Thursday 27 June 2013

Barbra STREISAND: Love Songs

(#259: 30 January 1982, 7 weeks;  27 March 1982, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  Memory/You Don't Bring Me Flowers/My Heart Belongs To Me/Wet/New York State Of Mind/A Man I Loved/No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)/Comin' In And Out Of Your Life/Evergreen (Love Theme From "A Star Is Born")/I Don't Break Easily/Kiss Me In The Rain/Lost Inside Of You/The Love Inside/The Way We Were

I was somebody's boyfriend now.  This would mean a lot of trial and error.  But she was who I wanted to try and err with.  - Rob Sheffield, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran

As many of you know, 1982 is a pivotal year; it is in some ways the year for music, that most profound and mysterious thing, to somehow renew itself.  That this album is the top-selling one in the UK for this year is one of its deepest ironies (and it has many).  In some ways it throws a premature damper on the whole year, as if to say meanly, like the scary witch from The Wizard of Oz, "I'll get you my little pretty - and your little dog Toto, too!"

I didn't grow up in a Streisand-friendly household; I wasn't really aware of her fame until our family moved back to Los Angeles in 1977 and my aunt Debbie showed up to greet us with an odd hairdo that she said she got because she thought Streisand was cool; I could barely recognize her under it, at first. (I think I also saw a parody or two of her movies in Mad magazine, but they were mean to everyone, really.)  In listening to this album I began to understand the chasm between what was and still is considered "proper" and "correct" popular music and this other thing that we have already encountered more than once here:  New Pop.  To anyone who doesn't get why New Pop had to happen or indeed what it was up against, I suggest they listen to Love Songs.  (Note:  This album has four more songs than its American equivalent, Memories, the extra songs being the two songs from Wet and two from Songbird, "A Man I Loved" and "I Don't Break Easily.") 

But first I do want to say that I know that there are those out there who like Streisand, who love her voice - a voice that for them can do no wrong.  And I know you might be opposed to the idea that she could be in the way of anything, that surely she is beside it or bigger than it.  But look at those weeks, I suggest.  This album (a perverse idea for a Valentine's Day gift, now that I think of it - more on that later) sold tons, obscuring the actual vivid New Pop movement, like a stubborn cloud that keeps blocking the sun, stopping hapless albums like Haircut 100's Pelican West, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret by Soft Cell or heck, even Simon and Garfunkel's The Concert in Central Park from getting to the top.  Instead, here's Streisand with over an hour of...memories.

The album starts off promisingly enough with the song "Memory" from Cats - Streisand does the West End, so far, so good...always nice to note T.S. Eliot's got a place here at Then Play Long...but this comes too soon after the superior Elaine Paige version.  Yes, I said superior.  Why?  Paige may not have the range Streisand has, but I don't have to vault over Paige's ego to hear the song and be moved by it.  Nor does Paige sing "Life was beautiful then" (followed by a small laugh) - no, it is "I was beautiful then" and in making it personal, Paige gets to the heart of the matter.  Clearly this song was chosen to fit in with the theme, and not because it is a show tune that Streisand (usually so good at them) can fully put across.  Listening to it I felt only that the new day beginning was one the old cat wanted to hoard, and that "Touch ME!" plea wasn't so much a plea as an order.

The next 'love song' is her duet with fellow outerborough legend Neil Diamond, "You Don't Bring Me Flowers."  With this, one of the flaws of the albums is revealed - that other people are more believable than Streisand is, with the odd result of this seeming to be not a duet but two people's recordings mashed up, just as the idea happened in the first place.  Diamond is the husband, coming home after a hard day's work and he doesn't even get a kiss or a hug; and he sounds fed up with it.  She complains - it seems all she does in complain in this song - until I want to tell her, you know, if you weren't so busy pitying yourself you might realize that you can send him flowers and maybe get some in return?  And then he might sing you a love song, and then, and then...but this is the Couples Therapy Anthem, with neither of them able to say goodbye, or mysteriously able to make the first move.  He's trying to talk to her, she keeps looking in the mirror; I pity the person who does try to get them on the same wavelength.  Diamond's voice is what makes this song at all bearable.

And now, "My Heart Belongs To Me"- from that inexplicably popular movie/soundtrack, A Star Is Born.  I have little to say here, save that this sounds like 70s tv drama music, and made me think of how hopeless Streisand is as a rock singer - that as straightforward as she can be, she worries too much and is too mannered to truly cut loose and her directions to her man - "put out the light, close your eyes" - are the exact opposite of what she wants in the previous song.  (And the title reminds me of "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" - emphasis on the "me.")  Patti Labelle could have done justice to this song, perhaps...

Until now I didn't feel that itchiness I so often feel when considering the 70s (and this album is all from the 70s/early 80s) but with "Wet" (title track of her album from '79, which did comparatively little business in the UK) I started to feel that unpleasant later-version-Stylistics feeling again.  "Wet" is a word association song, greeting card pop, a ballad that only David Jacobs* could bother with now.  It is slow, attempts to be delicate - there is no part where Streisand really raises her voice - and yet what is the point of being reminded that "tears are wet" which then leads to the forced/CBI** ending, "Wet is love/wet is me."  The song dissolves in the end, or rather melts, a kind of still pool of Narcissus.  A future TPL entry will discuss tears and their worth; sometimes in listening to this album I felt as if it was the negative that the New Pop positive peels away from, as in film.

From there it's on to...Billy Joel?  Oh yes, it is.  "New York State Of Mind" is actually one of his songs I don't mind, as I can feel the world-weary-but-ya-gotta-love-New Yawk-don't-ya feelings he has; it's a love song written to a place that has seen better days, by someone who loves it anyway.  That doesn't really happen here; Streisand tries to sound all homegirl and down with it, but it sounds more like she's trying way too hard to actually be believable.  Taking a Greyhound girl?  Really?  At the end she emotes and even scat sings, as if to show that is what is appropriate with this kind of song, in a way that someone actually from Brooklyn doesn't need to do.  I mean, how would fellow New Yorker Laura Nyro sing this?  Or Carole King?  They would put you right there on the hot pavement, reading the papers, walking around like Shaft...but Streisand just goes for that high note, her love for New York nowhere to be found.  I remember the "I Love New York" tv commercials and they were more believable than this.  The saxophone player here is trying his best, by the way, to make this into something genuinely good, but it's pretty much in vain.

"A Man I Loved" is a strange song; the lyrics are part promise, part threat, and the subject is...God?  John Lennon?  "The dream is over/I don't wanna hear."  "Someday he will happen to you."  "Softly he whispers" Streisand sings, while the background singers too loudly go "AAAAAH-AAAAHHH."  This could be some kind of secret song about her father (who died before she was two) but there's something uneasy about this being in the past tense, let alone the idea that he isn't so much a kindly prescence but one who haunts.  If there is any real center of feeling here it's with this song, a kind of scary fragment of unprocessed grief, and she for once doesn't want her suffering to be so explicit, or rewarded with applause.

And now, another 'love song'...Donna Summer was at her height of popularity when she and Streisand recorded "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" and it's the only time the album actually picks up speed, becomes modern, and climbs out of its sonambulent and lacrymose tendencies.  And once again, Streisand is upstaged by Summer, who clearly has - again - more believablility here.  "I always dreamed I'd find the perfect lover" Streisand sings, and Erich Fromm headdesks somewhere.  It's a break-up anthem, all right, but that word "perfect" sticks out in the song as an impossible ideal - you wonder what this boredom is all about, his or hers?  Whatever, she's had enough, and the poor guy is out the door like an old sofa or stereo system, to be replaced and no doubt replaced again.  No space for trial and error, no negotiations, even. 

I had some hopes for "Comin' In And Out Of Your Life" but found it to Marcello said, "two steps away from Lionel Richie."  As an r'n'b ballad it would be fine done by Celine Dion, for instance, who could actually make a line like "I don't need to touch you to feel you" make sense; who could make her longing to be a more permanent feature in the Other's existence real. 

"Evergreen (Love Theme From 'A Star Is Born')" is kind of unnecessary here (it's been on two other #1 albums already) but here it is again.  I have no quibble with the soppy music - Paul Williams used to scare me as a kid but doesn't anymore - it's the lyrics that make no sense.  It's Abigail's Party time all over again, with so many cliches about what love is like that I felt I was stuck in the awful 70s cartoon Love Is...surrounded by oddly sexless/naked figures who would say things like "Love...soft as an easy chair" and "rose under the April snow" (which must lead to "The Rose"/The Rose) and burble about how something can be new and fresh every day and also sturdy like an evergreen....  "Time won't change the meaning of our love."  Oh yes it will; yes it will, indeed.  This is love sung about - and they are Streisand's own words here - by someone who is more in love with love than actually has experience as to what genuine love is.  I am going to quote Rob Sheffield again, as he puts it better than I can:

"Love can do whatever it wants to you.  And it's a lot meaner than you are.  (And then love starts talking to you the way Kirk Douglas talks to Jane Greer in Out of the Past.)  It won't be quick.  It'll break you first.  You won't be able to answer the phone or walk around in your own apartment without wondering, is this it?  And when it does come, it still won't be quick.  And it won't be pretty."   

This is not the kind of love that Streisand sings about; the kind that takes over your life slowly, breaking you down, the kind of overwhelming experience that such an album as Love Songs cannot hope to bring to life, so funereal and fundamentally sad an album as it is.

And so it continues:  "I Don't Break Easily" is yet another break-up song, her being "blinded by your firelight" and having "all the very best of me" taken, only to throw out all his stuff and remove his name from the door, because once again he has failed to please her in some way; or perhaps he was just too much for this tough lady, who's going to show him what for.  Once again I get that itchy feeling that this is all bluster and if she was serious she'd change the locks; but she doesn't.  Or that once love actually stops being new and fresh and exciting, and begins to settle into something more predictable and less wildly romantic, she wants him out.  And then sings mournfully about how she's suffered.  (In a moment of meta-ness, I imagine Neil Diamond coming back home to find Striesand listening to Love Songs, instead of saying hello, even.)  But really - are any of these songs "love songs"?

