’s Stone Gon’, and the subject of an angrily passionate, righteous review in the NME by Danny Baker. Of “I Want Your Love,” I only need add, as elsewhere in Chic’s work, how little Nile Rodgers appears to do with his guitar other than funky chordal rhythms, and yet how, by virtue of timing and harmonic ingenuity, his playing adds up to so much more; here his guitar is virtually rhythm only, its tick-a-tick reminiscent of Luther Perkins in the Tennessee Three, backing up Johnny Cash.

The Sister Sledge hits are equally enthralling; “He’s The Greatest Dancer” exactly captures the transcendence of the self-inhabiting disco dancer that the Bee Gees didn’t quite manage to reach on Saturday Night Fever, from its surprised exclamation mark of a string flurry in response to the girls’ “I wonder why?” to the endless, relentless but never overpowering propulsion at the song’s root. Their disco world is a classy, almost Apollonic world in which that dirtiest of pejoratives “boring” is overpowered by the seemingly effortless “perfection” of the Adonis guy’s “Halston, Gucci…Fi-o-rucci!” which nonetheless doesn’t lose sight of the possibility that this is all an ephemeral façade. Boring tourists, though? We must be entering “the last days of disco.”

“We Are Family” is the definition of exultation, and not just because the Pittsburgh Pirates used it as their 1979 World Series campaign theme; as well as being “a song directly from You Go Girl! land” (thanks, Lena) it is a celebratory defence – can you look at us, listen to us and dance to us, it appears to say, and then think any other music is better, or more capable of engendering and nurturing love? This is not just a craze; it is “our” world, “our” life, and do you know, I think in the long run we will have been shown to have won.

What else here adds to this picture of euphonic liberty? Well, there’s Amii Stewart’s mighty schaffelisation of “Knock On Wood” (which in its Eddie Floyd manifestation suddenly sounds like a very old song in comparison) with a bottom so heavy as to pass muster on 2012 dancefloors, complete with croaking frog synth bass (lower than Edwards was with Chic or Sledge), a huge post-Slade stompy sound, titanic tom-toms reverberating onomatopoeically to the song’s title, thunder noises when Stewart sings, or shrieks, “thunder” (and lightning too). Exceptionally dramatic, it almost makes one regret that Elvis didn’t live to do the song this way, but Stewart, straight out of the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar, does an imposing yet approachable job. It is as if nothing can stop disco from conquering the planet.

Which doesn’t really compute with the Frank Farian sect; Boney M have crossed the room to the refuge of silliness (which makes one wonder why this record had to conclude with the absurd “Holi-Holiday,” unless to say that such crassness is all that is left to follow). As for Eruption, they don’t transcend the tag of Boney M apprentices (they supported the group on tour earlier in the decade, where Farian spotted them and signed them up); they don’t seem to have the slightest comprehension of Neil Sedaka or Ann Peebles (at the fadeout of “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” singer Precious Wilson utters a hugely incongruous “Whoo!,” while “One Way Ticket” sounds a lot like Boney M Junior) – this is Club Med music, for those who like Club Med, but not really “disco” as such (on second listening to Boney M’s “Painter Man,” Lena remarked that it was “like the Smurfs trying to do Beckett” and I am in total agreement).

A relief, then, to go to Chaka Khan and her splendid “I’m Every Woman,” a record it’s impossible to tire of no matter how often it is played; strange but logical how in America the decade went from Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” to this, which could rightly be subtitled or retitled “I’m Everywoman.” One of Khan’s best vocal performances, and one of Ashford and Simpson’s best songs (and productions), it pulls off the trick of constantly building up without ever breaking out; the bass is rumbling and fruity, the unending seesaw of chord changes at the end feeling like a breakthrough even though, musically, it isn’t, and, amid the backing singers, fifteen-year-old Whitney Houston, already instantly identifiable. Ashford and Simpson turn up here in their own right too, with the non-charting “Flashback,” and it’s not at all bad; indeed, I note the similarity of the song’s string-dominant arrangement and chord structure to those of “Last Train To London.”

Moving from “I’m Every Woman” to “One Nation Under A Groove,” you briefly wonder whether music can get any better than this. What more can be said about George Clinton, except that if he is the black Zappa, as some myopic people say, then “One Nation” wipes the borough, not just the floor, with “Dancin’ Fool”; using endless puns to a very serious intent (it is a more patient yet more frantic counterpart to Parliament’s contemporaneous “Flashlight”), the record works brilliantly because of its mix of schoolboy humour, rebellious insurrection and arrangemental complexity; as with Gil Evans, there is always something going on, no matter how minor the detail, in the background, middleground and foreground. Obama was seventeen when this came out, and I can’t imagine how he wouldn’t have been touched and moved and inspired by the record and its delivery. “Here’s a chance to dance our way/Out of our constrictions”; how many other records put such an emphasis on so rarely used a word? By the time we get to the climactic “We shall all be moved,” the impetus is beyond unstoppable; about Funkadelic, all I can say is that none of their main sequence of albums, from 1970’s eponymous debut to 1981’s Electric Spanking Of War Babies, is anything less than essential (and the same can be said of Parliament).

“Fire” is much more a rock record than a disco one, which is unsurprising since this is how writer Bruce Springsteen makes his Then Play Long debut. The arrangement is ingenious – it could almost be a reggae song – and the Pointers’ great, shared vocals join the dots between sixties girl groups, seventies rock (sometimes, especially in the guitar-heavy middle eight, they can sound like a trio of Carly Simons) and R&B’s future. Wonderfully sensual – with that long, meaningful pause after the aforementioned middle eight – it doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of this record, but is always good to hear again.

