Wednesday 2 October 2013

THE KIDS FROM "FAME": The Kids From "Fame"

(#269: 7 August 1982, 8 weeks; 30 October 1982, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Starmaker/I Can Do Anything Better Than You Can/I Still Believe In Me/Life Is A Celebration/Step Up To The Mike/Hi-Fidelity/We Got The Power/It’s Gonna Be A Long Night/Desdemona/Be My Music

First, the facts; the television series of Fame was produced by MGM and broadcast on NBC in early 1982. Only four actors from the 1980 film made the transfer to TV; Lee Curreri, Albert Hague, Gene Anthony Ray and Debbie Allen; the latter’s dance instructor Lydia Grant was not given much to do in the original movie, but her role was substantially beefed up for the series. In the film, Ray’s character Leroy had gradually revealed himself to be illiterate, but this was not addressed at all on TV. Some actors were replaced; Irene Cara’s Coco by Erica Gimpel, Mike McCrane’s Montgomery by one PR Paul (and in the series the character had mysteriously ceased to be gay), Anna Meara’s Mrs Sherwood by Carol Mayo Jenkins. The character of Ralph metamorphosised into Danny, and the actor from Barry Miller to Carlo Imperato. Maureen Teefy’s Doris was replaced by a different Doris, played by Valerie Landsburg. The ‘cellist Julie, who did not figure in the original film at all, was played by Lori Singer. The series did well critically but not commercially, and was cancelled after two seasons.

However, the BBC had bought the series and broadcast it on BBC1 at eight o’clock on Thursday evening, directly after Top Of The Pops. The latter’s predominantly adolescent audience stayed tuned and became hooked, and in Britain Fame rapidly became the most talked-about screen phenomenon since Grease; the show’s success in Britain, and later in Italy and Australia, convinced MGM to revive the series in 1983; later seasons were in part funded by the relevant overseas television networks – the show was still running as late as 1987.

In the meantime, a soundtrack of songs from the TV series was rush-released, by BBC Records (in conjunction with MGM), and managed to stay at number one for a cumulative total of three months, the longest such run since Grease. In 1982 the album was outsold only by Streisand’s Love Songs. You may feel the need to take a break and consider these statistics.

Over three decades on, the show’s popularity has become more mysterious. What was it that people saw in these flimsy constructs and the even flimsier music? I understand that I am talking about a television programme aimed primarily at impressionable adolescents, and that many of its viewers identified as closely to it as their descendents would The X-Factor (really, the logical conclusion of the High School of Performing Arts ethic) or Glee.

But the concept seems to have been empty and fruitless. The show entirely lacked Glee’s awareness, both of itself and of the rolling history and possible re-adaptation of pop, and wound up more or less a centre-free soap opera; every week different problems were experienced and the same, dismally simplistic solution reached. Did it even have anything left to do with what it felt like to be a pupil at such an institution? Here’s Gene Anthony Ray, interviewed by The FACE in 1983 (the article bore the rather unfortunate predicative title of “So Who Wants To Live Forever?”; Ray died twenty years later of a stroke secondary to Aids, aged just forty-one), who had actually attended the real High School but left, or was thrown out, after six months:

“To me, they tried to brainwash the kids in that school. That’s why I left…[Why?] Errrm, you know. Everything is beautiful. War is beautiful. Death is beautiful. Everything is beautiful. And I believe, in a way, yeah. But some things are bad. Some shit do stink.” When Ray had to choose between appearing in Fame and staying on at the High School, he had no hesitation in opting for the former. Gimpel, who also attended the High School and stayed for the whole course, remarked that the show ought to have shown more students “really going through the Stanislavsky technique, struggling with their abilities – the more depressing side of it.”

But the series seems to me wholly divorced from anything approaching or approximating “the real world.” It exists in a vacuum, wherein happy-clappy people work out their issues and then just…work out. Was that all British people in 1982 wanted?

The soundtrack album does not really answer these questions, so full is it of joyless salutes to Aspiration and Ambition. “I’m 100% of America!” exclaims Ray in his spot on “Step Up To The Mike.” “I Can Do Anything Better Than You Can” opens with Allen leading a calisthenics workout which she makes sound like square-bashing, before barking “You’ll be fading in the distance/I’ll be leaving you under…I’m a dancing MACHINE!” To be fair, Gimpel and Allen also do a second duet – “I Still Believe In Me” – which sounds like the outtake from Streisand’s A Star Is Born that you would expect (“I’ll find an unbreakable heart”).

There are some elements of life and self-suspicion that put the record at a slightly higher level than the film soundtrack; “Starmaker,” for instance, is mostly bad Lionel Richie filtered through Annie, but the students sound less than fulfilled (“I have no home, I belong to you,” “Soul taker!” – Carole Bayer Sager’s knowing lyric lifts the song as high as it can be lifted). “Hi-Fidelity” works because it’s a fairly straight pop song (despite dated lyrics: “Quadrophonic sound, stereo desire”) and Landsburg, who sounds rather like the younger Bette Midler (particularly in the “I need you baby” middle eight), does a better job of “amateur singing” than others in the cast; the general shakiness and out-of-tuneness of the singing on this record could be interpreted as the work of young, uncertain students, but I think a deliberate sloppiness of the Christian Wolff/Carla Bley nature is beyond this record’s ken (“is it real or is it synthesized” indeed).

Nevertheless, the young Lori Singer – along with Allen, the only performer in the show who had much of a career afterwards – is almost convincing on “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night,” a performance which, had it been issued on LP as a 2000-copy run in 1972 would be hailed as a lost masterpiece of pastoral hauntology (“You don’t die of a broken heart/You just lie down and stop trying”). And “Desdemona” is a momentarily arresting stab at pop Othello, complete with a string section veering between medieval pastiche and psychedelic wooziness, which finally shrinks back from its own implications.

