Sunday, 9 June 2013
VARIOUS ARTISTS: Chart Hits '81 Volumes 1 & 2
(#257: 12 December 1981, 1 week)
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.)
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 20:31