Would that the same could be said of “Young Hearts Run Free,” a record I’d be very glad never to hear again in my lifetime. Nothing against Candi Staton, or Dave Crawford, or the record itself (which in 1987 was voted the ninth greatest single by NME writers), but it has been so overexposed by lazy radio programmers that its central message has effectively been neutralised, or traduced to a safe round-the-handbags option (it was a #2 hit, however, so Lena will be lending her own perspective to it in due course). Moreover, in 1979 – when the record was scarcely three years old – or in a 1979 context, it sounds dated, anachronistic, its beat positively arthritic. Set it against the slow, patient, electr(on)ic future that Norman Whitfield was building for Rose Royce in the same period – I’m purposely not saying much about the two songs here as I’ll be covering Rose Royce in much greater depth shortly – it is remarkable, not to say questionable, how only a year could separate it from the astonishing Corbusier astral skyscrapers of “Wishing On A Star” (which here is played right to its last, loudly agonising fade).

After “Wishing On A Star,” though, the record runs into a bit of a cul-de-sac; “Young Hearts” is succeeded by “Weekend.” Ah, Mick Jackson, the German-born Brit jumping up and down, and frankly trying very hard, in his white suit and beard on the rear cover, who wrote “Blame It On The Boogie” and therefore presumably has nothing to worry about; and all that can be said for “Weekend” is that it is eager, possibly over-eager, to please with its archaic lyrics (“Let’s go down the discotheque!,” “What a DRA-AG!,” “Jump into my Chevrolet!,” “Down to the disco PLACE!,” “Exciting nights and lazy days” – what is this, The Fast Show?) and very beefy British production. Actually, Jackson’s slightly hoarse and grainy voice reminds me of Joe Jackson. He goes through all the days of the week as a handy reminder of what they are. Jay Kay is five going on six.

Then Stewart returns with her Three Degrees-ish midtempo ballad-cum-requiem (no, I don’t know why they couldn’t have included “Light My Fire/137 Disco Heaven” instead; go check out Stewart’s parent eponymous album, of which side one is, as some people used to say, a right go-er) and Boney M’s atonal synthy steel drums bring the record to a rather muted end. Was this all there was? Nothing like it; Off The Wall was just around the corner, for a start. And disco would eventually mutate and, ultimately, take over pop. With the Chic work in particular, this record is not so much digging a premature burial place for disco, but merely firing an early warning shot.

Sunday 11 November 2012


(#211: 21 July 1979, 1 week)

Track listing: Me! I Disconnect From You/Are ‘Friends’ Electric?/The Machman/Praying To The Aliens/Down In The Park/You Are In My Vision/Replicas/It Must Have Been Years/When The Machines Rock/I Nearly Married A Human

It is a sobering thought that Ridley Scott’s 1982 film of Blade Runner is set in the Los Angeles of 2019; a time once so far away, now only as far away as the 1979 Gary Numan was from, say, Lindisfarne. Perhaps more frightening is the increasing plausibility of Philip K Dick’s original story as its time looms, the deepening (or shallowing) knowledge that humans have willingly become their own “replicants.” “Let me tell you about my mother”; is this a planted premonition of an unimaginable future, or what is now routinely seen on any television channel or in any magazine or website on the globe? Has telling people about anybody’s mother become compulsory? Is the quiet, unexamined life as spent a historical artefact as the Gutenberg press, or the proper understanding of other human beings?

What is maybe most remarkable about this seventies lonely boy is that, finally, he doesn’t much care whether he himself is human or replicant; he seems to welcome the difference (“I Nearly Married A Human,” which fittingly has no words), and as machines become the rock, so does he willingly submit to whoever or whatever will accommodate him, even if only by virtue of his being – naturally – out of step. This record is dotted with memories (possibly implanted ones) of some(body/thing’s) past; “On Broadway” turns up in one song, “White Christmas” in another (isn’t this 1979 world cold and lonely without Bing to smile us into the chill?), and beyond that there is the remarkable sleight of hand that Gary Numan has pulled off here; taking the molecules of rock – its attack, its dynamism, maybe even its priapic preening – and refitting them to fit into the neutrons and chips of what might best be termed the future. Plugging it in, maybe even – in the record’s last two wordless tracks – removing the need for human input altogether? And yet, deep, deep down, there still exists that ancient lament, “And now I’ve no-one to love,” a self-elegy that goes back to Bobby Vinton and bobbysox.

Crucially, however, Numan(droid) doesn’t see things that way at all; because of the way he is, he views the world – and whatever its implications of a dystopian future, this is very palpably still a record of the late seventies – only in extremes, and so emphasises and de-emphasises all of “classic rock”’s tropes; “You Are In My Vision” and “It Must Have Been Years” rock, like Numan’s early idols Thin Lizzy still rocked from time to time, and the scenario of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” could have come straight out of the Faces’ “Stay With Me” (in both subject matter and tempo). But Numan de-sexes, or rather re-sexes, these elderly calling cards to bring out things perhaps only he and people like him could notice; others see sleaze and professional sex, but he sees beauty and love. The worrisome people who populate “Down In The Park” could be seen in every British town and suburb in the seventies (and probably again now) but Numan opens his wordless mouth, gasps and sees unutterable horror and carnage – all set to the most elegant, least obtrusive, most French melody and arrangement his side of Satie.