I suppose "Kiss Me In The Rain" (from, you guessed it, Wet) is one, though it is more about, yes, memories.  "Bring back those memories" she sings, "Come join me in my fantasy."  She wants to go back to feeling like a child here, going back to her first romance, out there in the rain she doesn't mind if she gets wet - nor does she mind, I guess, a terrible rock guitar solo.  All this remembering, all these memories.  It is at this time that another song called "Memories" is sung by a young Whitney Houston on Material's album One Down (saxophone solo by Archie Shepp) - just to show that a nation that voted for Ronald Reagan is not entirely ruled by sentiment or nostalgia.

"Lost Inside Of You" is a fine Leon Russell song that he co-wrote with Streisand; and it sounds very much like his song, with interesting chord changes and a bit more grit and soul than can be found elsewhere here; she still manages to sound more like an air raid siren than is necessary - the longing of the song, the "songs you sing, love you bring" is more suited to Karen Carpenter, which is to say again Streisand is not that believable here, good as the song is.  i suppose we can be grateful that it's not the A Star Is Born version, with Kris Kristofferson; this would either make this album worse than it already is, or point to how, yet again, someone else is more believeable than Streisand herself. 

I know there are Bee Gees fans out there who feel that they get slated for their lyrics, and feel that others shouldn't be so mean about them.  "The Love Inside," though, isn't one of the better songs to use in their defence.  "The dream we sailed was far and wide" is one thing, but "I got me loving you" is just bad grammar, even if it does mean something.  (I'm still not sure what it means.)  Yet another break-up song, this mysterious love inside (where else is it?) is supposed to last even though "The word is goodbye."  Streisand has definite problems with her lower register here, and does her best with the Gibbian syntax, though say Julee Cruise could actually make it work (or again, Donna Summer).

And now, the end:  "The Way We Were" is (of course) the only way to end this album: a song that is the oldest one here, and the most forthright in saying that things aren't just remembered; they are forgotten, too.  (Though I wonder at the line "we simply choose to forget"; if only this was so.)  The way we were has metamorphosed through time, to become the way we are now; and so the album ends, finally acknowledging that looking back isn't really needed, that when you look back you just see what you want to see.  "Memories may be beautiful" she sings, pointing to the fact that they may not be all that beautiful, and that this whole album is not so much waiting for that new sun to rise as mourning the loss of the old one and being unable to move on, so hobbled by sentiment and soppiness and old pictures (the inner sleeve shows a table with a pink floral table cloth, with a fancy teacup and lace napkin, some lilies lying artfully on their side, with photos from her movies all around - the only photo with any real life being the non-studio one taken with Neil Diamond, where he looks all bearded and proto-indie, and she looks pleased to be with him).

So who bought Love Songs?  From its themes and pace and being advertised on tv, I can only assume women of a certain age - I have called them The Housewives of Valium Court - are the ones here, the same women who bought her other albums and who will probably only buy another one this year, which this blog will get to in good time.  It is an album of remembrance; of longing; but not really of love, unless you count the sufferings of love.  Like Cliff Richard, Streisand doesn't really know what to do with love once she has it; unlike Cliff, she cannot see that people change, circumstances change, and that it's not anyone's fault; it's how life is.  That this should be #1 on Valentine's Day is painful, as if to say that love is all sad and full of boredom and break-ups, that love has nothing to do with joy, true sorrow, giddiness, the feeling that every air mote, every atom, feels different, is charged with a kind of power that is indeed stronger than you, bigger than you.  That love isn't about a search for perfection (doomed) but a kind of realistic hope and willingness to work with what you've got.  Love isn't about memories, mostly, because love is centered in the here and now.  And it begins to turn, curdle, if memories are all it has to live on.

This would be a powerful album if only I could believe the singer.  Streisand counts herself as an actress who sings, not vice versa, and yet these are all performances mainly to amuse...herself?  Someone who mistakes the signifier for the signified?  Or perhaps she is acting here, but not reaching deep enough within herself to really bring these songs into any kind of three-dimensional life.  I wasn't really moved much by this album, which is supposed to be so moving; the only times it came to life for me were when others appeared, including, yes, Barry Gibb as a backing singer.   

By early 1982 I was listening (as was Rob Sheffield) to The Go-Go's Beauty and the Beat and still ditching classes and listening to CFNY whenever I could, getting more and more comfortable in a world away from Streisand and general MOR pop.  I was beginning to understand the chasm I mentioned, the one between this old, exhausting and (to me, anyway) 70s way of constantly harping on about the past.  The Go-Go's had a song about "Fading Fast" which was all about forgetting that boy who lied; they were about being active and out there, as opposed to this passivity that is so overdone that the very act of remembrance itself is so dramatized that actual feelings are drowned out.  It is an album where the listener has to bring his/her own experiences to bear; Streisand is not giving her all here, just as she is not really "there" on the album cover; this is me, blankly looking at the camera, slightly bored, expressionless.  On the back she looks away, beyond the viewer, the camera, lost in her own world of 'deep feeling' I suppose.  Even superficially then, she isn't engaging with anything, it really is all signs and received knowledge. 

Maybe that was enough for many people, but for a different generation, a different scene, it was barely enough to go on, at best.

Next up:  "a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts/Hanging their old love letters on the line to dry."  No kidding, Mr. Weller.               

*Octogenarian BBC Radio 2 broadcaster who plays what he calls "our kind of music" - show tunes, standards, string/flute-heavy instrumental versions of same - very late on Sunday night.  He is in many ways a personficiation of what Radio 2 once was, and for that matter still is.

**Crushing Biblical Inevitability.  Sadly, there's a lot of this here.



Sunday 16 June 2013

ABBA: The Visitors

(#258: 19 December 1981, 3 weeks)

Track listing: The Visitors/Head Over Heels/When All Is Said And Done/Soldiers/I Let The Music Speak/One Of Us/Two For The Price Of One/Slipping Through My Fingers/Like An Angel Passing Through My Room

(Author’s Note: Some editions of this album give the title track a subtitle: “(Crackin’ Up).”)

“Unlike English, the Scandinavian languages are word poor. With William the Conqueror in 1066 and the infusion of Latinate French into Anglo-Saxon, what we now know as English evolved. And yet, it’s exactly their poverty of vocabulary that gives writers possibilities in the Scandinavian languages that English writers don’t have. A word like lys in Norwegian – which means both light and candle – allows repetitions, ambiguities, and depths that aren’t possible in English. Lys is a word heavy with the knowledge of darkness, of summer and winter, of precious long days of light opposed to long days of murk and clouds…Perhaps the darkness lies behind the omnipresent candles in Scandinavian households, too, lit even during the day and shining in rooms at night. The northern experience of darkness and light is untranslatable. The contrast between them has to be lived in the body.”
(Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking: Sceptre, 2012. From the essay “Some Musings On The Word Scandinavia")

There have been occasions previously in this tale when I have asked you to go and read, or do, something else, before carrying on with the next chapter, in order that you might understand it better. This is another such occasion, but where do I stop? I could ask you to go and watch a wide selection of the films, both for large and small screen, by Ingmar Bergman, or to go and listen to a lot of other records, but either could take a lifetime. With Bergman I would suggest that for now you have another look at 1978’s Autumn Sonata, where cinema’s other Bergman of note, Ingrid, plays a recently widowed concert pianist who pays a visit to her partly estranged daughter Eva (played by Liv Ullmann), and in the course of which we gradually discover what drove a wedge between the two, realising that it was Bergman’s Charlotte who did most of the driving. As she pitilessly points out the mistakes in her daughter’s essays at Chopin, the feelings of the mother in “Slipping Through My Fingers” may well be borne in mind, as may the fact that the film drew heavily on Bergman’s own recent life, and the knowledge that one of her real-life daughters will within a decade be discovering Kyle MacLachlan in a wardrobe.

But I would really be grateful if, before reading the rest of this essay at Abba, you could read James Joyce’s Dubliners collection of linked short stories. Linked because they all take place in or around middle-class turn-of-the-twentieth-century Dublin, and also because the fifteen tales systematically progress from a very childish and superficial view of death (“The Sisters”) to a coldly mature view (“The Dead”), Joyce, until the last three or so paragraphs of “The Dead,” steadily avoids flourish and poetry, preferring matter-of-fact, quasi-dispassionate descriptions of people and events. To be acknowledged is the cumulative realisation that Dublin, as a city or a state of largely familial mind, can never be escaped; the woman who turns round at the end of “Eveline” and doesn’t get on the boat with Frank, the boy who only gets to the Araby bazaar when the market is closing up and there is nothing left, the over-careful bank clerk in “A Painful Case” whose refusal to embrace love leads to someone else’s physical death, as well as his own spiritual one. There is also the over-pushy mother of the perhaps under-talented pianist daughter in “A Mother” who again recalls the protagonist of “Slipping Through My Fingers.”

Largely, though, and selfishly, I want you to read Dubliners, perhaps somewhere by the North Sea, or in the middle of Christ Church Meadow at high autumn, because it was on my first year English Literature reading list, and it left the sort of impression you might expect the book to have made on a highly impressionable seventeen-year-old first-year English student. But also because I want to try to recreate what life was like for me back in the last three months of 1981, and hence the milieu from which this and so many other records sprang.

What you have to understand – and it is perhaps a very superficial and certainly a very commonplace thing – is that being away from home, and at university, turned the world a different way for me. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Everything and everybody looked, sounded and felt somewhat different; even the golden brown shades of mid-autumn sun beaming down upon the ancient college stonework. It was rather like being in the middle of a waking dream; nothing seemed quite real, all came across as slightly more fantastical than what I had come to expect from life thus far.

I don’t know that I was homesick, but I did feel unexpectedly disorientated. My father’s death a few months beforehand had me realise, far too early, that a person I had expected to be there for ever no longer existed. I was abruptly on my own, and if I’d been substantially older I’d probably have lived with it a lot better.