But there really is not much else to mention or preserve here. Curreri, who did some minor piano work and background singing on the film soundtrack, contributes synthesiser and even co-wrote the treacly all-together-now closer “Be My Music” and it is possible that Singer did play at least some of her ‘cello parts. Yet who can remember anything on the record now without prompting – and, if it were so forgettable, why was it so dominant in its time? Did the British people just not want to think about the outside world, or did Port Stanley or Prince William reassure them in a misleading way? Or was the show’s patronage by the BBC another sorry reminder of just how much damage that organisation has done to pop music in Britain over the last sixty years?

The value of The Kids From “Fame”, such as there is any, must therefore lie in its reminder that alongside New Pop there was a nearly invisible pop mainstream, and that it represented at least one of the things against which New Pop had to kick. It has not lasted; by 1983, despite a British tour, the attraction had begun to fade, and try finding it now on CD without having to resort to Amazon or similar. As I said above, with the exception of Allen and Singer, none of the people in the show went on to much of a career, and could any of them now be recognised in any street?

Perhaps it will be useful to note the five albums that this record kept off number one during its two runs at the top. In reverse order, these were the sequel, The Kids From “Fame” Again (the lead single from which, Ray’s very odd “Mannequin,” scraped into the Top 50) and Phil Collins’ Hello, I Must Be Going! (there is plenty more of Collins to come in this tale, besides which “Thru’ These Walls” was the only thing I ever wanted to keep from it). In its initial run, it held Upstairs At Eric’s by Yazoo in second place for three weeks; this is one of 1982’s most important albums, but as we will be getting to Yazoo themselves in 1983 we will hold off discussing it for now.

One week was accounted for by another of those BOGOF K-Tel compilations, Chart Heat/Chart Beat, and although writing about it would get in otherwise unreachable artists of interest like the Associates and Kid Creole and the Coconuts, I did feel that life was too short to ponder the merits of such non-chartbusting phenomena as the Three Courgettes (yes, I know Barb Jungr came out of that) or Doreen Chanter, still less to wonder whether Alvin Stardust even remembers recording “I Want You Back In My Life.” In addition, the album held at number three in that same week was The Dreaming by Kate Bush (the record which did use the answerphone message montage tactic); we’ll return to Kate with her follow-up, but it remains a savagely brave record, if at the time of writing somewhat marred by the involvement of an Australian performer currently entangled in legal problems.

This leaves the first of the five, kept by The Kids From “Fame” at number two for a whole month:

I remember first hearing “The Celtic Soul Brothers” in the early spring of 1982 on Radio 1, not knowing who it was, and my startlement at learning who it really was. Ceilidh fiddles against a loping “Liar Liar” bassline? Where were the horns? And yet, it was unmistakably Kevin Rowland, confirming my theory that his vocal style owes not quite as much to General Johnson as it did to Russell Mael.

Dexy’s were always an art band, that is, band as work of art in itself. Terming Searching For The Young Soul Rebels “soul” is like expecting Rip, Rig and Panic to play “Tiger Rag.” This was existential punk using soul to cap its hidden aspirations, Northern Soul gone to the metaphorical/aesthetic Deep South. With a manifesto, a declaration of principles. Every music paper “essay,” every B-side and live performance you could catch, was another chapter in a long and purposely unfolding tale.

And there was the Projected Passion Revue, still one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed on a stage (Coasters in Edinburgh, 17 August 1981) – and no, the Emerald Express and Too-Rye-Ay did not really live up to that, for those who saw it (neither does the 1981 Radio 1 concert preserved on the Projected Passion Revue CD; it is still a vital release, but you had to witness Rowland punishing his body, etc.) but for the millions of people who didn’t, it was a striking record.

It didn’t really have too much to do with Saint Dominic’s Preview, despite “Jackie Wilson Said” and the near-involvement of Van Morrison himself; “Until I Believe In My Soul” is very different in nature and intent from “Listen To The Lion” – Paul Speare’s guttural, Braxton-like alto run and Rowland’s tentative scat-singing the song’s only direct links to Morrison – while other songs decry guitars, encourage praise for old people and crying tramps (such that on “I’ll Show You,” a sequel to their 1981 hit “Show Me,” Rowland tramples the fourth wall – “If these words sound corny, switch it off, I don’t care”).

But mostly it is about somebody who is lost – somebody who is palpably still an Irish-descended Catholic – walking up against various physical and spiritual barriers until he realises that he has to know and understand himself before he can love other people and the world. Hence the closing “Come On Eileen” is a mighty release – he has dragged himself through hell, with us as witnesses, and can now live and love and be spiritual and carnal at the same time, and we celebrate with him because we know he has earned it, even if the closing chorus of “Endearing Young Charms” warns that such a feeling can never be permanent.

The horn section throughout, as on Young Soul Rebels, acts effectively as the “guitar” and are largely menacing in their roars; so the strings are a nice complement, while also pushing both music and soul forward (as do the “Sisters of Scarlet” backing singers, one of whom is a very young Sam Brown) and overall Too-Rye-Ay reminds me of the kind of album The Kids From “Fame” so desperately wanted to be; confrontational about its protagonist’s shortcomings, yet more communal (the handclaps and instructions on “Let’s Make This Precious”) and genuinely respectful (“Old” is the record’s “Starmaker” without the need for a tearful, unconvinced “We’re happy now”) than anything the High School of Performing Arts had to offer. And yes, to a degree it is The Lexicon Of Dungarees, and Rowland was never wholly satisfied with how the record turned out, but this was the reaction which made the existence of The Kids From “Fame” necessary.

Next: there’s this new shiny thing called the compact disc. I wonder what it sounds like…