But he is still the machman outsider, and it was his lot in 1979 as much as his emotional state; in the context of this tale, both “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and Replicas spring as though out of nowhere. The wider shock was instant, as was the gradual delight. But Numan remained, critically, a loner; rather than being praised, he was damned, ridiculed and mocked, not just because, as a solitary man who couldn’t easily relate to groups or masses of people – except on a concert stage where he could block all of them out and respond to a greater totality – he openly welcomed the coming of Thatcher, if only as a relief from grey nothingness. This is what Numan had to say in 1979 to Jon Savage about the experience of standing in front of other people:

“I’ve really no idea…apart from the fact that you talk to the audience and claim to be one of them, or admit that you’re not one of them, which is why you’re singing and they’re not, and get on with it, which is what I’ve done…I’ve very little to say to them. They know what the songs are, I’d imagine. I really wouldn’t want to tell them what the songs are about before each number: there’s no need to tell them what they are because they already know. There really isn’t much more to say – you can’t have a conversation – it’s very false with between and (sic) four thousand people…”
(Jon Savage, “Gary Numan: In Every Dream Car, a Heart-throb,” originally published in Melody Maker, 20 October 1979, reprinted in the anthology Time Travel, Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1996)

In the same piece, Savage makes the interesting observation that the bulk of Numan’s audience is under 21 (Numan at this point being only 21), i.e. not only too young to have seen Bowie or Roxy, but possibly even the Sex Pistols. For them, this next generation, Numan was newness. Never mind the carping oldies who swiftly accused him of being an ambulance electro-chaser, selling out whatever “punk” in 1979 might still have stood for, and being happy to do so (in Savage’s interview, Numan visibly perks up when talking about the astute major label deal he has just done with WEA); they meant nothing to an audience who in 1979 looked around them and saw only Abba, the Bee Gees and ELO – more of the same, all that stuff punk was supposed to have gotten rid of.

Likewise, it is ridiculous, as most of the “credible” music press of the time did, to claim that Numan swiped a career which should properly have belonged to Howard Devoto. Magazine were a very different, and not particularly comparable, type of band to Tubeway Army; Devoto’s songs, painstakingly improvised into being, talk about disconnection between humans and the perverse attraction of rock’s bottom, but his outlook and approach are markedly different – Devoto always gives the impression in his singing that he is somehow, if only slightly, above all of this carry-on, whereas Numan gladly immerses himself in its substance. In 1979 Magazine were on to their second album, Secondhand Daylight, and while no album including the likes of “Feed The Enemy,” “Rhythm Of Cruelty,” “Back To Nature” and “Permafrost” can be described as dispensable, it is equally clear that Devoto, McGeoch, Adamson etc. have no intention of “crossing over” – you, the listener, have to get to them. Whereas Numan perversely opens out to everybody willing to give him a listen, and a chance.

In almost direct contradiction of the above quote – or maybe it’s just that people change - Numan was subsequently happy to give an extensive interview to Steve Malins for the CD edition of Replicas in which he cheerfully explains the entire process behind the album and its songs. Indeed, Malins’ sleevenote is so good and comprehensive that it almost negates the need for reviewing the record here. From it, however, we can glean that Replicas was designed as something of a concept album – and, like Blade Runner, based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? - about men, and machines (Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine had been out for less than a year), and machines that can be programmed to destroy humans, and others that merely “service” humans, and how does the noble, isolated individual fight all of this, or does s/he simply succumb to it? In the Blade Runner setting, the viewer has to concur, glumly, that the only way for humanity to survive is if Harrison Ford, broadly speaking, takes out all the interesting characters in the film; and that might constitute an even greater nightmare. Whereas Numan adopts the viewpoint that it’s the interesting characters who make human life bearable; those who can’t readily be slotted into a preordained diagram of Perfect Humanity.

Certainly, despite its warning surface, I find Replicas an unexpectedly optimistic album. It only takes a few seconds for the synthesisers and beats of “Me! I Disconnect From You” to slip into place before the listener breathes a sigh of immense relief; after all this supposedly modern kowtowing to the past, it is as if someone has switched on a light, or opened a window, again; here is complete, unrepentant modernism, and here (because Numan might not be who or what he’s singing about) is the first “true” New Pop number one album (as well as the first New Romantic one, because, well, the transience of human relationships, the consolations of knowing solitude, and so on; they were all in Wordsworth and they are here too).

As far as “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” is concerned, I can do no better than to hand over to my Popular self of over four years ago, to see what he had to say about the song and record:

Thatcher, with her strange mix of brutalist futurism and sexless Calvinism derived from the pages of Good Housekeeping as edited by Hayek, won the 1979 election almost in spite of her party, just as she’d gained the Conservative leadership. There has always been a touch of the aggressively defensive misfit about her; privately spat upon by the alleged Great and Good, the lower-middle-class Grantham Methodist never swung by Presley or flowers in hair or pounds in pocket, the austere and – yes – cold rationalist unable to relate to anybody else in a meaningful way, so locks herself in the back room to get on with “it.” It isn’t surprising that her declared favourite pop record is “Telstar,” a record bearing no apparent involvement by a human being (yet, paradoxically, the most human of number ones; Meek locking himself in his front room watching the news and inspiring himself to vacate the planet); and nor should it be shocking that Gary Numan – at that time the biggest-selling artist to emerge from what would eventually be termed post-punk – turned out to be such an enthusiastic cheerleader for Thatcherism (although he has subsequently, and inevitably, made the minimal journey from Thatcherite to Blairite).

Nor is it any wonder that “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” – those internal inverted commas are as crucial as those in Bowie’s “’Heroes’” – should sound so much like a record Joe Meek could have made had he survived until 1979; the single was credited to the group Tubeway Army – hitherto a fairly run-of-the-mill electro-thrash outfit in the mode of John Foxx’s Ultravox! – but the group is as irrelevant to Numan as the Tornados were to Meek; his querulous but hurting right eye dominating the 12″ picture disc sold the record, and, together with his anxious blankness, was responsible for making “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” the first indie crossover number one single in the post-Pistols age.