Hence that autumn and early winter of 1981 proved to be all about darkness and notions – and maybe idealisations – of death, impermanence. The music of the period mostly seemed to be pointing in this direction, too; Ian Curtis had been gone nearly eighteen months, but nearly all of what I heard and absorbed appeared to form part of an extended funeral rite, or memorial. New Order’s own Movement, for a start; disjointed, dissolute, oblique, patient, evidently painful, and a commemoration of a past which the group themselves knew they had left behind them. The astounding second side of Wilder by the Teardrop Explodes, with its triptych of slow, mourning epics (“Tiny Children,” “…And The Fighting Takes Over,” “The Great Dominions”) and its nightmare cover of erupting flowers. Anything with a solemn synthesiser on it (Jon and Vangelis’ “I’ll Find My Way Home”). Even things like Cope’s Scott Walker retrospective, Fire Escape In The Sky, which essentially reopened that neglected man’s book (and at Christmas I discovered, via a still in-print copy of Nite Flights, that this was indeed only the tip of a huge and potentially ruinous iceberg), or the Pretenders’ reading of “I Go To Sleep,” with its “Decades”-echoing harpsichord arpeggios (see also “Spirits In The Material World”). “Under Pressure,” which sounded like the final cry of the world prior to irreversible apocalypse. Or “When You Were Sweet Sixteen,” an unexpected Top 20 hit that season for the Fureys and Davey Arthur (remembering the Michael Furey who is the ghost at the centre of “The Dead”’s labyrinth). Or Japan’s Tin Drum, with the irreducible, pop music-altering “Ghosts” and “Sons Of Pioneers” which repeatedly, if gently, comes at us like Weather Report opening an early morning Christmas present of changed human behaviour. Or Robert Wyatt’s contributions to Epic Soundtracks’ “Jelly Babies” or Scritti Politti’s “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”or…I could go on.

Or the way in which even the records themselves looked different under the low-lit red lights of the typical late 1981 record shop (in and out of which I seemed to wander into eternal darkness; even something like Julio Iglesias’ re-imagining of “Begin The Beguine” sounded dreamlike, as in, was this genuinely, in 1981, happening?), the magnified importance of red and black on covers like The Flowers Of Romance or Ghost In The Machine or Queen’s Greatest Hits - they all looked other. As did the album currently under consideration.

There was, for me, the main record event of immediate pre-Christmas 1981 – a particularly snowy one, as I recall – which was ECM’s long overdue original format reissue of – you guessed it - Escalator Over The Hill, complete with gold leaf box and full booklet with pictures of musicians and so forth. A snip at the £13.49 which I paid for it (in 1981, fittingly, that was otherwise enough to buy you three single albums).

But, above all, for me, there were the Associates, Dundee’s finest (since, and perhaps including, the Average White Band), who throughout 1981 had been quietly issuing a rapid-fire series of singles which altered the way pop looked and sounded. These were in part collected on the Fourth Drawer Down compilation which appeared at the end of 1981 (as did Buzzcocks’ peerless Singles Going Steady collection) – although are fully collected on the CD reissue (with stray things like “Blue Soap” etc.) – and for me represented a startling standard to which the rest of pop really had to live up to, or try to surpass.

I still don’t know how Billy and Alan did it. I have been to the house in which they conceived these songs, up on Carlton Hill, five minutes’ walk from the Abbey Road Studios, with an unexpected downhill view of the Trellick Tower at the bottom of the street, and looking at its unprepossessing air it is a wonder that so much extraordinary art was conceived within it. “Kitchen Person” combined Barry Ryan hysteria with Michael Mantler doom in ways that have not yet been exceeded. “Q Quarters” stands as alone and scared as it did thirty-two years ago. But “White Car In Germany” was the one; there is a YouTube clip of the group, including Martha Ladly (did I mention Martha and the Muffins’ This Is The Ice Age, on which the younger Daniel Lanois cut his production chops?), miming to the song on German television, and they look as though they already have it made – this was the last song before 1982’s historic mainstream breakthrough, and what a song; so slow, so patient, so pained, and eventually Billy’s voice vanishes into the higher heavens as vibraphone and synthesised choir lead us out of the soaring dream of ideals, and perhaps out of Ian Curtis mourning – and immediately trip us up with a dream-interrupted false ending.

I don’t know whether I would feel the same way about approaching this piece if I hadn’t recently heard the Glenn Gregory/B.E.F. version of “Party Fears Two” which appears on Dark, a.k.a. Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume 3 - and note how the title Dark is only one letter away from Dare. The instrumentation is nearly minimal – just Gregory’s voice, Keith Lowndes’ piano and discreet electronics from Martyn Ware – but it stands as a deeply moving tribute to a man who, had he lived, would beyond question have appeared on all three volumes. The song is a tricky one to tackle at the best of times, but Gregory doesn’t try to copy Billy; he simply brings something of himself, and I suspect his own grief, to the song. The arrangement recasts the melody as a 6/8 Bacharach ballad, but listening to it, the listener gradually becomes aware that Gregory – in my opinion now singing better than he has ever done – is turning into, or is being slowly taken over by, Billy, and that had Billy done the song this way, this is the way he would have done it.

This version was first performed in 2007, at a memorial concert to mark the tenth anniversary of Billy’s passing, and it is possibly naïve of me to expect others to be moved by it as I have been; this is the song which brought New Pop to the boil, this is the song which, a generation later, brought Lena and me together, this is a song containing many ghosts but also multiple futures. So it endures, I believe, as a very belated postscript to the end of 1981, a calmly devastated performance of a song whose construction had largely been influenced by the work of Abba.

(and I note how the climactic mention of “Abba” there marked the 1,981st word in this piece)

With all of this in mind, it is time to bring ourselves to what is, as far as this tale is concerned, the actual end of 1981.

“Where have they been?”

“Pushed to the limit, we drag ourselves in.”

I don’t know what, or if, Björn or Benny would have thought about the death of Ian Curtis, and therefore of Joy Division. It is extremely possible that, out there in Stockholm, they heard nothing. But so much of The Visitors is drenched with a dread of death that comparisons cannot be avoided, whether it’s the title track as “Atrocity Exhibition” or “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room” as “Decades.”

And this is to say nothing of the intentionally overbearing cover of the album, its brown-red hues so fitting and unreal under late 1981 record shop lights. They are in a room lit by only two light sources, a red table lamp to the left, and a bright, golden, unidentifiable light to the right, and it is to the latter that they mostly appear to be looking (except for Benny, who, slightly amused, stares back at the red light). The relative absence of light turns them into their own, huge shadows; the room is bisected by a huge painting which looks ready almost to swallow everyone and everything else in it. The painting itself, flanked by rows of other, smaller paintings, is Julius Kronberg’s Eros. The top of the painting is not quite visible, and its positioning and structure are such that it threatens to engulf or drown what it looks down upon. They therefore cannot, or will not, acknowledge love. The redness itself could be a volcano, or the blood of a vampire. The floor is photographed such that they might be drowning.

The light at which they are staring is as imprecise and unascribable as that in the attaché case of Kiss Me Deadly or Pulp Fiction.

If Super Trouper represented their passing out of this world, does The Visitors find Abba in hell?

They never completed another studio album, even though The Visitors had not been particularly designed to be their last. Listening to it even then, it was difficult to see how or where they could have gone from here, except to nothing. But it was also one of the very first albums to be recorded digitally, as well as one of the first albums to make the transition to compact disc, in 1982, that year of restless change.

Like Abbey Road, one gets the feeling that the group are getting out of the way of the future. Alternatively, they may have realised that they have made the mistake of going backwards; for if any meaningful comparisons are going to be made between Abba and Ingmar Bergman, it is that Abba’s progression, as such, appears to have been the exact reverse of Bergman’s. If the later Bergman pictures – by which I mean everything from Persona onwards – have anything in common with the younger Abba it is the knowledge that he could now loosen up on his methodical and slightly mechanical solemnity, find a greater gravity with a lighter, or more knowing, approach, realise that by becoming his own subject – in conjecture with his “family” of performers – he could give us a clearer and more profound picture about how and why acting interfaces with life, suggesting at times that acting could almost be the life. Affectation is absent, and life and reality are more soundly handled in films such as Shame, Cries And Whispers and Fanny And Alexander.

Substitute music for acting, and the same could be said of Abba, but the older and further away from each other they became, they reverted to the old, gruelling Bergman of Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring (that having been said, the song “The Visitors” is to Hour Of The Wolf what Scott Walker’s “The Seventh Seal” is to the film which inspired it); over-exacting and determinedly miserable portraits of decay and loss, seemingly carved with a scalpel. The misguided “Two For The Price Of One” – even at this late stage, there was still a track available for Björn
and Benny to sing – can be reasonably compared with Bergman’s early attempts at comedy (especially Waiting Women); the cringe-inducing payoff does not conceal the subject matter of this song, which appears to be about call girls, troilism and incest.

It is perhaps this sense of walking death, the suspicion of cod liver oil bludgeoning, which meant that The Visitors only lasted three weeks at the top, over Christmas, following which the number one slot was reclaimed by the partially Abba-inspired Human League, displaying the sure handling and balancing of light and darkness of which Abba had once been capable. Moreover, the songs are clumsier, did not, by the composers’ own admission, come so easily. Relations in the studio were frosty; there was the high probability that the four musicians were getting bored of each other’s company. Whether an intention to bow out ever reared its head is not entirely clear, but most of the record plays as though any way back has been ruthlessly fenced off.

The smokescreen on the title track was that it was about Soviet dissidents – and the song was duly banned in that country, with its mentions of secret meetings and quiet voices – but in truth Frida is singing about paranoia and steady mental degeneration, the kind perhaps only known to the fear-filled rich, worried about what had recently happened with Lennon. The chilly glockenspiel-like keyboard figure that descends from “I hear the doorbell ring” represents arteries frozen to the heart, and it is clear that any noises and movement “ominously tearing through the silence” are happening only in the singer’s head. She stands amidst what she thought constituted her life – “The books, the paintings and the furniture/Help me” – but which has only proven to be a substitute for living; nobody she knows comes to see her any more, and it may therefore be a relief (“I have been waiting for these visitors/Help me”) when she thinks deliverance is coming. If there are any Beatles comparisons to be made, the song’s verses are far closer to “Within You, Without You” than “Tomorrow Never Knows” although Frida’s ululations over the drone are occasionally predicative of Elizabeth Frazer, while the chorus jerks along like an unwilling “Mamma Mia,” never resting or convincing even itself that it lives within reason.