Much scorn was poured on Numan – that name! A total reinvention of the Gary Webb with which he had been christened! And how close to the Harry Webb, that other anxious Conservative pop individualist who reinvented himself as Cliff Richard (and possibly closer than anyone could have imagined)! – mainly for being perceived as an electro ambulance chaser.

With Numan, however, I do not believe that he has ever knowingly raised an eyebrow, and myinescapable, rapidly-reached conclusion has to be that he believes every single word and gesture; he means it all. The key critical problem was whether there was any clear precedent for Numan. Kraftwerk were The Man-Machine, but they celebrated the post-human world, luxuriated in its elegant textures. There was of course Bowie’s Low, where on side two language, and eventually the singer, melts into the alien totality; scraps, bulletins of desperation on side one (“Be My Wife,” “Always Crashing In The Same Car”) leading to a landscape (“Art Decade,” “Subterraneans”) which could fairly be described as post-life. Meanwhile, Macclesfield punk scruffs Warsaw were realigning themselves as Joy Division and, in tandem with Martin Hannett, were about to take “rock” music somewhere nobody had been before.

So Unknown Pleasures, which came out later that summer, invented a genuinely new music (though bear the ghosts of Peter Hammill and Northern Soul one-offs in mind) which flipped everyone’s judgement, and Bowie himself re-emerged with one of the most virulently animal of all pop records, “Boys Keep Swinging.” But Numan wasn’t really like either. His great innovation was to accentuate the position of the human being lost inside the world of machines who isn’t happy there, is not celebrating streams of technology; whereas the Bowie of Low buries his voice in the mix, or simply makes it sing incomprehensible things, Numan’s pained Home Counties vowels – Hammersmith via Banbury – are always clearly discernible in terms of comprehensibility and emotion. In other words, he steps back from total Low-ist annihilation, refuses to relinquish the human being as he lives, breathes and cries.

In addition, where Ralf and Florian’s synthesisers, and Eno’s sundry devices (even when producing Foxx’s jumpy, rabid Ultravox!), are sleek, up-to-the-technological-minute affairs, Numan (again, like Meek) seems to have had a preference for using imperfect technology; the just out-of-date drum machine, the deliberately primitive synthesisers which (as they are on “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”) sound as though they are being powered by steam. So this is an individual’s approximation of technology, of The Future, imaginable only for a loner – and note the inevitable evolutionary straight line from Numan to Aphex.

“Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” is another single which takes its time to unfold, lasting nearly five-and-a-half minutes, largely because it began life as two separate songs which Numan felt worked better if welded together. If anything, Numan’s voice here sounds, as it unsettlingly does on several of his other noted pieces of the time, like Robert Wyatt – those same plaintive South-East syllables, almost the same degree of poignancy. He sits in his squalid room (“the paint’s peeling off of my walls”) disconnected, remembering details of someone who has now passed (“things I just don’t understand/Like a white lie that night/Or a sly touch at times/I don’t think it meant anything to you”). Then someone knocks at the door (“And just for a second I thought I remembered you”). “It’s the ‘friend’ that I’d left in the hallway/Please sit down” – and they engage in ways of which no speaking is required; Numan has said that the song is about a man being visited by a prostitute, and that one of them, or possibly both, may be androids, thus the inverted commas around “friends”:

“You know, I hate to ask/But are ‘friends’ electric?/Only mine’s broke down/And now I’ve no one to love.”

If it sounds as though we’re verging on the territory, not just the obvious one of Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (which became Blade Runner), but also that of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, here, it’s because we are – are these depersonalised humans, humanity bled out of them by grief, or androids who only know how to “love” because they’ve been instructed, or is this song about a fucked-up man who has only been left capable of loving machines because humanity has let him down so badly?

“And I should never have tried,” he concludes. “And I missed you tonight/Still it’s time to leave/You see it meant everything to me.” The machines of synths and synthesised drums progress relentlessly, while the man, a failure at the only thing he could do well, prepares to do it the BS Johnson way or maybe even the Joe Meek way. The only previous number one even vaguely akin to this which comes to my mind is “Johnny Remember Me,” but even there the attachment is emotional rather than strictly musical, though Hughes’ Crow flies through the rain of both. Think, perhaps, of Tricky’s “Aftermath” as the lullaby leaking through his dying soul – but in truth there had never been a number one record like “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” before, and I doubt there will ever be a number one record like it again.

I think the above is still an accurate assessment of the song, and of Numan, except that the vocal similarity to Robert Wyatt (which only James Truman, in 1979 still at Melody Maker, otherwise caught) is quite pronounced throughout Replicas, though processed in a way I can’t readily ascribe to any machinery or technology as such; it is as if the nonsense-words-as-inarticulate-heart-speech of “Alifib” or “Muddy Mouth” have been canned, confined and acclimatised to a newer, if not brighter, world. “The Machman” itself rocks – it is easy to forget that here it is still Tubeway Army, a three-piece parallel-to-punk group, just like the Jam (Numan was born in the same month as Weller, though there are really no direct comparisons between the two – although you might like to think of “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight” and “English Rose” as differently-filtered Numan); their preceding (and excellent) eponymous album makes that pretty clear. Again, “The Machman” has that elusive Phil Lynott thrust about it (and, interestingly, who should be helping Lizzy out on guitar around this time but Midge Ure?) but the moment halfway through the song where the synthesiser waddles into its afternoon is, in this tale, unprecedented. There is clearly a battle of some sorts between Old Rock and New Pop; “Praying To The Aliens,” musically a sort of prototype of “Cars,” moves (as do several other songs here) in ways that would become entirely familiar a dozen years later with Nirvana (the ten-year-old Dave Grohl was a keen Numan follower), including the regular pauses after each chorus (where he is, as it were, praying for the New to come and take over).