And who are these “visitors” anyway?

The lead single “One Of Us” might be the strangest song on the record. Their last major hit, it briefly recalls the “Fernando”s of old with its wordless lost shepherdess chorus before dropping into a reggae-pop beat which Culture Club had not yet popularised. Why is Agnetha singing “one of us is lonely” rather than “I am lonely”? She blames herself (“You were, I felt/Robbing me/Of my rightful chances”) and is now regretting her loneness, but it is hardly a credible sequel to “The Winner Takes It All.” Is the “you” even a spurned lover, or does the plurality of “us” suggest a larger listenership?

One answer is that it could be a sequel to “Head Over Heels,” released as a single in Britain without fanfare and their first single to fall short of the Top 20 since 1975. It does its best to reach back to the purposeful, single-minded Abba of even four years previously, but can’t reach those waters any more; there is a theatrical tango, but its propulsion is tangled up in a mesh of qualifying minor chords. It attempts to be happy but fundamentally is unhappy. Perhaps the protagonist of “One Of Us” is the ambitious, overachieving subject of “Head Over Heels” with her (as she sees it) slow and dimwit husband whom she is clearly impatient to leave behind (“She’s extreme/If you know/What I mean”). She pushes through unknown jungles, runs the gauntlet in a whirl of lace, and wants everything but doesn’t seem too happy when she gets it. Is the song about Mrs Thatcher, or Princess Diana? The not really resolving series of solemn minor chords which ends the song does nothing to dispel the sense of artificial disturbance.

On “When All Is Said And Done,” lead singer Frida gets commendably to the point. Gone is even the residue of sixties idealism on “Our Last Summer”; here she simply states, we’re finished, it’s nobody’s fault, we changed or the world changed and we didn’t notice, or couldn’t keep up. Despite the self-mocking but partly defiant couplet which includes the only mention of the word “sex” in any Abba song, the surface ennui conceals a profounder tragedy – they are in a café (“One more toast/And then we’ll/Pay the bill”) and they are parting. No more dancing to the old music; they have seen too much, too much has happened to them, for that to work now. And yet we leave the pair at the crossroads (“No desire to run/There’s no hurry/Any more”); they cannot quite make the final cut, cannot tell themselves that they do not still love each other.

“Soldiers” was the subject of much criticism in 1981, being interpreted as a straightforward salute to allegedly brave freedom-fighters, but I think it is a lot more complex and unsettling than that; both bass and keyboards point the way to the autumnal second side of New Gold Dream, while the song and lyric themselves are strongly reminiscent of 1980’s “This Fear Of Gods” (“Someone singing in the shower”). The song’s gait is subtly ungainly, and we are told that soldiers sing the songs that “you and I” don’t; the line “You’d think that nothing in the world was wrong” recalls Joy Division’s “Transmission” (“We could go on as though nothing was wrong”) and there seems little in the way of joy or celebration at work here; more a resigned sense of dread – “If the bugler/Starts to play/We too must dance.” References to the “beast” “stirring” remind us that Abba, like true Swedes, had to maintain political neutrality, but clearly this was harder to achieve with every year and every new hint of oppression that bled through. A thunderstorm drawing near in a cold December (“in the grip of this cold December,” no less, and that “grip” is crucial)? “Let’s not look the other way” – for fear of the “blinding light”? Remember that this was still 1981, and the nuclear threat had certainly not gone away; thus “Soldiers” is by no means a reassuring song.

“I Let The Music Speak” is an obvious advance from its predecessor’s “Andante, Andante,” an elaborate song about the mechanics of writing music and the effect that it can have on a composer or a performer. Although Frida sings (and somehow possesses) the song, it was Björn’s concept and perhaps shows him beginning to move away from the notion of “Abba”; an earnest orchestration and successive trapdoors of unexpected chord changes suggest that the group was no longer enough for its writers – the song is clearly a halfway house between The Girl With The Golden Hair and Chess, but note the continued cries, the constant need to surrender to the music, as one might surrender to an army.

“Slipping Through My Fingers” was sung by Agnetha, and was about her and Björn’s daughter Linda – then aged seven – starting school. As an adult song it is heartbreaking, not the less for being a million miles away from “Waterloo” and that song’s own jejeune notions of surrender; the child is leaving, departing, changing, and not too bothered about it (“Waving goodbye/With an absent-minded smile”). The mother looks on and knows that something in herself has begun to die. The child is growing up, always slightly beyond her mother’s grasp or understanding, such that the mother has begun to pine and maybe even to mourn; she views sleepy breakfasts as a squandering of precious time, and she knows that, little by little, the girl she sends out to school every morning is not quite the same girl who will return in the afternoon; she will have learned a little more, grown a little more, changed a little more. And, rather than enjoy the here and now, her mother wants to freeze these moments, and perhaps freeze life. She begins to mourn: “What happened to the wonderful adventures?/The places I had planned for us to go?/Well, some of that we did…but most, we didn’t.”

Perhaps – so many “perhaps”es when it comes to Abba – the child is the same girl who will leave home forever in “I Wonder (Departure)” with her own optimistic sadness. But there is no mention of children in “When All Is Said And Done,” just as there is no mention of any father or husband in “Slipping Through My Fingers.” It is the awful, sober realisation that the shallow promises of even six or seven years earlier couldn’t be followed through – that there is nothing to look forward to, except nothingness.

And so we arrive at Frida, uniquely alone – the only Abba song to be as such – on “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room” – does she even have a house any more? – old, maybe prematurely so, and everybody and everything has gone, outlived, or lost, by her. “Long awaited darkness falls” – as long awaited as those visitors, if they themselves do not represent Death – and she is sitting by the embers of her fireplace, which die out as the song progresses. Comparisons with Richard Strauss’ “Im Abendrot” may not be fanciful (“O vast, tranquil peace,/So deep in the evening’s glow!/How weary we are of wandering - /Is this perhaps a hint of death?”) since there is a definite kinship in terms of finality of purpose and thought. “Love was one prolonged good-bye,” Frida muses, to the accompaniment of nothing much save celeste, minimalist synthesiser and drum machine. She sees images float by her closed eyes and wonders: was that all there was? As she stops singing, as if to go to sleep, and the song ends, the clock which has been ticking all the way throughout continues ticking for a short while, then stops.

I am not sure that we have experienced such a phenomenon before in this tale – an album which ends with its protagonist dying (and that includes things like Carousel and West Side Story, where the last voice is not that of the deceased person, although an argument could be made for My Fair Lady - does Eliza return to Higgins only in his afterlife?). It is a terrible dwindling down even from the half-dissatisfied Abba of the Greatest Hits days, though some might argue that the germination of their decline was already there, clear for anyone with eyes to see. And we know that, at the time of writing, none of these people has actually died; they are all still active in their own individual ways. We know that shortly after completing her work on The Visitors Frida will record a solo album with Phil Collins producing – Collins, whose Face Value ended with a cover of…”Tomorrow Never Knows.” You may also be aware that this will not be the last Abba entry on Then Play Long, not even within the group’s own lifetime. There is still a summary and an important postscript to come in a year which will owe much of its goodness to Abba. But The Visitors feels like an ending, even to an afterlife; look at the back cover of the record, where all we see is a wall of paintings, including many angels and cherubs – and isn’t that Eros again, and isn’t it much smaller on the front? But what’s that at bottom centre, next to a source of light we haven’t seen before? It’s the front cover, and they are just subjects of another painting, another closing book in a procession of reproductions. And we try looking closer and wondering if it shows nothing except shadows.

It’s not the happiest of endings, is it?
You again.
I read Dubliners. Good Lord, “The Dead”!
That’s one way of putting it.
And Huston tried to film that?
It wasn’t very good. We were sympathetic because we knew it would be his last film. But, right at the end, with those paragraphs, he gives up, lets Gabriel Byrne’s voiceover just read the unfilmable.
And those words resonated with you in 1981?
I’m not sure they stopped resonating. It’s hard. To look at a whole culture and see that it possesses a dead centre. Existing only because Michael Furey wouldn’t stay in bed and Ian Curtis…well…
What did you make of 1981?
In terms of number one albums? It’s hard to draw a straight line. Adam and the Ants to the Human League? Cliff Richard and Charles and Diana? Star Sound to Shakin’ Stevens? It does strike me that a lot of these records don’t know what love is, or even what newness was. To put it plain, the ones which stayed in their safe past were doomed, while the ones unafraid to look forward were the ones which are going to be remembered. That’s all I can glean from it. What can I say? It was a year of singles. So was 1982.
That doesn’t sound promising.
The album chart likes to maintain business as usual; so much so that a future entry will be named after that tendency. Anybody expecting an avalanche of New Pop is going to be severely disappointed…
With one violent exception.
I know. It’s getting closer and closer.
Nervous about it?
Not as nervous as I would have been if I’d known nothing about the record.
No call for darkness or slow, agonising daylight, then?
Don’t be impertinent. Everyone who comes to a record with the purpose of writing about it should have their own story. That’s a key thing about music writing; if the record is telling a story, then any writer of worth should also be able to tell a story, even if the two stories are not the same.
What story are you telling, exactly?
Mine, to some extent. But only up to a point. Some of the 1982 entries may clarify what some people persist in referring to as “the bigger picture.”
There is a bigger picture, then?
Oh, yes. I was never in doubt about that. The whole tale is working towards that picture.
That ending, though. So sad. So terminal. And yet they didn’t die.
They are stronger than their characters. How else could Alasdair Gray have otherwise killed off Duncan Thaw?
Oh yes, THAT other book that came out in 1981.
There is no better book. Or books.
You and your big claims.
If you’re dealing with number one albums, you have to acknowledge a world of bigness.
The biggest one is yet to come.
Let’s just think about Billy, and “Party Fears Two,” and the way in which New Pop has developed its own tradition, complete with remembrance. And the promise of “White Car In Germany” and everything that was to flow from it. And I’m happy that Abba can still, in 2013, be happy.
One not-too-slight matter. Who were “the visitors”?
It was obvious, really. Look at that cover. Notice anything apart from the fact that they’re studiously not looking at each other?
They’re not looking at us either. You would think they were trying not to catch our eye, or pretend that we didn’t exist.
Exactly. The “visitors” are Abba’s audience.
Like Billy Connolly used to say at the end of his concerts: “I’m the one who’s going to hell, you were only watching.”
Quite. Look and listen, but never pry.
Time for a quotation?
I think so. A reminder that people’s lives are wider, deeper and more important than any record.