Then there is “Down In The Park,” another song whose construction and aura, according to Lena, make the song sound “very French to me” (and again I think of the endless permutations of the placider Satie). I thought this an awesome song at fifteen and still do; he is describing Ballardian supraviolence, mutations beyond the ken of William Gibson. “All captured Crazies and other law breakers are put into the park, which is actually a prison,” says Numan. “Very few people survive more than one light, no-one survives two…however, the administrators and so on, are allowed out at night and their favourite hang-out is a club, Zom Zoms, which overlooks the park. From this vantage point they can watch the machines at play, purely as entertainment” (“You can watch the humans/Trying to run”). So there he is, in his room with its naked light bul, looking warily at what is not his reflection in the window, where a plastic moon shines and a neon-lit sign saying “THE PARK” is situated beneath it; and he is watching these unspeakable atrocities, or maybe he’s just taking an evening stroll down North End Road or King Street – I can’t dismiss from my mind the notion that, as much as Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four was merely anagrammatising 1948, Numan’s world is late seventies Hammersmith, before the Coca-Cola building and the Ark went up (the irony now being that, as you approach the monolithic Coke building at the top of Fulham Palace Road, Hammersmith looks remarkably like seventies East Berlin; this huge entity which devours everything that comes into it, including buses and tube trains, and he is simply refracting this spectacle into his own inward-looking world.

Yet there are no screams, or grinding, or freaking out, on “Down In The Park”; like “Electric” it is a very slow and patient song (remarkable, really, how “Electric” made number one in a chart where slowness and patience were as little valued as they are today) which never raises its voice, but turns the song’s blood into pictures of heartbreaking serenity.

“‘We are not lovers/We are not/Romantics/We are here to serve you’/A different face/But the words never change.”

Or perhaps Numan will tell you who he really is if and when he feels like it, since the rituals distantly described in “Down In The Park” have a voodoo tinge about them, and we know the immense dangers latent in trying to explain that which should never be explained.

With “You Are In My Vision,” I can’t help but feel that this is what Lester Bangs derided the Clash for not doing with their version of rock, namely not facing up to the decaying late seventies Britain so accurately delineated in Drabble’s The Ice Age (or at least until Drabble gives up near the end and converts the novel into a silly sub-James Bond spy caper). This “rock” seems frozen to the spot.

The title track meanwhile suggests, particularly with its welding of rock drive and electronic craving (other than the admitted, and huge, influence of John Foxx’s Ultravox), that Numan’s real forebear is not David Bowie or Bryan Ferry, but Marc Bolan. Listen to Numan’s pained guitar lines, the way in which the song becomes gradually submerged in electronic discordance, the rhythm track that is not quite synchronised; this is Bolan boogie flattened, Electric Warrior II (and what an apt name for Numan!).

With “It Must Have Been Years,” he goes one critical step further; in other hands this could easily have come out as a sub-sub-Zeppelin rock stomper. But look what Numan is doing with the very building blocks of rock; he is either neutralising or recharging them. There are agonised guitar squeals, the late Paul Gardiner’s unchanging one-note bass pulse, and a riff strong and new enough to inspire the Trent Reznors and Marilyn Mansons of the next world. At the end of his vocal Numan utters a growl of exhaustion; he’s said his piece, it’s up to us to make something out of it.

The two closing instrumentals are their own manifesto. “When The Machines Rock” belies, or justifies, its title, being a bright, synth-led spring of electropop; hello Depeche Mode. The concluding “I Nearly Married A Human” is an obvious tribute to side two of Low; a long-building sunrise of synthesisers. A drum machine patters in and out of the song like a curious infant. Eventually, however, the electronics take over and dominate the music entirely; standing at the water’s edge, we watch the seventies sink slowly into the West, waiting for a new era to be born. It is, unquestionably, a song of hope.

If indeed that is all that Replicas is about.

“He wore a Number 7/Badge on his collar/He would show it with pride/And say ‘it means I can feel.’”
(“Only A Downstat,” recorded during the sessions for Replica - and how apt that this rainiest of albums should have been recorded in Gooseberry Studios in Soho – which appears as a bonus track on the CD edition but was left off the original album)

“Gemma [Numan’s wife] spotted my Asperger's right away because her brother has it. I'm hopeless at small talk and have a problem making eye contact. That's why Gemma is so brilliant, because she talks for me. In social situations, I willingly step into her shadow. If we're out and she leaves me alone for a few minutes, I panic.”
(Numan, interviewed by Angela Wintle for Family Guardian, published 5 May 2012)

I’m not saying that Replicas is secretly a concept album about Asperger’s syndrome – about an individual who sees, thinks and feels but cannot actually connect with anybody else (“Me! I Disconnect From You”) – but it would explain a lot, not just about Gary Numan, but also about how little this condition is still understood. It is true that Numan has used his condition to his advantage – he does not have the extreme, crippling manifestation of Asperger’s that makes people not want to get out of bed, let alone leave the house; given that he sticks to what he finds comfortable, he has proved to be capable of making a very good career for himself. But for many it is still a barrier, a ball and chain that affected people are compelled to drag around with them all their life. So what I suspect Numan is saying here, amidst many other things, is that he, and people like him, should be recognised, and encouraged and respected for what they can bring to the world, even if they do not do so in a conventional manner. The persecution and victimisation continue, and the only way we are ever going to stop that happening, as Numan himself feels, is to try to reach out and understand.