“It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”
(Venerable Bede, History of the English People)

Sunday 9 June 2013

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Chart Hits '81 Volumes 1 & 2
 Image result for chart hits 81 vol 2

(#257: 12 December 1981, 1 week)

Track listings:

Volume 1: It’s My Party (Dave Stewart with Barbara Gaskin)/Open Your Heart (Human League)/Lay All Your Love On Me (Abba)/You’ll Never Know (Hi-Gloss)/Si Si Je Suis Un Rock Star (Bill Wyman)/Kids In America (Kim Wilde)/Prisoner (Sheila B. Devotion)/Everlasting Love (Rachel Sweet & Rex Smith)/Birdie Song (The Tweets)/Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart) (Ottawan)/In And Out Of Love (Imagination)/Just Can’t Get Enough (Depeche Mode)/Vienna (Ultravox)/Heart And Soul (Exile)/Lock Up Your Daughters (Slade)/Piece Of The Action (Bucks Fizz)/Can Can (Bad Manners)/Hooked On Classics (Louis Clark conducting The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)

Volume 2: One Day In Your Life (Michael Jackson)/Being With You (Smokey Robinson)/Labelled With Love (Squeeze)/Back To The Sixties (Part II) (Tight Fit)/Outlaw (Gerard Kenny)/You Should Hear (Charlie Dore)/Hanging Around (Hazel O’Connor)/In Your Letter (REO Speedwagon)/Shut Up (Madness)/Under Your Thumb (Godley and Crème)/Souvenir (Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark)/One In Ten (UB40)/Thunder In The Mountains (Toyah)/Mule (Chant No 2) (Beggar & Co.)/Chemistry (Nolans)/Qwaka Song (Waders)/Panic (The Scoop)/Stars On 45 (Vol. 2) (Starsound); This Ole House (Shakin’ Stevens)

Sometimes I wonder whether I am the Dr David Huxley of music writing. For those whose memories of cinema reach back no further than Star Wars Chapter 4: A New Hope, Dr Huxley is the palaeontologist played by Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, dutifully and joylessly filling up his years piecing together the skeleton of a brontosaurus before Katharine Hepburn’s Susan Vance intervenes to demonstrate to him that all the ticked-off history of the world may mean nothing next to the basic human need to have fun, that one warm. living bone is worth a thousand old, ossified ones (with the attendant underlying, if unspoken, question: what will you do once the skeleton is complete?). If I thought Then Play Long were about nothing save the careful piling-up of a load of old bones then it wouldn’t be worth writing. The tale would be nothing if it were mere archaeology; its purpose – one of many, if not quite the main one – is to bring old bones back to new life.

I have to be frank with you. At the beginning of this year there was some talk about turning Then Play Long into a regular weekly feature in a leading broadsheet newspaper (respecting the journalistic credo of confidentiality as I do, I won’t tell you which one, so don’t bother submitting guesses in your comments because they won’t get published). This felt like an attractive option; having worked on the tale for just over four years – roughly, the period of time Huxley has spent putting his skeleton together – without earning a penny from it, I thought it would be nice to at least get paid for writing it, and also TPL itself would benefit from the publicity. Remembering the experience of The Blue In The Air, I also knew that each entry would have to be entirely new; no one is going to pay to read something that they can see on the internet for free.

After the initial flurry of interest, I heard nothing further, and therefore assume that nothing came of the proposal. But I gave the matter some thought, and it drew my attention back to how this tale was structured in the first place, and raised the question of whether such a tale would really work in a newspaper environment.

One very recent deciding factor was as recent as yesterday, when I discovered that one of the years to be featured on next week’s edition of BBC Radio 2’s Pick Of The Pops show was 1959. We dutifully looked up the NME chart for the requisite week, and it was something of a shock. A chart which I have known for nearly forty years, having been unexamined for so long, suddenly looked as distant and remote as the Anti-Corn Law League. The list was an antique; I wondered whether anybody under sixty, let alone fifty, could be expected to remember any of the records in it. More of a startlement, however, was that so many of the artists in that chart have now passed into history; there is already one dead person in the list (Buddy Holly) and so few of the others, at the time of writing, survive still; Cliff, Chris Barber, Craig Douglas, Lloyd Price, Marty Wilde (the latter the most pertinent in relation to this piece), maybe some (or all?) of the Kaye Sisters and/or the Fleetwoods, precious few others besides. The chart itself would qualify for a skeleton at the entry hall of the Natural History Museum.

Connected with this was the original plan that I had for Then Play Long - and even that took some thought. Where to begin? My initial idea was to write about all the number one albums within Lena’s lifetime. I could have started with the first Monkees album – a good enough start, but one which would have arrived without explanation or background story. Strictly speaking, I should have started with The Sound Of Music, but that would have produced instant bafflement.

What about my own lifetime? The number one album when I was born was With The Beatles, one of that class of records now routinely referred to as “a solid sophomore effort”; again, not a bad beginning, but a prematurely consolidatory beginning (and therefore a contradictory one), and it would have missed the forget-the-war/turn-monochrome-to-colour spark of Please Please Me.

So I finally took the decision to go right back to the beginning, to 1956, and do the lot. This was not done out of mere perversity. A lot of these early records are in imminent danger – perhaps more so than in 2008 - of slipping out of history; many have not returned to the CD format, either in or out of copyright, and I did not feel it was right to let them pass unmentioned, or try to revive them, whichever ones were worth reviving. Furthermore, when listening to the early number ones, it struck me that they were indispensable chapters in the wider story that this tale is trying to tell; a central idea of Then Play Long is that all the albums connect with each other, in ways osmotic or disparate, as the thigh bone connects to the hip bone (but where to put that intercostal clavicle; which record will shoulder the burden?).

Knitted in with this was the dawning knowledge that this approach may in part have been suicidal. Remember that Please Please Me was the 33rd album to make number one in Britain, and at the rate of one album per week, this meant that readers hardy enough to stay the course were made to wait eight months before any sign of Beatles. Songs For Swingin’ Lovers? A terrific start, and one which was warmly received – but in my heart of hearts I already knew that the following prospect of three consecutive Rodgers and Hammerstein musical soundtracks could not but have depressed the most open of hearts, and would have put them off even waiting for the fifth and sixth entries (Bill Haley and Elvis respectively). Would any broadsheet reader be prepared to sit through eight months of 101 Strings, Kenny Ball and the George Mitchell Minstrels? I doubt whether the feature would even have lasted as far as South Pacific, and indeed my decision to write about all the albums – including the early ones – would prove a blow from which the blog has not really recovered.

The idea was also to try to mimic the bland, suffocating impatience of the British teenage audience of the fifties, waiting and waiting for something, or somebody, to happen – hence the much stronger sense of catharsis when the Beatles finally did appear. But in truth most potential readers got bored and wandered off elsewhere to read about Everything Everything and Ke$ha. Even now I am not sure that people are approaching this tale in the spirit with which it was devised; I suspect, from looking at the number of hits each piece gets, that most readers are merely pausing to read about their favourites and bypassing the less immediately attractive entries, not realising that each is a chapter of the same story that must be read in full, and in sequence, to make sense. It’s rather a lot to ask of an audience, and would have been thus even in 1956.

What this is all leading to is the question, in the late 1981 in which this tale now finds itself, of what people want from music, and specifically what they want from albums, and how that want relates in turn to what an audience wanted from singles (I hope you are following all of this). As I have said before, 1981 was the year of the single; it is in that format that the great leaps and innovations were made, whereas in terms of its number one albums it looks as mollifying and directionless a year as any since…well, 1977. I would guess that, for anyone who lived through 1981, compiling a list of that year’s great singles would involve a run into the hundreds, and perhaps even the thousands. There were, very literally, half-a-dozen or so new ideas flooding into pop every week.

With this in mind, if a thirty-eight track double compilation album of the year’s singles were to be made, it would ideally have to be unbeatable, definitive. And I am not sure that K-tel, as 1981 crept to its crepuscular close, had it in them to paint the picture that the year needed. Let’s put it all into context. Here is a list of the top twenty singles of the year as voted for by the writers of the NME:

1. Ghost Town – The Specials
2. Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel – Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
3. Me No Pop I – Kid Creole & the Coconuts Present Coati Mundi
4. (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang – Heaven 17
5. Love Action (I Believe In Love) – Human League
6. Mama Used To Say – Junior Giscombe
7. Tears Are Not Enough – ABC
8. Pull Up To The Bumper – Grace Jones
9. O Superman (For Massenet) – Laurie Anderson
10. Walking On Thin Ice (For John) – Yoko Ono
11. Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me) – Gap Band
12. Tainted Love – Soft Cell
13. Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag – Pigbag
14. Rapp Payback – James Brown
15. Wordy Rappinghood – Tom Tom Club
16. Let’s Groove – Earth, Wind & Fire
17. The Razor’s Edge – Defunkt
18. Being With You – Smokey Robinson
19. Four Movements (E.P.) – Thomas Leer
20. Just Can’t Get Enough – Depeche Mode

Now that is not the least reasonable list you could find for that year. The list is somewhat pious and pleased with itself, perhaps more concerned with pleasing the DJs at the Wag Club than changing shapes and minds, and as with all such lists there are still too many things missing, but I bought all of these records, and most of them would have formed the cornerstone of many a student or young person’s mixtape (in the days when mixtapes were, mixtapes, recorded onto both sides of a blank C90 cassette). Of these twenty singles, seventeen made the Top 40, sooner or later (Pigbag and Junior Giscombe not until 1982, Grace Jones in 1986, “Fascist Groove Thang” as late as 1993) – but only two of them appear on Chart Hits ‘81.