This means not mocking them for knowing Einstein’s theory backwards but having problems tying their shoelaces. This means not mistaking shyness for aloofness. This means making allowances for people who don’t understand the body language of others, who perhaps take things a little too literally and end up in a mess or being regarded as a “Crazy” as a result. This means not calling them insulting names and making a sport out of it, or wagging an admonitory finger at them as if people with Asperger’s were just more naughty children at the back of the class who need drumming into line (but whose line is it anyway?).

Dismissing them, however you choose to do it, is not communication. It is a lambasting. A cutting down to size. A reminder of who’s in charge. A rejoinder to bend an apparently inferior head. A matter of point-scoring. And I’m afraid that until we stop jeering and sticking out our tongues, and try instead to listen to other people – not just taking individual words or expressions or actions out of context, and making our decision on that basis – then the circle will never be completed, and we will never know what it feels like for a person who has Asperger’s.

Maybe Lester Bangs was right when, around the time of Replicas’s initial release, he wrote the following in the Village Voice: “…you don’t have to try hard at all to be a racist. It’s a little coiled clot of venom lurking there in all of us, white and black, goy and Jew, ready to strike out when we feel embattled, belittled, brutalized. Which is why it has to be monitored, made taboo and restrained, by society and the individual.” Perhaps the theorists who believe such a theory are right, and there is something of the racist, or the sexist, or whatever –ist you care to name, in everybody.

All I can say is that what I’ve tried to do with my life is move beyond that initial faulty default setting, to reach out and make an effort to understand people who I’m not, and as a result learn to sympathise and, who knows, empathise with them. It is at such moments I look at the bleached Numan on the front of Replicas, and then look at pictures of me from the time this was number one, when I was fifteen – and to look into the eyes of that kid staring back at me and think: “Why move around and waste my time? You don’t know the half of it yet, mate.”

Wednesday 7 November 2012


(#210: 16 June 1979, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Shine A Little Love/Confusion/Need Her Love/The Diary Of Horace Wimp/Last Train To London/Midnight Blue/On The Run/Wishing/Don’t Bring Me Down

As Birmingham art-rockers go, ELO occupied a useful gap between the Moody Blues and Duran Duran, and were probably better at producing sharp, punchy pop songs than either. The story is well-known enough; how the Move wanted to develop “I Am The Walrus” (something they had actually wanted to do since “Cherry Blossom Clinic” on the first Move album) how the one frontman that was left eventually learned not to be afraid of pop, how they got big in the States first because…well, they put on a show, a spectacle, in an era of reflective denim (and the Moody Blues being midway through an extended sabbatical didn’t damage their chances either) and, in addition, plenty of American punters hadn’t really got over the Beatles. The red shoes and bricked yellow road on the front of Eldorado pointed a way out, if not something way out. In a land that in the mid-seventies didn’t really know what or where or how it was any more, ELO in their own way suggested that their listeners were not alone in feeling lost or in the dark.

The double Out Of The Blue, from 1977, was their definitive record; virtually an anthology of everything Jeff Lynne had learned in the preceding twenty years. Get past the hits, though, and maybe even look deeper into the hits, and the picture is not exactly a welcoming one. At their sparkiest, they were capable of pop-soul crossovers with gentle deviations that suggested 1977 Hall and Oates done in the style of 1971 George Harrison (“Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” “Starlight”). But, as with the White Album, there are many dark cloisters concealed in the record’s curves, shadows of, if not the Shadows, then ghosts summoned by someone who once was a teenager in Birmingham, being entranced by Del Shannon or Roy Orbison; not for nothing is one track entitled “It’s Over,” or that Lynne’s voice, on the concluding “Wild West Hero” (a song that is effectively a coded message, i.e. “I Wish I Was In America (Away From Strikes, 83% Tax Rates, Etc.)”), sounds in places like the Big O.

So many of Out Of The Blue’s songs concern themselves with being lost, or stranded very far from home, in a dark and wet limbo (one song is even entitled “Birmingham Blues”). “Mr Blue Sky” comes at the end of a very arduous side three, grouped together as a “Concerto For A Rainy Day,” where the gruelling cumulative impact of woebegone laments makes the final sunny catharsis seem harder won, and therefore more effective. Lynne wants us to understand how hard he has fought for “Mr Blue Sky” to appear (“Please tell us why/You had to hide away for so long/Where did we go wrong?” – a metaphor for “The Sixties”). But there are other, sinister crevices; the “Day In The Life” ascension that rises out of the end of “Turn To Stone”; the zigzagging atonalities midway through “Night In The City,” the strange electro-percussive workout of “Jungle,” the doomy brevity of “Believe Me Now,” the huge, aching lament that is the instrumental, “The Whale” – haven’t we slipped through a time warp to late nineties France? Out Of The Blue is more foreboding than it might initially seem, and doesn’t uniformly hang together as a coherent record, but does have something of an idea where it is going and why, and that was important enough for sufficient numbers of people to keep the album in our charts for over two years (although it only peaked at #4).

In reality, Out Of The Blue was probably the last record ELO ever needed to make, and by the time 1979 had rolled around, Lynne was getting a little bored with them; the endless tours (in which he himself noted that the giant spaceship got a better reaction from audiences than the group did), the irksome contractual obligations to keep putting out ELO albums, the blind alley into which he felt the band were being steered. No tours were undertaken to promote Discovery, and on finding out that, with “Don’t Bring Me Down,” he could make a perfectly decent ELO record without any strings, the band’s permanent string section was laid off, to make way for Louis Clark’s forty-piece orchestrations and the fab new Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser Lynne had just gone out and bought.