What is most interesting about the above list is how the records on it appeared to be radically reshaping expectations about what a pop single could offer, most importantly in the differing ways in which most of them embraced the 12-inch format, and what the latter could do to change the way that a “single” was perceived. Indeed, three of the twenty – Grandmaster Flash, Defunkt and Thomas Leer – were only available on 12-inch, although the Laurie Anderson and Pigbag singles were, at the time, only available on 7-inch (the eight-and-a-half minute “O Superman,” which in itself was enough to dispel received notions about the capabilities of what was possible on a single, was pressed to be played at 33⅓ rpm).

But enjoyment of most of the others was enhanced by their 12-inch status. “Ghost Town” is unimaginable without the extended space for Rico’s desolate trombone solo, terminated by what sounds like a sarcophagus being slammed on top of it. “Me No Pop I” really needs its “Que Pasa” prelude to contextualise its own louche lushness. The “Hard Times”/”Love Action” segue is beyond sublime. “Tainted Love,” a fragment of a pop record in its basic form, sold most of its million copies on 12-inch, featuring the slowly patient but emotionally satisfying progression, or recovery, from Gloria Jones to “Where Did Our Love Go?” “The Razor’s Edge” is a furious nine-minute free jazz/funk workout which crashes into the point of epilepsy (“I gave up a lot BUT I WON’T GIVE IN!” yells Joseph Bowie, in between trombone blasts from himself and ragged brass from brothers Lester and Byron). The four-track Four Movements, from Port Glasgow’s Thomas Leer – the Howard Jones “we” should have had – is utterly charming and on occasion (“Tight As A Drum”) makes Leer sound like a kindly uncle to Calvin Harris. The 12-inch of “Just Can’t Get Enough” takes the song in a quite drastically different direction, towards an unfolding minor-key elegy worthy of 1977 Kraftwerk.

Little of this revolution is really evident on Chart Hits ‘81, except by implication. Of its thirty-eight tracks, six – and even by these standards, that is quite a lot – did not even make the UK Top 75, let alone the Top 40, and I suspect none of them would have made anybody’s end-of-year list. The trend was to sell half an album extra by stealth; buy one, get the other free – but the retail price was substantially higher than that for a standard single album, and neither album could be purchased separately; see the visual sleight-of-hand Peter Powell pulls on the accompanying television commercial (as well as the verbal one: note how the advertisement concentrates on the compilation’s good tracks. Furthermore, both albums shared the same catalogue number – NE 1142).

The Now era is still two years away, but already there were signs that this particular decade-long bandwagon was running out of fuel (although it should be noted that the success of these late-period BOGOF compilations was a major factor in persuading EMI and Virgin to go with a double album format for the Now series). There is the sense that the K-tel one-size-fits-all approach simply isn’t working any more. One has to feel some sympathy for stalwart compilers Nigel Mason and Don Reedman (although on Volume 1 there is an amusing Freudian slip in their credit, where the album is “Complied by…”) who presumably had to make the best of a bad job with the material that they had available. Several major labels contributed tracks, but there is nothing from EMI, WEA or Phonogram, and only one from Chrysalis (hence no Blondie, Spandau Ballet, Linx or Specials) and two from Virgin/Dindisc (Human League and OMD; if filler tracks had been required, then things like Martha and the Muffins’ “Women Around The World At Work” or even Rip Rig & Panic’s “Bob Hope Takes Risks” would have been far preferable to the Waders or The Scoop). One has to take into account the possibility that many eligible tracks had already been cherry-picked for previous 1981 K-tel/Ronco albums, or sidetracked to hipper compilations (e.g. Virgin’s excellent Methods Of Dance), or simply that many big-selling acts just didn’t want or need to have their work on TV-advertised compilations – hence, despite the many appearances of artists from the CBS/Epic stable, there is nothing from Adam and the Ants.

What, therefore, is left? In some ways the record could be interpreted as a heartfelt argument against nostalgia, in the sense that its contents and their sequencing suggest that the old ways of the Radio 1-approved pop single were simply spent, and concomitantly that new angles were making their way into the picture. Make no mistake; the majority of Chart Hits ‘81 is dreck, and when it’s good, many of the tracks are edited so badly as to disguise their quality and attraction. I cannot imagine anyone seriously interested in Madness or Squeeze who would have gone for this above 7 or East Side Story (then again, “Labelled With Love” is here in its entirety, and “Shut Up” only has a mildly premature early fade. But I think the argument still stands).

The nature of this album’s central dilemma can be found in its varying examples of cover versions; indeed the whole compilation begins and ends with cover versions done in a markedly different fashion from the originals, such that their own innate originality casts a dim light on the workaday boom-CLAP medleys (which are here represented thrice), not to mention lacklustre attempts like Rachel Sweet and Rex Smith’s misreading of “Everlasting Love” (half the chord changes are missed or messed up, the song should NEVER be sung as a duet, and Sweet is more than all right but Smith is a permed hunk in search of a voice – strangely enough, Smith did a lot better a few years later as part of Joseph Papp’s pop production of The Pirates Of Penzance) or Hazel O’Connor’s overstrained, overacted Stranglers cover, which I remember booming endlessly from my local Students’ Union bar at the time; credit is due to saxophonist Wesley Magoogan, who does his best to get the song to more interesting places. “Back To The Sixties (Part II)” makes me want to jump from a twentieth-floor window, especially when it dawns on me that the haven’t-we-heard-that-falsetto-somewhere-before impersonating Frankie Valli and Graham Nash is Paul da Vinci.

But there is the chart-topping Canterbury Rock subversion of Lesley Gore (which in its original form, if you know anything about Gore’s life, is quite subversive in itself) where two former members of Hatfield and the North, one of whom wears a balaclava and totes a chainsaw on the 45 cover, turn teen angst into Gothic apocalypse, with the added subtext (“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”) of Mrs Thatcher in mind. Its appearance at the beginning of Chart Hits ‘81 effectively throws down a gauntlet to the rest of the record. Adapt the old for the new, or just embrace the new, or else you’re going to get left behind.

The question of oldness is thrown into sharper perspective by the presence of two veteran British rockers, and their differing approaches to what pop in 1981 ought to, or simply could, mean. The rockabilly revival was up and running, Shaky was at the top of the charts, and what do you know, Alvin Stardust, absent from the singles chart for nearly six-and-a-half years, strolls right back into the top five – on the Stiff label, no less (and the same label as “It’s My Party”) – with a jaunty, Stevens-esque reading of a song he’d probably been singing and playing since the days of skiffle (and hence a subtle nod to Shaky in the “yes, but I was here and doing this first” sense); a song all about pretending you’re something that you’re not, keeping one’s countenance, making do and mending.

Marty Wilde had other ideas. If in 1976 somebody had told you that Ricky Wilde and Slik’s Midge Ure were the names to watch in the early eighties you’d have laughed them out of the pub. But although Ricky himself never had a hit in his home country as a performer, he got into writing and production, and both father and son joined forces to create a hip eighties career for daughter/sister Kim. She was more than up for it; “Kids In America” was a spectacular start, from its opening atonal synth car horn blasts and the singer “looking out a dirty old window” – but then making the break, and her escape. As snarling punk backing vocals make themselves known over shimmering sequencers, one is startled to recall that one of these men was once a serious rival to Cliff Richard, yet by 1981 was significantly hipper than Cliff. Unlike the daughters Slade advise to be locked up, Kim is never going to stay where she was.

“Vienna” too is present in its unedited form; as both were number two singles I won’t say too much about either here, except to note that Midge Ure’s Vienna and Kim Wilde’s America are both, essentially, mental constructs, fantasies (how else to explain “East California”?). But how many Ultravox fans or lovers of “Vienna” would settle for this rather than the original album, or the 12-inch single in its sleeve’s green-on-white placidity (it is almost an exact colour scheme reversal of the 12-inch cover of New Order’s “Ceremony”) or think that the record’s quality would embarrass most of what surrounded it? An induced fantasy “Vienna” is, though; the violins and piano are dusty, being recalled from a received memory (hence the song is the classical counterpart to the haywire romanticism of its sister song, Simple Minds’ “Thirty Frames A Second”) and Ure, who at times (especially when double-tracked) sounds like Cliff Richard, sounds righteously agonised when he cries “The image is gone, only you and I,” and you realise what he gleaned from the Walker Brothers’ “The Electrician” (which was “Vienna”’s primary inspiration); a dream of a better world set against the harshly grey reality in which its protagonist is stuck (hence Billy Currie’s multi-instrumentation serves the same role as Big Jim Sullivan’s Spanish guitar and Dave MacRae’s strings on “The Electrician”).

The best of the rest of Chart Hits ‘81 aspires to this half-dreamed better world. There is a particularly sublime segue sequence at the beginning of side two of Volume 2: “Under Your Thumb” (a Stones subversion, to be placed as an argument against the repulsive “Si Si Je Suis Un Rock Star” – it is hard to listen to the latter and join it up with the notion that the same man, in the same year, played on “Start Me Up” and “Waiting On A Friend”) by the returning Godley and Crème (10cc do not really appear in this tale, but are unarguable friendly forebears of New Pop; Joy Division and New Order would record in their studios, Trevor Horn listened to “I’m Not In Love” however many thousand times, and learned, and even “Bohemian Rhapsody” sounds as though it cocked at least quarter of an ear to their 1975 operatic three-part epic “Une Nuit Á Paris,” composed by Godley and Crème), on TOTP looking like OMD’s parents, telling a disorientating ghost story set in an abandoned train carriage, which may or may not have been influenced by whatever sort of cigarette Godley rolled for himself (and, come to think of it, what the hell is he doing skulking around a bunch of disused trains in the middle of a thunderstorm? How did he get there?). This is Manchester, and it is 1981; the implications are inescapable.