In other ways the record also represented a reduction in scope; the enormous craft dominating the cover of Out Of The Blue was revealed to be only the jewel in the hands of a spellbound young fellow in a turban - the ELO logo as aesthetic frisbee. In addition, the band, who were now down to a quartet, seem to be there for the sole purpose of performing Lynne’s songs; apart from the occasional Bev Bevan drum flourish, there is no real feeling of individual personalities on Discovery, other than that of Lynne, and the strings which as recently as Out Of The Blue were an integral part of the group’s music now seemed pasted on, superfluous, sidelined.

Keyboardist Richard Tandy coined the alternate title Very Disco for the record, but although the album does pay some attention to what was going around it at the time, only two of its songs – “Shine A Little Love” and “Last Train To London” – really qualify as disco. The first, suddenly emerging from a brooding introduction of abstract electronica and Gregorian chants, represents probably the best use of strings on the record; here, forward motion and impetus are everything, and the song canters along with absolute confidence, and completely in keeping with the sleeve’s Arabian Nights fantasy. Amidst its gallop, however, one clearly hears Lynne, in the vocoderised background, chanting the letters “E! L! O!” as if to remind us of the brand he is promoting. “Last Train To London” also works because of subtle rhythmic trickery, despite the obvious debt of Lynne’s falsetto voice to the brothers Gibb and the CS-80 solo which sounds like nothing so much as an interlude from The Organist Entertains.

Elsewhere, “Confusion” sets an early pace for the Traveling Wilburys, with Orbison-esque vocals and tympani as well as rhetorically dramatic piano and a CS-80 thematic motif which sounds like a fairground calliope. “The Diary Of Horace Wimp” is an extremely silly and unutterably hopeless attempt to recreate the magic of “Mr Blue Sky,” freed from its crucial context; the song’s plot is ickily sentimental and beyond improbable, the repeated references to “You will have! A great life plan!” makes the song sound like an insurance commercial (“Horace Wimp! Reclaim your PPIs!”) and the final references to “10538 Overture” are sad – although momentum put the song, as a single, into the UK top ten, it sounded horrendously dated and out of place in a 1979 which (despite the number one album evidence so far) generally could not wait to get as far away from the sixties as possible.

There is a string of undistinguished ballads; “Need Her Love” tries very hard not to be an outtake from All Things Must Pass fed through the Spirits Having Flown distillery. “Midnight Blue” comes across as a slightly superior Chris de Burgh offering, sung in a voice that can’t decide whether it wants to be de Burgh or 1969 Robin Gibb; and, as with “Horace Wimp,” there is far too much vocoder, as if Lynne had only just bought one and was determined to use it on as many songs as possible. “On The Run” speeds matters back up briefly, but once more sinks into the Voulez-Vous/Brotherhood of Man jolly frolics bearpit, despite the surprising atonal guitar twangs which answer Lynne’s various “again”s. Even slowing the song to half-speed has little effect, and the song soon peters out, dissolving in a whirlpool of electronics as though Lynne had decided: “Fook it.” “Wishing” is a gooey gulp of AoR balladic syrup with a “poignant” high note synth motif which is rather drowned out by the succeeding waves of yet more needless vocoder and which the Nolan Sisters would have thought twice about including on their TV-advertised album 20 Giant Hits.

Finally – and, frankly, thank fuck – there’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and the band, especially Bevan, get at long last to rock out. The imaginative use of sequencers and drum machine patterns embellishes the song’s basic rocking nature, as do some incongruous John Cale piano plinks from Tandy. And it is here that one senses that Lynne feels liberated, from the burden of being The World’s Greatest Classical Rock Band, and is getting back to what he might have mislaid in 1971; it is a Move song in all but name and Roy Wood. Not surprisingly, it was one of the biggest singles of ELO’s career, and both song and album end with a door being shut; presumably on the past.

What do you mean, Sharon, three more albums?

Yes, Lynne was still stuck, yearning to go to the States and work with his heroes (the main bonus track on the CD version of Discovery is a cover of Del Shannon’s “Little Town Flirt”) and maybe also stuck in 1966, or 1961; this is yet another in a line of what are looking like increasingly interchangeable albums for the ten-records-a-year demographic, and apart from Abba and the Bee Gees (and really Leo Sayer could have sung “Last Train To London”), there is little evidence of Lynne even bothering to pay any attention to what else was happening in the music of 1979. Like the album at number one at the time of writing, it is the familiar story of an essentially likeable artist putting out product by rote because he knows that “the public” will lap it up and because he fundamentally knows that he doesn’t need to work any harder. ELO may well have been Earth, Wind and Fire for white college kids, but there is not one song on Discovery that measures up to “Boogie Wonderland” or “After The Love Has Gone.”

Eventually, as I think you’ve realised, there is only so much of this sort of stuff “the public” will take, or accept, and the inevitable reaction will be violent and unexpected, as will be the case with entry #211, a record which is not readily comparable or even relatable to anything else in this tale; at least so far, since the next entry is the first step into “the future.”

Sunday 4 November 2012

ABBA: Voulez-Vous

(#209: 19 May 1979, 4 weeks)

Track listing: As Good As New/Voulez-Vous/I Have A Dream/Angeleyes/The King Has Lost His Crown/Does Your Mother Know/If It Wasn’t For The Nights/Chiquitita/Lovers (Live A Little Longer)/Kisses Of Fire

They look so middle-aged, all of a sudden. All dressed up and scowling, as if about to head out to a board meeting, or make up a bridge foursome. As if to say: we’re a business, let’s look at the annual balance sheets and slip another piece of product out. Abba plc, ABBA™; when they sing on the title track about being the “masters of the scene,” it feels like they are marketing a brand to interested shareholders, prior to flotation. A fitting scenario for the first new album to make number one after Thatcher took power.

It must admittedly have been difficult to work out where Abba could have gone after “I’m A Marionette,” and by this evidence the answer was to fall several leagues behind. Voulez-Vous is a shockingly bad record, perhaps the most complacent and uninvolving album by a major artist in this tale since Goat’s Head Soup. Both opening and closing tracks indicate that there is something seriously amiss; promising introductions (a baroque string arpeggio sequence on “As Good As New,” a ruminative out-of-tempo meditation on “Kisses On Fire”) summarily pummelled by clumsy, ungainly stabs at “disco.” That’s underselling their awfulness; both songs are so badly constructed and performed that Abba sound like…the Brotherhood of Man trying to sound like Abba, complete with Eurovision crescendo finales. The “ma-ma-ma-ma” section on “As Good As New” suggest that they might have been influenced by, of all people, Billy Joel (though there are also touches of Elton and ELO); the key change at the end is sadly inevitable.

For the first time, we see on this record Abba following, rather than dictating, trends, in particular the Bee Gees. This is no idle speculation; some of the album’s songs were written and demoed at Compass Point in Nassau, and the title track was recorded at the Gibbs’ old Miami haunt, Criteria Studios (hence its resemblance to “You Should Be Dancing”). Significantly, Voulez-Vous was also the first Abba album not to produce any UK number one singles; the two tracks that made number two were both in traditional Abba campfire mode, and at least one of these (“Chiquitita”) owed much of its success to its UNICEF fundraising status (the group performed the song at a televised UNICEF benefit concert, and 50% of the royalties from the single were donated to the organisation).

One wonders at how a descent from an album which conceivably could have had four number ones on it (The Album) could be so steep and swift. The answer is to be found in unwieldy beasts like “Lovers (Live A Little Longer)” which is, frankly, a mess; the female voices now sound shrill and piercing (and there are a lot more unison features for Agnetha and Frida and considerably fewer solo ones) as though they had been mixed deliberately to sound like the Bee Gees (on “The King Has Lost His Crown,” they run the risk of sounding like Daleks). This is animatronic Abba; unwrap the icy blue pyramids of the sleeve (you think you’re getting an ultra-modern take on disco? Think again) and you find an artefact that sort of sounds like Abba, but really is ‘phoned-in Abba.

The title track, for instance, starts promisingly with its “Disco Kashmir” guitar and synth riff but quickly deteriorates into a manifesto for what was clearly the group’s “imperial phase,” where “masters of the scene” can be made to sound like “masters of deceit.” Compared with what Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte were doing with Donna Summer at the same time – and if that sounds as though I wish I were writing about Bad Girls instead, you wouldn’t be wrong – this is terribly, ploddingly pedestrian stuff, another four-and-a-half minutes of something wheeled out so that Abba can carry on being Abba for a little while longer. “If It Wasn’t For The Nights” may be an unlikely sequel to the as yet unwritten “The Day Before You Came,” the abandoned girl going about her daily duties, once more to no great purpose, the music finds them reduced to ripping off their own “Dancing Queen” with much less verve; in fact, as well as echoing the (as yet, I think, unwritten) theme song to WKRP in Cincinatti, this song presents an Abba fit for Morecambe and Wise, or Seaside Special, or all-purpose ocean liner “entertainment.”

This play-safe music is unfortunately largely accompanied by laughable lyrics which make one wonder whether Abba really progressed beyond the standards of 1962 girl groups, though I suspect the Crystals and the Shirelles would have shown the door to the corny likes of “Angeleyes” or “The King Has Lost His Crown”; the latter seems to want to be “Grease” (and fades rather abruptly), while the music for the former puts me in mind of what the Associates might have done with it before being ruined by needling, old hat vocals. Amidst all this we get the sententious “Does Your Mother Know” wherein lead singer Björn sounds rather peeved trying to tell the kid in the disco (who only a few years previously was the “dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen”) to lay off hitting on him; as with “Young Girl,” it’s Always The Girl’s Fault for Leading On The Old Man; the song’s use of words like “chick” suggest a Cliff Richard/Festival of Light Bible reading and masterclass (“Teenage Girls! Know Your Place!”). Also, both melody and beat suggest Pete Shelley’s as yet unwritten but infinitely superior “Homosapien.”

That just leaves the two campfire ballads; “I Have A Dream” with its tremulous Frida lead vocal and references to angels, darkness, goodness and failure suggests a still imprisoned Girl with Golden Hair but its music singularly fails to lift the song above Nana Mouskouri/Zorba the Greek level (Mouskouri herself recorded the song in 1983, retitling it “Chanter la Vie”) and becomes unrescueable once the Stockholm kiddie choir become involved. Released as a single in Britain at the end of the year as a lavishly-packaged UK-only "souvenir" for fans who had attended their concerts at Wembley, it was prevented from being the last number one single of the seventies by another record utilising a children’s choir, but with much less sentimentality (“Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)”). “Chiquitita,” meanwhile, is “Fernando” juvenalised and speeded up a little, and while one can imagine Trevor Horn getting quite intrigued by the record’s use of piano, it is difficult to see how anyone could have been moved or affected by this, or any of the other tracks on this record, other than young professional couples buying ten albums a year and occasionally listening to them. And yet the two non-album singles which preceded and succeeded this record are so full of invention, life and spirit that the final verdict has to be they weren’t really trying. Another year, another bunch of Abba songs, and as they would find out themselves, that would no longer be enough. Voulez-Vous? Non.