But the segue into “Souvenir” is a knockout. Knocked out into an altered consciousness, that is, and sets my memory working in another direction:

Paul Morley was given both Architecture And Morality and Depeche Mode’s Speak And Spell to review for the NME, and he wrote up both as a joint review. He was suspicious of OMD, sniffed pretension and ponderousness, and much preferred the Basildon boys with their daft and sneakily perverse bubblegum songs. I bought both records, seeing them as complementary experiences, like life and death, or tragedy and rebirth.

As ex-Factory recording artists (albeit from Liverpool rather than Manchester) OMD knew as well as anyone the importance of what had happened about 18 months previously in catalysing/causing New Pop. Architecture And Morality is flooded by rememberances of that group. Even the first lines of the first track "The New Stone Age" refer directly to "Decades" - "This is the room/This is the wall/This is the body/I've been hoping for" - a heavily ironic paean to triumph set against a chorus of "Oh my God what have we done this time?" (i.e. pressed the button) by a perpetrator similar in nature to that of R.E.M.'s "World Leader Pretend" seven years thereafter, hammering at the walls of his bunker. Musically quite unlike anything else OMD ever did - a ukulele-timbered multi-guitar thrash vs. electrobeat, reminiscent of nothing so much as The Fall. Back to basics after the ruination?

As they salute "Closer" so must they salute "Atmosphere" in the second track - and the number one single which never was - "She's Leaving," one of the great faux-JD/New Order songs, though lyrically a sequel to, and refutation of, McCartney's "She's Leaving Home" with the protagonist disillusioned with the proverbial man-from-the-motor-trade ("A cheap affair/A sordid truth") and returning to home, having abandoned even hope.

Then came "Souvenir," here edited not very helpfully, but incorporating the extra verse absent from the album. Guided by a hovering choral drone which periodically crops up throughout the album in various guises (Greek chorus?) this plaintive cousin of a manifesto to Kevin Rowland's "Let's Make This Precious" is sung by co-author Paul Humphreys, sounding very much like David Van Day. Unsettling enough to stop school disco participants in their thoughts, if not their tracks; yet still a top three hit. In the context of Chart Hits ‘81 it flashes like a siren of hope amidst so many unpromising swamps.

"Sealand" summarises and completes side one and is the axis of the album. A slight return to the ambience of "Stanlow" which concluded their previous album Organisation but reaching much further out and with a far less assured destination. Long, percussive drifts with occasional melodica inserts (JD/NO again) and an elementary minor-key synth theme, this anticipates Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 by some 13 years. The solemnly intoned lyrics are a sort of haiku: "Sealand/She forgets/Her friends/She'll not/Leave them/Again/Mother/Sister/And home/These arms/Fail you/So." So. The next chapter on from "She's Leaving" but with a home which cannot quite be articulated. "These arms." War again? A piece which, like the rest of the album, needs to be ideally heard on Cromer beach on a windy November night.

But on side two this woman now turns out to be Joan of Arc, or a convenient metaphor for her rootlessness and purposeless sacrifices, which will happen time and time again. "Joan of Arc" the song (#5 in winter 1981 as a single; so near to Christmas) tells the story of the break-up from the male protagonist - "Baby Please Don't Go" for Carl Dreyer fans. An immaculate electropop ballad with an impassioned vocal from McCluskey - almost a Barry McGuire-type growl ("Listen to us gooohud and-a listen well-ah!") - and even more impressive overacting on TOTP, as I recall. Note the sunrise synthesisers which flood into the song from verse two onwards – direct from “Atmosphere.”

Next "Maid Of Orleans" which seems to be about Joan of Arc proper, and incredibly a bigger hit than its predecessor (#4 in January 82) with some uncompromising Cabaret Voltaire-type atonality for an intro (cue confused Radio 1 DJs at the time - "They're just tuning up - heh heh - here's the proper song!” The word you are searching for is “payback”). Possibly, along with Japan's "Nightporter" (which isn't really) the only electropop waltz ever to make the UK charts.

The title track is a quasi-industrial instrumental - sort of Throbbing Gristle's "Six Six Sixties" as scored by Vangelis. Lots of heavy machinery sound-effects and a fearlessly discordant choral bass drone set against a Village-type wakey-wakey set of ice-cream chimes (false security?).

"Georgia" was briefly mooted as a fourth single but not released as one. A fairly palpable WWIII scenario song "Well! Here we are again! Too good to be friends!" with some great samples of whirligig noises and staunch Red Army choir, and a predictably glum payoff: "Dancing in the ruins of the Western World/Blindfolds on and we don't care." Cue a final solemn synth swirl, from whose bowels emerge a chanteuse from the previous war "Keep the home fires warm - but none survive." Again, bear in mind this was 1981 and therefore this was actually pretty scary at the time. It still is, really.

A wistful ballad (a new beginning?) to end - "The Beginning and the End" with an almost Mike Oldfield-esque guitar (synth?) motif. He and she (Architecture and Morality?) are reunited but now both hearts have to be sacrificed - "And here you and I/Parting due to me only/And now . . ." And now to Radiohead, and the Depeche Mode of Songs Of Love And Devotion, and probably even unto Boards of Canada and These New Puritans (and not even bringing James Joyce into it. Not yet, anyway).

Back to Chart Hits ‘81, and “Souvenir” flows, entirely logically, into “One In Ten,” a less showy “Ghost Town” which (passionately, disguised as impassive) lists people 1981 society (and 2013 society) would prefer not to think existed, fogs of saxophone, guitar and rhythm passing by as slowly as clouds over the decaying Birmingham. ELO’s “Hello, My Old Friend” was written about the same place at the same time, and what else is Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth” about? The whole “New Romantic” stuff was smoke and mirrors; “Look down, look all around/There’s no sign of life.” Oh, it’s 1981 Birmingham, all right. The water in the bucket is cold, and it will be poured over such pretence of merriment. Or things like “Thunder In The Mountains” which may well also be about the degradation of the Second City, with its reference to the motorway being a monument and its odd mid-song predication of “It’s Grim Up North” but is scuppered by tuneless (and endless) wailing over what sounds like rehashed seventies prog-rock. It’s like an actress acting the part of a punk.

Because I’m not sure there’s much in the way of actual fun or humour on this record. It’s still the old ways versus the incoming ways. A case in point: “You’ll Never Know” was done by a New York group of session players for Prelude Records – if you listen carefully you’ll hear Luther Vandross among the backing singers – and its chief interest now is as a predicant of “Don’t Look Any Further.” The song and performance are overblown; it is like an especially bad Eurovision entry, thrice-translated, clunky and ploddy, the sort of thing which occasioned a trip to the bathroom on Sunday afternoons, waiting for something more interesting to appear on the Radio 1 Top 40 show (the irony now being that, on Pick Of The Pops, which currently has the same presenter as the Radio 1 Top 40 show did in 1981, the aim appears to be, as someone once said on the Digital Spy message board, to “skim past all the good records and play all the slow, boring ones.” Chart Hits ‘81 appears to have been constructed on a similar premise. For Prelude Records, D-Train’s “You’re The One For Me,” by the end of 1981 already tearing up dancefloors on import, evidently couldn’t come too soon.

Whereas Britain’s Imagination sound, as I once wrote, as liquid and evanescent as 1986 Cocteau Twins. “In And Out Of Love” was pretty much a mirror image of their debut hit, the great “Body Talk,” but its blood flows deeper (“You chained me with hostility,” “You know the nightmares I’ve been having”), Leee John’s very patient androgynous vocal lending nothing beyond the sustained tearfulness of his high notes. Writers and producers Tony Swain and Steve Jolley, knowing side two of Barry White’s Stone Gon’ very well, construct a libidinous rainbow of jilted pianos, distant string synthesisers and wobbling beats, directly anticipating “Moments In Love” and indirectly laying the path for Massive Attack. The old is dying in front of our ears.

On which topic, “Labelled With Love,” rather than “Is That Love?” or “Tempted,” was the big hit single from East Side Story, and it too quietly demonstrates the horrors of growing old and remaining wilfully stuck in the past (it is like “Up The Junction” for a previous generation who haven’t yet, in 1981, died off, with its references to television sets and soldiers). Its subtitle here could be “We Can’t Go On Like This.”

Represented here is the only time in UK chart history when Motown succeeded Motown at number one, and yet again old ways lose out.

The wailing sax, placid electric piano and general '80s sonic opulence of "Being With You" indicate just how important the grain of the voice is to the greater pop. Had Lionel Richie or Jeffrey Osborne crooned the song it would have come across as unlistenably bland as their own runs of hits. But right from the opening, extended, playful "Oooooooh," which he extends over eight bars before launching into the song, Smokey Robinson's grain makes all of the necessary difference.

Although he already had a distinguished stream of gorgeous, slow-burning soul ballads in the course of his post-Miracles career - "Cruisin'" and "A Quiet Storm" being perhaps the best known - "Being With You" was the only one which hit big in Britain. A song about decisive love in the face of all opposition ("I don't care if they start to avoid me," "Don't let them say we told you so"), Smokey manages to address it to his potential Other, not just as a seal of unilateral defiance, but also as a plea for her actually to persevere with the relationship, since he's "heard about your heartbreak reputation" and is not entirely unconvinced that this isn't the truth - why else would he beg her to stay? So he is cautious in his expression of love, only abandoning rationality in his inimitable vibrati between lines, his wordless scale-ascending incantations, all of which indicate that this isn't quite the picture of serene love the song might initially seem to be painting.

"I don't care about anything else but being with you," he sighs in the chorus; the question is whether his cares are echoed and reciprocated. With those fantastic swelling harmonies in the verses, including a heavenly octave see-saw reminiscent of Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino" (check out the version on Bley’s 1976 Dinner Music album if you're sceptical), all does feel lushly secure; but it's the doubt, the sweat which seeps through those "ooohs" which make Smokey, and this record, truly special.

In contrast, “One Day In Your Life” was a completely unexpected first British number one single for Jacko. Off The Wall bore four revolutionary top ten single smashes, but this hitherto rejected 1975 master was hastily retrieved from the bottom of the Motown archives and rushed out to capitalise on renewed public interest.

1975? You'd be hard pressed to date the record beyond 1965; if nothing else, "One Day In Your Life" demonstrates how right the Jacksons were to jump the Gordy ship - if this kind of MoR slop was the best Michael was being offered, no wonder he leapt so easily into the care of Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton. Clearly with an eye set on the already near moribund Donny Osmond market, "One Day In Your Life" incorporates all the MoR pop clichés of a decade earlier; the air-conditioned hotel bathroom sonics of Jack Jones, the stop-start structure of "Strangers In The Night," the vocal performance of a fairly disinterested Petula Clark, a lonesome harmonica (I don't think Stevie Wonder was playing it) which is nowhere near Bacharach, the sickly puce of the Ray Conniff backing vocals. It sets itself up as a wistful farewell ("You'll remember me somehow") but unforgivably opts for sentimentality rather than genuine emotion, the mechanical, Pavlovian pulling of strings, prettiness instead of true beauty, plastic signifiers instead of the real tears which flood through the end of "She's Out Of My Life." I suspect Michael forgot all about the song approximately three minutes after recording it. And yet Britain took it to number one; who was more scared in 1981, Michael Jackson or the people of Britain?

There are a few more New Pop jewels to celebrate here. Speak And Spell was and is a divinely daft album, that is if you ignore the bitonalities and assorted threats of songs like “I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead,” “Puppets” and “Photographic” (the latter far darker than the original Some Bizzare Album version). “Just Can’t Get Enough” was the crowning moment, however, and as befits their name it sounds singularly like French bubblegum; racing by, what the hell, tuxedos and toy trumpets, enough of the dinosaur, let’s have some fun. “Just like a rainbow/You know you set me free” means nothing and therefore everything, and could have been the last line of Bringing Up Baby. Bucks Fizz, on their follow-up to “Making Your Mind Up,” also prove – or at least their writer/producer Andy Hill does – that they are looking to more adventurous waters than the Brotherhood of Man (not that they know that yet, but never mind) with proto-Horn cascading drums, disjointed rhythms and so forth. “My Camera Never Lies,” one of the most extreme of all number one singles, was less than a year away.

And yet Madness’ “Shut Up” still has the power truly to shock, and more so in these surroundings. Rudely terminating REO Speedwagon’s timid fifties pastiche with a piano crashing to earth like a stray Cecil Taylor meteor, “Shut Up” – significantly the ambiguous title (is it a request, or an order, or is the verb non-transitive?) is never sung – careers between vaudeville singalong, Rawhide Western twang and dark, dark Carla Bley chord changes (in which the bass regularly lifts into silence, like dread being surgically removed from a patient). The protagonist is a petty criminal, and a pretty useless one at that, but Suggs has him turn quickly from apologetic patsy to accuser – it is as though the world, or at least 1981 Britain, is being blamed for what has happened, both to him and those whose windows he breaks (and the theme of windows being broken, or just stared out of, recurs throughout Chart Hits ‘81; there is a “broken windowpane” in “Under Your Thumb”). The moment near the end where Suggs snarlingly paraphrases Paul Weller from a year earlier (“…And I’ll forget/That what you give is what you get”) still has the ability to chill the blood.

Then there are the not-quite-also rans, including Beggar & Co., who deserve a much better tribute than that. “Mule (Chant No. 2),” as the title suggests, was a sequel to “Chant No 1,” with “Instinction” probably Spandau Ballet’s finest single, and indeed some of the Islingtonians are on audible hand here. A terrific song with incredible drive (its juxtapositions of “fool” with “mule” could act as a missing link between Family and Tricky), its parent album Monument should not be passed over if you find it sitting somewhere. Flute solos are usually a guarantor of good quality pop.

But there were also the Nolans, the poor, benighted Nolans who on “Chemistry” were trying very hard indeed. The tragedy here is that it almost works; the introduction and verses are convincingly funky and the vocal interplay anticipates Girls Aloud by a generation. But then somebody remembered the grannies in Arbroath, suffered a failure of nerve and so the song degenerates into a horrid, tacky, 1975 Two Ronnies-friendly chorus. The tragedy now, of course, is that (again at the time of writing) Bernie Nolan, who if the sisters had had a 1981 Xenomania available might have had the opportunity to be a great white soul singer, appears to be losing her long and fraught battle with cancer. They do not appear to have had a particularly happy time of things, even when their light entertainment careers were at their peak; the misery, depending on which sister is telling the story, seems to have come at them from all direction. Only the B.E.F. saw the potential in Bernie when they hired her to do “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” for Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume 1; otherwise the Nolans never seem to have been given the room and the permission to speak.

Slade were back, but what a comedown from their seventies peak – like several other tracks on this collection which endeavour to be “rock” (“Everlasting Love” among them), they sound like a dry run for eighties Reaganrock. “Lock Up Your Daughters” is confused and spiritless, as though the group had been forced into a square not of their own making, as if neutered (it follows in the wake of “Smoke On The Water.” Happily, they would make a proper comeback slightly later in the eighties, but the same cannot be said of Kentucky’s Exile, who not long after “Heart And Soul” opted to concentrate on the country music market (with a degree of success). It is the same “Heart And Soul” with which Huey Lewis hit a couple of years later, but suffice to say Lewis puts an awful lot more character into his reading.

Likewise Pinner’s Charlie Dore has had a varied career as singer/songwriter, actress and comedienne. In case you’re wondering, “You Should Hear” is the same song as “You Should Hear How She Talks About You,” a US top five hit for Melissa Manchester in July 1982, and Dore was actually first to the song (it was recorded in the States, with Toto as her backing band) but again, compared to Ms Manchester, Dore’s reading lacks individuality. Her big moment had been in 1979 with “Pilot Of The Airwaves,” one of those songs about radio which DJs love, although it was actually a far bigger hit in the USA (#13) than here (#66). I saw her once in the early nineties as part of a comedy/music troupe called Dogs On Holiday. She wasn’t bad at all, actually.

Still, it is fair to say that nobody, asked for their most cherished memories of 1981 pop, would quote “You Should Hear” or “Outlaw” (another awful and clumsy attempt at Hard Rock from a singer/songwriter who really ought to have known much, much better) or, for that matter, “Prisoner,” the Sheila B. Devotion single which nobody remembers. Worlds away from “Spacer” or even “Singin’ In The Rain,” this is a truly bad attempt to be Blondie, unconvincing Hard Rock with obligatory Soft Reggae break. “In Your Letter” is nothing like the two atrocious, ponderous ballads with which REO Speedwagon sent our charts to sleep in 1981, but neither is it any better; the kind of fifties pastiche which really ought to be left to Fleetwood Mac – singer Kevin Cronin sounds like Lindsey Buckingham accidentally sitting on a bed of nails, coated with treacle.

You might get the idea that Chart Hits ‘81 is a largely avoidable affair, but I do think that it has a few relevant points to make, not the least of which is the suggestion that all these disparate trends somehow converge on Abba; we get the Human League’s “Abba record,” we get the Xeroxed fake Abba of “Stars On 45 (Vol. 2)” (so why still the “Remember Twist And Shout” business?), and then we get the real Abba; the listener is left to draw their own conclusions. There is also the unlikeliest pointer to the future, or the present as we now know it, with Ottawan. “Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart)” is as intelligently daft, and as intrinsically French, as “D.I.S.C.O.,” but the interest here lies in what co-writer/producer Daniel Vangarde does in the spaces in between the beats; the four gavel-like bass notes which emerge from each chorus, the interlude where synthesisers randomly whoosh around the speakers and sound-effects come out of nowhere, with percussion rattling around electronic whirlpools. The song could have come out of something Vangarde might have sung to his seven-year-old son, Thomas Bangalter, but the influence lingered – this is the road which leads directly (along with so many other roads, some of which we have already traced) to “Get Lucky.”

But “Panic” by The Scoop?

Did this single even ever exist?

It did, and it is pretty lousy; a horrendous attempt to “do” Stranglers menace, nail it to Weller urgency and sub-sub-Mick Ronson guitar solos, and add a bad Iron Maiden impersonation on top, with place names belched at random, and a mysterious “they” who are “here” to “get you.” It is like a corporate version of “punk rock” and drowns in bad horns and pointlessly active drumming before coming to a commendably abrupt end. And yet this group did exist; they were from Chichester, and two of them would go on to appear on the front page and centrespread of the following summer’s Melody Maker as two-fifths of King Trigger, briefly 1982’s Next Big Thing, with one very minor hit single (“The River”) and if they ever did anything else, I was probably in a meeting.

But this is really making do and mending, in the fatal British way of doing these things. Ah well; nothing for it now but to go for the pub party market. Hence the awful “Birdie Song” and the even worse “Qwaka Song” which is the same tune as “Birdie Song” but with duck noises (it was enough to make me go and look for some Eugene Chadbourne/John Zorn freakouts to clear my head). I actually don’t mind Bad Manners ska-ing their way through “Can Can”; it is what it is. “Hooked On Classics” is as ghastly as ever; and yes, I dug out my ancient 7-inch of the Portsmouth Sinfonia’s “Classical Muddley” for an immediate antidote – still, the thought of the RPO grimacing their way through this mess in order to make enough money to keep going so that they can do their Webern and Feldman is a sufficiently tragic one.

About the only place on either of these albums where the performer sounds like they are having fun is right at the end. Shakin’ Stevens was unaware of the Rosemary Clooney original of “This Ole House” and knew the song from the NRBQ version, and he surely kicks out all ghosts with great gusto, arguing in his own way (note that angel appearing through his “broken windowpane”) for life after death, and life being superior to death. But only if the old songs can renew themselves, or be persuaded to be renewed. Chart Hits ‘81 describes with some acuity the passing of the old world and the necessity for a newer one. One of my aims is to try to show that the two can be concomitant, or how concomitance could come about. But given the involvement of Gavin Bryars in the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and the Scratch Orchestra from which it originally involved, I dedicate this piece to the shade of Cornelius Cardew, who died the week Chart Hits ‘81 went to number one, with the observation that the people’s music often reveals itself in strange and unexpected clothing.

(Author’s Note: some of the observations on Architecture And Morality have previously been published, though have been subtly revised.)